Force over Distance: To Open the Universe (For a Lady)
It’s a heck of a thing.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Post-breakfast tea.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
To Open the Universe (For a Lady)
Bill Lee comes through the gate, dramatically falls flat on his face, and doesn’t even get a hello?
Eh, he’s used to it.
Plus, Nick Rush has inhabited his body a grand total of once, and the guy probably hadn’t been all that interested in finding the nearest mirror at the time. Still. They’ve corresponded. Bill even let one of his demi-graduate students give a presentation at his lab meeting.
Eh, it’s fine.
Bill’s been rubbing elbows with A-listers his whole career. He’s B-list material. He knows it. He’s let one too many plants grow through one too many communications systems to ever be a Big Shot. Like Carter. Like McKay. Like Rush, sort of. Like Eli Wallace probably will be, one day.
If they ever get home.
Bill tries to catch Nick’s eye as they leave the gate room, but the guy is neck deep in some Telford drama, catching cigarette boxes straight out of the air, living his A-list life.
Bill sighs and follows Lieutenant James.
They wind their way through shockingly dark corridors. Doors are few and far between, and this section of the ship doesn’t have a very Lantean Crew Quarters-y feel to it. That’s for sure. He’s the last to get dropped off. Telford’s bags went into the first door.
That’s what happens when you’re important.
Bill is the least important guy here, because he’s the only one Telford didn’t hand pick.
Bill is a Jackson plant.
It’s a terrible life, living in the Jacksosphere. But Bill does. Can’t help it. He adores the guy. The only A-lister that’ll reliably give him the time of day, as long as the time of that day is after midnight, and they meet at the coffee machine. This is Bill’s one claim to fame. In fact, he’s close enough with Jackson that he gets occasional sass from the guy. Sass! The squinty-eyed shoulder shrug! It’s weird and fun. Not that many people get Jackson sass. Vala Mal Doran gets it. Here and there Carter gets it. O’Neill definitely got it.
The sass is no small thing.
It makes him feel like maybe, over the years, he’s made up, just a little, for all the ways he’d let Daniel down in Honduras.
But, uh, if Bill is still in the guy’s debt? This one-way trip to the edge of the universe should put him, once and for all, in the black.
He sighs. What the heck was he gonna say? No?
His kids are out of college, his ex-wife never calls, and all his friends and family and home-galaxy civilization are in serious danger of being wiped out by the Ori.
He hopes he hasn’t come to Destiny to die.
But, even more, he hopes he hasn’t come to Destiny to survive everybody back home.
That would be too much.
So it won’t happen. The terrible crap never happens, somehow. That’s the Jackson Mystique. The Carter Mystique. And, once in a blue moon, the McKay Mystique. Rush probably has it too. He must. This little crew’s made it through somehow.
Bill will be just fine.
He looks skeptically at the walls.
Destiny is nothing like Atlantis. It’s dark. It’s a little bit—yeah.
It’s a little bit ugly.
It looks like a sewer.
He probably won’t ever say that out loud. Certain people turn weird about Ancient tech. Usually that’s in proportion to the number of Ancient genes they have. He doesn’t want to get punched.
“This is you,” James says, stopping at a deserted room in a lonely corridor. She hits the door controls.
It’s so weird that nothing here is automatic.
It’s also weird that the lights are so low.
“Thanks,” Bill says, but the word’s already trailing to nothing.
“Oh wow,” he breathes, looking straight at the window. “My god. Look at that wave.” He walks right over to it, drops his bag along the way, blind to the rest of the room. He puts his hands on the transparent alloy that creates the view.
God, it’s—it’s distant.
“It’s distant!” He looks over his shoulder at James, and points at the morphing, regular ripples of their transit. “Why is it distant? No one ever mentioned it was distant!!!”
“Um,” James smiles a small, there-and-gone smile, and walks forward to join him at the window. “What do you mean?”
“Well look at it! There’s a barrier!” Lee’s fingers are still pressed to the not-glass glass. He studies the bubble of reality that houses the ship. “I thought the wave would come right to the window. What is that?”
“The shields,” James says.
“No!” Bill grins at whatever glorious nonsense is happening out there, beyond the port bow. “Those are like no shields I’ve ever seen.”
“Well,” James says, “they’re our shields.” And then, almost experimentally, she adds, “They sing the matter wave forward.”
“What?” Bill turns and shrieks it at her. Oops. But he can’t be blamed. He’s grinning like an idiot. “They sing the matter wave? How dare you, lieutenant!!!”
James, finally, cracks a real smile.
“What’s your name?” Bill says.
“James,” James says.
“No no, your human name,” Bill replies.
“Vanessa,” Vanessa says.
“Ugh, great name,” Bill says. “Vanessa. How the heck do you know that shields sing the matter wave forward?”
“I’m the military liaison to the Science Team,” she says.
And yeah, that’d probably do it, on a Nick Rush ship. Still. One hell of a thing to offer five minutes after meeting someone who’s supposedly here to take your boss apart into his constituent atoms, transmute him to energy, then ask him for advice.
But—maybe she doesn’t know that.
“Is there any way I can get a meeting with Nick?” Lee asks.
“Um.” Vanessa’s expression turns cautious. “Not yet. Not today.”
“Well, yeah, of course not today. But I need to talk to him. Man to man. Scientist to scientist. Just him and me.”
The lieutenant backs up a step, and her face gets weirdly neutral. “You’ll have to clear it with the colonel.”
That was a faux pas.
Bill stops and takes stock.
He can retrospectively identify his mistake. Coming on too strong. Getting carried away with the science and his to-do list, not thinking enough about the bigger picture—all the usual B-lister mistakes. This lieutenant might not know what his team is really here for, but her leadership does, and that caution probably trickles down the chain of command.
There might be a little more to it than that.
Because this lieutenant, serious and sharp-eyed, might be a Nick Rush protege. She has the look about her. She carries herself like a universe of hurt in the shape of a person. Chloe Armstrong, not even in her own body, had been the same. And then, ugh, the SGC original.
He thinks of her with a sharp ache, right under his breastbone.
Her mind is here somewhere, supposedly, folded down. Locked in hard storage.
He’d had lunch with her, after her first Destiny trip. She’d wept as she’d told him about it, tears running from her eyes that she couldn’t wipe away. The memory hits hard.
“There’s nothing Nick Rush loves more than opening the universe for a lady,” she whispers. “And Destiny certainly counts.”
“As opening the universe?” Bill asks.
“Oh no,” Perry says, a devious edge back in her grin, even before her tears fully dry. “She counts as a lady.”
He feels a pang through his whole being. It’s the feeling he gets when he clicks into a solution to a problem, when all the pieces come together, except it’s sad. Terribly, terribly sad. And he thinks of Daniel, of how his whole life must feel like this. Bill isn’t like him. He can’t easily contain this level of complexity, and he has to dig back into his own self to create more space to hold this idea and the way it makes him feel.
Because he knows Nick Rush, a little bit. He’s corresponded with the man. Inhabited his body.
Because he knows Ancient tech, a little bit. He’s walked through their cities, traveled their celestial roads.
Perry, as usual, had hit the nail on the head and shattered the whole house down.
Destiny is a dark, skeletal shadow when compared to somewhere like Atlantis. But. He looks out the window at the starlight-blurred matter wave that carries him through the cosmos at a speed that, somehow, outstrips light. It shouldn’t be possible. And yet, it is.
Not only that, but it reminds him of the view from Atlantis. Ocean and sunlight.
Here, it’s a sea of warped starlight. It even has waves.
This is place should be beautiful. Not dark. Not stripped down. Not impersonating pipes and service corridors.
Has anyone ever told Daniel what it looks like here?
This is going to be about a thousand times harder than even Daniel had prepped him for. Because he knows, in his bones, what Nick Rush has to be trying to do. He’s rebuilding Atlantis. With, like, five guys. One service corridor at a time. Which would be one heck of an undertaking. Something that Bill would love to help with, just for the pure satisfaction of doing it.
Except Nick Rush, apparently, is psychically melded to the very city he’s trying to restore.
They’re gonna rebuild Destiny, and, in the end, the SGC is going to have its hands on the most complicated, sophisticated, maybe even transdimensional piece of technology it’s ever encountered.
Except it’ll be, partially, a person.
It’s a heck of a thing.
Daniel thinks Telford is gonna try to force Nick into ascension.
That might be child’s play in comparison to the problem they end up with. People have ascended before. Daniel. Daniel again. Also Daniel. People fusing with tools? That gets messy. People fusing with tools related to dimensional transit? During a transdimensional war? He can’t think of anything messier. In all of space and time.
Bill presses his forehead into the window. “God,” he sighs to himself. “What have I gotten myself into now?”
“It’s—it’s not like that.” Vanessa’s expression is uneasy. “It’s—the colonel—you and your team will have to build some trust first, is all.”
“Right,” Bill says, and tries to refocus. “Sorry Vanessa. I’m the odd man out, when it comes to Telford’s team. The rest of them are young shark whippersnappers.”
“If that’s really true,” she says guardedly, “you’ll probably score points just for that.”
“I’d like to talk to Nick,” Bill says, “but I’m used to waiting. I’m a B-lister, y’know? Once I had to wait six weeks to get a meeting with Colonel Carter. And she works down the hall. She needs me? I’m there. Instantly. I need her? I get in line.”
“A B-lister, huh?” James says. “I know what that’s like.”
Bill smiles at her. She probably does. She has a bit of the B-lister chip on her shoulder. It’s a quiet chip. Matches his really nicely. But if she’s the military liaison to the Destiny Science Team—
“How long have been science liaison?” Lee asks.
“About a week.”
Okay, so she’s probably not actually a B-lister.
Maybe she was, but she isn’t anymore. Bill gets it. It’d be hard to tell where you stand on a ship like this, where everyone’s clothes are falling apart, the lights are always low, day and night blend together, and each day is almost the same as the one that came before.
“Got any advice for building trust?” Bill asks, because, if she’s just made the A-list, and he’s pretty sure she has, there’s gonna be no one better than her to answer that one.
She looks surprised to be asked.
“Do your job,” she says flatly. Then, she softens herself a little. “Make friends. Do favors. Get lucky.”
“Favors, huh?” Bill smiles at her. “Anything I can help you with, lieutenant?”
She cracks a smile back. “I’m not the kind of person you need to do favors for.”
And she’s still a little naive. That’s reassuring. She’s a baby. Probably in her mid-twenties, pretending she knows it all, carrying an assault rifle, giving herself scars she’ll carry for life.
“Oh come on,” Bill says, grinning at her. “You’re literally my only friend.”
Vanessa gives him a jaded smile. “That’ll change. You’ll be popular, if this place doesn’t grind you down.”
“Popular, huh?” Bill replies. “That’d be fun. Come on, lieutenant. I gave up my research lab, Starbucks, and a wardrobe full of sweatpants to do book reports on ascension for Homeworld Command. Nick Rush didn’t even say hi when I traveled an unquantifiably vast distance to help him out!”
James’s smile turns a little more real. She hesitates. There is something she wants.
“Do you have any paper?” she asks. “Something to write with?”
“There are crates of Nick Rush notebooks,” Bill says. “I’ll steal you one.”
James laughs, short and delighted. “No, I mean. On you now. I wanted to write something. Just a scrap. I can make it very small. Tiny. Just, the inside of a book or something?”
“Sure.” Bill goes to his bag, unzips it, and pulls out a paperback copy of World of Warcraft: The Demon Soul. He digs for a pen and finds one.
James snorts as he hands her the book. “You’re gonna fit in real well around here.”
“Please tell me there are Warcraft fans on this ship,” Bill says.
“You’re in luck,” James replies dryly. She takes the pen, and, very carefully, in teeny tiny print on the upper right-hand corner of the title page, she writes a word in Ancient. “Can you tell me what this says?”
And, sure. He could. But.
“I’ll do you one better.” He tears the title page out of his book.
James audibly gasps.
Bill sits down on his new bed, which is disappointingly hard, shuts the book, puts the title page on top of it, and starts writing symbols. All the symbols that define the Ancient alphabet. Next to each symbol, he writes the phonetic sound associated with it. He draws an arrow from Vanessa’s tiny, demure little word at the top of the page, and translates it: fulmen/lightning. He passes her the page. “There you go,” he says.
Vanessa takes it like he’s just handed her an original copy of the US Constitution.
God, this ship is sad.
Daniel had tried to prep him, like usual.
It’d been way over Bill’s head, like usual.
They’re the people who would’ve always gone, Daniel had said, surrounded by books and papers, his eyes-rimmed, like they get at one in the morning when a teammate’s in trouble. I mean, yeah, ideally they’d have been better prepared. Ideally, they’d have had the chance to make a choice, Ideally, it would have happened with more warning. But the majority of them were always going to be invited. They just don’t know it.
“Lightning,” Vanessa whispers, reading the word.
“Yeah,” Bill says. “Also thunderbolt. Running current. Flowing charge. Almost always through a medium, though. Fulmen isn’t used for EM waves in a vacuum. A lot of times it’ll carry the idea of sundering. The way lightning splits an air mass, in a storm.”
“Does it?” Vanessa asks, still looking at the page. “I didn’t know.”
“Oh yeah. Thunder’s the sound of huge air masses, colliding back together after a split. That’s in the word a little bit too. There’s usually a connotation of reformation. Fulmen—it’ll run through, but it doesn’t last. A lot of times you’ll see it paired with ‘scintilla.’ Closest English term is ‘spark.’ The Ancient word is richer, even, and ‘spark’ is pretty layered with meaning for us already. In Ancient, ‘scintilla’ carries all the threat and promise of our English sparks—sparking ideas, sparking a fire, spark plugs in a car—but it has a flip side. It carries more. Because, when we think of sparks, we don’t think about the ones that don’t spark anything. They did, though. The Ancients. They thought a lot about the ones that just—” he eases a hand into the air, “fade away.”
Vanessa nods, and doesn’t say anything.
Bill has a reflexive impulse to apologize for nerding out. He usually does. But he stops himself this time. Because he has the feeling that, maybe, this has really meant something to Vanessa.
Ugh, she’s the same age as his kids. He tries to imagine any of them on a ship like this, heading away from everything they’d ever known, doing it faster than light. Traveling mind-altering distances each day. Each hour. Each minute. Each second.
And nah, he’ll not be imagining that, actually.
“How do you know so much about etymology?” Vanessa asks. “Aren’t you a scientist?”
“There’s a whole library of words you gotta know to do the science,” Bill says. “It’s a heck of a thing. Jackson and Carter have been working on the crossover for years. What the Ancients did—with machines, with genetics—and how how they talked about it—their layered grammar, their nested meanings, but even more than that, even right down to the physics of sound and the geometry of symbol—for them, it was all of a piece.”
“There are words inscribed into the ship,” Vanessa says. “Like decoration, almost,”
“Of course there are,” Bill replies. “Atlantis is the same.”
“You’ve been there?” Vanessa asks. “As soon as I heard of it—I wanted to go. I was never sure why. I just—I did. In fact, I never really wanted to leave home at all. Except for how I had to.” She looks down at the paper in her hands. “Sorry. That doesn’t make any sense. Not sure why I’m even telling you.”
This girl has an Ancient gene. A strong one. Bill Lee would bet his whole, useless paycheck on it.
“And you’re friends with Dr. Jackson?” Vanessa asks, still staring at the title page of The Demon Soul.
“Yeah,” Bill says.
“Wow,” Vanessa murmurs. “He saved my life once. He doesn’t even know it.”
Bill smiles, feeling something strange and painful knit a little bit, deep down. “That’s—that’s really nice to hear. Most of the time it’s the other way around for him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Most of the time when he’s saving people—they’re the ones who never know it.”
“Yeah,” Vanessa whispers. “He died to save that planet, and they never knew.”
Bill presses his lips together. Because not only had he died, he’d died horribly. In agony. Over days. He’d ripped the heart straight out of Janet Frasier. And now, she, too, was dead.
“How’d he save you?” Bill asks, before he can think too hard about any of it.
“He teaches a class at the SGC for the new recruits,” Vanessa says. “Just one. Have you heard of it?”
“Oh yeah,” Bill says. “The Class with No Name. It’s famous. You got to take it, huh?”
“So how’d he save you?” Bill asks.
“He told a story.” Vanessa smiles down at the paper in her hands. “And, when the time came, I remembered it.”
“He does that,” Bill agrees.
Tentatively, Vanessa offers him the page of The Demon Soul. “Paper’s pretty scarce around here. You don’t want to go giving it away.”
“Aw come on. You keep that. It’s for you.”
Very carefully, she folds it, and slips it into an inner pocket of her jacket. “Thanks,” she says. “No one’s given me anything in a long time.”
This lieutenant is crushing his heart to pulp and the ship is probably full of people just like her.
“I should go,” she says, and gets to her feet. “The first dinner shift starts at 1730. I’ll be there. I can introduce you to a few people. We’re gonna have MRE’s tonight. Everyone gets one. The entire crew is gonna show early.”
“For MREs?” Bill asks, mystified.
“You should see the usual stuff,” Vanessa replies. “Breakfast tomorrow is gonna make MREs look like fine cuisine.”
“Oh boy,” Bill says. “Thanks, Vanessa.”
“No problem.” She hits the door controls and leaves the room.
The magnitude of what he’s gotten himself into finally hits home. Paste for meals. A ship built to give a human Seasonal Affective Disorder. Competing science teams working toward different, maybe equally disturbing goals. Political factions. Philosophical feuds. Whatever technomage spells Rush is already casting.
And there won’t even be coffee.
Daniel Jackson should be here.
But he can’t be.
So he’s sent Bill.
This is now seeming like a worse idea than it had first appeared. And, at first blush, it had seemed so bad it was almost nonsensical.
Bill sighs, scans his quarter, and walks back to the window.
He’s worried about all the human stuff.
But, more than that, he’s now worried about this ship.
Destiny had launched early. Not before Atlantis was built, but before Atlantis became all it was. Before it traveled to Pegasus. Or, maybe, right around the same time. It was launched when gene therapy was new. It was launched as the plague began. The plague had lasted for millennia. Spread across galaxies. It’s been delayed. Slowed. Pushed back. But inevitable. From the beginning.
The Ancients had known they were going to die when they’d launched this ship.
And, on the walls, they’d written fulmen.
What if it’s written everywhere? On everything? Across systems, layered into networks, carved into walls, singing in the shields?
Fulmen micat. Scintilla depluo. Or, worse, in ictu oculi?
Maybe it’s better Daniel’s not here, after all.
Bill looks, once more, at the starlit sea beyond the glass. Then, before he so much as unpacks a single thing, he starts scanning the walls of his quarters. They’re dark. Made of a strange, time-stained naquadah alloy. He activates the flashlight built into his phone.
He starts looking, methodically, for inlaid text.