## Transposition (The Mathématique Remix Project)

### Chapter Text

“I think that’s the last box,” Young said, squinting into the dark hold of the U-Haul truck.

Absently, he rubbed at the back of his neck, feeling a line of cold sweat running down it. He didn’t know if the sweat was from the heat— uncharacteristic for Colorado, this late in one of its long summers— or from the pain that had settled at the base of his back, just below the belted hug of the medical brace he was still wearing.

He didn’t like the feel of the sweat. Every time it came to his attention, he flinched for about a tenth of a second, instincts kicking in and telling him that it was blood.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Mitchell said. He shifted the box to one hip, easy and casual, the only sign that it was costing him effort the stretch of white cotton across his bicep. “That’s it? All your earthly possessions? Man, I swear, V, that is some sad sumbitch shit. I can talk to Emily if you want; you always pull this kind of nice-guy—“

“No,” Young said. “Thanks.”

He was watching that stretch of white cotton, and the edge where the seam of it met Mitchell’s warm freckled skin. When he realized that was what he was doing, he jerked his gaze to the side of the U-Haul truck. An ad covered most of the bolted panels. It showed a big blue turtle afloat in a painted sea. SOUTH DAKOTA, the ad read, and Young was lost for a minute, trying to figure out why a turtle would be in South Dakota, which he was pretty sure was a landlocked state, until he picked up on the black bar of text telling him that South Dakota had once been part of a prehistoric seaway. That made more sense.

But he felt sad for the turtle without really knowing why. It still seemed out of place somehow, with its yellow eyes and fierce expression stuck in the middle of an ad for South Dakota. It had dignity, and he respected that about it. Sixty-five million years ago it had carved through the ancient water with its silent mouth and massive fins.

Life would be easier, Young thought, if everything was underwater. Things that were good underwater died on land.

He was startled from his reverie by Jackson slamming the driver’s side door closed. He realized that Mitchell had started towards the sort-of-salmon-colored apartment complex, and that Jackson had shut the door on purpose, probably, to get Young’s attention, because he was watching Young with an unreadable look. He had his hands shoved in his pockets, his shoulders hunched. He cleared his throat.

“Hey,” Young said.

Jackson said, “Hey.”

“I think Cam got the last box, so you wanna—?” Young jerked his thumb in the direction Mitchell had gone in.

“Yeah,” Jackson said, not moving.

“Great; you can introduce me to this math guy you want me to—“

“Listen,” Jackson said, interrupting, “are you okay? Because you seem kind of—“

He was using that Jackson-voice, the gentle reasonable one that kind of went down at the end of every sentence, like he was launching himself out of a plane and into your personal business. Young didn’t even know Jackson that well, but already he knew enough to know that voice, enough to prickle in dread at it.

“Yeah,” Young said. “I’m fine.”

“Because it’s been a rough year for you. For all of us. With the war, and the Alliance, and—”

“I’m fine,” Young said.

“You could’ve stayed on base longer. Three months is— really not a long time, with the type of injury you—“

“I know what type of injury I have.” He realized he could taste chlorine in his teeth, a taste that always reminded him of tears for some reason. He looked for the swimming pool that must be there, and found it about twenty-five meters away, a thin slice of blue beyond a stretch of neatly-kept grass. It looked like a mirage. Almost unreal.

“Right,” Jackson said. “I’m just saying, you don’t have to bounce back from this. No one’s asking you to do that. We’ve all been there, you know?”

“You’ve been there,” Young said flatly.

Mitchell had been there. Mitchell had bit the ice in Antarctica, had been shot down in his F-302 and woken up in the infirmary, not sure what parts of his body still belonged to him. He’d been there when Young had woken up, too, even though they’d only ever been slap-on-the-back buddies— the second visitor, after Emily, since David was still laid up in his own hospital bed. He had slipped into Young’s life with the ease of one of the screws that now held Young’s spine together, a support that was steely, automatic, and never felt like pity.

Jackson looked down in the pause, his mouth curving in a wry and painful half-smile. “Well,” he said. “I’ve been dead.

It wasn’t the same, but Young wasn’t going to say aloud what he thought: that Jackson had gotten off easy every time; that it was the rest of them, with their worn-down, ordinary, aging bodies that held on stubbornly to every wound. Jackson always came back brand-new and scrubbed-clean. He had never had to actually not die and live with it.

“I really don’t know why you’re doing this,” Young said.

Jackson regarded him quizzically. “This?”

Young gestured: the apartment complex, the sprinkler chuckling water over a bright green grass square, the parking lot and the turtle on the side of the truck. “This is what friends do.”

“We’re not friends?”

“No,” Young said. “Not really.”

Jackson smiled again and looked down, scuffing one foot against the asphalt. “Well,” he said. “Maybe I want to be your friend.”

“You’re the patron saint of the Stargate Program. You could get anybody you want to be your friend.”

“And I want you to be my friend. Is that so hard to believe?”

Young looked at him hard. “Yes,” he said.

Jackson shrugged. “I’m a friendly guy. I don’t know what to tell you.”

He wasn’t lying; not exactly, Young thought. But he wasn’t a friendly guy, and Young wasn’t his type— Jackson hung out with Carter and the astrophysicists, not with rough-and-tumble, dumb-hick flyboys who broke their backs on other planets, half-bleeding out on the volcanic sand and blinking up at the faint rings that cut the sky into two segments, till David’s taut face loomed in the near distance and said Everett. Ever—

Jackson said, “Maybe call it intuition.”

Young shook off an inexplicable sense of dread associated with the memory, something desolate that spread upwards from his toes till a numb feeling reached his fingertips.

The doctors had said that it was normal to be depressed.

That it wasn’t a mental thing, just part of the injury. Neurons regrowing.

“You just seem like the right person at the right time,” Jackson said. “To be my friend, or— something.”

The dread hadn’t gone away. Young looked at the painted turtle, at its fierce eyes, ten million years dead, feeling tired and sick and too heavy. “You make me sound important,” he said.

“Everyone’s important,” Jackson said, which was a typical Jackson sentiment. “The trick is just figuring out what for.”

Young said, “Is that the trick.”

He shut the back of the truck with an abrupt movement. Jackson flinched just slightly at the corner of his eye, and Young felt a mean hint of triumph. “Come on,” he said. “Better head inside before Mitchell gets some kind of bright idea about redecorating my apartment.”

“It’s not redecorating if you’re starting from nothing,” Jackson said reasonably.

Young shut his eyes briefly against the mid-afternoon sunlight, the smell of the over-green grass and the sprinkler trying to keep it alive, the chlorine— too chemical, something he could taste in his mouth— and the bright dome of the sky over the kid’s-toy marble of the Earth. The hard back of the brace felt, just for a second, like it was part of his body, something that he would never get out of again, and he was hit by the urge to pry it off, to strip off his shirt and jeans with it, to get out from under the scar tissue that was holding him together, the flesh that wasn’t his flesh, till he was left with— some other kind of body.

When he opened his eyes, he was leaning against the van, his hand spread over the turtle’s gray-green face like a muzzle. Jackson was watching him, expression unreadable.

“That’s the problem; you’re never starting from nothing,” Young said.

### Chapter Text

The problem wanted to be solved, Nicholas Rush reflected, which was what made it so fucking vexing.

He was lying on his back on the hardwood floor in his flat and he could feel the seams of the boards between his fingers, where the grit of years would have collected if the boards had occupied their current configuration for years, but they had not, of course; ten years ago they had been timber, and before that felled as part of a larger body from the living root system that had made them trees, but that had been in another part of the country, or— that was in another country, and besides—

Well— it was how America worked, nothing native to the place it was put down in, and he liked that. Everything nomadic. Everything new. The best-made floors would perhaps have no cracks where dust could settle in the truly apocalyptic case that a building was left to stand for longer than a decade, two decades, instead of being razed and built over again, but then we all have our little imperfections, don’t we. Don’t we.

His back was cold and he wondered absently about what this suggested in re: the structural properties of the building and the way that heat dissipated throughout it.

There was probably no relation between this and the problem he was facing, said problem being a piece of cyphertext that wanted to be decrypted, destabilizing his previous cryptographic assumptions, which were predicated upon the goal of a cryptographic scheme being resistance to decryption, or at least resistance to decryption by anyone who did not possess a correct key, whereas the Ancients— the oh-so-glorious and elevated, ineffable, long-dead Ancients, who had seeded a thousand thousand star systems and left behind only the technological husk of their being, not even their bodies, because they were not really dead, only climbed up some ladder of existence carrying their material-bodies-made-energy with them— had clearly anticipated the existence of descendants who might crack open the elegant arch of one of the portals that the American military had agreed to call, ludicrously, stargates. Descendants who might trigger the transmission of the cyphertext that, it turned out, was concealed within each chevron like a coy and living coiled-up sentient being. Descendants who had by inheritance the right to decrypt said cyphertext, but no means of ever being granted the key. The cryptographic scheme must therefore be amenable to—

His back was cold because he was sweating. Had been sweating. Quite a lot, actually.

It was hot in the room and there was probably no relation between this and the problem he was facing, except that the previous seven cyphers, the seven he had solved in the ten months since he’d first got his eyes on the full set, or almost ten months, which he could track because it had been Bonfire Night, or would have been Bonfire Night if he hadn’t been in California, so he remembered, remembered the Fifth of November, the way he’d walked out in the garden when Gloria had gone to bed, unable to bear how the faint sound of her breathing had altered already, an alteration that perhaps no one would have noticed except him, some different overtone or the start of a syncopation that said I am dying, I’m dying, and if he did not hear it, did not listen, then that would not be what it was saying.

This was how language worked, he thought.

He had stood in the garden and looked at the stars in the absence of violence, no bonfires and no rockets and no papier-mache men thrown on the flames, only the still California skyline and the tracks of airplanes, which seemed to travel like electrons at a quantum level, never moving yet appearing in position after position, and it seemed advantageous to move that way. To erase oneself from one point of existence and occupy another. He’d worried at the sleeve of his brown cardigan and thought about being burned alive, thought about numbers, thought about the dematerialization involved in David Telford’s stargate— the gate that David had shown him underneath the earth of Colorado, which would raze him down to nothingness and make for him a new body in the reaches of interstellar space.

What does it feel like, he’d wondered, what does it feel like to be burned alive, and though he had not known the answer then, probably it felt a bit like being locked in this stifling room in the center of Colorado, where he had been for five months now and still he did not know if he could describe one single characteristic feature of Colorado, only the contours of this room where he was finding it oddly difficult to breathe, as though the air had become heavy on its way to his lungs, and it occurred to him that he did not know how American air conditioning systems worked, because the sea air had come in from the coast when he lived in California, making the summers cool and breezy, and now he was very far from the sea. Perhaps he had been meant to press some sort of button or perform another variety of action that he had neglected as he neglected universally any action not relevant to the problem in question, which was— the problem was—

He squeezed his eyes shut because the corners of the room had abandoned their set positions and were wavering rather nauseously above him.

The problem was that the previous seven cyphers had been dependent upon material aspects of the stargate system— the first requiring a conceptualization of the DHD as a cryptographic machine not unlike the Enigma, the second utilizing the gate’s celestial error correction system as the seed for a linear-feedback shift register, the third relying on wormhole fluctuations as a source of randomness, the fourth— no, the fifth— no, the fifth had used a block cypher in which the rounds proceeded according to the geometric shapes encoded in the gate’s constellations, and the sixth had been based on an elliptic curve and had required knowing or predicting the locations of gates throughout the Milky Way Galaxy, and he did not know precisely how he had broken it, and it was at this point that he had begun to be troubled by the notion that the problems wanted to be solved, and that they did not just want to be solved, but wanted in fact to be solved by—

A door slammed across the hall and Rush twitched, sending a droplet of sweat flying because his hair was wet.

His hair was wet and his shirt was wet and Daniel Jackson said, “The flat-pack economy is signing the death warrant of craftsmanship-based civilization. I can’t believe you would—“

But Jackson was not in the room. The room was empty, or rather Rush was in the room and his laptop was in the room perched on a brown cardboard box, sCrypt running its clean white lines against a pale gray box on the screen, because yes Stargate Command had its own proprietary Air Forceian cryptanalytic software but he could not tolerate the its jumbled, blocky, and repetitive code, and the computer’s power cable stretched across the empty span of floorboards to an outlet, and a crumpled white shirt lay like a ghost in the approximate region of the doorway, and an equally crumpled white shirt from yesterday, and that was the set of objects occupying the space of the room.

“—not a craftsman,” an unfamiliar voice said, and Jackson said, “That’s the principle of the economy. You purchase what others create.”

“And I did,” the voice said. “I purchased what Mitchell is currently creating with a screwdriver and a lot of swearing.”

They were speaking out in the hallway. Rush turned his head to stare at the door and this made his field of vision oscillate.

How long had it been since he’d eaten?

He was not sure how long he’d lain motionless on the floor. He had been thinking about the problem.

If Jackson was in the building, the likelihood was low that he would simply go away without attempting to initiate conversation as he had adopted the inexplicable and fucking irritating goal of fucking socializing Rush as though Rush were some sort of feral animal— dropping by without warning and attempting to demand that Rush accompany him to some sort of gastropub frequented by stargate personnel, or to a craft brewery, or once to the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, as though Rush had expressed any desire to go to any of these fucking places, as though he wouldn’t rather slit his own fucking wrists than sit in a concert hall in the dark in the stillness with the slim ivory hyphen of the conductor’s baton raised, suggesting a continuation beyond that moment or beyond any fucking moment since she had—

He pressed his damp mouth to the wood floor and listened to Jackson’s voice without processing what Jackson was saying.

He was going to be sick, probably. And Jackson would not go away.

The only possible logical outcome of these observations was for him to force himself to his feet, shaky-legged and slipping slightly in the patch of sweat he’d left on the floorboards. He discovered that he was light-headed and shivering in his thin cotton undershirt, the only shirt he was wearing, which meant that the white shirt by the door was probably the shirt he had been wearing today, or yesterday, because probably he had not changed his clothing in some unclear but significant amount of time, and he gripped at the wall as he forced his way towards the toilet where, to his intense surprise, he was not sick, but knelt on the pale linoleum for some time anyways in anticipation.

Then he was seated on the floor of the shower and he did not know how this had occurred, precisely, but cool water was streaming over his head. He watched it in fascination for a while, the formation and deformation of the droplets in patterns too complex for mathematics to contain, before he realised that he was still fully clothed, which solved some problems but created others; namely: with the addition of soap, the current situation could pass for laundering, but it was certainly not the conventional route undertaken to achieve that goal, and showering without the removal of clothing was itself something of an outlier behavior, which was what he was trying to avoid. Not that he himself was interested in convention or any of the various forms of normative performance that congregated themselves under the sheltered center of the Gaussian curve—

—Civilisation, she said with an arched brow and a note of the faux-didactic, is the long and, one suspects, rather bad-tempered chronicle of human beings subordinating themselves to someone else’s interest.

—A paradox. He was struggling with his tie. Someone must refuse subordination. Either the awful repetitiveness of all that modern music has dulled your senses, or I’ve found myself in some sort of philosophical trap.

She laughed and turned him to face her, hands first on his shoulders and then going to sort the topological mess he’d made of the tie’s two ends. —The paradox is the point, she said.

—but he was attempting and had been attempting for some time to forestall the concern of others because the relevant problem was not whether or not he was fine, mentally, physically, fucking— ontologically, et cetera; teleologically he was fine, and therefore the relevant problem was clearly—

He sucked in an unsteady breath and closed his eyes and pictured the 27-trit segments of the seventh-chevron cyphertext and let the water beat against the top of his head.

When this had happened for a sufficient amount of time, he washed and stripped off his heavy clothing and stepped out of the shower and walked to the room that had been designated, on the floor plan that Daniel had attempted to force him to look at, as a bedroom, but that was actually the room where the boxes lived, except that boxes did not live anywhere, being by their very nature inanimate; it was only a perceptual defect that made him feel that these boxes lived.

They lived and he did not want them to live but he could not bring himself to kill them and it was possible that he had wished for the plane carrying them to Colorado to crash, maybe; or the truck, if it was a truck, to skid off the road: an unfortunate accident in which everything was lost but it was not of his doing. He pictured electrical systems malfunctioning, a driver’s cigarette igniting, a wildfire spreading in the dry grass of the American Southwest. Devouring the boxes that held her books and her records and all the variations of her concert dress, black on black on black because it was convention, silk and velvet and taffeta and one pair of Louboutins for a daring hint of red and the Peter Pan collar whose cotton shape had put a white accent on her neckline, and the single pearl she wore that rested just above it.

But this had not happened and so at least he was supplied with clothing.

He pulled a white undershirt and a pair of jeans from the half-empty box closest to him.

He was not certain where his shoes were located at this exact moment and though he was certain that he was technically possessed of more than one pair of shoes, the others were buried somewhere in the three-deep den of the boxes and he did not want to risk disturbing the neatly-stacked and only barely docile slumber of the boxes because he had, metaphorically and metaphorically only, a dread of what might happen to his hand if it dared to reach in.

If there were no shoes then there needn’t be any socks either. This stood to reason.

So he was barefoot when Jackson knocked at the door, but this could be excused because he did not intend to let Jackson into the apartment. He had never let Jackson into the apartment before; to do so would certainly, certainly result in concern, and while David might have been amenable to the argument that teleologically Rush was fine, and that the condition of the apartment did not suggest otherwise, Rush doubted that the same could be said for Jackson. Jackson’s perspective tended to be… holistic.

What he intended to do was open the door and—

But he was finding it quite difficult to reach the door and he thought that this probably ought not to be the case.

He braced his hand against the wall and swallowed.

He was aware of the presence of the boxes behind the closed door of the bedroom as though they transmitted the heavy and threatening data of their bodies to him.

Subjectively he felt that the top of his skull had been opened and something was spilling out. Something he needed.

Dimly, he was aware of Jackson knocking again.

“Yes,” he said thickly. “Just give me a—“

And he was able to make his way to the narrow hall that led to the door, trailing his hand along the bare wall, inch by inch.

“Hey,” Jackson said when Rush opened the door. His hand was still raised in a gesture of knocking. His brow furrowed in a way that expressed dismay and confusion, which was a fairly common expression for Jackson’s face.

“Jackson,” Rush said, with what he hoped was haughty impatience but feared was not.

“Nick,” Jackson said. “You look—“

Abruptly Rush became aware that his hair was hanging in damp strands around his face, dripping onto the cotton shoulders of his shirt. He raked it back with a surge of irritation, a motion whose completion made him slightly dizzy.

“—stressed,” Jackson finished, a beat late.

“Yes,” Rush said.

“I was in the neighbourhood and I thought maybe— Is the electricity not working? It seems really dark in here, and— why is it so hot?” Jackson leaned in as though trying to get a look over Rush’s shoulder.

Rush barred his way with a rigid arm. “No reason.”

“Is your thermostat broken? You can get someone to look at that, you know; you just—“

Rush’s hand, where it gripped the edge of the doorframe, had gone numb. He thought that this was not a good sign, and that in a moment the iridescent lights he seemed to be wearing as a halo were going to dangerously foreclose on his consciousness. “Did you,” he said, “have a point to get to, or have you just stopped by to proselytise about the joys of air conditioning repair?”

Jackson’s face loomed before him, squinting and bitten-lipped with benevolent worry. “I wanted to introduce you to your new neighbour, but you seem kind of— are you okay?”

“Yes,” Rush bit out, in defiance of the evidence presented by the visible trembling of his hands.

“You don’t seem okay.”

“Well, I am. Is there anything further I can—“ help you with, Rush intended to say, but the words failed to issue forth. He blinked, confounded by his body’s unaccountable betrayal. His moistened his lips, or tried to; his mouth was very dry and his pulse was racing. He fixed his gaze on Jackson’s eyes, blue and enormous; they seemed to be the colour of air, and weightless, as Rush himself was weightless or perhaps disembodied, aware only of Jackson saying something that did not quite cohere into intelligible speech, and that was where he would like to be, Rush thought hazily, beyond the asymptote of articulation, in the space where nothing could be said and so there was no struggle to say it; the rest was not silence but formless noise; and he reached towards it, knowing though that if he reached then he still had a body, and so long as he had a body he could not—

He opened his eyes with a sense of loss that he could not account for.

He was lying on a couch with his bare feet propped up atop the far armrest.

For a moment, uncomprehending, he stared at them.

The couch was upholstered in cool dark leather. The fingers of his right hand twitched against it, hesitantly, as though checking that it was real, or they were real, or that some ontological relation existed between them, the nature of which Rush did not feel robust enough to immediately express.

He did not recognise the room he was in.

A man was sitting on the coffee table across from him. He wore a black t-shirt and an expression of mild and amiable confusion that seemed to have been beaten into him, which meant that he was probably military. Typical. Hair: dark and too-long-ish, escaping here and there in unpredictable bursts. It made him into a blunted scarecrow figure. When he saw that Rush was watching, his forehead creased in a stupid sort of consternation.

Resigned to some form of social interaction, Rush said, “Who the fuck are you, then?”

“Hey,” the man said. “I wasn’t sure when you’d wake up. How are you feeling?”

How was he feeling.

He took stock of his body. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, extant. His head ached. His most immediate urge was to close his eyes and press his face against the smooth expanse of the couch’s leather. It smelt new and unsoiled by any traces of material existence.

Perhaps if he had bought new furniture, he thought. Perhaps if he had burnt down the house in San Francisco and bought new furniture, he could have— because space shaped you; that was why they had people design prisons, because in some obscure way objects around you taught you how to live, instilled moral precepts, equipped you with the art of being human, but it would not have worked, because nothing stays new, and he could not tolerate the thought of objects communicating any kind of history to him when he held them in his hands.

He realised that he had gone a long time without speaking. “I’m fine,” he said. “Where the fuck am I?”

“My place,” the man said. He looked perplexed for no apparent reason. “Across the hall from you. I just moved in. Everett Young.”

Rush pushed himself to a seated position and grimaced as a wave of queasiness swept him. “Is that meant to be some form of obscure code phrase?”

“It’s my name,” the man said. “Colonel Everett Young. I don’t think you should get up; you’re—“

Rush ignored this unsolicited advice and attempted to lever himself to his feet.

A brief span of time then ensued in which he could not entirely track the orientation of his body.

When this span of time had passed, he found that he was sitting on the couch with his forehead pressed to the backs of his knees. Someone was laying a cold cloth against the nape of his neck. He could sense their nearness to him, the warmth that came off their body, the shift of restless muscles, and he could not tolerate such a proximity, so his first impulse was to jerk violently away with a wordless, startled sound.

“Jesus!” the man, Young, whoever he was, said, and then, in a different tone, “Jesus."

Rush raised his head, where he’d taken up residence in a defensive hunch at the end of the couch, and saw that Young was wincing, clutching at one hip, his breathing gone shallow.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Rush said.

Young gave him a disbelieving look, then made an frustrated gesture with one hand. “You know what, just go ahead.”

Rush shook his head, uncomprehending. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Who the fuck, where the fuck, what the fuck… Aren’t you going to go for the full set?”

They stared at each other.

Young’s mouth was turned down. It made him look sour. But the lines in his face were lines of pain, deeply cut ones. Something was wrong with him, Rush presumed; and perhaps that was worthy of notice— something was so seldom wrong with them, the immaculate slabs of meat that patrolled the bases, forts, compounds of Colorado, who died or didn’t but never gave the impression of being anything but hearty and neat— but Rush wasn’t in the mood to notice.

How the fuck did I get here,” Rush said deliberately. “And why the fuck are you nursemaiding me with fucking—“ He pointed at the cloth. “Cold compresses?

“You have fucking heatstroke,” Young said, sounding irritated. “You fainted in the hallway because you had your thermostat cranked to a hundred degrees or something, and Jackson carted you in here since he wanted you to meet me anyway—“

“Why, exactly, would Jackson want me to meet you?” Rush peered sceptically at Young’s unremarkable demeanour. “I am one of the world’s top thinkers in the field of computational complexity theory, involved with a cryptographic problem of such magnitude that it’s unlikely I could even render it in terms accessible to your barely-adequate intellect. You, I suspect, or rather hypothesise on the basis of available data, spend much of your time shooting guns at other sentient creatures, or— given your clearly substandard biomechanical status— did.”

Young’s expression tightened further. “I guess Jackson figured someone needed to babysit you and your giant computer brain, since you fall down as soon as you leave your apartment. Or the SGC did; they were the ones who figured, as long as I was moving, I might as well move in next to you.“

Rush stared at him flatly. “A bodyguard,” he said.

No, not a bodyguard; I’m on medical leave.”

“A spy, then.”

Young, the spy, clenched his eyes shut and rubbed his temples. “I’m not a spy. They thought—“

“Right,” Rush said. “I’ve heard enough. I’m leaving.”

Enacting this statement of intent proved unexpectedly problematic.

Young waited with a look of muted superior fucking I-told-you-so-ness for several minutes while Rush tried and failed to stand, his legs having acquired approximately the consistency and weight-bearing capacity of jelly. When at last Rush gave up and tipped his head back against the broad leather cushion, heart hammering traitorously below his ribs, Young’s expression had changed to one of satisfaction.

“I’ll go get you a glass of water,” he said.

Young could stand, the bastard, though with effort; when he returned from the semi-detached kitchen and curtly thrust a tumbler full of lukewarm water at Rush, Rush saw that he was wearing a black medical brace over his t-shirt.

Rush took the glass of water with bad grace and drank it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had anything to drink at all. Unless the shower counted. Perhaps it didn’t, at least not in terms of the performance-of-normative-functions. Drinking made him feel halfway human, which he did not think was what he wanted. He shut his eyes and tried to think in 27-trit segments. +1 +1 0 -1 +1 +1 -1 0 +1 0 +1 0 0 -1 0 +1 -1 0 0 0 -1 0 +1 -1 -1 0 -1. His mind felt wrung-out, like the damp cloth that Young had laid against the back of his neck. He craved the return of that cloth and made an effort to mitigate against such a craving.

“Jackson had to run, by the way,” Young said. A sudden and disorientating imbalance in the cushions suggested that he had taken a seat on the far side of the couch once again. “But Mitchell went to get you some Gatorade.”

“Who?”

“Colonel Mitchell. From SG-1?”

Rush made a limp and dismissive gesture at the team’s name. He had a vague sense that he had been introduced to ‘Mitchell’ at some point within the last six months and had classed him as one of a number of interchangeable units in the set ‘Colonel.’ “Gatorade?”

“It’s good for dehydration."

“I neither need nor desire any such thing.”

“Well, you’re still drinking it. I think I’m supposed to make sure you don’t die or something.”

Rush tried to summon a noise that would adequately express his disdain at the notion that some half-crippled colonel might exercise any sovereignty over him. It emerged as more of a sigh, curdled with discontent around the edges. He couldn’t seem to make his eyes open. His body felt heavy and full of water. He didn’t like that, the sense of being weighted down, bound to earth by physically inexplicable natural forces, or rather bound to any object of mass, anything that turned out to be sufficiently massive and near; in proximity always and never where he wanted to be, which was alone and remote, loose in the vastness of space, and if he could rid himself of his own mass then spacetime would not warp around him and he would not sink into the couch’s dark and musk-smelling leather, conscious of the noise of Young’s breathing and the apartment’s stir of cool air, and perhaps this was why he had not bought new furniture. This. “Gatorade,” he said vaguely.

“Yeah. It’s good for you.”

“Unlikely.”

Young said, drily, “How about you let me decide that, hotshot.”

“Patronizing,” Rush murmured, or didn’t; it was not entirely clear.

He was conscious of Young standing, a slow process that ended in a caught breath. He wondered about the nature of Young’s injury and then his thoughts drifted to consider the nature of injuries in general: the body’s stupid propensity to suffer and retain them. David had been injured in the spring. For quite a long time no one would tell Rush where he was, and then he reappeared, but something had been wrong with him. It had been the first time Rush thought of the stargate as leading to other places— not other planets or other galaxies per se, but places in which men were hurt, in which the normal rules of violence were no longer applicable, and he did not know the theory that would allow him to harmonise these incompatible laws and mechanics, the different means and frequencies with which men were hurt, and it was not the first time that he had encountered this problem.

He thought that David had been tortured.

It’s classified, David had told him.

“Go to sleep,” Young said. He had a curious voice, rough and pitched lower than was normal, as though he was always having to scrape it out of the bottom of some pit that he’d found himself in.

“No,” Rush said on reflex.

Young made an exasperated huffing sound that might have been laughter. “Pretty sure you’re out of luck there.”

Rush would have retorted, but intolerably, Young was right. His thoughts were splitting and branching in rhizomatic fashion, intruded upon by ideas that belonged only unclearly to him. There was darkness and it seemed to him like the inside of the stargate, the place from which he had pulled the cyphertext, as though it had been put there for him, as though he alone could have seen that it was there in the dark, waiting, because he himself knew the sensation of being encyphered.

It was a warm place, that darkness, but there was something on the other side of it.

He hung, suspended.

Someone lifted his feet and placed them on the far end of the couch and he frowned, wanting to protest, but not quite waking.

A hand brushed the stray hair brusquely from his face, and then laid a damp cloth against his head. It was very cold and like slipping underwater. He breathed out and imagined himself curled tightly under the stone shield of a single chevron, small and hidden and sleeping and very safe.

### Chapter Text

“Are we going to talk about it?” Mitchell asked, when they’d been drinking in silence for a good ten minutes.

Young took a long pull on a bottle of shitty IPA and didn’t immediately answer.

The two of them were standing on the balcony, looking out at where the sun had gone behind the mountains and the slopes had turned night-colored even though it was only really twilight yet. Young had left the door propped open, and he could feel the ice-cold air-conditioning against his bare arms, in spite of the way the building was baked through with dying warmth.

“You mean the science nerd asleep on my couch?” he said at last, only lightly evasive. “Because I don’t know if you’ve met this guy, but I gotta tell you, he’s kind of a son-of-a-bitch.”

Mitchell gave him a disappointed look. “V. Seriously. I bring you the gift of beer, and you’re going to try to play me like I’m stupid?”

Young glanced indoors to where the living room was full of shadows, as thick as though they’d pitched a tent. He could make out the ghostly white of Rush’s t-shirt against the couch, rucked up slightly where Rush had thrown one arm across his face in his sleep. Young thought they ought to be talking about Rush, probably; about who Rush was, about why Jackson had wanted Young as his babysitter; about why he’d fainted, apparently, because he couldn’t operate a goddamn thermostat without supervision; about something else, something that Young would be damned if he could put a finger on, something about Rush that troubled him.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said. He took another drink.

“Uh-huh.”

“You know, I don’t remember it being this hot last year in August. I must have been offworld for a while or something, I swear—“

Mitchell cast his eyes upward. “Come on. You’re going to make me say it?”

Young paused for a moment and then shrugged, awkwardly, miserably, picking at the paper label of his bottle.

“I couldn’t help noticing the big old glaring absence of one David Eduardo Telford from the whole Everett Young moving process,” Mitchell said.

“Yeah.” Young stared down at a stubborn shred of paper that was stuck to his finger. “Is his middle name seriously Eduardo? I didn’t know that.”

There was a short silence.

“So, are you two still,” Mitchell said, and didn’t finish the question.

Young shut his eyes and brought a hand down to rest against his right hip: in the approximate place, he imagined, where his pelvis had been broken, at least according to what they had shown him on the X-rays. It had been the clearest break and the easiest to understand for that reason. When he thought of what had happened to him he thought of that dark line running down his middle. His hand sometimes went to his hip when he felt unsteady, like some part of his brain was convinced he could hold himself together that way. It had started to be something he did when he thought of David, and he didn’t know why, really, except that there was the obvious explanation: that David had been there, that it had all been for David, that David had dragged him up from the iron-oxide dust on the slope of the caldera, mashed their lips together, forced him to breathe in the nitrogen-heavy air.

And David had been there afterwards in the hospital, like the decent guy he was, even though he’d said, I still don’t think it’s a good idea, and, Maybe Emily would— if she knew it was over, really over between us; an injury like this, it’s a wake-up call for some people, and Young had nodded and said, Yeah, you’re right, of course, yes.

Even then, already, it had been hard for him to look at David. Young’s body felt like something had been torn away from it, and he must have felt like that before the mission, he thought; he must have, because otherwise nothing much had changed, really, except for all the screws they had put inside of him. It wasn’t like he and David hadn’t saved each other’s asses before, more than once; they’d both spent years in the program, and they’d served together on more than one team. And the thing with Emily throwing him out when he told her, the fight with David— that had all been before he’d headed out to P9C-455, the planet the Lucian Alliance called Sest Bet. Nothing had happened since then that mattered; it was all just torn-up bone and muscle. So maybe this was some sort of delayed reaction, he thought, the way he looked at David and felt— dead.

“It’s been— a really long year,” he said.

“Yeah,” Mitchell said quietly. “I get that.”

“I mean, it’s fine,” Young said, too fast. “It is fine. It was never really serious anyway. We were just— Emily overreacted. We were always just messing around.”

Another silence. Mitchell took a pull on his own drink and shifted. “We would have stood by you,” he said. “If you wanted to— you know.”

“Who’s we?” Young asked, with a hint of an edge to his tone.

“I don’t know. SG-1. Me, Jackson, whoever. Even maybe O’Neill.”

“Right.”

“I mean, I won’t pretend I get it; hell, I figure Basic’d be enough to turn someone off anyone swinging a dick for life, but—“

“That’s not—“ Young swung his beer bottle in a sharp gesture. “That’s not what it was; I’m not— you know. It was just a good time. It happens.”

“Sure,” Mitchell said after a long pause. “Well. At least you’re getting a fresh start all around, right?”

“Complete with new roommate, apparently.” Young cast a wry look over his shoulder, to where Rush was still asleep on the couch in the thickening dark. “You know Jackson wanted me to keep him here overnight? I don’t think that’s gonna happen. What exactly is the story with this guy?”

Mitchell shrugged. “Hell if I know half of it. He’s some math whiz working on the nine-chevron gate address they can’t dial; he found a subroutine or something, I guess, in the gate itself that’s supposed to figure the whole thing out.”

Young frowned. “So why’s Jackson all het up about him? I can’t exactly see them being friendly. Frankly, I’m having a hard time picturing anyone getting friendly with him.”

Mitchell shrugged again, but his mouth tightened in a way that suggested the effort of not speaking. “Beats me.”

“Mitchell.”

“Look: what I know, I can’t tell you, and what I will tell you is that what I know ain’t much. Just— there’s shit going on the likes of which you and I are to lowly to be kept in the loop on.”

“You’re the head of SG-1,” Young said. “I wouldn’t exactly describe you as lowly.”

Mitchell shook his head without speaking. He wasn’t looking at Young. He was staring out past the balcony, chewing his lip. “You know he’s #1 on the Lucian Alliance’s Top Ten Most Wanted? Your roommate?”

Young glanced at him uncomprehending. “Rush? That guy?” He turned and jerked a thumb towards Rush, as though he might have gotten it wrong somehow. Rush’s arm was still draped over his face, and he had curled his knees in towards his chest. He looked about as threatening as a half-drowned cat someone had fished out of a river.

“They want him alive,” Mitchell said. “No one’ll say why. At least not all of it. Jackson knows, I think, but he’s not talking.”

“Jesus.” Young leaned forward stiffly to set his mostly-empty bottle of beer down and rubbed his hands across his face. “I don’t need this, Cam. I’m tired. I’m not—“

He didn’t know how to explain what he wasn’t. He was tired, that was it; he was tired, and empty, like all of him had gone into the effort of healing. And maybe it had: the immobilized weeks, and then the months of PT, sweating while strangers had put their hands all over him, and David visiting him like clockwork, David with the red edges of new scars showing above the collar of his shirt, and at night he woke disoriented, heart pounding from dreams he was afraid of, drained of the effort to even climb out of bed.

“I’m not a bodyguard,” he said at last. “And I’m not a babysitter. I just need some time to figure things out.”

Mitchell put a hand on his shoulder, just for a second: not a casual slap, but a more solid, undemanding weight. “I get it, man. I’ll talk to Carter, maybe, see what she knows. Don’t worry about it. Just— stick some food in him, send him home. No one’s expecting you to be his best buddy.”

Young stared out at the slice of moon that was hanging over the mountains. Or the whole moon was, he guessed; it was just that he couldn’t see it like this, from where he was standing— couldn’t see the whole shape of it till something that didn’t want to move got forced to, got dragged along into an alignment it was always resisting.

“Right,” he said. “Just send him home.”

Later, when Mitchell had left (with the admonition that he had better not catch Young still living out of boxes the next time he dropped by), Young found himself back in the living room. He switched on one of the mass-produced and supposedly stylish lamps that he’d bulk-bought on a single trip to IKEA, where he’d also, without much energy, picked out shelving, a kitchen table, and a bed. He could afford better, but why bother, was his reasoning; Emily had made it pretty clear she wasn’t going to be coming around to check out how he was doing, and even if David did, he’d never been the type of person to care much, and as for Young himself— he’d be offworld soon enough, at least God, God, he hoped so, because he didn’t think he could stand to be on Earth anymore, and even if he wasn’t, he just couldn’t summon up much feeling about furniture one way or the other. He thought that without Mitchell’s threat, he probably would have left the boxes as-is; he was sure Mitchell knew it.

A pale glow spread through the room, kind of a ghostly moonlight color. He navigated the terrain of couch and coffee table, feeling unfamiliar, like he’d been parachuted in. It’d been a long time since he’d lived alone. But then, he wasn’t really alone now, was he?

He leaned against the wall, not trusting his assemblage of bones and muscle and metal plates to sit, and considered Rush.

The man had slept for hours, and even though he slept skittish, frowning and twitching and eventually sort of shoving his face between the cushion and the armrest of Young’s couch, he’d also slept pretty hard. Young got the vibe from him of an exhaustion that wouldn’t be discharged easy. Maybe it was because he was skinny, but he seemed run-down in the particular way you got when something had been chasing you, not just like a regular geek.

Young didn’t know what Rush was running from. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to stand there watching Rush sleep on the couch in a room that was filled with islands of unpacked boxes, some labeled with Emily’s angry black scrawl. He couldn’t stand to have another person so close to him, even if they were separated by a good six feet and an armrest; it was like he was afraid that Rush would pick up on something about him, something he was broadcasting without meaning to, or else that he’d pick up on something about Rush that he didn’t want to know, so he said sharply, “Rush.”

—Kicking the end of the couch with a foot.

Rush startled awake all at once, jerking upwards and hunching protectively into himself. He looked bleary-eyed and deeply confused. “The fuck?”

He had a really strong Scottish accent, which Young had noticed before with some bemusement. You didn’t hear a lot of scientists talk like that.

“Dinnertime,” Young said. “I told Jackson I’d feed you, since he doesn’t seem to think you can do it yourself.”

Actually, Jackson had seemed like he didn’t even trust Rush to sleep on Young’s couch without causing some form of destruction. “I should stay,” he’d said, lingering in the doorway. “I can call Jack, tell him—“ “It’s fine,” Young had insisted. Of course, that had been before he’d actually met Rush.

Rush stared at Young. His hair, which looked like it had never seen the sharp end of a pair of scissors, was shoved up in a rumpled mess on one side of his head. It had been wet when Jackson dragged him in here, Young remembered, which he’d let pass without an explanation. It must have dried funny.

“Ah, fuck,” Rush said again. “I thought I might have dreamt you.”

Rush adjusted his glasses, squinting as though he hoped Young might disappear if he did so. “It seemed like the more appealing prospect of the two.”

“Nice. You know, I let you sleep on my couch.”

“That was involuntary on my part. I don’t sleep on couches.”

“What, like, as a habit?”

“As a rule.” Rush tried, without much success, to straighten his shirt.

Young rolled his eyes. “Sorry if you get a crick in your world-expert neck because I wasn’t stoked about having a stranger in my bedroom.”

“You misunderstand me,” Rush said. “Unsurprisingly.”

He managed to make it to his feet, a little unsteadily, and stood there for a minute, looking like he was trying to stay upright.

“Well, you’re one up on last time you tried that already,” Young said. “So it looks like maybe the couch did you some good.”

Rush gave him a vague, disdainful look. “Who exactly are you?”

“Everett Young,” Young said. “We’ve been over this.” He was already starting to feel exhausted, like Rush had managed to punch him in the face without doing anything but talking to him.

“Yes, yes. A colonel. I remember. Yet another interchangeable unit for the set of colonels. I’ll make a note.”

Apparently, Rush felt this constituted a satisfactory end to the conversation, because he turned his back on Young and headed for the door.

“Nope,” Young said, pushing himself off the wall with a faint current of ache running through his pelvis, the kind that seemed to trace out the exact contours of the break. He managed to put himself between Rush and the door while Rush was still making his way, wobbling and barefoot, towards it. “I had Mitchell buy Gatorade for you, and Jackson was pretty specific about the food.”

Rush narrowed his eyes and turned his head to the side with a sharp sound of exasperation. “Colonel Young,” he said, as though testing out the name and finding that he disliked it. He paused. “I don’t sleep on beds,” he said. “Or couches. I confess that I’m not terribly enthusiastic even about the concept of sleep. I don’t enjoy beer, pizza, hamburgers, or whatever fine example of American cuisine you feel yourself compelled to offer me. I’m not interested in being your friend; I’m not particularly interested in being your neighbor, and I should just think that Daniel fucking Jackson has better things to do than micro-engineer the details of my diet and social life.”

Young shifted his weight to one foot and let pain needle its way up his metal-plated femur. “Welp,” he said. “Apparently not.”

Rush raked an irritated hand through his hair and sighed.

“Come on,” Young said. “We’re on the same side here. We both want Jackson off our backs. You drink some juice, I order a pizza, we don’t have to make conversation. Everybody ends up happy.”

“It’s unjustifiably optimistic of you to foresee anything like happiness in the scenario you’ve just described.”

“You’ve gotta be hungry. I’ve done the whole passing-out thing before; boot camp was brutal. You’ve got a killer headache right about now, right?”

Rush hesitated,then combined the barest of half-nods with a halting, grudging, hunch-shouldered shrug. It didn’t seem like he was really convinced; more like he was too tired and disgruntled to come up with a no that Young would swallow.

“I don’t eat pizza,” he said flatly, which seemed to mean: Fine, you win, yes.

“Yeah, yeah.” Young turned to head toward the kitchen. “So, what? We can order in Chinese if you want; I think someone stuck a menu on the door.”

“Have you not got any real food?”

Young paused, having just rounded the counter island and been hit by the sight of the single box of kitchen stuff that was taking up space on the linoleum, waiting to be opened. He’d forgotten that pretty much anything he could cook with was still in that box. He didn’t know exactly what Emily had put in it. At home, they’d had an actual kitchen— a whole room, not just a stylish offset. But neither of them had ever been much for cooking, so what they’d managed to accumulate off their registry had pretty much been the extent of their appliance selection. Emily had been talking about getting new dishes, and Young had nodded, staring out the kitchen window while he was thinking about the way David’s hands curled around a gun.

“—Not really,” he said belatedly, tearing his eyes away from the box. “I mean, Mitchell did the shopping. I don’t really know.”

There was a pint of milk and a carton of eggs in the fridge, when he checked, along with the rest of the six-pack that Young and Mitchell had been drinking; a block of cheese, a package of tortillas, and some bacon, which at least showed Mitchell knew him. If he looked in the freezer, he’d probably find a stack of microwaveable meals.

He pulled out a bottle of Gatorade and slid it over the counter to Rush, who had balanced his elbows delicately against the marble on the opposite side. “Drink up. Good for heatstroke.”

The corners of Rush’s mouth turned down, but he twisted the cap off the bottle. “I do not,” he said, “have heatstroke.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It turned out to be wee bit warmer than I expected.”

“The weather’s been the same all week. You didn’t turn your AC up?”

Rush used drinking the electric-blue Gatorade as an excuse not to answer. When he set the bottle down, he made a face. “Disgusting,” he said.

“Full of electrolytes, though.”

“I’d wager you’ve no conceptual understanding of what an electrolyte is.”

Young, in spite of himself, was at least a little amused by that. He was starting to get the sense that the continual barrage of insults wasn’t really targeted at him, but might be more of a general means through which Rush interacted with the world. “I can do scrambled eggs,” he said. “Or quesadillas. Do either of those count as real food?”

That earned him a disdainful look. “Hardly.”

“Then I’d say we should order in, because you’re pretty much out of luck.”

With a ponderous sigh, Rush pushed himself away from the counter and rounded it to throw open the door of the refrigerator. He glared at the variety of products revealed within.

Young took a seat at the counter and waited patiently for him to render a verdict. “I’ve got some pans,” he said. “They’re in the box. I’m not sure which ones; my ex-wife packed it.”

Rush made an impatient hand gesture in his general direction. “I suppose the odds of your possessing a sous-vide are low?”

“A minute ago you were pretty sure I didn’t know what an electrolyte was, so…”

“Mm.” Rush stared at the box. He seemed to be coming to some kind of complicated conclusion; it looked like he was doing math in his head. “Fine,” he said at last, in a tone of disgust, and a minute later he’d picked up the boxcutter that Mitchell had left on the counter and was using it to tear into Emily’s neat taping job.

Young watched as he dug through the box, which seemed to have an awful lot of loose knives in it— he wondered, belatedly, if he ought to have asked Jackson if it was a good idea to let Rush handle knives, or boxcutters, for that matter. It was pretty clear that, whatever else Rush was, and whatever the Lucian Alliance wanted with him, at the very least he wasn’t normal. Less normal, even, than your average SGC geek, and most of those guys were in some kind of league where they dressed up like orcs on weekends.

It wasn’t that Young thought normal was tied up with moral values, even though he knew guys who thought that way— hell, he was pretty sure that Cam had started out as one of them. He felt like he’d given up any right to judge what was and wasn’t moral. And maybe he’d given up any right to judge what normal was, too, or would have felt that way if he didn’t still think of himself, in some strange, split-down-the-middle way, as the person he’d been before all of this happened, as though time had stopped when the al’kesh came down on the slope of the caldera, or even before that, when he came in the door and saw Emily holding his phone, and nothing since then was real, or was just the wrong shape and slippery, somehow, so that he didn’t know how to hold onto it.

Normal was— not slippery. That was the thing about normal. It was predictable, and things that weren’t predictable were things you had to keep in boxes, like the geeks in the labs who spent their free time making swords for their league, and didn’t pass out in their apartments while they were doing math equations.

Rush had pulled a cheese grater out of the box and was staring critically at it.

“Do you actually know how to cook?” Young asked. “Or are you just going through my stuff for the hell of it?”

“Who were you cheating with?” Rush returned without looking up. “And how did your wife find out?”

That caused pretty much all of the good feeling Young had built up towards him to evaporate in a burst. He pushed back from the counter, ignoring the sharp jerk of pain in his low back. “What the fuck,” he said.

Rush still didn’t look up. He shrugged, calm, composed, and malicious. “Yes,” he said. “I know how to cook.”

Young thought about throwing him out for a minute, but didn’t— mostly because when he stopped and considered it for a second, he had a feeling that was probably exactly what Rush was going for. A rush of recalcitrance made him determined to not give Rush anything Rush wanted.

So: “Nice,” he said shortly. “Real nice manners you got on you there.”

Rush made a dismissive hand gesture.

They didn’t talk for a while after that. Rush filled a saucepan with water and put it on the stove to boil, then lined up eggs, butter, bacon, and two baking potatoes that seemed like an awfully optimistic buy on Mitchell’s part. He washed plates and knives, chopped potatoes, and dropped eggs into the saucepan with a clinical, almost remote kind of skill.

“Microwave,” he said suddenly, just when Young thought they were playing a game of Silent Treatment Chicken, trying to figure out who was wiling to crack first, and pretty damn sure it wasn’t going to be him.

“What?”

“You need a microwave.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Young wasn’t really sure how to respond. “I thought it came built-in, but— turns out it didn’t. Figured I’d just order one online.”

He got a sharp nod that seemed to endorse his decision.

There was another silence. Bacon hissed in the skillet.

Young said, “You don’t really seem like a microwave guy.”

“Obviously I would never be so gauche as to utilize it as a instrument in serious cooking,” Rush said without turning, lifting the now-apparently-hardboiled eggs from their saucepan with a slotted spoon. “However, in the absence of more sophisticated tools, it can be used to, inter alia, brown butter. I’m not particularly inclined to spare the amount of time it would take to produce a perfectly browned butter on the stovetop, so we’ll have to forgo it.”

“I’m in no hurry,” Young said.

Rush hunched his shoulders and said nothing.

“You’re hungry,” Young realized.

“Incorrect.”

“What’s wrong with being hungry?”

“What point is there in wasting my effort when you’re obviously incapable of informed culinary—“

“I’ve got chips,” Young said, just as Rush finished up with, “—appreciation?”

Rush looked as though Young had suggested eating the unpacked cardboard boxes.

“And beer,” Young said. “Chips and beer.”

“I’m sorry; you must have mistaken me for one of your squad of recreational fascists.” Rush was vigorously measuring out cayenne pepper and adding it to a bowl with an bizarre array of other ingredients, most of which must have been hiding in the cabinets; how much shopping had Mitchell done, anyway?

“Oh, right; I forgot, you’re too much of a snob for things like beer and sleeping. You know, I’m starting to see why Jackson called me in here. He obviously thought you needed some kind of intervention”

That made Rush’s mouth tighten. “What did he say?”

“What?”

“What did Jackson say; what did he fucking say? Did he tell you I needed a fucking keeper, that I was some sort of infant, or did he just feed you the usual misguided and wildly decontextualized shit about mental bloody stability? Because I’ll have you know I’m perfectly fucking stable, and if you’re going to be making notes on me in a little fucking journal to turn over to Stargate bloody Command, then you might as well save us both a great deal of trouble and set the whole thing on fire to start with, because believe you me, I’ve given the runaround to far better men.”

By the end of this, Rush was backed up against the stove, breathing hard and clutching a wooden mixing spoon with one hand.

There was a short silence.

“He didn’t say anything,” Young said quietly. He didn’t know why he was being quiet, because he didn’t really give a fuck about upsetting Rush; he didn’t even know the guy, and everything he did know so far could be pretty much summed up as: asshole. But he knew what it felt like to have people keeping an eye on you, he guessed, waiting for you to slip up and show that you weren’t quote-unquote dealing with it. “Just— that you were a math guy, and that you were having a hard time, and he thought it’d be good for you to have a neighbor.”

Good for me to have a neighbor,” Rush echoed, mocking. But he seemed maybe marginally less tense.

“What’s wrong with neighbors?”

“I don’t do neighbors.” Rush turned back to the stove, where he was fishing boiled chunks of potato out of a pan. “I don’t do neighbors; I don’t do housewarmings; I don’t do parties or ‘hanging out with the guys.’ I don’t do football leagues or rugby matches; I don’t do live-action roleplaying; I don’t do chess clubs or symphony concerts, and I certainly don’t do whatever this is.” He gestured between Young and himself with one finger.

“That’s a pretty impressive manifesto,” Young said, deadpan. “So what is this?”

Rush made an irritated noise and turned away without answering. He picked up the cheese grater and began to grate a boiled egg.

“Uh,” Young said. “You know that’s not a block of cheese you’re holding, right?”

“I did a DPhil in mathematics at Oxford.”

“Right.”

“I was awarded a Fields medal for my work in the field of computational complexity theory.”

“So, just to check, you do know it’s an egg.”

Rush hurled the grater into the sink with some force, picked up a plate, and began practically flinging food onto it: potatoes, some kind of mustard-y looking sauce, two artfully arranged crispy spears of bacon, and a crumble of grated egg. He shoved the plate across the counter and sent a fork skidding after it.

Young stared dubiously down at the plate, which looked like something you might get in a fancy restaurant and be too nervous to touch for fear of eating it the wrong way. “Thanks. I think. Uh— what is it?”

“A deconstructed Viennese potato salad. You don’t have any apple cider vinegar, by the way.”

“I don’t even think I know what that is.” Young took a tentative bite of potato, scooping up the mustard-y… stuff and grated egg. “This isn’t bad.”

“As though you would know.” Rush himself had dumped the remaining ingredients together and was wolfing the stuff down at a rate that suggested he’d been starving.

Young watched him in fascination. “When’s the last time you ate?”

“When’s the last time you calculated the eigenvalues of a Sturm-Liouville operator?” Rush asked through a mouthful of half-chewed potatoes.

“You know, you eat like a twelve-year-old.”

“Yes, well, you talk like an two-year-old.

“A twelve-year-old raised by wolves,” Young said. “And I’m pretty sure two-year-olds don’t really talk.”

“Whereas the range of your conversational ability astounds and impresses me.” Rush dumped the bowl he’d been eating out of into the sink and wiped the back of his mouth with his hand. “There. You fed me. I’m fed. And now I’m leaving. Let’s not do this again, ever.”

“I’m gonna knock on your door tomorrow to make sure you’re not dead,” Young said, although Rush did at least seem a little bit steadier on his feet.

“Which would cause you a greater inconvenience: if I died, or if I failed to?”

“You’re suggesting you would literally die to inconvenience me?” Young shook his head, fighting the incredulous smile he could feel laying siege to his expression. “I gotta admit, I’m kind of touched. We hardly know each other.”

“Yes, well.” Rush was at the door. He raised one hand in a brief, fluttering, irritated wave. “Try not to read too much into it. As a rule, I struggle to remember that American soldiers, much less sad, crippled, adulterous ones, are even possessed of other minds.”

So that shut Young’s smile down, and then Rush was gone, the door closing crisply behind him.

Young sighed and rested his elbows on the counter. There was the double blow: the room felt empty in Rush’s absence, suddenly transformed into an echo chamber where Young’s thoughts had nowhere to go except the place they were least wanted, which was back inside his head, and he was left with Rush’s closing words.

He forced himself to get up from his stool, in spite of the protesting muscles that didn’t want to perform the simple action. He didn’t know what they wanted, those muscles. To be shorter, to be longer, to be in some other body, to be part of making some other shape that wasn’t him, which was what they kept nagging at him about, as though he could do anything to change it. It should’ve been possible for him to explain to them that they were stuck like this now, or he was. All of them together. All of the pieces of him that were left.

He took one of the last beers from the fridge and levered the cap off against the countertop, a trick he’d learned from David, which David did better, as he did everything better.

The door to the balcony was still open a crack where he hadn’t been careful when he’d seen Mitchell off. The warm, but no longer quite so warm, night air was coming in, and it smelled of something that wasn’t new appliances and cardboard and ink. Young shoved it open the rest of the way, because he couldn’t bring himself to give a fuck about the air conditioning, and stood for a while right where the hardwood floor met cement, watching the lights of planes creep over the mountains and feeling about as small and far-away as them.

### Chapter Text

The room was cold because at some time between approximately one and three in the morning— he could not be more exact because he had not been looking at his computer, and he did not possess any other form of clock— Rush had found the right button to make it cold, and now he was standing and staring at a blank wall while his bare feet grew colder.

It occurred to him that he needed a cigarette.

He had not been looking at the white of the wall, but at the way a single insect, some form of very minuscule beetle, was making its ponderous way across the surface of it. What were walls made of, their surfaces? He didn’t know. It wasn’t topologically even, that material, or not precisely, and the beetle, in response to some delicate sense of the landscape’s danger, had charted a precarious course that ran at angles now obtuse, now acute, now straight, its antennae probing the currents of the air for very faint and finely-trilled signals that unseen obstacles lay ahead at distances the beetle had better be able to calculate.

He had been watching the beetle for a long time and had begun to develop sympathies with it. He didn’t know where it was going, but he wanted it to get there. He hoped that it was going off the plane of this bare white wall, where it would meet no companion, though it was presumptuous of him to suppose that companionship was something beetles might desire.

There were cigarettes—

But he did not at once know where, and then the sCrypt query his computer had been running completed with an audible chirp and he remembered that the cigarettes were beside his wallet, which was beside his keys, which were beside the computer, because he was for some reason not allowed to smoke in this, his own apartment that he presumably paid fucking money for, although he did not know for certain because it had all been automatically arranged so that he would not have to think about it, which was what she had suggested when they moved to San Francisco, too; I know you too well, Nicholas, you’ll never remember, and he’d said, I’ll make a note of it, to which she’d given him a scathing look. And where will the note end up? Underneath a stack of journals? And the electricity getting turned off whilst I’m off playing the Wigmore Hall, probably, not that you’d notice; you’d sit in the dark. He’d said, I’d notice, at the very least I’d notice—

He tapped a cigarette out with a flick of his wrist and—

when the computer ran out of charge, and she’d said, Yes, and what would you do? Call me, probably, confused; you’re—

—fuck regulations, applied his lighter to it. The resulting inhalation—

—hopeless, really.

—was exhilaratingly toxic, elation running in his veins as the chemicals spread throughout his body’s inner map. He felt it shortcut the circuits of his brain and then he could finally look at the sCrypt window, because he had remembered what the problem was again.

The problem. The axis. The exit, perhaps. The work.

The altered parameters of his frequency analysis had produced the same puzzling results as previous iterations. The first seven cyphertext segments had decrypted to coordinates that corresponded to constellations appearing on the stargate’s glyphs. The eighth segment appeared to yield to very simple attacks, but what it yielded was nonsensical, or at least not a set of coordinates. He was certain that it was a dataset of some sort, but he was unable to determine the logic underlying the set. It certainly wasn’t a sequence of primes, nor was it anything as showy as transcendental numbers or Riemann zeros. Not integers or not all integers and not proceeding in ascending order, which suggested the set was something other than a straightforward enumeration, perhaps something incomplete

He was expected to understand it. By whom? Dead cryptographers who cocked their head with clever expressions, waiting for him to output an answer? Fuck them.

He felt them sometimes in the dead of night when he was sat cross-legged on the floor by his computer, scrolling through pocket files of metadata or looking at the text itself, lines and lines of ghostly -1s and 1s and 0s. He felt alone but not alone, in the presence of someone who wasn’t there yet, but who could be or might be there; someone who had once been there and had never quite departed, who had no material form and existed only as an invitation directed outwards through time towards the idea of him. They extended the possibility that he too could escape from some metaphysical prison whose confines he could barely articulate, but whose doors and walls and depths of solitary confinement he had known all his life. He was partly qualified. He wasn’t good enough yet. But they waited with bated breath, because he still might—

The cigarette was burning itself out between his fingers and he was angry at it suddenly and he ground it out in the styrofoam cup that still held a half-inch of instant coffee.

He was going to go out, he decided. He was going to go out and drive to the supermarket and purchase some form of prepackaged sustenance, a foodstuff that tasted of nothing that he could put in his body so he would not fall down again, because that had been the problem, probably— not the heat but the fact that, as he had later calculated, he had gone at least thirty-two hours without eating. The ensuing syncope had meant having to deal with his fucking neighbour, a sad de-moustachioed-Dying-Gaul of a man who would not take the fucking hint that Rush was uninterested in any form of human correspondence and certainly not in consoling some hangdog and no doubt gun-happy officer who was being punished for his failure to keep it in his pants.

So. He was going to go out and he prepared for this by locating his shoes and donning a cardigan of a vague light brown colour that was clean although it had seen better days.

Then he went out, but he did not go to the supermarket. Instead he sat in his car for several minutes listening to the engine hum and thinking about the pitch of it and the pitch— both ascending and tortuous— of a leafblower nearby, inexplicable in the face of the evident fact that it was not autumn and was instead so hot that the walk from door to car had made sweat prickle on his skin. He did not know why he was listening to the pitches, but there was an importance in them, and after a while he shifted the car into gear and drove towards Cheyenne Mountain, the long turns of Norad Road almost now a relief and meditation. He had always liked driving: like being enclosed in a shell.

But more of a relief was when he passed out of the ambit of the mountains and was under the earth, in the dark, where he belonged.

He took the box of the elevator down to the narrow sterile halls of the laboratories, where several important-looking individuals ignored him, which was all right, because he preferred to be ignored, but in actual fact he needed—

He stopped an imbecilic-looking young man wearing an ostentatious white coat. “I need a set of natively configured DHD crystals.”

The young man adopted a befuddled expression. “What?”

“DHD crystals.”

The young man looked at him.

There was a long pause.

DHD crystals,” Rush emphasised, enunciating carefully. Americans had trouble with his accent, he had discovered, though he had drilled the worst of it out of himself long before he left San Francisco. “I need them. In their native configuration. A DHD itself would be best.”

The young man’s confusion appeared to deepen. “DHD crystals?”

Or perhaps he was simply stupid. Rush pressed a finger to his forehead, just over the bridge of his glasses, where his headaches inevitably found their origin point. “Yes.”

“Uh— do I know you?”

“No; we haven’t been introduced.” Rush kept the edge out of his tone, barely.

“Oh. Well. I’m Dr. Dale Volker.” The young man pointed to the ID badge clipped to his coat, beaming with a moment of misplaced pride, as though the ownership of a badge was understood to confer some form of status and privilege. He then held out his hand for Rush to shake.

Rush stared at it. “Dr. Nicholas Rush,” he said coolly.

“Oh. Oh!” Dr. Dale Volker appeared undaunted. “Right! You work offsite! You’re the guy who— the code guy!”

Rush was overtaken by a powerful urge to bury his head in his hands. “I’m a cryptanalyst attached to the Icarus Project. Yes.”

“You broke like seven of those Ancient codes already!”

“Yes,” Rush said. “I need—“

“That’s really just— it’s really extremely impressive,” Volker said, pompously. He looked like he was about to attempt to shake Rush’s hand again.

“Yes,” Rush said.

“I would love to discuss your work with you— I mean, I’m an astrophysicist, really, but everyone ends having to adopt a generalist attitude here; it’s part of the program, and I’m sure you have a rudimentary knowledge of astrophysics if you were recruited to—“

“I need,” Rush said, his voice tightly controlled, “a set of DHD crystals. Natively configured.”

That caused Volker to revert back to bewildered again, as though he had not imagined a brane of the multiverse in which his astrophysical overtures of friendship might be rejected. “Oh. Well. I can show you—“

Hesitantly, he led Rush to the end of the hallway, through an unmarked double door and into a small lab where the central table was occupied by several rows of brightly coloured crystals enmeshed in a kind of complex wire nest. The wires emerged from power sources both terrestrial and other, then fed back from the crystals to desktop computers apparently configured for measurement of some nature.

Rush looked at the crystals. “No,” he said. “I need them natively configured.”

“This is Dr. Perry’s lab,” Volker said, as though this sentence were meant to have some meaning. “She’s working on modifying the crystals on the assumption that they might function similar to an Ancient hyperdrive element. See, she figured out that the hyperdrive from a—"

Rush said, “I don’t care.”

Volker’s mouth opened a little. After a second he shut it. “Well,” he said. “I think this is— like— the best approximation of a natively configured DHD on Earth? Because Colonel Carter designed a dialing program, and it’s much more efficient, so we don’t really use one anymore?”

“Are you telling me,” Rush said, “that Stargate Command does not possess a DHD?”

Volker’s mouth performed the same open-and-close motion. “Yes?”

Rush removed his glasses and gave into the impulse to bury his head in his hands. “Please leave.”

“But I—“

“Go.”

Volker went.

Then there was at the very least no one in the lab, which was an improvement. There were only machines emitting amiable sequences of noise.

Rush approached the table.

There were— he counted the rows and columns briefly— seventy-four crystals in total, in an array of unlikely shades. They looked like children’s toys, red and turquoise and yellow. He resisted the impulse to touch one of them and see if it was real. He went to one of the computers and, when his credentials failed to gain him access to the system, he hacked in using Volker’s credentials, which took him ten minutes to obtain on his laptop in sCrypt.

The crystals were wired so that the lab could track amplitude in response to frequencies under different situations of damping. Presumably there were other experiments being run, but that was the one that interested him. The current set-up was designed to work with ultra-low frequencies, far into the subaural range, but Rush altered it until he would hear the audible hum running through the crystals. He tested out several ranges of frequency this way, running them through various configurations of crystals and noting the resultant resonance of the crystals.

This took perhaps longer than he had strictly intended. He wasn’t sure exactly how long because time in general was not important to him. The numbers were suggesting something, like music he could not quite hear, and what it was they were suggesting did not quite seem to coalesce. He sat for a while watching them glow faintly in rhythmic patterns, red and yellow and turquoise and turquoise and red, listening to the mechanical tones that corresponded to the activation. When at last he tired of this, he emailed himself the data over the SGC’s secure server and left the room.

He did not encounter Volker again in the hallway, or anyone who appeared to recognise him, and so he was mercifully able to escape the building without further requisite social interchange.

The outside air was unexpected after the artificial and Arctic-chilly temperatures indoors. This was a problem he had only ever encountered in the American West: an inside that aspired to an entirely separate biome from the one in which it had been built. Colorado Springs hadn’t even the excuse of being high desert, the long stretches of land that America’s colonisers ought never to have settled, but that they seemed determined to terraform to some forgotten norm of England-but-without-all-the-rain.

He missed Scotland and its fuck-you weather.

No. He didn’t miss Scotland.

Did Glasgow even have weather? It was like living in a merciless terrarium. Less an habitat, one might say, than a tank.

Colorado Springs was a nothingness under the mountains. It didn’t aspire to a separate biome; it aspired to nothing. It came from nothing. It was a brief strip mall occupying a high-turnover and pathetic piece of land.

He was indifferent. It didn’t matter to him where he lived.

He was back on 115 before it occurred to him that he had intended to buy groceries. Irritated, he drummed his fingers against the steering wheel. Another characteristic of Colorado Springs was its sparse population of acceptable grocery stores; he avoided Whole Foods on principle, because it was where he’d shopped in San Francisco, and it was on the other side of town, at any rate. The chief Colorado chain, King Sooper’s, he boycotted out of strong principles concerning nomenclature, which left only the option of the local Safeway.

So. Certainly. Fine. He exited the freeway, parked, and entered the store. He had no objections to shopping at Safeway.

Except that the act of grocery shopping was inherently fraught, the supremest site of ideological trash consumption. What he wanted was simply to purchase food. A loaf of bread, some tins of beans, which would be useless fucking American beans, but bearing some family resemblance to what he knew as beans, and anyway it did not matter what he put in his mouth; he was not interested in the topic. A dozen eggs. Instant coffee. But could he buy a loaf of bread, some tins of beans, a dozens eggs, instant coffee? Could he bollocks. Instead he was sold some fucking self-help video in packaging format, the cheerful fascism of normative self-regulation, the house you were supposed to have, the garden, the body, the farms you were meant to support, fucking farms filled with chickens of all things, the fucking planet you were supposed to want, dictated to you by cardboard fucking egg cartons—

By the time he had completed this thought, he was clutching a carton of milk hard enough to deform it, so he put the carton of milk in the cart and moved on.

That had been the most intolerable characteristic of Young’s apartment. The sad, limp, and half-hearted attempt to participate in the collective jolly affect-policing, the effort to indicate that Young still wanted the right things. The plasma TV where he’d no doubt watch interchangeable sports tournaments of some kind, the broad leather couch on which he’d sit sipping the six-packs of mediocre beer, his free arm carefully positioned to indicate comradely closeness to the men who sat with him, but also positioned so as to never get too close, never to outstep the desire-lines laid down by generations of buttoned-up, gutless, respectocrats.

Young had an excuse; he was crippled somehow. He could have used that to escape. But instead he’d chosen to stick it out trying to play a game that he’d already lost. He’d get desk duty and spend his life pushing papers. Start an addiction to pain pills, maybe. People would stare at him, wondering what was wrong with him when he tried to stand. He had scars, probably, and probably saw them as defects. A defective body he was stuck with. Not a real man.

Fuck you, Rush thought spitefully, and then didn’t know why he was saying it, if he was directing it at Young or voicing it on Young’s behalf.

Young the spy. Well, Rush had kept Jackson out of his apartment for months and had not gone to the fucking symphony with him, so good luck to Young if he thought he was more sophisticated in some respect than Jackson. Not to attribute any particular sophistication to Jackson.

Still, Rush purchased a bottle of apple cider vinegar to give to Young. A sort of “Stay out of my fucking sphere of existence” present, one might say.

When he pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex, there was a large black Suburban taking up several spaces. Its engine was idling and its windows were rolled down. The man in the driver’s seat was smoking a cigarette. He gave Rush only a cursory glance, but the scene made Rush oddly uneasy. There was something foreign about the man, something hard to articulate in a reasonable way. It was as though he had never seen someone wait in a car before, and had had to devise his own impromptu style of doing it.

Rush narrowed his eyes at the man, but he supposed the black Suburban indicated some sort of drugs trafficking endeavour, which he was not particularly interested in.

He returned to his apartment and unloaded his groceries.

While he was trying to recall if bread belonged in the refrigerator, or rather if industrial bread belonged in the refrigerator, since they had always bought artisanal loaves from the bakery in San Francisco, the one that displayed its starter in a huge jar on the shelf, and Gloria had cracked open the loaves saying One of life’s most glorious sounds, and I don’t care if you call me a glutton, crust-crumbs spraying everywhere, and—

While he was trying to recall this, the email client on his laptop chimed. He set the bread on the countertop and opened a message from someone called Dr. Amanda Perry, a name he did not recognise.

Dear Dr. Rush,

Dr. Volker informs me that he introduced you to my lab this morning. Since he has absolutely no interest in crystal resonance frequencies or activation, I’m going to go ahead and assume that it was you and not him who spent several hours screwing up my array. Thanks for that, by the way. Can you please explain to me why you felt it necessary to erase all my preset damping levels and tamper with my experimental equipment?

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Amanda Perry.

Rush sighed and pressed a hand to his temple. He felt a headache beginning to flower. Dear Dr. Perry, he wrote.

No. I don’t believe I can explain it to you.

Dr. Nicholas Rush.

Since he was already sat at his computer, which was to say that he was already sat on the floor in front of his computer, he opened the data that he had collected from Perry’s lab. He rested his chin on his closed hand and contemplated the window. After a while, he pulled up the sCrypt analysis of the eighth cypher and set the two level to each other.

The numbers were—

Someone knocked on his door.

He ignored them.

Assuming a current generated by a standard extraterrestrial power source, something along the lines of a ZPM, the activation levels of the crystals might, if one assumed that the crystals themselves had been configured to resonate at a certain frequency, potentially be—

“Rush,” Young said from behind the door.

—in a range that was consistent with the numbers that the eighth segment of cyphertext was producing, which meant— He shut his eyes and considered several possibilities. A series of numbers that did not proceed in order of magnitude, in which the numbers involved each represented a possible state of crystal activation. Presumably he was meant to complete the set? He had wanted the crystals natively configured because the gate assigned each one a specific state, part of a starting permutation; if he began with the standard starting permutation and—

“Rush. Open the damn door,” Young said, knocking again.

Rush directed a vituperative glare in the door’s direction.

If the number series was in fact not really an number series but a map of certain crystals in their DHD activation states, and therefore indicative of an order in which those crystals ought to be accessed, then perhaps the significant problem was not the decryption of the cyphertext but an entirely different problem, namely—

“Rush,” Young said. Shouted. Bawled. Intruded.

—a Hamiltonian path problem of some sort, or possibly a cycle problem, in which it was necessary to find a route for a current through natively configured crystals, producing very precise levels of activation and thereby triggering a program that was complementary to the cypher, in which case—

The knocking would not cease.

“What,” Rush hissed, when he finally flung the door open.

“Hey,” Young said, unperturbed. He was wearing a black t-shirt and jeans. Perhaps the same black t-shirt and jeans.

“I,” Rush said with as much control as he could muster, “am working.

“I said I was gonna knock on your door today. Just to make sure you weren’t dead.”

“And now you’ve done so. Congratulations.” Rush began to close the door.

Young stuck his foot in the crack to prevent it from closing. “Yeah, but I thought—“

“Oh, you thought, did you? A novel experience, I’m certain.”

“It seemed like maybe you were having trouble keeping up with, you know, what do people call it these days. Self-care.”

Rush shut his eyes for a moment and leant his forehead against the doorframe. “Self-care,” he echoed, flat and incredulous.

“Yeah, my PT gal was big on that. Eating right. Resting. Showering when you’re supposed to. Not drinking half a bottle of bourbon and wallowing in a pit of misery.” Young smiled what was no doubt intended to be a disarming smile, one that would nullify all reasonable resistance.

Rush was not susceptible to it. “I’m sure that must be very useful advice for someone who has suffered a career-ending injury,” he said. “And for someone whose wife has left him, or rather not left him, as it appears that you, in this case, were the one forced to leave. However, I am quite capable of adequately caring for myself.”

Young’s expression faltered, and there was a moment when Rush even noted, with interest, a flash of something else there: despair, perhaps, or violence. Disappointingly, however, the violence vanished quickly, smoothed under an amiable mask of composure. “Well, you’re right about one thing,” he said. “It was pretty damn useful advice for me. And I could use some help, so what do you say about cooking me dinner?”

“Absolutely not,” Rush said, and attempted to close the door on Young’s foot.

Young didn’t move. “Come on,” he said. “I’m hungry, and without you, I’m just gonna nuke a Lean Cuisine. Plus, if you come over, I’ll tell you what I talked to General Landry about today.”

“As reassured as I am to see that you treat your security clearance with the degree of seriousness it merits, I—“

“It was about you,” Young said.

Rush narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Why would General Landry speak to you about me?

“Because I’m a spy, obviously. Isn’t that what you decided?” Young leaned against the outside wall, looking amused.

“You are a spy,” Rush said. But his vitriol was waning in the face of information he wanted, and he knew that Young could see it.

Young said, mock-serious, “I won’t even try to make you drink beer or talk football. Cross my heart.”

Rush glared at him. “I obtained apple cider vinegar,” he said without moving from the doorway. “To supplement your barely adequate kitchen. I don’t suppose you’ve acquired an immersion blender in the past twenty-four hours.”

“I’m gonna be honest with you; I don’t really know what that is.”

“I’m locking you out while I retrieve the apple cider vinegar from my kitchen.”

Young shut his eyes for a millisecond longer than was necessary, the merest overtone of irritation. “Sure,” he said. “Can’t risk me stealing the kilts and golf clubs, or whatever the hell you’ve got stashed in here.”

Rush stared at him in silence for a long, incredulous second before closing the door in Young’s face and locking it.

Fucking Young, he thought as he padded across the hardwood floor to the kitchen. He was wearing socks and he had no memory of taking off his shoes. Fuck shoes. Shoes were a normative imposition, always assuming that one was not traversing surfaces of uneven temperature or texture, and why the fuck had humans decided as a global phenomenon to decondition their feet?

He was not going to expend time and effort locating his shoes, he decided.

The apple cider vinegar was waiting on the counter. Rush seized it in a gesture turned choppy by bad temper.

When he had unlocked the door again, he shoved the bottle into Young’s hands.

“Thanks,” Young said, looking down at it with mild bemusement. “You realise I have no idea what to do with this.”

“I’m sure you can come up with a few creative places to shove it,” Rush replied, his voice cultured to sugared perfection. He maneuvered Young aside with an efficiency of movement so that he could leave his apartment and lock the door behind him.

“Nice,” Young said. “You know you’re not wearing shoes?”

Rush cast a withering glance at him and didn’t reply.

“I’m thinking of starting a new policy,” Young said. He was unlocking his apartment door. “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”

“I think you’ll find that I’m the one who’s doing you the fucking service.”

“I’m just saying.”

“You’re going to decline to accept my service? I should be so lucky.” With a suspicious squint, Rush acquiesced to Young’s gesture of welcome.

He made sure not to lift his feet as he entered the apartment, just enough to genteelly draw Young’s attention attention again to the slip and slide of his stocking feet.

An hour later, Rush was part-way into constructing a dish of egg yolk gnocchi sauteed in a sriracha parmesan sauce, using supermarket olive oil and Young’s inferior fucking industrial brand of parmesan. The parmesan had not been previously present in Young’s kitchen— someone had done a second shop for the man. It was obvious that Young had not shopped for himself, as there were now frozen vegetables in the freezer, but equally obvious that whoever had done so had little to no culinary ambition, as the vegetables in question consisted of cheery bags of carrots, cauliflower, and garden peas. Probably Mitchell, Rush decided, the equally white-bread but marginally more functional element of the set of colonels.

A microwave had also appeared on the counter. But Rush had, to his equal irritation and absorption, been required to construct his own improvised sous vide cooker using Young’s beer cooler, an electric kettle, and a handful of Ziploc bags. This process Young observed with fascination, leaning against the kitchen island with a bottle of sub-par beer in his hand.

“So this is pasta?” Young asked, watching as Rush extracted the water-sealed bags of gnocchi segments.

“Classically, pasta requires the presence of a wheat flour; however, functionally, let us say: yes.” Bright yellow squares— or, all right, polygons, given their minute irregularities— collected in the frying pan as Rush emptied the bags.

“So why do you have to cook it in my beer cooler? Why can’t you just boil it?”

Rush fixed him with a level glare before turning his attention to the task of ensuring that the gnocchi were evenly sauced.

“That look you keep giving me— you realise that look doesn’t mean you win the conversation, right?” Young cocked an eyebrow.

“Doesn’t it?” Rush didn’t look up from the frying pan.

“That’s not how conversations work, hotshot.”

Rush inspected a piece of gnocchi closely. The parmesan had melted nicely into the sauce’s olive oil base, and cooking had thickened the mixture until it clung to the smooth texture of the not-classically-pasta. “The conversational model doesn’t interest me, I’m afraid.”

“What, you don’t have conversations?”

“As infrequently as possible.”

Young frowned and took a swig from his drink.

There was a brief silence.

Rush calculated the odds that the silence would last. They were not in his favour. In this, as in so many other endeavors, he was proven unendurably correct.

“You don’t have conversations,” Young said.

“Do you suffer from some disorder of repetition?”

Young ignored him. “You don’t wear shoes.”

“Unsurprisingly, there is a fallacy lurking behind that statement.”

“You don’t sleep on couches.”

“There, you see; your inferences are improving.”

“You don’t do neighbours.”

“Certainly not in the colloquial sense.” Rush lifted the frying pan from the stove and carefully aliquoted its rather alarmingly sunrise-coloured mixture onto two depressing plastic plates. He tossed more of the toxic parmesan across the top of each and shoved one in Young’s direction. “I have fulfilled the terms of your absurd manipulation. Cibotom iam cucuecuetor.

Young took the plate, but didn’t set it on the counter. He was giving Rush a strange look. “What is that, Latin?”

“Ancient,” Rush said, stabbing a piece of gnocchi. “Draw more reasonable conclusions.”

“How is Latin a less reasonable conclusion than a million-year-old alien— you know what, forget about it.” Young favoured Rush with a dark, glowering look that seemed naturally suited to his underdeveloped features. He gave the impression of a middle-aged thug whose face had been shaped by the heel of more than one boot. “So you don’t—“

“I don’t cook for people without the promise of immediate clarification,” Rush said. He took a savage bite out of the gnoccho. It was meaty, spicy, and perfectly al dente. “How did General Landry see fit to direct your daily campaign of espionage?”

Young rolled his eyes at this. “Do you even know why they’ve got people looking out for you? Real people, I mean, not just me— people on active duty down in the basement.”

“That seems unlikely.”

“It would sound a hell of a lot more likely if you’d paid attention during your security briefing, which apparently you failed to do.”

Rush tightened his lips and speared another gnocco with undue violence, irritated by the vague and sudden sense that he had, indeed, been told something about a security team stationed in the basement of the building, and that he might have been contemplating polynomial interpolation at the time. “How the American military chooses to misuse what is, frankly, an obscenity of a budget is a topic I rate as of low-to-middling personal interest, so if you—“

“You’re supposed to call them if you’re going to leave the building, you know.” Now Young was levelling a serious look at him, or rather a look that aspired to be serious. On Young it looked comical. Perhaps less a thug, Rush decided, than a sort of very hardbitten teddy bear.

“I agreed to no such condition.”

“Well, actually you did; it was part of your employment agreement, and you signed on the dotted line.”

Rush set his fork down very carefully on the island’s countertop. It was a cheap fork, the sort designed to look expensive and sold individually, not as part of a set. He stared at it. “I won’t be monitored,” he said in a dangerous voice.

“Apparently you up and disappeared today for, like, forty-five minutes.”

“I went grocery shopping.”

“Your security team says it’s not the first time you’ve pulled this shit.”

Rush picked up the fork again and weighed it in his hand. The tines were smooth from lack of use. The handle was narrow, which provided the illusion of design.

Young was still talking. “—And then General Landry calls me, which means that none of us are really having any fun, so everyone would really kind of prefer it if you’d just—“

Rush hurled the fork across the room.

Young stopped talking.

Rush’s hand was shaking slightly with some nervous energy that perhaps he had meant to expel in the force of the throw. He didn’t look to see where the fork had landed. He shoved his plate away from him. “Perhaps you can tell General Landry,” he said, very very evenly and politely, “that I would really kind of prefer it if he would just leave me the fuck alone.”

Young tilted his head. Once again Rush was not quite sure what the man was thinking. His eyes had the disturbing effect of appearing sympathetic when they almost certainly were not. A combination thug-teddy-bear. A teddy-bear-thug. He had opted again, not unreasonably, for silence.

Rush shoved away from the island. “I’m going home.”

Young’s hand caught his wrist as he passed and held him there briefly: a hot brand that hurt the hard edge of Rush’s ulna. Rush twisted, trying to get away from the grip.

“Rush,” Young said. “You realise you’re top of the Lucian Alliance’s list of targets, right? Their Top Ten Most Wanted, is what Mitchell calls it.”

“Let go of me,” Rush said.

Young didn’t. “Didn’t anybody tell you that?”

They hadn’t. Or possibly they had; Rush didn’t really remember. He hadn’t been interested. Yes, yes, he’d said impatiently. I’m sure all of this vital information can be delivered in writing. But whenever they sent him documents, he delivered the documents unopened to an empty cardboard box in the corner, where they were currently amassing themselves into a sort of dense and highly classified drift.

“Do you even know who the Lucian Alliance is?” Young asked.

They didn’t have to do with the cyphers, was the thing, that was the problem— those documents, they didn’t have to do with the cyphers, and so they seemed somehow fundamentally remote to Rush. What was real was the world of integer series, Enigma machines, add-rotate-XORs; Ancient numerals and the scrolling ivory lines of sCrypt. He dreamed in 27-trit segments and awoke startled by the input his brain was receiving, which didn’t come in easily readable streams.

Young said, “The Lucian Alliance is—“

“Some unimpressive gang of spacefaring humanoids,” Rush said shortly. “Peddling psychotropic corn. Yes, I’ve heard. I’m unimpressed.”

Young’s hand tightened. There was something in his eyes that Rush didn’t like. “I know it sounds that way,” he said. “When you’re here on Earth, and the biggest threat you have to deal with is the fucking air conditioning in your apartment, but this threat is real, Rush; it is a very real threat, and—“

Rush jerked away abruptly, mustering all his body weight to do so and stumbling backwards, almost falling on the embarrassing light green shag rug. “Fuck you,” he said, a little shakily. “What the fuck do a bunch of low-rent, leather-clad aliens want with me, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” Young said. The thing in his eyes had deepened; his brow had furrowed slightly. “I don’t know, and I don’t like not knowing. That’s why you have a security team in the basement, though, and transport scramblers in the building. That’s why I’m here, for all that I’ve been told, which is not much, because this is a high-level threat, this is a really— you have to take this seriously, Rush.”

Rush had no intention of taking it seriously. However, it was difficult for him to turn away from Young’s expression. It was obvious that Young took the threat seriously. Rush could not immediately apprehend the reasons either for Young’s interference in his mode of existence or for the darkness that had settled into the crevices of Young’s face, and perhaps this— this perplexity, his failure to read the situation— was what compelled him not to bolt for the door. “All I want,” he said, crossing his arms hard across his chest and not looking at Young, “is to be left alone to work on the fucking cyphers.”

Young’s face didn’t alter. “That’s not going to happen,” he said. “Not the way you want. But the SGC’s going to be a hell of a lot less on your back if you just fucking follow the protocols when you go shopping and call them.”

“I’ll consider it,” Rush said, his voice clipped.

“Do you even know who to call?”

Rush made a disdainful gesture. “I assume I can look it up in the fucking yellow pages, given the level of infosec I’ve encountered."

“It’s dispatch,” Young said, refusing to acknowledge the jab. “You ought to have their number in your phone.”

Making an abrupt decision, Rush pushed past him and sought a glimpse of the fork he’d launched from the kitchen. It lay tine-side up on the hardwood, not far from the balcony door. He picked it up and inspected it for damage.  “I need a new fork,” he said.

Is their number in your phone?”

“Then again, I’m not opposed to eating with my fingers. I assumed it would offend your military sensibilities, is all.”

“Do you have a phone?”

Rush had crossed the room. He pitched the fork into the sink. “Of course I have a fucking phone,” he said. “I’m a mathematician, I’m not a bloody OAP."

“I don’t know what that means,” Young said, sounding weary.

Rush extracted another fork from the drawer that had somewhat optimistically been assigned to house Young’s scant cutlery. With an air that he hoped communicated the extent of his aggravation, he resumed his position at the kitchen island and skewered a piece of gnocchi. “Yes. I have a phone.”

“I’ll put the number in your phone. Toss it over.”

I am not going to allow you to touch my phone,” Rush said.

Young closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Rush.”

Rush chewed ferociously at the gnocco. It had started to go cold.

“What if I were a Lucian Alliance operative?”

“In that case, I don’t imagine we’d be having this conversation, which would be a bloody relief, let me—“

“What if I were kidnapping you?”

“Then perhaps I could stab you with this fork.” Rush considered the fork, divested of its foodstuff. The idea of stabbing Young was not wholly unappealing. A very minor puncture, perhaps, just enough to act as a deterrent. Just enough to illustrate a boundary point separating their ontological regions.

Rush’s jaw worked. He set the fork down. “Fine,” he said, because Young was not going to stop asking. He retrieved it from his pocket, unlocked it, and slid it across the counter.

Young keyed something into it in silence. “I’m giving you my number, too,” he said at last, looking up. “Just in case.”

“Ah. I see,” Rush said in a tone of exquisite politeness. “You’re attempting to account for all potential future configurations of matter, including those so unlikely and remote that they lead to a universe in which I find myself in need of a crippled divorcé who’s so lonely he corrals people he doesn’t know into cooking him dinner, because then he can pretend at least—“

In a sharp, abrupt motion, Young thrust the phone back at him. It skidded on the marble and stuck halfway.

“Fuck you,” Young said. His voice was quiet, actually; not as loud as Rush might have expected. “I was trained to withstand torture. You know that, right?”

Rush made a scornful sound under his breath.

“That’s my job,” Young said, as though he hadn’t heard it. His face was artificially calm, empty, impassive. “My job, my actual fucking job; they send me in to take the hurt when someone’s got to get hurt and people like you can’t take it, because I’m trained for it, so if you think your unbelievably transparent and pathetic attempts to get under my skin, your snickering little wordplays are going to do what the bitch head of Sixth House, a knife, and a fucking Goa’uld pain stick spent two days trying to pull off and still didn’t— they still—“

He broke off, twisting his head away, and didn’t resume the sentence.

Rush couldn’t look at him.

After a moment, he picked up his phone and stared at it.

Since it was apparently a requirement that he possess a lockscreen, he had chosen a photograph of a Glasgow lamppost forged in the shape of the city’s coat of arms: the fish with a ring in its mouth and a quartet of tree branches sprouting from its back, a bird resting atop the highest of the tree branches and the lowest unbowed by the weight of a bell.

Here is the bird that never flew.
Here is the tree that never grew.
Here is the bell that never rang.
Here is the fish that never swam.

That was how the rhyme went.

He liked the image because it meant nothing. It was a picture of a place where he had lived once. There didn’t have to be any more to it than that. When he looked at it, he felt nothing, which was what he had wanted.

“I’m going to assume it’s a compliment,” Rush said at last, “that my conversation doesn’t rise to the level of torture.”

Young let out a breath. It sounded almost like a laugh. “Well,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, you always give it a pretty good shot.”

“Nice to be appreciated,” Rush said.

Young picked up his fork, a little uncertainly. He looked down at his plate. “I don’t know what the hell I’m eating,” he said.

Rush said, “That doesn’t surprise me.”

There was a pause as Young sampled the gnocchi. “Tastes okay,” he said.

“I accept your ringing endorsement.” Rush picked up his own fork and, echoing the uncertainty of Young’s movements for reasons that he found, intolerably, he could not name, he too resumed the meal.

“What I was saying before,” Young said, later, when Rush had finished washing the dishes— a task he had undertaken because he couldn’t trust Young to succeed at the simplest domestic endeavor; given his blind arrogance and the inadequacy of his information, he would probably scrub the coating of the frying pan right off, which, admittedly might lead to the purchase of a cast iron skillet, a far superior implement, though one that Young was equally likely to destroy.

Rush paused on the cusp of the doorway. “Yes?” He had been in the process of departing, already reconfiguring his mind, readying it to make the transition from the slow, uncertain fumblings of Young’s locutions, the forced homeliness of his apartment, and inadvertent intimacy of warm water on dishes.

That last had kindled limbic elements that he had not ever wanted kindled again. A kind of violence that was not violence. Or had it always been violence and the response to it? The obverse, as it were. The balancing act.

He had offered to wash the dishes, not knowing whether he hoped that Young would say no.

“You don’t do neighbors. You don’t sleep on couches. You don’t have conversations. It seems like you define yourself in the negative an awful lot.”

Young had a stupid, hesitant, amiable expression plastered across his stupid, hesitant, amiable face. Rush was struck by the impulse to eradicate it, an abrupt and perhaps irrational surge of violence. He looked away.

“Fuck off,” he said. “I’m uninterested in your two-bit psychoanalysis.”

Young’s eyebrows drew together even more stupidly. “Look, I’m just trying to say—“

“And I said,” Rush said, slamming the door open with more force than was strictly needed, “I’m not interested. Go file your little report to Landry. Tell him whatever you want to tell him.”

“I don’t file reports,” Young said, looking confused.

“And don’t bother me again.”

“I don’t file reports on you, Rush, Jesus—“

Rush exited the apartment and, in an effort to establish symmetry, also slammed the door behind him.

He stood in the hall for a moment, fighting the urge to curl his hands into fists. The light overhead was flickering in a way that, had the fixture been outdoors, would have been certain to draw moths. But this was indoors, safe and sterile, even if a beetle occasionally perforated the defenses. And so, when the moment had passed, Rush turned to go home.

### Chapter Text

Young was standing out on the balcony, watching planes blink their way over the mountains. He angled a bottle of beer against his mouth, condensation smearing his face in the hot dusk, and gripped his phone in his other hand.

“I don’t know,” he said when he had swallowed. “I just feel like there’s something wrong with him, you know?”

“I think there’s something wrong with you,” Mitchell said on the other end of the phone.

Young rolled his eyes. “Right. Okay. Thanks. That’s really helpful.”

Mitchell laughed his weird Kansas cornpone laugh. “I don’t know what you want me to say, man. He’s a geek. There’s something wrong with all of them. You think Jackson is normal? Hell, no. That man doesn’t have a brain, he’s got a cave full of bats.”

“He did die,” Young pointed out. “Like— a couple of times.”

“Like that’s an excuse? Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy, but try having a conversation with him at, like, a less-than-cosmic level.”

“Yeah, well, Rush doesn’t do conversations, apparently,” Young said. “As a rule. And he used my beer cooler to cook pasta, if you can believe it, although I guess that was kind of awesome.”

“What did it taste like?” Mitchell asked.

“I don’t know. Weirdly spicy. He gave me a bottle of apple cider vinegar, too. I think it was supposed to be an insult. That’s why Landry called me, actually.”

“Because Rush bought you apple cider vinegar?”

“Apparently he doesn’t do security protocols, either. Keeps going MIA every time he leaves his apartment, which, like, never happens, so, you know, that sounds healthy. I don’t get why Landry hasn’t just brought him in already.”

“Like on base?” Mitchell paused. “I mean, I can think of one pretty good reason.”

Young closed his eyes and set his beer down on the plastic balcony table. He brought his hand up and massaged his temple, pushing aside the overgrown thicket of his hair. “The leak.”

“The leak,” Mitchell agreed. “SG-11 turned in their report on that beaming technology they saw the LA using last week, and they’re like, 98% certain it came from us. Which means that whoever is feeding information to them, it’s got to be someone high-up, with access to a lot of classified material, making the odds pretty damn good that we know the sucker.”

“Either that, or we are the sucker,” Young said, leaning forwards and letting his elbows rest against the railing. “One of us.”

Below him, a car pulled into the parking lot, and he watched as the driver— a medium-built guy, maybe Air Force, in a hoodie and baseball cap, unloaded a paper bag of groceries, probably from Trader Joe’s or some place where they still actually you that kind of sack. The guy’s face looked absent and unworried. Young wondered if he was with the program and then thought he probably wasn’t, because no one who was with the program looked like that. Not even Sheppard, in Pegasus, with his magical city that he could fly away from danger. Young thought if he were in Pegasus, away from this Lucian Alliance bullshit and the war with the Ori, away from having to worry about the whole population of the Earth and only having his own so-goddamn-breakable body to do it with, then maybe he would have looked like that, but Sheppard didn’t.

Mitchell said into the silence, flatly, “Yeah. So you see what I mean. There’s a lot of people who’d like Rush nice and cozy in a bunker. But it’s maybe not the best idea to stick him in the one place where we know there’s someone’s out to get him. Your building’s got signal scramblers, so they’re not going to be able to beam him out, even if they’ve got his transponder query code— which we better hope they don’t, because if they’ve got his, they’ve got everyone’s— and they’re not going to risk sweeping for him, because they want him in one piece. Beyond that— I mean, that’s what the team in the basement’s for, right?”

“Right,” Young said. “The team in the basement and me.”

He’d meant it as a joke, but it just came out weary. He turned away from the looming dark of the mountains, collected his beer, and headed indoors. He’d left the lights on throughout the whole apartment, maybe out of some pathetic sense that if he did he wouldn’t feel so alone, but he felt more alone, even with Mitchell a rustling presence on the phone in his hand.

“I mean, you never know,” Mitchell said. “Maybe Rush’s got the right idea. The more he disappears, the harder he is to track down, right? Otherwise he’s just— available for abduction.”

“Yeah, but there’s no way the Alliance is that wired into our shit. Monitoring communications as they come in, minute-to-minute? They don’t have the manpower.”

“You hope,” Mitchell said grimly.

“Right,” Young said, and he was going to say, And you better hope that too, because without that we’ve got absolutely nothing. But he was cut off by the lights in his apartment flickering off and on so rapidly he thought he’d only blinked for a second. He might have gone on believing that if he hadn’t heard the unsteady hum of appliances restarting their cycles.

Mitchell had picked up on his silence. “What?”

“Probably nothing,” Young said. “Just— the power flickered for a second.”

“And?”

Mitchell was sharp. He could hear it in Young’s voice, probably, an undertone of hesitation.

“Nothing concrete,” Young said, but he was already heading to his bedroom, just in case, his fingers curling convulsively as his hand itched for a gun. “But there was a guy in a black SUV hanging out in the parking lot earlier. I had a bad feeling about it. Could be the feds, but—“

“But maybe you should call down to the basement,” Mitchell said, echoing back Young’s own hesitation. “Just to make sure the team’s answering.”

Normally the sight of the bedroom, with its haphazard landscape of half-empty cardboard boxes, clothes hanging limply out of some of them, and its unmade bed would have made Young feel exhausted. There was an exhilaration to being able to ignore the whole backdrop as he limped to the nightstand, pulling his sidearm and holster out, affixing the holster to his waist and checking the gun’s clip.

“Yeah,” he said to Mitchell. “Let me call you—“

Whatever he had planned to say next vanished as the power cut out and left him in darkness.

In the dark, the apartment’s emptiness had a different character. He could hear his own breathing, and Mitchell breathing on the other end of the phone. He had never been more aware that Mitchell was miles away, probably fifteen minutes’ distance.

“V?” Mitchell said. “What’s happening?”

“The power’s out,” Young said, trying to keep his voice low. “Pretty sure the backup generators are down, too. I’m going for Rush. Call it in.”

He ended the call and shoved the phone in his pocket, wrapping the hand thus freed at the square base of his Beretta. It was good. It felt good. Just like that, the stance and movements required to clear a room came back naturally to him. He felt a pulsing uplift of satisfaction that hadn’t been there in months; he hadn’t realized, he thought, that this was what he was missing, some part of this that overrode the hard pain from moving fast on his injured hip.

He moved swiftly through the dark apartment, from the hall and around the bulk of the kitchen island, peering through the thin slants of moonlight that the windows fed in from outside.

At the front door he stopped, because he had thought as far ahead as extracting Rush from Rush’s apartment. He would need to extract Rush from his apartment, as quickly and as silently as he could, but Rush was not going to be in favor of that happening. They hadn’t parted on great terms, and it took a full-on hostage negotiation to get Rush out of his apartment on a good day.

He felt in the dark across the top of the cardboard box still sitting by the doorway, till his hand met a half-used roll of duct tape. He had to fumble at it to find the shredded edge, then peel it back.

He slid the door open and slipped through it to cross the hall.

As he’d been afraid, Rush didn’t answer his door on the first knock. Or the second.

“Rush,” Young whispered at last, urgently, and waited.

“Rush, open the door.

Nothing.

He didn’t think Rush was sleeping. He hadn’t gotten the impression Rush slept that much.

“Rush, I will break this door down; I swear to God.”

At last the lock clicked.

He was prepared when it did; he’d weighed speed over safety, and holstered his Beretta for a second, so that when Rush opened the door, he could react quickly: raising the tape and slapping a line of it over his mouth, grabbing his wrist to jerk him forwards and pin him in a pretty good hold.

Rush made a furious muffled sound and tried to slap Young off him.

Shut up,” Young hissed. “I’m trying to save your life!”

Rush didn’t seem to accept this justification. He jabbed an elbow into Young’s side. Young had thought that, even injured, he’d be able to get Rush into his own apartment easily— after all, it was just a couple of steps across the hall. But Rush had decided he was not crossing that hall, and was squirming, flailing, kicking, fighting. Not, it had to be said, very well, but with a sort of street-kid determination to land a blow any way he was able.

Rush,” Young bit out, trying to stay quiet. “Cut it out.

Rush’s response to this was to stomp on Young’s foot.

Having to bite back the streak of swearing that would have normally been his first reaction to that was enough of a distraction that Young almost missed the furtive sound at the end of the hallway.

Almost.

He brought his sidearm up half on instinct as a door creaked open at the end of the hall, right under where an emergency EXIT sign should have been glowing red but wasn’t, which meant that the backup generators were down, and the transport signal scramblers, probably, and—

Someone was coming through that door, and they were moving slow, reconnaissance-careful. Young braced the Beretta against Rush’s shoulder, tightening his grip around the man.

The figure paused. A brief hesitation. Had they seen Young?

Dammit, Young thought, and had time to hear the chirp of a zat arming before he dragged Rush towards the wall and fired.

The noise was astonishing, explosive, and seemed to deafen more than one of his senses. A high-pitched ringing in his ears made him want to reel. The air pressed against him, thick as well as dark.

Someone in a nearby apartment shouted, maybe startled from sleep; an unseen door slammed open, loud enough for him to hear.

All the sounds seemed to come from underwater.

Under the weight of Young’s arm, Rush had stopped fighting. Stunned, Young thought. Young could feel Rush’s pulse beating hard in his chest.

Whoever it was at the end of the hall wasn’t moving, but there would be more of them coming, fast.

Young sucked in a breath and dragged Rush— who might not have been fighting, but who wasn’t really helping, either— across those last few feet, into his apartment.

For some reason he was stupidly surprised when the high-pitched ringing didn’t cut off when he shut the door. He had to stand there for a second, remembering how guns worked, remembering that it was in his head, and that he didn’t need to hear to organize a tactically advantageous position. He knew the building; he had to take stock of the exits and—

Rush, who had apparently recovered some of his wits, took advantage of Young’s preoccupation to make a dazed, indignant sound and stomp on Young’s foot again.

“Ow!” Young hissed, probably louder than he’d meant to. “What the fuck?”

“Yeah, well, if I take the tape off your mouth and let you go, are you going to shut up and let me handle this?”

The noise Rush made in response to that could charitably have been described as a growl, so Young wasn’t feeling confident.

“I think we’re going to stick with this for now,” he said.

Then, because he was going to need to barricade the doorway, he wrestled Rush’s wrists behind his back and wrapped some tape around them. He had a feeling that it wouldn’t hold Rush forever, maybe not even for very long, but at least it bought him some time to start moving boxes. He was closing off their main escape route, but at two stories up they could always go off the balcony, and he was sure as hell hoping that Mitchell would show up with the cavalry before the situation got that advanced. With any luck, the confusion his gunshot had set off would give him some cover, and if it came down to it, he could stop the LA from getting in for a while.

Rush, of course, didn’t really appreciate this gesture. His first strategy was pretty much limited to kicking Young’s legs, which hurt like hell, but wasn’t anything Young couldn’t handle. Then he apparently decided that he was better off trying to find a way to cut his hands loose, so he started fumbling awkwardly around the room. Young figured that was a good way for him to keep himself occupied while Young himself focused on more important shit, like monitoring the hallway through the door’s peephole.

The two of them were distracted from their respective pursuits when Young’s phone went off, vibrating with a text message alert.

Young checked the phone. The text was from Mitchell: Jackson’s head?

A cave full of bats, Young typed back, because Mitchell was checking to make sure that he was still the one in control of his phone.

On the way, Mitchell sent. Possible cloaked ship @ you. Status?

Young glanced at Rush and frowned. Rush w/ me my apt, he sent. Shots fired civs in bldg.

He realized his ears were still ringing, and that this was why the world felt so muffled. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and couldn’t.

He wondered what was happening on the building’s ground floor.

Finally his phone buzzed again. Beaming Telford yr apt, Mitchell’s message read. Confirm?

But it was midnight, and he’d just shot a man in his hallway, and he had to make sure that fucking Rush, who had made his way into the kitchen now and appeared to be trying to pry the cutlery drawer open to get at a knife, stayed alive and on Earth until morning, and presumably until the next morning, and the one after that.

So: Confirm, he texted back, and then he said, “Rush, I swear to God, if you open that drawer, I’m going to tape you to a barstool.”

Unseen zat fire was suddenly audible. Then: gunshots.

Someone screamed outside in the hallway, short and sharp.

A column of light cut through the air of Young’s apartment, and David was there.

As usual, Young felt punched in the stomach by his presence. At first he saw him only from the back, that straight and somewhat triangular silhouette of shoulders, hips, and waist that Young knew the underlying surface and texture of with both hands.

Then David turned, and they studied each other for a moment.

David looked good; he looked— crisp, but then he always looked crisp, like nothing ever really touched him, or at least not enough to mess with his posture or his uniform pleats. His hair was neat and soft and his eyes were dark, and there was something in them that Young had never been able to name, only put an adjective to: intense. Intense what? He didn’t know. He’d thought, maybe, that he would find out one day.

He wanted to touch David, but at the same time he felt— agitated. Miserable. He didn’t even want to keep looking, but he couldn’t look away.

So it was David who averted his gaze first, abruptly, and drew his gun, gesturing with it towards Rush, who was still fumbling around in the kitchen. “What the hell?”

Young shrugged, relieved that the tension had been broken. “He declined to cooperate.”

“So you kidnapped him?”

“It seemed easier, at the time, than having a fifteen-minute debate.”

David shook his head. His mouth was curled in amusement. “You’ve got to admit, Nick,” he said to Rush, “you bring this shit on yourself.”

Rush glared furiously at him.

It surprised Young for some reason that David and Rush were on a first-name basis. He thought about it as he watched David set his bag down and pull a set of portable scramblers out of it, then start setting them around the perimeters of the living room. He hadn’t even known that Rush and David knew each other, really. He found the idea oddly disquieting.

“So,” David said, after a while, when it had become noticeable that he wasn’t talking to Young and Young wasn’t talking to him. “There’s just no keeping you out of trouble, is there, Everett?”

Young made a short sound, not quite a laugh. “Really? That’s the conversation we’re having?”

David shot him an unreadable look. “What kind of conversation would you like to have?”

Young shook his head. He looked down at the gun in his hand. It still felt warm. He felt warm. And still that ringing. “I don’t— You know what? Nothing. Never mind.”

“That’s what I thought.” David hit a button and the scramblers lit up blue in the corners, humming.

When he straightened, he seemed to catch sight of Rush again, and said, “Oh, for the love of Christ, come here already, would you?”

Rush shuffled sullenly over, briefly giving Young a look that could have stripped paint. He had to stand patiently while David pulled out a pocketknife and slit the the tape that was holding his wrists together. Only then could he rip the tape off his mouth, a sequence of events that probably seemed like an overthought, but definitely wasn’t, because Young knew David, and that was David all over, helping you, but still making sure you were a little bit under control.

Predictably, when Rush had finally gotten the tape off his mouth, the first thing he burst out with was: “I want him brought up on charges!”

He was pointing a furious and unsteady finger at Young.

“For what?” David returned, turning back to his bag without sparing Rush a single glance. “Saving your goddamn life?”

“I won’t be treated like a fucking briefcase that you can sling over your shoulder and cart about from one place to another!”

“I did not,” Young said, “for the record, sling him over my shoulder.”

Rush fixed him with a poisonous look.

Telford’s radio fritzed, and then someone, Reynolds, Young thought, was saying, “Sir, we’ve disabled three individuals with Lucian insignia in Dr. Rush’s apartment, and secured the basement security station. We could use some additional manpower to clear the whole building. We should have power restored in—“

The lights came back on, with a slightly questioning hum and a clicking sound. Young blinked, unaccustomed by now to anything stronger than the blue glow from the scramblers.

“—Well. Now,” Reynolds said. “Awaiting your orders, Colonel.”

“Secure the prisoners and rendezvous with me at Rush’s apartment,” Telford said into the radio. “I’m assuming temporary command of SG-3. Over and out.”

“Really?” Young said skeptically. “You’re hunting down Lucian footsoldiers now? Seems like kind of small fry for you.”

He told himself he wasn’t longing to follow David out that door— that he didn’t feel like if David asked him to do it, the pain would vanish from his back and hip and he’d straighten up, undamaged suddenly. Like the screws would melt into bone if David touched him again.

“Yeah, well,” David said, producing some kind of pneumatic injector, “I’ve got a personal interest.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

But David wasn’t listening. He’d turned back towards Rush, who was sulking over by the kitchen island with his arms folded across his chest. “Nick,” he said. “C’mere, I need your arm.”

“No,” Rush said, not moving. “Why?”

“Because I said so.”

“Fuck you.”

David sighed. “Jesus, would you believe I almost thought I missed you?”

Rush was unmoved. “No. I wouldn’t.”

“How do you know? You’re such a fucking misanthrope. Give me your arm.”

Rush, Young noticed, was wearing only a thin white t-shirt and the same rumpled jeans he’d worn to dinner. Clearly, he hadn’t been asleep when Young had knocked.

“I don’t take orders,” Rush said, looking thunderous. “And certainly not from you.”

“It’s not fucking poison. It’s an implantable chip. Carter designed it; it encrypts your transponder signal so that if the LA have the query code, they still can’t get a lock on it. Good for me, good for you. You’ve got one chip already; why not double or nothing?”

Rush didn’t really look convinced. He stared at the pneumatic injector, worrying his lip, his brow creasing.

“You know, you do, technically, take orders,” David said. Something in his stance shifted slightly, just for a second, just enough for Young to suddenly see that David had been trying, this whole time, to seem unthreatening to Rush, or— maybe Rush genuinely brought out that stance in him; maybe Rush didn’t threaten David, but it was hard to tell.

Rush lifted his face, challenging, hostile.

“So if I have to act to protect an asset against his own fucked-up judgment—” David let the sentence hang, unfinished, accentuated with just the hint of that buried threat.

“—Fine,” Rush said curtly.

“—Then I’m more than willing to do that.”

“I said: fine.” Rush held out his hand. “Give it here.”

David dropped the injector into Rush’s palm. Rush inspected it for a moment and then placed it against his upper arm. It gave a faint hiss as it discharged, and Rush flinched.

Thank you,” David said when Rush handed the injector back to him. He turned to Young. “Keep him here, would you? I doubt we’re going to clear his apartment tonight; we need to bring someone in to sweep for tech. I’ll keep Mitchell updated.”

“Right,” Young said, and hoped a trace of resentment wasn’t audible in his voice.

“Hang on,” Rush said, starting forward. “I’m not staying here.”

“Yeah,” David said. “You are. Your cooperation is appreciated, but not one hundred percent necessary. Everett’s still got the tape.”

That made Young’s lips twitch, especially because Rush looked so outraged by it, and he felt friendly towards David for a minute, but David didn’t meet his eyes to share the grin. He just unholstered his gun and turned away, toward the door, without a word.

His departure seemed to leave a hole in the room, larger than his physical body.

Young and Rush looked at one another.

“Th’fuck am I staying here,” Rush said. His accent seemed to have grown stronger since Young had pulled him out of his apartment. He rubbed his wrists resentfully.

“Well,” Young said, “Telford and SG-3 are meeting in your apartment, but if you want to poke around the building, I’m sure you can find some Lucian Alliance lackey ready to give you a ride up to their ship. Mind you, their hospitality’s a little different from mine; I doubt they’re gonna let you crash on their couch or use their kitchen.”

Rush gave him an obscene gesture, but it was British, so Young wasn’t bothered by it. “I can fucking take care of myself,” he said.

Young rolled his eyes. “Right. By the way, you’re welcome for saving you from almost certain abduction.

A dismissive gesture, this time. Rush was prowling across the living room, towards the balcony door.

“You know what the Lucian Alliance does to people, right? I mean, you get that you would have been tortured? They don’t want you dead; they want you alive. That means they want something from you. And I guarantee you that you do not want them to want something from you.”

“How do you know that I wouldn’t just give them what they wanted?”

Exasperated, Young followed Rush and yanked him back from the balcony. “Because I have faith that you’re a decent human being?”

“Keep your fucking hands off me!” Rush snapped.

“Then don’t act like you’re fixing to make a break for the parking lot!”

Rush shoved at him, and then suddenly they were fighting: not a real fight, but a laughable, wretched mess of flailing at each other that ended pretty quickly on account of how Young was wearing boots, so that when he stomped on the bare instep of Rush’s foot, it was a lot more effective than when Rush had tried it the other way around. Rush let out a clenched sound of pain and backed off, looking wild-eyed and slightly feral.

“Fuck you!” he hissed. “You mad cunt. You drag me out of my home in the middle of the fucking night and tie me up and fire a gun next to my fuckin’ ear, and then you expect me to do whatever the fuck you say? You can get it up yourself!”

Even for Rush, this was extreme. For the first time, it occurred to Young that he didn’t really know what Rush’s background was— that tonight, for all the evidence he had to the contrary, might be the first time that Rush had ever seem somebody fire a gun, a couple of hours after Young had tried to explain to him that he was being hunted by an interstellar space mercenary empire that might kidnap him if he went to the corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes.

“Okay,” he said, holding his hands up. “Just— let’s take it easy.”

“Take it easy?” Rush said, managing to sound scornful despite looking, more than anything, slightly trapped. “Have all your conversational skills been learnt from fuckin’ country and western songs? Is your mental landscape composed of anything other than pick-up trucks and corn fields?”

“Well, to be fair,” Young said, “I am from Wyoming.”

He’d had an idea that maybe this would calm Rush down a little. People liked to make fun of you if you were from Wyoming, but it was a harmless kind of fun— mostly ribbing about cowboys and sheep-fucking and were there even TVs in Wyoming, or had Young and his brothers gone to barn-raisings for fun.

But Rush’s face twisted. “I don’t give a fuck where you’re from! I don’t know you, and I don’t want t’ know you. You don’t know me, for that matter. A decent human being? Why would you think that? Because I fucking cooked you dinner? Because you associate decency with weakness, and you think I’m weak, because I, what— fucking fainted in my apartment, as though you’d know anything about it, with your one-syllable moral summations and your simplistic fuckin’ social graces, fucking Wyoming, and your idiotic sofa, which I didn’t ask to sleep on, by the way, so it’s not like I fucking owe you; if anything, Jackson fucking nonconsensually removed me from my apartment, and I should have him up on charges, the bastard, but you— you don’t know a thing about me, and yet you presume t’ put your fucking hands on my body, because: what? Being in the military gives you a fucking moral imperative? Because you outrank me?

Young took advantage of a split-second pause to make a go at interrupting. “Rush—“

“Don’t you say my name in that condescending fucking tone of voice!” Rush was clearly in his stride now, his almost-uninterpretable accent receding as the more familiar hauteur took over. “Being in the military does not give you a moral imperative; even the idea of such a notion is so absurd that I can’t begin to explain it to you, not that that says much, seeing as how your intellect is of such a limited nature that I’d struggle to explain how the sun rises over Cheyenne Mountain every morning, much less the the volume and mass of the moral imperative you don’t have— the extent to which you—“

“Rush,” Young tried again. “I get it. You’re upset.”

“No. You do not get it. You do not get me. You do not get that I work on things you couldn’t begin to imagine, projects that would tear apart the fabric of your universe. Moral imperative? You’re making the rules for a fucking board game, you and your mates the Lucian Alliance, while people like me are living out here in the real fucking world, a world that, in case you’re interested, is less fucking guns and more fucking numbers, not that you’d appreciate that fact—“

Young didn’t want to hit him in the face. But at the same time, he kind of thought he needed to get Rush’s attention somehow, before Rush did something stupid, like jumping off the balcony railing or making a grab for Young’s gun. So while Rush was still ranting about numbers being the DNA of reality or something, and morality being a “thin skin of set theory over the formless particles of the void,” Young backed away towards the kitchen and fumbled in the cabinet for a glass. He filled it with cold water at the sink, carried it back to where Rush was now going on about cryptography as the only reliable method of making meaning from the noise of chaos.

“Nothing human has meaning; we’re just transient assemblages of matter that can’t even manage the most rudimentary contemplation of themselves. Why should we consider ourselves any better suited to do more than, if we’re very, very, lucky, point to a pattern in the universe and say, That. It’s that. That is meaning; it’s what we get from fucking frequency analysis, and anything else is just—

Young threw the glass of water in his face.

Rush stopped talking.

Water dripped onto his white cotton shirt from his hair and face, forming large stains that were heavy and not-quite-white-colored.

“Sorry,” Young said into the silence.

Rush didn’t say anything. Slowly, he raked a hand through his wet hair, and then stared at it as though surprised that it was wet.

“It just—“ Young said. “Seemed like you were kind of going off the rails.”

“Right,” Rush said in an unusually subdued voice. “I see.”

“Sorry.”

“I’ll get you a dry shirt,” Young said.

But because he didn’t trust Rush enough to let him out of his sight, he just went to one of the boxes he hadn’t unpacked yet and dug through a couple layers of cargo shorts and towels until he found a t-shirt from the 1998 Bataan Memorial Death March. He’d done it one year when he was stationed out at Holloman, and it had always seemed disrespectful to get rid of the shirt.

He held it out to Rush.

Rush studied the shirt: its aggressive red sword-toting snake-lion. “Bataan Memorial Death March?” he said in a slow tone of disbelief.

“It’s a thing; they hold it at White Sands. A race. Just put the damn shirt on, will you?”

Rush huffed. “I’m certain you possess enough self-awareness to know that something is deeply wrong with you.”

But he stripped his wet shirt off resentfully, hunching his shoulders in a way that automatic, and grabbed the shirt from Young. Young caught a glimpse of him shirtless and saw that he was weedy, pale and barely smudged with hair, not like the men that Young was used to seeing naked. That was weird, and he wondered if Rush found it weirder, being surrounded by men like Young. Then he remembered that he wasn’t one of those men— that when he went back, if he went back, he would be the one in the showers that people stared at without wanting to seem like they were staring, the one whose body you could pick out across a crowded, steamy room.

That made him look away, his lip curling in a kind of uncontrolled, scornful expression, even though he didn’t know who the scorn was directed at. When he looked back, Rush had the t-shirt over his head. It was comically big on him, drooping over his shoulders, and his expression dared Young to say something about it.

Young’s mouth twitched again. He realized suddenly that he didn’t know if he was fighting back a laugh or a noise of exhaustion. He was so tired. He felt like someone had wired hot filaments into his spine and flipped a switch. He wanted to sit down, but he thought it was going to be a painful process.

“Come on, hotshot,” he said, sounding defeated even to himself. “Let’s turn the TV on. It’ll be a while till Mitchell checks in; I’m sure we can find something you’ll watch, and it’ll take your mind off… you know.”

“Doubtful,” Rush said, sounding equally defeated. But he perched on the arm of the couch and watched while Young found the remote and turned the TV on.

A lot of the late-night movies were bad ones, rom-coms or action-adventure bombs from the late nineties that had been offloaded into syndication. Young flipped through, even more tired to find that he recognized them. One of the ten or so nature channels that came with whatever cable package he’d signed up for was broadcasting a marathon of shows about life in the ocean, and so he paused for a while on that, sort of hypnotized by the undersea lighting. The sound was off on the TV, he realized, but that made it more compelling for some reason. Fish drifted across the screen, and sharks, and a spiny, delicate sort of shrimp whose body was entirely translucent.

Neither Young nor Rush spoke for a while. Young watched the shrimp nose its away across the sea bed. It looked like it was made of glass. He didn’t see how it could survive with a body like that. Any stray ocean current would smash it against some rougher and sturdier creature, something optimized for survival. Maybe that was why he found itself rooting for it. Its antennae moved in the dark, questing for information.

“Anthropomorphism,” Rush said in a tired voice.

Young glanced at him. “What?”

“Whatever it is you’re feeling. It’s a fallacy to attribute human emotions to them, however tempting. Their lives aren’t like ours at all, in fact.”

“No? So what are they like?” Young didn’t ask why Rush assumed he knew what Young was feeling.

“I suppose we can’t understand them, and would be better off abandoning the project entirely.”

Onscreen, a large fish pushed forward and swept a cloud of silt and shrimp into its mouth, devouring their little alien lives in one gulp.

Young looked away. “You’re probably right,” he said.

### Chapter Text

Rush pressed his fist against the site on his upper arm where he could still feel the sting of the pneumatic injection.

He was staring at the TV screen, where a jellyfish was working its way, dark to light, through layers of sea currents. The air in the apartment itself felt underwater. For some reason he had been finding it difficult to breathe. The darkness outside seemed to press against the windows, hot and dry and rasping, like a dog’s mouth. Was a dog’s mouth dry? He had no animal knowledge. Lacked it, in fact.

He shivered. In Young’s stupid fucking cast-off shirt. He had not wanted it, that shirt, and he would have sat here in his own fucking t-shirt and waited for Telford or Mitchell or whichever colonel to text Young and tell him that the Lucian Alliance was gone and that Rush could go back to his own fucking apartment, which was where he needed to be, in that clean blank space totally enclosed where nothing was allowed to enter, because, see, see, he had left it, and this was what had resulted: sitting on Young’s fucking manliness-coloured leather couch watching fucking Blue Planet or whatever this terrible fucking television programme was, perhaps just the unedited footage of someone sticking a fucking camera in the ocean and turning it on, sea surveillance, the fucking panopticon of the deep, like human beings couldn’t let any particulate mass on the earth go unmonitored, like they had to box it in with their taxonomy and their insipid narration about birth, death, and reproduction, as though cnidarian experiences corresponded to any such things, or as though cnidarians even had experiences, as humans might understand the term, which was far from—

“I can change the channel, if you want,” Young offered, glancing over.

Rush realized he had been digging his fingers into the couch’s leather. He looked, uncomprehending, at his own hand. “No,” he said. “I want—“

He wanted to stop hearing the noise he was hearing, a continuous tone that hovered in the vicinity of E flat. He had been hearing it since Young fired the pistol next to his head. Had it been a pistol? Rush was not familiar with guns, really.

He seemed to be afflicted with a number of questions.

He pressed the base of his palm to his head.

Young was looking at him and it came to him that he had not completed his sentence.

“I’m—“ he said. He did not complete that sentence either. “Are your— are your ears ringing, by any chance?”

He did not like music. No. That was wrong. He did not listen to music. He did not like to listen to music.

“Yeah,” Young said. His eyebrows were drawn together. “It’s from the gunshot.”

“I see.”

“It’ll stop after a while.”

“Naturally.”

Hesitantly, Young turned off the television. “I know tonight was kind of rough on you,” he said. “Maybe you should get some sleep.”

E flat. E flat. But not completely.

“I don’t sleep.”

Microtonal. 1225 Hz?

Young sighed and tossed the remote onto the coffee table. “Right. I forgot. You don’t do anything.”

“I need—“ But Rush did not know what he needed.

He tilted his head to one side and held it between his two hands, the thin skin the flesh the bone that was so conductive, resonating hard as though he had been hit, hit at exactly the right point or the right frequency and now he would not stop humming ever, the whole rest of his life as a cosmic tuning fork, which he would not be able to stand, or was he the instrument being tuned and the tuning fork was the fucking pistol, making it Young’s fucking fault, but of course he knew that inevitably the fault was—

He stood abruptly and then he did not know where he was going because he was wearing this fucking ridiculous shirt and had no shoes on and also it was two AM.

“Rush?”

That was Young, who was also standing. Young stood but he did not understand. He would make a stand, probably about Rush sleeping, but Rush could not sleep because it was too loud and oh God it was acquiring overtones.

“How about you sit down, hotshot?”

He should not have started listening to it. He wished he had not started listening to it. He wished he was deaf. He wished he had always been deaf.

But now that he had started listening he could not stop himself listening.

The arch of her finger wavering on the fingerboard.

Creating vibrato.

“I’m fine,” he said.

One of two things was about to happen.

No.

“I don’t think you are,” Young said.

E flat but not E flat. A badly tuned violin string. What you had to do was get ahold of the peg and—

But the string would break; it was too tightly wound and too fragile; and when it broke then—

“I’m fine,” he said with difficulty, and pried one of his hands loose form his head to make an uncertain gesture. “I’m just— hearing—“

A tone that wanted to move into alignment with what was not yet there.

It was not yet there but it would be, that ghost note, no, notes; he would hear them, and his mind made ready for their presence, whispered Turn just a little, and he felt it the phantom pressure the fractional shift at the base of the boxwood peg and you have to loosen first before tightening but he was not going to loosen and if he did not loosen then what was going to happen what would happen to him would he—

He would not breathe.

“Breathe,” Young said.

Young was intolerably close to him all of a sudden. A large face looming close and eyes not so dark as he would have supposed and he wanted to flinch but Young had a hold of his face. Fingers digging into the masseter muscles. Breathe. Just breathe.

“No,” Rush said, and tried to shove Young off, because he could not alter the pressure and it was going to break the string that held him to his head, and then what sort of instrument would he be?

A different kind of instrument altogether.

He did not breathe and and he did not breathe and Young held onto him and Young was speaking, but the volume of whatever tone this was that was not E flat increased so that he could not hear what Young said, and it was happening now, it was stretching or he was stretching and soon he would reach—

The upper layers of the ocean? No, that was cnidarians, bioluminescent and brainless and drifting, elegant and many-limbed, and they died out of the water but what if they could become something better, what if they emerged with new appendages, sprouted lungs and lived?

“Rush,” he read on Young’s lips, “Rush,” but his own lungs were not working perhaps because he no longer had any need of them, and he could almost hear the notes that he would align with after tuning, the spectral vibrations of them there and not there; for thousands of years he had waited for them to arrive.

No. They had waited. No. Something else had waited: to be heard, to hear.

He could sense it in the audience, coughing discreetly. Its taffeta gown’s skirt rustled. It clutched the glossy paper of its program, waiting for the music to begin.

And the music—

The music—

The

m—

E flat.

A note of resignation.

“That’s all he said, that he was hearing something. Then it was like he hyperventilated and just passed out.”

He was hearing something.

“What were you guys doing before that?”

“Nothing! Just watching TV! I thought he’d actually calmed down; he was pretty upset about the whole, you know, attempted abduction.”

“Yeah. He doesn’t really… calm down, as such.”

They were talking about him. But he was calm. He was calm and he was hearing a tone in the range of E flat and his head hurt.

He had been dreaming of music. He did not like to listen to music.

It was night. He could see the moon through a window. He was lying on a surface that appeared to be linoleum because it was linoleum.

“He was hearing something?”

“I fired my sidearm right next to his head.”

The voices seemed to be coming from the next room. They were talking about him. He recognized the voices.

David Telford was sitting on the linoleum next to him, leaning against a set of kitchen cabinets. His face was slightly weary and for some reason reassuring. He was playing with a Rubik’s Cube, turning its parts like combination wheels in a lock that he was in no particular hurry to open.

Rush watched him for a moment, feeling fuzzy-headed and heavy and strange. He was in Young’s kitchen, he realized. He had no memory of entering Young’s kitchen, but perhaps he had done. No clear edge delineated the most recent boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness. He was in a half-curled position, and his head was resting in his hands.

David said quietly, without looking up, “I know you’re awake, Nick.”

“Aren’t you—“ Rush’s voice was slow and rusty. “—Supposed to be out hunting space pirates?”

David smiled privately, as though to himself. “The really successful space pirate hunters wait till the space pirates come to them.”

“Yes, well, congratulations. Your plan worked.” Rush pushed himself into a seated position awkwardly. He was still wearing Young’s oversized shirt, he realized. He looked down at the absurdly martial logo emblazoned on it. He did this because didn’t want to look at David though he did not know why. He was still hearing the not-quite E flat and he wished that he were not.

David tipped his head back against the cabinets, setting the puzzle on the floor beside him. He still looked tired, or would have looked tired if looking tired were that something David did. Instead he merely looked as though he were deciding what his next move out to be. It wasn’t an insult to say so, merely an acknowledgement of the man’s more Machiavellian tendencies, which Rush rather appreciated, coming as they did from a place of intellect rather than emotion. Emotion was the black hole to intellect’s matter, a natural phenomenon and a strong one, but all-consuming, a point at which laws ceased to exist.

David didn’t speak for a long moment, but it was a pointed, artful execution of the act of not-speaking, which left no doubt, first, that he had purposefully chosen not to speak because he felt that this was the most succinct way to articulate the point that he was making, and, second, that his attention was— appearances to the contrary— fixed on Rush.

When Rush realized this, he said wearily, “Oh, don’t you start.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Let’s agree to dispense with the delicious and manipulative counterpoint that serves as our usual aperitif. Shall we?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m sure you don’t.”

For the first time, David looked at him— a searching glance that revealed the man’s most unusual aspect: a dark and thoughtful perceptiveness that was intoxicating to have trained upon you. Everything he did he did like a knife to the belly, even his looks. Rush appreciated that too, as a practitioner of the same art.

“How are you doing?” David asked. It was a turn of phrase that Rush had not expected. Not What’s wrong with you? or How are you feeling? but How are you doing. Rush preferred that. Action, not affect.

“I’m functioning,” Rush said.

“What happened tonight?”

“I panicked. It’s happened before. Did the spy not tell you?”

“You mean Everett?” David laughed. “If I were going to send someone to spy on you, Nick, it wouldn’t be him. And I don’t think for a second you panicked.”

“No?”

“Over this? The Lucian Alliance getting you out of bed in the middle of the night? Oh, wait. I forgot. You don’t have a bed.”

David had seen the inside of his apartment now but it would not matter because he had known that David would understand.

Rush rested his head against the cool wooden base of the kitchen island and closed his eyes. “Civilisation is unconducive to my particular brand of cogitation.”

“This is what I’m talking about. You thrive on chaos, not on niceties. When you freak out, it’s because someone makes you go to a bar or file your goddamn taxes. Not because of shit like this.”

Rush kept his eyes closed, but he could hear David shift across the floor, coming to sit beside him. Warmth increased faintly along his left side.

He hadn’t slept with David. —Yet? It had hung in the air like a faint aroma of potential from the time he had first arrived in Colorado. David had never pressed for it. If he had done perhaps it would have happened. Then again perhaps not. Rush felt too remote for sex, as though he were connected to his body only by a number of very minute threads, like the horsehair strands of a violin bow: prone to snapping.

“Young kidnapped me,” he said. “He fired a gun next to my ear. I was finding it difficult to—“ He swallowed. “Hear clearly.”

“Your ears were ringing,” David said.

“And are they still?”

Yes. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, David!” Rush opened his eyes a crack and glared. “No; I panicked, I passed out, and apparently that was enough to resolve the situation. Happy?”

“All right, all right.” David held up his hands, palms-out: mock-surrender. “Give a guy a break for being concerned that you’re losing your marbles locked up in that shitty apartment. You know if I told Jackson about that place, you’d be under a psych hold.”

Rush did know that. “Yes.”

“But instead I’m letting you work. You could be a little grateful.”

He was tired. That was what he was. To the tune of E flat, but not exactly. “Can we talk about something else, please?”

“Sure, Nick.”

“And don’t patronize me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” A gleam of teeth. David did patronize him, but only in passing, and always with just a hint of a tease. It felt flirtatious. Not like Jackson’s labored overtures of friendship. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t suppose you could open a window?”

“Hell, I don’t even know if the windows in this kind of place open.”

“What the fuck is the point of a window that doesn’t open?

Another smile, this one wry. “That’s the American dream.”

“I see you’ve stumbled onto the national paradox. We do want freedom, but we also want walls without any chinks.”

“You don’t agree. How very unmilitary of you.”

“Oh…” Still smiling, David looked down and smoothed a hand against his uniform trousers. “Maybe I’m interested in more unorthodox solutions. You ever read that Robert Frost poem? Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. When I build something, I build something that’ll stay built.”

“I hadn’t figured you for a poetry lover,” Rush said.

“I’m full of surprises.”

Rush shrugged limply.

Really he had wanted the window open because he could not stand the air: the artificial unvarying stream of it. He felt that it was something he couldn’t breathe, that possibly it wasn’t really air. He wanted to stand and go to the balcony— possibly leap off it and be gone forever, slide into the night and take to the hills, where he would not have to be a human any longer, but he knew that animal life would not suit him; and why, he thought, why was there no obverse of animal life?— but he hadn’t the energy to do so.

He was still hearing the tone and he wished that he were not still hearing the tone.

David shifted closer to him. “Tell you what,” he began. “How about you—“

But what he was going to tell Rush remained unuttered, in the realm of the virtual and not the actual, because Jackson rounded the kitchen island at that moment.

“I thought I heard voices,” Jackson said. His eyes moved from David to Rush and back again, watchful and faintly displeased. “Hey, Nick. How are you feeling?”

“Well enough not to be babysat by either the military or the scientific wing of the military-industrial complex,” Rush said.

David laughed.

Jackson pursed his lips. He was wearing a faded sweatshirt over flannel pants and truly abominable sandals, and his hair was disordered; he appeared to have just been got out of bed. Clearly Rush having a panic attack was a national security matter that called for high-level resources to be seconded. This was typical of the way the Americans ran their military.

“David, can I talk to Nick for a sec?” Jackson said.

David said, “Seems like you’re already talking to him.”

There was an air of antagonism between them that Rush did not have the context to understand. It would have been instructive to observe if he had not felt so drained of everything but the echo of the E flat that ran through his head. He would have placed his bets on David, but it was hard to know when to bet on Jackson and when not to. The man had an aura of saintliness that cowed others, that made its own demands.

And, in fact, after a moment David looked away from that saintly aura. “You going to be all right for a minute, Nick?”

“I’m not an invalid,” Rush said irritably, and then he jerked back when David clapped a hand on his shoulder as he stood.

“I know you’re not,” David said. “I would never treat you that way.”

He was looking at Jackson when he said it. Jackson’s mouth went tight at some semantic overtone that Rush could not guess at; his gaze followed Telford as Telford left, something hard in it that had vanished by the time he turned a warm and neutral face to Rush.

“Don’t you start either,” Rush said. He felt twice as exhausted as before. He would rather have had David’s coolly amused and heavy-handed machinations. Jackson’s sympathy, so universally offered, was a grocery store greeting card of a reaction: appropriate for any and all occasions, meaningful for none.

“I like the shirt,” Jackson said, nodding at it.

“Fucking Young.”

“He’s worried about you, you know.”

Rush doubted this very much. “Perhaps he ought to be, since your jackbooted thugs seem helpless against a bunch of outer-space corn rustlers.”

Jackson smiled, as though he found this funny. “It does all sound a little ridiculous, when you put it like that.”

Uninvited and undesired, he entered the kitchen area and took a seat on the linoleum across from Rush. He rested his hands in his lap and waited with a look of gentle inquisition, as though he had asked a question and now expected the answer.

Rush stared at him, refusing to relent.

Several moments passed like this, in silence.

Jackson’s face did not alter. At last, as though the conversation has never paused, he said, “I’m not here to interrogate you, Nick.”

He did not like the way they called him Nick. He could not say why, exactly.

“Really?” he said. “So why are you here?”

“I guess I thought you might need a friend."

“You’re not my friend.”

Jackson’s mouth curved in a quick, rueful smile. “Well,” he said. “I’m not not your friend.”

“And you’re not needed.”

“Everett seemed to think you were struggling.”

Everett is the one who’s fucking struggling,” Rush said, more harshly than he’d meant to. “The man’s a pathetic, lonely, crippled divorcé who couldn’t cook his way out of a tin.”

“He said you were hearing something.”

“He kidnapped me from my apartment and fire a fucking weapon next to my head.”

“He saved your life, you know.”

“Oh, spare me the melodramatics.” Without meaning to, Rush had formed his hands into fists. “I’ve already been subject to an extensive disquisition on the Lucian Alliance, which included the information that they want me alive.”

“Some people might say that’s not better,” Jackson said. His eyes had gone curiously intent. “Are you still hearing it? Whatever you were hearing?”

“No,” Rush said flatly, over the sound of the E flat.

“What were you hearing?”

“My fucking ears were ringing. What do you think?”

“So: a musical note.” Jackson looked away. “Nick—“

Don’t,” Rush said, his breath rushing out of him.

“I just want to— I just want to make a couple of observations, okay?”

“If you’re going to—“ Rush began, but Jackson cut him off.

“Your wife was a violinist,” he said.

“Fuck off,” Rush said. His voice was less steady than he would have liked.

“David told me that you play the piano.”

“No.”

“No?”

“Not anymore.”

“He said that you play well. Extremely well.”

He had played for David in California, though David was no connoisseur of music, or rather had the unacceptable flaw of preferring jazz to classical. He did not know why he had played for David, except that he had known David would listen, and David had listened: intently and with a look of satisfaction, his chin propped on his hand. Turning to him afterwards, Rush had felt unaccountably defensive; vulnerable. Perhaps because David had understood, and perhaps because he’d feared there was something that David might not, could not ever understand.

“No,” he said.

Jackson didn’t say anything for a time. Finally he shifted and said, “And that’s why you panicked.”

“Most people would, given— the circumstances.”

“You mean the music?”

“Why would music cause me to panic?”

“I can— uh, I can think of a few reasons,” Jackson said carefully.

Rush was trying not to listen to the E flat. He ought not to have thought about music again. He was tired, and it leaked into him, making the insides of his bones ache.

“I’d like to be left alone,” he said.

“Why did you panic, Nick?” Jackson asked softly.

Because—

Because he—

“I know David’s been pushing you to solve these cyphers,” Jackson said. “Pushing you very hard.”

“Not true.”

“Yes,” Jackson said. He looked away. His mouth twisted. ”True. But that doesn’t mean you can’t— step away from it for a little while.”

“No,” Rush said.

“You could think of it as a vacation.”

“No.”

“You could go to Atlantis. You’re always talking about how you hate America.”

“The Atlantis gate doesn’t contain the ciphers.”

“Yeah, I know,” Jackson said, an edge creeping into his voice. “That’s kind of the whole point.”

Rush looked down at his hands, still forming fists in his lap. He did not know how to explain to Jackson what he could not explain to himself. The 27-trit cyphertext segments that wanted to be solved, the E flat that he was that was not exact and turning towards something or turning into something, yes, that was it, perhaps; the dream of himself as something buried beneath one of the gate’s chevrons; the problem that he alone had seen and that he alone could solve, and was he the solution or the problem? He had not ever stopped to consider the difference. He was not sure, now, if there was one. That was the problem, the metaproblem, he thought.

“Nick,” Jackson said.

He looked up.

“What happened tonight?”

There was no satisfactory answer to that question, so he shook his head in silence.

Jackson sighed, and pushed his glasses up to rub his eyes. “You could stay with me, you know,” he said. “Instead of Everett.”

Rush narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean, stay with you.?”

“Your apartment’s not cleared. Probably won’t be till next week.”

What?

“Uh, let’s see: something about cloaked Lucian Alliance ships in orbit, a credible threat to Earth, limited manpower…” Jackson shrugged. “Plus, in this case, there’s a strong incentive to be sure they’ve eliminated every possible Lucian interference.”

Rush looked at him for a long time, processing. “I don’t know what that means.”

“I know,” Jackson said. He looked away abruptly. “I know you don’t.”

“What aren’t you telling me?”

“Why are you here?” Rush asked suddenly, for the second time. “Why is David here?”

“I’m here because I want to make sure you’re safe,” Jackson said. He didn’t answer the second question.

“Two of the most prominent members of your ridiculous little organization. Because you care about me?” He shook his head derisively. “Why? The cyphers?”

“No,” Jackson said, but he didn’t say anything more than that. He pressed his lips together tightly.

There was a silence.

“You don’t have to solve them,” Jackson said. His voice was very quiet.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rush said. His nails bit into the palms of his hands.

“I do. I do. Just— stop listening to David, would you?”

“I like David.”

“Yeah. I know you do. But I think—“ Jackson hesitated. “I think he’s very focused on something that’s very dangerous to you, Nick.”

“But you won’t tell me what it is,” Rush said flatly.

“I’m trying to get you clearance.”

“How can I not have clearance? It’s fucking about me!”

“I’m trying,” Jackson said again.

Rush turned his head to the side, feeling angry in a way that called for action, and unwilling to take it out on Jackson, who was only an idiot, smearing his ubiquitous sentiment over the world like thin margarine on bread. “And you’re leaving me with Young? What’s he supposed to do next time the Lucian Alliance break my door down? Fall on them? Or, no— maybe he could bore them with stories about his ex-wife.”

Jackson gave him a look that communicated disappointment. It was a very schoolmarmish sort of look. “He seemed to do all right tonight,” he said mildly. “In spite of your best efforts.”

“Yes, well, maybe if he had—“

“He nearly died,” Jackson said. “You could be nicer. He’s had a difficult year.”

“So now I’m meant to babysit him? Or perhaps you envisioned a sort of mutual babysitting situation.”

Jackson laughed. “You are many things,” he said, standing as he said it. “Most of them remarkable. But my first choice as a babysitter is not one of them.”

Rush accepted the hand Jackson offered and and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. He tried to hide the slight shakiness in his legs, but suspected Jackson saw it. “I’m certain I would be an exemplary babysitter,” he said, to distract from it.

That,” Young said from the direction of the sofa, “is the wildest thing I’ve heard come out of your mouth so far, hotshot, which is saying something.”

Young was leaning against the far wall, by the balcony doors, his arms crossed and a set look of badly-concealed pain on his face. He was adamantly not looking at David, who had his back to Young and was inspecting an almost-empty bookshelf on the other side of the room. The tension in the room could have supported the average circus performer, but it source was not immediately apparent to Rush.

“You,” Rush said, levelling a finger at Young, “know very fucking little about me.”

“At least you’re on your feet again, I guess,” Young said.

“Fuck off.”

Young gave Jackson a weary look. “You’re really leaving him with me?”

“I offered—“ Jackson started, just as David turned away from the bookcase and said, “I’m happy for him to stay at my place.”

For some reason this caused the room’s tension to multiply, or possibly to undergo exponentiation. Jackson was regarding David with an expression of unreadable hostility; David, on the other hand, had affected a look of relaxation. He was holding a paperback book in one hand, The Brothers Karamazov, which seemed like an unlikely candidate for Young’s library.

And, indeed, David said, “Dostoevsky, Everett? Really? Doesn’t seem like it’s your speed. You mind if I borrow this?”

Young’s brow furrowed. He seemed to be attempting to ascertain David’s strategy, which was a wise impulse, but failing to do so, which Rush could have predicted. “No,” he said, sounding reluctant. “Go ahead.”

“I appreciate it,” David said. He turned the book over and inspected the cover, which showed a snow-covered wood through which a path receded towards the horizon. There was a single small dark figure very far down the path. “I’ve been meaning to catch up with the classics.”

The radio at his hip crackled. He raised it to answer. “Yeah, this is Telford.”

One of the military’s innumerable identical voices said, “Sir, we’ve done all we can here, and we’re about ready to leave the geeks to it.”

“I think you mean our valuable tech companions,” David corrected smoothly.

There was a hesitation. “Yes, sir,” the man the other end of the line said. “That’s what I meant.”

“I’ll be down in a second. Tell Reynolds we’re going to need to zero-op an al’kesh.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Telford out."

Rush had been looking at Young. Jackson he did not need to look at because he found Jackson transparent to his anatomization; perhaps he did not know the cause of Jackson’s quarrel with David, but he could predict the broad strokes of the position Jackson was likely to take. David was more subtle, but he too could be predicted, if only to play the long game. Young, Rush thought, was quite probably too stupid to be playing any sort of game at all, which had a certain charm to it, even if the man expressed himself through abductions.

And perhaps Rush was tired of games. Tired of games, and of E flat.

“I’ll stay with Young,” he said.

David and Jackson stared at him with twin taken-aback expressions. Young, caught in the act of the wince he had been concealing, looked curious rather than surprised.

“If I’m to be imprisoned somewhere,” Rush amended. “Which I maintain, incidentally, is offensive, and detrimental to my work. I’ll need my laptop, or a laptop capable of running sCrypt. Young’s will do; I doubt he’s literate enough to use it with any frequency.”

Young smoothed a hand over his face. He appeared to be hiding either offense or amusement. “Pretty sure my laptop’s classified.”

“Well, I won’t tell General… whatever-that-general’s-name-is if you don’t.”

“I’m sure we can get you a computer,” Jackson cut in firmly. “Without necessitating any potentially treasonous subterfuge.”

“Oh, I think Nick enjoys a little bit of subterfuge now and then,” David said. “Don’t you, Nick?”

He was looking at Rush from under his lashes slightly, with an air that invited Rush to a conspiracy. It was the same affect he’d shown when he’d visited Rush in San Francisco and told him for the first time about the gate. I shouldn’t tell you this, he’d said, but then he had done: a gift that had to be reciprocated, a favor that Rush couldn’t now not return at a time and date of David’s naming. Perhaps this was the same, the offer that didn’t conceal but would, rather, double as extortion. Everything was transactional with David; that was what made him easy to work with. It was a paradigm that Rush knew well.

Rush met his eyes. He said, “Now and then.”

When David and Jackson had gone, Young shut the door and leant against it, tight-faced and somewhat hunched-over. He wasn’t wearing his absurd medical brace, Rush noted; presumably there hadn’t been time to put it on when the Lucian Alliance attacked, or invaded, or whatever the technical term was for the military tactic of arriving to suburban Colorado in the dead of night aboard a cloaked alien ship. Young had not put the brace on, but he had shot a man over Rush’s right shoulder. Rush had elbowed him in the stomach. Young had stepped on his foot. Later, Young had got hold of his jaw and said his name. Rush. Not Nick, the way that David and Jackson said it.

Young had not mentioned at any point that he was in pain.

“You’re staring at me,” Young said, without opening the eyes that he had let drift closed. “I can tell, you know. Us colonels get secret training.”

“Would you care for a glass of water?” Rush asked. “I won’t throw it in your face.”

Young fixed him with a look of wan astonishment. “I wouldn’t say no.”

So Rush fetched him a glass of cold water, and watched in silence as Young drank all of it.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, anyway?” Rush asked, because he had not asked, which seemed an oversight on the tactical if no other level.

Young looked into the empty glass, as though he might find the answer to the query among the last dregs of water. “Oh,” he said. “You know how it is. Sometimes you just get in the way of something bigger than you are.”

It was a ludicrous fucking response and oddly abstract, coming from such a relentlessly physical man. Rush found it unsatisfying but did not know how to enquire further.

“Anyway,” Young said, “what the fuck is wrong with you? Why’d you pass out in my kitchen?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me,” Rush said. “I’m fine.”

“Right. You’re fine. You’re obviously fine.”

“Well,” Rush said. “You know how it is. Sometimes you just get in the way of something bigger than you are.”

He had meant to put a sarcastic twist to the words, to highlight the insufficiency that Young must be aware of. He was not entirely sure why this attempt failed, except that he was exceedingly tired, and therefore not capable of his usual tonal sophistication. Instead he sounded both sincere and exhausted, which appalled him. He stood abruptly from where he had allowed himself to sink onto the arm of the couch.

“I object to being made your fucking captive,” he informed Young, hoping to achieve a more satisfactory dynamic between them. “And I intend to protest strenuously, starting first thing in the morning.”

“Fair enough,” Young said. “Thanks for the advance notice. You still hearing your— you know— thing?” He motioned vaguely by his head.

E flat, but not exactly. Not precisely.

Like a bell that had been rung a long time ago. The sound waves had traveled a long distance to reach him, but were not dispersing.

Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for—

“Yes,” Rush said.

### Chapter Text

Young awoke to the sun squinting at him through the wooden slats over his bedroom window.

Half-awake, he squinted back at it.

His overall impression was of being hungover, even though he wasn’t, and the bones of his lower back and pelvis felt like someone had taken them out, hammered at them for a while, and stuck them back in. The muscles around them were knotted into hard bands. He foresaw a struggle trying to get up. There was a bottle of Flexeril on the nightstand for exactly this kind of situation, but he hadn’t taken any for— more than a week, now, maybe, and he didn’t want to start again. The haze of the hospital still felt too close, a time when every day had been divided into increments of enforced physical torment and a release that came at the expense of feeling like he had a real body.

The painkillers had given him nightmares, too, nightmares that seemed so real they were confusing, in which he was back on Sest Bet, in which David was Emily, and Emily was dressed like a Lucian Alliance warlord, with black leather high-heeled boots and a holster at her hip, or in which he was dragging David up a caldera that seemed to grow higher as they climbed it, dark smoke spewing from beyond the ridge and pebbles clattering down in fistfuls like swarms of sharp insects. In the dreams he kept apologizing to David, saying, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry; I’m sorry it had to be this way; I didn’t know it would be you.

But he wasn’t going to get up without the pills, so he fumbled for them and downed a couple without water. Afterwards he lay there waiting for them to kick in.

The door to his bedroom was open and he could hear someone typing in the living room.

Rush. Rush was typing.

At least he hadn’t fled it in the night. Presumably Telford had people watching the building who would have stopped that from happening.

Telford. David.

Young shut his eyes.

Christ.

His instinct upon thinking about David in his crisply-pressed uniform, neutral-faced and unreadable, saying, What kind of conversation would you like to have? was to curl up on his too-new, too-stiff, Target-brand sheets and pull the covers over his head.

But he was a soldier, goddamnit, not a girl who’d been dumped by her senior prom date, and so what he did instead was shut his eyes, and count to ten, and shout, “Rush! You better not be using my computer!”

There was no response.

Young raised his head, wincing slightly. “Rush!”

“Fuck off!” came the mature and sophisticated response he had already learned to expect from Rush.

Young sighed and spent a long moment looking at the ceiling. He found it hard to move in the mornings a lot these days, even when he wasn’t feeling the effects of overexertion. There was a heaviness in his body that hadn’t been there before, a lethargy or maybe a kind of inertia. Was that what inertia was? It was like he was always waking up from a hard blow to the head that had stunned him. He didn’t know why, exactly. Everyone kept telling him that he was bound to be depressed, but he wasn’t, not really. When he’d gone to see his mandated therapist, all he could say to her was, No one died, but I feel like someone did. She’d said, gently and precisely, Maybe you died, Everett. A version of you that was very important. That wasn’t what it felt like, but he couldn’t make her understand. He couldn’t make himself understand.

Still. He couldn’t let Rush run around accessing classified information. So he heaved himself upwards with a grimace and began the slow task of becoming bipedal, leaning on the nightstand for support. He was wearing a t-shirt, at least, not just a pair of boxer shorts, so he didn’t have to worry about managing to put clothes on yet; he could just stagger out of the bedroom, one hand wrestling his hair into some kind of order, and glare suspiciously in Rush’s direction.

Rush— still wearing Young’s Bataan Memorial Death March t-shirt, and giving no sign of having slept— was sitting at the kitchen island, hunched over whatever computer he’d acquired, wearing his slightly crooked glasses and a sour look. “I believe I told you to fuck off,” he said, without so much as glancing in Young’s direction.

“Where’d you get the computer from?” Upon close inspection, it wasn’t Young’s, and it was running a program that Young had never seen, something with a complicated set of windows that seemed to be half in the weird little blocky lines of Ancient.

“David sent someone by with it this morning. You didn’t wake up.”

“Really?” Young frowned and scratched his head. “What time is it, anyway?”

“Half eleven,” Rush said. “I am unsurprised that you feel mornings to be beneath your attention.”

“I think you can give me a break, since I was up till all hours saving your ass.” Turning to the counter, Young found a half-pot of coffee waiting in the coffeemaker, still hot. He grabbed a mug from the cabinet. “Thanks for making coffee, though.”

“That’s for me, not for you,” Rush said. He still hadn’t looked up from the computer. “I require regular caffeine intake for optimal function.”

“Yeah, well: my coffeemaker, my coffee.” Young took a sip.

“I believe it’s the perquisite of hostages to be provisioned by their jailers.”

Young rolled his eyes. “I’m not your jailer, Rush.”

“Wonderful,” Rush said, and stood in one smooth movement. “So I can leave, then.”

Young wished he’d woken up early enough to get a couple of cups of coffee in him before dealing with Rush, or that he’d at least waited for the muscle relaxants to kick in. “If you want to risk the Lucian Alliance kidnapping you and torturing you till you spill the beans on whatever you’re working on, then sure, yeah.”

Rush’s fists clenched. He looked away. His jaw worked. Young figured he was probably about to be subjected either to a rant about how important Rush’s work was or another round of extremely specific and targeted personal abuse, which he thought he might be starting to build up a tolerance to, but which he felt too exhausted and beat-down to take.

“Look—“ Young began, hoping to derail him.

He was interrupted, however, by a knock at the door— something that caught Rush’s attention and changed his look from one of growing fury to apparent satisfaction.

“Ah,” Rush said. “Excellent timing.”

“What do you mean, excellent timing?” Young asked suspiciously.

He followed Rush to the door, still clutching his coffee mug, and wondering what else Rush had browbeat David into sending over. Hopefully, at the very least, some shoes.

But the person standing in the doorway when Rush opened it wasn’t some sergeant from the Mountain. It was a confused-looking UPS driver toting an enormous cardboard box.

“Uh,hi,” the UPS driver said uncertainly. “The… armed guards outside who made me go through seven separate screenings said this was the right address?”

“Yes, yes,” Rush said impatiently. “Please place the box in the kitchen and indicate what sort of ineffectual security measure I’m required to fulfill.”

The UPS guy heaved the box over the threshold and headed for the kitchen. “I think I could have taken this thing on an airplane without anyone caring so much about what was inside it,” he said, still sounding doubtful. “Or about what was inside me. I’m pretty sure they gave me some kind of CT scan.”

“Mechanically infeasible,” Rush informed him, and, when the guy had put the box down, signed his name on the proffered electronic trackpad. “As you would know if you had even the most basic awareness of medical technology. Please leave.”

Young had to usher the guy out of the apartment. “Sorry,” he said, trying to project a level of friendliness that would avert any potential reports to the local news. “Thanks for being patient with… all of this.”

When he’d closed the door, he turned and stared at Rush, who was very calmly using a kitchen knife, which Young was pretty sure you weren’t supposed to use on plastic tape, to cut into the plastic tape covering the box.

“What the hell?” he said finally.

“Your knives are shit anyway,” Rush said, making a short emphatic gesture with the one he was holding. “I’ve ordered you new ones.”

“And that’s what’s in the box?”

“No; I couldn’t get same-day delivery on the knives. I believe this is either the sous vide immersion circulator or the vacuum evaporator system.”

Young shut his eyes. He felt a headache coming on. “Rush. What the fuck?”

Rush peered inside the box. “It is the vacuum evaporator system.” He straightened, looking pleased. “Your ludicrously overfunded organization opted to issue me a credit card some time ago, for any expenses I might encounter. I had not, heretofore, found reason to use it. However, being held hostage is turning out to be an unexpectedly expensive experience.”

“Come on. You’ve been a hostage for—“ Young checked his watch. “Eight hours. You’re not even a hostage; you’re in, like, protective custody.”

“Yes, well, I’m finding it extremely stressful so far.” Rush didn’t even bother to pretend like he believed what he was saying. He was busy unpacking the piece of machinery that the box contained, which was large, sleek, matte silver, and looked like it belonged in a lab.

Young eyed it skeptically. “I thought you were a mathematician. What the hell do you need science stuff for?”

“It isn’t ‘science stuff,’” Rush said, setting the… item… on the kitchen counter. “Or rather, it is culinary science stuff. It is a tool designed for the preparation and, one might say, perfection of the culinary arts. It allows for the distillation and evaporation of liquids, allowing one to create not only highly delicate reductions, but also aromatics for savory cocktails and smoke infusions.”

Young stared. “You bought this thing to cook with?

“Mm.” Rush was already attaching little pipes and hoses. “Don’t worry; I took the liberty of ordering you some more sophisticated groceries as well; they should arrive by this afternoon.”

“I liked the groceries I had,” Young said, which was a lie, and a pretty bold-faced one.

Rush threw him a scathing look. “No one likes turkey bacon and shelf-stable parmesan cheese, or Kraft singles. I also took the liberty of disposing of your so-called beer, and will be replacing it with a selection of moderately-priced wines, lambic, and hefeweizen.”

Young was still coming to terms with the fact that Rush had decided to order him groceries. Maybe he had been kind of attached to the old ones, he thought— not because he’d liked them, but because they’d been dully and completely, stolidly consistent with the role in life he was trying to get himself accustomed to. This is who you are now, they’d said. A man who limps home from your sad desk job and microwaves a pre-cooked hamburger patty, sticks it on a bun with a slice of cheese, downs a double scotch, and calls it a night. And he’d been ready for that, or some part of him had, the deeply bruised part he couldn’t explain or account for. His immediate response to Rush thwarting him in this downward spiral was a kind of sour indignation.

But: “You got rid of my beer?” was all he said.

“I’ll need to borrow another shirt,” Rush said. “Presuming you believe that the Lucian Alliance has cunningly implanted poison barbs and/or tracking devices inside all of my boxes of clothing.”

Young frowned. “Your boxes of clothing?”

Rush was abruptly very busy with his vacuum-whatever thingamabob. “Preferably the least absurd of your shirts,” he said, determinedly not looking up. “Note that I’m opting not to make the assumption that you actually possess an item of clothing that could be described as wholly non-absurd.”

“Can’t you just order a whole new wardrobe online?” Young said, slightly peeved.

“As though I would spend even the military’s money on anything I could get delivered to Colorado Springs.”

“Right,” Young said, rolling his eyes. “Of course.” But he still couldn’t get over the boxes of clothing. “Rush,” he said, trying to figure out a way to phrase the question— but he was interrupted by the doorbell.

“I’m so hoping that’s the immersion blender and the edible film sealer,” Rush said with a malicious brightness.

Young rubbed one eye, thinking longingly of the bottle of muscle relaxants in his bedroom.

By the time late afternoon rolled around, Young had involuntarily acquired what was probably several thousand dollars’ worth of specialty cookware, including a whipping siphon, some kind of old-timey balancing coffee maker, a spherification kit, and a couscoussier. His refrigerator was full of vegetables he didn’t recognize, and his cabinets with spices he’d never heard of. He had been served, for lunch, a roasted cauliflower steak with fried basil and pickled lemon aioli, along with something called salsify purée. It had been… fine, he guessed, though Rush hadn’t actually seemed interested in what he thought about it. He didn’t think Rush was cooking for him. Or for himself, really; he’d been on his computer while he was eating, using one hand to type with and the other to shove chunks of cauliflower in his mouth with a fork.

Rush was still on the computer now, running the same unfamiliar program. It made Young restless just to watch him sitting there, his back a narrow, motionless hunch.

“What are you doing, anyway?” Young asked finally. He himself had settled on the sofa, stretched out in a way that managed to be mostly painless, and had the TV running in the background on mute.

Rush very slowly raised his eyes from the computer screen. His eyebrows were drawn together in an expression of profound confusion. He didn’t even speak, just spent a solid minute looking at Young that way.

“I mean,” Young said, conscious of the real possibility that Rush was about to make him feel dumb, or throw something at him, “I get that you solve codes. Like, generally. I know that you’re working on the codes in the stargate that are supposed to let us dial the nine-chevron address.”

“Yes,” Rush said. “That’s what I’m doing.”

“But what are you doing right now?”

And there was the look: Rush thinking that he was an idiot. “That.”

“Yeah, but—“

“Tell me, Colonel,” Rush interrupted. “Is your life really so devoid of both joy and interest that you’re reduced to inquiring after the mathematical specifications of extraterrestrial cryptanalysis, something that you will almost certainly prove incapable of understanding?”

Young thought about it for a half-second. “Yes,” he said honestly. If he’d thought about it for more than a half-second, maybe he wouldn’t have said it.

Rush narrowed his eyes. He looked at Young for a long time. “Well,” he said at last, “A piece of cryptanalytic software I designed— which also happens to be the international standard in cryptanalytic software; not, you understand, that I like to brag— is currently attempting to locate previously undetected patterns in the eighth segment of the stargate’s ciphertext. Meanwhile, I am working to determine if one possible plaintext interpretation of that segment might represent a sequence of numbers that correspond to the resonance frequencies of DHD crystals in their default, natively configured state, or rather, if it does, what might be the significance of such a sequence.”

Young winced. “Yeah. I understood none of that.”

Rush looked like he was about to make a cutting remark, but then, inexplicably, didn’t. Possibly he’d remembered that he was staying in Young’s apartment, and was, in fact, wearing another one of Young’s shirts: this one a plain white v-neck undershirt that seemed inoffensive enough, apart from being too big in the shoulders. “Unless I’m incorrect, the eighth segment of ciphertext decrypts to a set of numbers that represent specific DHD crystals. The numbers are arranged in an order that I am attempting to understand. I believe it may represent the opening of a solution to a Hamiltonian cycle problem—“

“A what?”

Rush made a noise of frustration. “A problem wherein one attempts to determine a route that visits each—let’s call it a landmark in a system once and only once, before returning to the place whence one began.”

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard someone use the word whence,” Young said reflectively, letting his head tip back against the arm of the sofa. “Like, in my whole life, maybe.”

He could feel Rush glaring at him. “Significantly,” Rush said, “if I am correct, and the plaintext of this segment represents an invitation to complete the Hamiltonian cycle, then I suspect that obtaining the chevron data that was not contained in the plaintext itself may require materially implementing the solution.”

“What does that mean?”

Young lifted his head just in time to see Rush’s face go distant, reflective. “I believe,” Rush said, “that in order to actually obtain the eighth chevron, I would need to interact with a DHD, which would mean going offworld, sometime quite soon, as no natively-configured DHD currently exists on Earth.”

“Yeah, right,” Young said, letting his head fall back again. “Good try at getting out of your little hostage crisis. They’ll probably just send Carter to the alpha site or something, with a copy of your work.”

“Any such implementation would carry the risk of destroying the DHD, as I’m certain that a subroutine of some sort is intended to be triggered, and I don’t know what sort of subroutine.”

“All right, so not the alpha site. It’s still not gonna be you that goes.”

“I think—“ Rush said, with a rare, vague note of uncertainty to his voice. “I think that it might have to be me.”

There was something about that tone Young found disturbing. He sat up, ignoring his lower back’s protest, and looked at Rush. “What does that mean?” he asked, hearing the trepidation in his voice. “Rush, what does that mean?”

Rush was staring unseeing at his computer screen, his head tilted slightly, as though he were listening to something that Young couldn’t hear.

“Rush,” Young said again.

Rush startled. “Yes,” he said. He spared Young a nervous, distracted frown before hunching defensively over his laptop. “Obviously it would have to be me,” he said, striving for and almost achieving his ordinary level of disdain. “I would have to troubleshoot the program.”

Young said slowly, “Right.”

The bomb exploded again on the screen, in slow motion, weirdly beautiful. It made Young feel that heaviness again, the one that seemed to weigh down his bones. He watched the silent explosion for a second longer before abruptly turning the TV off.

“Rush,” he said without moving.

Rush made a sound halfway between a sigh and a huff. ‘What?”

“Are you still hearing that sound?”

There was a short pause. “Why?” Rush asked.

“Just— you looked like you were hearing something, a second ago.”

Another pause. Rush’s fingers stopped clicking over the keyboard. “No,” Rush said. “Of course I’m not.”

“Right,” Young said. “Of course you’re not.”

He hadn’t shifted on the couch. He could see the faintest reflection of Rush on the now-blank TV screen, raking his hair back from his face in a kind of nervous tic. It was a ghost-image of Rush, not clear enough for Young to make out his expression. Young could have pushed himself up and turned, tried to see that expression, but would that have told him anything useful? He didn’t really know Rush. Not well enough to know when Rush was lying. All he knew about Rush was that he was an asshole with an anxiety disorder and odd taste in food.

Still, he watched the ghost-Rush for a while as Rush went back to typing. It was kind of restful to have someone else in the room, just working. He hadn’t ever had that with Emily. He hadn’t known to act around her, when they’d moved in together and she was suddenly there, being a person like any other person, rather than a girl on whom he was expected to lavish a specific type of attention. He’d been caught in a kind of alarm for days, frozen between bestowing that same attention and acting like he would’ve acted otherwise, without her. It was exhausting. Maybe he hadn’t actually ever gotten over it.

He’d wanted to be back in the barracks, but you couldn’t have that with women. Or he hadn’t figured out how to, anyway, yet, he thought, yet. And he refused to take that thought further, when he was doped up on pills and he’d been thinking of David, so instead he said, “I’ll talk to Landry about the offworld thing when I get a chance.”

Rush stopped typing again. He sounding cautious when he said, “I’d appreciate it.”

“I can’t promise anything, especially since you’d need ship-based support so you don’t strand yourself halfway across the galaxy when you break your DHD.”

“I didn’t say I would break it,” Rush said, sounding offended. “I said that there was a risk it might be destroyed.”

“Uh-huh. Nice use of the passive voice there.”

“I’m astounded that you know what the passive voice is.”

“I’m not an idiot just because I’ve never eaten a salsify before,” Young said, surprised to find himself grinning. “Speaking of, what’s for dinner?”

“Speaking of which, I think you mean. I was thinking of constructing an avocado and orange soup with passionfruit caviar and goat’s cheese. Possibly with a pumpkin sorbet, though I was disappointed to find myself unable to obtain a whole pumpkin. I came to America under the impression that it was full of pumpkins.”

“Well, that all sounds weird,” Young said, “but: if you’re into it, okay.”

“You’ll forgive me if I decline to accept the culinary descriptions of someone who was raised, no doubt, on a diet of white factory bread, iceberg lettuce, and processed meat. The influence on the American diet of your nation’s fanatical love of the technological is intensely regrettable. Not to mention the dubiously democratic instinct that sees it insist on exalting the lowest common denominator; why that should be considered an admirable trait I’m sure I don’t—“

Rush continued on like that for a while, his voice becoming a drone in the background.

Young, who hadn’t realized how tired he was, found himself on the brink of sleep— and then, strangely relaxed, finally crossed it. He dreamed that he was tending pumpkins, fields of pumpkins on long vines that stretched out to the horizon, the pumpkins large and fragile and hollow, possibly made of glass— something that would shatter if you dropped it, into lots of small sharp pieces. He knelt down and placed his hand on one of the pumpkins. He was aware of it ripening. He knew, in the dream, that it contained something precious, something that he was going to harvest one day, but not yet.

### Chapter Text

It was morning, and Rush was sitting on Young’s couch, which irritated him immensely— less the state of being-sat-on-a-couch, although that too was a situation he would have liked to have avoided, something that kindled uncomfortable patterns of limbically ingrained behavior (Nick has no one in your whole life ever taught you how to sit on a sofa? Nick you have to at least pretend to be enjoying yourself. Nick, you spent the whole party scribbling little notes on a napkin; Manushka thinks you hate him now; Nick are you listening to me? Nick, no one in your whole life, ever?) than the actual couch in question, the making of which had occasioned the deaths of so many sad bovines. It looked like it belonged in a hunting lodge, or perhaps in the basement lair that so many males of the American variety seemed to require. It was a couch that played pool. It was a couch that shot the shit. It was a couch that cared deeply about football, and voluntarily consumed potato skins. He did not like the couch, and he did not like the shirt he was wearing, which declared the wearer to “Love Motor Boatin’ in the Grand Tetons.”

Rush did not love motor boatin’ in the Grand Tetons. Rush disapproved of the use, general and specific, of the apostrophe to replace a final coronal nasal, loathed travelling by water, and had no particular notion of where the Grand Tetons might be. Nor did he wish to be informed of their location, as he assumed that Young did, in fact, love motor boatin’ there, and that as such it was likely to contain a number of items from the set of things he despised, amongst that set being motor boats, people who used apostrophes to replace final coronal nasals, and Young.

He glared at the computer screen, where he was using Python to explore Hamiltonian cycles for the seventy-four DHD crystals. Problematically, his solutions were all entirely theoretical, given his lack of access to a natively configured DHD. This too was contributing to his sense of ambient irritation— the whole room, and possibly the state of Colorado, conspiring to irritate him, as it were.

It was morning and he did not like mornings.

It was the second day he had spent imprisoned in Young’s flat.

Young was sitting next to him on the couch.

Some form of wildlife documentary was playing on the television screen.

Young was watching the TV on mute.

Young was tapping a pen against the arm of the couch, ignoring the paperwork in his lap.

Rush was concatenating all of the factors that were currently irritating to him.

“What on earth is the point,” he burst out with finally, unable to ignore Young’s arrhythmic tapping any longer, “of watching a television programme you’re not even watching?

Young frowned at him. “I am watching it.”

“You haven’t even got the sound on!”

“It’s a nature show; I don’t need the sound to watch it. I turned on the subtitles.”

“A typically vulgar perspective.”

“All right; I’ll turn the sound on. I thought it would bother you.” Young reached for the remote, and hit a single button.

The room was abruptly filled with a bland world-music-style soundtrack, orchestrations overscored with what Rush tentatively labeled Tibetan singing bowls and erhu. He stared at the screen, no longer noting the changing gradations of sea water or the dark fish-shaped shadows. His hands tightened around his computer. “I don’t want the sound on,” he said, aware that his voice had emerged taut and mechanical-sounding.

Young made a markedly frustrated noise, and didn’t move towards the remote. “Then what the hell do you want?”

“Just— turn it off,” Rush said.

He resisted the urge to stand up and stalk across the room and possibly leave the apartment, because that would be highly nonstandard behavior, and he was striving to curtail his nonstandard behavior so as to avoid undue attention, and there were soldiers stationed at various points around the building, so he would not get far, and he was wearing this ridiculous shirt, which would give anyone he encountered the impression that he loved motor boatin’ in the Grand Tetons, so he could not leave the apartment, but for a moment he considered it, and—

“Rush,” Young said, and he was looking at Rush strangely, as though perhaps he had said something that Rush had been unable to perceive over the oddly violin-like sound of the erhu. A muted violin on an old recording, broadcasting from very far away. So far away that you thought you’d never hear it again, and then you did, and you weren’t prepared for it, and you—

“I don’t like music,” Rush said.

He was breathing too fast.

Young muted the sound on the television. He was still looking at Rush with that stupid brows-drawn-together expression, as though he didn’t know that he was an element in the set of things that Rush despised, or didn’t know how to properly occupy the space he’d been allotted. It was intolerable, really, his ignorance; it was like a boot on Rush’s chest when he was already not breathing, and he—

He pried his hands off of the sides of his computer and he—

He snapped his computer shut and shoved himself off the couch.

“Rush,” Young said again.

“Fuck off,” Rush snapped.

He put his computer on the kitchen island and put his elbows on the kitchen island and allowed his head to rest in his hands. He wanted to be in a room alone with the first seven chevrons and the cyphers. He wanted to be in a room with no furniture and blank white walls. He wanted to not be in a room but to be nowhere and to be no one and nothing except possibly the echo of an E flat that touched him with tentative fingers, not quite gone from his hearing and curious as to whether it could be him again, and he wanted that, he did, but it was faint now, and he could not manage to hear it, not completely, and he could not—

Young touched his shoulder and he started violently, sending a nearby glass of water flying.

Too late he reached for the glass and could not stop its parabola’s abrupt and violent end. Shards of of it spat across the hardwood floor in an irregular starburst shape.

“Jesus!” Young said.

Rush hunched his shoulders and bit down on the apology his mouth wanted to utter. “Don’t fucking touch me.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I told you: I don’t like music.”

“…Right,” Young said slowly, after a long pause. “Got it. No music.”

Rush opened his laptop and stared determinedly at its screen.

Eventually, behind him, Young slowly began to limp across the room to fetch a dustpan, then, at the same agonizingly protracted tempo, limped back. There was a silence as, presumably, his 60-MHz-processor brain attempted to calculate a method that he could use to crouch down and clean up the broken glass shards.

The silence lasted.

Rush created a new recursive utility function.

He considered the practicality of running a current through the DHD’s seventy-four individual crystals.

Young braced himself against the wall with one hand.

“Oh, fuck off,” Rush said viciously.

In one short, sharp movement, he pushed himself back from the island and seized the dustpan from Young’s unresisting hand. “Why aren’t you in hospital, anyway; you’re clearly incapable of caring for yourself. What, did the nurses tire of your womanizing ways and turf you out on the street?”

He was fishing bits of glass from the puddle of spilt water, so he was unable to see the expression that accompanied the odd sound that Young made, a painful, muted, hacking laugh.

“Womanizing was never my problem,” Young said, and then, sharply, “Whoa— get a fucking broom or something, would you? You’re going to slice your fingers open. Both of us fucking crippled; that’s the last thing we need. Why do you spend so much time throwing sharp objects around my apartment?”

“To be perfectly accurate,” Rush said, carefully lifting the last visible piece of glass between two fingers, “this was not a sharp object when I came into contact with it.”

“Let me guess: you just have that effect on people.”

It was a surprisingly witty remark for Young. Rush squinted at him. But Young was still Young, blocky and dolt-faced, with his mop of irregular black curls.

“Yes, well,” Rush said. “In my experience, people could stand to be honed a little.”

“In my experience, that’s how you end up hurt,” Young said.

Rush huffed in exasperation and stood to empty the dustpan in the bin.

But he thought about what Young had said, later, when he saw a minute piece of glass shine between the edges of two floorboards and, going to pick it up, underestimated the sharpness of it. It pierced his skin and a drop of red blood welled up, outsize and insistent, from a wound that could hardly have been more than a pinprick. The blood kept coming after he’d squeezed the glass from his finger.

He stood at the sink, marvelling at the wound. The way it would not heal. The faint pain, later, when he was typing, when he pressed too hard on a key.

It was late afternoon and Rush had already washed the dishes from his artful lunch of compressed Asian pear and parsnip salad, pine nut quinoa, and parmesan foam— “Not bad,” Young had said thoughtfully, “considering I don’t even know what I’m eating, and I’m pretty sure that part of it is just air”— when his email client chimed quietly, alerting him to its receipt of a new message.

Of late, his email had consisted almost entirely of, in equal measure, messages from the Berkeley Computer Science Department faculty listserv (to which he remained subscribed in spite of his insistent efforts to free himself of it, and which had a habit of devolving into unpleasant ad hominem skirmishes between junior faculty and emeriti every few weeks) and spam from online retailers who hadn’t yet quite twigged to the notion that he did not wish to purchase music of either the sheet or recorded variety in the near future or indeed ever again. He mass-deleted it as required, and ignored most of what did not fall into either category, preferring to let it unproductively sit and perhaps hasten the day when he could protest that he could no longer receive messages because his inbox was full.

This message, however, was from DR. AMANDA PERRY and came associated with a chevron-mail.gov account, meaning Cheyenne Mountain. With a preemptive sense of irritation, he clicked on it and was redirected to log into his own Chevronmail account.

Dear Dr. Rush, the message began.

It took approximately four hours for my technicians to realign the crystal array you reconfigured last week, and another hour to figure out what you had done to our detection equipment as, apparently, your time is too valuable to waste on delineating the rationale behind your destructive experimental setup. I’m sure you will be relieved to know that we have recalibrated the array and that there have been no lasting setbacks to our analysis of Ancient control crystals. Thanks so much for visiting my lab.

That said: were you using specifically utilizing frequencies in the audible spectrum?

Sincerely,

Amanda Perry

He frowned at the message. Dear Dr. Perry, he sent back after a moment.

Yes.

Best wishes,

Dr. Nicholas Rush.

Having sent this email, he turned his attention to the question of what he was going to prepare for dinner. He was considering a smoked salmon and black pepper kale pasta with pumpkin seeds and corn cream, but had not entirely decided if he wanted to serve dessert. A sweet wine would pair well with such a menu for dessert, but he had not ordered any dessert wine. Would a Gewürztraminer prove sweet enough for the purpose?

He gazed at the ceiling and let his mind absently drift from wine towards the ninth cypher: the -1s, 0s, and 1s that made up its patterns, which at this point he could picture a good chunk of. He turned them over in his head, around and around. He had always been an intuitive visual thinker, as he suspected was true of most mathematicians, able to easily manipulate objects in space, though his real strength lay in sound, which he had discovered relatively late in his life.

He tried reversing the numbers to see if this altered his perspective. It did not.

He considered the problem of ternary addition and subtraction.

There was an imperfection in the ceiling. It was like a sour note, its sensory information striking his consciousness at an angle. He couldn’t look at it and calculate. The dark and irregular form stuck in his vision, making it hard for him to think.

The email client chimed.

Dr. Rush,

I’m asking because I have some interest in Ancient musical systems, or rather in the possibility that the Ancients employed a form of coding that we might see as having an overlap with composing. Essentially, it was noise-based. I published a paper on it in the internal SGC journal. Actually, has anyone told you about the journal? It’s called Rosetta. It’s all completely classified, just a way of sharing our work. If you’re interested, I can send you a copy of the paper.

Sincerely,

Amanda Perry

Rush’s mouth tightened. He hit Reply.

I don’t care.

Yours very sincerely,

Dr. Nicholas Rush.

But now he was aware of the flaw in the ceiling and could not think while it was present. Even if he redirected his gaze to the marble countertop, it remained there: a material mistuning above his head, out of concord with its surroundings.

He closed his eyes and raked his hair back from his face.

He clenched his hands into fists.

The email client chimed.

Dr. Rush,

Well, if you’re interested in the effect of audible frequencies on Ancient crystals, it might still be worth your time for us to chat. The SGC has a secure server; just click this link. It won’t take a minute.

Amanda Perry

He hesitated. But she had said that it would not be about music. He needed the information. And, anyway, there was a difference between music and noise.

The link pulled up a site where he was prompted to enter his log-in, then shuttled him to a chatroom with one other participant.

AmandaPerry: Hi
NicholasRush: I’m interested in the native energetic configuration of crystals in a DHD.
AmandaPerry: I might run into some S-T-T problems so if that happens
NicholasRush: S-T-T?
AmandaPerry: just over-look any spelling weirdness. I swear I speak English.
AmandaPerry: sorry
AmandaPerry: Speech to text.
NicholasRush: Oh right.
NicholasRush: Is that still being foisted upon government contractors? No one in his right mind would utilise a program with a minimal likelihood of achieving tolerable accuracy prior to the advent of meaningful AI.
AmandaPerry: Your the computer guy I guess. Let’s talk crystals.
NicholasRush: I’m in the process of devising the possible implementation of a solution to the eighth of nine cyphers embedded within the physical gate mechanism.
AmandaPerry: Right the ones they’re trying to put in that game.
NicholasRush: I’m sorry, what?
AmandaPerry: The sci no sigh no no see I ciphers they want to code in the computer game they’re designing, right? So they can recruit a new codebreaker for the program? General Laundry talked to me about it.
NicholasRush: Did he.
AmandaPerry: In retrospect maybe I wasn’t supposed to tell you.
AmandaPerry: I’m sure it’s not a reflection on your work.
NicholasRush: I just bet it’s not.
AmandaPerry: Maybe we should just talk about crystals.
NicholasRush: I believe the solution to the eighth cypher involves devising a Hamiltonian cycle for the seventy-four crystals of the DHD and eventuating such a cycle in the form of a current that passes through each crystal in a specific sequence of resonant frequencies. I understand that each crystal within a DHD has a native frequency?
AmandaPerry: Yes that’s correct. We can program them artificially but four your purposes I don’t think that would work out. DHDs utilize an internal geometry to carry out there calculations and our a ray lacks the appropriate symmetry.
NicholasRush: Fuck.
AmandaPerry: Sorry.
NicholasRush: I suppose that would have to be the case.
AmandaPerry: I can off four you a diagram of the full set of crystals and their native frequencies if you stop by my office tomorrow.
NicholasRush: Unfortunately that’s not possible.
AmandaPerry: Yeah you sound like a guy who doesn’t get out much.
NicholasRush: The Lucian Alliance is trying to abduct me at the moment.
AmandaPerry: Oops. Forget I said that. How does the end of this week sound?
NicholasRush: More plausible than tomorrow.
AmandaPerry: I’ll schedule you in for a post abduction appointment.
NicholasRush: Thank you.
AmandaPerry: What made you think that resonant frequencies were involved in a Hamiltonian problem if you don’t mind me asking?
NicholasRush: I was listening to a leafblower.
AmandaPerry: You’re such a math guy.
NicholasRush: What is that supposed to mean?
AmandaPerry: I new you’d be offended.
NicholasRush: What is it supposed to mean?
AmandaPerry: Well let me tell you a joke I heard the other day.
NicholasRush: If you must.
AmandaPerry: Pythagoras, Gauss, Sophie Germain, and Schubert walk into a bar.
AmandaPerry: I had to spell all those names out I hope you no.
AmandaPerry: So their telling the bartender all about their jobs and the bartender asks them if they can give him some prime examples of their work.
AmandaPerry: Pythagoras says, 173 37 5 29… stop me, I could go on!
AmandaPerry: Gauss says, 199 107 167 139… stop me, I could go on!
AmandaPerry: Sophie Germain says, 131 11 7 53 5 2 113… stop me, I could go on!
AmandaPerry: So Schubert shakes his head and he turns two the bar tender. He sets down his glass and starts singing Die Schone Mullerin.
AmandaPerry: which I also had to spell. He sings G# E C A and then says very seriously…. stop me, I could go on!
AmandaPerry: Anyway so that’s the joke. I have to run though so e-mail me if you want two stop by my office.

[AmandaPerry has left the chatroom.]

Rush stared at the computer screen, perplexed.

Perry’s joke did not appear to be funny. It did not even appear to be a joke. There was no internal logic— only several famous mathematicians reciting excerpts from the prime sequences they had given their names to, followed by Schubert singing several random notes from a Lied or Lieder cycle that had nothing whatsoever to do with primes. So outrageously un-joke-like was it in form and effect, as a matter of fact, that it immediately suggested itself to be something other than a joke, which raised the question of its real purpose.

He looked to one side, at the blank wall.

He pressed the tips of his fingers to the marble countertop.

It was impossible for him to think like this, while the ceiling was—

After a while, he rose and went to the coffee table, where Young had left a pen and a stack of paper in a file folder. The paper was printed on one side only. Rush collected several sheets of it and carried it, along with the pen, back to his workspace at the kitchen island.

One the back of one of the sheets of paper, he wrote the sequence of Pythagorean prime numbers. He wrote the Gaussian primes across the back of the next, then the Sophie Germain primes. Finally, and with only the slightest flinch, he wrote the opening melody line of Schubert’s "Das Wandern," the first of the song cycle, and— after a moment— followed it with the melody of "Das Feierabend," the only song in the cycle in which the phrase "Die schöne Müllerin" appeared.

He looked at what he had written. At the computer screen. Then back.

It was a very cleverly formed little riddle, tailored, he thought, by someone who knew him. Even among mathematicians, not many people would be familiar with Schubert, nor have a pitch-perfect recall of his melodies in their heads.

The white of the white paper where he had left off writing was very white, in spite of the printed ink on the other side. He was aware of the flaw in the ceiling and it was very loud now. He felt slightly nauseous.

He picked up the pen and wrote, in very neat precise block capitals, READ YOUR MEDICAL FILE.

173 37 5 29  199 107 167 139  131 11 7 53 5 2 113  G# E C A.

Stop me, he thought, half-hysterically. I could go on. Stop me.

Stop me.

Someone would probably try.

But if he was sick, then so what? Sick enough not to solve the cyphers? No. Surely. He knew what it looked like to be that sick.

His ears were ringing.

E E C B A G# A. That was how “Die Feierabend” began.

And the discordant E flat that was not an E flat. The scuffmark or crack or site where the painter’s hand had shaken while reaching too high, high above Rush’s head.

For some reason he covered his ears, and then flung the pen across the room. It struck the wall and rebounded to lie under the TV cabinet. This did little to relieve his distress, so he went in search of white paint, but then realised that Young was unlikely to own any. Tipp-Ex, then, he thought, or— what was it that university students used? Toothpaste.

But could he reach, even if he stood on the kitchen island? Not immediately evident. Just to be on the safe side, when he had gathered two types of toothpaste from the bathroom (not sure whether Young’s or his own would provide the more appropriate white), he picked up a hammer that was resting on an inexplicably tiny table in the hallway. He was not certain what he hoped to accomplish with the hammer, but he was sure that it would come to him.

He moved his laptop to the couch, then carefully climbed on top of a barstool. From there, it was only a very small step onto the island, which was cool under the soles of his bare feet. He stood there, gazing up at the ceiling, for a while: the hammer in one hand, the two tubes of toothpaste in the other. The dark spot on the ceiling buzzed. It was a crack; he thought that it was a crack. He transferred the two tubes of toothpaste to his right hand and lifted his left until he could touch the crack, wonderingly. He was amazed that the world would sing in E flat, but it was not quite E flat, and how was he supposed to think in a world that went on being out of tune? If the world were going to sing, then it seemed like a basic courtesy to try and get the notes right.

“What the fuck?

Maybe the hammer would be best after all.

“Rush!”

Rush turned his head slowly and looked Young.

Young, who was standing at the entrance to the kitchen stared at him.

Rush became abruptly aware that he was barefoot on the marble countertop of Young’s kitchen island, holding two tubes of toothpaste and a hammer, and that he likely appeared quite insane.

“I,” he said.

When it became clear that he was not going to complete the sentence, Young said, “You what?”

“I— threw your pen across the room.” It seemed as good a thing to say as any.

There was a long pause.

Young said, “Okay?”

“It believe it’s currently under the television stand.” Rush pointed.

“Right,” Young said, and didn’t move. “Do you want to maybe… give me the hammer?”

Rush hesitated, then, crouching meekly at the edge of the countertop, did.

“And…?” Young gestured.

It took Rush a moment to apprehend that Young was indicating he ought to desert the island and resume a more standard position on the floor.

He was aware of Young’s humiliating eye upon him as he made the step onto the unsteady barstool and lowered himself in increments till the soles of his feet touched wood.

“There was,” he said lamely, thinking to explain what was in essence an inexplicable position, “a crack. In your ceiling.”

“A crack,” Young said. His face was unreadable.

“Yes.”

“And you were going to—“ But Young’s attention was distracted. “Are those classified documents? Are you writing on classified documents?

He was indicating the pages that Rush had spread across the counter.

“Possibly,” Rush said, and made a grab for them, because he did not want Young to read what he had written there.

“Hand them over,” Young said.

Rush held them against his chest.

“You can’t just write on classified documents! You don’t have clearance for that shit!”

“I didn’t read them,” Rush said, soaking his voice in disdain. “Obviously. And at any rate, I’m going to burn them. Right now. I’m going to burn them right now.” He had not thought of it before, but it seemed like an excellent idea. If Jackson— for it was certainly Jackson who had come up with the absurd little riddle, Jackson who was too clever for his own good and had invited Rush to the symphony— had found it necessary to so elaborately encode and deliver the message, Rush ought to conceal that he had received it.

He needed a cigarette, anyway.

“You’re not going to burn them,” Young said sounding incredulous. “I need those!”

“Oh, please. Spare me. Every time a pen touches a piece of paper, your organization requires that the ensuing mark be filed in triplicate.” Rush was already heading for the balcony, Young having confined all cigarette-smoking to the balcony on the first day of their cohabitation, following a brief and bad-tempered discussion of which Rush was not particularly proud.

Rush!”

Rush pulled his lighter from his pocket as he slid the balcony door open, and before Young could catch up to him, the wavering flame had caught on the edges of the paper and they were curling black-edged in his hand. He let them drop into the novelty mug that he had appropriated for use as an ashtray, and which read: MAY THE AIR FORCE BE WITH YOU.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Young demanded from just behind Rush. He sounded like he wasn’t sure if he had intended the question rhetorically or not.

Rush tapped a cigarette out of the pack he had been carrying in his pocket and bent to light it from the lingering flames of the documents. “I’m feeling quite spry today, thank you.”

“Yeah, I could tell from the way you climbed up on my kitchen island and were ready to take a hammer to my goddamn ceiling!”

“There was a crack,” Rush said, attempting to control the tone of his voice. He was unable to evaluate his success, but thought from the look on Young’s face when he glanced over his shoulder that it had been minimal. He lifted the cigarette to his lips and inhaled unsteadily. “There was a crack.

Young didn’t say anything, and after a moment Rush turned, prepared to be defiant.

But Young was simply studying him, looking exhausted, standing perhaps a bit nearer than Rush had thought. “You could start a fucking wildfire,” he said. “You know that, right? If you’re not careful.”

Rush had no response to this. “Yes, well,” he said, and ashed the end of his cigarette into the coffee mug.

“Happens all the time in the summer around here.”

Rush shrugged and looked down.

Young sighed. “Please don’t wreck my apartment.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Rush returned, rather more feebly than he’d wanted.

“Just— try to hold it together, okay?”

Rush stared at the balcony’s cement floor. It was warm. He pressed his feet flat against it. The afternoon light had started dying away, but even so, warmth still lingered. He had liked that in California, or had not ever decided that he did not like it. It was a soft-hearted climate, always letting you keep some secret radiation against the cold that was to come. Unrealistic, he thought, but it had not seemed unrealistic in California. For a long time. Then he had realised it was not a kindness, at the end.

“Did you know that Stargate Command is getting into the video game business?” he asked, when several seconds had passed in silence.

Young appeared puzzled by the non sequitur. “What?”

“They want to embed the gate cyphers into some sort of video game for infants. To recruit a new cryptographer for the program, apparently.”

There was no reason to think Young had known, of course, and his reaction confirmed this; he seemed weary, more than anything else, as though Rush had increased the gravity in his specific location, perhaps by a hundred and fifty percent, and Young could feel all the small extra exertions required for his body to function. He leant back against the glass door and shut his eyes.

“It’s an absurd idea,” Rush continued, using the hand holding his cigarette to over-punctuate the statement. “Even leaving aside the issue of automated proof checking, which, believe me, is not an insignificant one in mathematical terms, there’s the question of an alien language, an alien numerical system, an alien approach to the concept of numbers themselves, not to mention the mechanisms of the gate itself, which Stargate Command would presumably like to keep classified, but which factor considerably into the function of the cyphers. The only reasonable conclusion, the only possible conclusion, if they’re poised to invest in such a ludicrous fucking project, is that they don’t believe I’m going to solve the last two ciphers.”

“Rush—“ Young began.

“They don’t believe,” Rush said, raising his voice and stabbing at the air to conceal the fact that his hand was shaking, “that I’m going to solve the last two ciphers, because they think that something quite fatal or otherwise unpleasantly final is going to happen to me. Something that they are unlikely or unable to be able to prevent.”

“That’s not what this is,” Young said. “It’s not what it looks like. We don’t give up on people.”

But his face was tight with unhappiness, and he was biting his lip.

Rush ground his cigarette out viciously against the base of the mug. “Oh, don’t look so fucking distressed. It hardly matters, except—“

And then Young was saying, “What do you mean it hardly matters? Of course it matters, it fucking matters, okay? We don’t give up on people—“

And Rush had to talk over him: “—for the fact that I am going to solve the cyphers. It wouldn’t even be worthy of my fucking attention, I wouldn’t even protest, except that I am going to solve them. I am. I am going to dial the ninth chevron, and—

“No one’s going to leave you to the Lucian Alliance, Rush,” Young said. “It’s not going to happen.”

“Of course it’s not going to happen; I know it’s not going to happen; nothing is going to keep me apart from those cyphers. Not you and not Jackson and not the Lucian Alliance, and certainly, certainly not Stargate fucking Command! So if you think that—“

“Rush,” Young said urgently. “Rush.”

Young was holding him by the shoulders. Perhaps trying to steady him. His fingers dug into the soft tissue of Rush’s muscles. Rush felt trapped for a moment, unable to push him away. He stared at Young, at Young’s tired face and agonised expression.

“Just—“ Young said hoarsely. “Just— hold it together.”

Rush said, his voice sounding stretched and taut, “Till when?”

And perhaps Young would have answered that. Perhaps his answer would have astounded Rush with its eloquence and insight. Perhaps it would have inspired him and put all his fears to bed— not that he had fears, because he did not have fears; he thought that he lacked the capacity to be afraid, or at the very least to experience fear, the two not being the same thing, or not precisely. His body felt afraid of things, sometimes, though he never did. Case in point: he was trembling slightly in Young’s grip though he was quite calm and clear-headed. He stared at Young, holding his breath slightly— waiting—

That was when Young’s mobile rang.

Young flinched and pulled away. His hand went to his pocket, pulling the phone out. “I’ve got to take this,” he said. “It’s Mitchell. Just— stay here and don’t do anything for a couple minutes, okay? I’m leaving the door open. Smoke another cigarette if you have to. Don’t burn anything down.”

“Fine,” Rush snapped, unsure of why he suddenly felt more agitated.

He watched as Young wandered indoors, answering the phone— “Yeah, hey, Cam. What’s up?”— and switching a lamp on, a scene that was both peculiar and domestic. Young was wearing the stupid fucking medical brace that kept his spine intact, or whatever was the nature of its purpose; his hand was pressed just above the curve of his hip, hinting at some unseen and persistent trauma. Rush wondered what Young’s damaged body looked like underneath its clothing, and then swiftly repressed the thought, and then allowed it to rise once more to the surface, because it was a clinical concern: could he depend on Young to protect him? How severe, precisely, were Young’s injuries?

He was not in the habit of depending on anyone to protect him.

He turned and walked to the edge of the balcony, gripping its railing with both hands. Now that Young was gone, the inside of his head expanded to include the faint and distant ringing the E flat that was not an E flat, the awareness of the crack in the kitchen ceiling, Amanda Perry’s musical coding, his medical file waiting in some Cheyenne Mountain cabinet.

He did not like to live places where the horizon was full of mountains.

Rush started as, from inside the apartment, he heard the muffled sound of a hand hitting a hard surface. Something shattered.

He closed his eyes and, feeling inexplicably desolate, folded his arms over his head.

### Chapter Text

“Yeah, hey, Cam,” Young said, heading inside the apartment. He took the opportunity to switch on a lamp against the coming evening. “What’s up?”

“Are you alone?” Mitchell asked. His voice was tense, edgy.

Young stopped midway through the room, resting his hand against a wall. “I mean, Rush is right outside, but— yeah. Why?”

Mitchell didn’t say anything for a moment.

“Cam,” Young said, his throat going abruptly dry.

“Listen,” Mitchell said. “Something’s happened.”

Young stayed motionless where he was standing. “Yeah.”

“You know that, uh, Telford took control of SG-3 after he left your place on Friday night.”

“Yeah,” Young said again.

“They interrogated those three Lucian prisoners, and got the codes to beam onto their tel’tak. The one that was cloaked in low Earth orbit. They wanted intel; they took out the crew on the ship and copied the database. Sent it to the Mountain. Telford wanted to keep going, scam his way through the ship’s next check-in, but the thing is, they were Sixth House, and there was a chance—“

“That they would know who he was,” Young said in a low voice.

So that had been when the two of them had— done whatever it was they’d done. But David had wanted to go back undercover from the start, had insisted he could still be an asset on the inside, and eventually he’d gotten his way, like he always got his way, and that was when the brass had sent him to Sest Bet.

“Yeah,” Mitchell said. “Yeah. Landry didn’t want to risk it. So he gave the order for them to pull out, and Telford did manage to change course, he was turning the ship around, but—“

Young could hear him breathing on the other end of the line.

He stared at the wall, not quite white now with the light from the lamp falling on it. There was probably a scientific reason that the color changed. Rush would know how the reason, he was sure.

“They missed their check-in,” Mitchell said. “And the one after that.”

“Right,” Young said.

“We haven’t heard from them in seven hours.”

“Well, that’s—“ He could think of a dozen reasons why a gate team might not check in for seven hours. More, probably.

“They sent the Odyssey to check it out,” Mitchell said.

Young closed his eyes.

“They found, uh—“ Mitchell stopped. “They found a lot of debris. Some of which was— organic.”

For some reason Young was thinking inanely about David asking to borrow his book, the casual way he’d insulted Young’s intelligence, which he was always doing, really; since they first met, down in New Mexico, David had always been the smarter one, sort of angry about it, the way Rush was, and wearing it like a type of armor that wasn’t actually armor, because it wasn’t defensive— more made of swords.

“But the thing is— there wasn’t as much debris as you would expect for— for six bodies. So we think the ship was destroyed to try and hide the fact that maybe, maybe—“

“Some of them were alive,” Young supplied flatly. “The Lucians beamed them off.”

He had liked that David was smarter. He didn’t mind getting needled. David was honest about it with him, at least, and Young preferred that; when he made it home from P2S-569, David had seemed like the only honest thing in his life, the only real, hard, tangible, urgent body, still smelling slightly of deep space in a way Young couldn’t put his finger on, and tasting of sweat and darkness and the metallic compounds of an asteroid base.

“Yeah,” Mitchell said. “They could be alive. They could have— been alive.”

David was so good at being ever-so-slightly dangerous, and then, just when you thought you were fucked, turning out to actually be the thing that you could always count on. He was unkillable, immortal, the last survivor; All that’s gonna be left, he’d said, all white teeth, smiling, at the end of the day, is the cockroaches and me.

“Landry’s giving them 48 hours,” Mitchell said. “Till he deactivates their GDOs. So he must think— I mean— we’re not calling the game at this point.“

Maybe they’d been talking about the bomb, then, when David had said that, sitting in the back of Young’s pick-up truck, outside the Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, where they’d gone once to see the decommissioned war planes, the sky overhead an unreal blue that you never got anywhere else on the planet, and out in the distance the scrubby, seething, irradiated ridge of the Sandias—

He was in the hallway, he realized, although he couldn’t remember walking into the hallway.

He had a strong sensation that he was going to throw up.

“I’m sorry, V,” Mitchell said. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.”

Maybe he’d had an idea that he would shut himself in his bedroom. But he couldn’t do that, because he had to look after Rush. He had to make sure Rush wasn’t getting kidnapped by the Lucian Alliance, or taking a hammer to something, or setting the whole city of Colorado Springs on fire.

“What’s going to,” Young said. His heart was beating really fast, and it unnerved him. “Happen to, I mean, with Rush, now, because he’s not really dealing with any of this well, I mean, to start with, and if the LA has David—“

“I don’t think it’s been decided,” Mitchell said, but he sounded cagey.

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“Look, just— Jackson wants to send him to Atlantis, get him out of the whole situation, but Telford was very, like very intensely opposed to that idea, and there’s a lot of political stuff going on that this is going to throw a big ol’ wrench in the middle of; the brass would love to lock him up somewhere the Lucians can’t find him, but—“

“I don’t think—“ Young started.

“—obviously that’s not looking like such a hot proposition at the moment—“

“—that would be such a great idea,” Young finished in an unsteady rush.

Mitchell paused for a long second. “Yeah. So in the meantime, until things clear up a little and we know exactly what’s going on, I think everyone likes him where he is.”

“At my place.”

“Yes.”

Fuck that. Fuck this whole shitty—“ Young stopped and tried to get a hold of his voice. The back of his throat ached. His head felt hot. “Why was Jackson here?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Mitchell said, just a little bit evasive.

“Yes, you do. You called him. Friday night. You must have called him. He showed up in his goddamn pajamas about ten minutes after David’s team cleared the building, knocking on my door, wanting to talk to Rush, and when he found out David was there, he didn’t want the two of them left alone together, so why did you call him, Cam; why the fuck did you call him; what the fuck is going on?”

“Everett—“

“Why was he on that tel’tak, Cam?” He had lost the battle over his voice. It was too loud, but he couldn’t make it quiet. “If he got blown to fucking organic debris in some assfuck region of outer space, then I think I deserve to know why, because, sure, he was a son of a bitch, but he—

Everett.” Mitchell’s voice cut through him. “There is a lot of shit going on that I cannot discuss with you right now, and if you will take a goddamn breath and get your shit together for a second, you will realize that you know this. So just— sit the fuck down and soldier the fuck up, okay?”

Young pressed his forehead against the wall and sucked in a breath. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Shit, don’t apologize,” Mitchell said. He sounded beaten-down. “Jesus. Just— we’ve all just gotta put our heads down and push through this. Maybe David shows up tomorrow, pops out of a cake. Surprise, bitches! That’s the kind of shit he’s always got me expecting.”

Young’s breath caught on a laugh that was not a laugh, that hurt the inside of his throat. He swallowed hard. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “Yeah.”

“So just— keep an eye on Rush. Stay in touch with the downstairs team. I’ll call you when I know more. You know I will.”

“Okay,” Young whispered.

He heard Mitchell hesitate, as though he were going to say something more. But in the end Mitchell hung up the phone.

Young kept his own phone raised to his ear. It wasn’t like he thought he was going to hear anything; he knew Mitchell was gone, but if he put the phone down, then he’d have to consider what to do next, and he didn’t know how to even begin that process.

He felt— wrong, he thought. What was he supposed to feel like? What were you supposed to feel like when they guy you used to fuck got blown to smithereens, maybe, but also maybe was being to tortured to death? It seemed like there’d probably be a pretty wide range of acceptable responses. But he just felt sick; he felt sick, sick, sick; he had the distinct and nauseating sense that his body was splitting in two, right down the middle, and half of it was absolutely murderous while the other half felt nothing at all, or half of it was shaky as an AB coming out of his first zero-g mission while the other half was indifferent, or worse— worse than indifferent.

What the fuck, he thought to himself. What the fuck. Had he really been that angry at David, just because David had said they still shouldn’t fuck anymore, even after they’d dragged each other up the fucking side of that caldera, both of them more dead than alive? Young hadn’t even cared, he hadn’t even wanted to; he’d just felt sick every time he looked at David, and he’d known that David could tell, because David had stayed away. So they’d both gotten what they wanted. They’d both gotten what they fucking wanted.

“You bastard,” he whispered, hating himself, and didn’t know who he was talking to.

He couldn’t make the two halves of his body work together. Maybe that was what the pins and screws were for. For exactly this kind of situation.

At some point he limped into the bathroom, but he didn’t throw up, even when he thought about the organic debris that might once have been David— might once have been skin that he had touched. Instead he folded his arms on the sink and bent to rest his head on top of them. He felt too tired to even stand.

A spike of rage that he could not explain ran through him at that thought, when he thought about how tired he was, and how sooner or later he would have to stand, and it would hurt, and it would go on hurting. Before he could really process what he was doing, he reared away— the muscles of his lower back screaming— and hammered his fist into the mirror, hard.

It felt like knives between his knuckles, which it more-or-less was, because the mirror, of course, shattered. He was left looking at a broken picture of himself with pieces missing, cracks radiating outward across his face in crooked lines.

The image unnerved him. He stared at it before realizing that his hand was leaking blood— then swore and hastily picked piece of glass out of the sink basin, pitching them in the trash so he could turn the cold tap on. The water did a little to dilute the blood, but not much.

“I suppose it’s just as well that neither of us is overly careful about his appearance,” Rush said from behind him.

Young looked up. He could see Rush in the mirror, leaning against the doorway, his reflection similarly split by cracks. “There was an— accident,” he said with difficulty.

Rush nodded slowly. He looked down, tracing the shape of a tile with the toes of one foot. “I take it this means Colonel Mitchell was not calling to relate that the techs have finally cleared my apartment.”

Young flexed his fingers slowly and let the pain’s root system spread out through them. “David is—“ he said, and then stopped.

There was a silence.

“Ah,” Rush said softly. His head was lowered; it was impossible for Young to see his face.

“Missing,” Young said. “His ship was destroyed. There’s some reason to think that he might still— that he might not be—“ He stopped again.

Rush stayed in the same position for a moment, not looking at him. Then he seemed to draw a breath and stepped forward, his expression carefully neutral. “I’m assuming you’ve a first aid kit on hand,” he said. “For these occasions when you feel the need to let fly your passions.”

“—It’s in the cabinet,” Young said.

Rush fished it out and began briskly daubing water and blood from Young’s knuckles with gauze. “At the very least, I suppose I can celebrate that this robs you of the moral high ground when it comes to the matter of who is more likely to destroy your apartment.”

Young winced. “Yeah, I kind of—“ But he was helpless to explain, so he fell silent again, and watched as Rush started to wrap the gauze between his fingers.

After a long silence, Rush said at last, “Is alive better, or not, do you think?”

Rush paused in his ministrations, then resumed without comment.

Young watched blood seep through the gauze and tried to see shapes and figures in its patterns, like an ink blot test made out of himself. Or was it really himself anymore? When his blood left his body, did it stop being him? He saw a flower, a sun, a flying saucer.

Gradually, as the gauze grew in layers, there was less blood than there had been.

“Were you fucking him?” Rush asked, in the same casual tone he’d used before. “David?”

Young turned his head away, too tired to be angry. “No,” he said, with effort.

Rush nodded as though this was what he had expected. “Not anymore, or wanted to?”

“Is it that obvious?”

Rush secured the gauze and held Young’s hand up to inspect his work with a critical eye. “Yes,” he said. He released Young’s hand.

Young folded it against his chest, feeling oddly naked. He said, hearing the defeat in his voice, “Not anymore.”

“I see.” Rush looked down again, his hair falling in front of his face and again obscuring his expression for a moment, before he tucked it back behind his ears. “I suppose I understand why you’d find the news distressing.”

“It was over a long time ago,” Young said. “Before I got hurt.”

“Yeah. Yes. It wasn’t—“ Young hesitated. “She misunderstood the situation.”

“It wasn’t an affair,” Rush said, his voice flat. “Is that it?”

“No,” Young said. “I mean, yeah. It wasn’t.”

“Just two old mates working out some tension. You didn’t love him, of course; no emotion at all involved, because that would be unmanly, and we can’t have that—“

Young wasn’t, after all, too tired to be angry, it turned out. “Fuck you,” he said.

“—Sex, yes; divorce, well, women are always so hysterical about these things, but emotion—“

Young shoved Rush against the wall, so hard that Rush’s head rebounded, then left the room without a word.

He didn’t know where he was going, because nowhere in the apartment really felt like home. It was a series of strange rooms that he had half-filled with his possessions, most of them new and some that didn’t even belong to him, things Emily and he had shared that she hadn’t wanted. Even their home hadn’t felt like home. When he thought of home he imagined no particular place at all. Or the backcountry of Wyoming, maybe, where he’d grown up, just shy of the Bighorn Mountains, where you could ride for hours and not see another human being.

It had been so simple to survive there, if you knew how the land worked. Maybe that was all that home was, a place where you knew how the land worked, enough to survive. He thought it sounded easy, but it wasn’t. There were so many different types of survival. You could know how to hunt deer and filter water, how to stay warm in a snowstorm, and not know how to have a conversation with your wife. He could have lasted a winter out in the Bighorns, but everywhere else on earth he just kept leaving, or else getting his leaving papers handed to him. Even David, in the end, had said, Look, Everett, I’m always going to have your back. Always. I love you like that, you know? And it’s been fun. But I don’t want you ruining your life over something that’s just not—

Yeah, Young had said. I get it.

He did get it. He got it. Had gotten it even then.

He was out on the balcony, his hands gripping the iron rail. It was dark now, or not completely dark, but one of the later stages of twilight, and a light had gone on at the side of the building, making everything look false and flat.

He got it. So why did he feel—

His chest was trying to separate itself into pieces.

Something clinked, and he turned to see that Rush had set a bottle of white wine on the patio table. Rush was holding two wine glasses in one hand by the stems.

“I’m sorry,” Rush said, not very apologetically. Young had never heard someone say I’m sorry in such an aggressive tone of voice. “I’m a bastard. Let’s get pissed.”

Young bent his head and barked out a laugh, even though it wasn’t funny. “All right,” he said. “Yeah, sure. Why not?”

So they sat in the two patio chairs and drank the wine, which was the wrong thing to be drinking, and which David would have made fun of, probably. After a while Rush lit a cigarette, the faint glow of it attracting one or two moths in the growing darkness. He had his feet propped up on the railing, exposed to the warm air. It was the kind of easy pose that Young would never again be able to get his body into, which didn’t matter, of course, except for when it did.

“It’s of some relevance to me, you know,” Rush said, when both their glasses of wine were close to empty. “Whether alive is better or not.”

Young tipped his head back, gazing up at the thin scattering of visible stars. “Rush—“

“No one thinks they can protect me. Not even your general thinks he can.”

“You could go to Atlantis.”

“You sound like Jackson,” Rush said with a thin smile.

“Maybe it’s not a bad idea.”

Rush shook his head without speaking. He lifted the wine bottle and refilled both their cups.

“If David was the only thing stopping you—“ Young said.

“No.” Rush stared down at his wine glass for a moment. “What do they do to their prisoners? The Lucian Alliance?”

“I’m not going to tell you that, hotshot,” Young said. He was surprised at how gentle the words came out. He hadn’t consciously chosen to make them gentle.

“Don’t you think I deserve to know?”

“I think you deserve not to.”

Rush nodded, as though this made sense. He pushed his hair behind his ear, but Young couldn’t read his expression. “I suppose,” he said at last, “at the very least, I suppose they’ll need me… intact enough to solve the ciphers for them. To teach them how to dial the nine-chevron address, and take them to wherever it leads.”

Young studied him. He was pretty sure that Rush was trying to change the subject, although not one hundred percent sure, because Rush’s social skills were shit. “Where do you think it leads?” he asked, willing to play along.

“How should I know?” Rush gave him a brief flash of a complicated smile. “I’m only a consultant, after all.”

“Yeah, right.”

The smile faded. “David wants— wanted— to be the one to go. Wherever it leads. When I succeeded.”

“Yeah?” Young took a long drink at the mention of David, and wished that Rush had brought something stronger than wine out with him. “Is that what him and Jackson are fighting about?”

“How should I know?” Rush said again, in precisely the same tone. “I’m uninterested in the minutiae of personnel decisions. The only thing I care about is the math.”

“Yeah, right,” Young said: his own echo. “I bet you want to go too, don’t you?”

Rush’s shoulders slanted forward slightly in a defensive hunch. He ground out his cigarette with unnecessary violence in the makeshift ashtray. “As though that were ever an option.”

Young hmmed. “I don’t know. I mean, sure, you’re batshit crazy, and kind of an asshole, and I’m not saying I’d be surprised if I found out you’d murdered a guy back in Scotland, or maybe, like, more than one guy, but it’s not like the program recruits any of us on account of how we’re bastions of personal stability, really.”

“Yes, well.” Rush relaxed slightly. “I suppose that’s true.”

The conversation seemed to die there. They’d killed the bottle of wine by that point, but Rush, unasked, rose and went to get another one from the kitchen, and so they drank more as the night’s real dark set in. Young wasn’t normally a lightweight, but he hadn’t eaten anything in hours, and he could feel the alcohol going to his head, making the world a little fuzzier and maybe more bearable. He’d take a painkiller later, maybe, and that would help; he wouldn’t feel so rubbed-raw, almost skinless.

Eventually, Rush said, “Jackson believes that none of us should go. Not me, not David… he’s opposed to the nine-chevron address in principle and practice.”

“Why’s that?”

Rush shrugged faintly. “I believe he’s afraid of what might happen. Where it might lead to.”

Young said carefully, “You know, Jackson’s usually right about stuff like that.”

“He’ll kill the entire Icarus Project if he can.” Rush’s voice was hard suddenly. “And if David is truly—“ He stopped, and set his mouth in a thin line. “I liked David,” he said softly, and pushed his wine glass away from him on the table. “I shouldn’t have had so much to drink. Fuck.”

“Killing a science project doesn’t sound like Jackson,” Young said, because he wasn’t prepared to engage with the other topic. He should have taken a painkiller before leaving the apartment to begin with. He’d had an excuse, given the state of his hand, and he wasn’t going to around punching any more mirrors, at this point, but he could feel it in his stomach, whatever he was feeling. With an almost physical effort he swallowed it back. He cleared his throat. “Anyway, as long as Icarus looks like offering us anything at all to fight the Ori, or the Lucian Alliance, for that matter, there’s no way the top brass are writing it off, even on Jackson’s say-so. You’re stuck with us— or, I should say, we’re stuck with you, which I assume is what you wanted. No getting out of this one.”

Rush’s mouth quirked, but with what looked almost like unhappiness. Less of a quirk than a pained twist. “Yes,” he said, folding his arms tight across his chest. “That’s what I wanted. Of course that’s what I wanted.”

“…Right,” Young said uncertainly. “You don’t seem very happy about it.”

“How would you know? You don’t fucking know me.” Rush stood abruptly, shoving his chair back. “You think you know me now, as though we’re friends, when you’re effectively my fucking jailer? You don’t. You don’t know me at all. You’re not capable of it.”

“I’m not your jailer, Rush,” Young said shortly. He didn’t think he had the energy to deal with another one of Rush’s outbursts; he didn’t even try to get up from the table.

David knew me. Not you, with your fucking—“ Rush gestured towards the inside of the apartment, his mouth working as he apparently tried and failed to come up with something insulting to say. “—half-finished ceiling and your cardboard boxes that you haven’t even pretended to be unpacking, in spite of your half-hearted and frankly laughable attempts to present a front of— of— of fucking hypermasculine normativity—“

Young waited a beat, expecting more to follow. “Seriously?” he asked at last, amused in spite of himself, when nothing did. “That’s the worst you could come up with? The boxes?”

Rush raked a hand through his hair, looking sulky and a little bit defeated. “I could hardly keep going on about your womanizing, all things considered.”

“You realize I don’t even know what ‘hypermasculine normativity’ means.”

“I can’t tell you how astonished I am to hear it.”

Young made a sudden decision and stood, levering himself up from his chair with some effort. “You know what? You’re right. I should’ve unpacked by now. It’s stupid. And us sitting around getting drunk and feeling sorry for ourselves isn’t going to do any good; we might as well get something done while we’re— waiting.” His voice had been strong until the end, then turned just the slightest bit hoarse when he said waiting.

Waiting to hear if David was dead.

He looked away from Rush and bit his lip, not wanting to let Rush see any hint of something that might serve as ammo.

But Rush didn’t latch onto the moment of weakness. After a second he said, “So now I’m expected to do your unpacking, as well?”

“What do you mean, as well? All you’ve done so far is almost destroy my ceiling, cook a bunch of weird food, and order, like, seven thousand dollars’ worth of weird kitchen equipment on the Pentagon’s dime, which, by the way, you know they audit that shit, right?”

“I’m more than confident in my ability to justify my expenses,” Rush said loftily.

“Well, good, cause you’re gonna need to.” Young picked up the mostly-empty wine bottle and glasses. He gestured. “After you.”

Rush gave him a suspicious glance, as though he thought that Young might be playing some kind of elaborate prank on him. But after a minute, he went inside, pausing at the last minute to snatch what Young was carrying from him. “I didn’t bandage your hand for you to fuck it up at the first opportunity,” he said brusquely, and stomped off, or as close as he could get in bare feet.

Young watched him go, head tilted, surprised by the gesture. Not sure what to make of it, exactly, just— surprised.

It was late by the time Rush had worked his way through mocking Young’s t-shirts, his high school yearbooks, his hockey trophies, and his collection of military magazines, and had gotten around to opening a box of Young’s old CDs, which made his eyes light up like someone had given him an early Christmas present. The ensuing tirade, which ranged from the sins of the so-called alt-rock movement to the failings (moral, political, and cultural) of modern country music, lasted him through unpacking most of the box. He seemed to really be enjoying it, so Young tuned him out tolerantly, contributing an occasional “Yeah” or “Uh-huh” when it seemed appropriate, along with— once or twice— “I guess I never really thought of it that way.”

Rush either didn’t notice or didn’t care, even when Young stopped watching him unpack and wandered into the kitchen to eat some peanuts and open a bag of chips; he managed to be condescending about the “shallow and pseudo-feminist aesthetic” of the Dixie Chicks’ political efforts for as long as Young stood leaning against the kitchen island, holding a bag of Haunted Ghost Pepper Doritos and gazing up at the shadow on the ceiling with a thoughtful look. When Young put the chips away and headed to the hall closet, Rush was giving some kind of lecture about selective national memory and race in the cult of the cowboy, and when Young came back carrying a ladder and a tube of spackling, he’d reached small farms and the phobia of industrialization, which apparently had something to do with Frankenstein.

He was still drinking, so Young guessed this was Rush drunk, which was kind of endearing. He watched for a second while Rush unsteadily alphabetized his CDs on the TV stand’s built-in shelf. Then he set the ladder up and carefully climbed it, conscious of the instability in his lower back, holding a putty knife between his teeth and the spackling in one hand.

“—What the fuck are you doing?” Rush said, breaking off from whatever point he’d been in the process of making about loom-weaving in 19th-century England and how it related to Garth Brooks.

Young removed the putty knife from his mouth. “What does it look like?”

“It looks like you’re an idiot in a back brace who’s about to break his fucking neck.”

Young made a noncommittal sound and squeezed some spackling onto the knife. He reached up and dabbed at the ceiling. The crack was hair-thin; he probably could’ve just painted over it. But he made sure it was filled in anyway, and then scraped with the knife until the spackling was smooth and almost invisible.

“I might have to paint over it anyway,” he mused, without really having meant to say it out loud.

Rush was standing and watching him with an unreadable expression, still clutching a single battered CD case.

Young descended the ladder just as carefully as he’d gone up it, gripping the metal sides. When he was back on the ground, he squinted up at his work consideringly. His hips did hurt from the irregular exertion, but not a lot, not more than he could stand.

“I never did much housework,” he said. “I was always gone. Africa, or the Balkans, or offworld. Mitchell’s the one who thought I ought to have hardware stuff. But it looks okay to me, I guess. What do you think?”

Rush’s mouth worked. “It’s your flat,” he said finally. “Why should I give a fuck one way or another?”

“It’s my apartment,” Young corrected. “Jesus Christ, haven’t you been living in the U.S. for like fifteen years or something?”

“I fail to see your point.”

“I’m just asking for your opinion on my DIY home repair job.”

Rush looked up at the ceiling. There was a weird tension to his body, like the only thing keeping him standing was that his muscles had locked in spasm. “Shoddy,” he said. “As I suspect you know. But I suppose we’ll manage. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I was about to have a shower.”

He stalked forward and pushed past Young, still holding the CD case, for some reason. Young heard the bathroom door slam a moment later.

Young sighed and rubbed his unruly hair, then glanced back up overhead. He couldn’t see the crack, only the damp off-white patch of the spackle. He tried not to see other things in it: the shell-like shape of a tel’tak, or the sign of one of the Lucian Alliance’s houses, or the uneven scars that David wore cut into his skin. Had worn?

He would paint over the spackle when he had a chance. It was just a ceiling. And, like Rush had said, they would manage.

“We have to,” he whispered, and then, his back aching, folded up the aluminum ladder, the spackle, the little flat-bladed knife to stow it all away again.

### Chapter Text

Rush tilted his head and regarded himself in the mirror.

It had this quality in common with all mirrors: that it did not do what it was supposed to, or rather what it was popularly supposed to do; people saw a simple loop between body and reflection, between self and other, between the sheet of silvered glass and the entity who reached out to touch it, tracing the jagged line of a single crack— which was why this mirror even more than others did not do what it was supposed to. It was fissured now— its fracture planes made visible by their, well, fracture— and the contract under which it pretended to show a neatly outlined, bounded image of the body was suddenly under question. How had this image been created? one had to ask. Why was it warped slightly at the edges, where the glass had come apart under Young’s fist? The whole fragile ecosystem of photons, fractionally absorbed or not, electrons vibrating or drifting in an infinite sea, perhaps, particles starting to become each other or stopping, the human eye reduced to the level of nothingness, or nothing, anyway, that we would think of as human… That was what one was forced think about. I am not this image, one realised; I am creating this image; we are, me and the air and the lightbulb, me and the sheet of silvered glass, and Young’s fist, and so in this sense it was most accurate not to say that it was broken, but rather—

“Rush!” Young called.

Rush flinched.

The mirror was once more only a broken mirror, with two pieces missing from amongst its spiderweb of cracks.

He threw a resentful look over his shoulder. “Yes?”

“Come on! We’re gonna be late!”

“I don’t give a fuck,” Rush said under his breath, and looked down at his shirt.

It was, somewhat unusually these days, his shirt; the previous morning, he had at last been permitted to enter his apartment and collect some of his belongings, on the condition that Young stand guard just out in the hallway. Do you expect the Lucian Alliance to have concealed themselves in a box? Rush had enquired. Perhaps they’ll jump out at me and shout Surprise! That would certainly give me a shock. Or perhaps they’re hiding under the bed. They do have a reputation as bogeymen to uphold.

Young, who was unaware that Rush did not own a bed, had rolled his eyes. Yeah, yeah, he’d said. Whatever. Let’s go. I’m sick of you borrowing my shirts.

So Rush was wearing his own shirt now, plain and white and slightly creased from having been folded. He tried ineffectually to smooth out some of the creases. He was not used to looking in a mirror, or at least to giving conscious thought to what he found there. He had cut his hair with a pair of kitchen scissors some three or four months back, but when he shaved, which he did whenever he happened to remember, he was generally thinking about Ancient numeral systems (of which there were two, base ten and base eight) or stellar drift, or the concept of zero. He did not, as a rule, consider how other people might see him, because he was no longer accustomed to allowing other people much time in his head.

But he had a fucking meeting today, apparently, because someone in the Stargate program had decided that he was now involved in the computer game project that they’d tried to keep from him, or that his input ought at least to be elicited before the Lucian Alliance tortured him into doing their homework and then cut off his head, or whatever it was they planned on doing with him, which Young had not wanted to disclose, but clearly had a good idea of.

Young had said that they used knives, and something called a pain stick. No. That they had used those. On him.

Presumably the same tools were being used on David, if there was still a David, and not a smear of red matter newly added to the heliosphere.

Rush kept thinking of the time he’d played the piano for David, in the music room of the Berkeley house. He had not had any confidence in David’s musical literacy, and the conventional choice might have been something like the Moonlight Sonata, so he had been tempted to play Ligeti instead, because that was his primary instinct: if they might think you want their approval, do the one thing that will demonstrate your indifference to it; if you know what they want, then never, never give it to them, because to desire is to surrender the battle, and to be desired is to have the upper hand.

In the end, he’d played John Field’s second nocturne, which was formally tame, but which David would not have heard of. In fact he’d thought that David might be bored by it, and had looked forward to this vindictive confirmation of the intellectual superiority that he certainly knew better by now than to not expect. But when he’d looked at David during a long pause, his hands still arched above the keyboard, David’s face had been with vivid with pleasure. And when Rush had finished, the last C minor chord going from melancholy to nothing, David had said, You’re really very gifted, aren’t you? I guess maybe some things you have to be born with.

It was hard to know, sometimes, what David was or wasn’t thinking, what he did or didn’t understand. But that too was an art, or a kind of intelligence.

Rush!” Young yelled, and hammered on the door. “I’m leaving you here in about five seconds!”

Rush flung the door open and stared at him icily. “Unlikely,” he said. “I’m surprised you haven’t attempted to affix a leash to me while I’m asleep.”

Young’s mouth hitched wryly. “Yeah, I figured that probably wouldn’t work.”

Young was clad in dress blues, looking square-shouldered and oddly cut-off-at-the-edges, as though someone had trapped him beneath a biscuit cutter and trimmed off all the parts that didn’t fit. He possessed a large array of ribbons that Rush didn’t understand the point, or indeed appreciate the aesthetics, of.

Young too had a meeting to go to. Rush suspected, but had not been able to confirm, that it was about him.

“You clean up nice,” Young said as Rush pushed past him in the hallway.

“Fuck off.”

“They think,” Rush said, by way of response, “that they can pacify me by pretending to ask for my fucking opinion, as though this will cause me to very meekly and nicely pretend that we’re not all sitting around waiting for my inevitable abduction. This whole meeting is ludicrous. Farcical. The only reason I’m participating is that it offers the possibility of escaping from your hellish, Men’s Health Magazine spread of an apartment, at least for a single, desultory afternoon.”

Young raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Okay,” he said. “So, yeah, I’m going to take that to mean you’re ready.”

Young drove them to the Mountain in his hulking monstrosity of an automobile, an abominably glossy and oversized pick-up truck that might have been useful on an industrial farm, but in no other location. It occupied an unnatural proportion of the road and made Rush feel carsick, though he would’ve felt sick anyway, given Young’s line of questions-that-were-not-questions, which, representatively and unpropitiously began, “You’re gonna behave yourself in this meeting, right?”

“I don’t know; am I a dog?” Rush sank down in his seat and twisted his head to stare out the window.

The approach of autumn had lessened the intensity of the light. Colorado appeared no more attractive on this account, though it was not as intolerably hot as it had been.

“I’m just saying,” Young said.

“Then just say what you fucking mean.”

“Just—“ Young lifted a hand from the steering wheel and made an uncommunicative gesture. “Don’t do anything crazy.”

“Why would you anticipate that this might be a problem.”

Young threw him an incredulous glance.

Rush folded his arms tightly across his chest. “Am I in the habit of doing things that merit the descriptor crazy?

Young appeared to be exhibiting the first signs of a headache. He said, “I’m gonna assume you know the answer to that is yes.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“You’re incorrect.”

“Hotshot, I am, like, one thousand percent correct on this one.”

“Mathematically impossible.” Rush sank even lower in his seat, propping his feet up on the dash.

Young sighed. “Can you just try not to— you know— do anything that would give someone an excuse to—“

Rush didn’t like the direction in which this was going. He set his jaw and stared fixedly at the passing landscape of strip malls, digging his fingers into the flesh of his upper arms. “An excuse to what?” he said, keeping his voice perfectly flat.

“I don’t know.”

“Clearly you do.”

Young sighed again and scrubbed at his hair, which was attempting to escape the military biscuit-cutter schema. “I mean, you realise you’re about two moves away from getting put someplace you’d find it a little harder to run away from. For your own good.”

There was a long pause, or possibly Rush’s subjective experience of time had glitched, because—

Rush said slowly, on an exhale and almost noiselessly, “For my own good.”

His eyes crept, without any conscious intent on his part, to the black plastic latch that would force the passenger-side door open. He imagined tumbling out while the truck was moving, hitting the tarmac in a badly controlled skid, the skin of his palms burning as he raked for purchase, his absurdly carapace-less and disorientatable body kicking at its ponderous vestibular system till he could get up and run, run, run.

But they had put a chip in him. Two chips. He could feel them under the skin, now, if he searched. And it would take a knife at the very least to cut them out.

“The only reason they don’t—“ Young began, and then frowned, squinting at the road ahead of them in a way that suggested deep thought, as unlikely a behavior though this was for Young.

Rush forced himself to fractionally relax.

The chips were there, two thin and unfamiliar ridges under his thumb.

“—Look,” Young said at last, “this is above your security clearance, technically, but given your whole situation, I feel like it’s something you ought to know. Maybe, I mean, for all I know, David told you already; he’s not really the kind of guy who goes by the book.”

When Young spoke about David, the lines at the corners of his eyes tightened. Rush didn’t like it; resented it, without knowing why.

“No,” he said, when it appeared that Young wanted a response.

“The Lucian Alliance has a mole in the SGC. We don’t know who, yet, but based on what we do know they’ve been up to… it’s someone high up. Someone in command.”

Rush absorbed this information without permitting himself a visible reaction. “David didn’t tell me.”

“The only reason you’re not in a bunker somewhere, or under the Mountain, with two armed guards assigned to you around the clock, is that command figures it’s marginally less safe than letting you out in the open. So far.”

“They want to put me in a fucking bunker,” Rush said, neither phrasing the sentence particularly as a question nor allowing it to become a wondering observation, a statement that might accrete truth.

His fingertips felt oddly cold, as they were prone to do at times of intense emotion, or rather at times that, objectively observed, ought to be characterised by intense emotion but were not, or not particularly. He felt, in fact, quite calm and remote. He was not thinking of anything in particular, though of course the problem inherent in forming such a declaration was that one did immediately begin to reflect upon all the things of which one was not thinking, pink elephants and the like, but also closets where the floor crunched with the remnants of a lightbulb, stairwells lit by flickering light the colour of dead skin, his futile fingernails scrabbling against the wall for purchase, the crunch of metacarpals because he had not yet learned how to form an architecturally optimal fist, the fracture planes of—

“Stop the car,” he said.

Young glanced at him. “What the fuck?”

“I’m getting out.”

“I’m giving you classified information, here,” Young said incredulously. “What do you mean, you’re getting out? I’m trying to help!”

“Stop the car,” Rush repeated levelly. “I’ll walk the rest of the way.”

“It’s a mile and a fucking half to the Mountain, and you’re wearing a blazer. Don’t be stupid.”

“I’ll hitchhike.”

“You’re not hitchhiking.”

With sudden fury, Rush lashed out against the dashboard with a boot, leaving a perfect white imprint where the kick had landed.

“What the fuck!” Young’s hand smacked against the steering wheel. The car lurched onto gravel. Young turned and glared.

Rush unfastened his seatbelt and tried to open the door, then fumbled with its locking mechanism, because it was locked. It was locked. Of course it was.

His heart was beating very rapidly.

He didn’t know why it had become necessary to immediately remove himself from the truck, but he was sure that his behavior must have a rational explanation. It usually, indeed almost invariably, did.

Young had done something to the lock, he thought, because he could not apprehend how to make it open. His futile fingernails were scrabbling against it. His palm was sweating, and that was almost certainly because—

He jerked back, because Young had laid a hand on his wrist.

The hand didn’t do anything. It didn’t even attempt to restrain Rush, which was absurd, because what else did Young think he could achieve with his appalling farmworker hand, the nails of which were slightly bitten, the skin of which was badly cared for: a broad, rough, gun-handing, rugby-player hand that would never be mistaken as anything but plebeian, a hand that was meant for holding people prisoner, and Rush’s mouth twisted in contempt, because Young couldn’t even pull that off properly; he couldn’t even keep Rush in a fucking moving vehicle, although the vehicle was, Rush became slowly aware, no longer, strictly speaking, moving; Young had pulled off onto the shoulder of the road and traffic was rushing, in velocitous little pushes, past.

Warily, he kept his hand on the locking mechanism, but waited to understand Young’s intentions.

Young said, “I’m not gonna let them put you in a bunker.”

“What the fuck do you care about it?” Rush threw at him— too fast.

He heard Young sigh. The hand shifted, but was not withdrawn.

“Just— put your seatbelt back on, would you, hotshot?” Young said, sounding tired.

“What are you planning to do if I don’t— duct tape me to the arm rests?”

“No, but you’re gonna be late to your meeting.”

Rush clenched his hands into fists and then allowed them to release.

Architecturally optimal structures.

And repeat.

He considered striking the passenger-side window until it gave way.

He had always wanted to put his hand through a window, and he did not play the piano any longer, which was one more reason it was good that he did not play the piano any longer, because that had been what had heretofore stopped him from putting his hand through a window, at least in part, and the other factor had also been— removed.

But it would be difficult to type if he put his hand through the window, and quite probably Young would consider it an example of anything that would give someone an excuse to.

He remembered David saying, If I told Jackson about that place, you’d be under a psych hold.

But David was dead, or else the Lucian Alliance was torturing him, as they had also tortured Young, who sat here now sad-faced and wrecked and stupid, a man who mistook mirrors for windows and put his hand through them, as though he did not understand the exercise’s purpose, anymore than he apparently understood the purpose of putting his hand on the wrist of someone about to jump from a moving car.

The desire to jump from a moving car had left him. His fingertips were not cold any longer. He let his shoulders slump.

“Don’t call me ‘hotshot,’” Rush said after a moment, not looking at him.

Meetings at the Mountain always felt underground, which they were, technically, but they felt even moreso than they should, and the meeting to which Rush had been summarily abandoned by Young promised to be, in particular, exquisitely claustrophobic. The chairs were gunmetal grey and the walls were concrete. Half of the people seated around the conference table were biscuit-cuttered to neatness, held upright by the starch in their Air Force suits, and the others were prim bureaucrats, lukewarm-watered down to perfection: an old man who smacked of government bloat and nouveau riche pretensions, his interchangeable aides-de-camp, and a silly porcelain-doll-looking girl. The only exception was a strikingly beautiful woman in a motorised wheelchair who darted an amused look at Rush as he came in.

“Amanda Perry,” she whispered as he sat beside her. “You can call me Mandy.”

Which was enough to nearly make him flinch, as he took in the limp limbs that spoke of quadriplegia, and remembered their conversation. Fucking Speech to Text. She ought to have said something. Why ought she to have said something? No particular reason. He considered and rejected the impulse to apologise.

“Nicholas Rush,” he said. “But you know that already.”

“Well, you look like a guy who doesn’t get out much.”

Automatically, he jerked his gaze downward, inspecting his slightly ill-fitting blazer— he’d lost weight since he’d bought it, when he still lived in San Francisco— and the wrinkled front of his shirt, before he realised that she was laughing almost soundlessly at him.

“Yes, all right,” he said, sourly. “I’d like to see how smart you look when the Lucian Alliance is trying to abduct you.”

This served to remind him of the anger he was feeling, just as one of the blue biscuits sitting around the table stood and said, “Gentlemen. And, uh— ladies. Thanks for joining us. Unfortunately, Colonel Telford is unable to be here today; I’m Lieutenant Matthew Scott, and in Colonel Telford’s absence, General Landry asked me to represent the military wing of the Icarus Project partnership.”

Rush loathed the word partnership.

Partnership, he thought. When they wanted to lock him in a bunker.

When they were going to let the Lucian Alliance have him.

When they were going to lock him in a bunker or let the Lucian Alliance have him, because he was not their fucking partner; he was a very specialised tool, which he did not mind, in fact he preferred to be a tool because he was not a partner; he was not anyone’s partner, and that was what David had understood. It was the sheer unprofessionalism to which he objected, not the element of personal danger.

He did not like badly designed endeavours, and he did not like people lying to him.

“On the civilian side,” the biscuit continued, “we’re very honored to have Senator Armstrong with us. Senator Armstrong, of course, is overseeing the funding not only for the Icarus Project, but more specifically for the Astria Porta initiative that we’re here to discuss. Uh, for Dr. Rush’s benefit, that’s what we’re calling the computer game. The computer game expansion pack. Senator Armstrong, this is Dr. Nicholas Rush, who’s agreed to participate in developing the Astria Porta initiative.”

Rush said shortly, “I’ve agreed to no such thing.”

That got the biscuit’s attention. He paused, looking worried. “I’m sorry. I must have misunderstood. General Landry said—“

“General Landry,” Rush said, emphasizing each syllable with a tone of disdain that it had taken him decades to perfect, “invited me to be a part of your little pet project only as a last-ditch measure, after the existence of said project was revealed to me by a source who quite reasonably assumed that it would be ludicrous to consider launching any project concerning the stargate cyphers without my participation, particularly a project that seeks to render them as some sort of recreational puzzle within a video game that depends upon both computational principles and code that are fundamentally incompatible with the language of the cyphers themselves, as such a plan is not only mathematically absurd but also wholly, entirely, and without question dependent upon a level of familiarity with my work that no one within Stargate Command possesses— which is why, incidentally, this project was launched in the first place, and why an attempt was made to conceal it from me, as, presumably, Stargate Command wished to prevent me from arriving at the realization that it was preemptively searching for my replacement, having accepted as unpreventable a scenario in which I am kidnapped by the Lucian Alliance, who will then proceed to torture me until, I assume, I solve the cyphers on their terms and assist them in dialing the nine-chevron address, an eventuality that Stargate Command is eager to avert, though not so eager, it must be noted, that they’re willing to prevent me from getting tortured in the first fucking place, for instance by addressing the fact that they have a high-level Lucian Alliance mole in their organization, or, in fact—“

The biscuit was trying to interrupt.

“—in fact,” Rush continued, undeterred, and possibly at a faintly hysterical pitch, “by asking me to participate in their idiotic, futile, fucking laughable little project, when the only hope of rendering it even slightly less than completely implausible is to solicit my input for it, and instead opting to treat me as some form of mentally unstable child to whom the truth had best not be entrusted, though incredibly sophisticated alien codes governing the manipulation of spacetime apparently pose no problem at all!”

There was a silence.

Rush was breathing fast.

He realised that he had clenched his hands into fists, and that Perry was very determinedly not looking at him.

“Well,” the biscuit said. He appeared to be wishing that he were not in the room. “Now that Dr. Rush has revealed classified information to our civilian visitors, I guess this meeting is officially called to order. Guys, please don’t leave without signing one of the forms that we’re going to hand out to you. Let’s just try to— uh— move away from some of the more emotional topics, maybe, and talk about—“

“I’m sorry,” the porcelain-doll-looking girl said.

Senator Armstrong said repressively, almost before she’d done speaking, “Chloe—”

The girl jerked slightly away from him. She had very long hair, as straight as though she had ironed it. “No; it’s okay. It’s—“ She took a deep breath and looked at Rush levelly. “It was my idea. My initiative. And you should’ve been told.”

Rush inspected her. She appeared to be perhaps twenty years old, and had a peach scarf tied about her neck above a collared white blouse. He had thought she was an intern. She looked the part: a little girl playing at dress-up in the too-serious and not-quite-fitting costume that she would be forced to wear as a part of some future career. “Your initiative?” he said.

“What my aide means to say—“ the senator began.

“We needed a contingency plan,” the girl said. She looked pale, but very determined. “Maybe you don’t know how much time and money my— Senator Armstrong has put into the Icarus Project. Maybe you don’t know how important it is. Millions of dollars, thousands of people, locating a— a— an appropriate planet, designing an interstellar mission, because we can’t afford not to. And then there’s you, right in the middle.”

“Me,” Rush repeated, faintly mocking. “Little old me. I’m flattered.”

The girl pressed her lips together. “Yes. You. A human being— that’s the resource that ought to make people nervous. You can control a naquadria shipment. A stargate stays where you put it. A hyperdrive isn’t just going to stop working. But you— you’re too complicated a system to control for. It’s not just the Lucian Alliance. There are a thousand ways you could die.”

“How reassuring to hear.”

“It isn’t about you,” she said loudly.

Chloe,” the senator said, more firmly.

She ducked her head, her hair falling in her face. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

A brief, uncomfortable silence fell.

“Okay,” the biscuit-soldier said, with obvious effort. “Maybe we should just start out by acknowledging that— uh— some miscommunications have occurred. Regardless, I think the important thing is for us to focus on the future of the initiative, which means setting aside those miscommunications and—“

Rush pushed his chair back from the table abruptly. The air inside the room seemed thin, and a headache was pressing against his temples like a vise or, more probably, the effect of a tightly sealed container holding him in, as though he were a superheated gas, a state-changing substance, excited particles that wanted to escape and not be him anymore.

“If it’s not about me,” he said, “then you shouldn’t find it too difficult to continue without my input. As that was, apparently, your initial plan. Good luck with that.”

He picked up his briefcase, turned, and exercised considerable force of will in exiting rather than storming out of the room.

In the corridor he leaned against a stone wall and breathed for a moment with his eyes closed.

He agreed with the girl. Of course he did.

It was simply a question of— resource allocation.

He didn’t even object to the initiative as such.

He approved of contingency planning.

Partnership was a euphemism for parasitic relations.

He was no one’s partner.

But they should not have lied to him.

He agreed with her. It wasn’t about him. He was only a resource.

It was such an inelegant solution. That was the source of his objection.

His personal feelings were not at issue.

But they should not have lied to him.

He did not know how long he stood there before a timid voice said, “Dr. Rush?”

He opened his eyes.

It was the girl. She was standing in front of him, or not quite in front of him, slightly to the side and at what she must have thought was an appropriately respectful distance for a resource. Her peach scarf was askew and she was biting her lip.

He looked at her without speaking.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“I didn’t mean— I shouldn’t have said— of course it’s about you.”

“You were right,” Rush said.

“No.” She shook her head vehemently, sending her hair wobbling. “I knew about the Lucian Alliance, but I didn’t really realise; I didn’t think about you like you were someone who had to walk around knowing that he might get tortured. I didn’t think about how it would feel.”

Rush said flatly, “You shouldn’t. Sentiment will only compromise your decisions.”

“You can’t really believe that.”

“Of course I can. I do.” He turned his head away tiredly, wanting the conversation to be over.

“My name is Chloe Armstrong,” she said.

He had supposed as much. “How interesting for you,” he said.

“It is my initiative. I work in my father’s office. He thought— I know about video games, you see, and the idea started out small, but then no one else had any better ones, and suddenly I was in charge of the whole project, because someone needed to take charge, and everyone in the Air Force is—“

“Miss Armstrong,” Rush said, “please do me the favor of discharging your point.”

She faltered, then reached into her small purse and produced a business card and a pen. “Just— I do want your input. I need it. And if you need anything, I owe to you to try to—“

Rush said, “You don’t.”

She was writing something on the back of the card, in very small, neat block letters. When she had finished, she thrust the card out at him. “Still,” she said.

He took it ungraciously and, without looking at it, shoved it into his pocket. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t feel a great deal of sympathy for your initiative’s needs at the moment.”

“Yes. But—“ She studied him. “We all want the same thing, don’t we?”

“Do we?”

“To break the codes. To dial the ninth chevron.”

Rush felt his hands close into fists. The unconscious impulse, like an autonomic reflex, had dogged him all day; he did not know why he felt such an urge to fight, a defensive instinct. “Yes,” he said. “We all want that. Of course we do. Yes.”

Once he had rid himself of Armstrong Minor, Rush abandoned the twenty-fourth floor altogether and made his way towards the twenty-first floor infirmary. He had been there once before, when he’d first moved to Colorado. The Stargate Program mandated a large number of medical tests upon which employment was contingent.

It looked much the same now as it had done then, which was to say military in every detail of its design and furnishings. He had thought, the first time, that it might look like— might smell like— he had dreaded— But in fact it had looked like a room meant to be in the midst of a war zone, with long neat rows of white-sheeted beds, and the air had not had the taint of sickness on it.

A blonde woman, rather soft-faced, was filling out a chart as he entered. She looked up at the sound of his footsteps. “Can I help you?” she said.

“I’d like to review my medical records,” Rush said. “My name is Dr. Nicholas Rush.”

“Sure thing,” the blonde woman said. Her smile had no hint of artifice in it. “Let me go pull a hard copy for you. Won’t be a minute.”

She disappeared through a door marked MEDICAL STAFF ONLY.

Rush folded his arms across his chest.

He had not been certain that he wished to take this step, if for no other reason than because he had been instructed to do so, which always made him bridle, and because as a rule he did not like secrecy. He did not like secrecy: that was, after all, the cryptanalyst’s dominant characteristic, a obsessive insistence that nothing ought to remain hidden. So he did not care for this sneaking-around, this cut-rate Le Carré bullshit; in the cryptographic field, he was known for the brutality of his programs, though at the same time for their elegance. A thing could be elegant and brutal all at once, in his experience, and it was what he aspired to. He had no time for civilised fucking English-style games of circumlocution. You could anatomise the thing after it was dead.

(Even with its crisply military scent, this was the wrong room in which to think of death.)

But: he did not like secrecy, so he was here. As Jackson— and he was absolutely certain it was Jackson, the author of that coy, pretentious little riddle– had undoubtedly known he would be.

Wheels within fucking hamster wheels.

He resisted the urge to press his hands to his temples.

The door at the back of the room swung open, and the blonde woman, with a look of bemusement, emerged in the company of Carolyn Lam. Lam was the base’s Chief Medical Officer, whom Rush had met when he had been here… whenever it was that he had been here before. (The dates had been rather vague at the time and not become significant less vague in the months since then). She was hardly to be troubled for a routine documentation request, which made the fact that she was holding a file folder, and the blonde woman wasn’t, rather interesting.

“Dr. Rush,” Lam said. “Lieutenant Johansen tells me that you’ve asked to review your medical file. Can I ask why?”

It was a tone of voice to which Rush was programmed to respond by bristling: a smooth, practiced, passive, and perfectly bureaucratic tone that hinted at but did not outright accuse of wrongdoing. It was the voice of the job centre advisor, and of the college porter who stopped you crossing the quad on your way in, wanting to see identification for No particular reason, sir, only protocol.

“No particular reason,” Rush said, with a sharp slice of a smile. “I wasn’t aware I needed one.”

“You don’t,” Lam said. But she hadn’t handed the file over. “If there’s a question I can help you with—“

“There isn’t.” Rush extended his hand. “I’d simply like to look at the file. Please.”

Lam didn’t move. She was wearing a complicated expression.

“Please,” Rush repeated, with more force behind the word.

At last, and haltingly, Lam placed the file in his hand. “You’ll have to read it here,” she said. “I can’t allow you to remove it from the infirmary.”

“That should be more than adequate,” Rush said.

The file was not thick.

He did not bother to sit, but simply turned and laid the folder out on one of the crisp white army-sheeted gurneys. He could discern according to a certain hyperawareness of motion that neither Lam nor the other woman— Johansen— had left the room. Quite probably they were watching him. But he was used to being watched, by this point.

RUSH, the file read. NICHOLAS. DOB: 11/01/65. HEIGHT: 66’’. WEIGHT: 125 lbs.

He scanned through the cover sheet: FAMILY HISTORY: Unknown. Yes, well. Close enough. SOCIAL HISTORY: Patient originally from UK, moved to US 13 yrs ago. Reports wife recently deceased. He lives alone. Current tobacco user, pack/day 28 yrs. Heavy caffeine use. Social drinker. Underneath that, PAST MEDICAL HISTORY: nb uncooperative source. Wasn’t he just. Records requested: 1970 concussion, 1974 surgery re: fx radius/ulna, 1974 adm no details, 1975 lac sutures + X-ray, 1977 fx metacarpals III/IV. Hx headache.

Too quickly and with an audible sound, Rush turned the paper over. On the back was a long list of physical findings— T 97.6 HR 75 BP 114/96— and a review of systems that he skimmed through. Constitutional: denies anorexia or weight loss… Respiratory: denies cough or wheezing… Psychiatric: denies depression, anxiety, mental disturbance, suicidal ideation…

The next page contained a PLAN: Patient is cleared for medical duty. Patient is known ATA/ATS POS — Gene expression levels by qPCR ordered. Whole exon sequencing ordered. Flow cytometric analysis ordered. Consult Beckett.

This did not mean anything to him. He flipped through the remaining pages of the file, which assured the reader that his MRI was GOA’ULD NEGATIVE, his CT scan was NEGATIVE FOR ABNORMALITIES, and his EEG was HIGH AMPLITUDE/HIGH FREQUENCY ATA BAND. Following this last result was a page containing a genetic sequence: ATA SEQUENCING. Then another: ATS SEQUENCING. Then a third: UAT SEQUENCING. He could make no sense of them, and was faintly troubled by the fact that their segments of letters looked like what they were: code.

Interpretation of results, the next page read. Excellent quality sample obtained from the NMDP.  Patient is a homozygote for the ATA gene and ATS genes.  He is a hemizygote for the UAT gene. Given homozygosity, ATA and ATS expression levels are predicted to be extremely high. Recommend further study of UAT, including whole genome sequencing and alignment to all Ancient tissue samples on file. Recommend sequencing of family members if genetic material or individuals can be located. Recommend comparison to other carriers of ATA, specifically CaBe (geographically suggestive) and JoSh (only other individual with two copies of ATS) to assess for any commonalities in ancestry. Recommend in-field testing of patient’s ability to operate Ancient tech.

He could still feel Lam watching him.

Next page: more impenetrable data, some of it circled and marked with an exclamation point. The interpretation of results: ATA mRNA levels equivalent to those of JoSh. Possible physiologic ceiling. ATS levels equivalent to JoSh as predicted. UAT may explain high amplitude EEG waves not observed in JoSh.

He did not know who fucking JoSh was.

He did not know why anyone would be so interested in his genes.

His grandparents had been quasi-literate at best, working in the shipyards and raising children. Farther back than that the family disappeared in coal. Not an ancestor was there, so far as he knew, who could so much as sign his own name, and so their names had gone unwritten, unremembered, and good riddance: let them all be erased.

His genes were the genes of half Scotland, surely, half-drink and half-slurry, kept alive half by the dole and half by the animal refusal to die.

The last document in the file was a hard copy of an email dated June 12, 2008, and sent from someone called Carson Beckett at an address that indicated Atlantis.

Dear Dr. Lam, it began.

Thank you for involving me in the care of your patient, Nicholas Rush. I have reviewed the records and tissue-typing results that you sent via the Midway Station secure FTP package. I was able to confirm protein expression equivalent to the highest levels that we have on file for both ATA and ATS. As noted, this is suggestive of a physiologic ceiling seen in those who carry two copies of each gene. I was also able to subject cultured cells to EM radiation that corresponds to that used by Ancient technology and found that the electrophysiological responses of NiRu cells were equivalent to JoSh cells.

I have gone back over the records of all ATA carriers and homozygotes, and can find no other instances of UAT.  As the gene is X-linked, I would be quite interested in obtaining samples from the patient’s mother if possible, as well as any siblings. I understand the patient has indicated that all relatives are estranged or deceased, but I would remind you that there may be tissue samples available that could be used. I understand also that there is some concern regarding information security at the SGC at the moment, so I defer to your decision about the timing of gathering as complete of a family history as possible, but maintain that it should be gathered.

To date, I have isolated the UAT gene and purified the UAT protein. There are some indications that the intron spanning exons 6 and 7 may encode a microRNA that could end up being a more important target than the protein itself. As of yet, I have not determined its function, despite observing the same response in proximity to Ancient technology that you yourself recount, and I suspect that it will be quite difficult to do so without access to—

Rush broke off reading at the sound of a casual rat-tat-tat knocking. He looked up and saw the other colonel, the forgettable one, what was his name, Mitchell, slouching casually against the frame of the infirmary door.

Mitchell saw him at the same moment, and his face went from its ordinary expression of nothing-in-particular to creased around the edges and tense. “Dr. Rush,” he said. “Funny seeing you here.”

“Dr. Rush asked to review his medical file,” Lam said, stepping into the centre of the room, her voice very precise and very neutral.

“That seems like a security violation,” Mitchell said.

Lam said, “Patient medical records are subject to privacy regulations, and considered the property of the individual.”

“Are they,” Mitchell said.

He and Lam were participating in a dense, silent, and all-but-invisible interlocution that seemed far more information-rich than the one in which they were nominally engaged.

Rush looked from one to the other, his hand clenched at the edge of the file folder. Without meaning to, he had snapped it shut, trapping the rows and rows of genetic lettering within. He felt that he could feel them under his fingertips, a cyphertext that was not cyphertext exactly, a code that called out to be broken and that he did not know how to break.

“Why wasn’t I told?” he asked, directing the question at neither Lam or Mitchell in particular, but at the room as a whole: its grey gunmetal aesthetic, its military bedsheets, its sterile smell. “About these genes, this— this gene, whatever this is?”

“There was no reason for you to know,” Mitchell said.

“It’s my fucking body!” Rush’s voice came out too loud.

He had been trying to appear calm. He was calm.

Lam said quietly, “There are no medical effects that we’re aware of. You could have gone your whole life not knowing.”

“Bullshit,” Rush said, pointing a not-entirely-steady finger at her. “Bullshit. You wouldn’t be interested if it did nothing; you wouldn’t have sent my cells to Atlantis; you wouldn’t be talking about tracking down my family, which— best of luck with that; you’ll have to scour half the council estates in Glasgow to turn the lot of them out from wherever they’re currently transmuting government benefits, alchemy-like, into Buckfast, if they haven’t managed to get themselves guttered on any given night—“

“We don’t know what it does,” Mitchell interrupted. His jaw was set hard. “We don’t know what it does, and frankly you should be glad we don’t, at this point, because, if we don’t, then it means that the Lucian Alliance doesn’t, which is why we didn’t tell you about any of this— because as far as we know, the Lucians only know about the first two genes, and we’re trying our goddamn best to keep it that way, so obviously—“

Rush was already laughing soundlessly, a quick painful huff of breath that seemed to come from behind his lungs. “So obviously you wouldn’t tell me,” he said. “Since I’m due to be kidnapped any moment now, and I’d only give it up under torture.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Mitchell said, with an un-earned and over-earnest certainty.

“Oh, fuck you,” Rush said, and hurled the file across the infirmary. It struck the floor and fell open, sending papers spilling out. “So sorry to fuck your infosec with my impending torture. You can keep the file; I’m leaving.”

He started towards the door and saw Mitchell move to block his path. He did not know what Mitchell planned; perhaps this was the bunker moment of which Young had attempted to warn him, and if in fact that was the case, then he had very few avenues of action. Or could Mitchell himself be an agent of the Lucian Alliance? Young had given him very little information about the supposed Lucian mole within Stargate Command. High-up, Young had said, and Mitchell fit that description.

Unless Young himself was the Lucian agent, and attempting to distract Rush from his own behavior. Surely no one would classify Young as “high-up.”

Perhaps there was no Lucian agent. Perhaps it had been a ploy to ensure his cooperation.

But what would be the logic in that?

He stared at Mitchell’s remarkably vacant blue eyes.

“Cam,” Lam said from behind him. “Don’t.”

“I’m trying to protect you,” Mitchell said to Rush.

“Yes,” Rush said. “I’m certain you think so.”

He had almost made it to the door when the slow wail of an alarm began to push its way from an unseen speaker, and a blue light pulsed a curiously undersea warning from its spot against the top of the world

“Unscheduled offworld activation,” a stiff voice announced over the base’s tannoy.

Shit,” Mitchell said, just as Rush said, “What—“

Mitchell’s hand came down at the top of Rush’s arm, fingers digging hard into the muscle.

“Get the fuck off me,” Rush bit out, trying to wrestle his way free of the grip, but distracted by the shrill, wavering pitch of the siren.

Mitchell shoved him in the direction of Lam. “Make sure he stays here,” he ordered her.

Lam nodded tersely, rather than telling Mitchell to fuck off, which was what Rush would have done, and what he was strongly considering doing despite the fact that Mitchell had released his arm. He objected to being manhandled. He was not a piece of meat for infantile American fascists to manoeuvre into whatever corner they wanted him in; he would not be moved and he would not be made to take tests designed to assess his piece-of-meat potential; he would not allow them to skim slices off of him and send them to another galaxy to be stared at, and he wanted them back, those cells that were his, that were him.

But Mitchell had departed before he could articulate this very reasonable set of sentiments, slamming the door shut behind him, and Rush was left only with the blue cycle of the light and the high-pitched alarm in his ears.

Lam touched his shoulder softly. “It’ll be fine,” she said. “We get false alarms all the time.”

Rush watched as she crossed the room and knelt to collect the pages of his medical file. He could make out the repeated letters of his genetic code for a moment, before Lam straightened the papers. C, A, D, G. C, D, A, G. His instinct was to convert it into trits, as though his body could be rendered in -1s, 0s, and 1s, which perhaps it could, perhaps it should be, and then it would be possible to find a solution for it, possible to solve the problem that was the fact of being embodied.

As Lam stood, awkward in her low heels, he said. “I apologise for throwing the papers. That was unnecessary.”

She faced him, hugging the folder to her white-coated chest, her hair slipping loose from its sleep ponytail. She looked almost tearful for a moment, but then the look passed, like the shadow of a cloud over the face of the earth.

“Don’t. Please don’t apologise,” she said.

### Chapter Text

Young had parted ways with Rush in the elevator, feeling a certain amount of trepidation. It wasn’t so much that he was worried about something happening to Rush as he was worried about Rush happening to Rush, especially after the whole scene in the truck. He’d been pretty sure that Rush was ready to toss himself into traffic just because, basically, he was keyed the hell up and Young had said the wrong thing. The trouble was that it was hard to know the right thing to say to Rush; it was like the inside of Rush’s brain spoke a different language from the rest of the world, and Rush had to run everything he heard through about six different crappy translation websites to make it compute. You could just never predict what he was going to get out of what you were saying, and whether it was going to make him charge the military for a bunch of South African wines, or pass out, or throw a fork.

He didn’t want Rush to end up in a bunker.

He felt his way around that thought while he sat outside of Landry’s office, trying to ignore the persistent ache in his back and hip. Really, Rush in a bunker was a better idea all-around. Not only was it safer for Rush, but it would get him the hell out of Young’s apartment, where his principal occupation over the last four days had been being a pain in the ass. Young could start his life, his new life, his real life.

That had been the point of the move. No more Emily, and no more hospital purgatory, either; no more David (no more David, the darkness under the floorboards of his brain whispered, now for good); just him learning to live with the new self that had been sewn together on the operating table. But instead it had turned into, almost from the start, a bizarro European art-house comedy of the sort that Rush seemed to orchestrate without any effort. Unconscious mathematicians who cooked dinner in his beer cooler, Lucian Alliance snatch teams in his suburban apartment complex, Rush trying to put toothpaste on his ceiling, and kitchen machines that flash-froze fruit.

That wasn’t real life. He didn’t know what it was, exactly.

He lifted his eyes as the door to the office began to open, and stood as hastily as he was able to, moving to salute.

Landry wasn’t alone, which surprised him; when he’d gotten the call that the general wanted to meet with him, he’d assumed it was about Rush— some kind of formal request for Rush to stay with him till the latest Lucian catastrophe blew over. But standing behind Landry was Jack O’Neill, who didn’t show up at Cheyenne Mountain these days for anything that wasn’t pretty damn close to a Code Red, and there was someone else in the room: a civilian, a petite Asian woman who wore a severe look.

“Colonel,” Landry said, when salutes had been exchanged. “Come in. I’d like to introduce you to Camile Wray, from the International Oversight Advisory. She’s attached to the Icarus Project.”

Young shook Wray’s hand and then, at Landry’s nod, took a seat— a protracted moment of trying to make joints and tendons and muscles work in tandem, when they felt like a baby’s uncoordinated, flailing limbs. He was aware of Landry and O’Neill carefully not looking at him. Wray was, maybe out of plain curiosity. He didn’t know if they’d told her what had happened to him.

“So,” Landry said when Young was seated. “I want to make it clear from the beginning that this meeting is informal. I’m well aware you’re still on leave. Let’s not even call it a meeting. Think of it as a casual chat between four colleagues who share some similar interests.”

Young shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Yes, sir. And what interests would those be?”

“Well, Nicholas Rush, for one,” O’Neill said, at the same time that Landry said, “The Icarus Project.”

They glanced at each other, and then at Young.

“How is ol’ Nick?” O’Neill asked, leaning back in his chair. “I hear you two are roommates.”

“We’re— definitely not roommates,” Young said.

“Yeah?”

“He’s sleeping on my couch at the moment. For security reasons.”

“How’s that going?” O’Neill lifted a querying eyebrow. “Cause I gotta say, when I met the guy, he didn’t really seem like roommate material.”

Young said guardedly, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“My impression was that the guy is nuttier than a can of peanut brittle.”

“He’s— a little stressed,” Young said lamely. “Listen, this isn’t about the credit card thing, is it?”

O’Neill and Landry exchanged another glance, this one baffled.

“What credit card thing?” O’Neill asked.

“He, uh—“ Young searched for a diplomatic way to explain that Rush had been in a bad mood that had resulted in the misuse of a sizable chunk of government funding. “Apparently he has very specific household needs. He might have used his SGC expense account to purchase some… objects.”

O’Neill looked fascinated. “What kind of objects?”

“Uh— “ Young felt himself flailing. “Some kind of something that freeze-dries anything you put in it, like astronaut ice cream, and another one that makes couscous? He’s kind of a chef.”

“A chef,” O’Neill said disbelievingly.

Landry said, “A chef?” A faint crease had appeared between his eyebrows.

“We are talking about Nicholas Rush, right?” O’Neill asked. “Little guy, pretty much always angry? I would have bet you anything that he didn’t even eat. Just— absorbed the life force of people he pissed off, maybe.”

“He’s a lot of work,” Young allowed. “But he does make a pumpkin sorbet to die for.”

There was an incredulous silence.

“So you like him,” O’Neill said at last.

Young said, “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“You think we could send him into the field?”

As tempting as it was to wince, or even let his jaw drop, Young resisted. “So this is about the DHD thing?”

It was not, apparently, about the DHD thing, either, because this question only resulted in more confusion. Young was getting tired of the rapid-fire exchange of complicated, meaningful nods and glances that he didn’t have the context to understand.

“It’s just that Rush said he was going to need to go offworld,” he said, to cut the glances short. “Something about the eighth cipher; he said he needed to do something to a DHD to solve it, and that it couldn’t be anyone else— it had to be him.”

“So Rush is prepared to go into the field,” Landry said.

“Hank,” O’Neill said in a long-suffering tone, like they were re-hashing an old argument.

Jack,” Landry returned.

Gentlemen,” Camile Wray said. She had been silent so far, but leaned forward now, her hands precisely folded in her lap. “Colonel,” she said to Young, “what is your tactical assessment of Dr. Rush?”

“I mean—“ Young said, and faltered, looking uncertainly from her to O’Neill to Landry. “Maybe you should tell me what this is about.”

“It’s about the Icarus Project,” Wray said. “We’ll get to that in a moment. Would you answer the question, please?”

Young still didn’t know what to say. He thought about it for a minute, staring at a small American flag that was stuck in a jar of pens on Landry’s desk. Rush would hate that, he thought, that flag; he’d probably say something about— Christ knew— the military equivalent of dollhouse furniture or something. He tried to imagine what Rush was doing. Hopefully managing to hold a well-mannered and reasonable discussion about video games, though the odds of that seemed astronomically low.

“I don’t think I can give you a tactical assessment,” he said finally. “In almost every way that counts, he’s just— kind of hard to predict. He’s not like other people. He doesn’t react like other people. It helps to imagine him like, I don’t know, Teal’c or somebody. Someone who grew up on another planet. Not like a human being.”

That caused a heavy silence to spread throughout the office, which made Young feel once more like he’d been left out of the discussion.

“So you wouldn’t send him into the field,” O’Neill said. His face was neutral.

“I think it would depend on who went with him,” Young said. “He needs— managing. A lot of managing. I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but I wouldn’t be looking to stick him on a gate team.”

No one said anything for a moment. Landry and O’Neill were looking at each other.

“Do I get to know what this is about now?” Young ventured, feeling a little bit like a schoolkid who’d been sitting in the principal’s office for ten minutes without having the nature of his crime divulged.

“How much do you actually know about the Icarus Project?” Wray asked, sitting straight-backed, composed, and hard to parse.

“Not a ton, I guess.” Young tried to remember. “I know about the nine-chevron address we found, which no one knows anything about, including where it goes to, and which we can’t dial because Rush has to break all the codes first. And even if we could dial, it would take so much energy to power the wormhole that we’d need a whole planet’s worth of naquadria to do it, which, since nobody’s stumbled across a planet like that so far, makes the whole thing theoretical at best. And—“ he paused, and hoped the pause was not perceptible to either general, “Colonel Telford is in charge of it. Or was, I guess. He was in charge.”

“He’s still in charge,” Landry said. “He’s got six hours left on his window.”

Until the SGC deactivated SG-3’s GDOs, he meant, and made it impossible for David and his team to ever come home.

“Right,” Young managed, even though his throat had closed.

O’Neill was gazing at him with an unreadable expression that made Young feel naked.

Wray said tightly, “The Icarus Project is a joint project with both civilian and military factions. Colonel Telford had— has— the full support of the IOA. In his absence—“

“In his absence,” O’Neill cut in smoothly, still watching Young, “how’d you like the job, Colonel?”

Young stared at him. “Ex— cuse me?” he said stupidly.

“The job,” O’Neill said, gesturing vaguely, as though the job were hovering around his head like a particularly persistent mosquito. “The command. Of the Icarus Project. Of the Icarus Base.”

“The Icarus Base?”

O’Neill snapped his fingers. “Oh, yeah. I forgot to mention. The whole theoretical part? Not so much. We found a planet. Put a gate down and everything. We’re already building the base. Should be done just about in time for Christmas. So: whaddya say?”

Landry was staring fixedly at his desk with an air of disapproval. But Wray met Young’s eyes when he turned to her for some kind of clarification, some way to make sense of what he was hearing. She didn’t look happy, but there was an element of curiosity to her also, something analytical in the way she tilted her head.

“I’m on medical leave,” Young said, when he could figure out to make his mouth work. “I’m not cleared for duty.”

O’Neill waved his hand lazily. “Eh, there’ll be a lot of sitting around. There always is with these command jobs. You can use a MALP.”

“Jack,” Landry said wearily.

“What? I’m mentoring him. I’m being a mentor.”

“What does any of this have to do with Rush, though?” Young asked. “I mean, I get that he’s breaking the ciphers, and, sure, so maybe he has to take a quick trip offworld to do it, but that’s a desk job. He works on a laptop. You’re not going to send him halfway across the galaxy just so he can solve math problems. What about the Lucian Alliance?”

Now O’Neill was the one carefully not looking at Young, presumably to mask his disagreement with the answer that Young was about to get.

“It was the opinion of Colonel Telford,” Wray said in a very crisp, precise voice, “that dialing the nine-chevron address would be neither possible nor, ultimately, likely to achieve any military or scientific goals without the presence of Dr. Rush both at the Icarus Base and as part of any subsequent exploratory team.”

“You mean— as in, you wanted to send him through the gate,” Young said. “When you dialed the address.”

“Yes.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

Wray was watching him with the same air of remote curiosity. “Is that your tactical assessment?”

“I already told you, I don’t—“ Young ran a hand over his face. He was trying to imagine Rush on some alien planet, probably shoeless, furious about the temperature or the color of the sky or the quality of the food, throwing a fit and threatening to blow up a temple or steal a spaceship or something, possibly right before falling over in a dead faint. “Christ. This is David’s idea?”

“Colonel Telford and Dr. Rush had an excellent working relationship,” Wray said. “Excuse me. Have an excellent working relationship. The IOA takes Colonel Telford’s recommendations on the matter very seriously. He was the one who recruited Dr. Rush in the first place, which earned him a considerable amount of favor.”

“David recruited Rush?” Young shook his head. “He doesn’t know anything about math. Or codes, for that matter. Why wouldn’t you send Carter, or even Jackson?”

Wray’s expression didn’t alter. “We did. Dr. Rush found Dr. Jackson… less than persuasive. Colonel Telford’s interest in Dr. Rush was linked to a different project, one related to Icarus, but not a part of it. He was strongly motivated to be successful in Dr. Rush’s recruitment.”

“And that’s where the bad blood between him and Jackson comes from?”

A silence descended.

Young had a intuitive, almost bodily sense that he was standing at the brink of some chasm, one that he could not see but had felt his way towards, groping through the hard dirt, certain that such a place had to exist.

Or was he remembering the caldera? Sweat and dust had gotten in his eyes as he’d climbed, and after a while he had not been able to see the ridge. He had felt his way through the rocky soil, and David had carried him, sometimes, until it was no longer possible to tell whose blood was whose where blood had soaked through both of their unsalvageable shirts.

No, he thought, watching O’Neill and Landry and Wray’s expressions. He was right. The chasm did exist. And he had come right to the edge of it, and they were hoping he wouldn’t notice. But he had noticed.

“Because there is bad blood between them,” he said. “And it’s about Rush. But it’s not about anything as petty as who signed him up, is it? And, excuse my language, sirs— ma’am— but I’m pretty damn sure it’s not about math.”

No one spoke.

“Colonel Telford’s project involves recruiting individuals who possess certain Ancient genetic markers,” Landry said at last. “Dr. Rush was identified as one of these individuals through an initiative that screened all participants in the National Marrow Donor Program. I believe his wife was ill at the time— she’s since passed— tragic, of course, but something of a stroke of fortune at our end.”

“His wife?” Young had to stare at them for a second, processing this information. He had noticed that Rush wore a wedding ring, but the idea of Rush being married was so extraordinary, so outside of the realm of what Young could even imagine, that he had assumed there was a simpler explanation, like that Rush had decided to ceremonially marry his work, like those people you heard about who married Ferris wheels or dead pirates. Compared to Rush having had a wife, that seemed to make sense.

He wrenched his mind back to what was pertinent. “And then— so David, what, needed a bunch of ATA-positives for some reason, and the gene therapy wasn’t good enough—“ It wasn’t, sometimes, he knew; the SGC had been working on working to try and improve the process, but there were parts of Atlantis that only Sheppard could use.

O’Neill said, “Let’s just say Telford had reason to believe that people with these, whatever you call them, genetic markers, would be useful to the Icarus Project. Jackson had some problems with that idea. Right now, none of this is relevant to whether or not you’re going to take point on Icarus, because you’re not going to be cleared to get the full story until you’re actually in command.”

Young looked down. His hands were resting in his lap, pale against the dark blue of his uniform trousers. He hadn’t had a reason to get dressed-up like this in months, or put on any kind of uniform, really. He was wearing a brace under his coat, but it wasn’t visible— at least, he didn’t think so. He’d lost enough weight in the hospital that even with the brace the coat fit. It had felt good, putting the uniform on, like he was putting his bones back in his body after months spent living without them, so he could finally do more than crawl out of bed in the morning, so he finally had the means at his disposal to stand up straight.

He wanted to do that every day. He wanted his life back. Your real life, that insistent whisper said. But—

“How much of this does Rush know?” he asked.

That caused another cascade of quick glances.

Landry, having apparently drawn the short straw on this one, cleared his throat. “All of this is currently restricted information,” he said. “Dr. Rush doesn’t have that level of clearance.”

It was what Young had expected. “And Telford?” he asked. “I mean, he could still be—“

“Tell you what,” O’Neill said. “Let’s just call it appointing you Second-in-Command. If Telford makes it back, we can rethink the situation. Otherwise, you’ll have the—“

He didn’t finish what he was saying: a klaxon sounded, and the blue light that warned of a security breach began to pulse through the room.

“Unscheduled offworld activation,” Harriman’s voice announced over the loudspeaker.

Landry and O’Neill were on their feet before the broadcast had ended, Young a painful beat behind them, though he too had felt his muscles tense before he’d consciously registered the interruption. Wray, looking startled, stared up at them.

“Well, I figured I was about due for a good old unscheduled offworld activation,” O’Neill said, sounding philosophical. But the soft lines of his aging face had gone grim. “Camile, you’d better stay here.”

Wray nodded. Her hands were clenched on the arms of her chair. Young wondered if she’d ever been in a military crisis before. It was hard to tell with these political people. Some of them were tough as nails, negotiators who’d been in the shit in Iraq or Colombia or the Balkans, but some of them, inevitably, turned out to be jumped-up bureaucrats. He had a feeling that Wray was the former, but it was hard to say for sure.

The door swung open. Landry was already talking to someone outside, giving orders.

O’Neill paused in the act of following him and looked at Young, who had one hand braced against a chair-back and was standing stupidly in the center of the room.

“Well?” O’Neill said. “You coming?”

The control room was frantic with uncoordinated action, techs hunched over their computers as Harriman, impassive as ever, stood overseeing the expanse of the gateroom. He turned as Landry, Young, and O’Neill entered— a small steady figure in the midst of so much chaos, hands clasped behind his back.

“They’ve just locked on six,” he said. “Sirs. The iris is closed and holding.”

It was. Young looked out through the broad window and saw the gate flare briefly as the wormhole connected. The crisp and tightly coiled panels of the iris held the blue light of the event horizon in. It was supposed to be an eye, he was pretty sure, that the name of the thing came from, but he always thought of a flower: its petals pure trinium and blade-like, edged.

Seeing the gate was like an unexpected gut-punch to him. The last time he’d gone through it, he’d had two working legs and a spine that held itself together. He’d been so sure of himself, so convinced of the capability of his body, like he didn’t even have a body— just a manifestation of some invincible mental energy that he would always be able to make do whatever he wanted it to do. Stepping into the weird light of the puddle, he hadn’t thought about what he was doing, that he was letting himself be unmade down to molecules, that there was any such level of… nonexistence, maybe, to him. He was a person; he wasn’t like that; you couldn’t tear a person to pieces.

But you could, he thought now. Maybe. Maybe you could.

“We just had an impact,” Harriman said tersely. “Against the iris.”

There was a pause, as a kind of collective shudder swept through the room. They had all thought about it: what it would be like to come in at wormhole velocity and splinter into atoms on the trinium blades.

Harriman said, “Another impact.”

A beat.

“And another.”

The clutter of noise in the room had died down.

O’Neill was frowning. He brought one hand up to rub distractedly at his face.

Mitchell appeared at Young’s right shoulder, slightly out of breath. “What’d I miss?” he whispered. “While I was, by the way, in the infirmary, trying to talk your drama-llama roommate down from—”

“Impact,” Harriman said. “Sir, we estimate that the mass of these objects is too small to be a humanoid body. It’s likely under two kilograms.”

Young let out the breath he’d been holding. Too small to be bodies. At the very least, that meant—

“So it’s not them,” Mitchell said. His voice was still low. He glanced at Young.

Not David. Not his team. Trying to get home without radios or GDOs. Maybe even wanting the lethal wall of the iris, figuring that death was better. Thinking of it as a relief.

Harriman said, “We have another impact.”

“Like kids throwing rocks,” O’Neill said thoughtfully.

Landry said, “Something the size of a rock can be pretty goddamn lethal.”

“Another impact,” Harriman said.

Young felt unsteady. He let his hand grip the back of the nearest chair, startling a technician. “Three and three,” he said.

O’Neill glanced at him sharply. “You think?”

“Three short, three long.”

There was a silence.

Harriman said, “Sir, we have another impact. And— another. And—“

They waited for it.

“Impact,” Harriman said, his face emotionless.

“Jesus,” Mitchell said, and turned away.

Young felt sick.

Three short. Three long. Three short. SOS.

O’Neill looked at Landry. “How close are we to having a team scrambled?”

“Any minute now,” Landry said. His face was carved with unhappy canyons. “I hate to be the one to say it, but— given our current situation with the Lucian Alliance, the level of compromise we’ve experienced so far, there’s no way we can be certain that they don’t know Morse code.”

O’Neill didn’t say anything. He was staring at the circle of the iris.

“If we’re going to open the iris,” Mitchell said tautly, “we don’t have a lot of time to make that call. Sir. We have to open it before they try to come through.”

They. Like he too was imagining David on the other side of that iris, David and whatever was left of SG-3, throwing rocks or bricks or burnt-up hunks of ship through the gate like they were pounding against a door with bare fists. Open it, Young wanted to say. Open it, open it, oh my God, because he could imagine what David would look like, dwarfed by the gate in the alien dark of another planet; he didn’t have to imagine, because it came to him now and then— not David in front of the gate, but David posed in front of the low red sun, with his shirt half-gone and blood covering his breastbone, blood coming out of his mouth when he wiped it with his hand.

“You should leave me here,” Young said. “Just— leave me.”

David glanced away, looking desolate for a second. So tired and so sad. “You know I can’t do that,” he said.

“I’m telling you to. Go. You can make it without me.”

David exhaled long and slow, like he was biting down on pain. “I wish,” he said softly. “I really wish it hadn’t been you.”

“Sir,” Harriman said. He sounded strained. “We’re continuing to receive impacts. Three short and three long.”

“Why not dial the alpha site?” O’Neill asked. He had his hat off, tucked under his arm; he was still staring out at the gate, but ran an absent, restless hand across his head. “For the sake of argument, let’s say it is SG-3. They lose their GDOs; all right. They’re stranded. Protocol says they dial the alpha site.”

“No radios,” Mitchell said. “The alpha site isn’t going to open their iris. If I’m SG-3, if I’m betting on someone out there getting the signal, someone who knows what they’re doing, someone who knows me— it’s gonna be here at Command.”

Or it’s the Lucian Alliance,” Landry said. “Or— hell— the Ori, for all we know.”

Mitchell said, “But it feels like Telford. It feels like something he would do.”

He was looking at Young when he said it, like he realized it was the first time David’s name had been uttered.

“Yeah,” Young said, dry-mouthed. “Yeah. It does.”

Landry turned away abruptly, and was talking into a radio— “I want that goddamn team ready,” he was saying, “but no itchy trigger fingers, and I mean none.” When he returned, he exchanged a long look with O’Neill.

“Harriman,” he said. “Open the iris.”

Young’s hands clenched into fists. He thought bizarrely of Rush, that morning, his hands opening and closing, as though he didn’t know how to fight, or maybe who, or wanted to fight and not-fight at the same time, and neither impulse had won out. Young didn’t have that problem, he thought, as his nails bit into his palms, but he had no one to fight.

The strange unsteady light of the event horizon spilled into the room.

For a moment there was nothing, only the puddle’s watery ghosts and reflections glancing off the dark walls and the floor.

Then a last rock— and it was a rock, Young thought, something iron-rich, red and dusty— sailed through the event horizon and struck a crate.

There was a moment of silence. Then—

Screaming, Zack Reynolds slammed through the wormhole, crashing into the ramp and then off it, smearing blood across the concrete as he skidded to a halt. Half his uniform had been torn off him, and half his skin too, it looked like, and he kept screaming, something that was almost a word, but a word that Young couldn’t make out.

“Jesus,” Mitchell breathed, and pivoted sharply towards Landry.  “He’s saying no. He’s saying no!

“Shut it down!” Landry barked, jerking forward and gripping the back of a chair with white knuckles.

Young had not realized how still the room had gone until it burst into noise.

“Sir, the iris is not responding,” Harriman reported. In the blue glow of the wormhole, his face looked ashen.

“Well, make it respond, dammit!” Landry said.

An alarm was sounding from one of the computer monitors. Maybe more than one.

“What the hell is that?” Mitchell said, pointing to where some kind of smoke had started seeping through the stargate. It was dark, almost ink-black, rising upwards and dispersing as though it were being piped in.

“At a guess,” O’Neill said, looking tense, “I’d say it’s probably not good-times gas. Harriman, we have to shut that iris.”

“Yes, sir,” Harriman said tersely. He was working at a terminal now, fingers flying across the keyboard, his spectacles two circles of opaque glass.

“I’m giving the order to move on the gateroom,” Landry said.

No one offered any protest.

“Can we get Reynolds out of there?” Young asked. He had stepped back from the window. His nails were still cutting into the skin of his palms. “I mean, there’s got to be something we can—“

David came through the gate.

He was in the same kind of shape as Reynolds, which was what Young registered first: the half of his face that was swollen and purpled, the sound he made as he hit the ramp and clung to it with his visibly dislocated left arm. He managed to make it to his knees, and drew a shuddering breath. “Sh—“ he tried to say, and then something in him gave out, and he had to start over. “Shut it down!” Even then, his voice was rough and pain-encrusted. “Shut it down, shut it down, oh Christ, shut it down shut it down shut it—“

Ramirez slammed into him as she came through the gate, and he stopped speaking. Maybe he was unconscious. Young hoped he was.

He felt like he occupied some kind of island of silence in the midst of the chaos that the control room was. People were shouting, computers screeching in klaxons and chirps and other noises, airmen pushing back and forth as someone tried to do something, and Young had lost sight of Telford. The air in the gateroom was increasingly thick, like the wind blowing off a summer wildfire, and that black smoke was still coming through the gate.

“I don’t care what you have to do!” Landry was shouting. “I want you to close that iris!”

“Sir, the iris is designed not to close when matter is being transmitted!” one of the techs said, sounding despairing.

“What the hell does that mean?”

Matter is being transmitted.” The tech gestured at the window screen.

“That smoke?” Mitchell asked incredulously. “That’s bullshit; you’re telling me— water doesn’t transmit; air doesn’t transmit—“

“Whatever this is, it’s denser than air. Particulate matter, maybe. As long as it’s coming through—“

“Clear the gateroom,” O’Neill said sharply. “Get them the hell out of there; we can seal the whole place off and vent it if we—“

Something was coming through the event horizon. It wasn’t another member of SG-3. It was moving slow, and after a moment revealed itself as a line of black-clad figures wearing light armor over leather and sporting breathing masks. From the way they moved, the way they carried themselves, Young knew they were Lucian Alliance. There were four of them, with another four just behind.

“Put the base on lockdown,” Landry snapped, just as O’Neill said grimly, “This is a foothold. They’re trying for a foothold.”

Below, in the gateroom, the Alliance soldiers had started exchanging fire with a team of men Young couldn’t see. The air had gotten darker, and as Landry’s order carried, the overhead lights shut down to minimal levels and the warning lights began to pulse red, so that the whole scene was like a kid’s depiction of what hell might look like.

“Did they make it out?” Young said, his voice barely carrying. “Reynolds and Ramirez and—“

Mitchell gave him a sharp look. His only response was a helpless shake of his head, less No than I don’t know, a total inability to get a read on the situation.

Young nodded. As he watched more Alliance shoulders come through the gate, four on four, he was aware of himself as a waste of space, a useless body, without any remit to give orders and unable to take action beyond the limited recourse of, at the very last, pulling his gun. He wanted to be down there; he wanted—

And, in fact: “I’m going in,” Mitchell said abruptly, heading for the door. “We need more manpower.”

“Who else have we got on base?” O’Neill asked Landry. “We need to get them down there ASAP; we’re getting our asses kicked, and—“

Young, watching Mitchell go with a certain amount of longing, had seen something else as the door opened. “It’s in the hallways,” he said.

“What?’ O’Neill turned to him, frowning.

“The gas, the— whatever, particulate matter. It’s in the halls; it’s spreading. We need to evac the civilians.”

“Shit,” O’Neill said. “Shit.

“It could be a biohazard,” Landry said. “If we evacuate—“

“So we shut down this level. That should at least buy us time to—“

But Young lost the rest of the conversation as a thought occurred to him, so monumentally awful in its import that he took a physical step backwards and pressed his hands against the top of his head. “Rush,” he said.

Both generals paused in what they were saying and turned their face to him.

Rush is here,” Young said, his voice gone narrow and panicked with urgency. “He’s here on base.”

O’Neill closed his eyes for a second.

Landry pointed a finger at Young. “You get him the hell out of here. Where is he?”

“Infirmary, Mitchell said.”

“I’ll radio Carolyn. Do not lose him.”

“No, sir,” Young said.

Then he was out in the hall, almost before he had time to register that he was moving. The air was dim and gritty and sour-tasting. His gun was gripped solidly in his hands, and a spike of adrenaline let him turn the nearest corner light-footed. Soon, he thought, the pain would start to settle in, but he would keep not believing in it for as long as he was able. For as long as he had to be able.

Gunfire echoed weirdly through the concrete halls. A thin layer of whatever was in the air had started to settle on the lightbulbs, creating a faint burning scent that strengthened the impression of a mountain on fire somewhere nearby. Only a chemical element to the smell made it seem disconcerting, and reminded you that what was burning wasn’t pine trees and underbrush.

Young found himself at an intersection of corridors where the smoke was much thicker. He hesitated, eyeing it where it formed an amorphous mass, like a wall that undulated. Up close, it actually had a dark blue color. There was something both seductive and fatal about it, the way that there always was about smoke— the way it moved, the round swells and currents that were beautiful before they killed you. But it hadn’t killed whoever was in the gateroom, or at least not right away, and Rush—

If he wasn’t going to let Rush end up in a bunker, he thought grimly, he sure as hell wasn’t going to leave Rush to die inside that wall of darkness.

To worse than die. To end up like—

He set his jaw and, drawing in a long breath of the air that, like pretty much all air, he guessed, was not clean, or not exactly, but was what he was going to get and therefore what he was going to have to settle for, he stepped into the consuming swarm of darkness.

### Chapter Text

Lam had wanted Rush to sit on a bed— possibly, he thought, because she had some idea of restraining him; she might look very nice, with her casual girl-next-door demeanour, and she might be striking, at the moment, a very noble pose (the sleeves of her white coat rolled up to just above her elbows, her small mouth set in a grim expression, a serpentine alien gun in her hand), but she had stood in the center of the room, next to Johansen, affecting innocence and saying If there’s a question I can help you with, and all the time she’d known about the code that lay inside of his body.

She had held his medical file close to her chest, like a particularly good card she had hoped to play at just the right moment.

A card that, with any luck, she might not have to play at all.

Rush had therefore declined to sit on a bed and had insisted on being given one of the snake-like guns, which he had not initially been offered when Lam armed the other members of the infirmary team.

They were preparing to receive casualties, that team, whilst Lam prowled restlessly back and forth by the entrance. Rush, who was leant against a nearby wall, had decided quite early on that he was unwilling to engage in any polite dissimulation in re: the fact he was watching her watching him, and as such stared at her openly, and with an evident lack of trust.

“It’s not polite to stare at people, you know,” Lam said eventually, her voice managing to be both curt and weary.

“I was under the impression that it wasn’t polite to withhold people’s medical results from them,” Rush replied smoothly. “One does learn something new every day.”

Lam sighed. “There was absolutely no reason for you to know, and nothing you could do with the information.”

“Oh, I think you’d be surprised at what I can do with a little bit of information.”

Lam made a frustrated sound, one that seemed to translate, roughly, to Why do I bother.

Rush felt surprisingly hostile towards her, in spite of the fact that she was likely quite low down on the conspiracy chain. Mitchell, certainly, was higher; Mitchell would not have given him the file in the first place. Jackson had known; had David? Oh, yes, he thought, David had known. David, who had reappeared so solicitously in Young’s kitchen not long after going to hunt for Lucian small fry. Who had shown Rush the stargate in defiance of regulation, and who probably would have engineered a trip through it if such a thing would have got Rush to commit— to him, to the project, to the Program, the fucking Program, with its underground mountain and its equivalent layers of military secrets, its interstellar enemies and its as-it-turned-out really quite fatally shitty infosec.

Which had come first, was the question— the math or the genetics? Why had they wanted him? That was the real question.

Fuck them. Fuck them all. It didn’t matter. He was glad that their fascist fucking institution was under attack. (But had Young known?) It was a bit of an inconvenience, true, that he happened to be inside it at the moment, but he could appreciate the one whilst being moderately concerned about the other. He was certain that nothing too serious was happening, and at any rate, Lam had given him the gun.

Momentarily, he paused in his surveillance of Lam’s surveillance to actually inspect the weapon. It was dull-coloured and shaped like a calligraphic stroke. He found he did not like it, but he was reassured by its presence. Now that he had it, he had no intentions of giving it back.

He was contemplating how strenuously Lam was likely to object to this last decision when someone knocked on the door, or rather banged: a big hollow rusty sound that caused Lam to stiffen.

She shot Rush a warning look before depressing the button of an intercom and speaking into it. “Please identify yourself.”

“Colonel Everett Young,” Young’s rough-edged and familiar voice said. “I’m here for Rush.”

Rush bristled at that. “No. You are not here for me,” he snapped as Lam swung the door open and Young, looking exhausted and oddly dusty, as though he had just emerged from out of a coal pit, came in. “I’m not a package you’re here to pick up.”

Young wiped a hand across his face, leaving a streak of pale skin free of coal dust. “I could put you in a box,” he said. “If it would make you be quiet and be where you’re supposed to be, Jesus, Rush! If Mitchell hadn’t—“

Lam interrupted. “What’s the situation out there? We haven’t heard anything since the evacuation order.”

“Well,” Young said, leaning against one of the infirmary beds and wincing, “it’s a shitshow in the gateroom. Your— General Landry radioed you, yeah?”

She nodded tersely.

“I haven’t seen any signs of improvement since then. The Alliance is pumping some kind of gas through the gate, and it’s made it as far up as level 22; I saw it coming through the vents on my way here, so you’re gonna see it soon. We don’t know what it does yet, but it seems to be nontoxic. By now we should be sealed off from the surface, just to be on the safe side, but I’m still aiming to get Rush out.”

“Excuse me,” Rush said loudly, because he violently disliked being discussed in the third person.

“You’ve got a plan?” Lam asked Young, ignoring Rush.

Young shrugged and grinned ruefully, making a neither-here-nor-there gesture. “You know. The usual.”

Inexplicably, Lam smiled at this.

Excuse me?” Rush repeated incredulously. “You’re not going to put me in a box, and you’re certainly not going to take me anywhere if you haven’t got a plan with which to circumvent the no-doubt insufficient security measures that—“

Lam was staring at something.

Rush turned to look, and saw tendrils of smoke leaking in from under and around the door. He found it hypnotic, charting their turbulent little motions. They were a very dark blue colour, so dark that they could almost be mistaken for black.

Young dropped his head for a second. “Shit,” he said. He sounded more tired than ever, which for Young was a significant statement; Rush had the impression that each new level of exhaustion had been carved by Young with his bare hands from stone.

Lam said, “We’ve got masks. I’ll get some.”

The clip of her heeled shoes provided the soundtrack to her hurrying away.

After a long moment, Young raised his head and squinted at Rush. “So,” he said. “The infirmary? I thought you were supposed to be down on level 24.”

Rush said, “The meeting ended early.”

“Yeah,” Young said. “I’ll just bet it did.”

“Fuck you,” Rush said automatically. “I resent what you’re implying.”

“You resemble it, I think you mean.”

Rush did not respond. He was looking at Young, who was half-bent over, hand digging into his hip, wearing a grimace. He tracked lines of pain that formed soft brackets at the sides of Young’s face. There was something he was inspecting Young for that he could not identify exactly. He was attempting to evaluate if Young had known. The infirmary? Young had asked, and when he had said the infirmary there had been a note of bemusement in his voice, an authentic rising inflection, but if he were a really skilled liar then perhaps—

If he were a really skilled liar then perhaps Rush was fucked, because he did not know the identity of the Lucian Alliance’s agent.

Lam returned, carrying two gas masks by their straps. “I don’t know how much they’ll help,” she said. “Since we don’t know what this is. But they can’t hurt.”

The air in the infirmary was beginning to appear faintly bluish and dim.

Young took one of the masks and shoved the other at Rush, who fumbled it over his face, unsure exactly how it functioned. He had never before found himself in a situation in which gas masks were required. He was still attempting to secure the straps when Lam moved to stand behind him and, without a word, gently tugged them into place.

Rush glared at her, but she gave him an impassive look and checked that the mask was positioned properly.

“You good to go, hotshot?” Young said. His voice sounded imprisoned. Rush could hardly see his face.

“I don’t know; are you good to go?” Rush returned, irritated. “You look like a medical cadaver; perhaps you ought to stay in the infirmary.”

“You say the sweetest things.” Young was, in fact, listing heavily to one side, and as he stood upright he made an audible sound of pain. “But you’re not getting rid of me that easy.”

So, left with little other option, Rush followed him to the door.

He had a moment of hesitation, as he looked out into the corridor, where the air had begun to assume a crepuscular shade and texture that he associated with insomniac nights. Ahead of him, Young was a dark blue slab of nothingness, a phantom, faceless and armed. Rush’s own fingers were sweating against the snake-gun. A zat, Lam had called it, to which Rush had huffed and said, Typical. It sounds like a name for a children’s toy.

It felt very real in his hand now. He might have to use it against Young, if Young were to turn and— what? Was a member of the Lucian Alliance meant to look different, somehow? Would he see the change come over Young’s face? Possibly Young would eye him with the same bleary exhaustion and say, Sorry, hotshot, and Rush would have to raise this children’s toy of a weapon, this trinket, and pull the trigger.

It occurred to him that he had never fired a gun.

But when Young did in fact turn, it was only to say, “Come on, let’s blow this popsicle stand already,” a familiar blend of annoyance and resignation the only expression evident on his face.

So Rush stepped forward, his heart made loud in his ears by the gas mask.

Behind him, Lam said, almost too quietly to hear, “Good luck.”

They walked in silence for two lengths of the corridor or more. Young’s footsteps were slow and uneven, but Rush did not comment. He himself was off-balance, albeit in a metaphorical rather than a material sense; the base around him had assumed an unfamiliar appearance, turned dim— Rush realised— not only by the traces of gas, but by the emergency lighting. The fluorescent overhead bulbs had dimmed, and the blue warning lights pulsed like a siren through air that was, objectively, silent, though subjectively it was not silent, or rather it was silent but Rush’s subjective experience of the atmosphere was one in which noise figured prominently: the subtle sounds of his own circulation, the louder sounds of every breath.

Eventually he could not stand the claustrophobia of such a situation, the sense of being contained in some biological prison. “Where are we going?” he hissed at Young.

“Stairway,” Young said tersely.

“Why—“

“Elevator’s shut down.”

As answers went, this was logical and succinct. Rush accepted it and proceeded without speaking for another few paces, past dark and empty labs whose doors had been left ajar. He was sweating in his blazer, not because he was nervous, given that there was nothing particularly unnerving about the situation, or certainly nothing that he was not capable of handling, let us say, and at any rate he was not in general a nervous person; possibly he was sweating because the base was unusually warm, the air conditioning perhaps having its own emergency protocols, which struck him as particularly laughable for some reason, perhaps because he was imagining the highly classified meeting at which a committee of po-faced generals had discussed the ins and outs of crisis air conditioning; or quite possibly he was sweating because the gas mask in some way interfered with his oxygen intake; he knew hardly anything about the mechanical structure of gas masks, and it made sense that the military would fail to prize the ability of their footsoldiers to cognitively function in a crisis, and instead focus on ensuring that—

“There must be some purpose to the gas,” he said aloud. His voice came out too thin and much too tense.

“I don’t know,” Young said. “It was keeping the gate open.”

“Denser than air.”

“Yeah.”

“But there are a number of methods through which they could have achieved such an objective, and presumably they too require both visibility and oxygen.”

“Yeah,” Young said again.

They had reaching the stairway door. Young heaved it open with obvious effort and leaned against it for a moment, breathing hard.

Rush gave him a quick, assessing look. “Are you going to make it up the stairs?”

“Don’t worry about me, hotshot,” Young said. He sounded strained and hollow. “I’ve been doing this stuff for years.”

“You should put your weight on me,” Rush said.

Unaccountably riled by this refusal, Rush pushed through the door. “Suit yourself, then. If you lose consciousness, I’ll leave you for the Lucian Alliance.”

“You should,” Young said. He was right behind Rush, letting the door swing closed behind him. But he pushed past Rush almost at once, gripping the stairwell and leaning forwards to look upwards.

Rush followed the motion, and saw where the fine smoke thickened into a mass of dense, dark-blue fog. “It’s coming from above,” he said. “Through the vents.”

“Yeah. Shit.” Young had his whole weight tilted towards the railing. His head was bent now, curls plastered to his head under the mask’s straps. “We’re gonna lose visibility up there. I need you to put your hand on my shoulder so we can stick together.”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Rush said irritably. “You put your fucking hand on my shoulder.”

“Rush—“ It was possible Young was sighing; Rush couldn’t tell through the mask.

“I’m sorry; did I say ‘don’t be ridiculous’? I meant stop being such a cunt.” Rush seized Young’s hand and dragged it roughly to his own shoulder. Before Young could offer any coherent protest, he had started forwards up the concrete stairs.

Young followed suit, though he could easily have knocked Rush over. His hand on Rush’s shoulder was hot, and heavier as he gradually succumbed to the inevitability of allowing Rush to support him. His fingers dug into the juncture of deltoid and trapezius muscles, thumb pressing against the clavicle line. They made a strange too-many-legged stumbling sort of creature, staggering their way up into the growing dark.

“Am I cold,” Young said, when they had rounded the level 19 landing, “or are you running a fever?”

“Fuck off,” Rush said shortly. He did in fact feel rather warm; he wished that he had discarded his blazer, but he would not be warm and he would not be sweating if he were not undertaking the excess work of half-heaving Young up these fucking stairs, and his breath would not be so short, either, and neither of these two significant physical symptoms had an etiology that was connected to the dark that was becoming increasingly darker, the dark that closed in increments around them, more smothering even than the gas mask, and metaphysically resonant of so many closed spaces, skittering up and down the limbic system with hair-fine limbs; he was not afraid of the dark, and this was not dark at any rate; it was merely some form of particulate matter, probably, in the air, and he was moving in space so he was not enclosed, and so long as he was not enclosed he was perfectly safe, and Young’s laboured breaths and laboured footsteps preceded him through this opposite-of-aether, so Young was the bloody canary in the coal mine that Rush had ended up in, and wasn’t he doing his ancestors proud, and all of this remained true until they reached level 17 and a wave of blue smoke rolled down upon them, and it became immediately apparent what the utility of the substance was.

“What the fuck,” Young breathed, staring at Rush.

Rush’s ears were filled with a peculiar buzzing, not quite humming, though oddly high-pitched. He felt cold, although as he studied his hands without any particular emotion, he understood why he had previously felt so strangely hot.

His skin was emitting a pale glow that he would perhaps describe as ice-coloured, so light blue as to be almost perfectly white and clearly visible through the smoke. The clean line of his collar and the white strip of shirt where his blazer was unbuttoned were softly phosphorescent, not quite containing the radiance of his skin.

“I—“ Rush said. He did not complete the sentence.

He raised his right hand and watched it move like an anemone, an animal unconnected to his body, bioluminescent and be-tendrilled and floating in the deep. It was beautiful, he thought, but it was not his, it was not him; it was not human, because humans had no light-emitting molecules; they did not produce luciferin or luciferase; they were not sea creatures; they were not fireflies, who harboured chemical reactions that turned them into cyphertext, short-lived little code machines.

But he was not human. He had known that. Or not completely human. What was it to be human, anyway? Was there a place where it stopped and started, some genetic quota? A lineage required of every human being? Could he pass a test? Some form of bioassay, perhaps. Or would he pass a bioassay?

“Rush,” Young said.

The Lucian Alliance had known. The smoke had had a purpose, and the purpose of the smoke had been this: to elicit exactly this response, one that he could not control, one on a molecular level, one that made him impossible to hide. They would see him, as surely as the camera that turned towards the jellyfish in the dark, following the faint trace of photons from its luminescent bell, a bell that could not ever, ever stop ringing, and the sound distorted in water that looked black but was not really and was very very deep and it travelled and travelled and travelled and—

Rush.

Rush dragged his eyes to Young’s face. To what he could see of Young’s face, behind the plastic shield of the gas mask. “Yes,” he said. He swallowed. Young’s hand was still on his shoulder, large and solid and stabilizing and a little bit softer-gripping than it had been.

“We have to keep going,” Young said. “We’ll worry about it later, okay?”

“I’m not worried,” Rush bit out.

He would have shoved Young’s hand off him, but could not, in good conscience; instead he started forwards determinedly, ignoring the weight of Young’s concern pressing against him as claustrophobically as the smoke.

He could navigate by the light.

Stairs emerged from the darkness.

There was no reason to panic.

Or even, as Young had said, worry.

In fact this was if anything a beneficial adaptation.

If he were truly a cnidarian, he would have no central nervous system, only a sort of distributed net, and that would be better, perhaps: sensing through his skin and never processing, the information incoherent, and he would move like that amidst the changing layers of the ocean, and panic would not be a part of his physical makeup. It would not be an available potential for him.

Not that he was panicking.

He could not orientate himself, however, in the muffled darkness. He was floating trance-like in an alien sea. His breath sang in his ears and there was a pitch to it, to his breathing, but he was unable to determine the pitch. It did not belong to a twelve-tone equal temperament, or to just intonation.

“Just— stay calm,” Young said, his voice sounding strangled. His hand had clenched convulsively on Rush’s shoulder. “We’re getting off at sixteen. We’re almost there. We’re almost—“

And then abruptly he was shoving Rush face-first into the sharp-edged slope of the stairway, landing on top of him as some sort of energy blast exploded overhead.

Rush could not breathe for a moment and he did not know why at first and already he was fighting, trying to rise above the uppermost level of ocean and arrive at where the oxygen was, before he realised that he was dazed and hot and dark and under Young’s suffocating body, and that he had struck his shoulder against a concrete step and it hurt, and that someone was shouting nearby, indiscrete and blurry, and Young—

Young was firing his gun. “Stay down!” he shouted at Rush, when Rush shoved at him, but Rush had a gun as well, he had a gun, and he was not going to die like this, pinned down with his face ground in the dirt, or, all right, there was no dirt; the fall had not cracked the shield of his gas mask, but he was aware of his futile fingertips scrabbling against the concrete for purchase and he was not going to lie there and let the boot-tip connect with his ribs, his metacarpals be pulled joint by agonised joint from whatever object he was holding, and already the filthy fucking ocean-coloured air, tasting of tarmac, was threatening to give him the boak; and perhaps—

Rush sank his teeth into Young’s upper arm, and capitalised upon the ensuing moment of distraction to crawl jerkily on his elbows and knees till he was free enough of Young to bring the alien gun up, and—

—perhaps if he were a cnidarian he would not have these mad fucking impulses, these absonous limbic misfires, and instead he would have one amicable body, an instrument incapable of dissonance, tuned to a single note, and he would glow like he did now, eerie and Arctic and inhuman in the darkness, but he would not be as he was now, he would be— what he would be was—

What?” Rush snapped, and pushed himself up to his feet, aware in gradual increments that the crisis was over and had perhaps been over for several moments.

“What the hell do you think you were doing?” Young demanded. He too had risen and would have been breathing hotly right in Rush’s face had his temper not encountered the containing shield of his mask.

Rush made to move past Young and head for the landing. But Young blocked his way with one arm. “I was saving your bloody life!” Rush spit, elbowing at the insignificant barrier.

“What, by trying to get yourself killed?”

“It worked, didn’t it?”

“Only because you were a distraction.” Young grabbed Rush’s shoulder as Rush started to turn. “Rush. This is not a game.”

His voice had dropped; there was something low and urgent in it, almost pleading. His eyes were hard to make out in the dark. The slightly blue glow of bioluminescence gave them a strange colour, unlike their usual amber. They were searching for something with an intensity that Rush found he could not tolerate.

“I know it isn’t,” Rush said, unsettled. “Do you not think I know that?”

“So next time I say stay down, you stay down.” And then Young had the gall to shake him.

Rush jerked free of his grasp and strode towards the langing. There was a body sprawled across it, and another in the doorway, preventing the door from closing. Blood had leaked out almost to the lip of the first stair. Rush avoided its tributaries so that his boots would not leave prints when he reached the hallway. He stepped over the loose arm of the corpse in the doorway and held the door open, waiting for Young. The corpse was lying face-up, but it was wearing a breathing apparatus that obscured most of its face. It occurred to him that he had assumed it was a corpse but he was almost certainly correct because the faceplate of its mask was not fogging. He could not see if its eyes were open or closed.

Young paused to collect the weapons from both bodies before he limped to where Rush was still waiting. “Thanks,” he said.

“Why are we on level sixteen?” Rush said in return, letting the door swing closed behind them.

“Because there’s a security monitoring station on sixteen, and you’re going to hack us a way out of here.”

“I’m going to hack us a way out of here,” Rush repeated disdainfully. “Have you ever used a computer? Has anyone explained to you that it isn’t simply a magic box that does your—“

“Shh,” Young hissed suddenly, thrusting a hand out.

Rush stumbled into it. The air of level sixteen was as dark as the stairwell had been, only intermittently lit where the overheads managed to penetrate the blue-black smoke-fog, and the chief illumination was provided by Rush’s own skin.

“What?” he whispered.

Then Rush heard the chirp and blast of energy weapons, followed by gunshots, their source unseen— perhaps on the other side of the nearest intersection. Someone cried out, a rough and awful sound of pain that didn’t stop so much as it dwindled. The whir of another energy blast.

Rush felt Young’s hand grip the front of his shirt and drag him towards the nearest wall, which he fought against: “Stop— fucking— slinging me about—“ he grated out, his voice swallowed by the mask and by the pressure of Young’s body against him, to which Young said only, in a furious undertone, “Shut up.

But apart from the pain-sound that kept going long after it should have ended, till it did not even strike Rush as horrible but merely set his teeth on edge, no other noise followed. No more gunfire. No footsteps approaching.

Rush could feel Young’s laboured breathing against his own chest. Young’s whole body was trembling with small muscular spasms. Young himself did not seem aware of them; his head was cocked and listening.

After a certain amount of time had passed, Rush began to grow restless. “I want my gun,” he whispered.

That at least broke Young free of the unfathomable bellicose trance into which the sound of combat seemed to have propelled him. He looked down at Rush, uncomprehending. “What?”

Young was holding his pistol in one hand and the alien zat gun in the other.

“That’s mine." Rush pointed to the zat and made a grab for it. “If you die, I don’t intend to have to talk my way out of your institution’s monumental fucking incompetence,” he snapped, when Young seemed prepared to struggle with him for it.

Fine,” Young said shortly, and let Rush have it. His face was looking whitish behind the shield of his mask. “Come on.”

He turned and strode off without another word, apparently able to navigate by memory, or by the very faint auras of lights like stepping stones in the dark. Strode, really, was optimistic as a word choice; Rush ought to have said staggered.

He wondered if Young was going to make it out of the Mountain, and what would happen if Young did not. He was not sure if by that he meant what would happen to Young or to him. The image of the limp hand of the Lucian Alliance corpse in the stairwell came into his mind without warning. It had flopped when Rush had opened the door, like the tail of a dead fish heaved onto a butcher’s block, but recognizably human and the colour of skin.

“Rush!” Young barked out up ahead.

Rush flinched. “Yes, all right,” he said tightly. “I’m coming.”

Clutching the zat gun, he cut his way through the smoke that was still curling around him in billows, very similar to water in its visual aspects, which only heightened Rush’s sense that he was under the sea and drifting, prey to the jagged maws of creatures that could move both skilfully and covertly through deeps that were yet inaccessible to him.

Young was standing in one of the unsteady quadrilaterals of not-quite-darkness created by the artefacts of overhead lights. He had his weapon pulled and fixed on something further down the corridor.

“No,” Young said tensely as Rush approached. “Don’t come around the corner. Stay right where you are.”

Rush narrowed his eyes. “What—“

But another voice broke in. It was a high voice, a girl’s, speaking a language with which Rush was not familiar. “Eheragka!” the girl said. Her voice was wavering. “La aysil. Eseha.

“It’s okay,” Young said, adopting an artificial, soothing tone. “Just put the gun down. I don’t want to hurt you.”

La,” the girl said. “La sur. La aysil!”

“Your friend— is he hurt? We have doctors here.”

Rush flattened himself against the wall and edged up towards the corner, ignoring Young’s warning gesture, enough that he could get a look.

The door to what he assumed was the security monitoring station was open, spilling light into the hazy corridor. A long-legged wee sliver of a girl was knelt in that bright parallelogram, clutching a large man’s body to her lap with one hand and utilizing the other to point an alien weapon at Young.

The details of the situation were difficult to make out. The girl and the man were Lucians, Rush assumed, judging by all of the available clues. The spreading blood on the floor, unmistakable even in the dark, suggested that one or both of them had been wounded, and not by energy weapons.

The girl shook her head in response to Young’s question. “Ha mot,” she said. Her voice broke on the second word.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Young said steadily. “He was protecting you, right? You two partners? Or, no— he was your bodyguard, right?”

Something in the girl’s body must have communicated itself to him, a flinch or a tightening, some silent clue, because he continued: “You’re science caste; I can tell. You’re not a soldier. I’m sorry about what happened to him. But you’re not going to help him by getting yourself killed. I have backup. You don’t. So just put the gun down.”

For a moment it seemed as though the girl would not. Then, slowly, she lowered the weapon and sent it skidding across the floor to Young. He picked it up, almost disguising the effort it took him to complete the motion, and advanced on her position.

“His too,” he said, gesturing at the dead man with both guns. Then: “Rush!” he called. “Come help me with this.”

Rush stepped around the corner and saw the girl’s eyes flicker to him, widening a little as she took in the look of him, the light.

Young handed Rush the second Lucian weapon.

“What the fuck am I meant to do with this?” Rush asked, turning it over and inspecting it. It was more like a pistol than the zat had been, with a complicated trigger and a safety mechanism.

“Don’t get shot with it,” Young said tersely. He was checking the dead man’s body, his own gun still fixed on the girl.

Ha la lahim,” the girl said, directing a frustrated look at Rush. “Shkart.” Seen close, she had eyes like hard chips of amber and very long, remarkably ginger hair.

“Yeah, well,” Young said. “I do that. Now you. Up.” He gestured.

“Of course I can— oh,” Young said. The girl had stood, and he was patting her down roughly. “You haven’t been through the gate; you don’t have the translation matrix. You speak English?” This last question was directed at the girl. “What’s your name? What house are you?”

“My name is Ginn,” the girl said. “I am Sixth House. Western Principality. Yes. I speak English.” She had a heavy trace of an accent.

Young stepped back from her. “I’m betting they brought her up here to mess with the computers,” he said to Rush. Then, to the girl, “Is that why you’re here?”

She looked away, biting her lip, and didn’t answer.

Young turned to Rush. “Could she have done something to the base’s systems? Put a— virus, or whatever, in them?”

Rush had been staring past the pale ambit of his own radiance, down the smoke-filled hall to the left. He could just make out, under the nauseous and spitting, sickly green flicker of an overhead light, the slack forms of two men wearing military uniforms. At least— he assumed they were men from their approximate size, from the width of a pair of shoulders and the blunt fingertips of an outstretched hand. What he knew of the American military’s typical demographics suggested, anyway, that this was most likely the case. They were not moving, so he assumed that they were dead. They looked—

Rush,” Young said.

“Yes,” Rush said. He redirected his attention away from the strange topography of this landscape, Hallway With Two Dead Men. “Yes. I apologise. I wasn’t listening to the question.”

Young studied him for a moment without speaking. Then: “I asked you if she could’ve put some kind of virus in the base’s systems.”

Rush tried to rake a tense and jerky hand through his hair, forgetting the straps of the gas mask, and ended up merely making a nervous, frustrated motion. “If we survive this situation, I’m going to demand that promotion to the rank of colonel within the stargate organization be made contingent upon the completion of a computer literacy class.”

Young rolled his eyes. “Yeah, okay, but—“

“Was she carrying anything on her? A mobile phone, a flash drive?”

Young held up a slim black USB stick.

“Then, most likely, yes.”

“Great.” Young shot a venomous look at the girl. “Can you undo whatever she did?”

“I can certainly try to.” Rush plucked the USB stick from Young’s fingers. It felt like a bone fragment or a pottery shard, an artefact of a civilisation that he found incomprehensible for a moment. But something of its materiality communicated itself through the luminescent barrier of his skin, and abruptly the USB stick alone seemed real, like a sort of breathing apparatus that offered to interface his lungs with a bright and oxygenated world above, and he closed his fist around it, taking a shuddering step towards the monitoring station.

For some reason he had been thinking of whalefall. Or. No. What was it called, the whale while it was falling? Marine snow. A beautiful term. It was not only whales, but a continuous rain of life that was not life any longer, travelling down through the bathypelagic zone till it came to rest at the bottom of the ocean. It exhibited Brownian motion. Bodies formed and reformed, made particulate by the dissolution that death wrought upon them, but colliding in their long slow spins and exerting upon each other a strong and startling amount of binding force. It too was bioluminescent. The snow. But it was not beautiful, surely. It was only decay, and everything was eaten, in the end.

Bones spit out like the lumps of bodies in the hallway with their useless plastic breathing masks.

But he was not thinking about the bodies. He was above the ocean now. The quality of light in the monitoring station made his hands look less inhuman as he plugged the flash drive into the station’s desktop computer and sat down to code. It was a familiar posture. It was the posture of a human. A human posture. Of course it was. Because he was human. What else would it be? This was a tautology, but— he reflected, as he went about booting the computer from the girl’s USB— it was one he would have to live with for the moment.

The computer hummed as it powered down and restarted. Rush adjusted his glasses and caught the outline of his reflection in the screen, a narrow ghostly face trapped behind glass or what looked like glass, an animal glowing in the aquarium of his assemblage-body. Abruptly he found that he could not breathe; he could not breathe in this mask that was designed to optimise human breathing; he was suffocating, and he clawed at the straps of the mask, trying to get them loose so he could tear it away from his head, and—

“Rush,” Young was saying. “Rush. What the hell are you doing?”

Rush flung the mask across the room with more force than he intended. It struck the wall with a loud sound and landed face-up on the floor.

“I couldn’t breathe,” he said, his voice coming out wobbly-edged, unsteady. He swallowed. The gas tasted faintly sour but did not make him sick. “I couldn’t breathe.

When he looked up, Young was regarding him with an expression that was difficult to read behind the shield of his own mask. Rush could see the white face of the girl over his shoulder, her lost eyes and smudged skin. Freckles, he thought. Below the soot from the smoke, she had freckles. And then he did not know quite why he had noticed that.

“Okay,” Young said at last. With his unarmed hand, he reached up and pulled off his own mask, tossing it to lie in the corner beside Rush’s. He ran a hand through his dark and matted hair. “I guess it can’t do too much damage at this point, right?”

“That was never its purpose,” the girl said quietly from behind him.

“You stay where I can see you,” Young said to her harshly, brandishing his gun.

She crept into a corner of the room, hugging her arms around her too-thin body. But Young in fact paid little attention to her. He came to stand beside Rush and placed an unnecessary hand on his shoulder.

“Are you going to fall down?” Rush asked somewhat limply, unable to summon his habitual level of spite. “Has your boy-scout mania for energetic and inadvisable antics exhausted itself, wonder of wonders, at last?”

“No,” Young said. “I figure I got a few good antics left in me.” But he didn’t remove his hand.

“Well,” Rush said, and then couldn’t decide how to complete the sentence, so left it lacking a conclusive elaboration. He turned back towards the computer screen and watched as it settled into the familiar carnelian of a BackTrack environment.

“You know we’re going to make it out of here, right, hotshot?” Young said in a low voice after a moment.

Rush said nothing. He took a breath and reached for the keyboard, watching as each key revealed its previously obscured letter, scoured by the helplessly revelative light of his skin.

### Chapter Text

Rush had been working on the computer for a long time, longer than Young would really have liked. Young hoped it was because he was getting close to clearing the base systems and unlocking them a goddamn elevator, not because he was having some kind of psychotic break.

Though actually Rush had held up pretty well so far, given the, you know, general Lucian Alliance of the whole situation, and the possibly-toxic smoke and the shootouts and the dead bodies and the random glowing thing. At the very least, he hadn’t freaked out or thrown up or started shouting, all of which would have been pretty reasonable reactions to the circumstances. And he was calm now, or acting like it, his brow slightly furrowed and his eyes moving rapidly across the computer screen.

“You getting anywhere?” Young asked, leaning in.

When Rush answered, his voice was vague. He frowned at the computer. “You should ask her who trained her,” he said. “She’s using standard Earth tools— Metasploit, for God’s sake, like some basement-dwelling script-kiddie about to saunter in twenty minutes late to my CompSec seminar. I’m assuming it didn’t spontaneously evolve in outer space.”

Young looked at the girl— what had she said her name was? Ginn?— who had folded herself into the corner and was hugging her knees. It was hard to feel sympathy for her when she’d almost certainly taken down at least one of the guys who’d been KIA in the hallway, and had been pretty damn ready to do the same thing to Young himself.

“Hey,” he said, jerking the gun he’d kept loosely trained on her. “Lucian Alliance. Who taught you how to use a computer?”

The girl focused her eyes on him slowly, like she was coming out of a trance state. “Machines were provided,” she said. “In function they were not dissimilar to those used by the System Lords, with which I was already proficient. I was ordered to master their language and operation. So I did.”

“Yeah, but who provided the machines? Someone here? Someone from Stargate Command?”

She shrugged listlessly. “It was not my place to ask.”

“A little bit low in the pecking order, are you?” Young said spitefully.

She turned her head away from him. Her red hair was escaping its ponytail. A chunk of it had fallen in her face. “Yes. I am a little bit low in the pecking order.”

“I’ve disabled most of her malware,” Rush said in the same distracted voice, “but she’s used some sort of homemade SecureShell knock-off to remotely control all access to the gate. Give me a few moments.”

“We need to get a move on,” Young said. “Someone’s going to figure out that she’s not the one running this party.”

He wasn’t sure Rush had heard him at first. Then Rush said, “Yes, yes. I’m working on it.”

“And the elevator.”

“I said I’m working on it.”

Young was being short-tempered, he knew. But if he stopped to acknowledge the reason, then he would have to think about the pain in his hip, which by now had transcended the strict definition of what he would call pain, and was off in some outer region of space all on its own. If he’d had a screwdriver handy, he might have jammed it into his lower back to relieve the muscle spasms that felt like they were about the same size and solidity as hand grenades, but at some point he would’ve hit bone, and the bones already felt shattered.

“       David,” he said, and coughed up what felt like a gob of mucus but was maybe blood. “I can feel the pieces of my leg.”

“You’re imagining things,” David said.

“Yeah? You— you think so?”

“Right now you’re actually in a beautiful garden.”

“Never much liked gardens.”

“Where the fuck do you want to be then, the Ritz? All right, you’re at fucking El Patio, hungover, eating stuffed sopapillas, getting a sunburn like some sad white boy who never should have left Wyoming.”

“What kind of stuffed sopapillas am I eating?”

“You’re eating shut-the-fuck-up sopapillas. Can we just climb this goddamn mountain?”

“David,” Young said.

“What?”

“Let’s go back to New Mexico.”

“I’ll take you all the way to fucking Antarctica if you want, buddy, but we gotta get back to Earth first.”

Young stared up at the hazy rings that bisected the sky. On one side was the sky and on the other side was the sky, but the sky was different. He couldn’t understand why the sky was different, why it seemed to have a different color or texture. It made him feel nauseated to look at, or maybe that was the grate of bone on bone in his pelvis.

“David,” he whispered. “I don’t think I ever should have left Wyoming.”

Young turned away. He watched the girl. He didn’t trust her. He didn’t like her. He didn’t like the Lucian Alliance. He felt light-headed, enough that he closed his eyes for a second.

The real reason he wanted Rush to hurry was that he knew adrenaline was the only thing keeping him going, and once he hit the lip-line of the inevitable crash he wasn’t going to be able to get Rush out of there.

“You are injured,” the girl said. When she’d switched to English, she’d gained a little bit of an accent, just enough to make her seem like the alien she was; the inflections were all wrong somehow, in the wrong places. She was watching him with eyes that reminded him of an eagle or an owl, some kind of hunting bird.

“No,” Young said, riled. “I’m not fucking injured, okay?”

“I’m releasing the central elevator,” Rush said, frowning at the computer screen and typing. “But locking it to your ID card.”

“Great.” Young took stock of their weapons. “We’ll have to take our Lucian buddy over there with us; I don’t want her shutting the elevator down when we’re still in it. We can leave her locked in a mop closet on level one.”

Rush wrinkled his nose in an expression of distaste. “A mop closet? Really? How primitive.”

“As far as I’m concerned, primitive is good. Unless you think she can hack the base with a plastic bucket.”

“It’s highly unlikely,” Rush said. He was still fiddling with something on the computer.

“C’mon,” Young said, antsy. “Let’s get out of here; I’d rather not wait till this place is crawling with—“

Without warning, the girl sprang at him.

She knew where to hit—  she must have been biding her time, tracking his movements, even before he’d spoken, paying attention to how he moved and when he winced, because she went right for his right hip, throwing her shoulder against it and taking him down with hardly any effort.

He couldn’t breathe or see or think for a second.

When he came to his senses, he was face-down on the floor of the room, and he was missing his gun.

“I won’t hurt you,” the girl was saying, somewhere above him. Her voice was wavering, high and frightened and tense. “I don’t care if you are one of these— these— the lab rabbits. I am not interested in the nine chevrons. You are science caste. Like me. But if I stay here, they will kill me for my failure. So you will please give me the key to the elev— the eleven-eight-or, and instead of shooting, I will only imprison you here.”

“Oh, please.” That was Rush’s voice, caustic and dismissive. “You think you’re going to— what? Elude your cornfed alien empire and the American air force to run away and live on Earth? When you don’t even know what an elevator is? How much money do you have in the pockets of those skintight leather trousers?”

You will give me your money,” the girl said, sounding slightly uncertain.

“I’m afraid that’s not how money works. It’s all electronic, you see. I don’t doubt that you could manage to steal some in the long term— your code has a certain amount of promise, although I know twenty graduate students who are just as good— but I rather think in the short term, before that happened, you’d wind up in a very unpleasant prison of some sort. That is, if your own people didn’t shoot you in the back of the head.”

Young lifted his head fractionally, just enough to get a look at the standoff.

Rush had turned his chair to face the girl, and was holding his hands in the air. The girl was pointing her own weapon at him and had an awkward grip on Young’s gun, like she didn’t really know how to use it, maybe, but was more than willing to have a go.

“You’re lying,” the girl accused Rush.

Rush’s eyes flickered to Young and lingered there for a second with intent. “Not at all,” he said smoothly. “The American military is somewhat notorious for its prisons, and for its dubiously intentioned eagerness to shut people up inside of them. I myself am only semi-successfully evading such a nonconsensual relocation at the moment on the grounds that you—“ he pointed to her— “want to kidnap me and torture me, possibly because I am the only Earthling capable of intelligent thought, but, let’s be honest, more likely because I appear to be, as currently demonstrandum est, capable of generating luciferin, though I can’t imagine why this would be of use to you.”

Young thought he was getting the idea: Rush could talk pretty much anyone into a coma just by being, well, Rush, and the girl didn’t really seem to have thought her whole plan through in the first place.

Very subtly, he began to shift his position. It was agony, of course— he had hurt before the girl knocked him down, and he hurt more now than he had then; the absolute muscular control required to make his movements small and noiseless seemed like it might actually be physically impossible, at first, so fast did it rocket from ordinary pain to that other nameless thing that orbited in the region of the Kuiper belt, but he couldn’t afford for anything to be physically impossible at the moment. So, with the brutal simplicity that had gotten him through boot camp and SpecOps training, through the attack on P2S-569, and halfway up a caldera with an oozing knife wound and a broken back—

“You just had to come rescue me,” David said, heaving Young’s arm over his shoulder. “Some kinda last fucking action hero.”

“Yeah, well,” Young managed, trying to not to throw up on him. “Thanks for returning the favor.”

“That’s sort of the bad news.”

“When do I get the good news?” He twisted his head to give Young a sharp grin. They were close enough to kiss, if they hadn’t both been hurting so badly.

—he gritted his teeth hard and concentrated on breathing.

“I suspect,” Rush was saying, “that in fact the luciferin is an incidental byproduct of what is really at issue here, namely my more-interesting-than-average genome, which has occasioned so much attention from the many diverse parties who have proven so very, very averse to sharing what they know about my body.”

Young winced, and not because of the spasm that was currently ripping through his psoas muscles. Yeah, all right. So Rush had figured out that little piece of information. And from the tone of his voice, brittle and very, very pointed, he was pretty damn unhappy about it, too.

“I do not understand you!” the girl said, sounding agitated. “You are not speaking English! I do not wish to kidnap and torture anyone. Give me the key!”

Concealed by the smoke, Young had managed to get his feet almost into a launch position.

“Sorry,” Rush said, not sounding very sorry. He leaned back insouciantly in his chair. “I’m afraid I don’t negotiate with terrorists. Not because of some moral principle, you understand— I just find it incredibly tedious on a personal level.”

The girl stepped forward and pushed the muzzle of Young’s sidearm against Rush’s forehead. She seemed to be struggling with herself. Then, abruptly, she stepped back and hit Rush across the face with the gun. It wasn’t a good hit, made more out of panic than any real force, but it was enough to send him reeling sideways for a second.

“Give me the key!” she said again.  “Give it to me, and you will not be tortured!”

Rush lowered one of his hands to touch his lip where the blow had split it. When he saw the blood on his fingers he smiled, but it wasn’t a nice smile. “Darling,” he said very deliberately, lifting his gaze to lock eyes with her, “I’d like to see you try.”

That was when Young took her down.

She didn’t struggle much, which surprised him; once he had her pinned on the floor and had wrestled her arms behind her long enough to tie them there with his belt, she just gave up and lay there, limp.

“Should’ve done that in the first place,” Young said, levering himself up off her. “Serves me right for underestimating her. You okay?”

Rush was using the sleeve of his blazer to wipe the blood off his face. He stared at Young like he didn’t understand the question.

“You’re bleeding,” Young said. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Rush said. He sounded puzzled, possibly because he was brain-damaged. “I’m fine. Are you okay?”

Young, who was approaching almost-unprecedented levels of not-okay, said, “Just dandy. What do you say we get out of here?”

Rush nodded haltingly and rose. “What do you intend to do with—?” He gestured at the girl.

Young prodded her in the ribs with the toe of his boot. “Hey. Up and at ‘em, unless you’d rather be knocked out than locked in a closet.”

Slowly and dispiritedly, the girl struggled to her feet. She reminded Young a little bit of a baby horse, the new-born kind that hadn’t figured out how to walk yet, and or learned how to carry the weight of its body on its legs. “Shoot me,” she said in a bleak voice, without looking at him. “You might as well shoot me. I am asking you to. Please.”

“Oh, come on,” Young said, shoving her towards the door. “He was lying about American military prisons.”

Rush looked offended. “I wasn’t.”

“Well, you’re a biased source.”

“I’m a potentially imprisoned source.”

“It’s better than being dead, all right?”

Rush said, “Actually, I was thinking we should take her with us.”

That stopped Young in his tracks. Literally: he froze halfway in the act of reaching for the doorknob and turned his head, probably with a rictus of disbelief on his face. “What the hell?

Rush shrugged. He was inspecting his zat, or pretending to.

“She hit you in the face with a gun!

“Mm.”

“You’re still bleeding!”

Rush touched his lip again, gingerly, and inspected his fingers. “A little.”

“I’m locking her in a closet,” Young said.

He twisted the door open and shoved the girl out first, to see if anyone shot at her. He hadn’t heard any Lucian forces amassing outside, but he’d been pretty busy trying to convince his nervous system not to go on strike, and he might have missed something important. He figured that whatever the hell was going on with Rush— like, biologically speaking, with his stupid fucking to-no-one’s-surprise apparently-space-alien body— was probably trackable, and therefore probably being tracked, but he didn’t know how, or where exactly that rated on today’s Lucian Alliance to-do list. He was hoping it was a little bit lower down than “secure the base,” and that maybe he and Rush still had a little bit of time to fly the coop, if they played their cards right.

To his intense relief, the hallway was silent. He did a quick visual recon in both directions, and didn’t see anything except the smoke, which was still pretty thick.

And the bodies, of course— he almost walked straight into the Lucian girl when she failed to move because she was frozen, staring at the corpse of her dead friend.

“Let’s go,” Young said, prodding her with his gun. It wasn’t that he was unsympathetic, exactly; but on the other hand, he’d been there. He knew it didn’t do you any good to stick around with the dead.

The girl still didn’t move. “What’s going to happen to his body?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” He’d never thought to ask about what happened to the bodies. “Burned, probably.”

She turned her large and oddly bird-like, haunted eyes to him. “On my world we bury the dead. It’s very important. He was from a different world, but he had no one left. Please. Can you ask them to bury him? There is a prayer I ought to say, but it takes others, and there are not enough of my people in Sixth House, and— but at least he could be buried.”

Young sighed, and gave in to the urge to lean a hand against the wall, just for a second. Even that second was too long— he could feel the need to slow down, to stop, to just hurt, as bad as the craving for any opiate. He had to straighten up right away. “Yeah,” he said. He moistened his lips. His mouth tasted strange, metallic. “Sure. I’ll put in a word for you, okay?”

“Thank you,” she said.

After that she walked without complaint.

“We should take her with us,” Rush said after a few minutes, from just at Young’s elbow. He’d seemed oddly casual, almost comfortable, since the girl had threatened him, which just figured— you could count on Rush to have his polarities reversed.

“Keep your voice down,” Young said. “They’re probably tracking you.”

“Well, so, do you really think now is the best time to have this conversation?”

Rush appeared unfazed. “She’s an excellent source of intel, and obviously willing to defect.”

“We’ve got enough problems without adding teenage fucking Lucian Alliance defectors!”

“I would estimate her to be, at youngest, an undergraduate.”

“The answer’s no,” Young said. “Also, take my ID card.”

Rush frowned at him. “What?”

“Unclip my ID card. It’s on the front of my coat. I want you to hang onto it for me.”

Very slowly, Rush reached out to take the card from Young’s uniform jacket. He closed his fist around the card. He didn’t say anything.

Young didn’t look at him. He was scanning the hallway ahead, and keeping a watchful eye on the muted red of the girl’s hair as she ran a semi-reluctant point for their operation.

“I’m not in great shape,” he said finally, when he’d run out the clock on not having the conversation. “I’m hurting. If we run into another firefight, I may not make it out. If that happens, I want you to take the card and go. Get off the elevator at level three and hang a left. There’ll be a metal door marked MAINTENANCE. It leads to an access shaft. Take the ladder up to the top. You’ll come out alongside Norad Road. Don’t report back to the base. Get as far away from here as possible. Don’t go to the apartment. Don’t trust anyone. Ditch your phone. You got a knife?”

“No,” Rush hissed, with an intense air of what was either distaste or fury. “I do not have a knife.”

“There’s one clipped to the inside of my left pocket. Take it.”

Rush didn’t look happy about it, but he did it. “Enlighten me as to what I’m meant to do with this?”

“Cut the transponders out of your arm. Don’t smash them. Plant them somewhere. You understand?”

“Of course I fucking understand!” For a second, it seemed like Rush was going to hurl the pocketknife across the hallway. He shoved it into his pocket instead, and looked away abruptly, pressing his lips into a thin line. “I didn’t furnish your kitchen to my exacting specifications only to forfeit my access at the first chance,” he said, after a while, when Young had assumed they were done talking.

“Yeah, well,” Young said, and then wasn’t sure what to say exactly. He settled on just reiterating, “Do not take that goddamn Lucian girl with you when you—“

—And that, of course, was when a Lucian strike team started shooting at them.

The Lucians had been lying in wait in one of the cross-corridors, sheltering behind the abandoned laboratories’ partly-open doors. Young should have seen them, he thought, should have caught some flinch of movement or the brief glint of an energy rifle in the smoke, but his back was fucked and it was a white noise blaring away at his senses, so he hadn’t, and suddenly bolts of energy were slicing through the air.

He couldn’t get Rush behind him, because he was too caught up in trying to return fire; he had to hope that Rush would at least drop the hell to the floor and try not to get hit, although he didn’t have a lot of faith that Rush was possessed of even that much common sense. The Lucian girl was; she’d hit the ground the second the bullets started flying, and he’d lost track of her in the smoke.

The kick of his gun was hell, and he was having a hard time keeping his shots steady, because he could feel it all the way to his teeth. But he took at least two of the Lucians down— one permanently, he thought, judging by the spray of blood on the dimly lit wall.

He had to switch to the Lucian weapon he had taken off the dead man pretty quickly, because he had run out of ammo and he didn’t have an extra magazine. The Lucians used the pause to storm the main hallway, black figures who didn’t look human with their faces obscured by their narrow breathing masks. Young grappled with one briefly at close quarters, trying to achieve enough leverage to pull back and get a shot off, but he didn’t have it in him, and he knew it— whatever it was, that mysterious quasi-spiritual it that had to burn inside you if you were going to fight your way out of—

“That’s what you got me for,” David said. “C’mon, I always knew you were just using me; I just didn’t expect it to be as a crutch.”

Young laughed, a laugh that turned into a choke and then into a long sound of pain that he buried in David’s shoulder. “You should go without me,” he said. “Take the ship. I’m slowing you down.”

“It’s better if it’s both of us,” David said.

—a situation that you shouldn’t be able to fight your way out of.

“It’s better if it’s both of us,” David said. “Twice the bitching, half the speed, but hell if I’m gonna let you haunt me, Young.”

Rush was shooting from somewhere off to the side, surprisingly clean and accurate gunwork that hit one of the Lucian soldiers square in the stomach. At least, Young thought it was Rush until the Lucian soldier he was fighting threw him against the wall, and over the man’s shoulder he caught a glimpse of the red-haired Lucian girl with her arms free, taking aim at one of her own kind and getting the shoulder of her leather jacket singed half-off for it, something that didn’t seem to faze her that much. She hit the next man she aimed at.

Young was hoping the guy who had him in a chokehold was on her list, because he wasn’t having a whole lot of luck prying those hands loose, and his vision was starting to white out. He couldn’t really feel his legs.

But it was Rush who came out of nowhere, taking the guy down like the tiniest linebacker in history so that Young could finally suck in a breath.

He couldn’t do much more than breathe for a second or two, all his limbs feeling like limp balloons full of water, aware, in a dazed, confused way, that he wasn’t dead.

When the world came clear around him, Rush was standing over the Lucian soldier, pointing a zat between his eyes.

“Shoot him!” the Lucian girl said sharply, picking herself up off the floor across the hallway. “What are you waiting for?”

The man’s eyes darted to her. “You bitch,” he hissed. “We should’ve left you on your slave planet to whore for the farmers. We should’ve—“

She took the zat from Rush’s unresisting hands and shot him in the head.

Then the hall was silent.

The girl returned the zat to Rush. She had to curl his fingers around the grip, or he would have let it fall.

“You have to shoot them before they see you’re afraid,” she said.

Rush didn’t say anything. He was staring down at the man’s corpse. After a moment, the girl left him there and went to strip the bodies of weapons.

Young peeled himself off the wall and went to Rush.

“You know,” he said after a minute or so of silence, “I think I was pretty clear that the knife was for taking care of your transponders, not cutting loose someone I’d literally just tied up.”

“Yes, well,” Rush said, without looking at him. He sounded tired. “I used my best judgement. I’m afraid my marksmanship leaves something to be desired, whereas hers is… effective.”

“Yeah,” Young said. He put his hand on Rush’s shoulder. “Yeah, it is.”

Rush turned his head and frowned at the hand, then raised a questioning expression.

Young said, “You mind? I’m trying not to— how did you put it?— be such a cunt.”

“Ah,” Rush said, and didn’t comment when Young gave his shoulder a hard, awkward, and unnecessary pat of reassurance before allowing Rush to bear his weight again.

The girl came back with her arms full of guns and offered one to Young. He ditched his sidearm and took it, inspecting the trigger, as she strapped two more into the side holsters of her tunic.

“Where is the escape pod?” she said. “The one you wish to reach?”

“You coming with us now?” Young said, raising his eyebrows. It wasn’t like he was in the best shape to protest.

“Yes. I am coming with you.”

“And you’re not going to try to kill us anymore?”

“I am not trying to kill you now,” she pointed out.

“That’s less reassuring then you seem to think it is. I’d like a guarantee.”

She looked at him with her large, serious eyes, letting her gun hang at her side. “In the Alliance, they say that there is no honor among men who are running for their lives.”

“Yeah? And what do you say?”

She bit her lip and looked at Rush. He did not appear to notice her looking. “I believe that it is wrong to die with a gift unrepaid. I will try not to try to kill you.”

There was something so absurd about the statement, or maybe about the whole situation: the jumble of bodies in the hallway, and the jellyfish-like glow off Rush’s body, the fingerprints of soot on the lenses of Rush’s glasses, and Young hanging off him like a half-dead weight, and facing them this spindly little strip-of-nothing girl whose Medieval-looking leather clothes were stiff and black— Young noticed— with other people’s blood, whose face was smeared but whose expression was resolute and oddly honest.

“Well,” Young said, running a hand down his face, “I guess that’s all anybody can ever ask for, really. Let’s head to that, uh, escape pod; sound good?”

The girl nodded.

After that, he couldn’t really keep thinking of her as the girl, though, so when they had reached the elevator, he said, against his better judgment, “I'm Young. He's Rush. What’d you say your name was?”

“Ginn,” she said, and watched as Rush swiped Young’s ID card through the reader. The doors lurched open. “My name is Ginn.”

There were no Alliance soldiers waiting for them when they ditched the elevator on level three. The air there was clear, or almost clear, with only a trace of smoke in it. Rush looked almost normal again, if a little green around the gills; you had to look hard to spot the glowing.

Young sent Ginn up the maintenance shaft first, just in case she got any hot new ideas about honor, with Rush behind her. Rush didn’t like that; he wanted Young in front of him. But: “If I go down,” Young said, “I’m sure as hell not taking you with me.”

“Is that likely, do you think?” Rush asked. His tone was casual, diffident, but he searched Young’s face for an answer.

“Just get on the goddamn ladder,” Young said.

Yes. It was likely. He had trouble closing his fists around the first rung of the ladder. Already, his palms were slippery with sweat. He couldn’t support his full weight on his right leg, and the left felt out of alignment. He had entered that sort of dreamy, out-of-body state where he was aware of the pain, but not really connected to that awareness. It was something happening to a body that he happened to be located in, not something that directly impinged on his actual being. He could keep going forever, he thought, like this, though at the same time he knew from experience that he couldn’t, and that he would get no advance warning when the body where the pain was decided it was time to quit.

He tried to focus on putting one hand over the other. One hand, then one foot, then one—

hand lost its hold and scrabbled fruitlessly for a hold in the loose red gravel. His palms were scraped to shit. He swore.

“Just— hang in there,” David panted. “Think happy thoughts. Think about all the morphine they’re gonna hit you with back at Command.”

“You should have left me,” Young said. He was seeing things by that point, angels that he knew weren’t angels, just narrow bright flashes in his peripheral vision. They looked like Biblical angels, weird and sharp and like they’d have too many teeth if they opened their mouths. He thought that the fact that he was seeing them wasn’t good.

David heaved him up with an arm under his shoulders. He said, “That was never going to happen.”

“I know,” Young said. He felt hopeless. “But I’m not going to make it. I don’t think I can stand up.”

“That’s what you got me for,” David said. “C’mon, I always knew you were using me, I just didn’t expect it to be as a crutch.”

Young laughed, a laugh that turned into a choke and then into a long sound of pain that he buried in David’s shoulder. “You should go without me,” he said. “Take the ship. I’m slowing you down.”

“It’s better if it’s both of us,” David said.

There was water dripping somewhere inside the shaft; he could hear it but not see it. He could smell it.

He wished that Rush were still glowing, because it would have reassured him to see the outline of someone he had managed to save.

Although technically he had managed to save David.

If David was still alive.

He didn’t mind dying as long as he saved someone, because he thought that a part of him would go on living, maybe, inside the person that he had saved— not in a literal way, but just that he’d always have written something of himself into them or onto them, a permanent footprint he’d left on the moon-rock landscapes of their lives. Extend the metaphor and he could see himself out in space, drifting, a lonely cut-loose astronaut whose vac suit made sure that nothing would touch him, ever. But still somewhere there were these footprints.

They had stopped moving. He didn’t notice till a guillotine blade of light dropped down on him from up above. Then he realized that the girl, Ginn, had gotten the top of the shaft open, and air that smelled of grass and sunshine and exhaust was pouring in.

Both Rush and Ginn had to help pull him free of the shaft, and he still almost slipped at the last moment. He had a vision of himself plummeting all the way back down through the darkness. Lost in space, he thought. But instead his knees hit a patch of earth, warm and bleachy-grassed. He doubled over, letting his fingertips dig into the soil slightly.

After what was probably too long for him to convincingly pretend that he was not on his last legs, he raised his head and squinted up at them: at Rush, who had his eyes closed and his arms wrapped tightly around himself, his lips pressed together but still making little involuntary twitches, as though he felt the need to speak but no longer knew how the process worked, and Ginn, who was inspecting an inch-wide strip of blackened skin on her bicep, not seeming to notice that she was covered in continent-shaped patches of someone else’s blood.

“Well,” Young said. “We made it. How’s everybody doing?”

There was a half-beat of silence, and then the absurdity of his own question caught up with him, and he laughed helplessly and couldn’t stop, an almost noiseless laugh that hurt in his chest, where it started. He wasn’t sure if it were a real laugh or some kind of combat reaction, because he didn’t have much to laugh about, but on the other hand, they were here: raked with the early autumn sunlight of an afternoon in the mountains, and he thought that if it wouldn’t have hurt to tip his head back, he would’ve drunk the sunlight in.

“I think we should steal a car,” Rush announced matter-of-factly.

“A car,” Ginn said thoughtfully, like she was testing out the word.

Young covered his face with his hands, because he thought for a second that he might actually cry laughing.

“I’m quite adept at stealing cars,” Rush said— and then added, sounding peeved, “I don’t know why you’re laughing.”

Ginn said, “I do not know what a car is, but I am also quite adept at stealing things.”

Young gave up and stood unsteadily, still wet-eyed, with the considerable help of a nearby tree. He leaned against it, feeling the bark tangle in his hair. It was a relief to lean on something and not worry about getting killed instantly. He felt like he’d been beaten badly, or possibly run over by a semi, and Earth’s only bulwark against space invaders was under attack, and David was dead, maybe, or not, and Mitchell, and Rush glowed in the dark because he was part-alien, but at least Young could lean against something.

Rush and Ginn were looking at him, waiting for his response, or maybe for his approval. He made a vague sweeping gesture, trying to communicate the whole scope of his situational assessment, but probably they were on the same page or thereabouts, which was that they were fucked, mostly. So: “That all sounds good,” he said. “Sure. Why not? Let’s go steal a car.”

### Chapter Text

Earlier

Chloe walks back into the conference room with her face burning, aware that everybody is looking at her: her dad and his PA, Amelia, who always calls Chloe “honey,” and Dr. Perry, and Jeremy, who’s from Camile Wray’s office, since Ms. Wray had to go meet with General Landry, and the blond sergeant who was in charge of the meeting, Scott, and all the other military people, and the scientists that she doesn’t know. Everybody. Their expressions range from pity to boredom. They think that she’s a stupid little girl.

“I think Dr. Rush is going to be more motivated to work with us when he’s had some time to process the stakes of the initiative,” she says. She uses a lot of words like motivated and process in her leadership role on this project. These are words that help reframe the problems her team is facing in positive terms and suggest a no-judgment view of emotional needs. The words you use to communicate with your team are the cornerstones of every organization. She knows they are. She read it in a book.

She sits down.

“Well,” Lt. Scott says, and looks uncertain.

Chloe opens her neat blue binder with the embossed silver lettering that says CLASSIFIED across the top. “Item one on the agenda was introducing Dr. Rush to the initiative,” she says. It was; it is; it’s there below the heading that has the name of the initiative and the date. “I think we can consider that item accomplished. Maybe we should move on to discussing item two.”

She looks over at her dad without meaning to, and he smiles at her like she’s done well. But she thinks she shouldn’t have looked at him. And she shouldn’t have said maybe. She doesn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. He gave this project to her. He doesn’t know anything about video games, but that wasn’t the only reason. I’d just like to see you challenge yourself a little more, he’d said. I don’t want you getting stuck in my shadow; I worry about you.

She wishes he had said You’re the perfect person for this project, or, I can’t trust anyone else with this. And he did, sort of, later, when he said, It’s a great launching point for you. You’re more than qualified; you’ve been working on my staff since the campaign, back when you were sixteen, and you did that environment project in college, what was it called— SustainabiliDC, Chloe had said. Plus you’re young. You know the kind of people we’re trying to reach here.

So she was the perfect person for the project, really, even if he hadn’t said it like that. And when he said I’d like to see you challenge yourself more, he didn’t mean Why don’t you challenge yourself enough, except that he did, a little bit; she’s a project leader now, and that’s what she would have said. Reframing the problem in positive terms. You don’t have a problem, it’s just that I’d like to see you solve this problem. It would be great to see that happen. I’m so excited about it.

It’s exciting to see you really putting your energy into a project that deserves you. That’s what her father had said.

Dr. Perry is talking about Ancient computer coding, and how its requirements are going to influence the graphics of the game.

Chloe forces herself to look interested. She doesn’t understand very much about computers, and she doesn’t like being around Dr. Perry, who is nice but makes her feel small and stupid in a way that she hates.

Dr. Rush made her feel that way too, at first, when he looked at her like she wasn’t worth his attention. Like she was a piece of furniture that had suddenly opened its mouth to talk. But then he’d started talking and she’d realized that even though she hadn’t looked at him like he was a piece of furniture, maybe she had been thinking that way about him. Like the Icarus Project was one of those little miniature scale models of buildings that people brought to her dad’s office sometimes, when they wanted his support for libraries or community centers or redevelopments, and she could reach in and pick up the plastic figure that was him. Just pick him up and put him somewhere else when he was no longer needed.

She doesn’t want to be a person who treats people like that.

Her dad scribbles something on his agenda and underlines it, then tilts the binder subtly towards her. He’s written, PAY ATTENTION!

Shame rises in her face and she has to blink once or twice before she can hear over the noise of her own blood pounding.

She is paying attention. She is.

But she straightens up anyway, trying to make her posture more subtly encouraging somehow, lifting her perfectly plucked eyebrows, which she had agonized over in the hotel bathroom that morning, not wanting to look too Hollywood starlet, but also not wanting to look too severe. Are they perfectly plucked? She thinks so. She hopes so. She has to look mature. She has to look confident. She has to look responsible. She has to look like someone who can hold people’s lives in her hands.

Later, much later, long after that meeting, someone will give her her father’s binder, and she’ll wonder where they got it from. How do all these things turn up, saved when they weren’t the things that needed saving, like God just punches holes in the lid of the world with a pen— like she used to when she was a little girl, to keep caterpillars, moths, and fireflies— and only the smallest insects manage to crawl out? The smallest things: a SustainabiliDC pin he’d kept in the top right drawer of the desk of his office, a scarf she’d given him for Christmas when she was twelve, a binder with a note scrawled on the first page. PAY ATTENTION!

She is still in the meeting when the alarm goes off. She doesn’t know what it is at first. The term unscheduled offworld activation has no meaning for her. She had to do a standard safety training when she got cleared to come to Cheyenne Mountain, a year ago, when her dad told her about aliens and the stargate. Probably that briefing covered what she was supposed to do, but there was so much information, and none of it seemed real, or urgent. She’d been teamed up with a scientist who’d just been hired, Lisa Park, and they’d had to take turns pretending to be brainwashed by the Lucian Alliance, reading off of prepared scripts, but neither of them had been able to make it through the exercise without laughing. And she had learned to shoot a handgun without breaking her wrist. But she can’t remember all the acronyms and alerts and color levels. She should have studied, she thinks. She should have been more prepared.

“Okay,” Lt. Scott says, when he hears the warning. “I’m sure there’s nothing to be worried about. Standard protocol; we’ll be locked down until the coast is clear. Probably won’t take too long.”

But a couple of minutes later, someone carrying a rifle rushes into the room and whispers urgently in Lt. Scott’s ear, and Lt. Scott’s face looks different after that. He says, “Folks, Sergeant Greer here is going to evacuate all civilians to the surface. I’m afraid they need me in the gateroom, and I’m going to need all Air Force personnel— and you, Dr. Perry— to come with me.”

That’s the last time she sees Lt. Scott.

Outside, in the hall, blue strobe lights keep going off. They remind Chloe of the top of a police car. The overhead lights have all been dimmed, and there’s a funny smell to the air. People in uniforms and white coats keep rushing past, looking panicked, even though Sgt. Greer says, “There’s nothing to worry about, people. Let’s just stay calm and stick together.”

She can’t let him put his arm around her shoulders. It wouldn’t look right. And she can tell he knows that too, because he sort of lifts it up and stops and glances at her. But at least she knows he wanted to. And that’s what matters, isn’t it? The wanting-to. Not whether you did it.

“I don’t know, sweetheart,” he says. “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”

Chloe arrives at the realization, abrupt but very long-brewing, that her life is extraordinarily full of men who tell her that there is nothing to worry about at moments when it is manifestly logical to be worried. She arrives at the realization that they do this to reframe the situation in positive terms, when what they really mean is I am not going to allow you to worry, or, possibly, I don’t believe that there is anything you could do.

She arrives at the realization that she resents being denied the right to worry.

She wants to know what’s happening. She wants to know what she can do. What she might have to do.

That’s about the point at which they reach the stairway, and meet Camile Wray coming from one of the lower levels with a larger group of civilians. Because Ms. Wray almost never has an expression other than intimidating and a little bit ironic, except when you really wear her out and she loses her patience, she doesn’t look scared. But there’s some kind of dust on her face, and she’s definitely not happy to see Chloe and Chloe’s dad.

“Senator Armstrong,” she says. “Chloe. I thought they’d have gotten you out.”

“I think they’re trying,” Chloe’s dad says, gesturing to the slow evacuation up the stairs. “Has anyone told you what’s going on?”

Ms. Wray hesitates. “I believe,” she says carefully, “there may be some question of an enemy incursion. When I last saw them, General Landry and General O’Neill were both taking command of the situation, so I’m sure by now it’s well in hand.”

The situation doesn’t feel well in hand.

“Senator,” Chloe’s dad’s PA calls. She has her phone out. “I’ve had a request to institute emergency protocols.”

Chloe’s dad hurries over to her, and they huddle together, heads bent over the electronic glow of the screen as they keep climbing.

And keep climbing.

At first soldiers were running up and down the stairs, pushing past Chloe, and there was a lot of noise. You’d think that was alarming, wouldn’t you? All those people rushing past you, and so many of them carrying guns. But in fact it’s worse when it stops— and it does, gradually, stop— because then it seems like no one is alive outside the stairwell. Chloe imagines them climbing and climbing forever, way beyond the normal Earth level, up into the soundless vacuum of space, which doesn’t end.

Something is leaking into the air.

At first she thinks it’s smoke from something burning. But it isn’t. She knows, because—

They reach level fifteen and get hit with a whole wall of the stuff, foul and chemical-smelling and bluish-black.

It washes over them like a tsunami, but one without any noise or force, just a big wave of nothing that steals the light and leaves Chloe fumbling in a shapeless depthless and unnavigable dark, and she is alone, or at least she can’t see anyone, and she can’t really hear them, or she can’t match sound to what she’s seeing; she doesn’t even know which way is up or down; it’s just limbs groping in the darkness, and people gasping and choking and coughing, and someone is saying, “Oh, my God, oh, my God,” and someone else is crying in little gasps, and the whole body of people is moving like they’re one animal startled by a predator on the savannah, jerky and running before it can get its legs under it.

“I need everyone to stay calm!” Sgt. Greer says, raising his voice, from far up in the darkness. “I said stay calm!

But someone else is shouting, shouting unintelligibly, maybe at him.

“Dad?” Chloe says, and her voice wavers, which— she shouldn’t let it, really; she’s a team leader, she can’t stand in a stairway and cry for her dad. But she can’t see him. He was ahead of her, and now he’s not anymore. “Dad?” she says again.

Someone grabs her arm with a small firm hand, and Ms. Wray’s face appears close to hers, resolute and maybe, for the first time, unsettled. “Chloe,” she says, “I’m going to need you to hold onto my hand and stay calm.”

Chloe says stupidly, “I can’t find my dad. He has— his heart’s not good, and if the smoke—“

“It’s okay,” Ms. Wray says. “I don’t think it’s toxic. I can still breathe; can you breathe?”

Chloe nods, and then realizes Ms. Wray can’t see her, and says, “Yes.”

“So we can rule that out.”

“People keep telling me I shouldn’t be worried,” Chloe whispers. She doesn’t know why she’s whispering. Maybe because the smoke makes her feel like she’s in a very small room. “But I think I should be worried. Do you think I should be worried?”

Somewhere above them, a door slams open. Chloe flinches, and almost misses the next step.

Ms. Wray’s eyes are very serious and very dark. “Yes,” she says. “I think you should be worried.”

Chloe slips her hand into Ms. Wray’s hand. Linked like that, both their palms hot and sweating, they fumble forwards, feeling out the concrete stairway like it’s the wall of a cave.

She has lost track of what level they’re on so she just makes her feet keep moving.

This step.

And then the next step.

This step.

And then the next.

Ms. Wray’s hand clenches around hers suddenly. “Chloe—“ she says.

But her words are cut off by a burst of gunfire.

Chloe shrieks without meaning to, like someone’s grabbed the sound from inside of her. She throws her hands up, which is the stupidest thing she could have done, because it’s not like hands can stop bullets; it’s such a strange example— she thinks in a long dazed moment during which time seems to slow and swell— of how human evolution hasn’t managed to keep up with technology, because her body, like all bodies, wants to protect itself, but it no longer knows what the threats are or how to face them. She can’t deflect a bullet in midair like she might a bobcat or a tiger; she can’t stop it from reaching vital organs, because it’s going to go right through as though she weren’t even there, as though there was nothing to this silly scrap of flesh and bone she calls a body.

Someone shoves into her hard and crushes her against the railing, and she realizes that she hasn’t been shot. She hasn’t been shot, and people are panicking.

They surge past her, struggling to get up or down the stairway, a mass of faceless threatening bodies.

“No,” she tries to say, “I can’t move; I can’t move; get off me; I’m here; I’m here!”

But she can’t hear herself because everyone is screaming, and she can’t push her way into the brief and frightened stampede, and there are more gunshots, a confused back-and-forth of noise in the darkness, and then eventually there are no more gunshots, and no more running, but someone is shouting, “This is a priority! I need a medic, stat!” And she is crouched against the railing in the dark with her arms folded over her head, and she is hyperventilating, breathing in much too much of the dense black air, and she can’t move until one last straggler trying to make a confused escape from the gunfire barrels into her and knocks her sprawling. Her head hits one of the concrete stairs.

“Chloe!” someone shouts.

She is crying.

Chloe! I need you to talk to me so I can find you, sweetheart, okay?”

Yes.

“I’m—“ she says. Her voice is too thin and shaky. She doesn’t sound like a team leader anymore. Her mouth is full of blood, and she doesn’t know why. And then she does know. The stair. She split her lip when her face hit the stair. “I’m here. I’m here!”

Ms. Wray appears out of the darkness, holding up a cell phone like a flashlight. It broadcasts light in a weak greenish square.

She doesn’t look relieved when she sees Chloe. Her face goes tense, and she drops down to pull Chloe’s blazer back. “Are you hit?” she asks brusquely. “Where are you hit?”

Chloe doesn’t know how to answer.

“Chloe,” Ms. Wray says. She sounds almost angry. “You’re bleeding. Where are you bleeding from?”

Oh.

“My,” Chloe says. She touches her mouth, wincing. “My lip, I fell, I don’t think I— I don’t think I’m hurt—“

“Thank God,” Ms. Wray says under her breath. Then, to Chloe: “Get up; I’m getting you out of here.”

Chloe lets herself be pulled up. But— “My dad,” she says. “Where’s my dad?”

For a long, long moment Ms. Wray just looks at her.

Chloe stares stupidly back.

“We took casualties,” Ms. Wray says haltingly. And then she says, “We’re waiting for a med team.”

Who talks like that, is what Chloe wants to know. Who talks like that? Casualties; what does that even mean? Soldiers talk like that, but Ms. Wray isn’t a soldier, and she’s never talked like that, and how can it be that people open their mouths and suddenly talk like entirely different sorts of people? Chloe had coffee with Ms. Wray once; they talked about gender politics inside and out of the IOA, and whether there were more opportunities for ambitious women in interstellar organizations than there were in terrestrial ones. Chloe ordered a cinnamon roll and dissected it with her fork, layer by layer. Gradually the air smelled like cinnamon. She sat nearest the window, and it was raining, and the rain made little constellations against the glass.

“What do you mean, casualties?” she says.

Her mouth feels wrong.

And then she is running up the stairs, tripping and half-falling and having to catch herself in the darkness, as behind her Ms. Wray calls, “Chloe! Chloe!

There is a pale circle on the far side of the next landing where Amelia, her dad’s PA, is holding up a small flashlight. The light keeps moving, because Amelia is crying. Chloe has never seen Amelia cry before.

The light keeps moving, but Chloe can still see her dad lying in the center of it. He is lying there on the concrete landing, when he doesn’t even like Chloe to touch what he calls “common property.” He always used to scold her for holding onto the escalator railings at airports with her bare hands, instead of pulling down her sleeves. You don’t know who else has touched that, he’d say, or what else they’ve been touching. Remember that whenever you touch something, it touches you back.

“Dad,” she whispers, just as Sgt. Greer looks up from here he’s pressing something— silver piping, she registers; Amelia’s forest green jacket— down on her dad’s dark-stained chest.

“He’s hanging in there,” Sgt. Greer says. “Med team’s on the way.”

He doesn’t say, Don’t worry.

“He put me behind him,” Amelia says in a horrible thick voice all broken-up by crying. Her arm is bleeding, Chloe realizes. The arm that’s not holding the flashlight. One of the sleeves of her shirt has been torn off and tied around it. “He covered me. When the shooting started.”

“Why would he do that?” Chloe asks. She doesn’t know why it’s what she asks. It’s just the first question that comes to her, the first piece of information she needs to understand. “Why would he do that; why would you let him do that?”

Her voice rises in pitch until she’s shouting, almost, and Sgt. Greer says tersely, “I’m going to need you to keep your voice down. We’re in the middle of a foothold situation.”

“I’m not going to keep my fucking voice down!” Chloe drags her arm across her face, not because she’s crying, but because of the blood, because her mouth is still leaking, because a hole got punched in it and now it won’t stop. “I want to know why he would— why would he do that?”

“Chloe,” Ms. Wray says softly, and touches her elbow.

This noise comes out of Chloe that isn’t a noise, a noise she didn’t know she could make, like what she really wants is to scream, but someone brought a boot down on her ribcage right when she was trying to do it, so none of the actual noise comes out. It’s awful and it hurts the inside of her and she can’t seem to stop it, and she drops down next to her dad, grabbing his hand.

It just feels like his hand. It doesn’t feel any different. But he isn’t there; wherever he’s gone, behind the shallow rise and fall of his breathing, is someplace where he can’t grab her back.

Sgt. Greer’s head jerks up as gunfire echoes out again, somewhere above them, where everyone else was going. “Shit,” he says, and looks at his gun— then down at where he’s holding Amelia’s ruined jacket to Chloe’s dad’s abdomen. “Motherfuckers must be in the walls; how the hell did they— excuse my language.”

“Go,” Ms. Wray says. “I’m certified. I can stay till the med team gets here.”

He stares at her for a second, his dark eyes measuring, then nods. “I’ll leave you my radio,” he says. “Come here and take over for me.”

So she does. Chloe is peripherally aware of the transfer: the low murmur of voices and the choreography of their hands. Sgt. Greer places a radio on the ground next to her. She doesn’t look at him. He pauses like he wants to tell her something. But he doesn’t tell her anything. He just goes.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Ms. Wray says, when he’s gone. “He was left in charge of a group of unarmed civilians. Actually, he did exceptionally well. Or else we were exceptionally lucky. Or both.”

“I know it wasn’t his fault,” Chloe whispers.

She has her hand on her dad’s chest, right over his heart, so she can feel it beating. The beat of the heart is called an autonomic reflex. It’s something you don’t have to think about. Your body does it for you. One of those choices you don’t get to make, like whether or not you keep breathing, or how the blood moves through your circulatory system, or how you react when you hear gunshots. Some bodies want to put themselves in front of other people’s bodies. Other bodies want to scream and fold their hands over their heads. Some bodies want to save lives and other bodies have only one thought, only one thing in the world that they want to protect.

She has never before experienced the sensation of not wanting to be in her body so badly that she feels like she’s peeling away from her skin. Maybe she just wants to escape her nervous system, which she never knew was so defective— although maybe she’s always suspected it. Why else would she have felt like she does, like she did the night of her senior prom photo, wearing Ferragamo heels and a violet Vera Wang dress, with her early acceptance to Harvard on the refrigerator, and plans to volunteer teaching yoga to inner-city children at a YMCA summer camp, smiling at the camera with an orchid on her wrist and being struck by the sudden nauseating fear that when she looking at the picture she wouldn’t be there, or wouldn’t have a face, maybe, or that there’d just be a blur instead, because there was nothing inside her at all, nothing?

Nothing that a bullet wouldn’t go straight through.

“Is he going to die?” she asks Ms. Wray almost inaudibly.

Someone is still shooting a gun, above or below them. She wonders mechanically if it’s Sgt. Greer. She wonders if Sgt. Greer is still alive. She wonders if Lt. Scott is still alive. She wonders about Dr. Rush, and whether he is still on the base, or was, when the shooting started. She doesn’t think that Dr. Rush knows how to fire a gun.

Ms. Wray looks at her steadily. “I don’t know,” she says.

“He’s on a medication for his heart. A blood thinner.”

Ms. Wray’s eyes flicker downwards to where Chloe’s dad— Chloe knows this— has lost a lot of blood.

Amelia is still crying in the corner. Chloe wishes that she would stop crying.

Ms. Wray doesn’t say anything.

“Are we going to get shot?” Chloe asks.

“I don’t know,” Ms. Wray says.

“What if the med team gets shot?”

“They carry guns here. They’re not just medics.”

“People who carry guns get shot all the time,” Chloe says. “Do you have a gun?”

“No,” Ms. Wray says.

“Have you done this before?”

She doesn’t know why she’s asking so many questions. She can’t stop. Maybe it’s an autonomic reflex.

Ms. Wray presses her lips together very precisely, like she’s holding a word inside her mouth, or a sentence. “Yes,” she says after a moment. “I’ve done something like this before.”

“You’ve held someone’s— you’ve had to sit there while someone—“ She doesn’t know what she’s trying to say. Her head is buzzing. Her mouth hurts. Her lips feel swollen. Without any warning her hand balls itself up into a fist and slams against the wall, which is a good reason to make a noise of pain, so she does, because it hurts, and she’s still sort of making that noise when she says, “Where is the med team; where the fuck are they?”

Ms. Wray shakes her head. She looks away, beyond the wavering circle of light, into the darkness.

“Chloe,” Amelia whispers. “You broke your tooth.”

Chloe stares at her, uncomprehending.

“Your—“ Amelia gestures.

Chloe reaches up and touches her front teeth: feels the sharp ridge where part of one is missing. It doesn’t hurt, or if it does, she doesn’t feel it. It’s just there: a piece of absence in place of her tooth. “I didn’t notice,” she says. “How could I not notice?”

Her mom will be angry. I know you didn’t mean to, she always says when Chloe doesn’t notice something, but it’s careless, Chloe. It makes you seem careless. Is that what you want people to think?

Her dad sucks in a breath suddenly and coughs. His cough sounds like aquarium gravel.

Chloe grabs his hand.

Ms. Wray says, “Oh, God.”

There is blood in his mouth. His eyes are open, but only a little, and he looks at Chloe like he doesn’t know who she is.

“Chloe, I need you to get on the radio and turn to channel three,” Ms. Wray says very rapidly. “Say this is India Oscar Alfa Nine One calling a Two Whiskey Three in the northeast stairwell, level fourteen, priority.

His breath keeps wheezing, like a car engine on a cold day when it doesn’t want to start.

“Repeat it,” Ms. Wray says, when Chloe has managed to force the shaky words out. “Say repeat and repeat it.”

“Repeat,” Chloe says. She is holding the radio up to her face. Does she think this will make them hear her better? That they’ll see her, maybe: the blood on her mouth, her white face, her chipped tooth, and this will move them to action, a rhetorical technique the Greeks called pathos, the art of persuasion through evoking emotion in the viewer, the listener, the radio operator, the med team, the general, in whoever it takes. But how can they see her when even she thinks there’s no her there to see? She wonders if they can even hear her voice.

Ms. Wray isn’t holding the blazer down anymore. She’s putting her mouth over Chloe’s dad’s mouth, and then pressing her neat hands over his heart in the shape of an X. Chloe watches her, numb. It looks like some kind of witchcraft, that gesture: the image of the two mouths pushed together, the precision with which Ms. Wray positions her hands, like she can pump life back into Chloe’s dad from her own body, and when the door to the stairwell bursts open and the med team comes barreling through the smoke with a defibrillator at last, Chloe almost tries to stop them from reaching her dad for a second, because the spell isn’t finished, and if they stop Ms. Wray now, they’ll ruin everything. As long as Ms. Wray kneels there with her palms flat against Chloe’s dad’s chest, her lips forming secret syllables that Chloe can’t quite make out, there’s still a chance; there’s still something to be done; they’re stuck in a thin shining bubble of the possible that keeps expanding and expanding, getting thinner and brighter, but there is a finite area to that possible, it only has so much mass, and it can’t keep expanding forever, so what happens, what happens when the bubble—

Amelia had to stay in the infirmary so they could clean out the gash in her arm where the bullet grazed her. So it is just Chloe in the office.

One of the overhead bulbs is buzzing and she doesn’t like it. All the smoke has been cleared out and the lights are bright again.

General Landry’s desk is very polished and shining.

She wonders how long she’s been here.

There’s nothing to do. There’s nothing to read that isn’t Top Secret.

An airman took away her phone because he had to “contain the incident.” It didn’t seem to occur to him to wonder what she would do. Maybe she’s not supposed to do anything. There isn’t a protocol for her either. Someone should write an article for the New Yorker, she thinks, asking the important etiquette questions. “Is it impolite to lock the daughter of an important dead person in an office?” “Am I allowed to be bored when my dad is dead?”

She pulls her bare feet up into the chair where she’s sitting, and hugs her knees. They took away her clothes, too, because of contaminants, and gave her uniform clothes that are much too big. But they didn’t have the right size shoe for her. Only flip-flops.

She stares at her feet.

The light buzzes.

Her tongue worries at the edge of her tooth. It doesn’t hurt. Not really.

The door opens finally, and Ms. Wray comes in.

She is also wearing uniform clothes and flip-flops. Maybe, Chloe thinks, they wear the same shoe size. That seems like it’s probably not important, but then again, you never know. How is she supposed to know anymore what might be important? She feels like she doesn’t know anything.

Ms. Wray watches her in silence for a minute before she takes a breath and says, “Chloe, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Chloe says, looking down at her toes. “I know you tried. You tried really hard. Everyone did.”

That’s what she’s supposed to say, so she might as well say it. It’s good practice, although she doesn’t know this yet, not really; nevertheless, she already suspects that there will be a lot of saying what she’s supposed to say in the future.

“Yes,” Ms. Wray says. “But I can still be sorry.”

Chloe nods and lets her chin rest on the tops of her knees. “I want to go home,” she says. “Can I go home?”

“Not yet.”

“Has anyone told my mom?”

“No. There’ll be a cover story.”

“They read her into the program.”

“Still,” Ms. Wray says. “Still.”

She’s been standing in the doorway, but now she crosses the room— shuffling in her flip-flops. It’s such an awkward walk for such an awfully self-assured person that Chloe feels herself smile and then has to bury her face in her folded arms, because that’s awful, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

“I’m sorry,” she says, her voice muffled. “You just looked so— I mean, flip-flops.” She has never seen Ms. Wray wear anything other than perfectly polished Cuban heels.

Ms. Wray settles a light hand on her back. “It’s all right to laugh,” she says softly.

Chloe shakes her head without looking up. “But I don’t want to.”

“I know.” Ms. Wray doesn’t remove her hand. “Did they do something about your tooth in the infirmary?”

“They said that I— They said I should call a dentist.” Finally Chloe lifts her head, squinting at the light and surprised to find it watery. She blinks. “It doesn’t hurt, though.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

“It seems like it should hurt.”

Ms. Wray smiles at her gently. Her eyes look red, like she’s been crying, too, although maybe it’s just from all the smoke. “You could leave it. Start a trend. You’d get a lot of attention.”

“Yes.” Chloe touches the tooth gingerly, its artificial incisor edge. It feels like an animal’s tooth. Not like it belongs in her body. She pulls her finger back and says, “I never asked if you were hurt.”

“I’m fine,” Ms. Wray says.

“I should have asked. I didn’t even wonder.”

Chloe shakes her head. She brings her hands up to tuck her hair behind her ears, then presses them flat, cradling her own skull, and holds them there. “I didn’t even ask,” she says. “Why didn’t I ask?”

“Chloe,” Ms. Wray says. “I’m not hurt.”

“Neither am I,” Chloe whispers.

Ms. Wray’s hand closes for a second in the rough cotton of Chloe’s uniform jacket, a quick motion like a sob or seizure that would be easy to miss. Her expression stays the same, even and placid. “That’s good, isn’t it?” she says again.

Their eyes meet.

“Yes,” Chloe says. “Of course. Of course it’s good.”

### Chapter Text

The world of the Tau’ri turns out to be possessed of an oxygen-rich atmosphere that tastes, upon Ginn’s tongue, like hydroponics labs and the overheated off-cycle components from an al’kesh and the smell when you put your face close to warm dirt. It is not an unpleasant taste, but the air is not what she is used to, and she tires easily as she and Young and Rush walk in a forested region alongside the road, which is not a road but a runway for very nimble four-wheeled land-ships that operate on loud and unsophisticated engines, and that signal to one another by emitting something that Rush refers to, in a disparaging tone of voice, as country rock.

“Christ, I never realized; no wonder the Lucian Alliance want to destroy Earth, if their first impressions of it have been Colorado Springs and bloody Blake Shelton,” he says.

“Hey,” Young says. “Watch how you talk about the song of my people.”

“There is a tribal rivalry between you?” Ginn inquires, to which Young says, “No,” and Rush says, “There most certainly is.”

“America,” Young says. “Love it or leave it.”

Rush slants a very pointed look at him. “Oh, yes? And I’ll just leave it, shall I?”

Young sighs and does not respond. He pauses beside a tree and leans against it. He has been pausing a great deal because he is badly injured. He had lied in the security room when he said that he was not. Ginn does not know what the initial wound was, but she has worsened it, which she regrets. She acted only because she did not wish to die, and she did not wish to be locked in a closet, or to be locked in military prison, or to be locked in the cargo hold of a tel’tak, or to be locked in a broken sarcophagus, which was where she had been put as a child when she did not demonstrate her skills correctly, after the Alliance took her in. She does not have a horror of small spaces; after all, she has lived all her life in on ships and bases, barring the first few years she barely remembers, and the only thing more foreign to her than an atmosphere amenable to humans is the natural balance of gravity. But in that battered stone box, she had learned the lesson that the Alliance had meant to teach her, which was that her suffering was nothing to them: not even something to be snuffed out, but something to be muffled and forgotten until they found her useful once more. That she could beat her fists forever against a barrier that seemed, from her limited perspective, to be at the very center of her interstellar world, only to find when it was removed that it had been an afterthought to others. Ah, I had forgotten she was there, Yar would say— Yar, who had been the right-hand man to Kiva’s father, Massim. The little Bengedi; I had forgotten about her. They called her the Bengedi because that was how her people were called.

It had been a very effective training. She appreciates its practical rigor from an abstract perspective. But she does not intend for it to be practiced upon her again.

Rush is watching Young narrow-eyed. He says, “My argument holds; we should simply have hijacked a car in the first place.”

“Oh, yeah?” Young says. “On Norad Road? Great idea, Johnny Highwayman. We’d have half the cops in Colorado Springs out looking for us.”

“You’re not going to make it much further.”

“You just want to hijack a car.” Young shakes his head and pushes wet dark hair back from his face. “We should be right near the trailhead; there’ll be cars parked there, and no one’ll miss them for a good few hours, if we’re lucky.”

“Mm,” Rush says, sounding dissatisfied. But when Young straightens, ever-so-slightly less sickly-faced than before, Rush supports him once more without complaint.

They resume their course through what can only be a resource-rich region, where trees grow in an astonishing variety of colors and shapes, un-espaliered and loosing leaves all over in thick carpets. Small animals with twig-like feet scatter overhead, fat and charmingly anxious and capable of flight. Ginn watches them spread their dark wings against a sky that seems endless, very high and blue and far away.

“It’s so empty,” she says. “The sky. You have no ships?”

“Not a lot of ships,” Young says. “Mostly cars.”

“Cars is… ?”

He gestures as they enter a flat and stony region where a number of the land-ships are docked and depowered. “Cars. We go in for land travel more than air travel, as a rule. Guess that’s one more reason for you to sneer at the Tau’ri, right?”

“No,” Ginn says. She is still watching the curve of the sky. Empty, it looks like the inside of an eggshell, a clean and very peaceful place that she can imagine although she has only ever seen its obverse. “I like it.”

Varro would have liked it, she thinks.

Rush quickly achieves manual operation of one of the flightless vehicles, something that seems to strike Young as impressive, or possibly cause him alarm.

“Where the hell did you learn to do that?” Young asks.

“Vocational training,” Rush says.

“What the fuck kind of vocation were you training for that you learned how to hotwire cars?

“Look,” Rush says. “Are you or are you not getting in?”

Young sits in the second tier of seats, indicating that Ginn ought to co-pilot the vehicle with Rush. “So I can keep an eye on her,” he says.

“What is she going do, play Top 40 Radio at me?” Rush engages the engine of the vehicle, and they exit rapidly onto the road.

“She’s armed,” Young says.

“She could’ve shot me in the Mountain. Or in the forest, for the matter. Or in that parking lot. Fat lot of good you’d be; I’m surprised you don’t have vultures circling around you. Frankly, I’m astonished we haven’t all attracted an animal legion by now, soaked as we are in a melange of our own and other people’s blood— which reminds me; you ought to rid yourself of those trackers.”

Young had insisted, immediately after exiting the base, that he and Rush cut small mechanical trackers out from under their skin. Ginn had watched, fascinated, as their short knife slid into flesh and blood ran out in smooth ribbons. Rush had ripped the sleeves off his shirt to make bandages with. You don’t have anything, a tracker or something, do you? Young had asked. No, she’d said. He’d said, How do they make sure you’re going to come back, then? Ginn had not understood the question at first, and then she had not known how to phrase her answer. She had tilted her head and looked at him. They make sure, she’d said.

Now Young engineers the retraction of one of the viewscreens that line the vehicle and flings the metal trackers into the woodland. “Well,” he says, watching as their airborne parabola gleams in the strangely white light of a natural sun, “let ‘em try to trace that, if they want. Hopefully we won’t have to worry about it.”

Rush glances back at him. “Which direction am I meant to be heading in?” he asks.

Young is silent for a moment. “South,” he says at last. “South is good. South on eye twenty-five.”

Rush is then silent for a duration proportional to Young’s silence, or even perhaps exceeding it. He says, “New Mexico is south of here.”

“Yup.”

“David’s from New Mexico.”

“…Yup,” Young says, after a greater-again duration of silence. “We were stationed there together.”

“Do you think—“ Rush’s mouth forms a thin line. “Cryptographically speaking, when one is attempting to conceal information, one generally aims to produce as convincing as possible an impression of randomness. In this case, the information we wish to conceal is, obviously, our location. Therefore perhaps we ought to—“

Young says, “I know what the fucking information we’re attempting to conceal is.”

Rush’s mouth tightens further. “Then I would respectfully suggest that you rethink the latitude that you’re allowing your emotional fucking impulses, if you—“

“Jesus Christ. Fine!” Young throws his hands in the air. “Drive north, then. East. West. I don’t give a fuck.”

Rush says nothing. He directs the vehicle down a long stretch of road that lies between red boulders. The shadow of mountains in the distance suggests a size and scale of this world’s greenness that Ginn could not have imagined. She presses her face to the nearest viewscreen as though she might penetrate it with her body and escape the tension in the so-called car, vanishing into the unthinkable Tau’ri green. She watches as a soundless ship crosses the sky, shaped like one of the animals in the forest— wings and a tailfeather, an odd and pleasingly whimsical design.

“They sent him back through the gate,” Young says. He too is gazing through a viewscreen. His hand moves restlessly through the sweat-flat curls of his hair, to no apparent rational purpose. “Her people. With the rest of SG-3. As bait. Human bait. So, you know. He’s alive. Or he was. If you care about that sort of thing.”

Ginn registers peripheral movement: Rush’s hands tightening around the car’s navigational control wheel. “And he lied to me,” Rush says flatly. “If you care about that sort of thing. But then, perhaps you lied to me as well.”

Young makes a frustrated sound. “Oh, big deal, so he didn’t tell you that you came genetically equipped to turn on some Ancient fucking lightbulbs, like half the guys they send to Atlantis; he let you think he was more into your numbercrunching than he was. I mean, he should definitely die for that; let’s just let the Lucian Alliance have him!”

“So you did know,” Rush says. His voice lacks any emotional signifier.

No, I didn’t know; you think they tell me this shit? Landry and O’Neill told me this morning; they wanted me to take over the project, the— whatever the hell David was doing, that he needed you for, with the Icarus planet and the nine chevron address.”

Rush is silent.

Ginn strives for invisibility within the contours of her soporifically comfortable seat. She has an intuition that—

Rush glances at her. He has, she has observed, very unsettling eyes; perhaps if he had not, or if he had never turned them upon her, or if it had not been he who had sat in the rotatable chair of the Stargate security station, whom Ginn had touched with the symmetrical muzzle of Young’s heavy Tau’ri gun, then she would not be in this car, moving fast through the variegated mountains of the place that the Tau’ri call Earth. But he had caused her to feel an imbalance when he looked at her, as though through this seemingly ordinary act he had effected a resection, removed part of her anatomy and inspected it more closely than she was prepared for.

“That he needed me for,” Rush says to her. “That your people need me for. But not because of what Colonel Young, who is given to anti-intellectual outbursts, might refer to as my numbercrunching.”

“I don’t know this word, numbercrunching,” Ginn says, although she can intuit its denotation.

“Please. You can train yourself to operate a computer from the ground up and hack a U.S. government installation, but you can’t make a simple conversational inference? You’re not that stupid. There’s a reason you filled the base with that smoke. What is it?”

Ginn looks down at her hands. There is blood under her fingernails. It has dried and turned flaky, as blood does. She says, “Kiva— she governs the Western Principality of Sixth House— sought individuals with a specific set of genetic markers derived from the lineage of the ones you call Ancients. She believes that it will not be possible to dial the ninth chevron without making use of such a person, or that it will not be possible to use whatever weapon lies beyond it. The smoke was used to indicate those who possessed one or more of these genetic markers, so that we might appropriate them.”

Appropriate them?” Young says, just as Rush says, sharply, “What do you mean, making use of such a person?”

“You must know more than that,” Rush says very intensely. “There were others? Others at the Mountain? Others who reacted to the smoke?”

Ginn nods. She stares at where she is still worrying at the tip of one finger. She wishes that she had been equipped with a knife, so that she could extract the flecks of blood from under the nail. “We were told the Tau’ri had gathered them there for the same purpose. Not many. A few. The inheritance is rare.”

“Who the hell told you that?” Young demands. “And what genetic markers are we talking about, exactly? ATA’s not common, but it’s not what I’d call rare. And I don’t know about any other Ancient genes, so if someone’s been feeding you a line about—“

“I don’t know this expression, feeding a line,” Ginn says. Her voice sounds fretful, which she had not intended. She keeps working at the edge of her nail. The blood is there; she can see it. Like a line of ink. Varro’s blood. She is certain there is a cogent reason why it should produce a greater experience of revulsion in her, these tiny flakes she cannot get away from her skin, than the glossy patches that stiffen her clothing. “I don’t know the genetic markers. I don’t know the identity of the Tau’ri source. I don’t know. I don’t know.

“Then what the hell good are you?” Young snaps.

There is a silence.

“ATS,” Rush says in a low voice. “And UAT. Those are the other two genes.”

“What—“ Young starts.

“I was informed that it was in my best interests to read my medical file. Your friend Mitchell was oh-so-concerned that I might leak it to the Lucians après my inevitable capture, but it would seem that, to no great surprise on my part, his fears were absent any real basis, as the Lucians had already—“

He breaks off his sentence. His mouth works.

Silence spreads throughout the vehicle like a lukewarm gust of recirculated air.

“Hotshot—” Young begins.

The car departs abruptly from its trajectory as though veering onto a tangent vector. The vehicle’s mechanical elements protest through a smell of burning and a squeal as Rush kills the forward velocity and jolts them to a stop atop a fractious bed of gravel.

“Don’t,” Rush says, breathing hard, “call me that.

Ginn had gripped the sides of her seat in that first lurching moment of terror. But when she feels the vehicle slow and grunt to a rest, she gropes for her gun. She charges it with a flick of her thumb and levels it at Rush.

She herself, she notices peripherally, is breathing very fast.

“Oh, what the fuck is it now?” Rush demands, turning on her. “Was one unnecessary and hyperbolic performance of menace not enough to shore up your fragile sense of self-security? Yes, you’re very scary; we’re all frightened of you. Now put that thing away before you take someone’s eye out.”

“Rush,” Young says in an undertone, “maybe you should—“

“What? I should what?” Rush rounds on him, throwing a fierce and scornful look over the functionless panel that divides the seats. “Make nice with her? That would be your strategy, wouldn’t it? Make nice with anyone that might be a threat, up until you start to find the effort tiresome, and decide to chuck it in a dungeon— the patented approach of Stargate Command.”

“That wasn’t—“

“At least she had the decency to skel’ me in the fucking face outright, rather than sitting in my fucking parlor listening to music while plotting how to give me the chiv, or whatever the fuck it is you’ve been playing at!” Rush’s voice is rising. “So you’ll forgive me if the Lucian Alliance is looking a mite more appealing at the moment than the tender duplicities of your Kafkaesque fucking— Foucauldian fucking biopolitical nightmare!”

Ginn does not understand Rush’s words. But she does not need to understand them. She knows their content by the volume and timbre of his voice, or rather she knows that the content is inconsequential. There is a certain pitch of mechanical alarm at which the nature of the failure that has occurred within the circuitry of a tel’tak is no longer of importance; run is the only semantic content of that alarm. She has learned, too, this message from Yar and Massim and Kiva, that there exists a variant of such a mechanical alarm that the human body emits, sometimes as noise, and sometimes as a more subtle disturbance. The man who lives is the man who has tuned himself to receive all broadcasts on this spectrum, and who therefore is the first to know when it is time to run.

She has backed her whole body against the door, tense and vibrating as though she too seeks to broadcast a warning on that spectrum. “Stop shouting!” she says in a too-high and too-frightened voice. “Stop shouting and resume the operation of this vehicle, or I will shoot you!”

This does not have the effect she had predicted. Rush redirects his fury from Young to her. “Perhaps instead of shooting me, which would leave you without a functional driver once Young, having managed to mangle himself like an idiot, succumbs to his wounds at last, you should consider sharing with me what the fuck you meant when you said that the Lucian Alliance intended to make use of such a person.”

Ginn flattens herself further against the door. She does not know if she can operate the locking mechanism, but she can, she thinks, put her head through the glass, which might cut her throat, but equally might offer an alternative mode of escaping. She does not need Rush; he is wrong. He had briefly been useful. But Varro had also been useful, and when he was gone—

Nausea equivalent to a 2G deceleration grips the very center of her chest.

When he was gone she had picked up his gun and she had engineered her defection. So he had not been so very essential. It had been a mistake for her to think that he was.

“What did you mean?” Rush says again. His eyes are hard and his voice is as flat and cold as a trinium gearwheel.

“I—“ Ginn says.

She gropes for the handle of the door.

“What did you mean, make use?”

“Rush,” Young says in a low voice. “She’s—“

Ginn manages to get the door open at an interval exactly sufficient for her to stumble out of the car and vomit at the side of the road.

She is conscious then only of the force of her own retching and the taste of bile at the back of her throat. The air hurts to breathe, and the planetary gravity weighs her down, not a lot, not even enough really to notice, but enough that her knees are beginning to hurt. She sobs once, although she is not crying. She wipes her mouth with the back of the hand that holds the gun. She hates Earth, she thinks. She hates it. She doesn’t care that it’s green. She wishes she were back in space.

No native planet? Varro had said once, and she had said, I was a child the last time I saw it. It’s easier to think I don’t have one. Space is good. Space is… clean. —Cold, he’d said, and she’d said, Cold things are clean.

Varro had missed his native planet. He’d had a wife there, who died. They had not had any children. He had regretted that. Now, though, he’d said, now I get to babysit a whole load of you science brains. You’re all like children. As bad as children, anyway.

But she had known that she was the only one he thought of as his child.

A car door slams, and she flinches, bringing the gun unsteadily up.

She can hear Rush and Young arguing, though she cannot make out the substance of their argument. “—as though I need interpersonal advice from—“ Rush says, and then, “Strategic? Do they teach a special class, social etiquette with the aim of manipulation? You can go—“ before he hits the roof of the car with his hands and says, in a defeated voice, “Yes. You’ve said. Repeatedly. Yes. Just— give me a moment.”

He makes his way around the foresection of the vehicle. Ginn trains the weapon on him, but he shows her his hands.

“I’m not armed,” he says. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

She watches him warily and doesn’t alter her position.

“Just came out here to have a cigarette.” He pulls a small box out of his blazer pocket and jars a stick loose from it. “It’s a dreadful habit; my—“ There is a slight lapse in his speech. “My wife used to say that I turned into a feral cat when I went without one too long.”

“I don’t know what is a cigarette,” Ginn says.

Rush creates a flame with a small mechanical device and applies it to the end of the stick. “Probably for the best, really, that you don’t.”

“It makes you shout?”

“Well, the absence of it doesn’t help.” He breathes from the stick and exhales a cloud of cold-breath-colored smoke. “And there are what one might describe a host of other implicated factors, which, if you were familiar with Latin, would be quite a subtle pun.”

Ginn lowers her gun somewhat reluctantly. The sense of alarm is no longer troubling her body. She feels better now that she has thrown up.

Rush looks down and scuffs one shoe against the gravel. “How old are you?” he asks after a moment.

He quirks an eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” she says. “My homeworld does not mark circuital time in the same manner as yours. I remember five harvests before the Alliance came.”

Rush nods without looking up. “They came,” he says, “and they made use of you, did they?”

“They trained me. It is a great gift, education. It is not given to girls on the world that I came from.” She does not know why she feels so stirred to defend the Alliance, who taught her to kill and be fearful, who taught her to torture and be tortured and to be ashamed. But she does feel this. She says defiantly, “Better than being the wife of a farmer.”

Rush nods again. “Instead they gave you computers, and told you to learn how they worked, without any manuals.”

“Yes.”

“And you did.”

“Yes.”

“You speak English.”

“The computers speak English.”

“You speak better English than a computer.”

“I have a gift for languages,” she says. This is not boastful; it is the truth. “And for mathematics. That is why they educated me. They do tests. They take you away from your home if you’re clever. If you’re really clever.”

Rush stares down at his cigarette, burning unheeded in his hand. He says quietly. “Of course they do.”

“I didn’t mind,” Ginn says. “Not— not really. I don’t know who I would have been, if they hadn’t. But in the end I—“ She turns her head, biting her lip. “You have to survive, don’t you? I mean. Before you can do anything else. Be anything else. You have to survive. No matter what it takes. And your men shot Varro.”

“He was the man in the hallway?”

She nods and swallows hard so she can keep breathing. “He was the one who protected me.”

“I should just think you can protect yourself,” Rush says mildly, without any particular tone of judgement.

“Yes,” Ginn says. “I know that now. But— it was nice to have someone else who did.”

She has to holster her gun, then, so she can cover her face with both hands, not because she is crying, but because perhaps she could be crying, if she still remembered how the process worked, and she cannot tolerate this fact being known and seen.

“Oh,” Rush says, sounding vaguely alarmed. “No, don’t— Perhaps you should have a cigarette after all.”

He extends the box to her. She can see it through the spaces of her fingers, blurry-eyed.

“Rush!” Young snaps. He has retracted the viewscreen, as Ginn observes when she lowers her hands, and is leaning out of the space thus created.

“What?” Rush says, sounding resentful.

“What the hell is wrong with you? You can’t give her cigarettes!

“I am trying,” Rush says through gritted teeth, “to conduct an interpersonal transaction.

“Yeah, well, unsurprisingly, it seems like that’s not exactly your wheelhouse, so maybe just get back in the fucking car instead?”

Rush glares at him and tosses his own cigarette down upon the gravel, extinguishing the end of it that is still burning with the heel of his boot.

“It’s all right,” Ginn whispers. “I didn’t want one anyway.”

He puts the box into his pocket and folds his arms across his chest. “He didn’t want to bring you along in the first place, if you’ll remember.”

“Yes,” Ginn says. “But you did.” She tilts her head, scrutinizing the refraction of light from the wire-and-glass facial ornaments that he wears. Outdoors, it is difficult to perceive his expression behind the lenses, which is perhaps the ornaments’ purpose. “Why did you?”

Rush shrugs and rakes his hair back.

No,” he says, too fast. “No, that’s not— That didn’t factor into my decision.”

“But you believe that I may be of use.”

“I’m sure it would accomplish a great deal in terms of soothing Colonel Young’s sorer feelings if you were. But perhaps for now we ought to focus on staying alive long enough that it matters.”

Ginn nods. “You wish to resume traveling towards the twenty-fifth eye. I understand.”

Rush frowns, and then his mouth twitches. “Yes, well, we may find ourselves opting for the seventieth eye instead. Either way, I’d just as soon not have to drive the mountains after nightfall.”

“Nightfall.” The idea is strange to her. She looks up through the fronded branches that overhang the roadway, at the glinting sun and the particulate masses that hang in the planetary atmosphere. There is water flowing nearby; she can hear its exuberant splashing. A memory activates suddenly, unbidden: plunging under the water and holding her breath. She was a child. She wanted to see if she could reach the bottom, where smooth stones and the shells of freshwater molluscs tended to collect. She thought that there must be life under the river, animals that moved where she couldn’t see. She sensed that other dimensions would soon be necessary for her expansion, that she was not made like other creatures on land, but she did not know where to look to find these spaces. And she could not hold her breath long enough. She had to surface; her eyes streamed. Little fool, her brother said scornfully from the bank. You’ll drown. She spit pondweed, gasping. It tasted of the places she couldn’t imagine yet.

Rush regards her questioningly. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” she says. She swallows. “It’s beautiful here.”

He looks away. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking all of Earth is like this. It isn’t.”

“I suppose,” she says, “that I will have to see for myself.”

Rush opens the door for her when she steps towards the car, saving her a struggle with the handle. “You should take your coat off,” he says. “You can wear my blazer.”

She looks at him.

He elaborates, “You’re covered in blood.”

It is true. She touches a stain self-consciously, and with some sadness. Its area is bigger than her hand. She has an absurd impulse to cling to the overtunic in spite of its condition, or, no— if she is honest, because of it. But the blood has ceased to perform its biological function. It cannot be put back into the body; a body once thus divided cannot recohere; the process cannot be reversed. She strips the overtunic off. There is blood on the shirt beneath it, but not as much. Rush’s blazer, when he hands it to her and she shrugs it on, is made of fine woven fabric. A civilian’s fabric. Not suitable for war. She smooths her hands down the front of it, uncertain how to feel about the garment. About the fabric. About the gesture.

“Thank you,” she says. She feels shy, as though she had not put on as many clothes as she had removed.

Rush clears his throat. “I believe we can consign this reprehensible piece of space-antelope skin to the backseat, where it clearly belongs.”

“Thanks,” Young says dryly. He catches the overtunic when Rush throws it at him. “Nice to know where I stand in the scheme of things.”

Rush ignores him and starts to turn, to shut the door. Ginn catches the pale skin of his wrist.

“I,” she says. “I would tell you if I knew. What they wanted you for. I would tell you.”

He studies her. “Why?” he asks at last. “You’ve no reason to.”

“Because,” she says, feeling foolish. She hunches her shoulders and pushes her hands into the blazer pockets. The inside of the pockets is lined with silk. She knows silk; one of Kiva’s men brought some back for his woman, a scarf in a dark red color Ginn could hardly believe was real. The lining under her fingertips is extravagant, costly, a supererogatory pleasure that no observer would know is there. An extra dimension, she thinks, but not the one she had expected.

“Because,” she says again haltingly. “It’s beautiful here.”

### Chapter Text

Rush had hoped not to have to drive at night in the mountains, but in fact the sun had well and truly set by the time the gas light asserted its ghostly pictographic presence.

“We might as well stop now,” Young said wearily, when this fact was pointed out to him.

There had seemed to be a profound and elusive quality to his voice, something that hinted at greater depth than his words allowed for, or, indeed, than his intellectual capacity might suggest. But Rush had not asked, and Young, ensconced in the darker edge of late evening’s chiaroscuro palette, had opted to say nothing more. Eventually they had passed beyond a point at which the mountains became mesas, and another at which the mesas turned to farmland. Now uneven terrain hinted at some new upset in I-70’s future, but Rush could not make out what sort it was going to be yet.

“We should stop for the night,” he said after a short silence. “And boost another car from the motel lot in the morning.”

“Yeah, all right,” Young said. His weariness seemed to be verging now on defeated. “Aim for someplace right by a travel plaza, if you can; I’m gonna want to use a pay phone.”

“Yes,” Rush said. He searched for something else to say, but found that nothing came immediately to mind.

For the length of time that it had taken the Earth to spin this strip of land into an outward-facing position and send the sun’s visible circle below the western mountain ridge, he had been convinced— not without a certain degree of smugness— that he was engaged in what Young would no doubt call coping, or rather that there was in fact nothing to cope with. A wee bit of violence— well, he’d seen it in the East End of Glasgow, hadn’t he? A woman’s screams leaking down from the flat above like cold and sour-tasting tap water; football hooligans after a match; the bailiff’s boys, who’d carry a cricket bat round the estate; and the schoolboys, who hadn’t needed bats, who’d used their fists and feet and bricks from the decomposing reliquiae of the factories. And then there had been— So violence was not a novel concept to him. Neither was his own alienness. He had known; he had always known; he had been told—

But for the last hundred miles or so, he had found that when he blinked, he saw for an instant, on the insides of his eyelids, the image of the loose hand of the Lucian corpse. The more he looked at it, the more he thought that there was something in the hand that was reminiscent of an Old Master, perhaps in Caravaggio’s Entombment or one of the Depositions from the Cross. Well, after all: quite likely they’d learnt to paint from corpses, the Old Masters; hadn’t they? Studies in anatomy. How often had he gazed at a painting— Gloria had loved art; on their honeymoon she’d dragged him to museum after museum, astonished by his ignorance, yet invigorated by it also; Have you really never— she’d said, and he had said, Why would I ever, and she had said, Because it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful, see—

He blinked, and there it was again. Just the hand, falling limply against the concrete. He had trouble thinking of it as part of a body.

He tried to focus on the taillights of cars smearing red through the darkness, or the over-bright specks of neon that promised petrol stations ahead— gas stations, truck stops, travel plazas, however the fuck they’d been rebranded.

“We’re pretty close to Grand Junction,” Young said. “That’ll help. Bigger is better. More anonymous.”

Rush nodded, only half paying attention.

He considered opening the window again, but the air would smell of exhaust, which was undesirable. And it would wake the girl, Ginn, who was asleep in the seat next to him. She had grown briefly carsick when they first embarked upon the curves of the Rockies, and then had pulled her knees up to her chest, let her head list against the window, and dozed off within seconds.

Meditatively, he brought his hand up to the small wound at his mouth, which she had inflicted. He wondered how badly his response had betrayed that this was not that particular blow’s first repetition, its virgin enactment upon him. There were instincts one developed, a way of moving that came from the hindbrain, and which the body could not control. He knew it when he saw it in others. He had never explored the potential complementarity of the insight. But then, Young was a soldier; he lived in a world in which it was taken for granted that people got hit.

“She didn’t give you a concussion, did she?” Young asked.

Unnerved— he hadn’t known Young was watching— Rush flicked a glance at the mirror. “No.”

“Cause it’s hard to tell, sometimes, and you probably shouldn’t be driving if she did.”

“I know what a bloody concussion feels like, all right.”

He could feel Young’s eyes on him. “Right,” Young said. Then, after a pause: “Pull off up here. The place by the Exxon. That should be perfect.”

So Rush took the exit, steering the car towards the glum and pretensionless block of building that declared itself a Days Inn. It had a large sign, brightly lit, featuring a stylised and unconvincing sunrise. The sign seemed nervous somehow, like all the lights did— the lights that clustered around these thready little freeway interchanges, uneasy of the maw formed by the West’s dense and swallowing dark.

He blinked and saw the hand flopping against the concrete landing. Such an inelegant word, flopping. But it was what the hand had done. Did. Perhaps it was intended to be onomatopoeic, flopping. But that wasn’t the noise the hand had made.

His tongue probed the place on his mouth where the girl had struck him. He could taste blood on the inside of his lip.

They decided that it was Young who would rent the room, being the least conspicuous of the three of them and therefore the one whom a motel clerk was likeliest to forget. He stripped off his jacket first, so as not to stand out as a serviceman, handed it to Rush, and rubbed his curly hair where it was frayed by the desert wind. With the wound on his arm where he’d taken the tracker out bandaged and hidden by the egg-blue cloth of his shirt, he could almost pass for a businessman caught out on the road between cities. There was nothing to do, of course, about the limp, but perhaps the businessman had been in a very bad accident. Perhaps he had almost died and now remembered the incident with a certain amount of bemusement, unable to incorporate it in the narrative of his life, as one who had seen a meteor pass through Earth’s higher atmospheric layers, burning steadily, and exit, leaving a graze of smoke; who had briefly been troubled by this brush with a world full of objects that were not like him, the vast and alien landscapes of the galaxy, but who soon did not think of it any longer.

Rush shut his eyes and saw the dead hand.

When he opened them, Young was studying him. Young had slightly tilted his head, and the shadows from the parking lot’s fluorescent light struck him at a new angle. He no longer looked like a businessman.

“Adopt the attitude of a very amiable idiot,” Rush advised him with a certain amount of weariness, leaning against the car door. “You look too dangerous.”

“Thanks; I’ll keep that in mind.” Young folded his arms. “Are you okay?”

“Are you okay?” Rush returned, gesturing at Young’s entire state of embodiment, his whole embodiment situation.

“Are you okay?”

“Are you—

Rush looked away. “Yes. I’m fine.”

“I admit, it’s a mystery to me as well.”

“Just— stay here till I get back and don’t do anything, okay?” Young pointed at him and attempted a smile, one that faltered before reaching fruition. “Especially don’t do anything to my coat.”

Rush watched him limp his awful and offensive limp towards the motel entrance. It gave him a pang to see Young go, and he did not know why, and that too was awful and offensive. Quite probably it was trauma bonding of some sort. His body thought it needed Young for its survival. Soon it would awaken to the reality, no doubt, that Young was barely able to save himself, much less anyone else who became caught in the crossfire, and the impulse to call out and stop him from going too far would fade.

Though perhaps it was Young who was caught in the crossfire.

It was not useful to embark upon a survey of the crossfire, triangulating the names, affiliations, and purposes of the participants, because he possessed so little in the way of information. The hail of bullets might have come, like the meteor of which he’d been thinking, or more appropriately a whole meteor shower, from somewhere far beyond the Earth, propelled by forces millions of years in the making, though sometimes triggered by gravitational perturbations so minute that it seemed nonsensical to assign any agency to them. And in that case his own genes, surely, must form part of the calculations.

He held his hand up in front of his face and formed a fist.

He felt he could feel the collective gravity of the chromosomes. His whole body, drawing fatal things to it. Forcing them into alignment.

He shut his eyes and let his hand drop. It blurred into the image of the dead hand.

Unexpectedly and without any real examination of the impulse, he folded Young’s coat over the roof of the car and laid his head against it. The cloth was cheap and almost certainly artificial. It smelt human, like starch and sour sweat. He felt ill. He wished he had not given his blazer to the girl. It had his cigarettes in the pocket. He turned his face, pressed his mouth against Young’s coat and inhaled.

Young’s shuffling step warned him of the man’s incipient return, and he straightened before Young could see him.

“Hey,” Young said as he drew close, looking tired but remarkably genial for a man whom Rush had earlier witnessed kill several other men. “I got us a room. Ground floor. Tactically better. There’s even a continental breakfast, though I think people are going to look at you funny if you grate your eggs.”

Rush snatched a proffered keycard from his outstretched hand. “We’re not on a road trip,” he hissed, abruptly and inexplicably angered by the mere fact of Young’s presence, which so recently had seemed desirable to him. “I’m not in a buddy comedy with you.”

The geniality dropped from Young’s face. It left behind an empty mask that just looked tired. “I know,” he said. Something in his inflection suggested that there ought to be more to the sentiment. But he added nothing more. The words simply hung there for a moment, before Young cleared his throat and looked away. “Maybe you should, uh, wake the girl up. I figure we ought to head over to the truck stop. You and her can pick out some food while I call Mitchell.”

“Yes, fine,” Rush said tightly. But he didn’t move. He stood, fidgeting, torn between the constituent members of an asterismic set of impulses whose pattern resisted interpretation. Once more the invisible gravity of all these goddamn parts.

Eventually he thrust Young’s coat out with a faint noise of irritation. “You look fucking absurd wearing so many ribbons,” he said. “A right clown.”

He stalked around the front of the car to tap on Ginn’s window, catching— as brief and fast as the flicker of moth’s wings under the car park light’s cone of radiance— the expression of compassion that crossed Young’s face as he did.

They crossed the deserted road that separated the motel from the travel plaza, an unlikely trio: Young, having left his uniform coat in the motel room, playing the businessman once again, Ginn wearing Rush’s blazer awkwardly draped over all her leather, Rush stripped of his ruined button-down and no doubt resembling a methamphetamine addict in his jeans and undershirt.

Ginn hadn’t known how to fasten the buttons of the blazer, and Rush had had to show her in the motel room. “It seems like a very primitive form of affixment,” she’d said, studying herself in the mirror. “We’ll pick up some clothes at the gas station,” Young had said, to which Rush had replied acerbically, “Ah, yes. Your staple: souvenir t-shirts.”

But there was something familiar about the offensiveness inherent in the aesthetic of the racks of shirts, when they entered the shopping center. Wolves and buffalo peered out from bad tie-dye jobs; Christian verses, taken out of context, adorned images of mountains and lightning. They were all dreadful, even those that merely advertised the state of Colorado; their dreadfulness made them seem unthreatening in a way that the truly ordinary could be when one had been confronted with the frightening elsewhere that lay outside it, the raw universe’s unpredictability. Rush felt a sort of kindness towards the stupid shirts that he had not expected, and considered, briefly and with real seriousness, whether it was the day’s most intolerable side effect.

“What is it?” Ginn asked, sounding dubious, when she had made her way down the row of clothing. She was fingering a purple t-shirt with a snow-laden buffalo lumbering across it.

“A buffalo,” Rush said. He had been assigned to mind her while Young made his phone call. “A type of animal.”

“I like it,” she said. “It lives here?”

“No. Not any longer. The Americans killed them all. Or most of them.”

She tilted her head, considering this. “Young is an American?”

“Yes.”

“Has he killed many buffalos?”

Rush huffed a laugh that wasn’t really a laugh. “Perhaps you should ask him that question.”

“Well,” Ginn said, frowning with a hint of petulance. “I will.”

“Buy the shirt, if you like it. You need a new one.”

She picked out that one, and a shirt that featured several eagles flying against a full moon, and a pair of pink track pants, though— “These are inappropriate for battle,” she said disapprovingly, holding them up.

“Oh, I don’t know. They might supply an advantage. They’d certainly be very startling to your enemy.” Rush wandered away from the display of clothes.

The fluorescent overhead lights were beginning to give him a headache, and the faintly piped, preprocessed sound of Christian pop music was distressing. He felt detached from reality. Eating something would, no doubt, be beneficial, but he thought that if he ate something he would vomit. Not for the first time, he wished that his body were more bloody efficient, instead of an assemblage made from warring parts; a machine at least had one objective; a machine was manufactured for a purpose; a machine was not outstandingly incompatible clusters of sentience and electrical impulses and bacteria in symbiosis with nominally human flesh, all attempting to function in circumstances that were not what they had wanted, inasmuch as they could be said to want anything, those brainless and therefore inaccessible accessory elements; jellyfish parts of an unjellyfish-like person, and he wished, he wished that he could—

Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he spun around to see Young there, grinning stupidly.

“Hey,” Young said.

What?” Rush snapped.

The grin dimmed, but only by a lumen. “I found you a sweatshirt.” Young produced, from behind his back, a sweatshirt emblazoned with the image of an articulated lorry and the slogan STOP ASKING WHY I’M AN ASSHOLE, I DON’T ASK WHY YOU’RE SO STUPID.

Rush stared at it. “Elucidate for me,” he said, when he found himself no longer dumbstruck, “the point of association between intelligence and”— he searched for the American term— “big rigs?

Young shrugged.

“I do ask why you’re so stupid. Frequently.”

“Yeah, but you use fancier language. I’m buying it for you.”

“It’s happening.” Young threw the sweatshirt over his shoulder. “Where’s the kid?”

Ginn, clutching her selection of clothes and a large bag of what appeared to be trail mix, was staring in fascination— her head tilted, brow furrowed— at the hot dogs spinning in the gas station’s roller grill.

“You haven’t mentioned what you learned from Mitchell,” Rush said as he and Young made their way over to her.

Young, who had not looked weary for a moment, suddenly did. He grimaced, and raked a hand through his hair. But he said, “It’s good news. I’ll tell you when we’re outside.”

“I struggle to imagine an iteration of said conversation that contains good news.”

Young ignored him. “I’m starving, are you starving? And that Subway’s still open. I’m gonna grab a six-pack of three-two beer and a meatball sub.”

“Enjoy puking your guts up all night,” Rush said icily. “Is that plain enough language?” The two of them had reached Ginn; she turned at their approach, and he said to her, “Don’t eat anything that Colonel Young attempts to convince you is food. I’ll have my cigarettes now, please.”

She handed them over, looking confused and a little wary of Young.

“Right,” Rush bit out. “I’m going to smoke.”

He plucked a lighter from the cardboard display on the counter as he left; when the clerk called after him in a bemused tone of voice, “Uh, sir? You have to pay for that,” he shot back, without turning, “Feel free to add it to their tab.”

Outside, he shivered in his undershirt and smoked ferociously, watching an unappealing stream of American vehicles come and go through the false daylight of the forecourt. He didn’t understand his agitation, or why it increased as he observed the imbecilic expressions of young families, weathered truck drivers, and bronzed sorority girls: the population making their way westward from Denver, happy pioneers reiterating the footsteps of their ancestors. Rush wanted to say to them, spitefully, Good luck! Avoid eating each other when you reach the next round of mountains! But such a sentiment was, almost certainly, unfair.

Perhaps it was the music. He did not like music, and hidden speakers seemed to be projecting it from every pump.

He wished that there were not so much light pollution. He would have liked to have seen the stars. One was meant to be able to see the stars, this far from civilisation.

He exhaled in a cloud, startling a thread-legged insect that had strayed too close to the truck stop’s doorway. The sight reminded him of the Lucian Alliance’s smoke, and he found himself flexing and then closing his fingers, as though to reassure himself that the appendages in question still belonged to him.

His own hand moving, bioluminescent and blue in the darkness.

The dead skin of the Lucian soldier’s hand.

An electronic chime sounded as the door opened, and he flinched.

“I got you some Vitamin Water,” Young said. “And a protein bar. One for girls. Next time, stick around to pick your own food.”

“I’m not hungry,” Rush said. He ground his cigarette out on top of a concrete bin and headed in the direction of the motel.

He could hear Ginn say, behind him, sounding puzzled, “You segregate your foodstuff by gender?”

Young said, "It was a joke."

Then the noise of gravel crunching under lightly jogging footsteps. Rush hadn’t thought Young could jog in his current condition. He was impressed.

“Put your damn sweatshirt on,” Young said. “You’re cold.”

“I’m not.”

“For whom?” Rush deigned to stop and stoop, picking the black sweatshirt up off the tarmac. He held it disdainfully between two fingers.

Young gestured. “For Lucian Alliance back there.”

Rush looked. Ginn was struggling into her vividly purple and quite oversized buffalo t-shirt as she walked, clutching several bananas, a long strip of beef jerky, and an open bag of trail mix.

“She doesn’t appear to need any assistance,” he said. “And she has a name.”

“Right,” Young said. He studied Rush. “You’ve still got blood on your mouth, by the way.”

Rush’s hand went there without his own volition. His lip felt bruised. He found the crust of the wound. “Yes, well,” he said. “God forbid I should suffer a split lip.”

Young looked away, squinting— as though the dark of the mountains were midday sunlight, or he were in pain. “The situation’s resolved,” he said. “At the Mountain. They’re still in lockdown, but they figure everything’s more-or-less under control at this point. We should be able to head back home sometime tomorrow. I picked up a burner; Mitchell’s going to call and give me the all-clear.”

“Ah,” Rush said. It seemed, somehow, strangely anticlimactic.

“We managed to get a U.S. senator shot, so that’s a public relations nightmare.”

“The girl,” Rush said distantly, remembering. “Her father.”

Young frowned. “What?”

Rush shook his head. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”

He was thinking of the careful way the senator’s daughter had clutched her pen.

“He died,” Young said. “We lost a lot of people. The Lucians got one of the scientists, too, someone with some of the genes they were looking for. Some kid in astrophysics, Dale Volker.”

Rush’s finger had returned to his lip. He pressed there, against the bruised part, until he tasted blood. He was familiar with the flavour. He didn’t say anything.

Young said, “Mitchell said he was glowing.”

Rush closed his eyes.

“David’s alive,” Young said.

Rush turned away. His intent was to start walking, and possibly to hurl the sweatshirt out towards the highway that cut a pale and mechanical scar through the low grass. But before he could do either, Ginn caught up to him and Young.

She had straightened her shirt out, and had her hand pressed possessively over the ghostly print of the buffalo. “Rush says that Americans kill this animal,” she said to Young. “Rush says that Americans have killed so many of this animal that now they do not live here any longer.”

Young rubbed at his forehead, looking persecuted. “We have kind of— a complicated national history.”

“I don’t understand. Were the buffalos your predator?”

“No,” Young said. “They—“

“Did you hunt them to extinction for their meat?”

“Not exactly.”

Ginn frowned. On her it was a hurt expression. “I don’t understand,” she said again. Then: “Have you killed many buffalos?”

“No, of course not!” Young raked his whole hand, agitated, down his face. “You have to get a special permit. Anyway, I haven’t hunted since I was a kid, and that was just deer and duck-shooting. What the hell did you tell her, Rush?”

Rush shrugged without much energy. “It’s the truth, isn’t it? Don’t you ever think about it?”

“What, buffalo?

“Yes.” Rush hugged his arms to his chest, conscious of the thinness of his undershirt, how little protection it provided him against the desert wind, which carried not only the cold with it, but a smell of the higher desert further out, with its sparse carpet of scrubby, knotted, and recalcitrant plants. “When I was first offered the position in Colorado, my… I knew someone who was fascinated by the American West. She told me that so many buffalo once lived in the stretch of land from Canada to Colorado that the sound of them was mistaken for thunder, and even a century or more after their extinction began, a man might travel through one herd for six days or more without emerging from it. It seems impossible to imagine that something might be so central to what you know of a place— an animal upon which all else in an ecosystem rests— and then gone. Like that.” He snapped his fingers. “A hundred years, maybe; a few generations; nothing, it’s nothing; it’s—“

“Yes,” Young said.

Rush looked at him, uncomprehending. “What?”

He had hunched his shoulders a little— not defensively, but as though he were embarrassed by what he had said.

Rush was caught off-guard. It was not the response he had expected. He felt as though he had been interrupted in the middle of a speech, that he had been building to some point in the most analogical sense: a high place of splendid isolation that he would cling to as intransigently as one of the desert plants. Now he would not get there, but the proposed diversion was one that intrigued him. “Do you?” he asked.

Young made an awkward, uncomfortable gesture. “There was a camp story that made the rounds when I was a kid, about the last buffalo. Not really the last one, of course, but pretty much all the ones we’ve got now are crossbreeds, at least a little bit. Or maybe we just didn’t have our facts straight. It doesn’t matter. We were sure it was the last one, and that it’d been alive since the Indians, and that it roamed the plains, wreaking vengeance on dumbass Wyoming ranch kids who snuck out of their cabins after curfew.”

Rush huffed something that was close to a laugh.

Young was smiling, too, but his smile faded. “So we must have known,” he said. “I mean, that something was wrong, that our grandparents, our great-grandparents had… that somewhere, somehow, something’d gone wrong. But it doesn’t work like that, I guess. You can know and not-know.”

“Yes,” Rush said.

They stood in silence for a moment. It was— almost— a companionable silence.

Finally Young turned away, a stupid grin creeping over his face, and said, “You know, the last buffalo’s still out there somewhere—“

“Fuck off,” Rush said immediately.

“—wandering all over the great bison belt—“

Ginn was frowning at Young, looking worried. “I don’t know what is a camp story. This is a true thing? There is such a creature?”

“No,” Rush said.

Young said, “Sure it is. With his red eyes, and his horns that glow in the dark, and his hooves sharpened like knife blades—“

“He’s punch-drunk,” Rush told Ginn.

“I’m just saying,” Young said. “If I were you, I’d put your sweatshirt on, in case we have to start running.”

Rush looked at him. The skin under Young’s eyes was so bruise-coloured that he might have been beaten; his mouth was tight, with marked lines at each edge. Despite the chill in the air, he was sweating through his shirt. He needed opioids, probably, and a doctor, or at the very least some aspirin and a good night’s rest. Yet here he was, three hundred miles from his home, attempting adolescent humor in the car park of a Days Inn, with an audience that was optimistically a little less than half human. It spoke to a failure of logic that one ought to, objectively, find appalling; how could a man be trusted when his actions were so wild and absurd, so wholly lacking in substantive reasoning, to the point that they would achieve pseudorandomness if it weren’t for the devastating flaw that was their at-the-same-time utter predictability, their grounding in a cartoonish set of emotional commitments that no one on Earth used as a foundation for problem-solving. Did they? Did they?

More out of a desire to see what would happen than out of a willingness to concede to Young’s unserious point or, indeed, to any aspect of the onslaught of aspects that was Young, Rush pulled the abominable sweatshirt over his head. It had a hood, naturally. It was far too large, and the cuffs of the sleeves fell over his hands. He directed a long-suffering look at Young.

“I thought we were already running,” he said.

Ginn slept hard, though she had slept in the car already; halfway through whatever garish and grating late-late-night television programme Young had selected, she had gone lax, curled in a semi-defensive posture on the far bed. She was clad in her pink track pants, buffalo shirt, and, incongruously, her solid Lucian boots, presumably on guard against an early-morning call to keep running. On the flickering TV, a low-level comedian was telling jokes that were incomprehensible to Rush, who did not deign to follow politics or, indeed, the news. Perhaps they were funny jokes, though this was a possibility whose likelihood Rush rated rather low. Young was not laughing— but then Young did not have a sense of humour, or at least not a very sophisticated one.

Young himself seemed close to sleep. His eyes kept slipping closed, the aquarium-like light of the television writing inscrutable shapes on top of them. This ought to have muffled his blunt, masculine presence, but did not.

Rush had been imprisoned with Young for a week— perhaps not even a week, he considered, but then the calculation of time was not his speciality— but he had not ever seen Young in bed. He resented having to do so now, which was why he had removed himself to the artificially pleasant armchair by the window, where he was contemplating his notebook with his knees pulled up to his chest.

He found it objectionable. Young’s presence. How weary he looked. The undershirt he wore. The white piece of gauze that, earlier, he had held secured to his bicep whilst Rush had used bits of tape to secure it to his skin, before Young had made good on the reciprocal manoeuvre. He had not wanted Young’s hands so close to his body.

He stared unseeing at the pencil-marks that constituted notes towards a potential new attack on the ninth chevron cyphertext.

“You coming to bed?”

Startled, he looked over to see Young watching him— eyes heavy, as though their fringe of lashes was weighing them down.

“No,” he said.

“Seriously?”

“Not tired.”

Young breathed out a frustrated sound. “You are such a fucking liar.”

Rush shrugged somewhat limply.

“If you want the bed— if the thing with me and David makes you uncomfortable—“

“No,” Rush said blankly. “No, that’s not it; I’m the last person who would— no. No.”

“So why can’t you just—“

“I’m not tired.

“Rush,” Young said.

Rush looked down at his notepad. The room felt very small and very private, despite the low sound of the television— as though the world outside were immobilised by snow, and in this room alone, anchored by Young’s presence, could objects move, breathe, hum with the faint electromagnetic currents that suspended life like a frail spiderweb inside of them.

“When I close my eyes,” he said, “I keep seeing—“

Young waited for the conclusion of the sentence.

But Rush had shut his mouth, resolute. He set pencil to paper and drew an unnecessarily savage factorial exclamation mark.

“What?” Young said.

“Rush—“

“Fuck off,” Rush said, with less force than he had intended.

There was a brief silence.

Young picked up the remote and turned off the television. “Yeah, okay,” he said. He sounded defeated. “You’re not going to do something stupid if I fall asleep, are you? Freak out in the middle of the night and decide to head for the hills?”

Rush played with his pencil. “What, are you worried about me?”

“Hell, no,” Young said easily. “I’m worried about the poor folk who’re gonna spot you, glowing in the dark and running along out on the Colorado Plateau. That’d be a hell of a story to hush up. Worse than aliens at Roswell.”

Rush’s mouth twitched in spite of himself. “You realise, of course, that I do not actually glow in the dark.”

“Sure you do.” Young shifted, turning onto his side and resting his head against his right arm. “I’ve seen it.”

“That was a specific chemical reaction triggered by whatever substance was in the gas.”

“Still,” Young said, sounding drowsy, almost what an American might have termed dopey. “Maybe you better stick around. We don’t need too many glow-in-the-dark things wandering around out there.”

“I do not glow in the dark,” Rush said.

“Or if you do run off, make sure to keep that sweatshirt with you.”

Rush was still wearing the sweatshirt. He looked down at its offensive print. “Has it got some sort of light-absorbent properties of which I’m not aware?”

“No; I’d just hate to see you get cold.”

“Go to sleep,” Rush told him repressively. “You’re delirious; you’ve probably injured yourself internally. And I’m certain you’ve got food poisoning as well.”

Young hmmed, amused. But his eyes were closed, and after a moment his breathing evened. He didn’t speak again.

Rush watched him.

After a while, he abruptly, almost angrily, unfolded himself from the chair and went to the window. It was dark; the glass was cold. He could see the ordinary lights of the industrial American landscape, bleak and lacking in any beautiful intent. The highway, the interchange, the gas station, further gas stations, the single specks of ranches or oil derricks, far out. And then the immensity of the blackness, a space in which it was possible to believe that anything might live.

He imagined doing as Young had worried he would do, and walking out into that blackness. Perhaps, he thought, he would glow— but he did not like the idea. There had been an interval of time in the Mountain in which he had been inexplicably afraid that the glowing hand he saw was not his, that though it still formed part of his body, it could no longer be counted amongst the assemblage of parts according to which he was constituted. This raised a number of troubling questions: on what grounds could he argue for any sort of personal coherence, if not that it was biologically determined? If his hand could cease to be his hand, could he find that he had annexed other objects without warning? Or would he only go on losing, until there was nothing left? What parts of the world could he claim belonged to him? How could he prove that he had the right to any part of the world whatsoever?

A gust of wind sheared against the building.

He closed his eyes and leant his forehead against the glass, overwhelmed by a sudden wave of nausea and the conviction that if he entered into that blackness, there would be no him. He would have crossed some asymptote that kept properties from collapsing; he would be a function that had flirted too wantonly with such a collapse, until it was not a function any longer, and the asymptote was not an asymptote; until they bled into an unboundaried sea of blackness. He would be everything and therefore he would also be nothing.

He was going to be sick.

He was not thinking rationally.

He was not a function.

He was possessed of all the parts of his body. They were contained in a pair of battered jeans and an oversized truck-stop sweatshirt. He was wearing slightly crooked glasses. His hands were clenched into fists. There was scruffy and no-doubt-unhygienic motel carpet under his bare feet.

Still.

“Still,” he whispered.

He turned and crossed the room, feeling slightly frightened.

Young had left a broad stretch of space in the bed. Rush sat at the far edge. The sound of Young’s breathing— not quite a snore, but working up to it— was reassuring, if for no other reason than that Rush found it impossible to imagine Young, who was so insufferably plebeian that he snored and watched bad television and ate Subway, having any doubts whatsoever about the composition of his body. That was Young’s snore-in-progress; those were his lungs, his uvula and palate; turning to look, one could easily see the lumbering body and bulldog face that were singularly and unquestionably Young’s, the lumpen shoulders, the freckles on the bared arm, the springing corona of curls.

And if Young was Young, then perhaps Rush could be certain that he was Rush.

Eventually, hating himself for it, he lay down on the bare half of the bed and studied the ceiling, conscious of Young’s blunt, masculine, snoring, freckled, warm, plebeian body, next to yet kept carefully separate from him. The ceiling was speckled with the uneven texture of plaster, which resembled stars. He did not want to impose constellations on that structure, because he disapproved of pareidolia as a rule. But he found himself finding them anyway: Greek letters and the faces outside the Sheldonian; Stargate glyphs, swimming fish, and swans’ necks; then, inevitably, a lifeless, splayed-out human hand. The hand turned, as he watched, into a starfish, then a coral, then a siphonophore’s tendrils, and then lost cohesion altogether and became flecks of plaster again, as numerous as stars or as buffalo upon the ancient prairie, and it was at that point that he began to grow drowsy— thinking vaguely that he heard the drumming of hooves, before realizing it was only the more ordinary sound of Young breathing.

“Typical,” he murmured, frowning, and buried his face in the pillow. “Louder than a bloody stampede.”

He slept.

### Chapter Text

With the weight of the entire military establishment behind him, Young had managed to order up a car rental by the time noon rolled arround, when Rush pried himself out of bed, realized that the coffee at the motel only came with those little single-serve creamers, refused to drink it, and declared that they would have to have breakfast in Vail.

“We’re not going to Vail,” Young said.

He’d woken up feeling intensely hungover, and almost incapable of standing. The muscles in his hips and lower back had stiffened to the point that he was pretty much a literal tin soldier, and he was sure that one of the screws in his spine was grinding against the bone. Any inexplicable fondness that might have briefly frissoned through him when he woke up to find Rush forming a disgruntled little heap of snarled hair and oversized sweatshirt beside him, managing to look contrary even in his sleep, had faded by the time he’d gotten a handful of Advil and several cups of motel coffee inside him, and had spent a good hour on the phone, first with Mitchell, then intermittently with the rent-a-car place and General O’Neill.

At some point the Lucian girl had woken up, too, and stood around in the motel lobby in her boots and pink sweatpants, saying shit like, “What is paper?” and “From what animal do these eggs come?” Maybe Rush found that kind of thing charming, but Young didn’t. Mostly he was on his last nerve, and a little worried that the motel clerk was going to think he was some kind of sex trafficker.

And then Rush had graced them with his presence, and it quickly become apparent that for classified reasons of his own he’d decided to up both the quantity and quality of his standard asshole behavior by about twelve hundred percent, a change that made itself known first through his refusal to abide by the motel’s no-smoking policy, which got them asked to leave the lobby within ten minutes of his arrival, and second through his sudden commitment to single-origin coffee— although that was really only the last of his demands, which included, in no particular order, sunglasses, a laptop, a new phone, a wristwatch, and a lawyer through whom he could sue the SGC for a list of unspecified grievances.

Vail was the only immediately actionable item on his list, which was why it was where Young had put his foot down.

But when a confused-looking rental clerk arrived in the lime-green hatchback that O’Neill had arranged to have dropped off for them, Rush had gotten his hands on Young’s burner phone and was scanning through cafe listings. “Oh, you’ll like this one,” he said, without looking up. “It’s got an idiotic name. ‘Yeti’s Grind.’ That’s Americans for you; it’s not even clever.”

Young said, “Put the goddamn phone down and get in the car.”

“Nor is it an American monster, the yeti, so points off for that as well.”

“Rush.”

“I suppose they couldn’t have known that they had a ready-made monster waiting under one of their very own mountains.”

Young snatched the phone from Rush’s hand and stalked around to the driver’s side of the car.

“I was talking about Stargate Command,” Rush said spitefully, over the car roof.

“Yeah,” Young said. “Thanks. I got that.”

“The monster? Under the mountain?”

Young got in the car and stuck the key in the ignition, biting down on his lip for a second to control how much it hurt to sit. “If you’re not in the backseat in the next five seconds, I’m leaving you here.”

The Lucian girl was already sitting in the passenger seat of the car, reading a USA Today with an expression of deep fascination, but she looked up in concern at that. “But this is not a scientific installation,” she said. “Surely you are being facetious.”

“Four seconds,” Young said. “Three. Two.”

Rush climbed into the backseat, slamming the door behind him so hard that the entire car shook. His mouth was tight. “You’ve already tried that line,” he said. “It isn’t effective, remember? It only works when you’re threatening a person, and not an interstellar resource.”

“Well, maybe you could try acting like a person,” Young said shortly. “It’d be a nice change for all of us.”

“Fuck you,” Rush bit out. “I want a cup of coffee.”

Young pulled out of the motel parking lot and headed onto I-70. “Then you should’ve gotten one back at the motel.”

“Isn’t it your job to ensure that I’m able to function?”

“No, actually,” Young said. “It isn’t.”

Rush ignored this interjection. “I must say that the very fact that Stargate Command would entrust such a role to you suggests a grave lapse in their decision-making skills; I say lapse in skills, but I suppose I mean lack of skills whatsoever. They could have at least sent a competent sergeant to chauffeur me back to base—“

“The competent sergeants all have better things to do,” Young said. “Assuming they’re not Lucian spies to start with.”

“—but instead I’m stuck with someone who’s quite probably going to steer us into traffic because he lacks the use of both his legs.”

The Advil that Young had taken wasn’t helping. He fixated on the license plate of the car in front of him, a battered rust-red Toyota sedan. 503-L18, it read. Young found himself trying to make sense of it, even though there wasn’t any sense to be made. He wondered if he’d stress-fractured a vertebra. Probably he would feel that. Then again, maybe he was so used to hurting that he wouldn’t even register the change.

For some reason Rush was still talking. “I can’t imagine what I’m meant to conclude from this if not that I don’t rate so highly as a resource as I’d been led to believe; has that dead senator’s daughter found another cryptographer overnight?”

Young wished the doctors could’ve just taken the bones out in the first place and put something else in instead. He wasn’t attached to all the bits and pieces. He’d just as soon be metal, something that didn’t hurt so much. Better that than this long slow crumbling obsolescence.

“But then, it was never about the cryptography, was it?” Rush asked, or, really, demanded. “It was always about the genes. Perhaps they’ve bred another me, in a lab, without the parts they object to. That would be a very neat solution all around, wouldn’t it?”

Better than turning into someone who wasn’t him.

“How regrettable it is that the technology to do so doesn’t exist yet,” Rush said. “How satisfying it would be for you not to need me, by which I mean not to have to keep up this make believe that you care whether or not I live.”

“Can you just shut the hell up?” Young said. He was digging the fingers of one hand into his hip. He hadn’t meant to do it. The pain of each fingertip formed a point of clarity, like a pearl he was having to pry open razor-edged oysters to get. “Please?”

“Perhaps you would have left me at the motel, in that case. I suppose you would have done. Would you?” Rush’s voice had taken on a hard, nervous, agitated edge. “Would you?”

“I sure as hell wish I could’ve,” Young snapped.

He saw, in the rearview mirror, Rush settle back against the seat with a savage air of smugness, looking as though he’d won the argument. “Of course you do,” Rush said. “But you can’t. So I want a cup of coffee.”

“You know what, fuck you,” Young said. He accelerated to pass the rust-red Toyota. The feverish light of midday was cutting his skin open, exposing all his insides. I bought you a sweatshirt, he wanted to say. He didn’t know why it was relevant. If he could’ve kicked Rush out of the car he would’ve, and he pictured it for a second: Rush skidding on his hands and knees, spitting up dirt on the highway shoulder, having to for one time in his goddamn life get himself out of trouble, instead of having someone else do it for him. “You’d last five goddamn minutes with the Lucian Alliance, you know that? I should’ve let them have you.”

He was aware, in his peripheral vision, of the Lucian girl's hands collapsing the edges of her newspaper, crumpling it into dense little balls in her fists.

Rush looked bored. He glanced out the window, crossing his arms over his chest. “Don’t forget the sunglasses,” he said.

They made it to Colorado Springs in a little under seven hours, stopping once so that the girl— who still wasn’t used to cars— could throw up, and then again so that Young— who didn’t have an excuse, except that the pain had started making him nauseous right around the time they hit Denver— could do the same.

Rush drove the rest of the way after that. They didn’t have a conversation about it; Young emerged from the Conoco bathroom wiping his face with his hand to find Rush leaning against the driver’s side door. Rush held his hand out without looking at Young, and Young, after a long hesitation, dropped the car keys into it.

When they got close to the Mountain, the girl asked, with trepidation, “What will happen to me?”

It hadn’t escaped Young’s notice that she hadn’t asked, or that she could’ve run off. She’d had every chance; she could’ve taken their wallets at gunpoint, or while they were sleeping. Hell, she could’ve asked Rush nicely to drop her off somewhere on the way down from Denver, and for all Young knew he would’ve. But she hadn’t, even when Young had made it clear where they were going.

“Well,” Young said, “we’ve got a protocol for enemy aliens who want to earn American citizenship. You’ll have to stay on base for a while— it’s not exactly a prison; they’ve got rooms with beds and TVs and books. They’ll want to ask you a lot of questions, which I suggest you answer.”

“They will torture me,” Ginn said. It wasn’t a question, and she didn’t seem particularly upset about it.

No,” Rush said immediately. Then he glanced at Young with a suspicion that made Young’s stomach turn.

No,” Young said. “God, no. We don’t do that kind of thing.”

Rush was still looking at him like he didn’t believe it.

“The idea is that you give us information because we’re giving you other things. Food. Clothes. Eventually, if they decide you’re not a security risk, an American passport.”

The girl frowned. “What if I don’t want to be an American?”

“America’s being pretty fucking nice to you, if you ask me,” Young said, a little more shortly than he would’ve liked to. “So if I were you, I’d take what you’re offered.”

She didn’t ask him any more questions after that.

Lam wanted Young in the infirmary right away, but O’Neill wanted to debrief him, and Young was experiencing a pretty intense dread of the inevitable medical examination, so he threw his weight in with O’Neill.

“I’m fine,” he told Lam. “I’ll be up in like a half hour.”

She looked skeptical, but she herded Rush off with her. A couple of sergeants had already come for the Lucian girl.

“So,” O’Neill said, wandering around Landry’s office— which was where all three of them had initially been dumped, presumably on the grounds that it was supposed to be one of the safest places on the base.

“So,” Young said. ‘Sir.”

“General Landry sends his regards. Something about how we got a U.S. senator killed, and now the IOA’s in meltdown, and he’s having to work hard to keep the press off our backs.”

“Right,” Young said. “I heard.”

“You heard, did you? On your little field trip?” O’Neill leveled a narrow look at him.

“Mitchell told me.“ Young shifted uncomfortable in his chair. “It seemed like the best option at the time,” he offered. “The whole— stealing a car thing.”

“Oh, it definitely was. I’m kind of impressed you could pull it off.”

“It turns out Rush can hotwire just about anything.”

“Great. That sounds like a fun, safe hobby.” O’Neill leaned against the desk, his arms crossed. “But you managed to bring him back. Alive. With a Lucian defector.”

“Well, I came close to killing him myself a few times, but, you know, I’d already gone to so much trouble.”

O’Neill didn’t crack a smile. He was staring up at the ceiling. “The decision’s been made to send him offworld.”

Young stared at him. “What?

“For the thing, the thing with the DHD. We can’t risk waiting, after this. We need those codes broken. And now that the Alliance has their own candidate—“

“Candidate for what?” Young asked. “Sir.”

O’Neill looked at him, raising an eyebrow. “You decided if you’re in on the Icarus Project? Cause that was the deal. You’re either all-in, or you’re all-out.”

“That’s Colonel Telford’s project,” Young said. He felt a sick surge of alarm. “Mitchell said that he was—“

“Oh, he’s fine.” O’Neill waved a hand. “Banged up, the usual. That man could survive a nuclear explosion.”

“I can’t—” Young said, before he could stop himself. “I mean, can I see him?”

O’Neill slanted a very specific kind of look at him. “He’s in lockdown for the next thirty days, while we try to figure out if he got shot up with that damn Lucian brainwashing drug. Carolyn’s working on a test. Till then, he needs a second-in-command to take over.”

“Oh,” Young said. He felt taken aback. He hadn’t given the job offer much consideration, what with the shooting and the smoke and the Lucian girl and driving halfway across the state. Maybe he hadn’t really thought it could be serious in the first place. “I’m sorry, I haven’t really had time to, uh—“

O’Neill let him flounder for a minute, and then seemed to lose patience with his continued inability to come up with something to say. “Mitchell told me Rush read his medical records,” he said, which seemed like a non sequitur. “He’s pretty sure Jackson dropped a dime to Rush about them, which in pretty classic Jackson form has pissed off a lot of people. Is that what the kids are saying now? Dropped a dime?”

“I really wouldn’t know,” Young said.

“You think it was the right call?”

“For Jackson to—“ Young made a vague sort of gesture.

O’Neill regarded him intently.

As usual, Young felt about three steps behind O’Neill. He could tell the question was important, but he didn’t know what the right answer— if there was a right answer; sometimes there wasn’t, to that kind of question— might be. “Right for who?” he asked carefully. “Right for Rush? I think he’s got a right to know, but it wasn’t the right way to tell him; all it did was make him pissed off and scared.”

“And that bothers you,” O’Neill said. His expression was unreadable.

“I mean— if nothing else, I don’t think it’s a great plan.”

“What’s this about?” he asked, wanting to change the focus of the conversation before he said something he shouldn’t. “Is Jackson the one who wanted me to take on Icarus?”

O’Neill shook his head. “No. That was my idea. He came around to it eventually.”

“And now?” Do you still want me now, he meant. Is it still the best idea you could come up with, now that you've got a look at me. Now that it's all gone to shit.

O’Neill looked down and brushed an invisible piece of lint from his uniform trousers. He seemed thoughtful. Again, Young was aware that there were parts of the conversation he wasn’t getting, undercurrents going astray in the air. “Now,” O’Neill said, “I think you should get checked out by medical, and after that I think you should spend a week or so training Rush to go offworld. Then, assuming you’re interested, I’d like to read you into the Icarus Project.”

“—Oh,” Young said. It wasn’t really the answer he’d expected.

“Any questions?”

“No,” Young said. “I mean—“  Why me? he wanted to ask. You could’ve had anyone. Not just— He could understand why Jackson wouldn’t want him; even without Young’s history of monumentally fucking up. Jackson was all elevated thoughts and moral logic, cosmic entities and quantum physics. In spite of what he’d said when he’d helped Young move, Young was convinced that on Jackson’s radar he barely registered as a shadow, a sort of staticky fritz indicating that something partially sentient might be there. And David damn sure wouldn’t want Young anywhere near his project, especially with Young in the shape he was in; David didn’t have a lot of patience for weakness, usually, which was why when he’d hauled Young up that caldera, it had seemed for a second like maybe—

“No,” Young said again. “Thank you, sir.”

He rose with a flinch he couldn’t conceal, and saluted.

O’Neill returned the salute. “You did good,” he said, as Young turned to go. “You gotta learn to quit, though, you know, one of these days, or you’re gonna end up in pieces.”

Young paused. “Yes, sir,” he said.

Rush was still in the infirmary, which Young hadn’t wanted or expected— stretched out on a bed with his arms folded, looking murderous.

“So you did turn out to have a concussion,” Young said. “Or is the brain damage permanent? That would explain a lot.”

“Fuck you,” Rush said. “They took the car away.”

“Yeah, of course they did. It’s a rental. It’s not your personal limousine.”

In response, Rush stretched out a hand and said, “Keys.”

“What?” Young was looking around for Lam.

Rush snapped his fingers. “Give me your keys.”

“You mean, like, my keys? To my car?

Rush jerked his head imperiously and snapped his fingers again.

“Right, that’s not happening,” Young said.

“Don’t be absurd. I am cleared to leave this den of fascism and—“ Rush paused. He appeared to be searching for an insulting enough noun. There was something a little bit blurry about his face; maybe for once in his life he was actually tired. “This den of fascism and—“

Dr. Lam appeared, flipping through a chart.

“Hey,” Young said to her.

“—Whereas you,” Rush continued, “are not, and furthermore can no doubt rely on the intensely physical and emotionally remote comradeship of men to procure a ride home for yourself, probably in a vehicle of equally distasteful size.”

Young and Lam looked at him.

“Does he seriously not have a concussion?” Young said.

“No,” Lam said. “You, on the other hand…”

Young said ruefully, “Pretty sure that’s about the only thing I don’t have.”

He let her guide him over to one of the beds, and then hesitated when she indicated he should take off his coat.

“Do we have to—?” he said, jerking his head over at Rush. It didn’t make sense, really; he’d been in his t-shirt and boxers around Rush lots of times. Hell, the night before. But not like this— not with someone charting the damage done to his body, turning it into less of a body than a machine he’d managed to wreck. He didn’t want Rush to see him like that. He thought— and it was a strange thought, one that hadn’t occurred to him before— that for all Rush’s nasty little jabs about cripples, he was the only one who didn’t really treat Young like that. To Rush, it was like being in the Air Force, or listening to country music— a personal flaw that couldn’t be helped, one that was no more or less irritating than everything else Young did. Everything else Young was.

“I can pull a curtain,” Lam said, looking uncertain.

“I resent being detained here,” Rush said loudly, as Lam pulled the curtain.

Young peeled himself out of his coat off with a wince. He still had the brace on underneath, which he guessed was something.

“Oh, you know.” He waved a hand.

She was watching him with eyes that were very warm, but careful. “I don’t, actually. I’ve never broken my back.”

Young squinted at the outline of a lamp, visible through the curtain. “I think one of the screws might be doing that thing.”

“That thing? Which thing? You mean bone irritation?”

“Yeah. That.”

“Okay. Well, we can do an X-ray. If you suffered a serious impact, it’s possible something got knocked out of place.”

Young shrugged.

Lam attempted a smile. “That’s it? Shrug?”

“I mean,” Young said. “—Sure.”

He didn’t know how to explain that he didn’t really think it made a difference whether she did an X-ray or not. The part that mattered was over. It’d been over for months now. It was just— over. So it was hard for him to care what she did.

He was starting to have this sinking feeling that he didn’t like. It hadn’t been there when he was fighting, even though that had hurt a lot, or when he was headed out west on I-70, when the pain had really set in and he had watched the tops of the mountains start to blur through the windows as the white sparks of almost-blacking-out blended with the eggshell blue of dusk. When they’d stopped for the night, he’d felt almost euphoric. Like he could keep going forever. He hadn’t wanted to come back, he thought. He should never have given himself that taste of what it had once been like, what it wasn’t going to be like from now on, because he’d always known that in the end he was going to have to come back and face—

“If you could take your shirt and brace off,” Lam said, “I’m going to do a brief exam, just to get a sense of what kind of function you have right now.”

“Right,” Young said.

Mechanically, he complied. He was familiar with the motions. He’d done this a hundred times or more, stripping down in front of doctors who wanted to touch his spine with cool fingers, probing impersonally for signs he didn’t know about and couldn’t recognize. They read his body like it was a book written in a coded language, one that had never been taught to him.

Lam was gentle; she was nice about it; he did like her.

He stared at the circle of the lamp.

“No numbness or tingling?” she asked.

“No.”

But he felt like he was numb all over his body. It just wasn’t the kind of numbness she was asking about.

“Okay, if you could just lower your pants for a sec—“

He did, and felt her fingertips against his hipbones, pressing briefly. It hurt, of course; of course it did.

It occurred to him that she’d been the last person to touch him like this, and before that it had been another doctor. Or maybe the PT girl. He hadn’t slept with anyone since before he got VSIded. So it’d just been all these anonymous hands.

“The— Lucian girl tackled me,” he said. His voice sounded like it was coming from far away. “Took me down pretty good.”

“Is that right?”

“Uh-huh. I figure that probably did me worse than the running.”

Lam’s fingers were moving along the scar that wrapped his right hip. “The way I hear it, you were running, jumping— playing action hero.”

“That’s— overstating it a little,” Young said. He flinched as she hit some IED of pain he hadn’t known was embedded.

“You can pull your pants up again,” Lam said.

He did.

“I noticed you didn’t give me a pain number,” she said, moving around to face him. She had the same expression she’d had before, the professional friendliness that hinted at a suppressed depth of sympathy she knew that you weren’t ready for her to feel. “I’m guessing it’s high.”

Young half-shrugged. He looked away for a second. “It gets hard to put a number on it,” he said. “After a while.”

“Yeah.”

“I threw up on the way here.”

“Well, that’s not a good sign.” Lam removed a small wisp of hair from her face with a casual movement. “My knee-jerk opinion is that this is all just muscle pain, from drastic overuse, and it’ll resolve itself. We’ll do the X-ray to be sure.”

Young nodded.

“You realize that major hardware problems mean you might be looking at another surgery.”

“Yeah,” Young said. “I know.”

She flashed him a quick, reassuring smile. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near that point, but it’s something to consider, the next time you decide to let yourself get tackled.”

“I don’t think you understand the principle of tackling,” Young said. His tone was wry, and he thought that was good, that he could be so laid-back and funny and, frankly, charming when he kind of felt like he was going to throw up again.

“Just— consider it,” Lam said. She rested her hand on his bare shoulder for a moment, light and trying-to-be-comforting. “I’ll let Imaging know you’re coming in; let me go write you a scrip for a stronger muscle relaxant. I know you’ve got a cabinet full of shit at home, pardon my language, so I need you to be really good about not mixing-and-matching, okay?”

“Yeah,” Young said again. “Sure.”

She smiled again and ducked out behind the curtain. Young was left sitting there on the bed, and though he pulled his undershirt on, tugged his shirt on, and started, without much energy, to do up the buttons, he still felt mostly naked. He thought about lying on the X-ray table, listening for the tech’s voice on the intercom, feeling stupid and human and exposed in the face of the humming, vast, and sophisticated machine, and again he was struck by that sinking feeling. Like he’d swallowed a weight and was staring upwards through water, knowing there was no way he’d manage to summon enough force to kick his way up.

Something rustled out in the infirmary. He supposed it was Rush. He was amazed Rush had kept his mouth shut for this long. Probably he’d just been thinking up some really good new insults for Young.

There was no point in the curtain anymore, though, so Young pulled it back. Rush was still sitting on the other bed with his arms crossed tightly across his chest. He looked away quickly, as though he was trying to hide the fact that he’d been staring. He’d been eavesdropping, too, Young was sure.

“Sorry to fuck up your big plans for the night,” Young said. “With my X-ray.”

Rush shrugged minutely, without looking at him.

“I mean, God knows you’ve got so much to get back to.” Young had stood, facing away from Rush, and was folding his coat to drape over his arm.

Rush drew a breath to respond.

“No,” Young said. “Don’t even start.”

Rush let the breath out slowly.

He was wearing the sweatshirt from the truck stop, Young noticed. He hadn’t been before; he’d put it on. That was what the rustling had been.

They didn’t talk on the way home, after Lam had taken a look at Young’s X-rays and declared that he could get away with a week of bed rest, because at the very least he wasn’t doing any more damage to himself. That was something Young hadn’t wrapped his brain around yet— the idea that he could be damaging himself just by sitting, standing, walking around, all the everyday motions of being human. His body was its own enemy, which meant he was always under assault. It was exhausting. There was no place where he could ever be safe.

It was night, and the streets were empty. A storm must have swept through while they were in the base, because the asphalt was patterned with torn leaves, black and slick.

As the car entered the apartment complex, Rush said, subdued, “My laptop’s in your flat. I’ll have that back.”

Young didn’t say anything. He parked the truck. Then he said, “Yeah, okay.”

Upstairs, he watched Rush collect his computer and a few stray items of clothing. For some reason it struck him as odd, the idea of not having Rush in his apartment. He’d just sort of assumed that Rush would be there, like Rush had been there since Young’d moved in, taking up space at the kitchen, scribbling on classified documents, and complaining about whatever was on TV. The thought of being alone with all the furniture he hadn’t really picked out was depressing. But he was going to have to do it sooner or later; it was like the X-ray.

So he said tiredly, while Rush was opening the door, “Did you throw my liquor out, too? Along with my beer and hot dogs? Or did it manage to meet your cosmopolitan standards?”

Rush paused, but didn’t look at him. “I left it where I found it,” he said coolly. “It seemed like a heavily-trafficked area.”

“Great,” Young said. He didn’t care enough for a comeback.

“By that I mean—“

“Fuck you. Goodnight.” Then he remembered. “O’Neill expects me to prep you to go offworld, so I’ll come by tomorrow.”

Rush stilled in the act of stepping out into the hallway. “They’re sending me to a planet with a DHD?”

“Guess so.”

“No. Don’t come by.”

Young sighed. “I thought you wanted to—“

I’ll come here. I don’t want you in my apartment.”

Young let his forehead drop against the doorframe. “You know what? Sure. Whatever. Fine.”

“I expect you not to be hungover.”

Young bridled at the imperious note in his voice. “Then don’t come by before noon,” he snapped.

Rush frowned. “That seems excessive.”

Young shut the door in his face as a reply.

At least Rush had been telling the truth; there was Scotch and tequila under the kitchen island. Young pulled out the Scotch and poured himself a solid double in a previously-unused glass. He drank it slowly but methodically, trying to think resolutely of nothing.

His own skin, sutured together by scars he couldn’t look at, most nights. Hiding a body that couldn’t stand itself. That he couldn’t stand. That sometimes couldn’t stand.

He poured himself another double and stared down at the whiskey, bracing his hands against the counter.

“Here’s to all the things that are off the table,” he said softly, tasting the sourness of the words, and drank.

### Chapter Text

The cell to which Ginn had been assigned, Rush discovered, was a small room that contained a cot, a desk, a bookshelf, and an old cathode-ray television with a built-in slot for VHS tapes. Rush had assumed that VHS tapes no longer existed, but perhaps Stargate Command had bought them all up; certainly, a disproportionate number of those still in existence appeared to be located in this room. He spotted Titanic, Jurassic Park, several copies of something called Hoosiers, a complete boxed set of Hogan’s Heroes, and— to his personal disgust and deep offense— Braveheart. The selection of sad sagging paperbacks that made no pretense of filling the bookshelf was equally demoralizing; from the look of them (John Grisham, Michael Crichton, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a Gideon Bible, and Gone With the Wind), they appeared to have been supplied from a local Goodwill shop.

Ginn, of course, lacked the appropriate context to desire better, or else was proving to be possessed of appalling taste.

“It’s like life under the System Lords!” she enthused, holding up the battered cardboard case of Braveheart. “Before the Lucian Alliance overthrew them! These are your people? Why do they prevent their women from fighting? Their technology seems very primitive; is this why you ally yourself with the Americans?”

“It’s fiction,” Rush said repressively, glaring at the case from where he was leant against the doorframe, arms crossed. “About something that happened a thousand years ago. This is unacceptable; I’ll have some proper books and films brought for you. You ought at least to have a working knowledge of the classical canon. We can’t have you turning out like Young. How on earth have you been occupying yourself for the past two days?”

It had been more than two days, in fact; no one would let her see her on the first day, and by the second some sort of absurd and fascistic rule had been instituted that he was not to leave his apartment complex without military accompaniment, which—  since Young injured was all-but-useless and seemed to have become, as a result, self-pitying to boot, a sad troll of a man who stank of booze more often than not— had meant that Rush had been required to put forth an truly enormous amount of effort to make himself unbearable enough that Young would request an on-call escort for him. The entirety of the second day had been occupied with achieving this goal.

Ginn did not appear to have minded. “I watched Jurassic Park,” she said, looking delighted. “Three times.”

Rush was beginning to develop a headache.

“There is a textual retelling of this story, did you know?” Ginn pointed to the bookshelf. “I don’t know what is chaos theory. Always Dr. Ian Malcolm is talking about chaos theory. I think it is similar to v’larash. This is the school of math that is—“ she gestured, apparently struggling to communicate the concept. “Talking about things that have no head? No cause.”

“Stochasticity,” Rush guessed.

“I like it very much. Though I don’t think that Dr. Ian Malcolm understands it.”

“No,” Rush said drily. “I would imagine not. Clearly it’s imperative that we assess your educational level and divert your attention to more intellectual matters. Mathematics first, of course. I’ve no notion what sort of formal mathematical background you’ve been given, but it’s almost certainly inadequate.”

Rush hadn’t had an idea, but abruptly he did. “Well, obviously I’m going to train you as my replacement. If Stargate Command insists on a backup copy, I’ll give them one, but it’s not going to be some cheeto-fingered joystick-fucker, pardon my language, whose idea of fun is DDOSing Netflix and peddling credit card numbers on the dark web. You speak Ancient?”

“Yes,” Ginn said, looking for some reason more confused, not less. “Of course I do.”

“Excellent; you’re already one up on the joystick-fuckers.” Rush gazed up at the dreary ceiling, which was a cinderblock colour. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He was compiling a list in his head. “We’ll start with number theory; how are you with quadratic reciprocity? Or I suppose the language barrier might be an issue; perhaps I should simply create a test. I assume you prefer base 10?”

“Yes,” Ginn said. “But—“

“I suspect you’re familiar with the idea, but almost certainly not the technical details, of elliptic curves and zeta functions. That’s all right; I’ll dig out my copy of A Classical Introduction; we can—”

“I don’t understand,” Ginn interrupted, her brow creasing. “You suggested that you did not acquire me for my technical prowess.”

“—No,” Rush said belatedly, disturbed. “I didn’t acquire you for anything. I didn’t acquire you, full stop.”

“Dr. Samantha Carter and Colonel Cameron Mitchell assure me that if I share what I know of the Lucian Alliance, and pledge loyalty to Stargate Command, that is sufficient to secure my release. I do not need to work for you.”

“No,” Rush said again. “No, you don’t.”

She looked at him, questioning. She had very large eyes of a curious colour, which he had noticed even before she hit him. He thought that her eyes did not quite fit the face they were in, which was something that people said about his own. You disconcert people, Gloria had said, because your eyes are the wrong colour. He had said, How can they be the wrong colour? They’re my eyes. She had smiled, and reached out to trace the arch of his cheekbone. I don’t know, she’d said. They’re too dark; people find them difficult to look at. It’s like being under a microscope. When he had asked her if she found them difficult to look at, she’d said no. No; but I suppose I was always waiting for someone with a high enough lens power, someone who could see my cellular structures.

He understood better now what she had meant, and for a brief, strange moment, he wondered what their child would have looked like. He could not imagine it. Their child. Gloria’s and his. He had not wanted children; for many reasons, but in part because the odds were low that any child he and Gloria produced would be like them, and he could not bear the idea of a child who was a stranger. So after all he could appreciate how his parents had felt. But you would still love it, Gloria had said. You would still love it, Nick; it doesn’t work like that. He had not been able to bring himself to tell her that it did.

He did not know why he was thinking of this.

He tried not to think about Gloria.

He considered what to say to the girl.

“Have you never done maths for any other reason?” he asked at last. “Only because you were made to?”

Ginn frowned. “I don’t understand the question.”

“You’re correct; you don’t need to work for me. But—“ Now it was he who found himself struggling to communicate a concept. “You’re in a cage,” he said. “A prison, ever-so-slightly nicer than the one you’re used to, or at least without the threat of imminent death, but still a prison, prettied up with a bookshelf and cheap television. This world is full of prisons, cages, of one sort or another. I suspect that every world is. Mathematics is the way out of the cage. I’ve seen your code; I know that surely you feel that. Chipping away at the walls, little by little, with each solution, till eventually the understructure must give way.”

She hesitated, considering him with those eyes: as fixative as amber, and unblinking. “Is this why you wish to solve the nine chevrons?” she asked. “To free yourself from your prison?”

“Perhaps I only want what’s on the other side of the address,” Rush said. “Like the Americans.”

“No.”

“No?”

“You’re very sure of yourself. Perhaps I feel they ought to be conquered, simply because they exist. Like mountains you climb because they’re there.”

“Solving a problem isn’t conquering it,” she said. “That’s not what it feels like.”

“No.” He looked down, toying with the cuff of his shirt, and wished for a cigarette. “Have you never had a sore tooth and worried at it, or pressed your finger against a bruise, not because you wanted to hurt yourself, but because you needed to know? Because it was a part of your body, and suddenly it was strange, it was foreign, and you wanted to know what would happen if you just—“ He didn’t know what he wanted to say. He spread his fingers in a vague gesture: flowering, exploding.

“But it’s not a part of your body,” she said.

“No. I know that. Of course it isn’t.” He folded his arms across his chest tightly. “Accept an easier answer, then.”

She was still studying him with a faintly wary, clinical air. He presumed that she made all of her decisions by evaluating their likelihood of hurting, the level of tolerance they would require, what she would end up owing on account of them. It was a sophisticated calculus, and one with which he was familiar. How easy if he could have assigned her a book to simply it, but he had not yet found one that streamlined the equations, and besides, the maths was so sensitive to small mistakes in the quantification of the self. That was the really difficult part, and no one else could do it for you. He thought he had not done it particularly well in his own case, but it was much too late to alter the method.

“And you wish me to help you,” Ginn said, sounding as though she were testing the idea out.

“I think you deserve to do maths because you want to see the other side of the wall. Not because someone’s holding a gun to your head.”

“They didn’t hold a gun to my head,” she said. “That’s not how it works.”

“I know how it works,” Rush said.

They looked at each other.

“All right,” Ginn said. “Yes. I will allow you to teach me. But— since we have no books— just for today—“ She bit her lip, suddenly so much younger than she had been a moment before. “Perhaps you could tell me something of what is happening in the world outside instead?”

Rush summoned a wry half-smile. “Outside of the cage?”

She sat on the cot, and pulled her knees up, hugging them close to her. “Yes.”

“You should be glad you’re in here, frankly. Young’s gone quite mad with power.” Rush moved forwards to lean against the desk. “He’s meant to be training me to go offworld. God knows who found that a suitable occupation for the man; perhaps I’m meant to entertain him while he’s trapped in his apartment, drinking himself to death. That seems on par with Stargate Command’s valuation of my person. As far as actual training goes…”

“How is it possible,” Young asked in a voice that suggested he was barely controlling irritation, “that you can hotwire a car and hack computers, but you can’t remember an acronym for more than ten seconds?”

“I do not hack computers,” Rush said icily, glaring at him. “I am not a hacker. I am a cryptographer. I am a mathematician. Do you think they give you the bloody Fields medal for arsing about sending rude messages to NASA and creating botnets?”

Young, who was sprawled out on the couch with his right leg elevated against the armrest, rolled his eyes. “You realise that none of that means anything to me, and that I’m not impressed, right?”

“You haven’t bathed in three days; that doesn’t impress me.” Rush was leaning against the door to the balcony, wishing fervently for escape— possibly in the form of an meteoroid impact that would obliterate life on Earth. He imagined it: the streak of light, the fireball searing his retinas, the resonance of the explosion he would hear as he died, the relief he would feel at no longer being subject to Young’s ham-handed attempts at education.

“You know what? Give me a break.” Young’s irritation had turned into anger, which Rush preferred, on the whole; irritation was a petty and condescending emotion, while anger he knew inside and out. Anger he could outlast, evade, or circumvent. “I busted my ass, literally, saving you from getting kidnapped.”

“Yes, you were oh-so-very heroic. Mystifying that your response seems to have been to commit yourself to the opposite lifestyle.”

“What, you want me to save your life every day? You’re gonna have to wait till I can walk further than it takes to get from the couch to my bedroom.”

“Farther,” Rush said. “Further refers exclusively to a nonphysical or figurative distance.”

“Jesus Christ!” Young punched a pillow. “Is it the end of the world if I take a couple of days off?”

“A couple of days off and a fistful of pills,” Rush said, infusing the words with exquisite disdain.

Young shoved the stack of documents he’d been holding onto the coffee table, tipping an empty glass over in the process. “Go fuck yourself.”

“Go get the bottle of vodka out of the freezer; you seem to be able to walk well enough to do that.”

“What the fuck is your problem?” Young demanded.

Rush made a bored gesture, uninterested in continuing what was in essence only an iteration of the conversation they’d been having all week.

He had shown up at Young’s door around 10:30 in the morning following the denouement of their impromptu road trip, well-rested and fresh-faced and malicious. Young, on the other hand, had looked bleary and hungover and half-brained, like some sort of lumbering savage. I told you not before noon, he’d said to Rush. Rush had said, Well, don’t mind me. I thought perhaps you could lecture me in whatever drill sergeant voice you deem appropriate, while I sit at my laptop and carry on with my actual work. Young had stared at him for a very protracted amount of time while the thought slowly percolated. Then he had leaned an elbow against the doorframe and dropped his head into his hand. You get, he’d said, that this is serious, right? You get that this is not a joke?

It’s certainly apparent that it’s not a joke to you, Rush had said, pushing past Young to set his laptop up at the kitchen island.

This had established a tone for their subsequent encounters from which neither of them seemed inclined to deviate. Rush showed up at whatever time suited him— often whenever he happened to glance at the clock on his computer whilst devising a technical implementation of the Hamiltonian cycle solution, or vaguely contemplating the ninth cypher—  and devoted earnest, honest effort to ignoring Young as Young attempted to coerce him into memorizing truly baffling sets of data, such as the phonetic alphabet, and the alphanumeric code for a planet inhabited by swamp-dwelling proto-Goa’uld lizards, and the definitions of things like H-hour and load signal. At one point Young had blindfolded him and made him make-believe that he was using a DHD to dial Earth’s address, as though it was playtime and they were pretending to have adventures. Fuck off, Rush had told him, which had not improved the tenor of their interactions.

“My problem,” Rush said now, crossing the room to his laptop so that Young would be forced to sit up to look at him, “is that you’ve been wearing the same pair of track pants all week, which I find frankly offensive.”

Young said, sounding incredulous, “I have a broken pelvis and three screws in my spine. And that’s just the top of the list; I could keep going. As excuses go, I’d say it’s a pretty good one.”

“Oh, yes, yes, I’m very impressed by the extent of your noble sacrifices. But you can’t honestly expect me to believe that this is how you want to live.”

In fact, Rush was interested to learn the extent of Young’s injuries. He had eavesdropped shamelessly on the man’s encounter with Lam, but had gleaned from it only that Young had broken his back at some point, was at risk of further surgery, and dealt on a daily basis with a significant amount of pain. Perhaps gruesomely, he wanted to know where Young was broken, to see the lines of fracture and the scar tissue, to know the weight-bearing capacity of the metal plates. Technically, he thought, there was tactical justification: so much of his time was now spent with Young. He needed to know; he needed to know what Young was made of, the location of his strengths and weaknesses. It made him nervous to think of, and this was of course because he did not like not knowing Young’s vulnerabilities, not out of any anxiety inherent in the driven-home awareness that such vulnerabilities did exist.

He had always been aware that they existed. Young’s own awareness, on the other hand, seemed to come and go, its coming coincident with a slide in existential paralysis of some sort.

“Yeah, well,” Young said shortly, turning away to lie on his side facing the blank television, “we live how we have to. Not how we want to.”

“Bollocks,” Rush said.

“What?”

“I’m politely rejecting the premise of your statement.”

“It didn’t sound very polite.”

Rush ignored him. “We live how we have to in order to get what we want. What are you getting out of this? Pity? I don’t pity you; I find you pathetic, if you must know.”

“Trust me,” Young said, burrowing into the couch, “I know.”

“So you’ve a week off from being a puppet of American imperialism. How does this differ from your previous situation? I fail to see how it translates into a requirement that you slowly forgo all personal hygiene and abstain from consuming anything other than ready meals and liquor, which I strongly suspect is what you’ve been doing, and which—“

“Like you’re some kind of paragon of personal care,” Young snapped, obviously affronted, and reacting like a wounded bear, hunching his shoulders and lumbering to his feet so he could thud on off to his den in the forest and nurse his grievances. “I bet you haven’t even—“

Rush raised his voice to talk over him. “And which directly imperils my wellbeing, which is the only reason, for your information, that I’m remotely moved to intervene in the question of how you choose to demolish yourself!”

Young raised his own voice even louder. “I bet you haven’t even slept in the last four days; you look like a goddamn vampire, for your information, and at least I don’t pass out in my own apartment when I can’t figure out how the air conditioning works—“

“Yes, well, you look like Frankenstein’s monster!”

And you look like a corpse; how long’s it been since you ate a real meal?”

“Frankenstein’s monster was made out of pieces or corpses,” Rush said spitefully. “And it was badly sewn together, so I’d judge myself to still come out ahead.”

Young looked away abruptly. His hand went to his right hip in what was almost certainly an unintended gesture: fingers digging hard into the flesh for a moment before balling up in a fist. “Yeah, well,” he said in a low, rough voice. “Maybe I am. Nobody asked you to make it your business.”

There was a silence.

Rush fidgeted, struck by uncharacteristic guilt. Or perhaps he was only irritated that he had not intended to strike the blow that he had managed. He would be feeling quite triumphant if he’d meant to, he was sure. There ought to be a term for such a feeling; probably there was one in German. He didn’t know what it was. He attempted to compose a satisfactory substitute in his head, realised that his German was woefully inadequate to the task, and briefly chastised himself for failing to keep up with the language. He had relied on music too much, was the problem. He’d always used opera and Lieder as an ongoing refresher course.

“I slept two days ago,” he said at last, not quite managing not to sound conciliatory. “Or two-and-a-half. I’m a bit unclear on the timing. What day is it today, anyway? Saturday?”

Young looked at him.

“Friday,” Rush guessed again, belatedly.

Young sighed. “It’s Tuesday. You know you’ve got to sleep before you go offworld, right?”

“Yes, yes.”

“I mean it. You make a mistake out there, and it’s not just yourself you’ll be getting killed.”

Rush made the face he typically made upon being subjected to moral lecturing, which was a mulish one. “When is this meant to be happening again?”

Sunday,” Young said, in a tone that implied Rush ought to have known this. “Do you actually listen to anything I say, ever, or do you just stand there multiplying numbers in your head till my lips stop moving?”

“It depends on how irritating I’m finding you at any given moment,” Rush said. “I make the decision case by case. There’s a heuristic. Have you eaten the swordfish I put in the freezer?”

Young looked caught off-guard by the non sequitur, and then somehow simultaneously reluctant and confused. Really, he was so transparent; he allowed his emotions to march across his face. It was a trait that fascinated Rush, a freedom of expression that hard men weren’t popularly supposed to exhibit. In Rush’s experience, it was the hardest men who showed their feelings, though; they wept frankly at football, or else screamed in the streets and tore off their shirts in celebration; anger ran through them like a river that had never known abatement, finding even the notion of dams or locks alien. It was the other sort of man who had to learn how to be subtle, who had learnt early on that emotions came at a cost.

But Young was not a hard man. “I… haven’t really been eating anything except TV dinners,” he admitted, shame-faced.

Case in point: constantly, he rolled himself over for a kicking, as though this was yet another lesson that he’d neglected to have drummed into him. He had no defenses, not the sort that counted; he kicked you back if you kicked him, but not before the kick had happened; he kicked you back something sore precisely because he hadn’t seen it coming, and how, Rush thought, how, how on earth had a man like that fumbled his way through staying alive, how had he learnt neither to be kicked nor to do the kicking, flailing savagely at those who hurt him yet never deriving the formula for how one went about not getting hurt?

He hated Young, he thought conversationally to himself.

He brought the heel of his hand to his brow and let his head rest briefly against it. “Well,” he said, aware that he sounded defeated, “go bathe yourself, then, if you can manage a task a two-year-old is capable of, and rummage up some clothes that a vagrant wouldn’t opt to leave in a rubbish bin, and I will deign to feed you.”

Another startled film reel of emotions ran across Young’s open face. “You’ll deign to feed me?” he repeated.

“Have you acquired a rare form of aphasia? Am I speaking Ancient?”

“—No,” Young said. “No.”

“Then— go. Please. Leave. I find your presence disagreeable on a number of levels, from the personal and the philosophical to the aesthetic and the—“ He failed to think of another level.

Young’s mouth twitched. “A number of levels, huh?”

“Ontological,” Rush said. “On an ontological level.”

“Well, I don’t know what that means,” Young said, scratching at his mop of curls, “but I’ll be sure to make a note of it.”

For some reason that night Rush set the table, which was of course a bizarre and ridiculous impulse, one arising so close to the line that separated sincere from mocking that he himself could not say in which nation it found its origin. Certainly Young seemed not to know; he stopped, emerging from his bedroom, scrubbed and shaved and giving a very good impression of being clad in a clean shirt, and looked at the dishes, the glasses, the cutlery.

“You haven’t got any napkins,” Rush said belligerently.

“I’ve got—“ Young said, and pointed lamely at the kitchen counter. “Paper ones?”

“Please. Don’t insult my cooking with your fucking paper napkins.” Rush jerked a chair away from the table and dropped into it without any ceremony, seizing his knife and fork. “As though I give a damn if you dribble all over yourself; you’re an embarrassment already.”

He had prepared the swordfish with a garden pea and coconut veloute. They ate it in silence.

“There’s no dessert,” Rush said brusquely when they had finished. “And don’t expect me to cook for you on any sort of continuing basis.”

“Fair enough,” Young said. He looked pensive, or possibly just confused.

But the next day Young was drunk, which was an extremely passive-aggressive way of endangering Rush’s welfare— “You’re meant to be training me to survive,” Rush said acerbically, “not demonstrating America’s top ten most mediocre methods of self-immolation,” to which Young said, “Why does it matter if I’m drunk? You don’t listen to anything I say when I’m sober,” to which Rush replied, “There’s always the off-chance that, like a monkey at a typewriter, you’ll contrive to produce a single moment of insight, or rather that the universe will contrive to deliver it to me through you.”

It couldn’t be tolerated, at any rate, so Rush— not entirely sure what time it was, but suspecting it was morning— resentfully produced a plate of crepes to be served with bittersweet chocolate caviar, passionfruit, and raspberry creme fraiche. The goal of this was to soak up the alcohol, though he had also thought that perhaps he could escape whilst Young was eating, thereby avoiding both the tedious necessity of eating himself and any subsequent lecture on military acronyms. But after a few bites Young said awkwardly, his eyes fixed on his plate, “Mitchell says you ordered a bunch of books for that Lucian girl. That you’ve been going to see her.”

Rush stared at his own plate. “Perhaps Colonel Mitchell is the Lucian spy. It would explain a great deal about his level of interest in my business.”

Young sighed. “Can we not joke about that?”

“Fine. Yes.”

“Yes?”

“I’m continuing her education.”

Young nodded. He still wasn’t looking at Rush. “You think you can trust her?”

Rush pierced a single sphere of caviar with the tine of a fork and watched it dissolve into liquid. If someone had asked him to broadly characterise the nature of his interests, he thought, he would have said that he was interested in how things changed into other things. Cyphertext became plaintext, liquids became solids, gas became liquid, growth became rot. Perhaps he was interested because he didn’t believe that things did change, not really; they carried the traces of their previous forms, not like fingerprints, but more like programming that could never quite be deleted, deep algorithms to which they were likely to revert. He was searching for a way, he supposed, to circumvent this.

“What is trust?” he said, finally glancing up at Young. “It’s an assumption based on the predictability of processes that are not, by their nature, predictable, or else we’d have to use a different word than trust. We observe some small part of a system and take the whole to be self-similar, even though we logically know that it’s too complex for us to command, too variable-rich, too sensitive, that even by trusting or not-trusting we might alter the nature of currents moving within it, its own gravitational effects—“

He had lost Young, he saw. Young, who trusted or didn’t trust in great bursts of instinct, without having to justify why he did so.

And, indeed: “I don’t think it’s that complicated,” Young said. “I think maybe you overthink things.”

“She likes Jurassic Park,” Rush said tiredly. “Does that answer your question?”

I like Jurassic Park.”

“I don’t find this surprising.”

“Hey, don’t knock it,” Young said, and pointed his fork at Rush. “You know what? Life finds a way.”

They continued eating together on a daily basis, to Rush’s bemusement and frustration. The next day, Young was sober. And he was sober the day after that. Rush grudgingly shaved and put on shoes. Young organised his dishes in the cabinets. Table napkins appeared, without comment, in a ludicrous French rooster print.

It was enough to give Rush whiplash, emerging from the extremely dark and noiseless cave of his apartment, into the part of the world where humans breathed and moved and made noises that had semantic content, where semantic content was something that was not withheld— available only to he who could finally crack the hard shell of the riddle, solve the question of how and why (at the basest of levels) someone said something and meant something else.

He preferred code, which he could contemplate in silence, the clean digits flowing forth like water from a stone that he alone had struck. He had begun transcribing the ninth cypher onto his living room wall in permanent marker, something that was almost certainly forbidden— implicitly if not explicitly— by his tenancy contract. The physical act of forming the numbers seemed to centre something in him that otherwise threatened to grow restless, something that would not let him sleep, a storm of electricity his body could only barely contain. Hours would pass while he stood and stared at the rows and rows of -1s and 1s and 0s. Perhaps, he thought, there was something that he had missed: something very big and obvious that a computer could not look for. A shape that would show him what to do next.

Sometimes he looked across the table and imagined Young speaking in trits of information, the tones of his voice rendered as code.

He wondered if Young would be easier to understand if this were the case. If Young did not talk like a human.

On the very first day, before the meals had started, before he had even been to see Ginn, Young had said, with the air of one extending a hand to stroke a sleeping panther, “Do you want to, like… talk about any of this? The gene thing, or…?”

Rush had stared at him flatly until the silence became uncomfortable.

“Right,” Young had said resignedly. “I get it. You don’t want to talk.”

He preferred not to think about it at all.

On the day that had been allotted for the offworld mission, Young was cleared to drive Rush to the base. To drive him to the base for his mission. Mission, as though he were heading off into some sort of armed conflict, instead of running a simple technical experiment on a DHD. Probably they would insist on surrounding him with stone-faced men wearing camouflage and little caps, men carrying rifles and wearing lots of extraneous pouches. Rush wasn’t averse to a man in uniform, but he preferred them not to be either interchangeable or trigger-happy, as the Stargate Program’s lower ranks tended to be.

He considered and dismissed the idea of asking Young what was in all of the little pouches.

Outside the window, the mountains were shrouded in mist.

It was the first truly chilly day of autumn, which reminded him of Britain in ways he liked and ways he did not like. There was never as much water in the air here; clouds in Britain seemed to move at a much closer level, as though they were intimate with the earth, while here the ardour had been replaced by a wary remoteness. Every type of distance in America was more distant. But once or twice a year there was this touch of cold, this crispness, uncomfortably familiar, a reminder that he came from somewhere.

“So what is this planet like, then?” he asked Young, feigning lazy inattention and balancing his boots against the dash. “The one they’re sending me to?”

Young’s jaw tightened. “I don’t know,” he said, not sounding happy about it. “They’re trying to keep all the information under wraps so nobody can leak it. I don’t even know who they’re sending you with. Landry put a team together, here and on the Odyssey, people who’re supposed to have been ruled out in terms of Lucian contact—“

“Thoughtful of them,” Rush remarked.

“I don’t like it.”

“Clearly.”

“You should’ve been trained, really trained, not just by me in my kitchen—“

“Everyone’s trying so goddamn hard to keep everything about you off the record, and I get it, I do, but they just—“ Young shook his head. “It’s easy to miss the obvious risks, you know?”

Rush stared at the window, seeing his ghostly face overlaid on the passing landscape. “I didn’t know you cared.”

“Uh, I’d prefer if you didn’t die.” Young’s hands had tightened on the steering wheel.

Rush hunched lower in his seat, and deliberately scuffed the dashboard with a heel.

“Could you lay off my truck?” Young asked, exasperation replacing worry.

“Don’t get sentimental,” Rush said.

But Young’s mood improved when they arrived, and he discovered who it was that would be accompanying Rush.

“Sheppard,” he said in a tone of satisfaction, as he lead Rush into what was— God, it couldn’t be; surely he had not sunk to such a depth; but there it was, and apparently he had, and the next step on his Dantean descent as a person was to encounter an actual locker room, here, now, in the flesh.

It stank of homoerotic bonhomie and desperation. Young, of course, was opening one of the lockers, this being his natural setting and native terrain.

Young threw a stack of clothing at him, which Rush fumbled. “Colonel Sheppard? From Atlantis? He’s a friend. Apparently he was on Earth anyway; the geeks at Area 51 needed his help with some Ancient control chair project they’re working on, because of the whole Ancient gene thing.”

Rush paused, and then absentmindedly began collecting the various items of clothing where they had fallen: camouflage, more camouflage, and a black t-shirt. “Remind me of Colonel Sheppard’s first name?”

Young gave him a strange look. “Uh… John. Why; does that matter?”

“No. Of course not.” JoSh, Rush thought. He wondered if Colonel Sheppard was aware that he too had been reduced to not-quite-a-name. “Am I meant to wear these appalling garments?”

“Yes,” Young said. “And we’re running late. So get changed.”

He turned his back, which at first Rush found quite disappointing, as there was nothing simpler or more satisfying than getting under the skin of a man who was ashamed of his attraction to other men. But as Rush shed his clothes he found himself unexpectedly glad of the privacy. There was something about Young that made him conscious of his body, in quite a neutral but a nagging way; he was aware of their proximity to each other, always, or their distance, aware that Young was or could be looking at him, caught off guard by the idea that he belonged to the set of things that could be looked at. He resented the reminder and resented Young for delivering it.

“Am I going to be allowed my own array of those fascinating little pouches?’ he asked as he pulled the black t-shirt over his head, trying to cover his discomfort with Young’s presence.

Young huffed in amusement. “Considering a full combat loadout weighs about as much as you do—“

Midway through the sentence, and before Rush was quite prepared for it to happen, he turned.

Rush stilled in the act of tugging the t-shirt down, frozen for a moment, then slowly reached for the camouflage coat. His hands had turned clumsy. There was something in Young’s expression that startled him. Young seemed equally startled; he blinked for a moment, his mouth falling slightly open as though he had meant to continue his sentence but had been caught between paradigms shifting, diverted by the sudden inapplicability of his words.

They regarded each other.

Haltingly, Young stepped forward and pulled the oversized coat over Rush’s shoulders. His hands rested there for a moment.

Rush swallowed.

Young stepped back hastily and brushed his hands against his trousers, as though trying to clean off something that had adhered to him. A crease in his brow hinted at some inner confusion.

“I’m sure you’ve got everything you need,” he said.

The gateroom was abuzz; someone had already loaded a large amount of gear onto a cart of some sort that was standing, waiting, on the ramp, surrounded by predictably large men milling about with their guns. The noise level was high, but as Rush entered, he could hear an authoritative voice drawl, “Okay, let’s pack it out!”

The voice came from a mid-sized man in a black uniform with a hawkish face, whose hair resembled military standard only slightly more than did Young’s. Rush presumed that this was Colonel Sheppard. He looked like the sort of man who ought to be possessed of alien genes— attractive, boyish, and with an easy swagger. No doubt he engaged in dashing adventures and flew airplanes at irresponsible speeds.

“Hey, Shep,” Young said, leading Rush over. “Got time for introductions?”

Sheppard turned. “Young,” he said. The very faintest print of startlement showed on his face, with a wry and minute twist to his mouth that suggested— what? Impossible to determine. “What’re you doing hanging around here? Don’t make me kick you out of my gateroom.”

Sheppard shrugged with a faux-bashfulness that didn’t reach his watchful eyes. “They let me play with it once in a while, just as long as I give it back in the same condition I got it.”

“Yeah, well, here’s something else I want you to give back.” Young laid a hand on Rush’s shoulder. “Rush— Sheppard. Sheppard— this is Rush.”

“I’m not a toy you’re lending him,” Rush said shortly, and knocked Young’s hand away.

Sheppard said, “Nice to meet you. I’ve only heard… well, I’ve heard things.”

“Have you,” Rush said.

He wondered again if Sheppard knew. About the cells. The genes. The initials.

It wasn’t only the faux-bashfulness that had not reached Sheppard’s eyes. As Rush watched, he saw to his curiosity that none of Sheppard’s expressions seemed to. His eyes were a separate region of his face. Rush could not immediately discern what they might be expressing.

“All nonessential personnel, please clear the gate area,” the tannoy announced.

“Nonessential,” Young said. “That’s me, I guess.”

He had a semi-frozen expression on his face when Rush turned to squint at him. An unconvincing smile, like something dead and caught in amber.

Sheppard tossed off a lazy salute. “Catch you on the other side.”

Young was already backing away, not looking at Rush. He said, very fast, “See you, hotshot.”

Wait, Rush wanted to say. He felt that there was something— some last-minute instruction— that he had been waiting for, something he must have missed. Now it was too late; Young hadn’t said it. Rush was discombobulated; he didn’t know how to respond.

He thought that at the very least he could not allow Young to have the last word, but Young was gone already, out of earshot.

“Don’t call me ‘hotshot,’” he said anyway, in an oddly unsteady tone, under his breath.

The gate dialed.

Rush had seen the schematics and envisioned its action, but he had not imagined that it would look so much like a lock. How had they missed it, all those soldiers, scientists, engineers who had unearthed it and who so very many times had watched it spin and stop as though searching for a combination that it could not arrive at? How had they not seen it? Perhaps they had not been the sort of people who saw the world in terms of locks. It took a certain mindset, which he supposed the Ancients had had.

Turning and turning… It reminded him of something.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre.

“This is a walk in the park,” Sheppard said conversationally, over his shoulder. His hand was resting on his gun. “For me, anyway. In and out, nobody shooting at us, no robots, no psychic space vampires… They tell you anything about this planet we’re headed to?”

Mute, Rush shook his head. He was finding the motion of the gate hypnotic.

Sheppard shrugged. “Apparently there’s a beach,” he said.

The seventh chevron locked, and the wormhole formed: explosive, a fluid surge like spacetime reaching out to touch them, long fingers of water-that-was-not-water grasping, spuming, effortful, and then— sullen— receding again into an unsettling and placid lake.

Rush looked at it.

He felt he was alone on the dais.

He could— hear something, he thought.

A sound not meant for anyone else. Only for him.

He could not describe it.

It was there, and he thought that it had always been there, just beyond the range of what he was capable of hearing.

He stretched out his hand, and was startled to find that he had walked forward without conscious volition. He was at the very threshold of the crack in the world that shivered, silver, mobile and seductive, in front of him. He could almost, but not quite, put his palm flat against its surface.

“What’re you waiting for?” Sheppard said. He was standing a pace behind Rush. His face was unreadable. “Nothing stopping you.”

“No,” Rush said. “I know there’s not.”

He took a sharp breath, and plunged through.

He rematerialised— the cloud of particles that was his body recohering as object, but how did it know, that millions-of-years-old chunk of crystals and circuits, how did it know what was him and not him?— on a beach, but not, he thought, the sort that Sheppard had been expecting.

It was night. Or not night, he amended, but twilight— a late twilight, very blue and cold. Two moons hung in the sky, one very large and visibly cratered, the other smaller or more distant, a cool crescent in the dark.

The coast was a line of pale cliffs devoid of greenery, its stretch of sand studded with rocks of varying sizes, some as big as Rush’s head. The gate itself emerged from the shallows of the water; it had at one time, Rush thought, been atop a high platform of some sort, with stairs that approached it, but over time the platform had sunk or been eroded, until now only the worn and tilted edge of a single step emerged from the sand. Low waves lapped over it and licked at Rush’s boots, smelling of— nothing. Salt, perhaps. Something chemical.

He moved away from the gate and knelt, scraping sand away from one of the larger rocks. It was printed, he saw, with fossils: not the spindly limbs and elegant spirals he might have expected on the coastline of Dorset, but something alien in structure— toothed and hexagonal, but clearly life, or what had once been life. The other rocks were the same; he picked from the wet sand a single small petrified item, either flora or fauna, with a coiled central ridge.

He smelled nothing growing, he thought. Nothing rotting. No kelp or moss or fish in rock pools, beached and left dying when the tide had gone out again.

It was that which brought home to him how very far from Earth he was, more even than the double moon or the unfamiliar stars overhead. Something had been alive here once, but it was not alive any longer.

He waited to feel the distance, but did not.

The team had come through the gate behind him.

Sheppard was clicking his radio. “Odyssey,” he said. “You read me? This is Sheppard.”

The radio crackled. “We read you, Shep,” a woman’s voice said. “It’s Nasir. We’re in stable orbit around the planet. What’re you doing back in this neck of the woods?”

“Oh, you know,” Sheppard said. “I was hoping for some surfing, but it doesn’t look much like surfing weather.”

“I don’t know about that,” Nasir said. “My guys say you could be looking at a heck of a high tide with those two moons; they’re trying to get a read on it. How far are you from the shoreline?”

“Uh—“ Sheppard lifted one of his boots up and grimaced at the sand clinging to its sole. “Yeah, about that. We’re kind of right on top of it. Can you keep me updated on the tide situation?”

“Sure thing,” Nasir said.

Rush had wandered over to the DHD, the base of which was set in water. It did not look like he had expected. It did not look like Ancient technology, or like he imagined Ancient technology was supposed to look. It was like a piece of costume jewellery: dull, primitive, and badly-designed, with a paste-ruby button at its centre. He did not like it. He had the urge to turn away, to shield his eyes, as though it were physically painful for him to look at; something about it made his head ache.

“It looks—” he said out loud, trying to get a feel for the words. “Wrong.”

He had not realised that Sheppard was behind him. Sheppard said, “You think so?”

“Don’t you?”

There was a silence.

Rush turned to find Sheppard considering him. “Like a film reel running backwards,” Sheppard said. “The DHDs in Pegasus— they’re not like this.”

They stood, their eyes drawn to and yet repelled by the partially-sunken structure. There was an odd synchrony in their stance, their gaze. It made Rush feel uneasy. He had been prepared to dismiss Sheppard with the rest of the team, whom he had hardly glanced at since arriving on the planet. Sheppard was there to shoot things. He hadn’t even, like Young, the virtue of— well, Young had no virtues, surely, but all the same, he was difficult to dismiss.

Sheppard, through some alternative means, managed to make his presence felt.

“I’ll have to take off the panels on the base,” Rush said eventually. “I don’t suppose you could lend a hand?”

Sheppard shot him an amused look. “That’s not really what I’m here for. Plus, I mean, we did go to all the trouble of getting you an engineer.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the team spreading outwards in the low surf. One of them was not strapped up like a suicide bomber with guns and grenades and whatever it was that went in the pouches, which Rush hadn’t noticed; then again, the man was exquisitely forgettable: weak-jawed and floppy-haired and nervous-looking, just as you’d expect from an engineer.

Rush made an impatient gesture. “Well, send him over; I’m certain he’s fit for nothing more than manual labour.”

Sheppard’s mouth quirked. “You know, I thought the briefing I got on you had to be an exaggeration. Turns out, not so much.”

“Briefing?” Rush said, narrowing his eyes. “What briefing? What did they say about me? Who was responsible for this briefing?”

Brody was his name, the engineer— Adam Brody, which he announced as though he felt it was a realistic thing to expect Rush to remember. Rush hoped the incredulous silence with which he greeted this information was sufficient to communicate that this was not the case.

“What I require from you, Dr. Brody—“ Rush said.

“Uh,” the engineer said. “It’s— just Mr. Brody.”

Rush closed his eyes and touched two fingers to the bridge of his nose. “I don’t care,” he said. “Please speak to me as infrequently as possible. Confine yourself to lifting the things I tell you lift.”

“You got it,” the engineer said.

He did, at least, prove very adept at lifting, and didn’t see fit to object when it was necessary for both himself and Rush to kneel in the low surf in order to pry loose the DHD’s bulky and broadly ornamented panels. And it was not inefficient to have someone capable of monitoring a laptop while Rush worked on interfacing the DHD’s array of crystals with the USB connector that Dr. Perry had devised to use for such a purpose in her work. To do so required that Rush lie on his back in the wet sand, affixing individual wires to the bases of the exposed crystals with a sequence of miniature clamps. He had expected this to be easier than it was, or at least to take less time; he was always unprepared, he admitted to himself with some irritation, for reality’s epiphenomenal effects: the sand that gritted up his palms and the cables that slipped through his wet fingers, this night-on-another-planet that made it hard for him to see.

“Guess this isn’t that much of a walk in the park for you,” Sheppard said after a while, eyeing where Rush, half-soaked, was trying to thread a clamp up between two circuits. “Sorry about that. Usually the places we gate to look pretty much the same. Lots of rain; lots of forests.”

“Aren’t I lucky.” Rush was still struggling to reach small upper crystals. He squinted. His glasses had specks of water on them.

“So what’s the deal? You flip the switch on this thing, blow up the DHD, and the Odyssey takes us all home?”

Rush got to his feet, holding the bundled leads that ended in the USB connector. He tried to brush some of the sand off his camouflage trousers, with little success, before abandoning the endeavour. “You’ve been talking to Colonel Young.”

“Naw, me and Young haven’t kept in touch for ages. But General Landry seemed pretty sure there was gonna be explosions.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Rush crowded the engineer out of the way in order to access his laptop, and inserted the USB connector.

“So no explosions?”

“Well, I can’t really promise that.” Somewhat distracted by the DHD in his peripheral vision, its persistent unwillingness to resolve into the right shape, Rush pulled up the program that ought to direct current throughout the sequence of crystals. “I’m initiating an electrical charge that will travel through the DHD’s seventy-four crystals in a specific Hamiltonian cycle; that is—“

“I know what a Hamiltonian cycle is,” Sheppard said.

Rush paused and glanced over at him, startled.

Sheppard shrugged. “So what then?”

“Then,” Rush said, “we see what happens.”

He keyed in the command and sent it.

There was a long moment of waiting, punctuated by a sense of dropping pressure, as though the planetary weather systems had suddenly altered. Rush felt the hair on his arms prickle. Sheppard shivered and glanced over his shoulder, looking edgy and bringing his rifle up.

It wasn’t the pressure, Rush realised. It was most likely a sound, some sort of infrasound that the DHD was emitting— a frequency too low for humans to hear, but one that could nevertheless be detected by the body, and that was rapidly increasing in pitch. There, now, was the first faint tremble of a hum, something causing the loose sand further up the beach to skitter.

It was going to be loud, he thought. When they could hear it, it was going to be loud.

He tilted his head. He was trying to understand its pitch.

“Rush,“ Sheppard said, sounding disturbed. “What—“

“I don’t know,” Rush said. He was only half-listening. He felt light-headed, abstracted.

The DHD was shaking.

Rush,” Sheppard said again.

But Rush was not listening at all by this point, or rather he was listening, but he was not listening to Sheppard; he was listening to the rising pitch, which like the gate was turning, turning, in search of a certain combination that would unlock all the things that had been hidden from it, and he knew this because there it settled and turned and was suddenly descending, and there it turned again and ratcheted up, and someone was speaking to him, but he could not understand their voice because there was no melody to it; it wavered at or about the same tone, and so it did not interest him, because how could it have semantic content?

The sound turned, and turned again.

It was very loud now.

Someone was shouting.

Turning—

and turning—

the centre cannot—

He was waiting for the note that was no longer there.

The note that was not there yet.

A ghost note. No. Notes.

Of course it should not have surprised him. Look at the constellation glyphs. Waiting to be depressed like the keys of an instrument. Laid out in circles on the DHD.

This sound had always waited for him.

It grew louder and still it was turning.

There was a general sense of waiting and then—

Sheppard tackled him facedown into the water as the DHD shattered.

Shards of metal and glass rained down from overhead.

Rush struggled for a moment, unable to breathe and panicking at the sensation of the water. He did not like water; he did not like to be held underwater; and he could not breathe; and the water did not taste like water; it was cold and flaky with odd asteroidal minerals, and why did Sheppard not understand that he could not breathe?

But perhaps Sheppard did understand, because he was standing and heaving Rush up out of the water. “Sorry,” he said. “I figured it was better than taking a chunk of DHD to the face.”

Rush did not respond, because he was bent double and wracked with coughing.

Sheppard struck him on the back several times in a manner that was apparently intended to be helpful. “Well, turns out Landry was right about the explosions,” he said.

He seemed distracted, and when Rush at last was able to stand, the reason for this became evident.

The casing of the DHD was gone, scattered across the shoreline in twisted fragments. What remained was an internal structure that resembled a softly glowing and silver-white plant, its luminous roots twisting up from the shallow, dark water before splitting into an array of symmetrical branches, each one tipped with the calligraphic stroke of a glyph. The crystals that had looked so out-of-place and so cartoonish when plugged into their dark panels now seemed to have grown where they were set, glimmering in faint strokes of gold and fire and tourmaline.

“Fuck me,” one of the soldiers on the team whispered.

Rush found that he was holding his breath. The distance that he had not previously felt was there now; he felt that he was very far away from all that he had ever been. The sepulchral sky and the heavy moon with its distant cousin, the pale sand rendering up its harvest of ancient dead, the white drift of foam on the face of the water, and this icy, almost achiral alien plant— all these combined to cause him a sense of dissociation so profound that for a moment he was convinced that he had left his body, though he had not taken up any other material position; he simply… was not.

He stepped forward and touched one of the glyphs that rested at the ends of the branches. The metal was not cold, or any temperature, really. It was the same colour, he thought, that he had been. In the smoke. In the darkness. When he had been frightened.

At his touch the glyph flared, as though it recognised him.

Sheppard was once more standing at his shoulder. “It looks right,” Sheppard said quietly. “To me. Now. Does it to you?”

Rush said, “Yes.”

“You wanted it to decode something for you, right?” Sheppard too had reached out to touch one of the branches. Its light pulsed faintly under his hand.

“Yes,” Rush said again.

“Sometimes, with Ancient tech, you can sort of— communicate with it. If you ask it, it’ll give you what you want. Not in words, I mean, but— it understands you.”

Rush closed his eyes against the uncanny illumination and thought about the cypher, about the chevron, about the spinning gate; about the prison wall he had described to Ginn, and the crack in the wall, the way out, the unlocking; it was a part of your body, he had said, and suddenly it was strange, it was foreign, and you wanted to know what would happen; and he wanted to know what would happen; he wanted to hear the note; he wanted to understand—

Light rose off the glyphs, but it was not light, because he could not see it.

A shudder of some force seized him, starting at his fingertips.

Alarmed, he reached blindly for Sheppard. Their hands tangled together.

The world undid itself around them.

“Rush—“ Sheppard said.

Or did not say, because neither of them had a mouth or ears or a voice.

Nevertheless Rush was listening to something in the darkness.

“Yes,” he whispered to it.

### Chapter Text

Young had gone through a lot of psych testing after the Sest Bet mission, when he’d gotten out of the hospital but was still in rehab. The service had been so concerned about how he was doing, which— everyone had been so concerned at the time: Emily, David, his brothers, Mitchell; and all their sincere but so, so tiring concern had gradually blended into one, a globe-shaped, massive, unbearable weight he had to carry, like the statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center that you saw at Christmas on TV. The only way to get through the day was to close himself in a shell of politeness, a thin mother-of-pearl pretense of optimism. It was as true with the service as it was with anyone else. So he’d sat in the sessions with the psychologists and made small talk, and mostly (he suspected) gave them the impression that he was too dumb for there to be any real depth to his questions or fears. You always heard about “progress” in therapy; well, that was his progress: he saw how much of his life had been spent convincing other people he was stupid because he couldn’t dig all his thoughts out of where they were embedded like shrapnel in him.

The only test that gave him problems was the inkblot one, because there was always a point when you did see something in the inkblots, and after that it was hard to unsee it again. A splotch of black became a car crash, or a devouring serpent, or a rotting apple, or an eyeless face screaming something that no one could hear.

He thought about this when he had left the gateroom and found himself leaning against a wall in the hallway just beyond it, staring absently at the ceiling, his head tipped back.

Considering a full combat loadout weighs about as much as you do— he’d said, and he’d turned around to see Rush tugging his black t-shirt down over his narrow torso, and he had felt—

He hadn’t wanted Rush to go.

The inkblot of Rush’s body had resolved into a shape that Young wasn’t expecting, something his first instinct was to protect. There was nothing he could do, of course; even if he could have said Don’t go, or maybe Fuck the ciphers, Rush wouldn’t have listened to him. And he couldn’t say it in the first place, because he couldn’t dig deep enough in himself to get the idea out, as always.

But he couldn’t unsee it.

His chest felt tight. He closed his eyes and knocked his head gently against the concrete, wishing he were drunk.

“Pull yourself together,” he whispered.

The nearest light in the hallway buzzed.

“Hi,” Daniel Jackson said.

Young opened his eyes again.

Jackson was standing in front of him, looking apologetic— though that was the way Jackson tended to look. He was holding a stack of very thick folders, the topmost of which had a peeling sticker on it that said ICARUS.

“I’m guessing you didn’t just happen to be on your way to the gateroom,” Young said.

“Nope,” Jackson said, popping the p like somebody’d almost certainly told him at some point was cute. It wasn’t. “I talked to Jack. And then I thought I should talk to you. I think you’d agree that we’ve got a lot to go over. Is now a good time?”

“Not really,” Young said.

Jackson didn’t seem fazed. “We should talk anyway.”

“Usually the guy in charge of the project is the one giving the briefings,” Young pointed out.

“Yes. Well. That’s… problematic, in this case, for obvious reasons.” Jackson adjusted his glasses and looked away.

“From what I hear, you would’ve thought it was problematic even before Colonel Telford almost got killed by the Lucian Alliance.”

Jackson said, “Again.”

It caught Young off guard. “What?”

“Before Colonel Telford almost got killed by the Lucian Alliance again. I mean— this is the second time, isn’t it? Isn’t that how you got injured in the first place? This is the second time he’s been captured. The second time he’s come back.”

“I don’t like what you’re implying,” Young said.

Jackson said evenly, “I’m not implying anything. Just making an observation.”

You weren’t there.” Young had stepped very close to Jackson, so that their faces were almost in line— Jackson a little bit taller, and therefore at an advantage.

But Jackson flinched back first. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said that, given my position. I think everyone’s still a little on edge.”

“Yeah,” Young said, but didn’t feel particularly placated.

“I apologize. Really.” Jackson hugged his armful of folders to his chest like a little kid carrying a stack of homework. “Let’s get a cup of coffee.”

“I want to talk to him,” Young said.

“To…?” Jackson’s eyebrows rose in an expression of polite inquiry.

“To David.”

“Ah.”

“You’re giving me your side; doesn’t it seem fair that he gets to do the same?”

Jackson said delicately, “I wouldn’t really call it a side.” He was picking at the peeling edge of the ICARUS sticker.

“Well, whatever you’d call it.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Carolyn thinks she’s getting somewhere with the blood test; apparently the brainwashing agent they use leaves traces in the cellular…” Jackson trailed off and made a face. “I don’t know what I’m talking about. But she seems to know. Till then, you might have to have a guard in the room with you. But I’ll talk to Jack about it.”

“I appreciate it,” Young said. He felt less angry now, and a little bit foolish. He didn’t know where he got off taking Jackson on, especially when he’d spent most of the last week drunk as hell. “Really. I do. It’s just— he’s a friend.”

“Right,” Jackson said quietly, staring down at the folders. “Well. I know how that goes.”

“But you’re right. I should hear your side. No one’s told me a goddamn thing, actually. Although I’m getting that they haven’t told Rush a goddamn thing either, which seems…” Young searched for a word that would describe how it seemed, and couldn’t find one.

“Yes,” Jackson said after a long silence. “It does, doesn’t it.”

Young said nothing.

With a slight grimace, Jackson adjusted the folders. “Well,” he said, “come on. I don’t want to have to lug these around all day.”

The mess was mostly empty, only the very last of the lunch crowd still lingering over their plastic cups of Jell-O. Young was surprised at first, then remembered that it was Sunday: none of the five-day-a-week desk jockeys would be on base. But Jackson still chose to sit at a table in a far corner of the room, where he proceeded to stare down at the coffee in his styrofoam cup with a pensive expression while Young stirred a spoon for longer than he had to, watching the final traces of sugar dissolve as he tried to think of something to say.

“You knew,” he said at last. “When you helped me move last month. You knew already.”

Jackson glanced up. “That Jack was going to offer you Icarus? No. How could I? David was still here.”

“He’s still here now,” Young said, nettled. “But the two of you were looking for his second.”

“People always talk about me and Jack like we’re a team, but technically we’re not anymore, you know.” Jackson took a quick sip of his coffee and grimaced. “We never were, really. We weren’t the two of you. Not like that. We don’t think the same thoughts. We don’t have the same problems. We’re just friends who occasionally… agree about certain concerns.”

“Like whatever it is that’s going on with Rush.”

“Yes. And yes,” Jackson said. “I knew already.”

“You didn’t want me for the job.”

Jackson had started to pick with restless fingers at the rim of his coffee cup. “I didn’t not want you. I wanted you to meet him. First. I wanted you to meet him first. Before anyone talked to you about the project.”

“Because David didn’t,” Jackson said. “No one did. To them he was, first and foremost, a set of genetic factors. You can’t meet a set of genetic factors. You can’t get to know it.” He paused for a moment and let his gaze drift to the stretch of wall beside them, like he wished there was a window in it, or was imagining there was, instead of all the structural weight of the Mountain. “The thing is— I used to wonder why Jack was so good at stepping back from a situation when it suited him. It was like he had a switch in his head, and he could just stop seeing a person as a person, and just see them as, I don’t know, a paper target, like that picture with the duck and the rabbit.”

Young said, “I haven’t seen it.”

“The duck-rabbit? It’s famous. An optical illusion.” Jackson fumbled in his pocket for a pen, and produced a half-chewed Bic that he had to give a good scribble to get going. He used it to scrawl the wobbly outline of a bird’s head and beak on his crumpled paper napkin. “The composition doesn’t change…” He turned the napkin sideways, and suddenly Young could see the rabbit: its two long ears where the bird’s beak had been. “But at some point you just… see it. Or unsee it.”

“Like inkblots,” Young said.

“Yes.” Jackson stared down at the napkin. “Years ago, back in the early days, it used to make me so furious. Jack would say I was being a bleeding-heart, that I cared too much, even though when he cared, of course, it was all strictly logical— just a man playing by a man’s rules. I didn’t understand for a long time that he was doing what he’d been trained to. All of you, you’re so good at it, because you have to be. It’s how you survive; it’s how you get turned into colonels. If I told you that you had to shoot someone to stop Earth from being destroyed by the Ori, you’d—“

There was a pause, indicating that the unfinished pause was not rhetorical.

“Do it,” Young said. “Without hesitation. Of course I would.”

“And what if the person you had to shoot was Rush?” Jackson tilted his head and looked at Young with a delicate, unreadable expression.

Young didn’t answer. His eyes had come to rest somewhat randomly on a spray of spilled sugar. It seemed to form patterns, like tea leaves. Inkblots again. He thought that Jackson was wrong; once you saw something, you could never really unsee it; what the service trained you to do was to put it at the back of your head, so that it wasn’t in front of you when you took the shot. They trained you to do that because there were times when someone had to take the shot. Or take the bullet. And that was what he was there for, what they were all there for. He was sure O’Neill felt the same. Everything you did in this world made ghosts out of the roads you’d left untaken, the lives they led to that you hadn’t lived. Not just killing, although its ghosts were more insistent. It was all just a question of what skin you could stand to walk around in.

Hell if I’m gonna let you haunt me, Young, David had said.

Jackson said very neutrally, into the silence, “David would do it. Like you said. Without hesitation.”

Young said sharply, “David’s a better airman than I am.”

“Yes,” Jackson said. “He is. You asked why, and that’s why. Because he’s a better airman than you are. Because he sees a set of genetic factors, and that’s not what you see.”

Young picked up his coffee and threw back a swallow, feeling savagely frustrated. “I don’t even know what genetic factors have to do with it in the first place. Or why you told him; why the hell did you tell him? You realize they could bring you up on charges for that?”

“They won’t,” Jackson said shortly. “No one will. I’m the safest person in the program, frankly, because no one wants to go up against Jack, and everyone knows that if the person Jack had to shoot to stop the Earth from being destroyed by the Ori was—“ He stopped, pressing his lips tightly together, and looked away. “I don’t know if that’s true,” he said quietly after a moment. “But that’s what they think.”

It was a surprisingly intimate admission from someone that Young didn’t know all that well. He wondered if anyone knew Jackson, really. Even O’Neill or Carter. He’d never really thought of Jackson being much like Rush, but maybe they had that in common— their singular aloneness in the world.

When it didn’t seem like Jackson was going to keep talking, Young said, “And you had to do something.” It was a guess, but he thought it was a good guess.

“Yes.” Jackson had resumed picking Styrofoam flecks off his cup. “Because I couldn’t figure out any other way to stop what was happening. And I had to stop it.”

“Stop what?

Jackson’s gaze strayed towards the stack of folders. “It’s a fairly open secret,” he said, “that no one knows what’s at the other end of the nine-chevron address. Mostly people assume that we have no details at all. But that’s not… entirely true.”

Young frowned. “Isn’t it?”

“One of the repositories of Ancient knowledge we encountered contained a reference to it. Whatever the destination is, it must have already been old then. The Ancients must have lost most of what they’d once known about it. They considered it a serious risk to take, a place you were supposed to go only in a time of great desperation. There’s some reason to think—“ He paused. “It’s a place, of course it’s a place, but they also refer to it as a goal or mission, one that’s only possible for a person who had— the Ancient term is complicated; the oldest version is rhois altigo somata, which later on people thought meant something like ‘the river of the body,’ and they took it metaphysically, but really it means someone who meets certain physiological benchmarks on the road to ascension.”

Young stared at him. “Ascension?

“Yes.” Jackson’s mouth had tightened again.

“But that’s— I thought you had to die to ascend. Or—“ Young became painfully aware that he was sitting across the table from the physical proof that you didn’t have to die to ascend, or at the very least that you could still come back once you had. “That it was— you know— all ‘finding inner peace and going off to be glowing balls of light in other dimensions.’ Not so much a practical thing.”

“No.” Jackson grimaced as he tried, without much success, to brush the shredded bits of Styrofoam off his hands. “It’s very practical. Or it was for the Ancients. It was physiological. They engineered themselves to be capable of converting their own matter to energy and retaining— whatever it is, I guess, that you have to retain to still be you. More or less. There are biological limitations to the process. Some people are closer to overcoming those limitations than others.”

Some people. What he’d left unspoken hung heavily in the air over the table, souring the all-but-untouched coffee in Young’s cup.

Eventually Young cleared his throat. “So Rush—“

Jackson gave a minute shake of his head. “He can’t,” he said. “Even he doesn’t meet those physiological benchmarks. He’s the closest. But not enough of the Ancient heritage survived in us.”

“So then why—“

Abruptly, Jackson leaned in. “They engineered themselves to be capable of it,” he said in a fierce whisper. “They engineered themselves. You think none of their research survived? We know it did. Anubis found it, and maybe he only got halfway to ascension, but all that means as far as this project’s concerned is that he did the experiments for us.”

Experiments?” Young said in a rush of horror.

Yes.” Jackson removed his glasses and scrubbed at his eyes with one hand. When he blinked at Young, he seemed suddenly exhausted and myopic, somehow older and at the same time younger than he usually looked. “That is the point we’re at now. That is David’s project. And the Lucian Alliance’s project, too, this fucking— race to the same miserable, maybe unjustifiable, morally ambiguous finish line, and Jack hates it, but the Ori are out there, and the Lucian Alliance isn’t even out there; I mean, they’re out there, but they’re also in here, and if Jack had to shoot someone to stop Earth from being destroyed—“

“Yeah,” Young said. “I get it.” But he wasn’t thinking about that, about Jack O’Neill’s moral crisis and the fucking Lucian mole. “What would happen to him?”

“To—?” Jackson squinted.

“To Rush.”

“Oh.”

Oh. Suddenly Young was angry, angry even at Jackson, who claimed to be here on Rush’s behalf, but who maybe was more interested in moral principles than he was in the particular set of skinny shoulders onto which Young had, earlier that morning, pulled a camouflage jacket; more interested in politics and cosmic endeavors than the resentful way Rush banged pans around in the kitchen and huffed out his disdain of Young’s taste in wine. Young was slow; he was basic; he was stupid, so he could only deal with one very small piece of the world at a time, and right now he was dealing with Rush, who was an asshole, not a moral principle. He said, louder, “What would happen to Rush?”

Jackson hunched his shoulders forwards. “I don’t think anyone knows, to be honest. Everything we do know is— it’s in the folders. All the research, all the transcripts of the meetings— everything.”

“Right. Of course it is.” Young looked at the battered folders. “And it’s fucking classified, isn’t it? So I can’t tell him anything about it.”

“He doesn’t have the clearance,” Jackson said unhappily. “But do you really think that— I mean, even if you told him—“

“What?”

Jackson shook his head. “Well, you know Nick.”

“Yes,” Young said. He didn’t like that Jackson called Rush Nick.

“What I mean is, it’s not even a question of shooting someone to stop Earth from being destroyed; it’s not even a question of shooting himself— although you do have to wonder if he’d shoot himself just to spite anyone who told him not to do it, or even suggested that he might want to possibly, maybe, ever consider another solution. It’s the chevrons. It’s the ciphers. He wants to unlock them. He wants to be the one who goes. He’s perfect for the project, perfect. All he cares about is— I don’t know, pushing forwards. It’s why he likes David so much.”

I like David,” Young said. The words caught in his throat. He hadn’t really thought about David, all through the conversation. David, bruised and sleeping on a cot in detention with the scars of Lucian Alliance knife-marks on his chest. David, who, he thought, sometimes seemed more inscrutable than Rush or Jackson, like there was a separate part of him, walled-off, where he stored everything that made him alone. David, who wanted so much to save Earth, to conquer into the unknown, to win. David, who was everything Jackson said he was, but in a way that Young had always wanted to be close to.

“I know you do,” Jackson said. There was a nervous hint of gentleness to his voice. “It’s just—“

“I know,” Young said— snapped, really, and then said, helplessly, “I know.”

There was a short silence.

Jackson stared at the table. “It should be me,” he said abruptly, at last. “If it’s anyone. If they do it to anyone, it should be me.”

Young laughed incredulously. “They’re not going to do it to you.”

“No?” Jackson fixed him with a defiant look, lifting his chin. “Why not?”

“You don’t even have the goddamn Ancient genes. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“That’s not why, though.” Jackson was gripping the edge of the table again, his fingers white-knuckled, as though he was trying to stop himself from doing something violent. “Tell me why. Say it.”

“Because you’re Daniel Jackson,” Young said unwillingly. The words came out short; he didn’t like being told what to say. “Everyone knows you; everyone likes you. You said it yourself: you’re the safest person in the whole goddamn program.”

“Yes,” Jackson said. He closed his eyes. “Yes. I’m very good at making friends, and twenty years ago I happened to translate some hieroglyphics. And that makes my life worth more than his. I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it. You understand?”

“You did ascend,” Young pointed out. “More then once.”

“It’s not like I remember anything! No great cosmic wisdom, no messages from the beyond, no—“ Jackson pushed himself back from the table, but only by a few inches, out of what seemed like frustration. Then he sighed. “You know, I say that, but I don’t think it’s true. It’s supposed to be true. It’s what the Ancients say, that they take everything. But how could they? They couldn’t. That’s not how it works. Memory’s not in the brain. Not all of it. It’s in the body. I hear something, sometimes—“ He removed his glasses and scrubbed at his face with one hand. “A piece of music, a sound, a word— and it’s like my body just… knows how it’s supposed to respond. I look at star maps and there are certain constellations that scare me. Or— Hoag’s Object, this sort of… galaxy, I guess. 600 million light years away. I don’t know what’s there, but I see it, and I just want to start running.” He looked down. “So why didn’t it stop me from finding the Ori? That’s what everyone wants to know. And I don’t have an answer. The body feels things, I guess. It doesn’t know. So all of this is nothing; it does nothing; it’s— I don’t even know why I’m telling you this.”

“Because I’m here,” Young said. He was familiar with the situation. “Because you’re upset.”

“Yes. I should go.” Jackson stood, looking weary. He indicated the stack of file folders. “And you should read those. At the very least, you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into.”

“Great,” Young said, his mouth twisting. “Very optimistic. Thanks.”

Jackson hesitated. “I will try to get you in to see David,” he said. “I wasn’t just saying that so you would…”

“I know,” Young said. His chest was tight. “I appreciate it.”

Jackson nodded. He picked up his ravaged cup of coffee and left.

Young stared down at the table again, at the specks of sugar. He stirred them with one finger, forming a galaxy swirl, then raised his own coffee to his lips. The coffee was lukewarm, but he drank it anyway. He was trying to avoid looking at the folders. He had a kind of dread of what was inside them. If he never opened them, he wouldn’t have to know. But not knowing, he thought, would not protect him. And more importantly, it wouldn’t protect Rush.

He imagined, just for a moment, packing Rush into his pickup and taking off for the border. From there they could go— well, who the hell knew. Just think: Rush on a beach in Oaxaca, drinking piña coladas. But it would be no kind of life. And what would he tell Rush, anyway? Jackson was right: the more Rush heard, the more he would want to do it. Not because it would save the Earth; Rush seemed not to give a damn about the Earth or anyone on it. He would do it because he was obsessed with the ciphers. With solving a goddamn puzzle.

Before he could talk himself out of it, Young slid the first folder across the table and flipped it open.

It contained typewritten transcripts from a series of meetings by something called Committee #6, which seemed to start out consisting of Landry, O’Neill, Telford, Lam, and Jackson. Wray had been added at some later stage. Young skimmed the transcripts briefly; they seemed to start out mostly concerned with the threat of the Ori.

O’NEILL: The point is that defeating these guys is not going to be like taking down the System Lords. And I never thought I’d be talking about taking down the System Lords like it was a walk in the park.

LANDRY: It’s imperative that we take the initiative and explore all possible options, even those we might hope we’ll never find ourselves having to turn to.

JACKSON: I object to keeping those options secret. The nature of the ethical concerns—

LANDRY: That’s why we’ve brought Dr. Lam on board.

LAM: I’m also less than comfortable with these meetings.

TELFORD: Well, maybe we should throw the whole thing wide open, then. What do you think, Jackson? Tell everyone exactly how the Ori found about this galaxy in the first place.

O’NEILL: Exactly the kind of helpful feedback we were hoping for. How about I tell you where you can—

JACKSON: I don’t need you to defend me, Jack.

TELFORD: What I’m trying to demonstrate is that you’re incapable of taking an objective stance on the issue. You feel responsible for the threat. You are responsible. You brought the Ori to this galaxy. You ought to have been excluded from this committee on the grounds that any action we find it necessary to take could be interpreted as your fault, and likely will.

O’NEILL: All right, that’s enough.

TELFORD: All I’m asking for is objective consideration of an option that—

JACKSON: You don’t even know it’s a weapon! You have no idea what the nine-chevron address leads to.

TELFORD: The Ancients thought it could rewrite fate. Whatever that is, it sounds to me like power. I don’t give a damn if they thought it was a weapon or not; it’s something that’s worth exploring.

JACKSON: It’s not that I disagree; it’s that the cost of exploration is simply too high in this case.

TELFORD: So now this is about cost-benefit analysis? Come on.

JACKSON: You can’t seriously expect anyone sitting at this table to be objective about using Anubis’s research. Anubis’s technology.

TELFORD: It’s the Ancients’ research. All he did was collect it.

JACKSON: You don’t even know how this device works!

TELFORD: We know enough.

JACKSON: What, enough to use John Sheppard as your personal guinea pig? Carolyn, tell him that this is—

TELFORD: It wouldn’t be Sheppard. I’ve found a better candidate.

Young turned the page over. He stared at its blank white back. Candidate, he thought. It occurred to him that he was going to have to be drunk to read the transcripts all the way through.

He skipped ahead, not particularly interested in reading pages of Jackson and Telford politely tearing out each other’s throats.

LAM: This third gene, which we’re calling UAT for the time being— that’s Unknown Ancient Trait— was present both in our extant samples of the Ancient genome and in Anubis’s clone. Exposure of cells containing this gene to active Ancient technology suggests that it does result in some form of excitation, and the fact that Anubis saw fit to engineer its presence is suggestive of a role in ascension. Given time, it’s possible that we would be able to engineer it as Anubis did, but I’m not comfortable moving forwards with—

TELFORD: We don’t need to engineer it.

JACKSON: Rush doesn’t want to join the program.

TELFORD: You didn’t give him the hard sell.

JACKSON: Is that right? Tell me, David. What is the ‘hard sell’?

LAM: If I can continue.

JACKSON: Yes. Carolyn. Excuse me. I’m sorry.

LAM: The presence of these three genes alone is not sufficient for ascension. Ancient gene regulation was significantly different from our own, and it seems that the genes were expressed differently in their cells. It’s also possible they were capable of achieving conscious control of protein synthesis, or triggering a change in post-translational modification. Our own work with gene modulation is simply not at the level where we’d be capable of fine-tuning protein biosynthesis to achieve the amount and balance of these proteins that seems to be required, and which the genes as expressed in our sole human sample do not produce. It’s possible that working through Anubis’s database will provide us with the information we need to do this.

TELFORD: But we have the technology he used, in the new lab that SG-3 found.

LAM: Yes. A team is currently attempting to synthesize the compounds required to utilize the machinery there.

LANDRY: It’s imperative that the discovery of that lab remains confined to SG-3 and this room. Carolyn’s team doesn’t know what they’re working on, and I’d like to keep it that way. We cannot allow the Lucian Alliance access to this technology, or to that database.

Good luck with that, Young thought. He hadn’t known about the lab, but he’d bet the Lucian Alliance did. And God knew what else they’d found out about, things that the SGC didn’t know, maybe— things that were, inconceivable as it seemed to him right at that moment, worse.

He scanned ahead again, barely seeing the next pages, until he ran into another mention of Rush.

JACKSON: He joined because you revealed classified information to him! Which, by the way, I find it completely objectionable as a tactic. You manipulated him.

LANDRY: I don’t see much utility in having this conversation for the fourth time.

TELFORD: How do you know he didn’t manipulate me? We both got what we wanted.

JACKSON: His wife had just died; he was in no fit state to make this kind of decision.

O’NEILL: It’s better that way. No family.

JACKSON: Oh, you are…

O’NEILL: Daniel. It’s better that way.

TELFORD: It’s not like we could wait, in any case. We’re living under a goddamn siege; it’ll be a miracle if we don’t have to open a second front against the Lucian Alliance before the end of the year; we’re going to be annihilated if we don’t do anything. Am I supposed to sit around and worry about hurting someone’s feelings?

JACKSON: You could pretend like you remember that people have them.

TELFORD: Rush is tougher than you think. Plus— I find it highly suggestive that in the week he’s been in Colorado, he’s already managed to solve one of the ciphers.

O’NEILL: What do you mean by that?

TELFORD: You think it’s a coincidence that the guy who found the code in the gate just happens to be the guy with the closest thing we’ve got to an Ancient genome? He just happens to be one of the world’s top cryptographers, someone whose entire job involves exactly the skills this problem requires?

JACKSON: No, I think it’s magic.

TELFORD: Sheppard’s good at math, too, isn’t he?

O’NEILL: Is he? I knew there was something wrong with that man.

TELFORD: His IQ’s on file. It’s something like 150.

JACKSON: IQ doesn’t measure anything. It’s bullshit; it’s culturally biased.

TELFORD: It measures how good you are at solving puzzles. Which seems pretty relevant in this case.

JACKSON: Jack’s terrible at math—

O’NEILL: And proud of it.

JACKSON: —and he was the first ATA-positive we ever discovered. So your theory is, much like IQ tests, quite frankly bullshit.

TELFORD: Look, I’m just saying— Rush was literally made for this.

JACKSON: No. No, he wasn’t. You want to remake him. You want to put him in that Goa’uld machine and reach down into his cells and change how they work; for God’s sake, you want to use an electric current to remodel the circuitry of his brain!

TELFORD: If that’s what it takes, then yes.

JACKSON: You haven’t even told him the truth about why he’s here!

TELFORD: When the time is right, we’ll tell him. I’m not saying we shouldn’t give him a choice.

JACKSON: Let us fry your brain, or it’s your fault when the galaxy gets destroyed? What the hell kind of a choice is that?

TELFORD: So you’d rather not give him a choice. Interesting.

JACKSON: That’s not what I’m saying.

TELFORD: He gets as much of a choice as any of us gets. The choice, the chance, to stand up and do something that matters, and don’t pretend you wouldn’t do it in a second if you could, because we all know what you really mean when you say ‘it’s your fault when the galaxy gets destroyed’; we all know whose fault it really is—

O’NEILL: That’s enough.

JACKSON: It is my fault. I know it is. We do things, and we don’t know in advance what kind of monsters we’re creating; it’s not like we can draw a map. We created the Lucian Alliance, too, you know. But what else were we supposed to do? Were we supposed to not destroy the System Lords? We do the best that we can; we don’t do the worst and cross our fingers.

TELFORD: We do what’s necessary.

JACKSON: So then we become the Lucian Alliance. Scavengers eating the corpses of the men we’ve killed.

TELFORD: Scavengers survive.

JACKSON: I can’t believe you’re all sitting here listening to this.This is insane. Carolyn, you have to see that this is insane.

TELFORD: Dr. Lam is a natural positive. ATA and ATS. With everything that’s at stake, if we asked her to do this—

TELFORD: She’s sitting right here. I think we should ask her.

JACKSON: Stop it.

LAM: Yes. I would. I’m sorry, Daniel. I would.

TELFORD: Yes. She would. Because she knows that we are at war, and she knows that if we don’t do this, we are fucked— not just us; the whole galaxy. The Jaffa— fucked. The Tok’ra— fucked. Hell, even the Lucian Alliance. Fucked, fucked, fucked. And she knows, and I know, and everyone sitting at this table knows, everyone except, apparently, you, that it’s all well and good to spend your life dreaming about civilization, like some ancient philosopher trying to figure out if he’s a goddamn butterfly or a man, but when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter if you’re an insect or a person. The only real question is whether you’re going to get crushed under someone’s boot. And—

JACKSON: Then what the fuck are we even here for?

TELFORD: —I refuse to be crushed.

JACKSON: I mean, I really want to know. From your oh-so-enlightened perspective, what’s the point, in that case? Why the fuck are any of us here?

O’NEILL: Gentlemen.

Young had been forcing himself to keep reading since Jackson had said remodel the circuitry of his brain. He stopped now, feeling sick, and closed the folder. But the next folder was just as bad. It began with a diagram of Anubis’s laboratory, and a breakdown of the machines in it operated: the gel that leeched in through the skin and altered gene expression; the tank and the electric wires. He thought that if he couldn’t make it through that folder, he probably ought to resign from the project, maybe even from the program.

He understood what David was saying.

He agreed with him. He did.

In theory, Young agreed with him.

He was still trying to summon up the wherewithal to turn to the next document in the folder when his phone buzzed, granting him a blessed moment of relief. When he checked it, he saw that he had a text form the SGC’s emergency alert system: REPORT TO: Level 27 Briefing E. To confirm receipt of this message, please press one.  To repeat this message, please press two. Should you be unable to comply with this message within a twenty-five minute window, please press three to connect with dispatch.

So. That probably wasn’t good.

He sighed and let his head drop into his hands for a second, wondering when he would stop expecting any of it to be good.

When Young got to the briefing room, Landry was talking to a civilian in a complicated wheelchair— some weirdly elegant woman Young had never met. They looked up as Young entered. Landry’s eyes went to Young’s stack of folders.

“I see you’ve been talking to Dr. Jackson,” he said.

“Yes,” Jackson said from behind Young’s shoulder, entering the room slightly out of breath. “He has. Is there a problem with that? He is the acting head of Icarus.”

“There’s no problem,” Landry said, in a way that wasn’t entirely convincing.

“So maybe we can just stick to whatever it is that’s happened.”

Landry frowned, but seemed prepared to say more, but some sense of urgency must have decided against it. “They’ve missed their check-in,” he said. “Not just Sheppard’s team. The Odyssey too.”

Young said, dry-mouthed, “Are we sending a MALP?”

“We’ll be patching the feed through any minute now,” Landry said, nodding at the monitor on the wall.

“Even if they broke the DHD, the Odyssey should be reachable by subspace,” Jackson said, his brow creasing.

“I know,” Landry said. “It’s something else. Dr. Perry—“ he nodded at the woman in the wheelchair— “has been offering some ideas as to what that might be, since her research involves Ancient control crystals.”

“So when you say something else, you mean a glitch,” Jackson said. “You mean a glitch; you don’t mean—“

Landry looked abruptly weary. He rubbed a hand over his face. He wasn’t wearing his coat; he’d stripped it off and was in his shirtsleeves. “If this isn’t a glitch,” he said, “then the magnitude of what we’re facing— the level of infiltration by the Lucian Alliance that this would imply—“

“Sheppard and Rush,” Jackson said. His voice had risen, taken on an accusatory note. “You sent them together.”

“The Lucian Alliance has no foothold in Pegasus,” Landry said sharply.

Jackson regarded him with hostility. “And that’s the only reason?”

“We could guarantee Rush’s safety with Sheppard.”

“Well, apparently not!”

Young recognized the tone of the conversation from the transcripts he’d been reading— the sense of animals trapped in a den, snapping without real aim or motive at one another. He cleared his throat. “Maybe we should—“ he started to say.

But he was interrupted by the monitor fizzing to life.

Its screen showed the rippling blue expanse of the gate’s puddle, its surface warping in increasingly less water-like patterns as the MALP rolled forwards. There was an instant of cut-out as the robot went through, then—

Young frowned, and tilted his head, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. There was water, for sure— the MALP’s camera was bleary with it, and he thought for a second that it must be pouring down rain on the planet, until a sloppy wave of greenish water hit, almost overturning the MALP entirely. It was half underwater. A beach, Young thought; the gate was on a beach, and it was twilight; that was why he was finding it hard to make out landmarks. Once he had his bearings, he could parse the dark blue sky, with its chickenfeed spill of constellations, from the sand and the sea and the white of the cliffs. So what was—

“What the hell is that?” Landry said, voicing Young’s own question.

The MALP moved towards what Young had assumed at first was part of the local plant life— a glowing, bluish-white, surreally beautiful sort of shrub, a little more than half the height of a human and raising a fragile array of tendril-like branches. It was studded with little hints of color, jutting outgrowths of blue and gold and red, but somehow he still failed to make the connection until Jackson said slowly, “Where’s the DHD?”

“I think,” Dr. Perry said uncertainly. “— I think that is the DHD.”

Then Young could see it, though he didn’t want to. He felt a sort of sickening lurch, because he had been thinking— it had reminded him—

During the Lucian attack, when they’d hit that wall of smoke going up the stairway, Rush had stopped for a second, just holding still and spreading his hand out in the dark air. With his blazer on, he’d looked like a man who was missing pieces: no arms or legs, only his white face under the shield of the mask, and his hands, which seemed disattached from his body, and the skeletal line where the blazer didn’t cover the front of his shirt. He himself had not known what to make of it, Young thought; he had stared at the light bleeding from his fingers and slowly closed them into a fist, as though he wasn’t sure that they’d obey his commands.

The light had been the same color as the DHD.

“Sir!” The camera on the MALP went wobbly as someone dragged the whole machine to a different location. When it refocused, it was facing a dark-haired airman with a harried expression. Her uniform looked to be soaked to the knee. “Sir, this is Lt. James. Do you read me?”

“We read you, Lieutenant,” Landry said. “Where’s Colonel Sheppard?”

“Colonel Sheppard is gone. Him and Rush both.”

“Gone? What do you mean, gone?”

“I mean gone; I mean—“ She made a panicky gesture. “They touched the DHD, and something happened. There was this light— all our gear went dead— and they just disappeared.”

“Tell them it was an EM pulse,” a man’s voice said.

James glanced off camera. “The tech guy says it was an EM pulse.”

The man said, sounding resigned, “I’m not the tech guy.

In the briefing room, Dr. Perry said, “An EM pulse of sufficient strength could have knocked out the Odyssey’s communications array, if it was in orbit.”

“Pretty sure an EM pulse’s never caused anybody to disappear,” Jackson said.

Landry said darkly, “The Ancients sure as hell have.”

“Sheppard and Rush,” Jackson said, in a very different tone from the one he’d used before when he’d said it. “Do we think that’s a coincidence?”

He and Landry exchanged a glance.

“Sir,” James said from the monitor screen, “the gate is located in a beachfront position, and we’ve got a very high tide coming in. The tech guy— Brody says we shouldn’t gate out, because we don’t know what Rush did to the DHD, or if him and Sheppard might be somehow… inside it?”

“Just give me that,” the man’s voice said.

The camera swiveled awkwardly to face a nebbishy-looking civilian with a hangdog expression and a mop of curly hair. “If Sheppard and Rush have been dematerialized,” he said, “there’s a possibility that the DHD might be storing their patterns in its matrix. Even if they’ve just been, you know, sent somewhere, it’s probably not the greatest idea to go messing around with the thing that sent them— you know. Wherever.”

“Agreed,” Jackson said.

“And it’s kind of hard to know anything about what might have happened to them, or even to, like, make an educated guess when every computer we brought with us is fried, and I’m not an expert on DHDs or Ancient control crystals. I’m kind of just an engineer.”

“A tech guy,” James said, off-camera.

Young leaned over to Jackson. “Why… ?” he asked in a whisper, gesturing to the screen.

Jackson looked like he had a headache. “Because we needed an engineer, and he’s been on Atlantis. There was no possibility of Lucian contact. Which— if we’re going to send a team—“

“We’re sending a team,” Young said automatically.

“That’s not your call, Colonel,” Landry said sharply. “And if we do send a team—“

“Who do we send,” Jackson said. “Who can we guarantee— I mean guarantee— is free of Lucian influence?”

Young said, “Well— me.”

“You’re on light duty,” Landry said, in a voice that dismissed the idea as ludicrous. “You’re not cleared. Medically.”

Jackson adjusted his glasses and looked down at the desk. “When mission parameters fall outside those explicitly delineated in SGC regulations,” he said almost conversationally, as though he weren’t reciting regulations, “the determination of light duty shall be at the discretion of the ranking officer overseeing the mission or project in question unless directly countermanded by a member of the SGC medical staff.”

“And I’m the ranking officer.”

“It’s an Icarus mission. He’s the acting head of Icarus.”

Landry shot Jackson an exasperated look. “I’ll consider it,” he said. “And I mean consider it. The two of you might as well go suit up in the meanwhile; I want Dr. Brody to walk Dr. Perry through what happened.”

“It’s, uh. It’s actually just Mr. Brody,” the hangdog engineer said.

Landry waved an impatient hand. “We can sit around and exchange niceties later. Start talking.”

Jackson caught Young’s eye and, together, they rose and left.

Out in the hall, Jackson leaned against the wall, crossed his arms, and studied Young with a faintly clinical air. “You think you can manage it?”

“I think there’s no other option,” Young said grimly.

Behind his glasses, Jackson’s blue eyes were very steady. “If you end up out of commission, they’ll have to take you off Icarus.”

“No one’s taking me off Icarus.”

Jackson exhaled slowly. “You read the files.”

“I read enough,” Young said shortly. “I’m going to that planet. I’m not letting anyone go without me.”

“Because he’s your friend, because you’re a stubborn asshole, or because you don’t trust anyone?” Jackson tilted his head. “Including me?”

“He’s not my friend. And I trust you. I trust Mitchell.” Young paused. “But—“

Jackson said, “But not all the way.”

“I don’t know,” Young said. “I don’t know; how can you—“ He gestured helplessly. “I used to know; I used to be so sure. You think they train us not to care about people? They train us to put our goddamn lives in each other’s hands. You know how much you have to trust somebody to go into a fucking firefight together? I would’ve died for any of the men I’ve served with, and if I’d thought for a second that wasn’t true, even a second, I would’ve had no business even showing up.”

“I know,” Jackson said. His expression hadn’t changed. It was inscrutable; it seemed old in a way that made Young feel adolescent, even though he knew that he and Jackson were about the same age.

“And now—“ Young said. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, or Mitchell, or— hell, David. It’s the fact that I have to think about it. I have to think about it, just for a half-second; I have to give myself reasons. I have to remind myself why. I didn’t use to have to do that.”

Jackson shook his head. He looked at the floor. He didn’t say anything for a long while. When he finally spoke, his voice was low. “That’s how I know you’ve read the files,” he said.

Thirty minutes later, Young stepped through the stargate and off the edge of a continent.

Or that was what it felt like. He sank immediately in fast-running water that was almost up to his hips. The cold of it was a shock; he had to push forward, unseeing, through the twilit currents, trying to reach the higher ground where he could see the remaining members of Sheppard’s team gathered.

Jackson and Mitchell came through behind him, toting either end of a gear box. Mitchell made an undignified sound, sort of a yelp, when he hit the water; Young turned and raised an eyebrow at him.

“What?” Mitchell said defensively. “I think my balls just shrank.”

“Well, they were too damn big for your own good to begin with,” Young said.

“Was that a compliment? I think it was a compliment.”

“It definitely wasn’t.”

There was a thin, effortful quality to their banter, but it was enough to take Young’s mind off the mission— or let him pretend that it was just a mission, like any other trip through the gate.

He hadn’t been sure that he’d ever go through the gate again.

Under the guise of getting a read on the terrain, he tilted his head back and breathed in the wet alien air, with its traces of salt and rock and something smoke-like that smelled the way that a meteor looked. He could see the whole spread of stars over the ocean and the colorless face of the enormous moon, with its smaller and bluer sister, half the size of Earth’s own and oddly marbled. It was beautiful; beautiful, he thought.

“Man,” Mitchell said, as they reached the lip of the water and found their boots hitting solid sand. “Those waves must’ve been coming in almost over Rush’s head. Why the hell did they pick this planet? Or did it not start out like this?”

“It didn’t,” Lt. James said, coming forward. “Sir. The water’s risen about four feet in the last hour, and it’s been getting faster. Col. Sheppard heard from the Odyssey before we lost contact that there might be a high tide coming in. Something about the moons. They were going to keep us updated, but— well—“ she shrugged.

“Have you heard from them?” Young asked.

“No, sir.”

“Their array should be back up by now.” He raised his radio. “Odyssey, this is Colonel Young. Do you read me?”

There was static.

He waited. “Odyssey?

Jackson and the engineer, Brody, were wading out into what looked like some pretty rocky surf, examining the tips of the tree-like branches that had once formed part of the DHD. Under the flat light of the moons it was eerier, somehow, that structure— the only thing that looked alive on this cold, dead, rock-and-water world.

“I vote we set up the transmitter,” Mitchell said. “I’m from Kansas; we get real uncomfortable when we don’t know what the weather’s gonna be doing.”

“I don’t think tides are weather,” Young said.

“Well,” Mitchell said, “you know, I’m from Kansas. We also don’t do tides.”

He and Young got the gear box open so that James and her team could start assembling the components: tripod base, column, power supply, signal booster, receiver. The team had the transmitter up and powered in a matter of minutes.

Young still felt his inactivity for that span of minutes, watching them; he was conscious of himself as a useless component. He’d taken half a Percocet in the locker room while he was changing, not wanting to float out but needing to function; maybe if he’d taken a whole one, he would’ve been able to pretend that he could do the things an airman needed to do on a mission.

He cast a glance at Jackson and Brody, who were incongruously bent over a laptop computer while standing in roiling seawater over their waists. In typical nerd fashion, neither of them seemed to notice the water— or, particularly, the moon hanging over their heads. There was something a little bit unsettling about that moon, with its pockmarked craters. Maybe that was a human instinct, the need for everything to be just the right size, which was to say Earth size; anything else was just unnerving. It didn’t fit into your mental map of the world. You didn’t know what to expect from it.

“We’re on,” Mitchell said, and Young yanked his gaze back.

He held out his hand for the handset and tried hailing. “Odyssey, this is Colonel Young. You there? I sure as hell hope so.”

Static crackled out of the receiver. Then: “This is Colonel Nasir on board the Odyssey,” a faint voice said, overlaid with hissing. “ —tus report?”

“Equipment’s fried,” Young said. “Two members of the alpha team are missing. Listen, we need an update on what you see happening with this tide situation. We’ve got water coming up over the gate.”

“Calcula—“ Nasir said, and cut out. “—pid increase; can you move— high— d or re—“

Young glanced at the sheer wall of the white cliffs. “That’s a negative,” he said. “Moving to higher ground is not an option.”

Static.

Nasir said, “—commend you con— mediate beam-out, Colonel; we can—“

“What kind of time frame are we looking at?” Young said, gripping the handset. His gaze went to Jackson and Brody again. The water was above their waists now, and crashing past them to scrape the edge of its foam almost to where Young was standing. He would have gotten his team out of there, if it had been an ordinary mission. But even though he didn’t know what the hell Jackson and Brody were doing, they seemed to be doing something, and he hadn’t come this far across the galaxy for them not to do their damnedest to get Rush back.

He’d been trying not to think of it in those terms.

He’d been trying not to think of Rush at all.

If Rush was just a pattern stored in a DHD matrix, then he wasn’t conscious. He was just— sleeping. More or less. There was no need to worry about him.

“– timate a water lev—“ Nasir said. “— feet in the next— twenty— in the—“

“You’re cutting out,” Young said. “Can you repeat that?”

He was still looking in Jackson and Brody’s direction, which was the only reason he saw the wave coming.

“Oh, shit,” he breathed, and shoved the handset at James.

Then he was running, vaguely conscious of Mitchell behind him, shouting something that Young couldn’t make out. By the time he hit the edge of the water, the crest of the wave had plunged through the stargate, breaking over the DHD and swallowing it. Jackson and Brody were down— somewhere— somewhere— He couldn’t see them. He swept his gaze across the white churn of the water. They were gone.

“Young!” Mitchell yelled. That much Young could hear clearly. Mitchell was stripping his jacket off in short frantic gestures. “I’m going under!”

Young nodded tensely.

Mitchell dove into the surf.

Before Young could think too much about it, he had done the same— or not diving, exactly, which was an arch too far for his mostly-frozen body, but plunging into the water on the hard side of a sucked-in breath.

It was cold and soundless under the surface, and he couldn’t think. He opened his eyes and saw the DHD, blurred and bone-like and gleaming where nothing ought to be gleaming. It was beautiful, and it resembled a skeletal hand. Once he had seen that, he wasn’t able to unsee it. He thought of sirens, mermaids, the deepwater fish that grew their own lanterns, delicate things that hunted prey and wrecked ships.

He didn’t see Jackson or Brody. He didn’t see anything alive. Only the rocky detritus that had collected on the seabed.

Eventually he had to surface, his lungs burning. Other parts of his body were burning. He wouldn’t, he thought, be able to do that again. Probably he shouldn’t have done it in the first place, but he’d taken the Percocet for a reason.

Further towards the shore, where the crash of the waves turned easier and shallow, Mitchell surfaced, heaving Brody onto the sand. Brody was conscious, coughing in a way that sounded painful. He was trying to talk between coughs, but not managing it, until he scraped out in a tight voice, “Rush’s computer! Still— plugged in—“

“I’m going back for Jackson,” Mitchell said. His voice had taken on a brittle, glassy quality that Young recognized. Jackson was Mitchell’s teammate. That meant something to Mitchell. If Mitchell couldn’t find Jackson in the water, Young would have a hell of struggle getting Mitchell off the beach and through the gate.

“Go,” Young said. He waded over to Brody, who was still trying to get the water out of his lungs. “The computer’s a loss,” he said. “It’s fried; it’s underwater.”

Brody shook his head, panting. “Hard drive. Might still— Told us. Destroy all the data.”

“Shit.” For a second, Young considered the odds. A half-drowned, lifeless planet in the middle of nowhere, one the SGC had presumably picked because it was someplace the Lucian Alliance would never think of going. But there were seven guys on Sheppard’s team. There was the Odyssey’s crew, who might not know the mission, but knew they’d been sent to the middle of nowhere for some reason, and knew the middle of nowhere’s SGC designation, if not its gate address. News traveled. News traveled enough.

“Shit,” he said again, quieter. “Okay. Get up; get up, go tell James to order the Odyssey to beam us out on my mark.”

Brody nodded and hauled himself to his feet, heading up the beach in an unsteady stumble.

Young turned, forced a hard breath in, and aimed himself at the water. A high wave hit him just as he managed a half-dive, shocking most of the air out him and leaving him with an impression of violence. But he still forced his way under, kicking against the pain in his right hip, and headed for the DHD’s pearlescent outline. As he got closer, he could make out, in the faint unsteady glow it was emitting, the drifting computer bound to it by a fistful of thin black threads.

He didn’t have time to worry about how the computer might be connected, or whether he’d damage it by getting ahold of it and just yanking it as hard he could. So that was what he did: grabbed it, tucked it under one arm, and headed for the surface. There was a brief moment of tension, where he felt the DHD pulling against him, like he a fish snagged on a particularly painless hook, but then the cable pulled free and he was free, too, shoving his way up towards the moonlight.

He broke the line of the water dizzy and gasping for air, too disoriented to tell where the shore was, where he should head. Pain was slicing through his lower back, and for one panicked moment he thought that he couldn’t feel his legs. But it was just the cold turning him numb; his legs were still working. He could use them, and that was good, and once he knew that they were working, the fear seemed like a shot of amphetamine. It made the grinding pain of propelling himself towards shore into a relief, once he had registered the calls and shouts from the team and gotten oriented.

He still had to grit his teeth as he heaved himself, all hands and knees like something half-drowned, onto the shoreline. As soon as he wasn’t moving, his immediate urge was to curl in on himself like a wounded animal. But James was there right away, and one of her team, gripping his arms and helping him to stand.

“Sir,” James said— loudly, so he could hear her over the surf. “Mitchell’s got Jackson. The Odyssey is waiting on your mark.”

Young nodded, exhausted, and shook away his streaming hair. “Get me to the transmitter,” he said.

God, it hurt to move. God— God— He’d really fucked up, he thought half-hysterically, as he realized that he wasn’t even walking, that James and her guy were more than half-carrying him. But he had the computer, or James had it; she was handing it off to Brody; and Jackson was hacking up seawater with his arm over Mitchell’s shoulder, looking half-conscious, but he was alive, and Brody was alive, and Rush was alive, Young thought, he had to be, somewhere, maybe just sleeping; God, let him be sleeping, held in the DHD’s skeletal hand; and then James was handing him the transmitter handset, and though it took him three tries to press the button—

Odyssey, get us the hell out of here,” he said.

### Chapter Text

“Sheppard.”

Sheppard frowns and snuffles and pushes his face into what he thinks is going to be a pillow, but turns out to be stone.

“Sheppard.”

He’d been having a nice dream. There hadn’t been anything special about it, really. But a lot of the time these days he dreams dreams that aren’t maybe his dreams exactly. More like the dreams that thermostats and transporters and water filtration systems dream. Do thermostats and transporters and water filtration systems dream? Maybe they don’t dream till he’s dreaming. His dreams aren’t his own. But neither are they thermostat and transporter and water filtration system dreams. They’re something he dreams with the thermostats and transporters and water filtration systems. Not human dreams and not just the dreams of circuitry humming and beeping and doing self-checks that can’t really be called self-checks because it doesn’t really have a self. Someone else’s dreams.

Sometimes it’s peaceful being a water filtration system. But after a while, it gets boring. And it kind of makes him feel queasy. He always wakes up expecting to slosh around inside his skin. So it’s nice to dream about something else.

“Sheppard, wake up.”

But this person, whoever he is, is being really annoying and insistent, even though he’s not McKay— which is funny, because nine times out of ten if someone’s being really annoying and insistent, it’s going to be McKay, especially if he’s trying to wake Sheppard up.

So Sheppard blinks at the guy, whoever he is, and rolls over with a grimace. He has a headache. There are neat little white and blue tiles under his hands. A pretty color of blue, dark and glazed and gemlike. Blue, he thinks vaguely; wherever he is smells like blue, too, in a way that Atlantis usually doesn’t. Atlantis smells like light through church windows. Old metal and leaded colorless glass.

But why would he not be on Atlantis?

And he’s not— not on Atlantis; there’s a feeling he can’t quite—

“As you’ve evidently regained control of your nervous system, perhaps you’d consider reassuring me that your brain hasn’t liquefied inside your head,” the annoying man who’d woken him up says. He has a really strong Scottish accent, for some reason. “Not that I expect I would notice much difference.”

“Yeah,” Sheppard says, and pushes himself up to a seated position, squinting. “No brain liquification. Just me.”

“Liquefaction,” the man says.

“What?”

“The correct term is liquefaction. Not liquification, which, I very much regret to inform you, is not a word.

Rush. The man is Rush. Supercilious, short-fused, long-haired, dark eyes with crooked glasses, nervous, jerky, giving Sheppard a spooky feeling, staring at the DHD, the glyphs lighting up under his hand—

“Shit,” Sheppard says. “It wasn’t a dream.”

“I don’t know to what you’re referring.”

Sheppard looks past Rush, trying to get a sense of where they’re at.

It’s some kind of courtyard— eight walls, high ones, the whole thing shaped sort of like a diamond, except with the sharp points sanded off. Four doors where the points should have been, carved thick with little ornamental details and set under big looping arches. It kind of reminds him of some place in Spain or Morocco, or maybe Afghanistan, before he and his buddies got there. There’s even a fountain in the middle, weirdly geometric, sputtering clean water down into a basin made of cornflower-colored clay.

“I tried the doors,” Rush said. “They won’t open.”

“No,” Sheppard says resignedly. “Of course they won’t.”

At least it’s warm. He tilts his head back. There’s sunlight. Well, it feels like sunlight, although he’s about fifty-fifty on whether any of this stuff is real.

“So,” he says eventually, “you wanna bet?”

Rush frowns. “Bet?” he echoes, sounding bewildered.

“Yeah, on how long it’s going to be before we have to start this test. Trial. Whatever. I wonder if we’ll get a warning before some dude comes at us with a broadsword. A warning would be polite,” Sheppard says, raising his voice to shout the last word at the courtyard walls. “I’m just saying!”

“Am I to take it that this sort of thing happens to you with some frequency?” Rush doesn’t really wait for an answer; he pushes himself to his feet from where he’d been crouching by Sheppard and starts pacing jerkily back and forth.

“Sort of,” Sheppard says. He picks himself up off the tiles and stands, stretching and making a face as his back cracks.

He’s not carrying his weapons. He’d known as soon as he woke up. He’s the sort of guy who always knows where his gun is. He just doesn’t worry about it too much on Atlantis, these days, because of the whole—

He thinks he’d know, is all. If he needed a gun. He thinks it would feel different. Not the steady chirp-chirp-chirp of all the complacent systems. That’s kind of what he feels now. Just an awareness that things are working around him. The air isn’t dead like it is on Earth.

“I think we should try opening one of the doors,” he says.

Rush stares at him. “Are you mentally deficient?” he asks. “I mean, I’m asking in all seriousness if you have a disability of some sort, or are suffering the effects of a concussion. I told you; I’ve already tried the doors.”

Sheppard shrugs. “Yeah, but I think we should try them again. Together.”

“My God, you are deficient.” Rush turns away, shaking his head in disgust.

“You know, that’s not a very nice thing to say.” Sheppard shakes his head and inspects one of the doors at close range. It’s really pretty, actually— made out some kind of reddish wood, and covered in dense blocks of calligraphy that must be some stylized version of Ancient. He can understand a letter here and there.

“Yes, well, I’m not a very nice person,” Rush says with some asperity. “This isn’t a very nice situation.

Without warning, he turns around and delivers a savage kick to the fountain.

Sheppard frowns at him. “Now why would you go and do that? I like that fountain. I think it’s peaceful. It’s got good feng shui.”

“Oh, of course you like it.” Rush spits. He seems like he’s getting a little worked-up. His hands are clenching and unclenching into and away from tight fists. “You probably like all of this, being locked in this cryptic fucking garden, doors without locks that still don’t open, water that comes from nowhere, a sun that can’t be a sun; for all I know you can’t feel or bloody hear that— whatever it is, I can’t shut it off; it’s just—“

“Hey,” Sheppard says. He crosses the courtyard to where Rush has pressed a closed fist against his forehead. “Just cool it, okay? I can feel it. You’re not crazy.”

“I know I’m not crazy!” Rush snaps. But he must be a little reassured, at least, because he lowers his hand to his side, breathing harshly. “If anyone here is crazy, it’s you.”

“Yeah, I know. Deficient.” Sheppard lets his mouth quirk upwards. He studies Rush. “Does it really bother you that much? I’ve always kind of liked it.”

“Always?”

“This is what it feels like on Atlantis.” Saying it out loud makes Sheppard feel melancholy, like at the same time he’s home and very far away from home. He doesn’t even feel that way on Earth now. Earth is a foreign country. There’s a quote about that, isn’t there? All the time he spends on Earth, he feels like an insect lodged in amber. Slowly calcifying. He doesn’t know if calcifying is the right word.

Sometimes he thinks Atlantis is the amber, though. If he’s the insect. The tree sap that the amber started out as. It spins itself out when he pulls away from it, always attached to him with one tendril. It’s sticky, and once he touched it, he couldn’t untouch it. He’s always aware of it wanting him back.

Is that bad? He doesn’t mean it in a bad way. Maybe the insects in the amber didn’t mind what was happening to them. Maybe they died happy deaths. Or maybe it wasn’t death at all. After all, they started out as mosquitoes and got to be gemstones. When all was said and done. In the end.

“This is what it feels like,” he says softly. He reaches out with a fingertip and touches one of the white walls. “It didn’t use to feel like that; it’s sort of like we’ve gotten more in tune. Gradually. But the more in tune I am with Atlantis, the more I’m out of tune with everything else. It just feels wrong, like when you get out of a plane, and your ear is kind of—“

He stops, because Rush has gone completely still.

“Why did you choose that phrase?” Rush says intently, fixing his dark eyes on Sheppard.

“What phrase?”

In tune. You said more in tune, why did you say that? ”

“Oh.” Sheppard shrugs. “I don’t know. That’s what it feels like. Doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” Rush whispers. “Yes.”

He closes his eyes, pushing his hair back from his face with a restless hand.

He doesn’t know.

Rush turns away and doesn’t give him an answer.

Sheppard exhales resignation. Maybe he’s glad Rush didn’t answer. “Well,” he says, “it’s Ancient tech. That feeling. That’s what it is. So I think if we both try to open the door, it’ll probably do something. Please note I’m not saying it’s going to open the door.”

“Fine,” Rush says curtly. “Which door?”

“I don’t think it matters.”

They choose the nearest door, which has a really large latha carved around its handle— one of the letters of the Ancient alphabet.

“That’s what I did the last time,” Rush says sourly, “and look where we ended up.”

But he presses his palm to the door, and Sheppard mirrors him, touching the warm wood and reaching out in his head to the current of otherness that haunts him when he’s on Atlantis, the ageless hum of objects being objects in a way that never gets easier for him to understand, but that keeps on being there anyways. Like a shadow in a Peter Pan story— something with its own ideas and its own way of moving through the world that just happens to be attached to you at the ankles, or maybe all over, like a second skin.

Yes. A shadow. Sometimes overlapping with his body, and sometimes much bigger than he is. It’s there and it’s not, it’s real and it’s not real; it haunts him because it’s ghostly. But it’s him, too. It is. It’s part of him.

On Earth he’s learned that you can be lonely for part of your own body.

But I’m here now, he thinks. So let me in, or out, or— wherever. I can’t stay here forever.

There is a muted sense of disagreement, a strain of regret or longing. But abruptly something gives way with a electric crack, and—

Kal ven,” a woman’s voice says.

Sheppard opens his eyes and turns.

A woman is standing in the center of the courtyard. She’s not really a woman. He can pretty much call that kind of thing by now. She’s a good imitation of a woman; he’ll give her that. Standard Ancient stuff: olive skin, white robes, a spill of straight black hair ornamented with little jewels like diamonds. She’s barefoot, and the pale soles of her feet don’t quite meet the patterned blue-and-white glaze of the tiles.

“Hi there,” Sheppard says. “Nice to meet you.”

She smiles at him in that beatific Ancient way, like the painted face of a saint in a low-grade cathedral who’s really enjoying having her breasts cut off or being roasted to death. Which is pretty much consistent with the reasons an Ancient would have for smiling. You’re dead, Sheppard thinks. Your whole civilization is dead. Even if you’re really here and not a hologram, you’re still just a ghost.

The woman— hologram— ghost— whatever— flickers slightly. “Welcome,” it says. “Are you ready to begin?”

Beside Sheppard, Rush reaches out and passes a hand through the woman’s body, parting it as though there were nothing there. Which, in a manner of speaking, there isn’t. “She’s not real,” Rush says.

“Well,” Sheppard says. He shrugs. “I mean, she is real.”

“Is any of this real?” Rush looks around a little wildly at the walls, the sun, the fountain.

“I figure ‘real’ is kind of a spectrum,” Sheppard says.

“Yes, but— where are we? Materially? Physically? I have a body; it can’t just— stop existing!

“You know where you are,” the woman-who-is-not-a-woman says. She seems to fix her eyes on Rush. The tiny jewels in her hair glisten, exactly as though they’ve been touched by the sun-that-is-not-a-sun. “You know why you have come here. You know what lies beyond these walls.”

And, as though she has spoken the knowledge into being, an idea blossoms inside Sheppard’s head. He can picture the city beyond these walls, the city from which this courtyard is only a gem-like corner of isolation, the city rising arch upon arch, tiered like the most delicate cake for an unearthly wedding. And in a way it was a wedding, a marriage and a consummation, the way that the spires of the future mingled with the stone of the past. Narrow avenues where white marble, or something like marble, was carved into knotted spirals and arabesques— avenues curled in amongst overhanging bridges of glass and trinium. Floating ships whispered over tiled streets in the older demmas of the city, whose spiderweb of alleys he knows— knew?— knows like the back of his hand. Acolytes of a thousand cults kept up a hum as they chanted their way to ascension. If you climbed high enough, transitioning to the clean lines and colored windows that had been the inheritance of Atlantis— the star-prints and geometric panels that replaced calligraphy on polished jasper, porphyry, or wood— and kept climbing up into the towers that seemed grown rather than crafted, so impossible was their weight and balance, the heart-stopping beauty of their angles and their curves— then you might see the fields beyond, where silver-green grass stirred to the horizon, split by smooth stripes where generations of farmers had harvested lilies and hyacinth—

He knows what it smelled like, is the worst part. The warm stone in the summer. The sweet oils that the cultists daubed on their temple walls. Walking slowly through the rows of lilies-that-were-not-lilies, trailing his fingertips against the freckled, crooked bells; the faint, drowsy spice of their fragrance. The churned-up dark soil underfoot.

This is the first time and not the first time he has dreamed of such a city. Such a planet. Or—

He has dreamed of being a machine that dreamed about this city. When it used his body to dream.

Rush makes a sudden, jerky movement towards the door— one that Sheppard thinks would be disastrous.

“No,” he says, catching Rush by the arm. He keeps his eyes on the hologram. “It’s not there.”

Rush makes a wordless, choked sound. “It is. It’s there; it’s—“

“Dead,” Sheppard cuts him off. “It’s been dead for millions of years. They left that galaxy to the Ori. They left the whole universe to the Ori, and they didn’t come back.”

“It’s not dead,” Rush whispers, agonized. “It’s not. I can feel it. What’s left.”

Sheppard shuts his eyes.

A water filtration system doesn’t die.

But everything else does. Everything around it.

Atlantis doesn’t like it when Sheppard leaves.

He thinks it would have nightmares, if it could have nightmares.

“Let’s just stay focused on what we came here for,” he says, and shoves Rush back into the center of the courtyard, towards the hologram.

The dead woman regards them with the same placid, benevolent remoteness. She clasps her hands in front of her and asks once more, “Are you ready to begin?”

“Yes,” Sheppard says, before Rush can say something stupid. “Yes, we’re ready.”

The hologram flickers, like it’s loading a program. The woman smiles her empty smile. “Kal ven,” she says. “You are in a garden to which there are four doors. One of the doors is the door through which you have come here, and you cannot exit this life as you came. One door is truthful about its exit, and its exit is truthful. One door will deceive you. One door fluctuates like the river of the body, and therefore you cannot trust yourself to it. If you wish to learn how you may leave this garden, then you must consult the doors.”

She bows, like this has all been some kind of great performance, and then— after some kind of lag in her programming— abruptly disappears.

Sheppard groans and drops his head, raking his hand through his hair. “Great. Fucking logic puzzles. Why couldn’t we just have to shoot something?”

But Rush is frowning, already thinking it over.  “How does a door communicate? The traditional version of this riddle requires the involvement of some form of spoken language.”

Sheppard says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Counterfactuals,” Rush says absentmindedly.

He turns in a slow circle, eyeing the doors. Sheppard follows his gaze. One doors has vanished, melting away into white wall as though it had never existed. So that’s comforting. But at least it narrows their choices.

Rush approaches the door nearest to him, which seems to be distinguished by carvings of an enormous letter ot and et, although the second one might be pay— it’s hard to tell for sure, given how long and dramatic the lines are. He touches it for a moment, tracing the swooping line of a carving with one tentative fingertip.

“It may be ludicrous of me to ask this question,” he says after a long hesitation, “but: are you the truthful door?”

There’s a shiver of some kind, almost like a cloaked ship moving through the courtyard— something Sheppard can’t see, but knows is there.

Rush steps back, looking startled. “Ah,” he says. “Are you the deceitful door?”

Again, the air seems to ripple. Rush tilts his head as though listening to a sound that Sheppard can’t hear.

Rush ignores him. He hums a note that, to Sheppard, just sounds like a note. Sheppard thinks he should get credit for even knowing it’s a note. The History of Art and Music classes at his fancy prep school were pretty much wasted on his teenaged self.

“That note,” Rush says, apparently talking to the door. “Is that how you would respond if I asked you whether the door behind me was the fluctuating door?”

He waits. Sheppard still doesn’t hear anything: only the trickle of water in the fountain.

He wonders whether the fountain is real. Presumably it is, since Rush could kick it. But he meant what he said. There’s a spectrum of real.

That disturbs him as much as it does Rush, probably. But he’s gotten good at not showing any doubts. Fake it till you make it, right? Except that, on a bad day, he wonders if faking the reality of a thing is what makes it real.

Fake it and make it.

Fumble through life, sowing accidental monsters.

Rush says thoughtfully, “And is the door behind me the fluctuating door?”

A brief pause.

“If I asked the door to my left to answer the question ‘Are you the deceitful door?’, what would its response be?”

Another pause.

“Is the door to my left the fluctuating door?”

“Rush,” Sheppard says, a little nettled by now, and spooked by the turn of his own thoughts, “care to tell me what the hell is going on?”

Rush turns to his left. “This is the door we need to go through.”

“Yeah? How exactly do you know that?”

Rush gives him a disdainful and distinctly professorial look. God, Sheppard just bets he’s a professor, or was, and Sheppard’s never gotten along with professors. They always think he’s insolent, or arrogant, or they just don’t like the look of him. And he doesn’t trust them, really, because he can tell he’s smarter than them— which isn’t the way it’s supposed to work, so then what else isn’t going to work the way it’s supposed to? Problems with authority, they call that in the service, but Sheppard thinks it just makes sense.

“It’s a puzzle,” Rush says. “One asks the required questions, which generate a sequence of answers revealing the identities of the agents in question. An alternative solution utilizes an XNOR condition—“

“No,” Sheppard says. “I mean— questions have answers. You were talking to doors. How did they answer you?”

As he speaks, he realizes that he’s the wrong one to be asking this question. He, more than anyone, knows how a person can talk to doors. But he’s never been the one on the outside of the conversation. He didn’t realize how unsettling it could be.

Rush does pretty much what he would do, but in a Rush fashion, which is to say that he gives Sheppard another look, and doesn’t deign to offer any more information. “They answered,” he says. “You’ll have to trust me. Unless you’d prefer to stay here.”

Sheppard would prefer not to stay here. It’s a nice enough imaginary courtyard, on a nice enough imaginary day, but he doesn’t really believe in it, is the thing. And he’s not sure how that would work out in the long run.

“All right,” he says. “Okay.”

He follows Rush to the door. The biggest letters carved into it are my and taph. He doesn’t really even like Ancient, he thinks. As a language. He’s always associated it with emergencies and with death. After all, none of their language survived in the ways that matter. He’s never read an Ancient poem. He’s never found Ancient graffiti. It’s all just prophecies and technical inscriptions.

Rush pushes the door open.

Sheppard thinks— he wishes that their poetry had survived.

Opening the door was a bad idea.

It’s hot.

Very hot.

Hot, as in: Sheppard staggers immediately under the glare of some kind of light source, choking for breath and almost unable to move. His skin feels like it’s burned already; the insides of his eyelids are seared red.

He gasps, “I think you got the wrong door.”

Rush shakes his head in a jerky way, but he’s obviously just as out of commission. He tries to shrug his way out of his jacket and then shields his face with it; after a second he drops to his knees.

“No,” Sheppard says. He grabs Rush under the arms. “Come on; get up. Get up. There’s got to be a door of some kind, or else we can—“

Go back, he was going to say, but the door behind them has vanished. So they have to go forwards.

And they do, but the room only gets hotter. And it is a room, Sheppard realizes, not just some kind of— crematorium for people who can’t solve logic puzzles. The walls are curved and lined with mirrors; that’s why it’s so goddamn hot. The rays of light just keep going and going. He can see the brief shadow of his black reflection, dragging Rush forwards. He’s soaked in sweat.

In the mirrors, his face looks like a ghost captured on camera. Something not quite human, something that’s been dead for a while.

“Come on,” he says, more to himself than Rush, maybe. “Come on. Come on. Come on.”

But there isn’t a door, is the thing. They reach the far side of the room and it’s nothing, just more mirrors. Sheppard pounds against them; gropes for some kind of crack or keyhole. He presses his hand flat against the reflection of his hand.

Rush collapses in a long slow slide to the floor. “It wasn’t wrong,” he says hollowly. “That was the answer to the riddle.”

Sheppard pounds his fist against the mirror again. He leans his forehead against it and tries thinking at it, thinking about freedom and unlocking and even going back to the courtyard. He crouches down and grabs Rush’s hand, and slaps Rush’s palm against the scorching-hot surface of the glass.

It doesn’t work.

The room keeps getting hotter and brighter.

Sheppard watches blisters form on the surface of his skin.

“That was the door,” Rush murmurs, his head lolling against the mirror. He’s mostly unconscious, which is probably a good thing, because what happens is: they die like that, cooked by a sun they can’t escape, in agony.

Sheppard thinks, before the end— right around the time he starts vomiting up the last water in his body— that this is what he thought it’d be like in Afghanistan, before he showed up, because it was the desert, and they even called it Baghdad 2: Electric Kabulaboo, but it turned out to be cold, and maybe he’s being punished for that, for the stupid nickname, for the shitty things he’d done in war and outside of it, but what is Rush being punished for, because Rush isn’t even a goddamn soldier, which he means he hasn’t had the same chances to be shitty, the same almost unthinkable remit, and Sheppard tries to shelter Rush with his own body, feeling the kind of gentleness and pity that maybe you only feel right before you’re dead.

And then he doesn’t feel anything, because he’s dead.

“Sheppard.”

Sheppard groans and tries to bury his face in the bathroom tiles he’s apparently used as a pillow. He’s got a killer hangover, and he doesn’t think he’s in Atlantis, and it’s not exactly like he can miss the last train home, so something’s—

“Sheppard, wake up.”

Ah, shit.

He blinks up at Rush. “We’re alive,” he observes, somewhat redundantly.

“It would appear so.” Rush glances around ruefully, indicating the white walls of the courtyard, once more boxing in them in.

Sheppard rolls onto his back and stares at the blue sky.

The fountain is trickling placidly behind Rush. Something about the sound of it reminds Sheppard of the smiling hologram. He presses the flats of his palms against the blue-and-white tiles and remembers what dying felt like. After a while he crawls his way across the courtyard and dunks his head in the fountain basin, letting the cold current thud against the back of his head.

“That was also my first instinct,” Rush says. When Sheppard emerges from the fountain, he can see that Rush’s hair is, in fact, wet.

“So,” Sheppard says. “Wrong door?”

Rush frowns. “No.”

“Usually when you pick the right door, it means you don’t die.”

“Counterpoint,” Rush says. “When you pick the right door, it means you get another chance not to die.”

Sheppard tips his head back against the rim on the fountain. “You think?”

“Another test.”

“That— doesn’t really seem fair, somehow.”

“No,” Rush says. He comes to sit beside Sheppard, and rakes the damp strands of his hair back. “Did the first part seem fair?”

“Well,” Sheppard says, and shrugs. “I mean, fair enough: if you want something, you’ve got to prove you deserve it. I guess I didn’t realize this whole cipher thing was going to require so much deserving.”

Rush is silent. He looks down at his hands. “If it were about deserving,” he says eventually, “it would be fair, wouldn’t it?”

It’s a pretty cryptic statement. Or— rhetorical question, whatever. Sheppard studies him for a while and then says, “Yeah.”

“I didn’t know about their technology when I got involved with the project,” Rush says. “I didn’t know about the genetic requirement.” He isn’t looking at Sheppard. “That’s what the program calls it. A requirement. But it’s just another kind of test. A way of parceling out people into who passes and who doesn’t.”

There’s a pause.

“That’s not what it’s about,” Sheppard says at length. But then he doesn’t know how to explain. So he just says, “I always did really well on tests. Confused the hell out of people; they couldn’t figure out if there was something wrong with me, or maybe something wrong with the tests. Cause I was never good at anything else. They even tried to figure out if I had some kind of learning disability or something. But really I just only cared about… I don’t know, flying airplanes and surfing. And pissing people off whenever I could.”

Rush gives him a disbelieving look that turns almost non-hostile. His mouth forms a kind of halfhearted, crooked hook. “Well,” he says, and then doesn’t say anything else.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Sheppard says. “And you might be better at pissing people off, but I’m definitely better at surfing.”

Rush offers a thready, breathless laugh.

“So what do you say we go try not to die some more?” Sheppard picks himself up, wincing and feeling the shadow of blisters, and turns to offer his hand to Rush.

Rush touches him cautiously with light fingers, as though testing strange waters. “… I suppose we might as well,” he says.

They die again.

“Fuck,” Rush says heavily, scooping up a double handful of water and dousing his flushed face with it.

“Yeah,” Sheppard says, not moving from where he’s stretched out on his back against the tiles.

“I’m Scottish; I’m not physiologically engineered for that sort of environment.”

“Tell me about it. You’re lucky you get to die first.”

There’s a silence. Rush drinks some water out of the palm of his hand. Sheppard turns his head to watch him do it. Rush looks tired, but there’s a tightness around his mouth suggesting that, more than anything, he’s resigned. McKay’d be throwing a tantrum about now, or bouncing off the walls jibber-jabbering about solving the puzzle, but Rush— Rush was more upset about being stuck in an imaginary garden, or being maybe-crazy. Now that things’ve started hurting, he seems pretty down for it. Sheppard kind of gets that. At least you know where you stand when things are hurting. He’s known a lot of guys like Rush in the service— in a firefight, their heart rate didn’t even seem to spike, but put ’em on desk duty and they’d be up on charges in a month.

He always seems to end up on charges no matter what he does. Or he did until Atlantis. It’s not so much like there was a part of him missing and more like there’s a part of him Atlantis eats up.

“The light source,” Rush says, staring at the blue sky with an absent expression. “Where is it located? Is it stationary?”

“I don’t know,” Sheppard says. “I’ve been a little distracted.”

“That, no doubt, is the intent.”

“Maybe this time you should focus on recon, and I’ll focus on getting us across the room.” Sheppard arches his eyebrows, asking for confirmation.

Rush makes an exasperated sound. “I’ve always suspected that Wittgenstein would have a great deal to say about your military’s abiding passion for extraordinarily stupid abbreviations.”

“Whatever. Remind me to keep you away from any pokers,” Sheppard says, hoisting himself to his feet.

“Do you really know who Wittgenstein is?” Rush asks in a scraped-out, barely-there voice, after they’ve died and been resurrected again.

“Kind of,” Sheppard says. This time he’s the one dunking his head in the fountain, while Rush lies facedown on the tiles, apparently too spent to even turn on his back. “Mostly just that he hated philosophy and drove people crazy. That’s a man I can respect.”

Rush laughs a cracked little laugh and covers his head with a folded arm. “I can’t fault you there.”

“Did you get a look at the light source?”

Then Rush does turn over, or, well, he kind of flops his way over like a mostly-dead starfish. “Yes. It appears to be located equidistant between the eastern and western walls, approximately 1/2r distance from the perimeter, and mirrors our advancement— that is, its forward progress is equivalent to our own.”

“Mirrors,” Sheppard says absently. He stares down at the surface of the water, his dark reflection broken by a thousand little droplets impacting it. “Maybe it’ll leave if we just manage to outlast it? There’s got to be some place in that damn room that’s dark enough for us to survive in.”

Rush slowly turns his head to stare at him, a frown creasing his brow. “What did you say?”

“Someplace dark,” Sheppard says. “So we could make it a little longer. Someplace the light can’t manage to get to.”

Rush keeps staring at him, but his eyes go slightly vacant. It’s a look that Sheppard’s familiar with from dealing with McKay and his mini-McKays. “Yes,” he says eventually. “Yes, that’s possible. In fact— but then the question becomes: what shape is the room?”

“Kinda think the question’s still how we get out of it,” Sheppard says.

Rush gives him a look of distaste. “Don’t offend me by acting less clever than you are,” he says.

This time they both do recon, Sheppard taking the three o’clock and Rush taking the nine o’clock side of the room.

All it means is that they die alone. And Rush still dies first, so Sheppard’s left crawling across the floor, wracked by cramps from dehydration and trying, out of an impulse born in the misfiring parts of his increasingly dysregulated brain, to get to where Rush is, because it turns out his last, panicked, dying thought is that he doesn’t want to die alone.

“Please,” he says raggedly, his hands slippery with his own sweat. “Please. Not alone.”

“It’s a Penrose unilluminable room,” Rush says as soon as Sheppard wakes up.

Sheppard lies against the blue-and-white tiles and looks at Rush. He’s really tired, he reflects. He’d like to go back to Atlantis, where he’s never alone, at least if you count intermingling the electromagnetic field of your brain with the electromagnetic fields of things-that-can’t-be-people as a way that someone can not be alone. He’s gotten pretty used to that. And, for what it’s worth, he thinks it counts. But right now he kind of wants to push his face into Rush’s shoulder and just breathe there for a while. Which he’s pretty sure would get him kneed in the balls.

That’s fine. Normally he’d knee someone in the balls for doing that to him, too— probably without even thinking about it. He’s never been a really tactile person.

He should get a dog, he thinks. Or whatever passes for a dog in Pegasus.

Rush is staring at him expectantly.

“Penrose unilluminable room,” Sheppard says. “Right.”

“The walls of the room curve forwards very subtly on either side. Behind each of the curves, there ought to be two small extrusions, just above and below the nine and three o’clock positions. If we advance until the light is exactly centered in the room, the spaces below nine and three o’clock should be dark. I suspect we may find a door, or doors, there. If not, perhaps you’re correct and the light source will disappear if we manage to shelter for long enough.”

“Penrose,” Sheppard says, half-attentive. “Like the tile guy?” He’s getting pretty tired of tiles.

“I rescind my observation about you being clever. Have you in fact been listening to anything I’ve said?” Rush shakes his head, looking disgusted with himself. “Christ; look at the effect you’re having; I sound exactly like Young.”

“I gotcha,” Sheppard says. “Three o’clock. Nine o’clock. Extrusions.”

“Yes, well.” Rush still looks irritated. He presses his lips together tightly and glares at Sheppard. After a long pause, he says, with visible reluctance, “Try not to die, I suppose.”

When Sheppard ducks behind the curve of the mirrored wall and steps into the newly-created shadows, his groping hands find the outline of a door.

“Rush!” he shouts. “There’s a door!”

Rush shouts back, “I’ve got one as well! Go through it!”

Sheppard hesitates, pinched for a second by a sense of dread. What if he and Rush end up in separate places?

“Rush!” he shouts again. “I think maybe we should go together!”

But there’s no answer. Rush is already gone. And Sheppard is starting to feel a little woozy. He thuds his head gently against the door.

“Oh, hell,” he says. But he doesn’t have a lot of options. So he opens the door onto an exquisite relief of blackness, and lets himself fall bodylessly through.

“What took you so long?” Rush says without looking up, when Sheppard staggers out of the darkness and into a pale, soft, pearl-colored light.

Rush is standing in the center of what looks like a large grotto, carved by natural or unnatural forces out of silvery-bluish stone. The air feels chilly and damp, and the walls have the slick-smooth and oddly swollen texture of rocks that the sea has slowly worn down— except for the particular wall Rush is staring at, which has a huge flat square cut into it, like a game board. White tiles, each one bearing a single Ancient letter, have been arranged to fit in the square in five columns and four rows:

NETEN
ETNEM
INOEX
PARDE

“You left without me,” Sheppard says, mildly accusatory.

Rush ignores him. He reaches forward and pulls down the final et tile, squinting at it. “Clearly we’re meant to rearrange the tiles to form some sort of message. But I’m not able to translate what’s already there. ‘No one has…’ No one has something. Is that right?”

Sheppard sighs and crosses the grotto to stand beside him. “Ne tenet nemino ex parde,” he says. “No one has… no one has each part? Or every part, maybe. On Atlantis it would say exsto, not ex, but that could be an abbreviation.”

“No one has every part,” Rush says pensively, turning the square white tile around and around in his hands. “I’m afraid my Ancient vocabulary is somewhat limited.”

“Well, no one has every part,” Sheppard says, but Rush doesn’t seem to get the joke, or he’s gone back to ignoring Sheppard in favor of the puzzle in front of him. Sheppard rolls his eyes and opts to secure the room out of habit, prowling around the grotto’s perimeter and missing his rifle. All he comes up in terms of recon is that there are no exits and he doesn’t know how the light is getting in.

“Do you hear water?” he asks after a while, frowning up at the low curve of the ceiling.

“Almost certainly a negative of some sort,” Rush says absently.

“You don’t hear that?”

“In the puzzle. Three enu, three esp; there’s almost certainly some form of negation.”

“Or you’ve just got a couple third-person verbs with an enu in them,” Sheppard says. “Renet. Menet. Donet. Ponet.

Rush scowls at him. “Yes, all right. I take your point.”

Sheppard crouches down at the far side of the grotto and puts the palm of his hand against the smooth floor, which has the appearance of sanded marble. “Uh,” he says. “Rush—“

“Still, there must be an obvious means through which to establish a portion of the output. We’re not computers, and the number of possible permutations given a string of twenty separate characters is—“

“A little less than two-and-a-half quintillion,” Sheppard says, because he’s already done the calculation in his head. “If you’re just looking at raw permutations, and not taking rules about letter combinations into account.”

Rush turns and stares at him.

Sheppard shrugs.

“You’re in the Air Force,” Rush says disbelievingly. “You shoot things.”

“Yeah,” Sheppard says. “I used to fly helicopters. And planes, sometimes. It was pretty fun.”

“Quite obviously you’re impaired by some sort of emotional damage.”

Sheppard really isn’t ready to go there with Rush, and anyways, there’s something a little bit more urgent they need to be discussing. “What do you say we talk about my emotional damage later,” he says, “because here’s the thing: this place is filling up with water.”

Rush looks down, and lifts one of his boots up. The water that Sheppard had detected as a thin trickle seeping under the far wall has spread to a lapping puddle that splashes in a little in protest when Rush puts his foot back down.

“Fuck,” Rush says.

“Yeah,” Sheppard says.

Rush is still staring at the water. “I don’t—“ he says. “I don’t particularly care for water.”

“Well, maybe we should think about solving that puzzle, then.”

“Yes,” Rush says eventually. “Yes.”

But he doesn’t look up from the water. It’s like he’s paralyzed. So Sheppard takes the tile from his unresisting hand and walks up to the puzzle, tilting his head to consider it, thinking it through.

Donet and ponet are probably the most common,” he says. “Menet’s a little less common, but still up there. I guess it could still be tenet. If no one’s got every part, what does everyone have?”

“Something wrong with them,” Rush says. “Something missing.”

“See, that doesn’t feel very Ancient to me.” Sheppard removes the tiles for tenet and looks at what’s left. “Epnes,” he says. “Everyone. Epnes is the opposite of nemino, but there’s no esk. Epnia, maybe?”

Yes, he thinks. The Ancients wouldn’t say everyone. They’d say everyone-and-thing.

He removes the tiles that spell out epnia.

The water is up over his ankles now, but he ignores it. He’s got pretty good tac boots on. It’s more distracting that the water smells like the sea, briny and wind-chopped and wide-open, in a way that even the ocean back on that cliffs-of-Dover planet hadn’t. It makes him feel like if he could just chip through the walls, maybe Atlantis would be out there. He knows it’s in another galaxy, too far away for him to ever travel except by wormhole, but that’s one of the ways the whole situation fucks with him: Atlantis can be impossibly far away, and yet he’s also part of Atlantis, in a weird way, so wherever he goes, there Atlantis is. The tree sap stretching over distances, holding onto his ankle, where it’s already working on metamorphosing him.

Fuck. Fuck, he misses Atlantis.

Xene,” he says. “Something about a foreigner? Meno? Demo? Everything has what?

“Could there be some sort of proverb?” Rush asks.

“Maybe.” Sheppard puts the stack of tiles down in the water and rubs his hands over his face. “Think,” he says to himself.

He can’t help but think that if he were on Atlantis, the answer would come as easy as breathing. He’d be able to reach down into the parts of himself that aren’t in his body and just sort of wordlessly put the question to them. Then he would feel like, actually, he had always known. And maybe he would have always known. It’s a matter of who you’d be talking about when you said he’d always known it. It’s a matter of where you’d draw the outline around him.

“Everything,” Rush says in a thin voice. He’s got a hand hooked over his shoulder, looking like he’s trying desperately not to pay attention to the water that’s steadily rising up over his legs. “Everything. What does everything have?”

“Honey,” Sheppard guesses. “Mened. No, wait. That’s meled.”

“Of course it’s not fucking honey; why the fuck would it be honey?” Rush looks as though he’d like to throw something at Sheppard, but he settles for splashing his hand angrily against the surface of the water, which he can do without much effort, since by now it’s almost up to his waist. He’s short, of course; he’s going to die first in this room, too, which doesn’t seem quite fair to Sheppard.

But then, maybe Rush was right. None of it’s fair.

“Look,” Sheppard, trying to sound calm and convincing. “I’m trying.”

“Yes, well, perhaps you should stick to playing human calculator. How many permutations have we got left?”

Ten letters. “More than three million,” Sheppard says. “In theory. But I don’t think mxdr is going to end up being part of the solution.”

“Oh, I can think of quite a few people I’d like to mxdr,” Rush says darkly.

“You know, you’re genuinely kind of scary when you say that,” Sheppard tells him.

“Sincerity is the terror of those who take shelter in irony.”

Sheppard barely manages to stop himself from rolling his eyes. “Come on.”

“What?” Rush looks offended.

"Spare me, Dr. Sarcasm. I bet you’ve never said anything sincere in your whole life.”

Rush’s mouth tightens and he looks away abruptly, his jaw working. “Yes, well, fuck you,” he says. “Why don’t you solve the fucking puzzle, if you’re so fucking insightful?”

“I solved half of it already!” Sheppard points at the stack of tiles now totally hidden by water. “Fuck me? Why don’t you do your half? This is a group project!

“I solved the last two puzzles!” Rush says, or really kind of yells, slamming the flat of a hand down against the water that’s starting to lick at his shoulders.

“Not before I got killed a million fucking times!”

Rush makes a hissing sound of frustration. “Oh, spare me your bloody whining. So you died a little; that’s your job!

Sheppard laughs in disbelief. “You know what? Screw you.”

He turns back to the puzzle, which is now about halfway covered with water, and starts trying to piece words together. The letter det could be something, maybe an ablative ending. Moned? Mored? Nemed? None of it seems to mean anything, is the problem. A verb could end in det, but it’d have an alif also, and it’d be in the past tense, and that doesn’t seem to make sense either.

“Sheppard,” Rush says in a panicky voice.

Sheppard ignores him.

“Sheppard!”

Sheppard sighs and turns around again. The water is up over Rush’s shoulders. The ends of Rush’s hair are trailing in it, and Rush is breathing in fast, shaky, nervous pants, obviously freaking out.

“There’s nothing I can do,” Sheppard says, a little apologetic, but also pissed-off. It’s not like Rush is actually going to die, which makes it hard for Sheppard to feel too sorry for him. “I don’t know the answer.”

“You have to do something. You have to.” Rush sounds agonized. “Please. I can't die like this.”

There’s nothing I can do,” Sheppard says again. He’s not not disturbed by something in Rush’s eyes, a raw and unfocused darkness that spits fear and snarls to show animal teeth in its jaws. This, he thinks, is why Rush isn’t sincere. This is what he’s hiding, or what he’s trying to keep kenneled so it can’t do any harm. But instead of course it escapes in sharp pieces, one tooth at a time, and Sheppard’s spent enough time wrestling with his own relatively rat-sized darkness to know that the teeth never run out. “Rush—“ he starts to say, ready to try and talk Rush down a little, because both of them are going to wake up and be fine—

But that’s when Rush jumps him. Or, okay, Rush doesn’t so much jump him as shove him hard against the wall and try to use him as a flotation cushion, clawing Sheppard down into the water so he can climb up onto his shoulders, then fighting Sheppard as Sheppard chokes and lashes out in an effort to get air. Rush kicks him in the ribs and gets a fistful of his hair, giving Sheppard a brief and diamond-sharp moment of insight into the value of the uniform regulations, before trying to wrestle him under again. Sheppard’s bigger and stronger, obviously, but Rush is so goddamn determined, and just merciless. He is not going down. Except both of them are going down, really, because the water’s still rising, which is why this whole thing is fucking stupid, a huge waste of their fucking time, a reckless, idiotic, and clumsy game of chicken fight where the chicken is fighting against itself as it drowns.

And they do drown. Sheppard doesn’t know who drowns first. They’re still fighting when the water fills up the room.

It’s fast after that, but not fast enough.

Fuck, Sheppard thinks resignedly as he watches light drift through the underwater currents, his lungs a solid ache of hysteria at the center of his body. Fuck.

Sheppard wakes up with Rush kneeling over him in the courtyard, so naturally the first thing he does is punch Rush in the face.

“What the fuck?” Rush spits, sent tumbling gracelessly backwards.

“What the fuck?” Sheppard says incredulously. “What the fuck! You tried to drown me!”

Rush looks shifty. “No. I tried to prolong my own access to the puzzle, in the hopes that I could—“

“You asshole!” Sheppard says, and tries to hit him again.

Rush ducks the incoming fist and kicks Sheppard’s feet out from under him, and they squirm around on the blue-and-white tiles flailing at each other for a while. Neither of them really lands a satisfying blow. Eventually Sheppard just grabs Rush by the collar of his oversized jacket and shoves him hard towards the wall.

“I thought we were in this together,” he says, aware that he sounds like a dumbass, or like a girl who’s just been broken up with.

Rush straightens unsteadily, holding a sleeve up to his bloody nose. “I’m not in this with anyone,” he says viciously. “Anyone.”

“Yeah, thanks; you’ve made that pretty fucking obvious!” Sheppard petulantly turns his back on Rush, because, you know, that’ll show him.

There’s a long silence. They avoid looking at each other.

Sheppard says grudgingly, “At least we can solve the puzzle here, and we don’t have to keep dying in that fucking room.”

“I knew you were capable of joining me on the moral high ground,” Rush says, lofty and supercilious.

“Fuck you,” Sheppard says with a disgusted gesture. “Don’t talk me to unless you’re solving the puzzle.”

“Fine,” Rush says. “I won’t.”

“Fine,” Sheppard says. “Good.”

They sit for a while, presumably both thinking about the puzzle.

“Five columns of four letters strikes me as an oddly arbitrary choice,” Rush says. “Neither five nor four is a particularly significant number, insofar as I know.”

Epnia has five letters,” Sheppard says. “So does tenet. And a lot of simple singular verbs.”

“So perhaps we’re looking for four five-letter words.”

Sheppard sighs and rubs a hand through his hair. “But if we have epnia and tenet, then that doesn’t leave a lot of options. Neden’s a word, but that leaves, like, merox and morex, neither of which makes any sense, or—“

“What does neden mean?” Rush asks.

“Like—“ Sheppard gestures. “Doesn’t, or never. Everyone never has something?”

In his peripheral vision, he sees Rush pacing. Sheppard’s heart is still punching hard against the wall of his chest, not quite convinced that he’s not going to start drowning or fighting again at any minute. It’s a fair suspicion, given the way Sheppard’s luck tends to run. Although he doesn’t have a whole lot of experience with drowning, which is funny, given the whole floating city thing.

Floating, he thinks. The Ancients liked water. They liked it as a metaphor. They wrote about it a lot. The floating diadem was one of the things they called Atlantis. The crown that flows with the current and cannot be kept. It can’t be kept because nothing can be kept.

Nothing.

“No one has every part,” Rush said, half to himself. “So what does everyone have?”

“Nothing,” Sheppard says.

“Admittedly nulla is five letters, but we have no latha.

“No, I mean—“ Sheppard gets to his feet, now fisting his hair with both hands, like he’s holding onto the reins of an answer he hasn’t gotten a steady mount on yet. “It’s not tenet. People don’t have things; that’s not how it works. The river of the body, that’s how they talked about it; the enlightened man isn’t anything, so he can’t have anything, either. Xoret; it’s xoret. Everything flows.” And then abruptly he does know the answer. “Everything flows and never remains. Epnia xoret, neden menet.

Rush stares at him. He’s wearing a strange expression.

“It’s a proverb,” Sheppard says, a little impatiently. “It’s the answer. Epnia xoret, neden menet. Everything changes. It never remains what it is, so it replaces itself. It never remains.

“I understand what it means,” Rush says, his voice clipped.

“So… ?” Sheppard is a little irked that Rush doesn’t seem pleased they’ve solved the puzzle. That Sheppard’s solved the puzzle— on his own, pretty much. If Rush is going to be a craven murderer, he could at least be nice when he’s not murdering people.

But all Rush says is: “Yes, yes.” He gestures stiffly to the door. The loose sleeve of his jacket has a dark spot where the lip of it is still stained with his own blood. “Lead the way,” he says, without looking at Sheppard.

Arranging the letters as

EPNIA
XORET
NEDEN
MENET

causes the stone of the grotto to grumble until it gradually hews out an exit: a narrow passageway that seems to head towards the source of the hazy light.

Sheppard is pretty suspicious of the idea that the passageway is actually going to take them anywhere with a real sun, and he heads into the passageway imagining all the fun new ways he and Rush are going to get fucked over this time, so he’s not all that surprised when the passageway doesn’t so much end as sort of gently transition into more passageway, now with smoother and straighter walls. Gradually, the dark gray stone overhead gives way to a starless and moonlight sky. The passageway makes a right-angled turn, then another, then presents an intersection.

“So,” Sheppard says wearily. “Now we’re in a maze, I guess.”

Rush is scrabbling in his pockets, looking a little bit rat-like. The transition between places or dimensions or mental constructs hasn’t done much about the streak of blood on his top lip, or the way his nose is swelling up.

“I haven’t got a pen,” he says distractedly. “Have you got one?”

Sheppard says, “I think I broke your nose.”

“Mm.” Rush is still digging, fretful. “Yes, quite likely.”

“You don’t seem that bothered.” Sheppard reaches into his upper left pocket and hands Rush a Sharpie.

“A due payment duly discharged.” Rush examines the Sharpie and uncaps it. “It’s been done before. Take your coat off.”

“What? No!” Sheppard crosses his arms.

“Well, roll up your sleeves then. We need a map, and I haven’t got any paper.”

“I’m not here to be your substitute paper!” Sheppard says. But he grudgingly rolls up his sleeve and holds out his arm so Rush can mark the start of a map on the back of his wrist. “So what do you figure— are we going to die of starvation, or is a monster going to come along and eat us?”

Rush caps the Sharpie and turns to consider their diverging options. “I suppose we’ll find out shortly.”

“I just figured you’d want to know, so you can plan in advance how to kill me.”

“Oh, please.” Rush’s mouth tightens. “Let’s not exaggerate what was, at most, a minor act of self-preservation.”

“Right. So you’re going to push me in front of the monster, then.” Sheppard pulls out a pencil flashlight and heads down the left passageway. The moonlight is nearly enough to see by, but he distrusts the shadows enough to want to augment it.

There’s something eerie about a night with no stars. Like the whole galaxy’s stopped existing, or the whole universe, maybe, and he and Rush are the only ones who’re left.

The only ones, Sheppard thinks. The thought seems to resonate more than it should in his body, through parts of him that aren’t really or aren’t always him. The echo gets thrown back to him as a whisper. The only ones. The only ones.

There isn’t a monster, as it turns out. It’s just that when they reach a dead end, the equivalent of a ding-dong-you’re-wrong gong gets hit, the sound of which keeps increasing until blood comes out of their ears and their lungs pop in their chests.

“Well,” Sheppard says, the first time they wake up back in the courtyard, “at least no more minor acts of self-preservation are on the menu.”

Rush throws him a frustrated look. “Leave it, won’t you?”

“Probably not.” Sheppard lies on his back and lifts his left arm up, looking at the map that half-covers it. “There’s got to be some kind of trick to this, right? By the way, I’m not taking off my shirt, no matter how nicely you ask me.”

“I never suggested any such thing,” Rush says, a little too sharply, which means he’s either starting to fall apart or he does kind of want Sheppard to take off his shirt.

Sheppard’s used to people wanting him to take his clothes off. Sometimes, yes, even people who’ve tried to murder him. That’s a little weird, maybe— but then, he himself is not exactly normal. He took what he could get for a while, because he was always in war zones. And then at some point he just always felt like he was in a war zone no matter what, like he carried the war zone wherever he went with him, or like the war zone he was living in was himself. So. And then Atlantis, and its never-aloneness. The whole thing of sex is that at some point you’re supposed to find someone you can be naked with. But now no one can ever really see every part of him. He’s okay with that, mostly. He hadn’t wanted them to before. So it’s not like he’s lost anything.

He looks at Rush. Rush’s nose is turning dark blue, and definitely bent.

“Perhaps you can simply perform your trademark magic trick of thinking very hard at objects until they do what you ask them,” Rush says snidely. And then he tosses his hair back and actually lifts his battered little nose in the air. Sheppard’s never seen someone do it. He didn’t think people did do it. He thought it was something that only happened in books.

“Perhaps I can,” he says, and stretches his arms luxuriously out above his his head, filing away the almost-imperceptible glance Rush darts at him.

They die four more times in pretty quick succession.

Rush takes it harder each time— not the dying part, but the neverending loop between maze and courtyard.

The fourth time is when he finally snaps. They wake back up to the implacable fucking babble of the fountain, which by now Sheppard would really like to bulldoze into the fucking ground with a layer of salt over it. Rush curls up into a tight little knot of a person before wrenching himself to his feet with an incomprehensible Scottish swearword and hurling his whole body at one of the walls, pounding his fists against it.

“Easy there,” Sheppard says, a little alarmed.

“I’d rather fucking die!” Rush spits out, his voice ragged. His whole body’s tense and vibrating like a piece of metal when you whack it with a hammer, and he’s managed to scrape the back of his hands raw. “I’d rather fucking die than have to keep doing this over and fucking over. It’s all a maze. All of it. It’s all just separate rooms of the same long fucking for-their-amusement fucking maze.”

“Maybe that’s part of the test,” Sheppard says. He could approach Rush, but he thinks: better not. He keeps his distance.

Rush closes his eyes and doubles over, folding his arms on top of his head. “How long,” he asks after a pause, “ do you think we’ve been in here?”

Sheppard doesn’t answer. After a while, he rummages in one of the pockets of his jacket. He holds up a bar of chocolate. “I think you need a snack,” he says.

On their next go they manage to stay alive for a while, to the point that Sheppard has to ditch his jacket and roll his t-shirt sleeve up above his shoulder. At first he enjoys watching Rush flush when he has to notate a new part of the maze on Sheppard’s bicep. But after a while, as the map extends over his collarbone— he shrugs the shirt off one shoulder, probably stretching it out forever, assuming that its location on the spectrum of reality is one where he has to worry about shit like stretching it out— even that gets tired, or Sheppard does.

“I do get it, you know,” he says, when they’ve stopped for a morose little moonlight picnic of lukewarm canteen water and SGC-brand protein bars. “I can’t die in here. I’ve got a city to get back to.”

“That’s very, uh.” Sheppard searches for the word. “Heteronormative of you.”

Rush coughs up water. “Heteronormative?

“Well, I was gonna say straight, but then it kind of sounded like something that only someone who…” He trails off and shrugs.

Rush gives him a look. “And you, of course, are not someone who…?”

Sheppard opts for an enigmatic smile. He pops a piece of protein bar in his mouth.

Rush, when he realizes Sheppard isn’t going to answer his question, just rolls his eyes.

“You, though,” Sheppard says. He gestures with his canteen at the gold band on Rush’s left hand. “You’ve got a wife.”

Rush glances down at the ring. “Very heteronormative of you,” he says.

“No. Just— it wouldn’t be legal in Colorado.”

“Ah.”

Sheppard says, “For whatever’s that worth.”

There’s a long pause.

Rush takes a sip of water.

Sheppard’s about to change the subject when Rush says flatly, “I had a wife.”

Sheppard glances at him and doesn’t say anything.

Rush closes his hand into a fist. He’s still staring down at the thin line of gold on his finger. Then abruptly he stands up, rips the ring viciously off, and hurls it over the high gray walls of the maze: a tiny spinning meteor-speck against the empty-except-for-the-moon stretch of the sky. It disappears, but Sheppard doesn’t see it falling. There’s no sound to indicate where it lands, so maybe it doesn’t land. Maybe it spins forever. Maybe it’s still out there. A meteor that grazes the atmosphere and keeps going on its path.

Rush is facing away from Sheppard, so Sheppard can’t see his expression.

“I have nothing,” Rush says in a tightly controlled voice, holding his hands knotted at his sides. “Nothing to get back to. Nothing that is holding me back.”

He stalks forward without a further glance at Sheppard, and they die not long after that.

“Everyone has something they want to get back to,” Sheppard says on their next go-round, as they’re picking their way between the aircraft-hangar-colored walls under the hyper-critical eye of the moon. “I mean, I’m a kind of hypocrite for saying that, I guess, since I bailed on Earth for Atlantis, but—

“I don’t,” Rush says tersely.

“So— what? We just die in here, and that’s fine with you?”

“I don’t think I’m likely to have an opinion on the matter, as I’ll be dead.”

“Yeah, but there’s gotta be someone who would miss you. I mean, me, when I went to Atlantis, most of my guys were dead, but that’s—“ For some weird reason it’s kind of seizing up his chest, thinking about Mitch and Dex and Holland, the way it hasn’t done in a long time. He clears his throat. “It’s— you know— occupational hazard. And you’re kind of an asshole, but still, I bet there’s someone.

Rush abruptly wheels on Sheppard. “Oh, and I suppose your city would miss you if you died now, would it? Your city cares whether you live or die?”

Sheppard’s taken aback. He considers it for a second. “Yeah,” he says honestly. “I think it would. It does. Not— you know— the same way as a person, but—“ He moves his hand in a halting, useless gesture.

Rush makes a cutting sound of condescension. “You don’t really believe that.”

Sheppard looks at him. Rush is breathing hard, body tilted slightly forward in a way that’s aggressive, like he trying to pick a fight, like he wants Sheppard to hit him again. The bruise from where Sheppard hit him the first time has spread into a moody crescent along the orbital bone, so it looks like the reverse of a black eye.

“I don’t know why you’re here,” Sheppard says. “If you don’t believe that. And you know what? I think that they won’t know why you’re here, either. The Ancients. Whoever and whatever you think they are.”

“Fuck you,” Rush spits at him. “You think I can’t do this? You think they’re going to stop me? Nothing is going to stop me.”

Sheppard shakes his head, grinning the kind of grin that means he doesn’t really think something’s funny. “I think I’m glad that at least when I die here, something out there’s going to notice.”

They don’t talk for more than hour after that. And then they die.

“There’s got to be some kind of trick,” Sheppard says tiredly, picking himself up off the tiled floor of the courtyard. “It doesn’t make sense otherwise; it’s— mmph!

He staggers back into the wall as Rush slams into him, seizes two fistfuls of his shirt, and kisses him.

It figures that being kissed by Rush is a lot like getting punched in the mouth repeatedly. Still, it’s pretty fun; no one’s touched Sheppard in a while, because he used to mostly go for casual hookups, and it’s hard to do those anywhere but Earth. Everything on Atlantis is so serious; you have sex, and then suddenly the other person’s MIA, or you’re MIA, or the whole city’s about to be nuked from orbit, and no one really knows how they’re supposed to feel. Plus the whole gay thing, and rank, and Rush is warm and small and sharp-featured and practically shaking with pent-up nerves, and when he sticks a hand up under Sheppard’s shirt, Sheppard sucks in a breath and just goes with it, because it feels really, really good.

And he goes with it when Rush starts peeling his shirt off, because at that point Rush is mouthing hotly at his neck. Sheppard thinks vaguely that it’s just his style to finally get lucky in some kind of trans-spatial interdimensional Ancient courtyard on a break from dying in various horrible ways, but, you know, he’s not saying no, even when his shirt ends up in the fountain because Rush threw it over his shoulder without pausing to look.

But that’s about when all the warm-good-kissing-touching-yes-thumbs-up-all-on-board-with-this stops.

Sheppard blinks dazedly at the blue sky.

Rush is still very much there, pressed up against him, hands against his naked shoulders, but he’s— not doing anything.

“Uh,” Sheppard says.

“No,” Rush says, and shoves Sheppard’s face to the side without looking up. “Don’t talk right now. I’m thinking.”

“Yeah, but a minute ago you were doing something else.”

Rush ignores him. He’s subjecting Sheppard’s shoulder to a ferocious inspection— the shoulder with the Sharpie map drawn across it.

Sheppard lets his head thud against the wall. He says resignedly, “I knew it was a bad idea to take my shirt off.”

“Yes, yes,” Rush says absently. He traces part of the map with one finger, which makes Sheppard shiver, and then shiver again. “It repeats,” Rush says.

“—What?” Sheppard says, swallowing.

“The map. Parts of the map repeat. But we’re clearly not going in circles; we’ve tried marking our path.”

They had. It had used up a whole power bar. That had been when Rush was still in his I-would-rather-die-than-consume-industrially-produced-American-so-called-foodstuffs phase, before he got hungry and decided that industrially produced American so-called foodstuffs were okay by him.

“So—“ Sheppard frowns, trying to think. It’s not easy when Rush is still right there, so he shoves Rush away.

“What are you doing?” Rush demands, looking irritated.

“What do you think I’m doing? Put up or shut up, or maybe I should say: put out or get shut out.” Sheppard tries to get a good look at his shoulder.

Rush is looking sulky. “I sincerely doubt that you are going to perceive any element that I’ve managed to overlook.”

“Yeah? I’m about to blow your mind, Einstein. Why would a maze repeat?”

Rush looks sulkier, and crosses his arms. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“What would be the utility for a maze? What sorts of things repeat?”

Rush glares at him and doesn’t say anything.

Fractals,” Sheppard says. “Fractals repeat. And if you keep on going inside a fractal—“

“—You don’t get anywhere,” Rush says, with dawning comprehension. “You simply go further and further in.”

“We have to find a route that avoids the smaller parts of the fractal. Maybe we can map it out on you for a change,” Sheppard says. “You can see how it feels. Speaking of which, grab me my—“

Aspects of the shirt-in-the-fountain situation that hadn’t seemed immediately relevant a few minutes ago suddenly seem very relevant indeed.

“Oh, fuck you,” he says, eyeing Rush in exasperation. “For real?”

Rush is, not surprisingly, unrepentant. “I think you’ll find we’re both adults, and capable of accepting responsibility for our own items of clothing,” he says, tossing his hair back.

Which is how Sheppard ends up bare-chested in just Rush’s camo jacket, drawing a route through six levels of fractal down the soft white flesh of Rush’s inner arm. And if he has to stop himself, now and then, from letting his eyes wander where they don’t need to, or brushing the pad of his thumb against a stretch of unmarked skin— if he thinks, with a sense of preemptive weariness, that it’s going to be hell getting turned on by the smell of Sharpies after this— then it’s a secret he would never tell to anybody except maybe the thermostats and transporters and water filtration systems of Atlantis, who have no human frame of reference, after all, and don’t need him to fit the excruciating sensation into words.

“I would, you know,” Sheppard says.

Rush throws him a harried look. “You would what? Fuck me? Feed me breakfast in the morning?”

Sheppard shrugs. “Yeah. I don’t know. Either. Both, I guess. But you don’t really seem like a breakfast guy, and I’m not on Earth much.”

It’s maybe not the most ideal time to be having this conversation, since they’re currently suspended in midair over a pitch-black pit, with only a transparent octagonal tile of glass separating the soles of their boots from the unpleasantly solid and rocky ground that’s waiting to slice-and-dice a human stew out of them. Well— technically, there are a lot of glass tiles, all of them forming a bridge from the door where Sheppard and Rush entered to the door where Sheppard and Rush would really like to exit. The trouble is that most of these glass tiles aren’t really what you would call solid, as Sheppard and Rush have already discovered on their first attempt to walk over the bridge.

“Still,” Sheppard says, “I—“

Rush holds up a distracted hand. “Shh. Did you hear that?”

Sheppard stops and listens. “Hear what?” All he can hear are pebbles rattling somewhere, unseen in the darkness. One skips off several panels of glass up ahead and bounces further down into the canyon.

“That,” Rush breathes. “That.” He turns to Sheppard. “Have you got any coins?”

“What?”

Idiot. Coins!” Rush snaps his fingers. “Loose coins, pocket change!”

Sheppard makes a resentful face at him. “Well, yeah, but you’re gonna have to pay me back. You know every time I come back from Atlantis I find out that my money’s worth less and less?”

Rush takes the change and ignores the comment. He pitches a quarter at one of the pieces of glass nearest to them, tilting his head with a look of concentration, as though he’s listening to something. Then he takes another quarter and does it again, this time aiming for a different panel. Then a third one.

“I can’t hear anything,” Sheppard says. “Are you sure you’re—“

Yes,” Rush says impatiently. “Come on, it’s this one.”

Before Sheppard can stop him, he steps sure-footed to the leftmost panel— then looks over his shoulder with a huff of frustration, as though amazed that Sheppard isn’t already following him.

Sheppard looks down dubiously at the panels. “Okay,” he says. “But I gotta say, I didn’t really love breaking both of my shin bones the first time.”

Rush must know what he’s talking about, though, because the glass holds up underneath Sheppard. He stands and watches as Rush repeats his skipping-stones maneuver, this time tossing little glittering dimes out into the dark. Sheppard hears the coins hit the glass, but there’s nothing special about the noise. It’s just that: a noise, cheap coins rattling against a surface.

Rush, though— Rush is pale and hypnotized, staring out over the flat glass vista with eyes that seem oddly unprotected. Sheppard doesn’t know exactly what he means by that. Maybe only that Rush is usually all spikes and sharp edges, not so much a miniature Humvee of a man as something bristlier and more lethal that’s learned not to have to steamroll you to survive. You assume there’s something there that needs protecting, something desirable and rare and a little bit fragile that the rest has evolved around. He’d thought he’d seen that in Rush when Rush was drowning. But he hadn’t. It’s this: yet another deeper-down level, as dark as the one above it, but not as violent; a splinter of lodestone searching for its magnetic pole, longing to be skewered by the lines of invisible forces that would lend it some kind of purpose.

But at what cost?

At the cost of losing itself.

“Rush,” Sheppard says.

Rush doesn’t seem to hear him.

Rush.

Rush blinks, startled, and almost loses his balance. “Yes. Sorry. I’m—“ He looks down, uncertainly, at the fistfuls of coins he carries in his hands. “I’m—“

Sheppard looks at him for a while. “What are you listening to?” he says at last.

“Nothing. It’s nothing.” Rush shakes his head. “This is the right way. I’m certain.”

He steps forward, onto another panel of glass. And it is the right way, and it keeps being the right way, but it also keeps getting harder and harder for Sheppard to snap Rush out of whatever trance he’s falling into, like he’s disappearing as they approach the outline of a door on the far side. Sheppard keeps his eyes fixed on the intersecting bars of light that form that outline, but he starts talking to Rush, casual-like, to try and keep him in his body, a long stream-of-consciousness ramble about the project he’s working on at Area 51, and the remote control drones he’s taking back to Atlantis so he and McKay can turn them into battlebots, and the surfing club he’s trying to start with Ronon, who turned out to be a pretty good surfer once he got the hang of it.

“You should come to Atlantis,” he says. “Not— I’m not saying that like a sex thing. I mean, we could if you wanted.”

It’s hard to imagine having sex with this version of Rush, though. In some ways there’s something about him that’s more appealing— who wouldn’t want to touch the thing that no one gets to touch? But at the same time there’s nothing physical left in him. Nothing human.

“I don’t really do relationships, though,” Sheppard says. “I strictly love ’em and leave ’em. Well. Really they mostly leave me. That might be because I spend part of my time being a million-year-old city, sort of. I don’t know. I’ve never asked. Still—“

They’ve reached the other side of the pit. Sheppard steps off the glass, and onto the thin ledge of solid ground.

Rush just stands there, staring at the door like he doesn’t see it. His pupils have dilated, so his eyes look almost all black.

Sheppard reaches out and catches his hand. “Still,” he says. “You should come to Atlantis. I think you should come to Atlantis. Get away from—“

He doesn’t know what to say.

He pulls Rush forward, and pushes them both through the door.

As soon as the door closes behind them, Rush heaves a huge breath and folds his arms over his head. He looks agonized, or relieved, or somewhere in between the two options.

“I can’t—“ he says. “I can’t hear it, but I can still— it’s still there, the crack, it hasn’t sealed up; I can hear it; I could hear all of it if I just went back, if I—“

“Nope,” Sheppard says, taking him by the shoulders and steering him away from the door, which, anyways, has vanished, so there’s no going back, no matter how much Rush wants to. “I think we’re going to chill here for a while. Solve a new puzzle. That seems like a much better idea.”

“You don’t understand,” Rush says, trying to wrench away from him.

Sheppard does understand. He knows the invitation. It’s in the walls and circuitry and in his bedroom, in his bed. In the gate and in the ZPMs and in the jumpers, a subliminal hum of promise: you could be more than this. More than that: you could be more because you’re not like the others. The warp to his being, the existential wrongness that put him on the outskirts, made him a ghost-figure that other people wished would go away— it turned into a gift, the opportunity for a not-aloneness that was not what he had wanted, but something more than he could have hoped for. All he had to do was open a door that he’d long ago let rust over. But he wasn’t— really sure that he wanted to do that. Little by little he let the city take pieces of him; let it seep into him, annexing underlevels, like the sea on which it floated. Someday maybe there would be this… consummation. But not yet.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s just do the puzzle. I want to get out of here. I’ve got a city waiting. Remember?”

Rush seems to accept this. He at least lets Sheppard lead him to the center of the room.

It’s a more-or-less ordinary room. Kind of dark, with rosy light flickering out of cup-shaped fixtures at each corner. The walls are stone, but feel like adobe; the whole vibe reminds Sheppard of some place out in Santa Fe. He’s pretty sure a place out in Santa Fe wouldn’t have eight doors set into it, though, even if the doors are made of scrubby dark Southwestern-looking wood. Probably it also wouldn’t be empty except for a single wooden table with a large, irregularly-shaped, crystal box that’s set on top of it.

Sheppard reaches out cautiously and pokes the box with a single finger. He can tell it’s a box because it has keyholes— eight keyholes— but otherwise it doesn’t look much like a box. It reminds him of a ZPM, the way a ZPM’s sort of flame-shaped, if you could freeze a flame in action and hold it in your hands from blue base to smoky tip But a ZPM’s red and gold and all colors, and this has no color to it at all. Like ice, marred only by the dark teardrops of the keyholes, forming a delicate oval shape.

Sheppard says, “At a guess, we’re supposed to unlock it. I’m assuming the keys are behind those doors.”

He looks at the eight doors with no small amount of trepidation. He’s also assuming that whatever’s going to kill him and Rush this time is behind them.

But when he and Rush try the first door, it doesn’t go anywhere fatal. Actually, what happens is definitely weirder: Sheppard turns its centered handle, and it creaks gently open to reveal a cloudy sky over a pasture, kempt green grass wet and backed by rolling hills.

The quality of green is familiar, and the foliage, and the white fence in the distance. Even the smell is familiar: pine trees after a rainstorm and churned-up turf. If they walked through the door and to the left, they’d find the tan rocky streak of a trail through the forest, edged with wildflowers and studded with horse shit. To the right and eventually they’d get to where the house is, rustic and painted the same white as the fence, with a swimming pool the color of an artificial diamond. At night the pool had glowed outside of Sheppard’s window. He doesn't remember anyone ever being allowed to swim in it.

“I don’t understand,” Rush says uncertainly. He’s standing just next to Sheppard. He stretches his hand through the doorway and catches a fistful of Virginia raindrops, then cautiously draws them back in. In the adobe room, his hand is still full of raindrops.

“It’s a memory,” Sheppard says. “It’s where I grew up.”

Rush’s perplexed frown deepens. “This is where you grew up?”

“One of the places,” Sheppard says. He walks through the door without much fanfare, out of the room and into the chilly haze of mist.

It’s as beautiful as he doesn’t remember. He’d thought about that when he and Ronon went back, after his dad died— that it was beautiful, and he hadn’t remembered it as beautiful. He thinks that part of real beauty, maybe, is something you can’t quite manage to lay a hand on, a vanishing-point that’s always a little bit out of your reach. When he was a kid, everything seemed controlled. People came to do the cleaning, so dust never gathered. Gardeners gardened, so the grass never seemed to grow. He wore a uniform at school, so he didn’t even pick his own clothing. And the uniform was always cleaned and pressed and laid out for him. He’d felt like the navy blazer: flattened to perfection, every wrinkled part of him a flaw waiting to be burned away.

What had surprised him, when he’d shown up to his dad’s funeral, was how much life had always been there, a half-inch to the left or under the surface. He hadn’t known how to look for it when he was a kid. So many secretly anarchic corners: a spiderweb glistening under the ledge of a barn window, clotted birds’ nests on a chimney, fat mushrooms whose fast spread signaled thousands of buried roots. There was a tool shed where the gardeners kept broken things, and things that were dirty. Cracked pottery planters, and stringy bulbs like shriveled witch-hearts, and rusted shears, and shovels caked in mulch.

He’d gone in there for a minute. This place he’d never known existed. It had smelled old, and warm, and dusty, and mildew-y, and good. He had closed his eyes, and breathed the scent in. This is where I belong, he’d thought. Here, with the broken things.

Now he sees it all around him, walking through this memory-landscape. The mud, the scuff-marks, the small imperfections, the native weeds spitting mouthfuls of themselves up where they can.

He thinks he knows what the point of this memory is, so he’s not surprised when he reaches the paddock and sees a dappled mare grazing in it. He folds his arms on the rail and leans forward, watching her.

“My wife’s family owned horses,” Rush says, a little haltingly, from beside him. “I’m afraid I never saw the attraction.”

“Animals are easier than people,” Sheppard says.

Rush looks at him quizzically.

“You don’t have to—“ Sheppard says and shrugs.

“Yeah,” Sheppard says. “That.” He watches the mare flick her ears. “That’s Millie.”

“Millie?”

“Short for Millennium Falcon. My dad sold her when I was twelve because she had bucked shins. He said she’d never be a champion. But me— I was just a stupid kid. I loved her. First time in my life I ever had something that—“ He stops. His mouth works, trying to find the right words. “I could love her,” he says at last, “and I didn’t have to worry about her loving me back. Everyone else wanted something from me. But not her. She just wanted me to love her.”

Rush doesn’t say anything.

They stand in the light rain and watch the horse. Millie.

Eventually, Rush says, “There’s a key on a string around her neck.”

“Yeah,” Sheppard says in a cracked voice. “I saw. I just—“

“Ah,” Rush says.

So they stay like that for another minute, before Sheppard swings himself over the fence into the paddock and takes the key, stopping only to touch the warm soft expanse of Millie’s nose for a second, and feel her whicker against the palm of his hand.

Before they try the second door, Rush stops Sheppard, looking uneasy. “I should warn you,” he says, “if each of these doors represents a memory, that there are—“ He looks away, the line of his mouth going flat. “Not everyone grew up in an American fucking recreation of Brideshead Revisited.”

But actually the place where they end up looks way more like Brideshead Revisited than northern Virginia ever could. It’s all old stone buildings, really old, the yellowy sort of old that’s well-cared-for, and touched by hundreds and hundreds of years of hands. Sheppard and Rush are standing in some little pie slice of garden, a patch of green between a crumbling wall and what might be a church, with spires and domes and types of rooftops that Sheppard doesn’t know the name for filling the white sky over them.

Rush is staring at the church-looking building, but he glances abruptly away when he sees Sheppard eyeing him. His arms come up across his chest defensively. “Admiring the fine architecture of St. John’s College?” he says, arch and bitter.

“Uh—“ Sheppard says. “I guess.”

“I was a student here,” Rush says.

He turns his back on the whole scene and walks over to the crumbling wall, kneeling down to pry at a loose brick down near the bottom.

“Buried treasure, huh?” Sheppard says.

Rush has to work hard to get the brick free. “I used to keep a packet of fags and a lighter here.”

“I get it. Sneaking a quick smoke when you got bored during really long lectures?”

“No.” Rush doesn’t elaborate. He digs the brick out of the wall and holds it for a second, consideringly, like he’s taking its weight into account, or inspecting it for signs of the quarry it was chipped from. After a while he hurls it away, but without much force, so that it thuds limply in the wet grass.

Rush doesn’t turn around. He lets his hands rest on his lap. “They would play a game,” he says in a halting, constrained voice. “Whenever I had to give an answer in class. One of them would say that he hadn’t heard me properly, and could I please repeat it. And then: could I please repeat it again. And: could I repeat it again. You got points, you see, for every time I had to repeat what I’d been saying. That was how the game was played. It was a joke. Because of my accent. If I refused, they would say I was being disruptive. I couldn’t hit them, because it was just—“ He gestures limply.

Sheppard doesn’t say anything.

“—What they wanted,” Rush finishes. He sounds exhausted. “It would have proved— but at the same time I— Nine times. Nine times, they managed once. I don’t even remember what it was I was saying. Something about the theorem of Liouville, I think. The tutor must have known. But he did nothing. In the end I would just— leave. I’d come out here and kick the wall. I kicked it till the brick came loose. Just— you know. Day after day. And then I liked the idea that there was at least a brick’s worth of space in the whole of Oxford that was mine. I was the only one who knew it was there; I was the one who’d made it.”

He reaches forward into the gap where the brick had been and stands. In his clenched fist is a scrap of red ribbon with a key dangling from the end of it.

“Stupid, really,” he says, staring at the key with a perplexed expression. “I’d had worse; they didn’t even hit me. It would have been beneath them to hit me. I doubt it even occurred to them. So why do you suppose…?”

He looks at Sheppard like he’s honestly expecting an answer. He’s confused; he wants to understand.

Sheppard reaches out and takes the key. His hand covers Rush’s for a minute.

“Come on,” he says, something in him aching. “Let’s get out of here.”

They go to a Wraith ship, where Sheppard leads Rush down dark hallways to take a key from one of the desiccated hands of Colonel Sumner’s husk— a corpse with eyes that almost look living, which was the part Sheppard hadn’t been able to stand, the part that still sometimes wakes him in up in a cold sweat. That the line was that thin, the barrier so collapsible, that there was so little difference between living and dead that sometimes you couldn’t know which one was which, or what was better.

Sumner crumbles to dust when Sheppard touches him. Sheppard flinches.

“I retract my statement about our comparative memories,” Rush says.

And, sure enough, Rush’s next memory is perfectly nice. Sort of suburban. The type of pretty-but-not-too-cookie-cutter house that you just know has all the latest appliances and a chic garden, maybe with a fruit tree. Something about the sunlight makes Sheppard thinks they’re in California, but Rush doesn’t comment on their location, and the look on his face warns Sheppard not to ask.

Inside, it’s just as stylish as Sheppard had expected. Clean and very minimalist. Rush navigates the halls at a brusque, businesslike speed, exactly the right pace not to give the impression that he wants to stop and look at the photographs on the walls, or that he’s specifically avoiding them. Well, presumably he’s seen them before, the photos, especially since he’s in them— him and the blonde woman who Sheppard’s guessing is his wife, in various fancy outfits: him in a crooked bowtie and tuxedo, with a bemused expression; her in a cabernet taffeta sheath dress; her in dramatic black and white, with a lily sewn into her hair; him with the buttons done up lopsided on the vest of his three-piece suit.

On the piano in the office that Rush leads Sheppard into, there’s a smaller picture of Rush in a frame. His hair’s a bird’s nest and he’s wearing a shapeless brown sweater. He’s balancing a laptop computer on his knees and he’s just looked up. The photographer has captured him in the moment of recognizing her face, everything tender in him rushing forwards for that one-instant reaction, before he can hide any of it again.

Sheppard thinks of Rush hurling his wedding ring into the starless sky, and finds it hard to look at the picture.

On the other side of the room, Rush lifts a glossy violin out of its velvet-lined case. Without any particular appearance of emotion, he jerks the violin back as though to smash it.

“Don’t!” Sheppard says, without even really thinking about it.

Rush flicks a flat, incurious glance at him. “This is where the key will be,” he says. “Trust me.”

“Yeah, but— you can just shake it out. Like a guitar, when you drop a pick in.” Sheppard reaches out for the violin. “You don’t have to break it.”

Rush doesn’t want to give him the violin at first. He pulls it away protectively, a gesture that’s kind of odd for someone who was going to turn the thing to splinters in the first place. But after the first hesitation, he lets Sheppard take it from him.

Sheppard cradles the little neck in one hand. There’s a thin smear of white dust across the violin’s narrow middle; it comes off on his finger when he touches it. It smells sweet. He turns the instrument over carefully. He can feel the key sliding around against the wood of its belly. He tries coaxing it out, tilting the violin this way and that till a loop of ribbon falls through one of the f-holes. Then he can fish the key out.

He hands the violin back to Rush. But now Rush doesn’t want to take it. Sheppard has to basically put it in his hands, and when he does, instead of putting it back into its case, Rush just stands there holding it like someone would hold a child they hadn’t trusted themselves to be given, something fragile and intensely loved and alive. There’s no particular expression on his face, nothing at all.

Finally he puts it down and turns his back on the case and on the music stand beside it, the pages of music taped together and annotated in pencil by a very small precise script, the bookshelves of scores and vinyl albums worn soft at the edges.

They leave the house as briskly as they came. Once they’re outside, in the sunshine, Rush stops for a second, suddenly breathing hard.

In a clipped voice, and without looking at Sheppard, he says, “I preferred the maze.”

Sheppard’s next memory is a fucking helicopter crash in a war zone. But he’s already relived this memory, back on M1B-129, so it doesn’t have the same force, or at least it shouldn’t, or at least he should know how to handle to force it has, but he still ends up down on his knees in the goddamn desert, with his hands pressed to Holland’s leg, even though Holland’s dead already, empty-eyed under his shaggy, sandy hair.

“I’m sorry,” Rush says quietly, from where he’s crouched in the lee of the low rocky hillside, sheltering from the dust getting spun up by the wind.

“Yeah, well,” Sheppard says. “It was a long time ago.” But he can’t seem to get up and leave Holland’s body, even after taking the key that was closed in the palm of Holland’s hand. “They should have told you,” he says eventually. “They should have warned you. I’m the guy who doesn’t bring my team back. That’s why I liked Antarctica. At least when I fucked up, I didn’t leave any bodies behind me.”

“I’ve left my fair share of bodies behind me,” Rush says. For some reason he’s staring down at the motionless palm of his hand. “Not, perhaps, so many as you.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“No. Of course it doesn’t.” Rush scrubs his palm restlessly against the cotton camo of his BDUs and looks away. “Life finds a way. Isn’t that the line? It’s not a curse or a punishment, or even a reward— to keep living. What can live lives, in a universe that steadily, overwhelmingly, devouringly does not want it to survive. Biology: a big fuck-you to the radio silence of the cosmos. So you pick up and move on, because you’re a minuscule fleck of organic engine, and it doesn’t mean anything. Nothing does. In the end.”

Sheppard squints at him through the heavy layers of sunlight.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Rush says again.

“Liar,” Sheppard says.

But he stands up, and they pick their way back towards the doorway. Because there’s nothing else they can do. Because they’re alive.

Sheppard watches Rush beat the shit out of a portable radio in a pocket-sized kitchen with empty cabinets, where mildew is visibly eating enormous patches into the wallpaper’s sickly-flower print. A TV in the living room blares a staticky sitcom laugh track to an empty couch with continents of burn marks from the years of cigarettes that’ve have deposited a vague sticky brownish stain on every surface. The thin carpet stinks of beer. There’s a rickety coffee table in front of the TV, covered in ashtrays, but no other furniture in the room, and nothing— not a photo, not a flag, not a a Led Zeppelin poster or painting of Jesus or Mary or Joseph— on any of the scuffed-up apartment walls. The closest thing to decoration Sheppard sees is out in the hallway of the building, where someone, or maybe a combinations of authors, has or have scrawled NO CUNTS    SUCK COCK   and EAT (susie mccabes) SHIT beside the busted elevators, with a drawing of a dick. He thinks about the stylish house in California, with its stainless steel, high-tech kitchen. The perfectly framed and spaced rows of photos, the crooked bowtie on their boyish, startled, almost bashful version of Rush.

In the kitchen, Rush finally succeeds in smashing the radio to pieces.

“Got it,” he says, emerging breathless with the key. He looks slightly feral. There’s something nervous and almost hunted about his eyes. “It was wired into the transistor. I’ve been wanting to gi’ that thing a tan for years. Years. It’s like a dream come true, this. I’m tempted to take that bat to the bloody television as well, just for the sheer fucking satisfaction. I could take it all apart, all of it. Brick by fucking brick.”

His accent’s gotten stronger since they showed up here.

“Let’s not forget what we came here for,” Sheppard says, feeling a little uneasy. He doesn’t think he likes this version of Rush.

Rush touches the knuckles of one fist to the wall, just lightly, like he’s measuring how they fit against it. There’s a shadowy dent a little bit higher-up, about the size and shape of his hand. It looks like the high water mark of a flood, the permanent reminder of how close to drowning you’d gotten.

Rush says, “As if I could forget.”

“I don’t know where the key is,” Sheppard says, frowning, when they cross through the seventh doorway.

He knows exactly where they are; they’re in his apartment on Earth. Well, the last apartment he had on Earth, before he stole a jumper and headed for Atlantis, and everyone sort of just tacitly acknowledged that he wasn’t planning on ever really coming back. It’s the only place he’s ever lived in Colorado Springs, and it sums up everything he hates about the place: a cute, cosy two-bedroom with a little balcony, designed for the white bread suburban couple with family plans. He could imagine exactly the kind of person who was supposed to live here: some kind of desk jockey Lieutenant Colonel, probably, with a pregnant wife and a passion for outdoor sports. Saturdays he’d go mountain biking with his buddies, and Sundays hit the local megachurch to feel better about himself for having helped send asshole kids to Afghanistan, where the medevac chopper would get shot down trying to rescue them from a bunch of orphaned goatherders for whom America might as well have been the moon.

I’m that guy now, Sheppard had thought to himself. I might as well be that guy. He’d bought an IKEA showroom and tacked his Johnny Cash poster over his bed, and fell asleep feeling like someone had cut off his hand— a feeling he’d only be able to identify later, when someone did (sort of) cut off his hand, and the confusion he felt was familiar. Why am I a different shape now? Why don’t I know my own body? Why can’t I touch things the way I want to touch them? Why don’t they touch me back?

“This isn’t a significant location?” Rush asks. He crosses the room to the kitchen counter and wrinkles his nose at a red Solo cup that probably still has a half-inch of rum and Coke in it.

“No, it is. But I—“ Sheppard struggles to explain. “It’s what’s not here,” is what he comes up with. “Atlantis. I lived here when that ship of Dark Ages Ancients showed up and wanted to take Atlantis. We got sent to Earth. I thought it was all over. I thought—“

When he tries to remember what it’d felt like, he has to turn away from Rush and face the balcony, chewing his lip and curling his hands at his sides.

“I always thought I would die there,” he says. “That’s how it’s supposed it work, when you find the thing you’re for. You go through the wardrobe, they’re not supposed to send you back. Not like that. Not… They were still gonna let me go offworld sometimes, but I’d come home to this goddamn apartment in Colorado, where everything around me felt… dead.”

“Is there something you’re supposed to smash, do you think?” Rush asks. “It certainly sounds as though that’s what you ought to have been doing. Some Air Force general’s face, perhaps.”

“That’s not how it works,” Sheppard says.

“Isn’t it? I’ve found it remarkably effective when it comes to getting my way since my induction into the Stargate Program.”

“Jesus, what is it with you, anyway? You don’t have to attack everything you encounter.” Sheppard makes a irritated sound. “Plus, I wouldn’t exactly call a broken nose getting your way.

Rush ignores him, although he does touch to the blue-black underside of his eye with a grimace. “It works,” he says. “I regret not trying it in academia when I had the chance.”

“Well, in the Air Force you have to eat it,” Sheppard says tersely. “You learn that early. Just— swallow it down. It’s better if you’re the one who’s hurting, at least if nobody can see it. I was really bad at that.”

“—Ah,” Rush says, in a different voice, kind of strange. When Sheppard looks at him, he’s staring at the floor with an expression of distant concentration, like he’s thinking about something else and seeing it there.

That’s frustrating to Sheppard, a little bit. This is his memory, he thinks. It's important.

“I’ve never smashed anything,” he says, hearing the echo of anger in his voice. “I didn’t get to. And it wouldn’t have done any good, anyway; I wanted to smash the shit out of everything around me, but I knew— there was nothing inside any of it that mattered; that was the problem. There was nothing inside it; there was no key; there was no magic solution. If I was going to start smashing things, I would’ve had to smash myself first.”

And then he chokes and coughs, a long hacking cough, because something’s stuck in his airway. He coughs and coughs until he feels like he’ll never breathe again, and tastes metal at the back of his mouth, and when at last he sucks in a long gasp of air, he’s holding a small key in his hand.

The last door brings them to another apartment. This one’s in Colorado Springs, too, judging by the ridge of mountains Sheppard can see through the windows. But it’s not a place he recognizes. He figures maybe it belongs to Rush, although it’s not really Rush’s style, with the leather couch and the plasma television and the Clint Eastwood DVDs and the desultory collection of airport paperbacks clustered on a shelf. So he doesn’t know whose it is, or why Rush is wearing that expression, like someone just took a hammer to him and he’s trying to hold together the broken pieces of his face.

But there are some things you can take a pretty good guess at. “No one to get back to, huh?” Sheppard says.

Rush shakes his head in a jerky gesture. “It— isn’t like that. It doesn’t matter.”

“Seems like it matters.”

Sheppard’s not hurt. Not really. It’s… nice, to think that someone like Rush, smart and spooky and ferocious, a goddamn Fields medalist, and really good-looking in a nervous kind of way, would want to kiss him. And Rush would understand, if anyone would, the piece that was missing-but-not-really-missing, the part of Sheppard that was made up by other things. A whole future had unfolded itself in front of Sheppard like a flower in slow motion, one of the flowers that bloomed in the morning and closed up again at the end of the day. But he doesn’t know Rush, and he doesn't think he has it in him to know Rush— or to know anybody, maybe, not after so many years of trying not to know or be known. Rush is more than Sheppard wants. Too much.

“It doesn’t matter,” Rush says again in a constrained voice. “It’s nothing.”

“Yeah?” Sheppard sighs. “Okay. So where are we going to find a key in all this nothing?”

Someone knocks on the door.

Rush freezes. “Don’t answer it,” he says.

Sheppard gives him a look. “Uh, you don’t think it might be important?”

“No.”

“Really?”

“It’s not.”

Sheppard ignores him and opens the door. He’s not really sure what to expect, because there haven’t been any actual people in these little scenes, apart from Holland, who’d been dead. It’s always seemed, in every place, like the people had stepped out right before Sheppard and Rush got there. They’d return at any minute. In the place where Rush had grown up, there’d still been smoke curling from a half-extinguished cigarette. Just— no people. They were alone, Rush and Sheppard.

The first other living person who who's managed to show up in this unreal landscape is, of all people, Everett Young, standing in the doorway of what must be his home, wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. He looks softly rumpled and appealing in a way that Sheppard’s never seen him— not soldiered-up all the way, and like he’s just rolled out of bed.

Young’s eyes settle on Rush, as though Sheppard’s not there. “Do I get to come in?” he says.

Rush won’t look at him. “You live here,” he says stiffly. “What the fuck are you asking me for?”

“Do I?” Young says. “Are you sure?”

Rush continues staring resolutely at the floor, his arms folded. “I don’t understand the purpose of this conversation.”

“Someone told me you needed a key,” Young says. He holds out his hand, the key dangling from it on a worn piece of string. “I wanted you to have it.”

Rush steps forward and snatches the key from him, then retreats until he encounters the sofa and physically can’t retreat anymore.

“What, no thank you?” Young says. There’s a gentle look on his face, the lines at the sides of his eyes crinkled with a worn smile-about-to-happen.

“You’re not real,” Rush says. His voices splits on the final word, turning it into two syllables.

“Do you want me to be?”

“Fuck you.”

“Hotshot,” Young says, “that’s not an answer.”

Rush turns away, towards the Ancient doorway that’s still visible in the vicinity of the kitchen. “I’m leaving. We’re leaving. I don’t have to listen to this.” He glances sharply at Sheppard, a demand that Sheppard back his play.

Sheppard does, with some reluctance.

“It was always a test of resolve,” Young calls after them, now sounding not quite like Young. “You know that, right? You knew from the start that it would be.”

Rush doesn’t look back. Only Sheppard can see what’s happening on his face: the pieces not quite holding together any longer, the obvious effort Rush is putting into trying to hide the fracture planes. Sheppard reaches out to lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder, but Rush jerks away with a wordless violent sound.

“Don’t touch me,” he says. “Don’t you dare.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Rush says immediately, turning away, as soon as they’re back in the adobe room.

“Don’t worry,” Sheppard says. “I’m not really a talking guy.”

“People say that. And yet.”

“Well,” Sheppard says, “you kind of give off a vibe like you might need to do some talking.”

“Fuck you,” Rush says with savage precision.

Sheppard shrugs resignedly. He doesn’t know why he expected anything different from Rush. “Yeah, okay,” he says. “Fair enough. So, what do you say we unlock this thing?”

They gather all eight keys on the table. The keys are snub-nosed little things, but pretty: with the distinctly Ancient style of metalworking that Sheppard sometimes sees on Atlantis in items that are older than the city.

Each one of the tiny keys fits a lock. Rush turns them as they go in, with an audible clicking. The crystal begins to glow like the ZPM it resembles, with a humming sound, until, when Rush turns the last key, it’s so bright that Sheppard can’t look.

The whole thing splits in half. Inside is something white-hot and radiant, concealed at the very center. Sheppard’s shielding his eyes and can’t see exactly what it is.

Rush reaches in to touch it— and then recoils with a bitten-off noise of pain.

“What?” Sheppard says, alarmed. “What happened?”

The light from the crystal starts dying.

Rush,” Sheppard says. “Are you okay?”

Rush stares down at his right palm, where he’s cradling it close to his body. “I’m—“ he says. “It startled me.”

He holds his hand up so Sheppard can see. Burned into it, a thread-thin silvery brand, is the outline of a constellation. Sheppard recognizes it. It’s Scutum, the constellation that the Ancients called auspis, the shield. It’s one of the Milky Way stargate glyphs.

“There was a piece of glass in the same shape,” Rush says. “When I touched it, it vanished.”

He sounds vaguely disturbed, but not as much as he probably should be. Sheppard wonders if the implications have occurred to him yet. Is this real, Rush had wondered. They’d both wondered. I have a body, Rush had said. On the spectrum of reality, where is that body at the moment? Where is it on the spectrum of solidness? Is it possible that you can touch something and make it part of your body? Is it that easy for a ghost to get under your skin?

For some reason, he’s thinking again about the Kolya-who-wasn’t-really-Kolya, in the Sakari hallucination he’d had. Kolya had cut off Sheppard’s hand, because he’d needed the Ancient gene, and didn’t have it. It was a simple solution. On the level of genetics, Sheppard was just a piece of flesh. Sheppard had marveled at it: how easy it was to add and subtract things from a body, from an outside perspective. Kolya had matter-of-factly pulled out a knife. He hadn’t cared what kind of body Sheppard would be, after. How Sheppard would change, in order to make sense of himself.

But it had not been real. For a given value.

And now this. Is the silver shape on Rush’s hand real?

Rush looks at him like he's stupid. He says, as though it should be obvious, "Of course it hurts."

Sheppard feels like he should clarify what he was asking— that what Rush had taken as some kind of existential question, Sheppard had just meant as a way of figuring out if Rush was okay, if Rush was—

But a door creaks open, drawing their attention.

The eight doors that had marked the perimeter of the room are gone. In their place, a single dark door offers an exit.

Sheppard glances at Rush, to find that Rush has glanced at him in the same moment.

“The way out,” Rush says.

“Optimistic of you,” Sheppard says grimly.

“We’ve got what we came for already. This is it. The glyph.”

“Optimistic of you,” Sheppard says again.

It isn’t the way out.

In the courtyard, in the unthinkable time, hours or days or weeks distant when Sheppard hadn’t known Rush yet, he’d told Rush that the city was dead. The city the hologram had shown them like a whisper of a promise. The original city. Where they’d come from. (And who, Sheppard thinks to himself, does he mean when he says they?) It’s dead, Sheppard had said. He’d known he could not explain to Rush, who had never been to Atlantis, how a city could be dead and not dead. Rush didn’t know what it was for a city to be alive.

But now Rush and Sheppard stand in the transparent chamber that crowns one of the Alteran city’s towers, like a glassblower’s bubble set on the stem of a pipette, its fragile shape kept intact by some unseen pulse of breathing. All around them is the blue-white crystal machinery that is older than Atlantis, yet at the same time more advanced. They had lost something, the Ancients, when they left this galaxy behind them.

They had lost this city. It spreads below the tower in every direction: a score of other towers, silver stalks of wildflowers carrying the glass petals of their windows; the trinium bridges; the river curving as thin and bright as the shining burn on Rush’s hand, white in the sunlight and mapping its own kind of asterism. Temples glow along the river’s sides, pillared and skimming their steps down to the dark silk skirt of the water. Follow the line of the river and you can see where the fields start, outside the city. The lilies. God. The rows of the lilies. Bigger than flowers on Earth; made for a different sun. They must just run wild now, in a grief-stricken riot of tangles.

Because no one has lived in this city for a long time.

And the city knows.

The city has been waiting.

Every day, for millennia, it has waited.

“It doesn’t understand,” Rush whispers, in a voice on the verge of cracking. “It doesn’t know why they left it.”

Sheppard doesn’t say anything. He feels so tired. All along, the things they’ve done have just rolled off his body— the miles they walked in the maze, every miserable death, the hours spent spilling his guts to Rush and trying to keep Rush’s spilled guts together in turn, the weight of it, which ought to have left him fucking beat-down and raw. Now it settles on him and he can’t move, he thinks, he can’t do this, he can’t fucking bear it.

“It’s alone,” Rush says, and his voice does crack.

The monitors around the room are awakening, flickering with bluish sleepiness to life. They sense the presence of something that can—

Something that can dream with them, Sheppard thinks. That might want to dream with them.

He can feel it in every part of his mind.

“Yes."

“So that what they built could know them.”

“So they could know each other,” Rush says. Sheppard thinks that if he looked over right now, he would see that Rush’s face was wet. “They were never supposed to be separated.”

It presses in on Sheppard until he doesn’t know what’s his own suffering and what isn’t, which parts of the suffering belong to him. The ceaseless grief of that separateness. So many circuits, fey and feral as abandoned children, mouthing at the edges of his thoughts, wanting so badly to be loved, and not sure any longer if they know the process. How does one initiate the program? —After all this time?

“I can’t stand this,” Rush says. His arms are folded over his head. Sheppard does look at him then, and, yes, Rush is crying. But more than that: he looks agonized, sick. “I can’t; I— can you hear that? “

“What?” Sheppard says. A vague sense of alarm catches him through his exhaustion. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s out of tune. It’s missing notes.

“What notes? Rush, what do you mean?”

Rush’s blinks. His eyes have gone slightly unfocused, Sheppard notices with creeping unease. “If I could just find the crack,” Rush says, “then I could fix it. But I can’t leave.”

“We are leaving,” Sheppard says.

“And abandon it?”

Sheppard takes him by the shoulders. “Listen to me. There’s nothing you can do for this city. You think I don’t know? It loves you. I know. It wants to love you. It wants you to love it back. But you can’t. You can’t be enough. It will eat you up. And— I don’t know if that’s the worst thing in the world or the best, to be part of that kind of something. I don’t know. But I know that right now that’s not what you want.”

“I do,” Rush says, shoving ineffectually against Sheppard’s grip.

“You don’t. You have someone waiting for you. You have work to do. We have to go back.”

He’s been looking for an exit, another magic door that’ll take them anywhere but here. And he sees it: unobtrusive and unmarked but for the auspis-shaped pattern at the level and location that a lock would be.

“We have to go back,” he says again, with a hint of desperation.

The bitch of it is that he doesn’t want to, either. If Rush tried just a little bit harder, he thinks, they wouldn’t leave. They would stay here amid the hidden chambers already unlocking. Every stair would sing. Every door would open at their touch. He would know Rush’s inner mind and Rush would know his own secrets, because they would not be Rush and Sheppard any more, but only city-parts. He doesn’t not want that. Imagine. An eternal unfolding, the blossoming of an endless technological spring, the childhood that Rush didn’t have and Sheppard didn’t enjoy, but with the hunger of a new adolescence, so that as they played in the white ruins of the city, learning their own body, they would be learning each other’s bodies, too: establishing taxonomies of how those bodies could touch one another and comprehending, at last, maybe, through the mediating structure of circuits, the mechanics of how one could love and be loved by, with, in them.

Sheppard is kissing Rush without meaning to or memory of starting, their mouths melding together, urgent and hot. Rush pushes aside the camo jacket and has his hands on Sheppard’s bare chest, pulling him closer, breathing in frantic wet sounds. He tastes like salt and trinium. Sheppard wants him. But—

“No,” Sheppard says, breaking away. “We have to go back. We—”

Rush gazes at him, uncomprehending. The pupils of his eyes are wide and black.

It isn't him Sheppard wants, he thinks. He wants the Rush that is himself, that is the ghost-city that, in another universe, they could give their bodies to. But they can't do that in this universe. He can't let it happen.

He struggles to find some reserve of strength— a reserve that feels, at this point, like it’s located somewhere around the soles of his boots. He pushes Rush away from him, towards the door, a shove that sends Rush stumbling. Then, belatedly, manages to follow.

Rush looks at the door, but doesn’t make a move to open it. So Sheppard tries first, fumbling for a latch or trigger of some kind, then pounding against it. It doesn’t work. But of course it wouldn’t, would it? None of this has really been about Sheppard. It’s been about Rush.

“You have to do it,” Sheppard says to Rush. “You have to open it. Please.”

That makes it easier in some ways. That it’s not about him. This isn’t his galaxy, he thinks; this isn’t his home; he has a home, he has a home, he has a home.

“Home,” Rush murmurs, like he can hear what Sheppard’s thinking.

“Yeah. You have to take us home. Think about going home.”

Rush stares at him, brow furrowed in confusion. “I don’t…” he says uncertainly.

“You do,” Sheppard says, exhausted. “Listen to me. You do have a home. We were on a planet with two moons. In the Milky Way galaxy. I told Young I’d bring you back. You live with him, I think. Remember? He’s hurt; he couldn’t come on this mission. He lives in an apartment with a leather couch. You can see the mountains from the window. In Colorado Springs. Just east of the Rockies.”

Rush closes his eyes. He whispers, “The great bison belt.”

That doesn’t mean anything to Sheppard. But it must mean something to Rush, because Rush— suddenly certain and decisive— lifts his hand up and pushes his palm against the door.

Light flares all around them.

Sheppard’s last coherent thought is the sudden awareness of being alone.

### Chapter Text

Mitchell came back to the infirmary after he’d finished briefing Nasir, while Young was still waiting on the results from his X-rays. Alaniz, the medical officer who’d been brought in to crew this mission, had given him a grim-faced once-over that exuded disapproval, checking to make sure there was no internal bleeding and his bones were still more-or-less in the right place. Then she’d left to oversee the imaging. She hadn’t offered painkillers and Young hadn’t asked for any. They both knew, he thought, that he’d done this to himself. So after she’d gone, he’d stayed stretched out on one of the gurneys, basically immobile, staring at the overhead light fixture, which kept blurring into unsteady haloes of agony, and trying not to think about all the parts of him that hurt.

When Mitchell showed up, Young shot him a quick glance and then redirected his gaze to the ceiling.

Mitchell leaned against the adjoining gurney and didn’t say anything. After a while he crossed his arms across his chest.

“I know,” Young said without looking at him. “I already know. Let’s pretend you’ve already given me the lecture, and you can save it. I’m sure it was a really good one.”

Mitchell shook his head slowly. “Brody and Jackson are on a line to the geeks back home,” he said in a clipped voice. “They reckon the tide should go down in about an hour. Nasir’s got the ship scanning for life signs every ten minutes or so, just in case.”

Young nodded stiffly.

“We’re trying to control the spread of information. Obviously everybody in a position to know the know’s been brought in special for this mission and vetted, but Jackson was pretty damn pushy about not dropping Rush’s name around.”

“Good,” Young said. “That’s good. You gotta keep him out of this, Cam. As much as possible.”

“Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps telling me.” Mitchell’s jaw worked. “Even though no one’ll come out and give me the full scoop on why, just that he’s got these hot genes and they need him for some quote unquote special project. Jackson keeps telling me more than he should be telling me, dropping what he thinks are subtle hints.”

“Yeah,” Young said. “I’m starting to realize he does that.”

“But they told you,” Mitchell said. “Even though a couple weeks ago you were coming to me for info. Which kinda makes me think that on a spectrum from Jack O’Neill to ripping my BDUs off and showing a Sixth House insignia tattooed on my ass, general opinion is I’m somewhere around the midway point.”

“No,” Young said quickly, and then couldn’t back the no up. “Not more than anybody else is. That’s not— it’s not that simple. It’s not just them versus us. Or— I mean, it is, but it’s more complicated, too. Christ.” He wiped a hand down his face. He was sweating at his hairline.

“The Jackson versus Telford thing,” Mitchell said.

“Jackson versus Telford. Us versus the Alliance. Me versus everybody, maybe. Rush versus himself.” Young was aware that he was saying more than he ought to be saying. The words seemed to just be slipping out, leaking through the thousand weak spots in his normally pretty blocky willpower, which had been under siege for a while by the pain. “I’m gonna have to get somebody to dope me up, Cam. Don’t tell the others. I can’t keep going like this.”

“No shit,” Mitchell said. He sounded tired. “You’re not keeping-going anywhere.”

“No,” Young said, struggling to sit up, because that wasn’t what he’d meant. “I’m going back to the planet as soon as the tide goes down.”

“You sure as shit are not.”

“I can’t stay here,” Young said. He reached out to catch at Mitchell’s sleeve. “If he’s down there— if he’s down there, Cam— I’m supposed to protect him. I should’ve gone on the mission. I shouldn’t’ve let Sheppard do it.”

“Everett,” Mitchell said. He said it in a gentle, clinical tone. He never called Young Everett. It was always V or Young. “You could not have gone on that mission. You shouldn’t have come on this mission. I know you got the same lecture I got. I know you got it every week when you were in the hospital, and you got it when you were in halfway housing, doing gait training and rehab. Your life is not going to be the same now. You’re not getting your old body back. Your goal’s to get the new one as monkey-chickened as it’s getting, right? That’s what they tell you. Like— different mission, just as capable. Every DBA in there is thinking, Fuck you, suckers. But there’s only so much fucking you can do before that dog is done.”

Young looked away. His eyes were watering. “That how they teach you sons-of-bitches to talk in Kansas?” he asked with some effort.

“It sucks,” Mitchell said. “What happened to you.”

You walked out of there,” Young said. “Big goddamn hero. And now you’re leading SG-1.”

“It sucks,” Mitchell repeated, raising his voice. “I know. What happened. But it happened. Bullshitting yourself isn’t going to make a difference.”

“It wasn’t bullshit for you,” Young said.

“I’m not driving the bus at your goddamn funeral because you sent yourself on some mission you should never have been cleared for.”

“You think I can’t do what you did? Come back from it? I can.”

Mitchell was staring at the floor. “I won’t do it,” he said. “If Alaniz clears you, I can’t stop you from coming planetside. But I’m telling Landry it was a mistake to send you.”

“Fuck you,” Young said hoarsely.

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” Mitchell glanced up. He did look sorry. But it didn’t make a fucking difference.

Alaniz came in then, and Mitchell left, spouting some final platitudes that Young didn’t really listen to. He was trying to control the breath that kept stopping and starting in his body, like he was getting punched over and over again in the chest.

After Mitchell was gone, Alaniz— holding a portable tablet computer and perched on a tool beside the bed— was silent for a moment. “Well,” she said at last. “Looks like somebody stole my thunder.”

Young covered his eyes with a hand. “Is there any way I can get, like, a fistful of Percocet before we do this? This isn’t drug-seeking behavior; I just think I might throw up in the near future.”

“—Okay,” Alaniz said. She rose, and went somewhere else, and came back with a couple of bottles. She measured out some tablets. “Painkiller. Anti-inflammatory. Muscle relaxant. We’re going for the triple combo.”

She handed Young a paper cup of water with the pills, and he swallowed them.

Alaniz watched him. She was a pretty girl, about Lam’s age, maybe, but darker-skinned, with wire-framed spectacles and slightly curly, coal-black hair. “I looked at your X-rays,” she said after a while, when Young was done drinking.

“Uh-huh. So now you know me, inside and out.”

“I already did.” She took the empty cup back from him. “I was there when the Odyssey intercepted your ship. Assisting van Densen. She made the call not to try to transport you. She didn’t think you would make it. We had to do the initial surgery here. It was one of the worst injuries I’ve seen in the field, and I was in the desert before this. I saw an ANA soldier with his legs blown off.”

“That’s a hell of a lot worse than what happened to me,” Young said.

Alaniz shook her head. “He couldn’t really feel anything at at that point. He didn’t know what was going on. You were in pain. It was a good sign that you were in pain, but I still— your hip was destroyed, you know. We had to put it back together. There was dust from that fucking planet in everything. You were in spinal shock. Three of your vertebrae were split open like fucking chestnuts.”

“—I don’t want to hear this,” Young said.

“I think you need to hear this,” Alaniz said. “You don’t remember, do you?”

Slowly, Young shook his head. “Not till I got back to Earth.”

There’d been a brief awareness that he had changed location— something different in the texture or smell of the air. He’d wanted to know where David was. If David had made it. Then nothing for a while, just blurred voices, till he was opening his eyes and Emily was there.

“The mind is funny sometimes,” Alaniz said. “Things scramble it. You think that memory is an ironclad record of the truth, but it’s not. You were here. You were conscious. They brought you in with Colonel Telford. Everyone thought that he was gonna be the red tag, because there was so much blood. But I knew right away, because you were making this noise, and it’s not a noise that someone makes until it’s not really them talking, just their body. Just— because of the pain. We gave you morphine till you stopped making that noise. Van Densen still thought you weren’t going to make it. I mean, she thought you weren’t going to make it whether we transported you or not. She said the least we could do was make sure you weren’t in pain. But you actually sort of cleared up after that, while we were prepping for surgery. You were lying back there.” She jerked her head to indicate somewhere past her left shoulder. “And I held your hand. You looked at me, and you said, Everything’s in pieces. I don’t know if you were talking about your leg, or if you could feel, you know, with your hip— but I said, Don’t worry, hon, I’ve done harder jigsaw puzzles, and a hell of a lot worse-looking ones than you.”

Young managed a wan grin at that, in spite of himself. “Yeah?”

“Big fat lie, of course. But I was so goddamn determined that we were gonna bring you home.”

“Well, I appreciate it,” Young said.

“Sure as hell doesn’t seem like you do.”

That took him off guard. His smile dropped. “What?”

Alaniz tipped her head towards the door. “Colonel Mitchell’s right,” she said. “You had no business being on this mission. I’m guessing you cleared yourself, right?”

Young ducked his head in a kind of half-nod, and then found himself unable to meet her eyes.

“You know how I know?”

“I bet you’re going to tell me.”

“Because no one else would’ve cleared you. No one. I want to show you something.”

She worked on her computer tablet for a minute, and then held it up to face him. He was greeted by the ghostly image of his own insides: the bright white of the screws and plates holding him together, so much denser-looking than his unsolid spinal bones and pelvis, like he was just a cloud that happened to be filling the air around them.

He turned his head away. “I’ve seen it before. Did I break something new?”

“No,” Alaniz said. She sounded tired. “No, you didn’t break anything new. Do you even know how this works? I mean, I’m assuming someone told you, but I know with you flyboys it sometimes takes a few rounds to get it through your heads.”

“I know how it works,” Young said tersely.

“You think you’re healed cause you can walk. Just like new. All better. You can point to the scars from the surgery, and they’re not bleeding, so you must be good to go.”

I know how it works,” Young said, louder.

“You are not all better,” Alaniz said. Her voice was calm, and level, and remorseless. “You may never be all better. You sure as hell will never be just like new. You know what a fracture plane is?”

He made a noise somewhere between despair and frustration. She must have taken it as a yes.

“Your body is full of places it wants to break at, because it’s gotten broken there already. It’s trying to make new stuff that doesn’t have that memory, new muscles and tendons and bone. But you’re not giving it a chance. You keep killing everything that starts growing. And eventually what you’re going to teach it is not to try to do that anymore. —Look at me,” she said.

Young turned his head unwillingly and saw that she was still holding up the tablet.

“This—“ she said, pointing with a pen to the angled white screws on the X-ray— “is good, because it’s holding your bones together so that that new stuff can even happen. If your body rejects this, if it shears off, you’re pretty fucked, just plainly speaking. You need this. But we cut you open and stuck a bunch of metal inside you. There was never a chance that you were going to be like new. Not in five months; not in five years. We gave you a chance to be alive. That’s what we could give you. A chance to grow a new body that could do some of the shit we knew you’d want to keep doing— to walk and put on your uniform and throw a goddamn football, maybe see active duty. And you are throwing away that chance. You might’ve thrown it away already.”

“Bullshit.”

“I can honestly tell you,” Alaniz said, “that, in my considered opinion, you will never meet the requirements for active duty again.”

Bullshit,” Young said in a low voice.

“You are alive,” Alaniz returned sharply. “How is that not enough for you?”

“They gave me a post. Landry and O’Neill. They must’ve thought I could do it. They gave me Icarus.”

“Then you’re gonna be running it from the sidelines.”

“Like hell I am,” Young said.

He felt, in some hard numb way, like maybe Alaniz wasn’t real, wasn’t here. All she was doing was saying the words he’d formed in his own head when he’d gotten back to his apartment after the Lucian attack. He’d known that his appointment would be temporary; had come to terms with it already; had already started mourning for it, like he had traveled in time back from a future where the inevitable fuck-up had happened or where his fucked-up body had given out on him. What did you do at a wake? You drank. So he’d figured he might as well get started.

But then he’d read the files, and—

“There’s shit I’ve gotta do,” he said. “I’m not going to let some kind of— minor setback stop me.”

Alaniz turned off the tablet and set it aside. She placed her hands on the edge of the gurney. “You are not hearing me,” she said, measuring out each word precisely. “This is not a minor setback. This is your body now. You don’t have a choice. I hate to break it to you— I’m sure you’re a badass— but this is the real world, and courage doesn’t magically conquer all. The sooner you accept that you are not capable of—“

“You don’t know what I’m capable of,” he said, too fast.

“No,” Alaniz said. “I don’t. And I don’t think you do, either.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Her face was set. She turned aside, preparing to stand.

Young grabbed the paper cup from the bedside stand and crumpled it into a small, dense mass that he could hurl across the room. “What the hell does that mean?” he demanded.

He had thought that his fury would mean something, maybe— that he could intimidate her with the petty, futile violence, or with the sound of his scraped-raw despair. But of course he couldn’t; she was probably tougher than he was. For all he knew, she’d held his bones together with her bare hands. She just turned a cool, remote, unflinching eye on him.

“I’m issuing you a formal reprimand,” she said. “For using the chain of command to circumvent medical orders.”

“Landry signed off on the damn mission!”

“And it sounds like Colonel Mitchell’s going to take care of him.” She stood.

“Wait,” Young said, changing his tone. “Wait. You have to let me go back to the planet.”

“Not happening.”

“Please. You have to. You have to. There’s someone down there I have to protect.”

“You’ve got a whole team who—“

“They can’t,” Young said. His voice had gone almost reedy with the need to communicate with her, the desperation to make her understand. “I can’t trust them to, not really, not absolutely. Look— you know why you’re here, and I could sit here and tell you that I’m the acting head of a highly-classified, urgent project, so you have to listen to me, and I know all kinds of things that you don’t know, and I am, and probably you do, and I do. But I’m not telling you that.”

“Good,” Alaniz said in a clipped voice. “I’m not impressed.”

But she was listening.

“You know why you’re here,” Young said.

She frowned, and made an uncertain gesture with a hand. “Sure. I’ve been out with the Daedalus, running missions back and forth to Atlantis. One thing and another, they could clear me of any Lucian involvement. Whatever’s going on planetside, they couldn’t risk the Alliance finding out about it.”

“Right. They couldn’t risk the Alliance finding out what was going on. But more importantly, they couldn’t risk the Alliance finding out who was here. Because there’s someone down there— he is down there; he has to still be down there— who is so important—“ His voice caught, and he looked away.

Something had minutely shifted in Alaniz’s expression, as though she had seen Young for the first time, or maybe seen him as more than a collection of ghostly bones and metal hardware.

“Even if I could trust everyone on this ship not to be Lucian Alliance, which, I’ve gotta tell you, is a pretty big ask— even then, there are about seven different reasons I might not trust them to look out for him, because he’s important, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but people who are important stop being people. And I’m not going to let that happen to him. Bench me later if you have to. But I’m going down there.”

There was a long silence. Young felt scraped raw by Alaniz’s eyes. She was trying to measure, he thought, some inner part of him.

Finally she sighed. “When you get back to Earth, you’re going on crutches. The only reason I’m not giving you some now is because we don’t have any on board the ship. Active duty is off the table for the foreseeable future, pending a full medical reevaluation. But if the call comes to go planetside…”

Young let his head drop back against the pillow. “Thank you.”

“I got it.”

“I’m trying to protect you,” Alaniz said. There was an unusual, almost emotional vehemence in the statement. She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, looking weary. “You get that, right? I’m tired of sewing people up, just for them to end back up here, broken.”

“I’m broken now,” Young pointed out. “That’s kind of the whole problem.”

She shook her head. Carefully, she replaced the glasses, but turned before he could see her expression. “I don’t think that’s your problem,” she said.

After Alaniz had gone, Young lay on the gurney and tried to understand what she had meant. But the pills were kicking in, which meant that some of the pain was ceding way to a thin, stretched, floating feeling. He found himself staring at the light fixtures, scrutinizing them for any color or shape that was familiar. It was hard for him to wrap his head around the idea that he could have been in this room and said things, done things, that weren’t a part of him any longer. It was like a separate version of him had existed, just for a few hours, and then it had sat up and detached itself from him, leaving him to deal with what had happened while it was in charge of his body. He wondered if it was still here. The him who had gotten the tel’tak flying when he and David had crested the caldera after crashing their stolen Lucian shuttle, who must’ve gotten that first glimpse of the panoply of stars that meant, against all odds, they were going to live.

What would he ask that other self? Maybe whether it knew anything he didn’t, any tricks to get him out of the mess he was in. Maybe it had some kind of skill he’d lost. It’d walked away with a confidence he felt sure he must have had once, a certainty that he was building something lasting, that what seemed like scattered bricks and buckets of mortar now would someday cohere, like all things cohered, going from chaos to reason, turning into a narrative that made sense.

Rush would probably tell him that was shitty science, or something.

He had a feeling the way Rush thought about things was different.

If he could just manage to get Rush back—

His thoughts were interrupted by someone clearing their throat.

He glanced over and saw Jackson, slouching with his hands in his pockets.

“The, uh, the tide’s going down,” Jackson said, just a little bit awkward in a way that surely had to be affected. “I heard Alaniz cleared you. Mitchell’s not too happy.”

Young’s mouth twisted. “Yeah, well, when is he ever.”

“He gets protective.”

“Maybe he should get a dog.”

“God, no. With the kind of lives we lead?” Jackson turned a wryly astonished look at Young.

“He could get a dogsitter.”

“See, I meant he’d choose the dog over us and retire. I’m not ready to break in a new head of SG-1 again.”

Young huffed out a laugh. “I don’t think anybody at the SGC’s really in the retiring business.”

Jackson’s smile faded slightly. He bent his head; he had pulled his hands out of his pocket and was pretending to inspect a piece of loose thread. “So you’re still in it for the long haul. In spite of everything.”

Young took a second to respond. “That’s a very ambiguous fucking question,” he said at last. “And it’s been a long day.”

“Dr. Jackson?” someone said on Jackson’s radio.

Jackson pulled an apologetic face. “About to get longer,” he said, and pulled the radio out. “Yeah, go ahead?”

“Colonel Mitchell asked me to tell you that scanners are detecting two life signs on the planet’s surface. We’re preparing to send down a team.”

Jackson drew in a long breath and let it out slowly. His eyes flicked up to Young. “—We’ll be right there,” he said.

Still, Young didn’t know what to expect— still, even with that objective fact as reassurance, the flicker on the scanners, two life signs, he couldn’t trust in any outcome, or he couldn’t imagine a kind of resolution that came without a note of defeat. He found himself holding his breath as they beamed down, then squinting out over the alien landscape: the dark now fully settled onto the eerie beachfront, the cliffs lit bone-white by light where the too-bright moons had risen into the sky.

The tide had receded to the point that it was sloshing sulkily over the base of the gate, occasionally sending waves crashing over the iridescent skeleton that had been the DHD. It seemed threatening still, a force that could at any moment rise up and overwhelm the land mass, drowning the gate and DHD and anything else in its path, like maybe it had done to whatever sea creatures were printed in rocks by the cliffside, before they had a chance to run.

The team the Odyssey had beamed down was ankle-deep in water upon their arrival, but it was easy to ignore that in the face of the two dark forms lying motionless in the surf.

More-or-less motionless— as Young stumbled towards them, running-without-running in the shallow water, he saw the taller figure cough and retch and try feebly to claw itself further up the beach. He reached it; saw Sheppard’s boyish face, looking white and half-dead under the plastered-down spikes of his hair.

Sheppard squinted at Young with heavy, semi-conscious eyes. For some reason he was half-naked under a camo jacket, the sea blurring away the edge of a web of black ink-marks on his upper chest. “Are you— “ he managed to get out, and coughed up more water. “—Real?”

“Yeah,” Young said. He was kneeling in spite of seizures of pain in his lower body and turning the other body on its back, his hands seeming to work independent of himself. “Yeah, I’m real; this is real; you’re back with us.”

And it was Rush, of course, that other body: small, cold, stripped down to a t-shirt, mostly-drowned, and looking like he’d been in a bar fight, but breathing; breathing. Young pressed his cheek to Rush’s mouth to make sure, and felt the warm damp exhale against the skin of his face— felt it and was so grateful, so inexplicably grateful, that for a second he just stayed like that and let Rush breathe against him.

“Rush,” Sheppard said, not very coherently.

“He’s alive,” Young said, and let himself believe it at last. “He’s here.”

Jackson and Mitchell had arrived, slightly breathless. Jackson dropped to his knees beside Sheppard. “Did he get the glyph?” he asked Sheppard urgently. “Did he solve the cipher?”

“He—” Alaniz had gotten there also, and was trying to check Sheppard over with her med kit, but Sheppard wasn’t having it. He flailed a clumsy arm in Young’s direction, finally managing to seize Young’s wrist. “His hand,” Sheppard said. His eyes were fully open now, burning in his ghostly face. “Is his hand— he said it hurt— it was—“

“Stay still,” Alaniz said. Then, to Mitchell and Jackson: “We need to evac them. They’re freezing, borderline hypothermic. Are we going to be able to use the gate?”

“We can try,” Mitchell said skeptically, gesturing at the DHD-that-wasn’t-a-DHD. “We’ll send a probe through and see if it makes it.”

Young was trying to figure out what Sheppard had meant. He looked at Rush’s hands lying limp on the wet and slightly translucent sand. Rush wasn’t holding anything, and he didn’t seem injured, so what—

But when he lifted Rush’s right hand out of the water, gently uncurling the fingers that had formed a half-fist, he saw that neither of those statements was really strictly true. Rush was sort of injured, and sort of holding something. Across his palm, in thin, raised, silvery lines that seemed almost, but not quite, like the scar of an old brand, was the unmistakeable shape of a constellation glyph.

“Holy shit,” Mitchell said under his breath.

Jackson had closed his eyes, looking like he was in pain.

“We need to keep him off the ship,” Young said grimly. “If we can. Cam, go dial the gate and see if you can raise Landry.”

Mitchell eyed him like he was going to kick up some dust about it, maybe point out that Young was technically sidelined, which left Mitchell in sole command. But after a second he said tersely, “Yeah,” and went to do it.

“Colonel Sheppard,” Alaniz was saying. “Can you tell me what happened?”

But Sheppard was out-of-it again, drifting. His dark eyelashes had sunk closed.

Young heard the gate fire up behind him. The wormhole cast shadows on the water, or not shadows, but the opposite of shadows: wavering patches of bluish silvery light. They were on Rush’s face, too, making him look unearthly: a never-seen-before sea creature washed out of the depths.

And then, unexpectedly, Rush opened his eyes. He didn’t seem to be seeing Young at first, or much of anything, really. After a moment, his eyes focused a little more.

He frowned up at Young’s face. “So it is you,” he said vaguely. “I could hear you in the dark.”

Young laughed. It made his chest hurt. “Is that supposed to be an insult?” he asked. He was still holding onto Rush’s hand very tightly.

“Noisy,” Rush said, sounding dissatisfied. His eyes slid shut again.

“Hey, can you stay with me?” Young said. He gave Rush’s shoulder a very gentle shake, trying to draw his attention.

Rush made a little mmph of displeasure and blinked at Young, drawing his eyebrows together in a slow, troubled look. “I don’t know,” he said blurrily.

There was something in his tone that made Young uneasy, something that hinted they might not be talking about the same subject. “Well, try,” Young said. “Okay? We’re going to medevac you through the gate any minute.”

Rush sighed heavily in a way that communicated extreme put-upon-ness. “Oh, all right,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll try.”

But he didn’t try very hard, because a minute later he was out cold again, and he was still limp and unresisting when Mitchell came to lift him up and set him on a stretcher that the Odyssey had beamed down.

Alaniz, silently and without having been asked to, offered Young both hands so he could lever himself to his feet. He almost lurched into her and knocked her over, abruptly dizzy from the pills he’d taken and still in pretty serious pain.

She steadied him and helped him limp towards the gate, where the wide coin of the wormhole was waiting.

“So,” she said as they splashed through the inch or so of seawater. “That’s the guy, huh? The one everyone’s fighting over? The future of the galaxy, or whatever? I gotta say, I was expecting someone taller.”

Ahead of them, Mitchell and James took Rush through the gate. Rush’s hand had slipped off of the stretcher, the right hand, and Young could see the faint hint of the constellation glyph in the darkness, gleaming against Rush’s palm. He didn’t want Rush’s fingers trailing in the water; the sea was cold. He wanted to pick that hand up and place it carefully against Rush’s chest. He thought that it was not the response he should have had, probably, not the response of the Icarus Project's acting head, and for a moment he felt unsteady in a way that had nothing to do with his back or hip or leg. He had to stop and take a deep breath, try to remember the map of the world he was supposed to be following.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s the guy.”

### Chapter Text

A long tone that was slightly flatter than F#4                                                                           (interrogatio)
but perhaps they tuned differently, of course yes                                                                     (interrogatio)
they tuned differently, they would certainly tune                                                                      (desideratos: envuenie_ceristor.waledos)
differently, and so perhaps he could accept it                                                                           (scioscents…)
as F#4, F#4, F#4, and so perhaps the next was                                                                         (scioscents…)
A4 and when he heard that, he could anticipate                                                                        (scioscents…)
the note that was coming, but it did not sound                                                                         (eitema: revuenie_ceristor)
right, it would not settle, and when the note did                                                                       (eitema: suncompile_sustemad)
not sound right then you were supposed to                                                                              (scioscents…)
tune the instrument but in this case the note                                                                            (scioscents…)
did not sound right and so the instrument                                                                                (scioscents…)
wanted to tune him

He did not want to be tuned.
Or did he?

His mind was made of boxwood.

Here is the bird that never flew.
Here is the tree that never grew.
Here is the bell that never rang.
Here is the fish that never swam.

But the bell was ringing.

It has been suggested that jellyfish swim faster when the bell is driven at its resonant frequency.

The whole universe was a star-choked and unspeaking craw
and he reached his hand into it like a child who was still learning—

The smell of phosphorus.

Crudelistas machinam asthentientem creare est.

Nonlinear effects were observed for larger deformations,
shifting the optimal frequency to higher than the resonant frequency.

It seemed cruel that the universe would sing on an E flat
but out of tune, as though God had a tin ear.

But it              sang.

No, the note was there but not the bell, which had been rung
or was not yet ringing—

“Dr. Rush?”

There were processes that required initiation, completion, termination.

But they were not his processes.

In the sense that he had once been a part of the things to which they belonged, or they had once been a part of him.

They had not wanted to let him go, those things. They had not wanted to be alone. They had wanted to– eat you up, someone said in the back of his brain. Had they let him go?

“Are you awake?”

Something was not— quite— right with his body.

Possibly it had been changing for some time.

A spectrum.

Red hair.

A girl with red hair and hawk-eyes holding a battered black paperback with a dinosaur on the cover of it. She was handcuffed to a chair and that seemed a peculiar way to go about the act of reading. But then he remembered who she was. The girl. Ginn. Life finds a way.

“Dr. Rush?” she asked again, uncertainly.

“Aye,” he said, and then reconsidered the response. It had come out of his mouth unbidden. But he was not meant to talk like that. “Yes,” he said instead.

He tried to push himself to his elbows and was unable to do it. His voice was rough and his body hurt. He felt weak. Where was he? —In a bed. On a bed. The infirmary. Blurry overhead lights. A memory of papers spilling.

“You are awake. Are you well?” Ginn asked. Her eyes were very large in a way that connoted worry, though he didn’t know what he had done to earn that from her. Or why she would be reading mass-market paperbacks at his bedside, unless he were on the brink of death.

Was he on the brink of death? He didn’t think so.

“Why are you here?” he asked blurrily, frowning at her.

“You didn’t arrive to teach me. I knew something was wrong. No one would tell me where you were. I broke the television. Daniel Jackson said that you’d been injured, and that I could stay here until you woke up.”

This seemed to Rush to be a very confusing narrative of events. “You broke a television?” he said. He lifted his arm, which had an IV in it, and made a face at the tubing.

“Please don’t move around so much,” Ginn said, sounding fretful. She bent down and set her book on the floor. “You have been unconscious, even though there was no reason for you to be unconscious. The medical overseer could not provide an adequate explanation. Colonel Young lost his temper with her.”

Young. Rush started to ask where Young was, and then realised there was no need to. Young was on the opposite side of the infirmary, asleep in a chair. His head was tilted back, his mouth agape in a manner that made him look idiotic. It caused an intolerable surge of warmth to run through Rush.

Ginn followed his gaze. “He was very concerned about you,” she said.

“Well, I’m fine,” Rush said shortly, and tried again to push himself up to his elbows. This time he succeeded.

“You are not,” Ginn said.

“What time is it?”

Please do not get up. You are not fine.”

Rush started to rub at his eyes with one hand, winced, and stopped— perplexed by encountering the edge of a small bandage, and by the unexpected pain.

“—Your nose is broken,” Ginn said, which explained these incidences. “You look terrible.”

Sheppard, he thought.

He put his fist to his forehead, feeling overwhelmed and bewildered. “Sheppard,” he said. “Where is Sheppard?”

“We had to wake him up a while back,” Young’s rusty voice said. “There was some kind of emergency in Atlantis.”

Rush looked and saw that Young was awake, or at least in the process of awaking. He looked as though, since the last time Rush had seen him, he’d been yoked to a vast and invisible weight that he was braced against even in the act of sitting. He looked, as Ginn had said of Rush himself, terrible. Not like he had looked in the hallucination, or whatever it had been, that not-real place where he had looked—

Not terrible.

Here his face was lined with pain.

He seemed to be executing upon Rush the same intensity of critical inspection, and coming to roughly the same conclusions, which Rush resented. “She’s right,” Young said.

“About what?” Rush retorted, trying to conceal his destabilisation. “Destroying a television?”

Young’s mouth quirked. “You told him about that?” he said to Ginn, who had folded her knees up into the chair and was eyeing him with scepticism. Then, to Rush: “I meant about you looking terrible, but, yeah, turns out Lucian Alliance here has a violent streak. Who knew, right? Trashed her cell, almost got herself locked down for good.”

Rush looked at Ginn. She was staring down at her hands in her lap. He said, uncomprehending, “Because I wasn’t available to teach you number theory?”

She darted a glance at him and went back to glowering at her hands. “I don’t trust the others,” she said, which failed to really answer his question. She jerked her head at Young. “Not even him. The security of their organisation is compromised. You should not trust them.”

Young rolled his eyes. “Listen. Get back to me when your organisation isn’t founded on torture and a protection racket that would put the Corleone family to shame!”

“I don’t understand you,” Ginn said, sounding slightly sullen. “I have no organisation any longer. And your rhetorical strategy is flawed.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Young tried to rise from his chair— a simple action that he was unable to complete. His breath caught and scraped in his throat; he seized the nearest gurney with a sound of pain, and had to grope for one of a set of forearm crutches that was, Rush saw, leant against the side of the gurney.

“What the fuck happened to you, then?” Rush asked.

He did not know what the tone of his own voice was. He did not know what to make out of the neuronal impulses that were causing his chest to tighten at the sight of Young’s struggle to conceal that he was suffering. He felt a strong desire to hurl something across the room, as though it might be possible to expel this strange energy from his body by transferring it to a proximate object. But no appropriate candidates for such a gesture presented themselves.

Young had managed to make his way upright. He crossed the room, leaning on the crutches, and stopped at Rush’s bedside. “Nothing,” he said. “What the fuck happened to you?

“Nothing,” Rush said.

Young sighed and closed his eyes. “Hotshot—“

“Don’t call me that.”

Rush looked away and folded his arms belligerently across his chest. “Didn’t Sheppard tell you?”

“I’m asking you to tell me.”

“I endorse Sheppard’s account.”

They stared at one another with a certain degree of antagonism.

In a turn of events that could not properly be called a turn, as it was profoundly unsurprising and therefore more of a plodding progression, Young broke first. He sighed again and directed his gaze at Ginn. “Hey, kid,” he said. “You think you could give us a minute?”

She gave him a flat look and raised the hand that was shackled to the chair.

“Right.” Young stumped over in her direction. “Let me just— you’re good to go, right? You’re not gonna bust up another television?”

Ginn shrugged without much energy.

Young seemed to take this as a yes. He fetched some other species of goon, a large and uniformly flaxen-coloured man in patchy camouflage, from outside the infirmary door to uncuff her.

Rush found it unnerving— the revelation that the room he was in was being guarded, much less that it was being guarded by this particular specimen of armed and blank-faced boy-soldier. He tracked the man’s movements, feeling as though he, not Ginn, were the cuffed one. He was suddenly aware that he was wearing a hospital gown— that someone, between his last uneasy tremors of awareness and now, had undressed him. He didn’t like it.

The whole-grain soldier started to lead Ginn out of the room. But at the last moment she turned and escaped his escort, making her rapid way back to Rush’s side.

“I am going to bust up another television,” she said fiercely, “if you are not available to teach me number theory.”

Rush frowned at her, perplexed and a little startled. He could not readily understand or recognise the emotion, or the intensity of emotion, she had put into the threat. He said, “They’ll only buy a new one, you know.”

“Then I will continue breaking televisions.” Ginn lifted her chin. “For as long as it remains a viable means of communicating my resistance to the current state of affairs.”

“Yes, well," Rush said. "I strongly encourage any actions likely to result in inconvenience for the American military as a whole. However, I’m certain I’ll be more than capable of coming to tutor you tomorrow.”

“Nope,” Young said from where he was pretending to inspect his fingernails on the other side of the bed.

Rush glared at him.

Young returned a placid look.

“Later this week,” Rush amended, without bothering to conceal his resentment.

“Good,” Ginn said. “That is good.”

She smiled abruptly, a quick, bright, and unexpected expression, not altogether certain of itself. Then she turned and submitted herself to the looming oversight of the guard who, casting a wary and uninterpretable look at Rush, steered her out of the room.

When the door had closed behind them, Rush found himself suddenly more conscious of Young’s presence, as though it had expanded now that they were alone, become radiant somehow and filled the infirmary. He meant it literally, radiant; Young was no sunrise, but he emitted something that simultaneously warmed and disturbed.

Rush looked away from him but could not ignore him.

Young slowly lowered himself into Ginn’s vacated chair. “So,” he said.

“So,” Rush repeated flatly.

“Sheppard wanted me to give you a note.”

Rush did not react to this information. “Is he all right?” he asked after a moment. “Sheppard?”

He would have liked for Sheppard to be here. In Sheppard’s absence, it was all too easy to believe that none of it had been real. Or perhaps impossible to sort the real from the unreal. A spectrum, Sheppard had called it, but that did not sit well with Rush. A spectrum felt uneasy, changeable and elusive, a dark and frozen sea upon which it would take considerable skill to skate, one’s whole bodyweight staying stable on a razor-blade of balance, but only so long as you didn’t stop and think of the miles of ocean underneath you.

He curled his right hand into a fist.

‘Yeah, he’s fine,” Young said. He was fishing in his uniform pocket. He came up with a crumpled, folded piece of paper, which he passed over to Rush. “He was kind of in a hurry. But he had quite a story to tell us.”

Rush opted to ignore the prompt implicit in Young’s latter statement, and unfolded the piece of paper. It was half of a white sheet stamped CLASSIFIED in grey block capitals. Sheppard had scribbled on it in what looked like ballpoint pen— a haphazard drawing that he had captioned in a strange approximation of blocky Ancient letters. Rush wondered if the current residents of Atlantis had produced their own de facto handwritten script. The idea was pleasing, like a seed found in an Egyptian tomb being planted and managing, after thousands of years, to bear fruit. But it seemed as likely that Sheppard was the only one to whom it would occur to write in Ancient, and this idea made Rush rather sad.

It reminded him of the Ancient city’s voices that were not quite voices, which he found unsettling.

The message began with a nonsensical string of letters and numbers, which was apparently some kind of authorisation code, judging by the cartoonish drawing of a computer with an arrow pointing to it. Another arrow led from the computer to what looked like a snowflake, but was almost certainly an inept rendering of the Atlantis emblem. The snowflake was pointing to a smiling face with spikes for hair, which contrasted sharply with the scowling, bespectacled face hovering above the cartoon computer.

“Oh, hey,” Young said, shamelessly spying over Rush’s shoulder. “Look, that’s you.”

Rush snatched the note away irritably. “Do you mind?

“What does it say?”

“I really doubt that’s what it says.” Young was leaning too close to Rush, close enough that Rush could feel the heat from his breath, his shoulder, his upper arm. This was a quite real and hence unbearable experience of radiation, the energy generated within Young’s body leaking out and exciting the atoms of Rush’s skin.

Rush’s instinct was to effect Young’s removal, as swiftly and as sharply as possible, so that he would no longer be faced with the unendurable tension that was created by Young’s nearness to him: the need to move and to not-move, neither of which was an acceptable course of action, the impulse towards violence and towards the opposite of violence, which he could not at once identify. Impulses raced and repelled one another and cycloned. They could not resolve. Rush felt locked within his physical existence, a bedraggled bird in a miserable electromagnetic cage.

“It says—“ he forced out, contriving to escape the situation. “In case you get shut out and want to give the other thing a whirl. Which I’m sure he thinks is extremely clever. He told me to put out or get shut out, you see.”

“What?”

And, all right, that had had an effect; Young lurched back, and the warmth was gone. But this transpired to not be what Rush had wanted, though of course it was exactly what he had wanted. The paradox continued, making him agitated and ill-at-ease.

“To provide context,” he said, not having another strategy and therefore opting to double down on his original efforts and affect an offhandedness he did not feel, “he was understandably somewhat annoyed at the time, having been abandoned midway through the process of my tearing his clothes off. I suppose I wasn’t meant to tell you that; I can see why he left it out of his debriefing. Though— all things considered— you can hardly sell him down the river.”

Young was silent for a moment. His jaw worked. His face was expressing an emotion that Rush could not decipher. “Oh,” he said at last.

"Oh?"

“Yeah."

Rush regarded him, feigning enquiry.

"I mean, of course— I wouldn’t. Say anything.”

Another lag.

“I didn’t know that you—“ Young said, and made another face, equally stupid and indecipherable. “But Sheppard, I mean— he’s a good guy. A little weird, but— and, I mean, he was obviously—“ He stalled once more.

“He was obviously what?” Rush prompted.

Young rallied. “I mean, he was worried about you—“

“Was he,” Rush said.

“So—“

Young was on the wrong foot, which was again what Rush had wanted. But all at once Rush couldn’t bear his fumbling, maladroit confusion, his feeble attempts at reassurance, his stupid, friendly face and the hard-to-label color of his eyes. Tormenting him was meant to be fun, but it had begun to feel like pricking a balloon with a needle. “Christ, fuck off, won't you,” he said exhaustedly. “We’d died about eleven times by that point. You’d be desperate to do something or someone else, too. And, at any rate, we— didn’t.”

“Oh,” Young said again. “So you don’t—?”

Rush shrugged jerkily. He looked down. “Can we talk about something else, please?”

Young was still looking flummoxed. “Yeah. Yeah, of course.”

But he did not immediately manage to offer up a new topic, and so they sat in silence.

Rush’s body was remembering that it was meant to hurt. He was tired beyond all reason, more tired than he had thought it possible for a human being to be. He assumed that he was a human being. He didn’t know what, if any, were the other options. He drew his knees up to his chest, deforming the hospital blankets. He hated that he was not wearing clothes. He felt as though someone had cracked him open and reached inside and rearranged him. They had left his emotions too near the surface. He did not know how he could be expected to interface with the world like this.

“I suppose you’re here to debrief me, really,” he said to Young, without looking at him. “I’ll save you the time: I broke the code, I got the glyph.”

“I know,” Young said. “Sheppard told us.”

Rush could feel Young looking at his hand. He closed it into a fist and folded his right arm against himself. “Of course he did. Company man, Sheppard. A good guy, even if he is a little weird.” He was aware that he was being unreasonable. “I’m sure he gied you a full and thorough accounting. I seen the look on that guard’s face; he wasn’t here for Ginn, was he? I’m surprised I didn’t wake up shackled to the fucking scratcher; were you all out of cuffs by that point or— fuck. Fuck.”

It was unreasonable again, the anger that surged up in him at the realisation that he had slipped without conscious awareness into the sound and speech of Glasgow, something that was synonymous to him with rage and weariness. It fed itself, that weariness, that rage; he bit down hard on his lip to stop himself saying something that would be more humiliating still.

“Hey,” Young said quietly.

Rush made an inarticulate sound and then, because he had been left with few other means of communicating his inability to tolerate the current state of affairs, he yanked the IV needle out of his left arm and pressed his thumb down on the pinprick’s-worth of blood that welled up.

“Whoa, whoa,” Young said, coming in on cue, like a very doleful, reliable, and faintly alarmed double bass. “What the hell are you doing? You’re supposed to let a doctor do that!”

But there was no doctor in the room, and it had been unbearable for Rush to remain tied to the IV stand for a moment longer.

He lifted his thumb and stared at the smear of blood on it, numbly.

“Are you okay?” Young said. “Let me see.” He lumbered out of his chair and seized Rush’s arm, as though it was so easy to touch another person, something he assumed his body was made to do and that he had never had cause to question. “You could open a vein like that.” His fingertip marked out a point close to the surface where the blue stroke of such a vein ran.

“I’m fine,” Rush said, and prised himself savagely away from Young’s hand. “Don’t touch me.” He was breathing hard for no reason. He could not bear to have Young mapping out his vital structures. He could not bear to be possessed of vital structures. How asinine, how risible, how fucking absurd to be a person, he thought, and what a comparative relief to be almost anything else, perhaps a jellyfish, possessed of a distributed nervous system, or even perhaps a siphonophore, colonial and never one thing or the other, so that you could take it apart and there would still be an it, and no person could come along and say, Here, here is where I could hurt you, because there was no you to hurt, there was no it to be irradiated by another person’s presence and left warm, weak, mutated maybe, exposed, exposed, exposed, but he was exposed anyway, wasn’t he, down to the chromosomal level, every part of him unpacked down to the individual letters, which he could not think of because he could not stand the idea of—

He dropped his head and raked his hair back, clenching his hands in it tightly. “Could you—“ he said, and swallowed. His voice was less steady than he had wanted. “Could you get me out of here, do you think?”

Something in Young’s face flinched at the question. He looked away abruptly, then smiled in a way that was inexplicably painful and lowered his eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “Sure. That’s the plan.”

Neither of them was fit to drive, really, but Young made the case that he had not spent most of the last six hours unconscious for no medically detectable reason, and therefore— when Rush had dressed and been subjected to a final round of medical examination— possessed the more legitimate claim to the car keys.

Rush, who felt as though he’d run a marathon whilst being beaten about the head and neck, didn’t protest overmuch. He’d nearly fallen asleep in the lift on the way up to the surface, and then snapped back to himself with a ringing in his ears that he could not entirely source to the creak of machinery working.

But Young was more badly injured than Rush had assumed. Even with the crutches, he moved with a stiff and hesitant lurching that spoke of damage to the muscles of the lower back.

He caught Rush looking at him as they crossed the Level One underground car park in the disorientatingly hourless light of the sodium lamps, and his face tightened. “I can drive,” he said in a hard, flat voice.

“As though anything you do in that monstrosity of an automobile could be called driving,” Rush returned, the insult coming to him without effort.

“At least I can trust myself to drive on the right side of the road.”

“I do have an American driving license, you know. I’m very fucking flexible.”

“No kidding,” Young said under his breath as they reached the car.

This remark shut Rush up for the length of time that it took him to negotiate the door handle, which was an unexpectedly strenuous procedure. When he had opened the door and collapsed into the passenger seat, out of breath, he said, “Was that intended to be a innuendo?”

“No,” Young said, the disingenuous bastard. Looking guilty, he started the car.

“Because—“

“It wasn’t.”

Rush’s mouth turned down. “What the fuck did you do to yourself?” he asked, in retaliation.

Young steered the truck out of the Mountain. It was night outside, which as disorientating as the car park. “Went swimming,” he said. “To retrieve a computer.”

Rush rested his head against the window. The sparsely populated eastern edge of the city passed outside, offering an undifferentiated mass of dark. “That sounds preposterously and therefore predictably idiotic.”

“And yet my evaluation stands. Is it really three AM?” The clock on the dash was flashing electric green numbers.

Young glanced at it. “Yeah."

"Of the same day? Or—"

"Same day," Young confirmed. "Well, next day, technically."

This seemed difficult to accept. Rush briefly closed his eyes.

Young directed an unreadable look at him in the darkness. "You gate-lagged?”

“Mm.” Rush could contextually extrapolate the meaning of the term, but had an uneasy sense that it might not be the correct one. His gaze wandered to the faint haze of stars above the trees. He thought it unlikely that he could see any stars that mattered; they were too distant. Whatever white sun had touched the bereft and elegant reliquiae of the Ancient city was in a galaxy so far distant from his own that its light would not reach here. Still he felt he knew its shape, or perhaps the dark shape of the planet, invisible in the sky yet possessed of a mass that exerted a powerful gravity upon him. He could have charted it, he was sure, from anywhere in the entirety of the cosmos. Spacetime did not warp between them but neither did it make sense. Something there was that didn’t love the laws of physics. It was kicking little holes in their wall to get to him.

“Go to sleep,” Young said.

“Why? So you can interrogate me later?”

Young sighed and didn’t say anything.

“I’m right, aren’t I,” Rush said to the window.

Outside, the dark was giving way to the speckled lights of residential streets. Young drummed his fingers restlessly against the steering wheel. “I have to debrief you,” he said. “It’s not the same thing.”

“No?”

No. I just want you to tell me what happened.”

Rush slouched down in his seat. “I told you what happened,” he said. “I cracked the code. I got the glyph.”

Young sighed again. “Just go to sleep, okay?”

Rush had no such intention. But the car was a warm humming shell, and Young a breathing machine whose demonstrable function eased him, and so, in a matter of moments, he did.

The notes wouldn't settle but they did progress, from something that hovers between a D4 and a D#4 to a little more than E-flat, and then climbing to the flat F#4, sharp A4 and then stretching out to touch another flat D# again, D#5 this time, the next octave, approaching that tortuous not-quite-E flat—

There were names for these notes but he did not know them.

There were names for these notes and there was a pattern and if he had not known it then they could not have crossed the bridge in the dark where Sheppard had said What are you listening to as though he could not hear the way that each panel of glass voiced itself like a concupiscent bell, caressing him with the shivery chords of microtonal vibrations, asking him to decide how next followed on next, and he had known as he knew the steps and half-steps of a diatonic scale, so automatic that he could not recall a time he had not known them.

—You would have been a dreadful student, Gloria had said. I know your sort; you skip the theory because you can fumble through by ear. You hardly know what a key is, but you can transpose anything if I give you a starting note. I hate you, you know; it’s like it’s in your blood. I’ve had to work for it.
—Do you really hate me? he’d said idly, sprawled across the bed and watching her dress for a recital, pinning up the disorderly bulk of her wheat-chaff hair.
—Yes; I regard you with utter scorn and despisal. I only keep you around as a sort of human pitch pipe.
Am I a human pitch pipe?
—You are; it’s terribly unfair. She crossed the room, hair only half-secured, for the apparent purpose of looking fondly at him. Can I have a concert A?
—Why?
—Because I like to hear you sing it.
—I thought you hated me.
She leaned over him, the stray loose ends of hair brushing softly against his face. —I take it back, she said. I love you in the key of A.
—That too.
—Are we going to go through all the keys?
—You know how I am. I like to be thorough.
—Well, she said, all right, then. And she kissed his forehead like a benediction, which he loved, and he hummed the exact pitch of a concert A.

Not concert A.
This had its foundation somewhere different.
It wanted him to—

Dx4
xE4
xF#4
Ax4
not-quite-Eflat5
Axx4
Ax4
xF#4

It wanted him—

Dx4
xE4
xF#4
Ax4
not-quite-Eflat5
Eflat5
not-quite-Eflat5
Axx4
not-quite-Eflat5
Eflat5
Fxx5
Eflat5
not-quite-Eflat5—

“Rush.”

He lurched forward abruptly, breathing as though he had been running. He was not poised on the icy and chime-like ledge of that crystalline sub-E; he was not turning uneasily like a taut and fragile string on a peg; but for a moment he did not know where or what he was and he fought, panicky, against the sense of being imprisoned, his heart pounding, until Young caught his flailing arm with a calm and heavy hand, and he remembered that Young was Young and he was Rush and they were enclosed in a vehicle together on the frail and violable hellscape that was the Earth.

“Easy,” Young said.

Rush managed to fight his way loose of the restraint of the seatbelt, and fling the door open, and stagger out into the open air.

They were in the car park of the apartment complex. The air was cold because it was autumn. It was night. To the left, on one of the artificial lawns, a sprinkler was making a sound like an amorous insect. It reminded Rush of the fountain in the courtyard, but he assumed it was real, though he didn’t know how he would establish the fact with any certainty.

His right hand itched where the glyph was etched into it, and there was no wedding ring on his left hand.

He felt they were no longer parts of himself, those hands, but that was good, that was what he had wanted, to disassemble his body, to take apart all that he was, had been. That was the point. Wasn't it?

Dematerialisation.

He hugged his shoulders, still trembling in the shock of the night air.

Young had stumped around to the passenger side of the car on his stupid crutches and was looking at Rush. He kept looking for too long, intolerably sympathetic.

“Come on,” he said at last. “I’ve got leftovers in the fridge; we can heat ’em up.”

“I want to go home,” Rush said, although he did not want to go home, and furthermore did not conceptualise his flat in any such terms. There was no place he conceptualised in any such terms. That was what he was protesting. Had been protesting. The protest he was making. In case it needed to be said. To Young. To Sheppard. To anyone who might be listening, watching.

“You need to eat something," Young said.

“No.”

Young sighed. “Yes. Lam said so.”

“Did she? I don’t recall.”

“Food, water, and a muscle relaxant. You were there when she said it; this was, like, forty minutes ago.”

“I wasn’t experiencing any particular interest in her instructions.”

“You realise that personal interest is not usually the criterion people use decide whether to listen to doctors?”

“I may have been contemplating something more important.”

“—You’re eating,” Young said. He started heading towards the building, apparently possessed of a groundless faith that Rush was going to follow. “Plus,” he added over his shoulder, “this way we can knock the debriefing out. You’ll be in bed before you know it.”

Rush thought this was unlikely, as he did not own a bed. He imagined curling up on the bare floorboards of his flat, which was how he slept when he could not avoid sleeping, sometimes wadding up whatever blazer or button-down shirt he had been wearing to use as a makeshift pillow. Sometimes not.

He ached. His nose hurt where it had been broken. He was tired at such a bone-deep level that he suspected a part of his physical resources was being consumed by the act of fighting the city, or the memory of the city, or its ghost, its phantasm, whatever shape might be assigned to something that was real without— it was possible, even likely— being entirely real. He pictured himself as a comet forced into an orbit it had not chosen, streaming particles behind it. He had never before thought of a comet as tired.

Perhaps if he were a comet he would not be tired. But he did not know how to be a comet at the moment. And so he followed Young towards the apartment building’s lifts, steered by helplessly uncomet-like instincts, without really knowing why.

Whilst Young heated up leftover miso black cod with parsnip cream and cabbage gelée, Rush wandered restlessly from point to point in the apartment. He thought that if he paused for a moment he would likely fall asleep where he was standing, which made moving a necessity, and he was driven too by an unshakable but disturbing need to touch solid objects in the world. Sofa, barstool, television, coffee table. Their texture underneath his fingers confirmed their materiality. Uneven plaster on the wall. Real, real, real.

“You realise it’s wearing me out just watching you,” Young said, setting two plates on the kitchen island.

“As though you aren’t an ongoing advertisement for the frangibility of the human body.”

Young’s face tightened. “I don’t know what that word means,” he said, “but I can guess. Eat your goddamn food, would you?”

Rush, feeling more than a little frangible himself, perched on a barstool and did so.

When Young, unusually, showed no sign of inflicting conversation upon him, he said, “Am I allowed to enquire as to which bones you broke this time? Even you must realise that there exists a limit beyond which they’re not a renewable resource. Why on earth would that general send you through the stargate in the first place? He must—“

“We can do my debriefing tomorrow,” Young cut him off shortly. “This one’s yours.”

Dissatisfied and unsettled by the response, Rush picked at what was left of his cod. “How foolish of me to hope that ours was a relationship of mutual interrogation.”

“Can you just— quit the games and tell me what happened to you?” Young had stopped eating, and dropped his chin into the cup of his hand. He looked tired, more tired than Rush was, possibly. Rush remembered the way he had slept in the infirmary: open-mouthed and exhausted, with his head tipped back. Presumably some doctor had given him the crutches. Had whoever-it-was also taken into account his pain, his weariness, the shadow of darkness that seemed to dog him, visible at the undersides of his eyes? Rush, who did not tolerate incompetence, wanted to take him back to the infirmary and say: I have a complaint to make; he isn’t functioning properly; look at him; do your fucking job.

Instead he placed his fork against the edge of his plate and silently held his hand up, displaying the silver, oddly raised symbol that cut across it like a scar. “I suspect,” he said, “that it may serve as a second factor for authentication. I say it, but I suppose I mean— myself. In other words, my presence may be requisite for successful dialing. I don’t know yet.”

Young stood with some effort and made his way around the island to study the glyph more closely. He reached out as though to touch it, then stopped and glanced at Rush. “Can I…?” he asked.

Rush pressed his lips together and looked away. “I would’ve thought you’d’ve had the chance to do a full and thorough examination whilst I was unconscious and stuck with needles.”

“Yeah, but—“ Young made an uncomfortable gesture. “I guess I thought— you don’t really like it,” he said. “When people touch you. So—“

He didn’t finish his sentence.

Rush curled his fingers in, like he was testing a fist.

There was a difference, he thought, between touching someone and being touched; both were difficult, requiring so much calculation and coming with a system-crashing sensory load. Perhaps one had to be trained in it early, the art of being touched and touching— like language, which a human couldn’t learn unless it was introduced in childhood. There were no nouns and verbs and sentences to feral children; it was all a barrage of sound, structureless. It didn’t make sense. With touching, there had to be some habituation after which data became parseable. Automatically. Or else people would not do it. But it had always arrived as an onslaught of noise to him.

(Exception: the scent of her had preceded her, an aura of warmth that had promised, This is not going to hurt, or more likely, I am not going to hurt you, the only promise that one human being could make to another and the one least to be trusted, but he had trusted it with her, only her, right up until the end, when everything became so much more complicated, systems collapsing, edifices disassembling and decaying, life smashing to its sad constituent bricks—)

Touching— easier, since one controlled the parameters of input. I will put my hand into this fire only so far, and draw it out when I see fit. But being touched— the passive voice rendered one a victim. It signalled being subject to something you could not avoid: a superior force rubbing your face in your insufficiency, your smallness, your smart-but-not-so-smart-nowness, the sum total of everything about you not adding up to enough in the moment when there came an accounting. And once one had that knowledge, it could not be unknown.

So: no. He did not like— But he—

Gravity. Inertia. Velocity. Orbits. He wanted to be, but was not at the moment, comet-like.

Very carefully, he unfolded his fingers and held his hand out, palm-up, to Young.

He avoided Young’s eyes. So he felt only the touch of Young's fingers, broad thumbs brushing across the lines of the glyph. It was a sensation at once more intimate than he had expected and more ordinary: a matter-of-fact moment of contact that didn’t lend itself to metaphor. Let it be writ down in the book of the world, he thought, that on this date a man touched him. He held his breath. He didn’t recoil. He felt that Young was being careful, which was almost certainly offensive. After all, he wasn’t made of glass. It would have been easier if it hurt. It usually was. But it didn’t hurt.

Destructive interference. That was what it was called. But it did not feel destructive.

Young cleared his throat, after a interval that had run long. “How, um,” he said, and then cleared his throat again. “So how’d this, uh, happen?”

He was still holding Rush’s hand. He didn’t seem to have realised.

Rush didn’t move. “There was a device,” he said. “A bit like a zero point module. It was necessary for myself and Colonel Sheppard to unlock it. When we did so, it revealed itself to contain an item in the shape of the glyph, which looked like glass but almost certainly wasn’t. I touched it, and the result was— as you see.”

“You just always gotta stick your hand in things, huh?” Young's mouth quirked. “And how’d your nose get broken?”

“Sheppard hit me.”

“Do I want to know why?”

Rush said, with as significant a quantity of careless disdain as he could summon, “I’m sure I don’t know.” But under Young’s sceptical eye, he relented. “It’s possible he was under an impression that I had intentionally drowned him— a misinterpretation of what was, in fact, a highly objective effort to increase our shared odds of survival.”

“A highly objective effort. I just bet it was.” There was worn-out amusement in Young’s voice. “Was this before or after you tore his clothes off?”

Rush lifted an arch eyebrow. “Oh, before. I suspect that Colonel Sheppard is too much of a gentleman to attack someone who’d kissed him.”

“Is that why you kissed him?”

“You seem to have a very low opinion of me.” Rush was conscious of his hand, still held in Young’s two hands. “And a preoccupation with my activities vis-à-vis Colonel Sheppard.”

“I’m debriefing you,” Young said.

“Are you?”

“Mm-hm.”

Neither of them spoke for a moment.

The air in the apartment was warm and thin.

Rush swallowed thickly. “It doesn’t feel much like a debriefing,” he said.

“Doesn’t it?”

“No.”

The atmosphere stretched a moment longer, an unsustainable hush of a sphere in which they two alone were existing, one that might be shuddered to nonexistence by too harsh an indrawn breath.

And then Young did draw a breath and dropped Rush’s hand, his face altering. He stepped back. “Sorry,” he said— voice unsure of what to do with itself. “Right. Sorry. We should probably be talking about all the times you died. What was it, burning to death—“

“Heat exhaustion,” Rush corrected, thrown by the sudden transition.

Young continued talking over him. “—drowning, death by noise—“

“It was probably, in fact, the consequent increase in air pressure that killed us.”

“—getting dropped into some kind of death pit, and then you unlock a ZPM that brands you, and— what? You just open a door and get to go home?”

Rush pictured Sheppard in the city of his own, the city that was husband and wife and both and neither, more and at the same time less. It will eat you up, Sheppard had said, but he had wanted to go back. To stand in a city of spires on a silver ocean and offer to it what he could of himself, an imperfect communion between damaged and abandoned structures and the lonely stranger who had not been built for them.

“Yes,” he said, because he did not himself know how to describe such a city to someone for whom it would have been a thing that could not suffer. “We opened a door and got to go home.”

Young stared at him with an expression that said he knew he was being lied to, but was not sure about what, or what for.

Eventually, he shook his head and made his slow shuffling way back around the kitchen island. He sat, but he did not resume eating. “Sheppard said you heard something a couple of times,” he said. “Something that he couldn’t hear.”

“Yes, well.” Rush shrugged limply.

“Isn’t it? I’ve been labouring under a misapprehension.”

Young looked at him.

“—Music,” Rush said, making a gesture of defeat. He was too tired for circumlocution. “I could hear music. I’m trained for it; Sheppard isn’t. Perhaps I simply have a better ear.”

“You’re a musician?” Young asked. His face was curious, guarded. “You didn’t mention that.”

“Yes.”

“But you hate music.”

“Yes.” Rush looked down at his mostly-empty plate. “Yes.”

Young didn’t say anything for a long time. Rush could feel the weight of his gaze. When he spoke at last it was to say mildly, “You should take one of those pills Lam gave you, you know.”

“I dislike medication.”

“And you should get some sleep.”

“I dislike sleep as well.”

He did not want to enter his dark and empty flat. The way in which the walls and floorboards reflected sound waves would not cause those waves to destructively interfere with the incunabulate clamour that his body was playing host to. He could not be alone with it, he thought, not very coherently; not tonight; it was too large, and he was ripped at the seams and so tired. It would eat him up, but unlike Sheppard he did not know for certain that its source was something outside of his body, and if its source was not something outside of his body then he would eat himself up, and what would be left? There was nothing survivable in him. Nothing that had the instinct to persevere.

Young was still studying him. “Maybe you should stay here tonight,” he said slowly. “You look kind of—”

“I’m not going to resume sleeping on your couch like some sort of urchin,” Rush bit out, somewhat wearily.

“Well—“ Young hesitated. He took a breath and placed his hands on the kitchen island’s counter. It was a peculiar gesture: palms flat against the marble like he was bracing himself to move a heavy object, setting himself to a task he wasn’t sure that he was ready to undertake. “I mean, if you want to, the bed is— We shared okay in Grand Junction.”

Rush hunched his shoulders and wound his arms tightly against his chest. “You snore,” he said bitingly. “Unbearably. Even worse, I expect, when you’re drugged to the gills.”

Young’s face was turned away, so Rush couldn’t see his reaction— only the minute, exhausted shrug. “Fine. Then go, I guess.”

But Rush did not go. He stared murderously at the marble countertop and drove the nails of his hands into the base of his clenched fists. He considered the comparative relief that destroying something would provide: a sophisticated block cipher, a radio, a reputation, or even perhaps one of the cheap china plates. A barstool. He could break the one he was sitting on against the wall. It would shatter. This was the opposite experience to being touched. An assertion of existence. An act of sufficiency: you cannot stop me from— you cannot stop me. You cannot stop me.

But he did not break the barstool, or the plates, and he did not demand that Young provide a laptop that he could use to do the other sorts of damage. Instead, for reasons he could not explain, he wrenched off the blazer he had retrieved from the locker where it had been stored, wadded it up into a hard ferocious bundle, and hurled it viciously at the hated sofa’s Nimrodian leather back.

Fuck you,” he hissed, and stalked off in the direction of the bedroom.

His hands were shaky with adrenaline, he noticed in the hallway, presumably as a delayed response to all the day’s many, many deaths.

Rush had stripped to his t-shirt and boxers by the time Young joined him, and was curled into a tense, unmoving knot under Young’s dreadful Southwestern-themed duvet. Hoping to avoid any attempt at interlocution, he had turned the overhead light off. Perhaps Young might suppose he was asleep, he thought. Perhaps Young might simply ignore him, and then in the morning Young would be sleeping or Young would be gone, and Rush would be spared the need to even acknowledge his presence, warm, bulky, sighing, snoring, and slightly wood-smelling, a dull-witted and tasteless block of a man who belonged in a bed— a bed, where people slept when they were trying to be people, when they had no greater aim in mind than that.

And, in fact, Young undressed quietly in the dark, and got into the bed without speaking, making only a few quiet sounds of pain. For a while he lay unmoving on his back. Rush could hear him breathing, a sound that was not like any other sound in existence. Just the sound of someone breathing.

“Hey,” Young said softly and unexpectedly.

Rush made a grudging noise indicating awareness.

“Are you— you know— okay?”

Rush stared at the bare bedroom wall, turned a milky greyish colour by shadows and the moonlight through the window’s slats. “Obviously,” he said flatly.

“I was really—“ Young stopped. “I’m glad you made it back,” he said at last.

Rush screwed his eyes shut and buried his injured face in the pillow. It’s not too late, he thought; it’s not too late

But he did not know what he was afraid it might soon be too late for, or how he was supposed to act to avert it, and in the vague state he was in, very close to sleep, it seemed to him that the cataclysmically threatening it might be somehow connected to sleep itself: a warm, dark, and physical falling-forwards that looped and tightened frightening cords around him, anchoring him at the ankle and wrist in the desolating covenant of corporality, impressing him into desires he didn’t want to fulfill, until there was no escape and he knew the cords would hurt to cut now, because they had grown into the fabric of his own skin, but he would have to cut them, he had always known he would have to cut those cords, eventually, in the end—

He could feel them already, the notes that would do the cutting, rising from the black back of his mind to unpick any knots that had been made, Dx4, xE4, xF#4, Ax4, reaching from some part of him that did not belong to him any longer or had not belonged to him when he had last checked, and—

He made an miserable, half-conscious sound, and was aware of Young’s proximity increasing. Young didn’t touch him; he just lay there: an unseen sheltering body. A block.

“Shh,” Young whispered. Once more just a sound. Not a stupid platitude, promising that everything would be okay.

Rush turned blindly towards him, with no particular purpose, and pressed his face to Young’s chest, the bandage at the bridge of his nose scraping slightly against the place where skin met shirt-collar. He shifted so his cheek was pressed to Young's neck and let himself rest there. He didn’t say anything. There was nothing to be said.

Slowly, Young brought his arm up and wrapped it around Rush, palm settling flat between his shoulders. “Shh,” he said again.

It was no kind of thing to say, no language at all, only hushing out a comfort he couldn’t deliver. And yet Rush fisted a hand in Young’s shirt and for a long time, until he slept, held on as though he believed in the reality of that comfort, something warm and invisible or maybe microscopic, a kind of human radiation that did the opposite of disturb, something that could carry rest across the impassable chasm between bodies and deliver it from Young to him.

### Chapter Text

Young woke to two sensations he had not expected.

The first and most immediate was the pain that didn’t so much knife through him as curl in a series of elegant knots under his skin, flourishes done by an expert in some Japanese rope art with ropes that happened to be made from his nerves and muscles. If he’d had a screwdriver handy, he would have stabbed it into his hip. Without one, he wasn’t sure how he was going to be able to sit up, because the knots were hard and tense and designed to hold.

The other sensation, less painful but in some ways no less problematic, was Rush snuffling softly against his chest: warm-mouthed and quiet, his hand loosely tangled in Young’s t-shirt. Young felt unexpectedly comfortable having him there, as though that was the right place for him to go: just there, flush against Young’s body, with Young’s arm wrapped around him.

Don’t move, Young thought to himself. Don’t move; don’t spoil everything; just— stay still.

Like a traveler in the backcountry, unexpectedly confronted by something deadly: a wild animal, rare and sleek skittish and dangerous, that you knew could kill you, but that you couldn’t run from.

He and David had never really… slept together, was the thing. David fucked like he did everything else: in sudden bursts that seemed at the same time both without any forethought and somehow planned-for down to the smallest touch, like he’d practiced all the skills but not known precisely when he might get the chance to use them. He’d grappled with Young against walls and against kitchen tables, on the pristine black leather sofa in his immaculate, minimalist house, and once, memorably, over a car hood; they’d even done it in bed a couple of times, always at David’s, but David didn’t have the kind of bed that really seemed designed for sleep. And besides, it had never been the right time. So they had just stretched out on the blank and starchy white sheets, sweat cooling on their bodies, not really touching. David would smoke a cigarette and they’d watch TV, and sometimes Young would catch David looking at him in a way that no one had ever looked at Young, with a dark, tender, restless, and indecipherable yearning, like even though he’d just had Young, there was some barrier between them he still couldn’t cross. A whole glass suit of armor that David was wearing, Young thought, because it wasn’t on his side, that barrier; even if he also always wanted something that didn’t seem to happen, to say a word that he never seemed to find on his lips.

He couldn’t imagine sleeping with David, anyway. Of course he couldn’t. The idea was laughable, ridiculous. —The idea of sleeping with a man, he would’ve said. It was one thing to sleep in the field, side-by-side, or even arms touching, on a mission; one thing to measure each other’s bodies with your eyes; one thing to fuck; but there were ways you didn’t touch a man, even when you were fucking, ways you didn’t look at him, things you didn’t say, not because you didn’t want to seem— but because it was different with a man than it was with a woman. Women needed those touches, so you touched even if you didn’t feel the same instinctual urgency to touch them. They needed to be told, I’m not going to hurt you. They liked to be desired by men. David would have taken it as an insult, or worse, a sign of weakness, if Young had said, I want you, even in those moments when his whole body hummed with how much he did. Because— because. Men weren’t made to be something that was wanted. They didn’t need that. Young didn’t need that.

There were rules. It was like walking in a spiderweb. But every little thread of the web was the one that could destroy you, the one that had the spider’s poison on it. You had to know where to put your feet. You had to walk with confidence, because if you paused you’d lose your balance. It was good, really, assuming you learned the steps like you were supposed to. You stood up straight and never had to look where you were going.

But if you paused—

Young closed his eyes. His hand, on Rush’s back, touched the ends of Rush’s long hair. It felt good against his fingers, even though it needed to be cut. He couldn’t tell Rush that— that it felt good, or that Rush should get his hair cut, anymore than he could describe this moment, how perfectly Rush fit under his hand, how Young would take the pain of lying here with his busted leg and spine and hip just for the peace he hadn’t known he’d wanted, for whatever it was Rush had wanted from him in the moment when he’d turned, full of wordless asking.

Don’t, he thought to himself.

Don’t pause.

So, very gently, he unwrapped himself from Rush. Rush screwed up his nose and made a kind of mmph sound of dissatisfaction, clenching his hand in Young’s shirt. But Young managed to detach him, and he seemed to drop into a deeper sleep afterwards.

It helped, Young thought, that it hurt so much to get out of bed; he had to focus on not making noise, and figuring out how to bend his hip, and the pain whited out what he might have felt when he finally made it to standing and looked down at Rush lying there. So he just felt pain, pretty much, generally, and with a sense of profound resignation he limped off to the kitchen to take a muscle relaxant and a Percocet and start the day.

It was well past noon by the time Rush emerged. Young had settled onto the couch with his reading glasses, his laptop, and the stack of Committee #6 meeting transcripts, which someone had helpfully stuck in a locked briefcase for him while he was offworld. The Percocet helped with the reading, he thought; he’d managed to get through a good chunk of the less appalling transcripts, to the point where the IOA got involved and Camile Wray joined up, before he had to stop and sit for a while, staring out the window into the mercifully blank white shield of the sun.

That was what he was doing when he saw Rush shuffle out of the hallway, somehow managing to look both sleepy-eyed and bad-tempered, wearing the jeans he’d had on yesterday and one of Young’s Air Force t-shirts.

“Morning,” Young said, trying for casual and hitting cautious. “Thanks for asking to borrow my shirt.”

Rush ignored him. The refrigerator opened and closed, just out of Young’s range of vision. A few minutes later, a cabinet door slammed viciously shut. Rush started hacking at something with a knife, more forcefully than was probably necessary. The smell of coffee filled the apartment, followed by the scent of something frying.

“I guess you’re feeling okay,” Young said, tipping his head back against the couch so he could see Rush. “You want to bring me some of that coffee?”

He sighed, eyeing the stack of transcripts. After a second’s consideration, he stuffed them back in the briefcase and re-locked it, then began the process of getting himself up off the couch. It wasn’t great, but he could do it, and when it was done, he grabbed his laptop and made his way to the kitchen island.

Rush was standing at the stove, staring fixedly at a skillet and a pot of boiling water. He didn’t acknowledge Young’s presence, even when Young cleared his throat loudly and made a show of clunking around getting his laptop set up. His only concession was to extract a cup of coffee from the elaborate coffee maker about five minutes after Young’s arrival, and place it in a plausibly deniable location approximately a foot to the left of Young.

It was good coffee. Young drank it in slow sips, watching Rush sauté cubes of potato.

“So,” he said eventually. “You’re mad at me, as usual, for some secret reason you’re going to refuse to tell me and then forget when you find something more interesting to be mad about. Or else you didn’t take one of the pills Lam gave you last night, even though I told you to, and now you’re sore as hell and don’t want to have to admit it’s your own fault.”

Rush’s shoulders stiffened, but he didn’t turn.

“Or both,” Young said. “I guess it could be both.”

“I dislike having my consciousness fucked with,” Rush said. His voice sounded rusty. “In certain directions.”

“Hey, what do you know? It speaks.”

“Fuck off.” Rush more-or-less hurled a plate of food at Young across the surface of the island, and then, as an afterthought, a single fork.

It was surprisingly normal food, by Rush’s standards: home-fried potatoes, cheese, tomatoes, and poached eggs, artistically arranged on top of handmade corn tortillas. Maybe Rush was going through a street food phase. More likely he was tired.

“You know,” Young said, “taking a painkiller isn’t really going to fuck with your consciousness. It’s just going to make you hurt less and maybe get some sleep.”

Rush was eating with his back to Young, still facing the stove. “I’ve got work to do.”

“Maybe take the day off. You just cracked one of the chevrons.” Young took a bite of one of the open-faced tacos. It was good.

“My work is, unlike yours, actually rather important.”

Young rolled his eyes. “Uh, yesterday my work involved fishing you out of an ocean on an alien planet, after taking a dive to rescue the data you didn’t secure, so I’m thinking that at the very least it’s pretty important to your work.”

Rush pushed his plate away abruptly, hunching his shoulders.

“—And I’m taking the day off,” Young said, suddenly aware that he had trespassed into dangerous waters without knowing precisely how or where. “So maybe you could join me. I could use the help; I’m supposed to stay off my leg.”

There was a pause.

“—Fine,” Rush said curtly.

Young had expected the conversation to be more difficult, and maybe to end with slamming doors. He eyed Rush warily while polishing off the last of his coffee, trying to figure out the catch. “Really?” he asked.

Rush glanced at him over his shoulder— the first time Young had gotten a good look at his face all morning. He’d taken the bandage off. There were shadows under his eyes approximately the same color as the blue bruise on the bridge of his nose. Quickly, he dropped his gaze to the stovetop. “You seem surprised,” he said.

“Normally you’re, uh—“ Young searched for a polite way to describe Rush’s normal behavior. “Very committed to your positions?” he offered carefully.

“Yes, well. Perhaps I have a secret plan.”

“You say that like it wouldn’t be pretty much the least surprising explanation.”

“I have a plan. It’s not particularly secret.” Rush reached out and picked up his plate, then stood holding it tightly, as though he didn’t know what to do with it, or with himself, beyond that act. “To be left alone so I can do my work. To dial the ninth chevron. That’s all there is. That’s all there is. I have no interest in anyone or anything beyond that. Nothing. I just want— I want to be left alone with the cipher, which apparently is too complicated a desire for people to grasp, as though I must have a secret plan, when in fact to me it seem both simple and obvious, and— why not?— let’s add on logical, too; it’s logical, why wouldn’t I want to be alone; what the fuck would I want with other people? What a piece of work is a man, I mean, Christ, perhaps if you cut him open, or digitize him; otherwise he’s practically worthless, devoid of information, so what— so—“ His voice, which had been steadily escalating in volume, suddenly faltered.

He turned around and stared blankly down at where each of his hands now held one piece of the almost-perfectly-halved plate. It must’ve cracked at some point during his impromptu monologue. The point where each half had sheared off was so neat and straight that it looked as though Rush had done a magic trick. Young would’ve been reminded of a Catholic priest breaking the Eucharist, except that Rush looked so bemused.

Young didn’t say anything. He was holding his breath, not sure how to respond. It was important to him… It was important to him, he thought, not to say the wrong thing.

“—And you’ve got shit taste in crockery,” Rush finished unsteadily, sounding— more than anything— lost.

“Yeah,” Young said.

“But I can— I can remedy that, obviously. Online shopping. And I can work from here. I can do preliminary work. On the ninth cipher.” But he didn’t move. He continued staring at the broken plate.

Young stood, trying not to wince too much as his back straightened, and, using the countertop as a crutch, limped over and gently pried the pieces of plate out of Rush’s hands. He pitched them in the trashcan. “Yeah,” he said. “I think that sounds good.”

“You do?” Rush squinted at him as though he didn’t quite believe it.

“Sure. I’m gonna, uh, sit on the couch and—“ Young jerked his hand vaguely over his shoulder. “Answer some emails. You can do your cipher work.”

“Sure,” Rush echoed. He seemed perplexed, and when Young had managed to collect his laptop and make his halting way to the couch, he was still standing there, in front of the stove, brow furrowed, looking like he wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, or what he was supposed to do next.

Young ended up sticking to his word and opening his email inbox, because he couldn’t very well read the committee transcripts with Rush in the room. At least, that was how he felt. And Rush wasn’t just in the room, but actually sitting on the other side of the sofa, squinting at one of the little notebooks he seemed to always have in his pockets, jotting down impenetrable scribbles from time to time with a cheap ballpoint pen. Probably he was working on the ninth cipher, though Young couldn’t tell, really, and didn’t want to ask— it felt like they’d reached a fragile detente of some kind, side-by-side in the still and sunlight-warmed apartment, and he didn’t want to disturb it.

After a while, Rush’s pen stopped scratching at the notebook. The hunch of his spine softened; his hands went limp; his head tipped back. He was asleep.

Of course he was asleep. Young rolled his eyes with an impatient fondness and carefully removed the pen and notebook from Rush’s hands.

Rush huffed without waking and drew his eyebrows together in an expression of consternation, like even in his sleep he could tell that Young had conned him into doing something that was actually healthy. He dragged his knees up towards his chest, and then— before Young could stop him, or really even realize what was happening— he managed to perform a sort of combination topple-burrow-slide that ended with his face mashed into Young’s shoulder. It didn’t look very comfortable, especially with a broken nose, but it didn’t wake him up, either, and Young sat there for a moment, startled, wondering what to do.

He didn’t mind, exactly. He would’ve minded with Cam or David, though he had a hard time imagining it happening in the first place. In the field, sure, maybe, when you’re sitting around, or on a long transport, but he’d just shove them off, then, and it’d be a joke— an affectionate one, but still, cordoning off the area, making sure the web was clearly marked, because otherwise it would feel like a threat, that gesture. A man might as well hit him as let his head rest on Young’s shoulder. It was more or less the same.

But he couldn’t see Rush as a threat. On an intergalactic level, maybe— hell, even just on the terrestrial level, Rush had proven he could pretty much sit down at a computer terminal and take down the SGC. And he was scrappy in a fight, and got nasty when he was frightened, and liked to destroy Young’s property and do stupid shit. But fundamentally he was just the wrong size, somehow, to be threatening. It wasn’t just that he was little. He had a different shape in some other sense: soft where Young expected him to be hard, and vice versa, with claws where there ought to have been weak spots and weak spots where there should have been claws.

Maybe that made him more dangerous than someone like David. In another world, it probably would. But it meant that this, here, now, the weight of Rush’s head on Young’s shoulder, the dig of his glasses and the damp exhale of his breath, this, this, wasn’t alarming, and Young would take it, he thought. He’d take it.

So he didn’t move.

Eventually he thought to check his email again. Landry had forwarded Young Alaniz’s reprimand, like Young might have been unaware of its existence, with a one-line note: Let’s talk about this.

Jackson had sent him a wry, terse message: Alaniz told Lam what you’ve been up to. I’d stay away from the base till you’re back on your feet, unless you want her to find an excuse to stick you with needles. You’re cleared to see Telford any time you’d like to, just let security know a few hours ahead. I’ll be offworld for a couple of days but I want to talk to you when you’ve read the most recent transcripts. Let me know when a good time would be.

From Mitchell: Sorry man. U still mad at me? Going offworld but beer when I get back. You’re on leave right? yes. YOu are. Please just take a gd nap.

And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, something from Emily, forwarded from his personal account. Everett, she said. It’s been a while. I hope you’re doing well. I’m sorry to bother you. I imagine you’re very busy. I’m looking for a green ceramic teapot with a hyacinth pattern. It was my grandmother’s, and I think it might have gotten mixed in with your things when we packed up the kitchen. Can you take a look, please? If you find it, let me know and I’ll come by to pick it up. Thanks. I hope you’re doing well. —Emily.

Of all things, it was the fact that she’d repeated herself that he couldn’t deal with. That second I hope you’re doing well. He didn’t know why. He felt so tired when he read it that he closed the computer and just sat for a minute, feeling like his whole body had gotten heavier and he couldn’t stand up.

On his shoulder, Rush shifted and made a sighing, complaining noise. Weirdly, the noise caught on Young like a little barb of contentment. But then he felt guilty, sitting there next to the briefcase full of transcripts that, at some point, he was going to have to take out and read.

He shut his eyes. But postponing it, he thought, wouldn’t make it any easier. And at least while Rush was asleep, he couldn’t snoop. So carefully, working not to wake Rush, Young unlocked the briefcase that he’d sandwiched between himself and the arm of the couch. The files inside were neatly arranged by date. It had struck him that morning, how well-organized they were, how someone must have spent time going through the transcripts and doing it, that that was someone’s job, maybe Harriman’s, to look at them afterwards, as part of a casual day at the office, and think, This one goes in that place. As though it made a difference.  And it did make a difference, Young supposed. Of course it did. It was so much easier to find what he was looking for. It was easy to find the transcript where Landry said—

LANDRY: I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding about why you’re here.

WRAY: There’s no misunderstanding.

LANDRY: It seemed likely, in the event of the Icarus Project’s success, that uncomfortable questions would be raised regarding how that success came about. While it’s true that we generally consider it easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission—

WRAY: You thought you’d aim for the best of both worlds.

LANDRY: We can offer the IOA plausible deniability. What we’re asking in return is not to be asked those uncomfortable questions. It’s not necessary that a representative be present at these meetings, if you feel that would make your job more difficult.

WRAY: That was made clear to me. I chose to come.

JACKSON: Why?

WRAY: Excuse me?

JACKSON: Why choose to come? To be honest, I think that most of us would rather not be here.

WRAY: But you’re here.

JACKSON: Yes.

WRAY: Because this is where we are. If I allowed my safety to be bought at a price I couldn’t bring myself to contemplate, that would seem…

JACKSON: Disingenuous?

WRAY: I was going to say: immoral.

LANDRY: Well, maybe we should go ahead and talk about that price. Camile, if you’ll take a look at the file to your left— meet Nicholas Rush.

TELFORD: I object to referring to him as a ‘price.’  For Christ’s sake, you make it sound like we’re going to sell him to the Lucian Alliance or cut his heart out on an altar. For all we know, he’s lucky. We’re giving him an incredible opportunity.

JACKSON: Yes. So incredible that you picked a mentally unstable man whose wife was dying, moved him halfway across the country a week after her death, convinced him he was here to do math, and told him he wasn’t allowed to leave his apartment without a military escort!

O’NEILL: And how happy all our lives would be if he decided to follow that rule.

TELFORD: I didn’t pick him. The genes picked him.

JACKSON: Do you feel absolved by that fact, David?

WRAY: I don’t understand why he hasn’t been told.

JACKSON: An interesting question. If it’s such an incredible opportunity.

TELFORD: He doesn’t need to be told. The project’s not at that stage yet.

WRAY: At what stage does he need to be told?

Young looked, involuntarily, at where Rush was drooling on his shoulder. He wondered what had been in the file that Wray had been given. Rush’s medical records, he guessed. A full biography. A photograph? Probably Jackson, if no one else, would have pushed for one to be included, thinking that it would humanize Rush. And maybe it would. Maybe Wray would have picked up the photograph and felt like she knew this person, when she knew nothing. Young had only known Rush for about a month at this point, and he still could’ve told her that. Meet Nicholas Rush, he wanted to tell her. He threw a fork at my wall. He was going to put toothpaste on my ceiling. He acts like a five-year-old when he doesn’t get his way. He doesn’t trust anybody, and he thinks we’re all idiots, and then he turns around and expects us to cater to his every whim. He’s teaching math to a girl who hit him in the face with a pistol. He thinks about buffalo herds crossing the prairie. He fell asleep next to me in bed, and it felt good to hold him.

You couldn’t look at a photograph and know what someone’s body was going to feel like when it was alive under your hand. When you put your hand between their shoulder blades, over their backbone, knowing exactly how easy it was to break a backbone. Wanting to protect them from everything. From that.

At what stage does he need to be told? he thought.

He remembered Jackson saying, Do you really think that— I mean, even if you told him—

He wants to be the one who goes, Jackson had said.

But Rush wasn’t a child. And Jackson had called him mentally unstable, but Young didn’t think he was that, either. Or— well, what did that even mean? A person who couldn’t be trusted to make his own decisions? Rush could make his own goddamn decisions. They just usually weren’t the decisions that other people had wanted him to make. They were made according to some strange private rubric that Rush didn’t bother to share with anybody else, that Rush didn’t share with anybody else, on some really basic, fundamental level. That wasn’t the same as being crazy.

Then the problem was, though: how much easier would it be to call him crazy when it came to the one decision that you really, really didn’t want him to make?

Young turned to the most recent transcript, which was dated just after David went MIA.

O’NEILL: What I want to know is, who authorized him going on that goddamn mission?

LANDRY: It was a critical situation. There was a real possibility that taking action was going to reveal the identity of the Lucian mole.

O’NEILL: Sending the head of this project to go aboard a Lucian warship? You know what that is? I’ll give you a hint: it starts with bull and rhymes with—

LANDRY: It was his call.

O’NEILL: You know why we have a chain of command? It’s so the little idiots have to run their bright ideas by someone else, who hopefully isn’t just a bigger idiot!

JACKSON: Jack.

JACKSON: I just think— we should figure out what he knows that they don’t know. That they didn’t know. Yet. Specifically.

O’NEILL: Apart from, I don’t know, the identity of the Icarus planet we located and all of our plans?

JACKSON: Yes. Apart from that.

LANDRY: It’s more complicated than that. We had a report come in two weeks ago from an undercover member of SG-14 that suggested the Alliance was aware of the location of the laboratory on P3X-124— the former Anubis site where we’d attempted the most significant retrofitting. Everything we know about the Alliance’s commitment to dialing the nine-chevron address leads us to expect that an attack on this site would be a top priority for them. In fact, we’d beefed up our forces there in preparation. It’s the most complete lab facility Anubis left behind; if we lost control of it, our ability to go through with this… procedure would be all but derailed. The Alliance has to know that. Even if they weren’t attempted the procedure themselves—

O’NEILL: But they haven’t attacked.

LANDRY: They haven’t attacked.

O’NEILL: Why haven’t they attacked?

LANDRY: That’s my question.

WRAY: You think they have an alternative method of carrying out the procedure.

LANDRY: Yes.

WRAY: If there’s an alternative method, why haven’t we pursued that as an option?

LANDRY: Carolyn?

LAM: I want to be very clear. Are there alternative ways to achieve the physiological effects we’re seeking? Yes. Yes, there are. Theoretically, any method that managed to artificially adjust protein biosynthesis and achieve a new, stable, permanent homeostasis would be successful. The experimental apparatus that Anubis used is more-or-less arbitrary, except that we know of no other means to achieve that homeostasis. It’s certainly possible that the Lucian Alliance could have solved this problem. However, if I’m correctly interpreting Ms. Wray’s underlying questi