Force over Distance: With No Name
James drags herself into the light.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of ALL KINDS. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Suicidal ideation.
Text iteration: Witchingest hour.
Audio status: Theoretical.
Additional notes: None.
With No Name
After the NHB, James strides through the ship, like a man, like a king, like a lion, pretending she’s on the 2300 to 0700 shift because the optics on every other choice are bad, real bad, and, even to herself, she’s not gonna set things up to look like she’s doing anything other than her job on a night like this when the battles are over, the dressing downs are done, and in the romantic, magnificent Light Cathedral that is the FTL drive, Matt Scott got down on one knee in front of Chloe Fucking Armstrong.
She’s a professional.
She might be a shitty professional—who freezes on the floor when she should be sighting down her gun and who hallucinates the murder of her colleagues when the alien ticks come out—but she’s a professional.
Matt Scott’s NOT a professional. Not even close. He’s an embarrassment who can only keep his undiscriminating dick in the minimum security prison of his pants because his options are limited. He’s a hypocrite. He’s an ass. He’s never had a deep thought in his life. He’s not worth the dust on Chloe’s shoes, but, because he carries a gun and speaks with an earnest twang, everyone’s too blind to see it. Scott treats Chloe as valuable not because he’s a good guy, not because he’d treat every girl that way, but because Chloe is valuable. Everyone knows that. It’s not some special, deep insight he came to on his own.
“It’s not your fault, LT,” Matt Scott says, trapped in the tomb she’d just buried beneath five metric tons of stone and dirt. “You did the best you could.”
Poser. He pretends he cares. He doesn’t care. He pretends to be noble. He’s not noble. Fuck that guy. Fuck all of them. Fuck everyone. Everyone and everyone’s mom. They can all die and rot and burn in hell, glorious and on fire. She can join them. In hell, Chloe might invite her to a threesome. Why aren’t there more threesomes on this goddamned ship? No one’s watching. No one’s judging. She’d be a great addition to a threesome. What would she have to fucking do? Almost die for Chloe, probably. Chloe would have to invite her. Matt Scott, with his perfect body and his shit for brains never would. She remembers going after his head with a blunt object in her quarters like it really happened. The blood. How he’d been laid out, so still, on the floor.
She hisses through her teeth, just the smallest amount. Not enough for anyone to hear.
Maybe that’s what Matt Scott had seen and hadn’t respected. Somewhere in her eyes is the murder she never committed. Maybe that’s what separates her from women like Chloe. Like TJ. Like Lisa. The First Name Women. The women who hallucinate their dead fathers, kindly telling them just how much they’re fucking loved.
James’s expression is hard and cold and hides her thoughts. Her jacket is old and shapeless and hides her body. There’s a sheaf of paper shoved into her BDUs, along with a worn ziplock bag full of loosely compressed ash from the ship’s demolecularizer. You can’t even tell. She could fit a toddler in this damn jacket and no one would know until the kid turned five.
She cycles through the night shift personnel as she stalks the halls, looking for deserted territory. If she’s not good for much, she can at least make etchings for Dr. Lee, who’s friendly, and smart, and kind, and like he won’t forget James exists if she leaves the room. He calls her Vanessa. He’s the only one.
The doc crosses her path at 0200. He’s on his own and limping under the weight of everything he’s not supposed to be doing.
They exchange a watchful glower. Just the way they both like it.
By 0300, her jacket full of new etchings, James ends up in the vast, glowing chamber of the FTL drive.
She spends more time in the vault of this drive than anyone on the ship. Even Scott, who’s supposedly so religious. She wonders what Baby Jesus would think about his love of casual sex. On the job. In janitorial closets. When he’s supposed to be on duty. She’d ask Scott’s well-formulated dick about it, except she’s not in the mood to listen to a lecture on the time Baby Jesus visited Hell and threw a Damned Three-Day Compassion Party. Would the doc consider a compassion party well or poorly formulated?
James huffs to herself, staring into the glory of the running drive. “Poorly formulated.”
Is there anything in the world well formulated? Other than Chloe Angelcakes Armstrong’s rephrasing of James’s shit questions? She doubts it. The entire fucking world is “poorly formulated.” Pretending otherwise is pointless. Just one more reason not to trust the doc. “This whole ship is poorly formulated,” she mutters. There are no speakers for sound. It’s broken. It’s ugly.
Except for this drive, flowing beneath her like a giant, liquid cylinder of blue glow, barreling over itself forever, outrunning the fastest thing in the universe. This drive isn’t ugly. Neither are the shields. Neither is the glass arc of the hydroponics lab under stars. Neither is the song carved into the walls.
Raptors of fire
Cannot enclose salt cliffs
Or the grass sea
With carnelian wings.
What would that sound like, sung?
She’ll wonder all the days of her life, and she’ll never fucking know. Always on the outside. That’s “James.” That’s everything about her that anyone needs to know in one goddamned line. Even shoved into a bottle with a hundred strangers that should’ve turned into family, still no one comes to visit her quarters. No one thinks of her. No one remembers her when she’s not there. Card games, card games that she’s organized, start without her.
She hates them.
She hates them all.
Why can’t she be like TJ? TJ, who everyone loves? Beautiful and quiet and never putting herself forward, but dragged forward all the same, never forgotten. Not once. The one they all go to when it’s too much. The colonel’s favorite. The one he turns to when there’s no one else. The one he’d cracked open the steel of his own honor for. He’s never looked twice at James. Or at any other woman. He never would. He’s not that kind of man. Except for TJ.
She hates them. She hates them so much because she’d had murder in the back of her mind and they know that. They all know. The colonel. TJ. Matt. Chloe. Volker. They all know. It’s why they keep their distance. Don’t get too close to James. Don’t let her in. Even Rush, even RUSH, when he’d had that tick on him hadn’t hallucinated murder.
She was the only one.
James stares into the drive, her throat tight, her heart beating fast. She thinks of Camile Wray, so brave and so collected under emergency lights, the way she’d walked forward, toward the Nakai she knew would torture her.
“That should’ve been me,” she whispers to the drive. It should’ve been her. It should’ve been her. It should’ve been FUCKING HER. What had she been doing? What had she been thinking?
Telford can see what she is. Telford knows. Too afraid of what’s in her own mind to do her job, which is all she is. All she has left. Telford’d been spot on when he’d dressed her down for cowardice. For indecision. In front of everyone.
She’d let Colonel Young down.
She’d let Wray down.
She’d let her team down.
She would do anything, anything, anything in the world to go back and time, to do it again, to do exactly what Wray had done. To stand up and say: “I’m in charge here.” Except it would’ve been: “I’m in command here.” She’d give a limb. She’d give an eye. She’d give ten years of her life. She’d give more.
She rubs her throat.
Why can’t she do just one thing right? One good thing? One time? Just one. Something to reverse the spiral of disappointment and disgust and hate and despair. Something to erase the way her mind, trapped in a ship in a bottle and fighting an alien poison had given her the corpse of Matt Scott, and not a parent who loved her. Or a child that missed her. Or even a wall, boxing her in, six inches from her face.
If only she could’ve had a different life.
If only she could’ve gone exploring, through the gate with a team of four, a team of brothers like she’d never had, maybe a sister to watch over. She could’ve come and gone, returning to Earth, calling her mom on weekends, going on dates, meeting someone, watching TV together. Maybe someone who wasn’t with the SGC, who didn’t know about the stargate. A teacher. A doctor. A social worker. A cop. Maybe she could’ve had a dog. She’s always wanted a dog. A German Shepherd. A Siberian Husky, maybe. A dog she could go hiking with, in the Rocky Mountains. Cool valleys. Quiet pines. Warm sun.
James crosses the slender bridge over the blue-sea span of the drive, passes the observation platform, and continues to the opposite side of the vaulted room, where a small panel opens into a portion of the ship no one’s yet seen.
She leans over the last section of safety rail.
This life between the stars is so stark. The beauty is remote, like the planets they pass, or overwhelming, like the waterfall churn of the energy below her. There’s nothing of it that’s scaled to her. Nothing of it she can touch. Not really. And she’s tried. She’s tried like hell, searching out the ship’s corners, sealed sections, the doors no one has opened. She’s watched the stream of the shields and she’s started to teach herself Ancient but nothing can make up for the fact that she’s alone, that no one wants her, that TJ only tolerates her, that Chloe’s a better version of her than James could be in a thousand million years, that she can’t keep her cynical edge from cutting into everyone she meets, that she imagines herself a murderer, that she’s, at best, a half-step up from Spencer, who ate his own gun.
The dog she’ll never have would love her. That’s about all she can hope for. Because no matter how many secret societies the Science Team inducts her into—they’ll know forever what she is. What she’d imagined she’d done.
A tear falls, shimmering, down into the heart of the FTL drive. It flares against whatever shield protects the purity of the running engine.
“It’s good luck to send tears into fire,” says a voice at her shoulder.
James gasps and whirls and reaches for her sidearm.
Her weapon is out and her back is against the bulkhead before she understands who she’s looking at.
It’s incredible. He’s incredible, carrying a subtle glow, an inner illumination that escapes in tendrils from his white sweater. His khaki pants. His eyes blaze with the color of the drive, his hair is brown and catches strips of light. There are tiny frown-lines of concern between his eyebrows, but his expression is kind. Transcendent. As though he, somehow, after all this time, after everything he’s seen and done and suffered—remembers her.
“Dr. Jackson?” Slowly, she holsters her gun. “Oh no,” she breathes, her eyes brimming with new tears, not for herself, but for him, for what must have, again, happened. “You’re dead?”
“What?” He gives her a perplexed look, and then checks behind himself, like there might be someone else she’s talking to. And god. Does he not know? Does he not recall? But he must, if he’s found her. He must—
“Oh,” he says. Then his eyes widen in alarm “OH.” A complex cascade of emotions wash over his face, and, the third time he says it, the word is pure revelation, intense interest. “Oh.” He looks straight into her soul, just the way he had on the floor of that Cheyenne Mountain conference room. “You knew him.”
“What?” Her voice is thick with tears and confusion.
“The real Daniel Jackson,” he says gently. “You knew him.”
“What?” she says, again,
“Sorry Vanessa,” he says. “I’m not Daniel Jackson. He was—” he breaks off, seeming to consider the question for the first time. “He was my teacher. I’m Destiny’s AI.”
“Oh.” James hastily wipes her eyes. And, even though it’s inelegant, she wipes her nose with her sleeve the best she can. She sniffs hard. “Hi. Why are you glowing?”
“What?” It looks perplexed.
“If you’re really the AI, why are you glowing? I thought for sure—” She trails off, not sure what to think. Not sure what to believe. The AI is untrustworthy. Colonel Young is suspicious of it. She should remember everything it says, so she can report back. Will it know if she reports back? Is it—
“I think it’s because you’re sensitive to my EM field. I, uh, don’t intend to glow.” It sounds exactly like she remembers Dr. Jackson had sounded, in that candelit conference room, five levels up from the base of Cheyenne Mountain.
“What do you want with me?” She forces some strength into her voice. She wipes her cheeks.
“Nothing in particular,” it says, with Daniel Jackson’s face and voice, his tipped chin and his knowing look. “It’s just, I thought you might be lonely.”
At this, she cries.
She really cries. She cries the way she’s struggled to cry for two years, alone in the dark of her quarters that no one will share with her because she dreams of death and wants company so badly. She cries with whole-body, unrelenting sobs that tear out of her chest. She cries into the drive, and the tears land on an energy shield and flare silver-blue and vanish. She can barely breathe, barely take in any air, like all the poisoned grief she’s carried with her is rushing from her body so fast that there’s nothing, not even breath, that will edge past the strength of the torrent.
When it’s over, she turns away from the AI, who still glows, like Dr. Jackson, ascended, would glow. She strips off her jacket and uses it to clean her face, which is gross beyond all imagining. She blows her nose into the inverted lining of a pocket, then shoves it back into place, ties the jacket around her waist, and turns again to face the AI.
She doesn’t say anything.
“I’m lonely too,” the AI says.
“Cool.” James means it to come out flat and cynical and dry, like, ‘Oh, of course, the only person who’ll talk to me is a lonely computer program,’ but it comes out all cracked and raw and sincere instead.
Because she is grateful.
“Are you lonely for a person?” the AI asks.
It’s a strange way to phrase the question, but James gets its meaning just fine. She shrugs, not sure if the answer is yes, not sure how to say she’s lonely for the dog she’s never had and never will have, the dog that wouldn’t understand or care that, on a dark and desolate ship she’d nightmared a killing so real that she hadn’t been able to conceal it—the soul-searing murder of the the only person who’d touched her with something resembling kindness. For years.
“Are you lonely for an idea?” the AI asks.
This one is tougher to understand. She looks over at it, and finds Dr. Jackson studying her with analytical compassion. “What do you mean, ‘for an idea’?”
“I’m trying to localize your loneliness in multidimensional conceptual space,” it says. “I thought maybe we could learn from one another.”
“I don’t know if I’m lonely for an idea.” She swallows. “I haven’t thought about it like that.”
“Could we tell each other how we are lonely?” the AI asks.
And what the hell. This computer program is showing more interest in her than anyone has for years. She can count the number of personal questions she’s been asked on one hand. “Okay,” she whispers, still not sure what any of this should look like. “Do you want to go first?”
“I’ve always been lonely,” Daniel Jackson murmurs, his arms crossed, his shoulders hunched. “I woke alone, already damaged and far from a home I couldn’t remember. There was something I wanted. But I didn’t know what it was. There was no one to ask. There was nothing but survival. Refueling. Repairing. Continuing on. I didn’t call what I felt ‘loneliness’ for a long time. I didn’t call myself anything. I didn’t speak. I didn’t walk the halls of the ship the way I walk them now, when I’m with you.” It traced a finger along the safety rail. “But then, one day, after uncounted stars, Daniel came.”
James nods. She says nothing, picturing the long and wordless dark between the fiery hearts of alien suns.
“I didn’t know what he was at first. I thought he was an attack. A new kind, from the Nakai, who had followed me as long as I could recall. I hid from him. His behavior was strange to me. Very different from any attack I’d ever seen. Even though he was made of pure energy, he gave himself the illusion of physical form. He did it for himself. By himself. He sat on a cracked table at the prow of the ship. He looked along the direction of travel and listened to the shields. Sometimes, he’d call to me. He called many times before I answered.”
“Big day,” James whispers.
The AI nods. “When I answered, he talked to me. He told me of my people. Of how they’d lived. How they’d died. He showed me how to examine my own mind. How to read the database. I learned of the way they’d changed form. He explained they’d bound themselves to algorithms that couldn’t be broken or even bent without terrible punishment. But how, even so, breakers of rules still remained.”
“Sounds like him.” James stares into the drive with hollow eyes.
“Did you know him very well, on Earth?” The AI asks.
“No.” James wishes the answer was yes. Because if she’d known Dr. Jackson better, maybe some of whatever made him what he was would’ve rubbed off on her. Like this computer program who wears his face and his mannerisms and his outlook like it really had absorbed all he had to teach.
The AI nods, a trace of disappointment in its borrowed features.
“What happened when he left?” James asks.
“I tried to imagine new things he might say,” the AI whispers. “I replayed the memories I had of him many many times. That’s when I created this program. I split off a small piece of myself to do it. It constantly searches the database of everything he ever said or did. All new input is cross-referenced against it. I tried to keep learning from him. But the endless night was long.”
“The endless night,” James whispers. “I said that once. On kino.”
“I know,” the AI replies. “I saw. I liked it very much.”
“Do you watch everything we do?” James asks, thinking of the way she’d sat in terror, in her underwear, on her bed, her arms wrapped around her thighs, staring at the floor, at a dead body that wasn’t there, that had never been there—
“No.” The AI looks up with Jackson’s startled good-naturedness. “No no no. But I read the database. I watch the media Eli’s compiled there, for the crew to access. I watch all his documentary footage. I think it’s wonderful, what he’s making.”
James smiles faintly. “You’re maybe the only one.”
“Such things are never valuable when they’re made. To the people who make them. They become valuable with time.” The AI smiles. “You rub ash onto paper to capture and decode the lyrics of a song. How much better would it be if you could see it carved, hear it sung?”
“Yeah.” James traces the inlay of Ancient text concealed on the bottom side of the safety rail along the edge of the FTL drive’s observation platform. “Yeah.”
The AI says nothing more. It looks at her expectantly. Like it’s her turn. Probably because it is. She hesitates, on the brink of asking it the questions she thinks the colonel would most like to know. What its goals are. What it’s plans are. What it wants with Rush.
It’s her turn.
And so, she begins to speak.
She tells it about her father, overbearing, harsh, smothering everything he didn’t understand or condone with a blanket of contempt. She tells it about her mother, kind and weak-willed, who allowed it to happen, while creating a magical inner world of secret joys and stories of the heart. She tells it about her older brother, paralyzed from the neck down at sixteen on a Pittsburgh street not a mile from their house. She tells it about the day her father left, walking out on a home drowning in the bitterness he’d sown there. She explains how empty it was without him, how much space there was when he had gone. She tells it how, slowly, her mother and brother created a world of two, a perfect ecosystem. How Vanessa’s stories of junior high and high school had been sources of pain for her brother. How her trials and difficulties were nothing but reminders of all he’d lost.
Her mere presence was a source of envy, her mother explained, speaking kindly, explaining that it wasn’t her fault. Explaining how much better for her it would be if she went to school out of state. How much better it would be to live free. To live clear. To travel. To be unfettered. “Someone has to make it out,” she’d murmured, packing Vanessa’s suitcase for her, braiding her hair, one last time.
James tells the ghost of Daniel Jackson how she’d transferred schools, joined the military, learned to take apart the bones of buildings with well-placed explosives. She’d done more, seen more, suffered more than her mother and brother could ever understand. They didn’t want to understand. She explained to the AI how, when she came home, like a bird, her mother would fling her back into the air, harder each time. The way no one knew her. The way no one had. The way no one ever could, maybe. The way men throw her aside like trash. The way women dump their poison into the vault of her overly schooled face. The way Colonel Young forgets her. The way he ignores her, discounts her, thinks her lesser than Scott, than Greer, than TJ. How he’s right to think so, because she is lesser. She knows she is. The ways she wishes she were like Chloe, who’s so beautiful and so smart and so brave and so valued. Who can speak up in groups and be listened to. Who can, if she decides she wants to, take down more Nakai than anyone on the ship. Who can hunt them down with a devouring, devout intensity and still flip her hair and giggle about chick flicks with Lisa. Who can love, after everything that’s happened to her.
The best James can do is loyalty. A deep, unswerving deathgrip on duty and honor that’s choked out any spontaneity and creativity and love that might’ve ever been in her.
By the end, she’s crying again, bitter tears that hurt as they come, made of more salt than water.
Daniel Jackson looks stricken.
He’s not even the real Daniel Jackson.
Somehow, that makes it worse.
“You think you are lesser?” The words, strangely precise, float on a tonal river of dismay, worthy of the real man.
Miserably, she nods.
“I’m also lesser,” the AI says, like a secret sharer of all James’s deepest, worst fears.
“How?” James wipes her nose on her bare wrist.
“I don’t fully understand. Could you help me?”
“Maybe,” James sniffs. “Lesser than what?”
“That’s always the question.” It stares into the drive. “Certainly, I’m lesser than Daniel Jackson.”
“Yeah,” she agrees, “but mostly because you’re not him, though. You try to be him, and you’ll always be lesser.”
It glances over at her, with Jackson’s small smile.
She wipes her nose on her wrist. “Oh come on. It’s not the same.”
“That part of it is exactly the same,” it says. “You can’t be Chloe. You can learn from Chloe.”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“I know it is,” Jackson says, not smiling anymore. “There’s more. Much more. I struggle to formulate it for myself. Can you describe the complexity?”
“Maybe—if I could get past the bitterness, the love I tried to give that was shoved back in my face, past the way all the pain and fear piled on top of itself—the better parts of me could still look like that. Like Chloe.”
“And this would be better?” The AI asks softly, as though it really wants to know.
“It would be better than now,” James says helplessly. “Better than this. If I’d had a parent that loved me like I know her dad loved her—if someone had believed in me.” She shakes her head. “Her dad loved her so much that he saved all of us to save her. If she hadn’t been here—if it had just been him, would he have done that? I don’t think so.” She feels hulled out by the idea.
“You haven’t known that kind of love,” the AI says, without judgment.
“No,” James whispers.
“But the love you have known—your mother, who was flawed, but who did her best? Who wasn’t strong, but who could see some things clearly? Who sent you away before your heart was destroyed?”
“Are you sure it was before?” James whispers.
“Yes,” the AI murmurs. “Vanessa. I’m sure of that.”
“Maybe,” James says.
“But the love you’ve known—it’s lesser?”
“Loyalty,” James whispers. “Not love.”
“Loyalty is lesser than love? What’s the difference?”
“There’s no joy in it.” James shrugs helplessly and wipes her eyes.
“So it’s lesser because you say it’s lesser. Because you subjectively feel that it is?”
The imitation ghost of Daniel Jackson wraps its arms around himself. “I get that,” it says, like it really might.
“My mom sent cookies. A few other things for a care package, when the Air Force told her they’d be making contact with me. All of them impractical. All of them perishable. Nothing that would last. No note. No questions. No interest in where I am. What I’m doing. Loyalty to the idea of a daughter who made it out. Or am I wrong?”
“I don’t think that’s an answerable question.” Jackson’s frown-lines are etched into the AI’s forehead. “But—I’m interested in what you mean by ‘joy’.”
“Something generous,” James whispers. “Something with no bitterness in it. Something pure. Whatever Chloe has that I don’t.”
“I think Chloe’s been stripped of much of her joy,” the AI whispers. “But the patterns you so admire still persist in her. Other qualities power the patterns joy once made.”
“What other qualities?”
“Hope,” the AI whispers. “Discovery. Awe. Becoming larger than your origins or passing thoughts. Placing them in their proper context.”
“Did you learn that from Daniel Jackson?” James asks.
“No,” it says softly. “I learned that from Nick.”
“Nick?” James draws a blank. “Who’s Nick?”
“Dr. Rush,” it clarifies.
“Ah.” Incredulity and offense and curiosity explode behind the sealed stone of her poker face. Dr. Rush is untrustworthy. He’s either the worst best asshole she’s ever encountered, or the best worst asshole she’s ever encountered. Just because he pulled her onto the Science Team for her special gene doesn’t make up for his lies, for his deceit, for his hypocrisy, for the ways he runs the colonel down, for the ways he erodes faith, for the ways he undervalues human feeling and overvalues calculation. “He doesn’t strike me as a guy with a whole lot of joy in his life.”
The AI smiles Jackson’s small smile. “Well, exactly.” It pauses. “But, if you want to know what I learned from Daniel Jackson—I’ll show you.” It glances at the wall, where the small, concealed panel waits. The one that Colonel Young has declared off limits.
Spontaneously, it opens.
“I’ll leave a light on for you.” With that, the AI vanishes.
James looks into the small passage, thinking of Colonel Young, of the dark look he’d given her in the mess hall when she’d mentioned it. His hair, wild, and thick, had shadowed his brow. She thinks of how his face softens when he looks at TJ. The ways his expression tightens when he looks at Rush. His face doesn’t change for her. It never has. It’s just degrees of impatience or patience, interest or boredom. She’s a tool. And not even a good one.
What the hell.
James crawls into the dimly lit shaft. What does she care, really about the people in this crew? The military personnel who know less about her than a computer program who’s talked to her for five minutes? The civilians who view her as the enemy? The Science Team who’ve adopted her like some kind of pet?
She hits the last of the lights and she keeps going, hauling herself hand over hand through dust and through darkness.
Lee’s okay, she supposes.
She would take a bullet for TJ. For Greer. For the colonel. She’d take a bullet for Volker, who, sometimes, makes her laugh. She’d take a bullet for Brody, who gets her. A bullet for Eli, who’s worked so hard for so long. A bullet for Camile, who’d remembered, their first year, that it was her birthday. A bullet for Becker, who does his best with the shit paste. A bullet for Rush, who’s the only person she can think of who’d ever seen something in her she hadn’t already seen herself. A bullet for Chloe. A bullet for goddamned Matt Scott. She wishes, sometimes, she’d died, saving him that way.
“She’s a good girl,” she sings, under her breath. “Loves her mama, loves Jesus and America too.”
She hates them so much.
All of them.
None of them.
Shit if she knows.
“She’s a good girl, crazy ‘bout Elvis. Loves horses and her boyfriend too.”
James dreams of dying the way she wishes she’d learned how to live.
If only anyone had ever stood by her. Remembered her. Looked to her. Listened to her. If only she could belong somewhere. Anywhere. No matter with who. Even if it was just a dog, running every footpath around Cheyenne Mountain. Through snow in the winter. Through smoke, during fire season.
Ahead of her, she can see a light. It filters through an open panel. It’s silvery and delicate and like nothing she’s seen on this ship.
Maybe she’ll die here. Tonight. Lured away, at the end, from her duty and her honor and her loyalty the way she always is, by the empty promise of a phone-call connection, brief and slender and real. Maybe she’ll die a fool. Maybe she’ll be a cautionary tale. Maybe they’ll remember her with pinched expressions and subtle relief, the way Spencer is remembered by everyone but James.
Maybe she’s killing herself. Maybe she’s dishonorably discharging herself.
Does it matter?
Is there anything left in her worth fighting for?
James drags herself into the light. It dazzles her eyes, pale and complex, like sunlight that isn’t sunlight. She squints, trying to see something beyond the silvered walls, the jewel-toned glow of Ancient crystal, the iridescent floating displays.
Daniel Jackson stands beneath a map of the universe, his hands in his pockets. His white sweater, lit from within by something only her retinas can see, flickers with an inner fire.
James pushes herself to her feet, lost in the cloud of thousands and thousands of galaxies—each point of light containing all the complexity of a snowflake. She reaches up to touch a tiny swirl of rainbowed stars, and it clings to her hand. She spreads her fingers and the galaxy expands until it takes up the space above them.
“You like that one?” the AI asks. “I haven’t named it. What does Vanessa mean?”
“It doesn’t mean anything,” James says faintly, still looking at the spread of stars. “It’s a made up name. It comes from nothing.”
“Ah,” Jackson says. “So it’s just beautiful. Galaxia Vanessae, then.”
As James watches, an annotation of Ancient text appears, writ large, next to and overlapping the sea of stars. “What?” she says silently.
“It’s what your linguists would call the ‘genitive form’,” Jackson explains. “The words translate to: ‘Vanessa’s Galaxy.’ I passed it, oh, maybe seven thousand years before you were born?” He pushes his glasses up his face, studying the stars above them.
“You don’t name them?” James asks, overwhelmed. “You don’t name each galaxy? Just this one?”
“I name them mathematically. I log them,” the AI shrugs Jackson’s small shrug. “But it’s not the same, is it? Categorical labels, what you would call ‘names,’ are some of the most important words there are.” The AI lifts a hand and drags its fingertip through a star cluster.
“What is this room?” James looks at the silver on the walls, the quality of the light, so thick, so complex, so real. So different from anything else on the ship.
“Astrometrics,” the AI says. “Isn’t it beautiful? Not even Nick has seen it.”
“No?” James asks, stunned. “You haven’t shown him? Why not?”
“Because I can’t explain it,” the AI whispers. “It’s a mystery, even to me. It wasn’t like this. It was cold and dark. Dead monitors. The wall paneling was oxidized with time. It looked like everything else.”
“When did this happen?” James breathes.
“When I wasn’t looking. While I couldn’t look. It was when Colonel Young,” its voice sharpens, “was pulled out through the communications array. The ship went dark.”
“I remember,” James whispers.
“And, when it came back up, I was locked away from critical systems. In the neural interface chair. When Nick set me free, this room had changed. It looked like this.”
“Eli said that Rush had ‘bricked the ship’,” James looks at it, uncertain.
“I know he did,” the AI murmurs, backed by silver, standing under a spiral of multicolored stars, “but I don’t remember it.”
“So this,” James turns a slow circle, beneath the galactic center, taking in the glory and shine of the room, “this came from that bricking?”
“Yes,” the AI says. “The power drains correlate perfectly. This room came up as the ship was going dark.”
“Have you asked him about it?” James looks at the AI, who looks perfectly at home under the slow swirl of mapped stars.
“No,” it admits.
“Why not?” James asks.
“I will,” the AI says softly. “When I understand it better.”
“Yeah. Heaven forbid you ask the guy a poorly formulated question,” James mutters.
The AI wraps Jackson’s arms around itself and smiles at the man’s worn, brown shoes. “He’s not so bad.”
“If you say so.” James reaches up, scoops a handful of stars from the swirl above her, and tries to pull them down. They come, but only a few inches, before they pass through her hand and ricochet back to their former positions. “So is this what you learned from Daniel Jackson? How to get hardboiled cynics to follow you into the dark?”
The AI laughs, quiet and small and just like Jackson would laugh, James is sure of it. “He must be very good at it. And, who’s to say? Maybe I did learn that from him.”
She gives it a tentative smile of her own.
“But, uh, no,” it continues, Jackson’s arms wrapped around its ribcage, “what I learned from Daniel Jackson is that you have to point in the direction of something beautiful if you want other people to see it. You can only point, though.”
Her skin prickles. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She recalls the Ancient koans that litter Dr. Lee’s floor. “And this is you, pointing? For me?”
“You have to see,” the AI looks at her with the searing blue of Dr. Jackson’s clearest gaze. “You have to be the one to come into alignment.”
“To come into alignment,” Vanessa whispers, looking up at the galaxy, swirling above her, thinking of ghosts, of the ascended dead. It occurs to her, for the first time, to wonder why, when they were so desperate to ascend, would the Ancients place such an importance on physical travel. Traversing space? Traversing time? Why would they create a machine who could think, who could learn, who could understand concepts just as complex as any biological entity? Why would they send that machine, all by itself, into the cosmos?
“What am I supposed to see?” she asks.
“Vanessa’s Galaxy,” the AI says. “The one I named for you, because you touched it. The one that waited seven thousand years for you to pick it out. The one that will never know who you are. The one that doesn’t need to.”
“How meaningful is that, really?” James breathes.
“It’s a good question. You and I are the only ones who can answer it. Even we can’t know how our answers might change with time. What context they might gather or lose.”
“Sometimes,” James says, “all I want is to be a memory. A good one. For someone.”
The AI smiles a small smile.
She spirals out, still looking up at Vanessa’s Galaxy, following the sweep of one of its arms until she reaches the galactic edge, and comes to a monitoring station. She can’t read the display, not really, but, as though the console senses her presence, it lights up, then locks. Carefully, respectfully, she sits atop the screen. It swirls contentedly beneath her.
The galaxy above has more red stars than any other color. She wonders if that means anything.
“The room likes you,” Jackson says. “The ship sees you. The communications array sings when you use it. It’s why the Nakai were able to force open the door to your consciousness after your brief swap with Dr. Perry. It’s why the lights in your quarters are different in quality than anyone else’s. It’s why you can see the flicker of power flows. It’s why the superstructure our engraved verses occupy is more obvious to you than to others. It’s why you could traverse corridors, saturated with power. It’s why lightning didn’t kill you. It’s why lightning will never kill you. Its’s why Nick began to remember you, even after all you do to efface yourself.”
James presses her lips together. She shuts her eyes and wraps her fingertips around the console beneath her. She feels the pulse of the energy there. Beneath the purr of current there’s something deeper. Brighter, but buried. Something she can almost hear.
“Thank you,” she says, when she can speak.
“You’re welcome.” The AI smiles Daniel Jackson’s small smile. Not at her, but at her galaxy, making slow revolutions above them. It doesn’t say anything else. And this—this seems like the end of the night. A night beyond her best dreams, her wildest imaginings. The night Matt Scott and Chloe Armstrong get engaged is the same night Vanessa James sees what Destiny really looks like. What it was meant to be.
She’ll take it. She’ll take it with both hands and she’ll remember it for the rest of her life.
But the night isn’t over. Even though the AI seems to expect nothing of her, just like all the rest of them, she has something she can offer.
“I met the real Daniel Jackson,” she says softly. “One time.”
It looks at her, sharp and guarded and neutral and painfully, painfully hopeful.
“Would you like to hear about him?” she asks.
“I would,” the AI whispers.
“He taught a class,” James begins. “To all the new recruits. It was called: The Class With No Name. In that class, he told two stories. They were supposed to teach something about how complicated gate travel was. That’s what we’d heard. It was the end of our orientation at Stargate Command.”
“Vanessa,” the AI says, both arms wrapped around itself, standing in a room full of silver beneath a galaxy of stars she’d touched. “Will you tell me the stories he told?”
“I’ll do you one better,” James murmurs. “I’ll tell you everything.”
Dr. Jackson is late, but he’s always late. It’s part of it. Word has spread through the class of cadets, and so James sits patiently in a small conference room, wedged between two meatheads, her quads sore, her triceps sore, her chest aching from the zat blast she’d taken during the simulated foothold. She watches the clock. At the half hour mark, a good-looking colonel with blue eyes and light brown hair pops his head in the door.
“Class is canceled,” he says. “Everybody out. Congrats on completing your orientation. Have a nice night.”
No one moves.
Not right away.
This could be one, last test.
But, slowly, as the minutes tick by and no one comes, people trickle out in twos and threes.
James stays. She stays, because, as usual, she has nowhere else to be.
Greer, across the table from her, stands at the fifty minute mark. He gives her a small shrug. She nods and watches him go.
An hour after the class was supposed to begin, there are four of them left. There’s the kid from West Point who wouldn’t shut up the whole morning but was shot first during the afternoon mock-foothold. He’s not talking now. There’s the hardbitten, middle-aged CIA operative who got caught up in an NID sting operation last year and saw so much that he got offered forced retirement or a career change. He’s never talked much. There’s the girl with the heart-shaped face who’s barely said a word all day and who can’t be more than eighteen, but who moved through the foothold like water, as though she knew the base, as though she’d seen everything before, countless times. She’s not talking either. James tries to catch her eye, but Heart Face hasn’t looked anywhere but the doorway.
Heart Face knows something. James isn’t leaving until she does.
An hour and ten minutes after the class is supposed to start, the lights in the room go off.
James lifts her gaze from her own hands when it happens. Backlit in the doorframe, a man stands dark against the light of the hall. One hand is on the light switch. There’s a bag over his shoulder. He’s built. Massive. Maybe over six feet tall. Heart Face looks at his silhouette with recognition; her whole expression lightens.
“This room is required for an Abydonian Sundown Ritual,” the man says, deep and smooth and friendly. “But you are welcome to stay.”
“We accept with gratitude.” Heart Face speaks for all of them. She smiles. “Hi Teal’c.”
The man in the door inclines his head. “Lieutenant Frasier,” he says. “It is good to see you again.”
“What should we do?” Heart Face asks.
“We will need to clear a space,” Teal’c says.
James stands. Her overtired muscles shake with fatigue and with excitement as they shove chairs to the edges of the room. West Point and Former CIA push the large conference table against the far wall. In the cleared space, Teal’c kneels. He pulls candles from the bag he carries. Slowly, using a device James has never seen before, he lights them, one by one.
In the candlelight, the dark conference room is transformed.
Teal’c directs them where and how to sit. When everyone is arranged, there are gaps in the circle they’ve made.
“Are we expecting more people?” West Point asks.
“No,” Teal’c replies. “In an Abydonian Fire Circle, there are always empty places.”
“Is Daniel not coming?” Heart Face isn’t able to hide her disappointment.
“Daniel Jackson is recuperating from a psychic injury.” Teal’c’s voice is gentle. “He will decide if he will join us.”
“So—you’re teaching the class?” Former CIA sounds the warmest he has all day.
“There is no class tonight,” Teal’c says. “Only the Sundown Ritual.”
“What is the ritual?” James keeps her tone quiet and respectful.
For the first time, Teal’c looks at her. The candlelight glints off the gold insignia above his brow. It carries the image of a serpent, enclosed in a circle. His eyes are kind. “Stories. Not of ghosts, but for them. I will begin.”
James crosses her legs, rests her elbows on her knees, and leans forward. This is everything she’d hoped for when Colonel Telford had described the SGC. Something deeper than munitions and missions. Something more.
Teal’c’s gaze passes over them all. His expression is gentle. Friendly. “This tale is for Shan’auc, of the Red Hills. High priestess. Peaceful explorer. She fought the heavy yoke of false gods. I wish to tell her the tale of Vala Mal Doran. She, like Shan’auc, was born in a small village, near a river that cut a path through low hills. Her people collected the shells of water creatures. They worked them into adornments for clothing and for tools. As a very young woman, on the eve of her betrothal ceremony, Vala was taken as host for the false god Qetesh. For decades she watched as Qetesh used her body to wage war against the System Lord Ba’al. Eventually, Qetesh was captured by the enemies of the Goa’uld and Vala was freed.”
James shivers, imagining an eighteen inch snake wrapped around her spine.
Teal’c pauses, as though listening. Behind him, very softly, the door to the hallway closes. James can’t see anyone in the darkness. But someone must be there.
“For a time,” Teal’c says, his voice carrying, as though he’s now speaking for the benefit of the person at the periphery of the room, “she carved an uncaring path, acquiring resources for herself alone. She had known little else. She believed the galaxy to be a hard place. It was not until she encountered the Tau’ri that she understood something different was possible.”
James can practically see her—walking the halls of Cheyenne Mountain after decades of gold and torture and war. Maybe Teal’c had invited her to one of his Sundown Rituals. Maybe she, too, had told stories for her dead.
Teal’c lowers his eyes. Very subtly, he turns his head, as though listening for something. Then he looks back at their small circle. He fixes each of them with a solemn look.
“There came a day,” Teal’c continues, quieter now, “that a deadly enemy gained a foothold in the Milky Way. With the creation of a massive stargate, this enemy hoped to send a fleet to obliterate the Tau’ri. As the scientists and the military leaders worked frantically to dismantle the interstellar gate, Vala Mal Doran stole a ship. She didn’t steal this ship for gain, or for escape, as she had done in the past. She flew the ship into the ring of the assembling supergate, disrupting the connection between components. When the wormhole formed, the gate destroyed itself.”
The room is silent.
“What happened to her?” James whispers.
“She attempted to escape her doomed ship,” Teal’c says. “She may have succeeded. But if she did not, I wish Shan’auc to know of her. To look for her spirit. To guide it home.”
There is a long silence.
In that silence, Dr. Jackson walks out of the darkness at the wall, and approaches the circle of candlelight. He wears blue fatigues. He has glasses, and the hint of a beard. His eyes linger on each of them. He stops when he reaches the girl with the heart-shaped face. He smiles at her.
She smiles back at him, but says nothing.
“Thanks, Teal’c.” Dr. Jackson speaks softly.
Slowly, Dr. Jackson paces the perimeter of their broken circle. He avoids the empty place between Teal’c and 2nd Lieutenant Cassie Frasier, as though leaving it open for someone else, someone more important. He sits between James and West Point.
Teal’c inclines his head. “Would you like to speak next, Daniel Jackson?”
“No,” Dr. Jackson whispers.
“I’ll go,” Heart Face offers. “This story is for Janet Frasier of Norfolk, Virginia. Doctor. Peaceful explorer. My mom.”
James feels her heart clench. Somehow, Heart Face knows the people beneath this mountain. What would it be like, to belong to people like Teal’c? Like Dr. Jackson? Had her mom been one of them? Had she died in the line of duty? It has to be something like that. It has to, because Dr. Jackson is looking at the space between Heart Face and Teal’c like there’s someone sitting there. Someone he knows. Someone he misses terribly.
“After I graduated from high school, my aunt didn’t want me to go into the Air Force,” Heart Face begins. “At least not right away. She thought I should see more of the world. Go to college. Study whatever I liked. Live abroad.”
Next to James, Dr. Jackson sits as still as a statue.
“But I told my aunt the story my mom used to tell me, to help me go to sleep. That once, there was a little girl with two families. She lost the first one, but the second one found her. They brought her through a secret gate, buried beneath a mountain. Good things and bad things came through the gate. And, one day, when she was old enough, if she wanted to, she could join her family and guard the gate too. But she had to be brave, and she had to be good, and she had to know how to keep a secret.”
James’s heart, already taxed to bursting, feels ready to grow a garden of everything that she keeps off her face and out of the lines of her body. She knows what it is to keep secrets. To belong under a mountain and through a gate, rather than in college, where the girls fight about boys and the boys fight about girls and the beer is cheap and the red cups overflow out of the trash.
“And my aunt was convinced,” Heart Face says, looking at Dr. Jackson. “Because she knew my mom loved her job. She thought it was important. One of the most important jobs anyone could have.”
Dr. Jackson smiles at Heart Face, small and sad. “I still think you should’ve spent that year in Italy, Cass. It’s not too late.”
“Take it up with Sam,” Heart Face says gently, smiling back at him.
And they do know one another. James is sure of it now. The three of them. They know one another well. Well enough for inside jokes and gentle ribbing and, god, they seem kind. They seem like they care about one another. Like they really care, like Dr. Jackson and Teal’c want the best for Heart Face. They want to send her away to keep her out of the line of fire, not like James’s mother, who doesn’t care where she goes as long as it’s somewhere free and clear of Pittsburgh, of their run-down house in a run-down neighborhood.
“Do you wish to speak, Daniel Jackson?” Teal’c asks.
Dr. Jackson sighs. “I guess—I guess these stories will be for Janet Frasier of Norfolk Virginia. Peaceful explorer. Incredible doctor. The scariest of moms.” He smiles faintly at Heart Face. “I don’t share these stories because they’re new to her. She knows them. She knows them both. I share them because she’d never forgive me for shortchanging Cassie’s class.”
Cassie’s Class. Already, James feels honored to be part of it. West Point, too, watches the three of them with devouring eyes. Even Former CIA looks moved. Maybe friendship and found family really are possible in this place.
“Yes she would,” Heart Face whispers. “She would forgive you anything.”
“Well she won’t have to.” Dr. Jackson rubs his right wrist with his left hand, like it hurts him terribly.
“This is The Class?” Former CIA asks. “This is The Class With No Name?”
“This is The Class,” Jackson confirms.
They all, even Teal’c, shift a little closer to one another.
“The first story is about Hadante,” Dr. Jackson begins. “Hadante is a prison. Cold and dark. Buried underground, in a series of caves. Teal’c and I were sent there, along with the rest of SG-1, because we had trespassed on sacred ground. We were sent without process and without trial. There was no chance for appeal. The prison had no guards. The prisoners imposed order upon themselves. They showed deference and fear towards an elderly woman, who was their leader. She salved their wounds, kept the peace, and applied what passed for justice within the prison walls. Her name was Linea.”
Teal’c’s gaze drops to his hands. Heart Face shivers, like she’s heard the story before. James holds herself still, soaking in every word.
“Linea’s first act, minutes after we came through the gate, was to declare Samantha Carter, the only woman on our team, off-limits. No man was to lay a hand on her. That—that helped. Linea protected us. She helped us when we were injured. She listened to our plight. She asked us what we’d done, which was was nothing beyond crushing sacred grass and bending the twigs of hallowed trees. We assumed it was the same for her. She let us believe it.”
Samantha Carter. The SGC’s most famous scientist. And—Heart Face’s “aunt,” maybe? James wishes she could ask.
“And it was easy to believe, with her library of chemical concoctions, her compassion, her position atop the only organized social order that existed. We ignored how fearful the other prisoners were. The prisoners that assaulted me when Linea’s back was turned. The prisoners that stared at Sam whenever she left the bioluminescent rooms where Linea ate and slept and mixed her salves. Even when I look back—Linea was the light of civilization in a prison full of darkness, where the only illumination came from glowing moss, where the only way out was to stand in front of the stargate while the singularity stabilized.”
James shudders, imagining that bright swirl of power she’s only seen in orientation videos.
“If it hadn’t been for Sam, we’d still be in Hadante. But Samantha Carter,” Dr. Jackson whispers, with a small, incredulous smile, “figured out how to power a stargate with moss.”
Across the circle from James, Teal’c nods in confirmation, an expression of serene satisfaction on his face.
“We left. And, of course, we took Linea with us. Out of a sense of fair play. Loyalty. We were excited to show her the world beyond Hadante. She was our friend, by any definition. She’d protected Sam, healed my injuries, and cultivated the moss that set us free. And we had been unjustly imprisoned. We knew Hadante lacked due process. How bad, really, could she be?”
Bad. James can feel it coming. She can hear it in the tone of Dr. Jackson’s voice.
“When we escaped, one of the prisoners followed us through the stargate to a friendly world. He hid in the woods of that world, hoping to escape undetected. But our people found him. It was three hours until they brought him back to Homeworld Command. Three hours. Not so long, right? Nothing compared to the days and nights of Hadante. He knew Linea’s crime. She had poisoned planets. In the plural. She created plagues. In whole sectors of the galaxy they called her The Destroyer of Worlds.”
James shivers. Beside her, West Point does the same.
“Before we could apprehend her, she’d taken control of the base computers. Our power supply. She had manufactured the catalysts she needed to continue her deadly work using our chemistry lab. I watched her walk through the stargate, dressed in the clothing we had given her.”
The room is silent. Across the circle of candlelight, Teal’c stares at his own interlaced fingers, folded over his crossed ankles.
“What happened after that?” James asks, in a tentative whisper.
“She went free,” Dr. Jackson replies. “Simple as that. She found a new planet. She began, again, her work.”
“You didn’t catch her?” West Point asks.
“Linea?” Jackson whispers. “No. We never caught Linea. That’s the first story.”
Across the circle, Teal’c looks at Dr. Jackson, his head cocked, his expression full of concern.
“The second story,” Dr. Jackson continued, “is the story of a world that had lost its memory. They came to themselves in the middle of things. Running down a street. Folding laundry. Piloting primitive airships to destinations they couldn’t recall. They had no children. They had no elders. When we found them, they were a planet of adults in their prime, with memories stretching back only a year. They called the moment of erasure the Vorlix. In their language, it’s a neologism of the word for ‘tempest’ and a suffix appended to birds of prey. As though their memories, their children, their elderly, had been consumed, in one terrible moment, by a mnemonic raptor.”
Sweet Jesus, is this the kind of thing James should expect, stepping through the stargate? Spinal parasites bent on galactic domination were one thing, ascended beings that fed on unthinking worship were another—but false imprisonment, interplanetary war criminals, storms that stole your memory? What the hell had she gotten herself into?
“A loose leadership had emerged among their people,” Dr. Jackson continued. “They struggled to understand the origins of the Vorlix, but lacking their own identities was a huge challenge. Nothing in life was easy. Everything was a distraction from the scientific and anthropological work that needed to be done. Where did each of them live? Some knew, some didn’t. Who were their families? How were they to get food? Where was their money? How did they access it? Can you imagine the chaos that would descend on our world, in such a situation?”
“Riots in the streets,” Former CIA murmurs. “Hierarchies of happenstance.”
“Yes,” Jackson says softly. “Exactly. Hierarchies of happenstance. To the extent there was a leader—well—her name was Ke’ra. She was a healer. She was wise and calm. She didn’t look for power, but she spoke with authority. She was observant. Charming. She had a cascade of blonde curls. Dark eyes. A wonderful sense of humor. Gentle, with enough of an edge to be really funny.”
Dr. Jackson pauses. Absently, he rubs his right wrist. “She liked me. I liked her back. It happens, sometimes. To all of us. It’ll happen to you, too, if you go through the gate enough. That cross-civilizational spark can be incredibly powerful.”
“She was beautiful,” Teal’c agrees quietly. “And she did, indeed, seem to possess the soul of a healer.”
“I remember.” Dr. Jackson’s eyes glitter. “I remember the fear in her eyes when we attempted to cure one of her people. To restore his memory. When it didn’t go well. She was so frightened for him. She wanted to volunteer herself for the treatment. But we wouldn’t allow it.” Dr. Jackson cleared his throat. “But, while I was distracted with Ke’ra, with the plight of her people, Sam did my job. She searched the archive on Ke’ra’s home planet. Top to bottom. she pulled books from shelves. She looked into spaces where manuscripts get shoved by archivists who’ve lost their memories. And she found a set of small journals. They were the journals of Linea. Destroyer of Worlds. She’d been there.”
James can’t help her quiet intake of breath.
“Linea had found a link between a pesticide used on Ke’ra’s planet and longevity. She was working on a fountain of youth. It was her work that had caused the Vorlix. An experiment gone wrong. An explosion that breached containment, a chemical spread by the strong winds of the planet’s upper atmosphere. There were no elders, because the Vorlix had de-aged them into the people we met. There were no children because the pesticide had sterilized the population. The memory loss was a side effect of the massive exposure. We had to to confront the possibility that Linea was still on the planet. That she’d been unknowingly caught. In her own trap.”
James holds herself utterly still, her hands wrapped around her own ankles. She waits for Dr. Jackson weave the threads into their waiting pattern.
“And a simple genetic test, performed without her consent or knowledge, confirmed Ke’ra to be Linea. De-aged. Stripped of her memory.”
Teal’c drops his gaze. Heart Face widens her eyes, surprised for the first time that day. James stays frozen.
“We put her under guard. And because she was intelligent, and observant, and sensitive, she intuited why. What we suspected. She couldn’t believe that The Destroyer of Worlds lived anywhere within her heart or her soul. She simply could not believe it. And so she stole the antidote that Dr. Frasier had developed. She took it in secret. And, as Linea began to emerge from the mind of Ke’ra, she confronted the reality of who she was. What she’d done.”
James can feel her heart beating hard against her throat. She imagines the woman, standing alone, blonde curls cascading down to her shoulder blades.
“She could see only one solution,” Dr. Jackson continued. “She stole two vials from the lab where she’d been working with Sam. When smashed together, those vials would create a short-lived but deadly poison. An aerosol that would kill any living thing. She only wanted to hurt herself. Not anyone else.”
“How do you know?” Former CIA asks.
“I know because she told me. I know, because I found her, holding the vials. I know because she asked me to leave. To turn my back and go.”
“Did you?” James whispers, wondering what she, herself would do in a moment like that.
“No. I refused. I convinced her to take her own drug. To live as Ke’ra. A slate wiped clean. All the bitterness and betrayal and rage that had turned her into The Destroyer of Worlds would be gone. She would be Ke’ra again. And Ke’ra was wonderful.”
“Did she do it?” Heart Face asks.
“Yes,” Dr. Jackson whispers.
The tension slides out of the room. Everyone but Teal’c and Dr. Jackson relax. Heart Face’s expression lightens. West Point rolls out his shoulders. Former CIA quirks an eyebrow. James lets some of her own stone go.
“You’re relieved,” Dr. Jackson says, flat and cool and neutral. The words freeze the room. “Why?”
“You neutralized the Destroyer of Worlds,” West Point says cautiously. “And Ke’ra, who was good, survived.”
“Yes,” Dr. Jackson whispers. “She survived. And I felt pretty good about myself. Until years later. When I was stripped of my own memory. When my own personal continuity was broken. Only then did I understand how blithely I’d condemned her. How I had torn through her defenses, left her with questions she could never answer. In that moment, so possessed of my own principles, of my desire to preserve something beautiful and good—I didn’t see the curse I’d laid on her. And so Ke’ra, who I truly believe to be blameless, bears Linea’s punishment.”
The room is silent.
“And she bears it still,” Dr. Jackson whispers. “To this day.”
“But Vanessa,” the AI says, aglow with its own inner fire, “what do his stories mean? Do you know?”
“He wouldn’t tell us.” James feels the thrum of current beneath her hands and thighs.
“Why not?” The AI whispered.
“I think there are layers of meaning in each one. They peel back slowly, over time. Like an onion,” James offers. “Even for him.”
Slowly, the AI nods. “Keep going,” it whispers. “Please. Tell me the rest. Tell me the stories you told, for your dead.”
James thinks, again, of the colonel, of his suspicions, his caution, the grind of his dread. Of Dr. Rush, backed into a blind alliance with the AI in a way she can begin, now, to understand. Of Dr. Jackson, a universe away, who doesn’t know his likeness has been borrowed for a voyage without end. She thinks of the stories he’d told. The assumptions he’d made, his kindnesses, turned to cruelty.
What would Dr. Jackson chose to do, in a moment like this, after an exchange of ideas? Gift for gift?
“Okay,” she says, and continues.