Force over Distance: Chapter 90

“If you ascended,” Young whispered into the cold, “now would be a good time to let me know.”




Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. References to self-harm and suicide.

Text iteration: Midnight.

Additional notes: None.




Chapter 90


March


Young stood on sun-drenched pavement, just outside the Cheyenne Mountain base. A brisk wind snapped at the material of his jacket. The ground near the road was covered with a few inches of icy snow through which crocuses had just begun to open.


With the toe of his boot, he crushed the edge of ice that formed where snow met pavement.


The sun was bright and cold and glared off the alabaster hillside. Young reached into his pocket, pulled out a pair of sunglasses, and put them on.


This was a bad idea.


He crossed his arms, trying to think of nothing, trying to think of ice, trying not to think of ice, trying to think of anything other than the emptiness in his mind and the restless energy in his hands.


“If you ascended,” Young whispered into the cold, “now would be a good time to let me know.”


The wind rushed in his ears.


“No one’s around,” he murmured. “I’ll never breathe a word of it. To anyone. I just wanna know. You owe me that. At least that, you bastard.”


He stood, silent, for a full five minutes.


“Well,” he said, pulling out a pack of cigarettes he’d bought in the NORAD coffee shop, “fuck you anyway, genius.”


He lit a cigarette against the wind. He smoked it.


Behind him, he heard a small cough. He spun to see the familiar silhouette of Dr. Jackson, dressed in black fatigues, backlit against the pale sky.


Young flinched.


“Hi,” Jackson said.


“Hi.”


Jackson slipped on his own pair of sunglasses. “Didn’t know you were a smoker.”


“What do you want?” Young growled.


“Nothing,” Jackson said. “I don’t want anything. Thought you might want to talk before you ship out to Atlantis. That’s all.”


“Nope.” Young flicked his cigarette onto the pavement and stepped on it.


“Yeah,” Jackson said. “I can see that.”


An awkward silence descended.


“It takes time,” Jackson said. “There are rules, on that higher plane. A culture we don’t understand. A culture I’m not permitted to remember.”


Young sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Don’t ‘Jackson me,’ Jackson.”


“Uh, not sure what that’s supposed to mean.” Jackson wrapped his arms around himself.


“Bullshit,” Young said.


“Yeah,” Jackson admitted.


They stood in silence.


“Guess I’ll see you around.” Jackson began to walk back toward the base.


“Hey,” Young called after him.


The other man turned, dark against the bright day.


“Whether you remember it or not, whether you intended it or not—you threw him into the jaws of your war,” Young growled. “You know that, right?”


Jackson wrapped himself in the dignity of the pale sky and nodded.





April


“You’ll like the Athosians,” Sheppard said.


They were planetside on Young’s second Atlantis-based mission, walking through an open field, approaching the stargate.


The air smelled like flowers.


“They’re a really friendly people.” Sheppard’s tone and posture were relaxed, but his eyes were watchful.


The sky above was a clear, pale blue.


“Yep,” Sheppard continued, “a little shy at first, maybe, but Teyla’ll warm ‘em up for you.”


“Great.” Young kept his hands on his rifle, kept his eyes on the tree line.


The quiet stretched long and thick.


Sheppard had never been any good at filling silences.


“Just, uh, puttin’ this out there,” Sheppard said, like he was pouring energy into a system at rest. “I don’t feel great about this.”


“Which part?” Young kept his eyes on the trees.


“The part where you’re exiled to Pegasus as a consultant. I read the mission reports from Destiny.” Sheppard squinted into the bright day.


“Yeah?” Young did his best to suppress a spike of dread out of pure habit.


But there was no need.


There was no one in his mind to shield from that kinda thing.


“Seems like,” Sheppard paused to step over a small stream that split the ground in front of them, “you did a pretty commendable job.”


“Maybe,” Young said.


“It’s easy to judge from the outside.” Sheppard shielded his eyes against the pale light and scanned the quiet field.


Young thought more might be coming, but his CO stayed quiet.


So did he.


They pushed through tangled bracken near the stream. Tiny purple flowers dotted the dark stems. Like lilac, without the conical clusters.


Scratch that.


An alien equivalent of lilac.


Scratch that.


Everett Young didn’t think about flowers. Or know their names.


“Rodney says you know your way around graph theory,” Sheppard said, like the alien lilac had led him to blossom algorithms, 2k + 1 edges, forest expansions.


Not really, was what Young meant to say. Instead, he said, “You’d have liked him.” As soon as the words were out, he wanted to snatch them back.


Sheppard didn’t ask who Young meant. All he said was, “Probably.”


Tangled branches cracked beneath their boots.


Ahead, McKay broke the cover of the distant trees, advancing toward their position at a quick jog.


 Sheppard pressed a button on his radio. “McKay,” he said, “you’re running. Where’s Teyla?”


He got no response, other than the hiss of static.


“Was that an open channel?” Young asked. “I didn’t pick it up.”


“Yup,” Sheppard said, and took off for McKay at a run.


Young kept pace. Their boots cracked through brittle webs of undergrowth. Bracken scraped and caught on their uniforms.


“McKay,” Sheppard called when they were in earshot. “What’s with the radios?”


“I don’t know,” McKay shouted. Breathless, he slowed, and waited for Sheppard and Young to close on his position. “They were working when we got here and they’re not now, which isn’t—” McKay bent double, sucking air, “usually a run-for-your-life situation, but, on a related note—”


Sheppard, leaning over, circled a hand in a repetitive, spit-it-out motion, staring McKay in the eyes.


McKay nodded. “Right. Ground based sensors picked up a Wraith fleet that dropped into orbit three days ago and stayed for twelve hours. Multiple hive ships.”


“Where are Teyla and Ronon?” Sheppard asked.


“Deep in the settlement. Meeting the elders. Blah blah blah.”


Sheppard ducked down into the bracken, dragging McKay with him, one hand clenched on the other man’s jacket.


Young scanned the horizon, then dropped into a crouch.


The back of his neck prickled.


“And you wanted me to do what?” McKay hissed, “Leave you two standing in the open without cover? There could still be—”


“I know, Rodney, I was just asking.”


“Well you were asking in a very accusatory manner and I—”


“What else?” Sheppard asked.


“Like I said. Three days ago, fleet drops out, stays for twelve hours, and then our sensor array gets destroyed or disabled, I don’t know which, but the data cuts out.”


“What about small ship to ground vessels?” Young asked. “Like you’d see with a culling.”


“Um, hello, our computer sensor array is destroyed? Did I not make that clear? Assessment of ship-to-ground traffic requires pulse-doppler signal processing and I can’t do the deconvolutions in my head.”


Sheppard rolled his eyes.


“You always were shit at Fourier transforms,” Young said absently.


What did you just say?” Rodney hissed. “Did Nick tell you that?  That little math brat. It was one time and I—” McKay broke off. He took a breath. “Sorry. Uh, yeah. Just—sorry. Er, the answer to your question is that I don’t know. I couldn’t tell about small, ship-to-ground vessels. I had only the raw data.”


Young nodded.


“Let’s move,” Sheppard said.


They crept back toward the tree line, retracing McKay’s path with more caution.


In the distance, the discharge of projectile-based weapons broke the quiet day.


“That sounds like Genii tech,” Sheppard muttered.


“If by that you mean it sounds like the Second World War had an unfortunate meeting with naquadah based power cells, then yeah, I’d say I agree,” McKay whispered.


Through the weapons fire, Young picked out the rhythm of a single assault rifle.


“Is that—” McKay began.


“That’s Teyla.” Sheppard turned to Young. “You’ve got our six.”


Sheppard stood, his rifle at his shoulder as he broke cover.


Young tried to ignore his building anxiety and stood to sweep their six.


There was a flash of movement—of darkness where light should have filtered through gaps between branches of alien lilac—


Down,” he shouted.


The air burst into close-range gunfire.


Young used all of his forward momentum to crash into McKay, tackling him to the ground behind the limited cover of a hedge exploding in small purple flowers.


Stay down,” he snarled at McKay, who struggled beneath him.


Rounds sailed through the webbed bracken and buried themself in the ground. In Young’s back. In his shoulder. His chest. His leg.


“Oh shit,” McKay whispered. “Oh shit.”


McKay leaned over him, his hands pressing down hard against Young’s chest. “It’s gonna be fine,” he whispered, high and tight. He turned his head away; his gaze directed over his shoulder. “John,” he hissed into the lilac, trying not to give away their position. His hands clamped down with a terrible pressure against Young’s ribs. “John.”


“Go,” Young said. “Just go.”


“I’m gonna do you a personal favor and not tell anyone you said that,” McKay replied, and even though his tone was sharp, his eyes were intent and sad and the same color as the sky. “You just hang on, all right?”


Young said nothing.






May


It was Memorial Day. Flags, placed by the Boy Scouts, snapped in the breeze.


Young made his way to the infirmary, leaning heavily on his cane. He limped through the doors to find the place deserted. He rounded a corner and made his way to the back, where he knew the offices were.


Only one door was open.


“Colonel,” Dr. Lam said, looking up from her laptop as he appeared in her doorway. “So sorry we had to push this back to the holiday.”


Young shook his head. “It’s fine. I heard about Dr. Brightman. How is she?”


“She’ll survive,” Lam said, careful and neutral. “It’s not yet clear what her functional status is going to be.”


Young nodded.


“Sit,” Lam said.


Young sat.


“I read Dr. Keller’s report. I looked at the notes from physical therapy. I won’t beat around the bush here, colonel,” Lam said. “The Genii shell you took to the femur—for ninety-five percent of people, it’s a career-ending injury.”


Young nodded, trying to summon the mental energy to feel anything, anything at all, about her prognosis.


Lam watched him for a moment. “You’re taking this pretty well,” she said.


“Yup.”


“You’re not gonna tell me you think you’re in that five percent?”


“Nope,” Young said.


Lam arched a brow. “That’s a first.”


Young shrugged.


“Is there anything you want to ask me?” Lam asked, her dark eyes concerned.


“No,” Young said. “You were pretty clear.”


Lam shut his file. “You’ve missed two appointments with Dr. MacKenzie since you’ve been back.”


“Yup.”


“Why is that?” Lam asked.


“I’m not a big fan,” Young said.


“You realize that if you want to remain in good standing, you need to not miss these kinds of appointments?”


“I’m aware.”


“They could discharge you,” she said, brusque and unimpressed.


He smiled faintly. “Any chance I could swap the man for someone else?”


“Yes,” Lam turned to her computer, scanning through names, maybe. “There are two other counselors with the required security clearance. They’re less experienced, but—”


“What about you?” he asked.


“I’m not a psychiatrist,” Lam said flatly.


“I don’t need a psychiatrist.”


Lam looked at him.


“He can’t help me.”


“Why not?” Lam asked.


“He’s imprecise, methodologically sloppy, and utterly lacking in intellectual rigor. I hate the social sciences. I’ve always hated the social sciences. I’m not even sure I believe in the mental continuity of the self.”


“So you want your SGC-mandated counseling sessions with an infectious disease specialist,”  Lam said with a small smile.


“You’re as good as any,” Young said. “Better than most.”


Lam’s smile faded. “You don’t like imprecision? Neither do I. Don’t bullshit me, colonel. What’s the real reason you don’t want to see Dr. MacKenzie?”


“He’ll forever be trying to fix something unfixable,” Young said. “You seem like you’re capable of grasping the difference.”


Lam shut his file. “Next Thursday.”


“All right then,” Young said, and got painfully to his feet.


“Oh and colonel,” Lam said. “For the record, it might take you a year of rehab, but if you wanna get back out there, we can make it happen.”


Young nodded, leaning into his cane. “I’ll think about it.”


He made his way through the gray-walled infirmary, past the empty beds, and into the deserted cement-lined hallway.


Outside, twenty-one levels up, the base personnel who had to work over the holiday, or who had nowhere else to go, were having a barbecue.


Jackson rounded a corner, a stack of files in one hand, in the midst of ascendant academic enthusiasm as he chatted with a woman who had long, dark hair. “It’s a cultural celebration that originated after the American Civil War, primarily as a result of—”


“Daniel. Darling. If you’re going to give me a twenty-five minute lecture, at least do it in reverse order?” She made an intricate, animated little hand gesture.


“What?”


“Most interesting things first?”


“I resent that,” Jackson said.


Privately, Young doubted Jackson was capable of resenting anything.


“No you don’t,” the woman said.


The pair of them noticed Young at the same time.


The woman gave him a flashy smile and nod, but Jackson stopped.


“Colonel Young,” he said. “Hi.”


“Dr. Jackson,” Young replied.


They were quiet for a few seconds.


“This is Vala,” Jackson said.


“Vala Mal Doran.” She stepped forward, extending her hand. “SG-1.”


“He knows,” Jackson muttered. “Everyone knows.”


“It’s very nice to meet you, colonel,” Vala said, unperturbed. “Will you be attending this Memorial Day Barbeque I’ve been hearing so much about?”


“No,” Young said, smiling faintly at her. “I don’t think so.”


“I’ll meet you up there,” Jackson gave Vala a small shove in the direction of the elevator.


“Is this going to be one of those things where three hours later I find you in your office rather than at the party?” Vala narrowed her eyes.


“I’ll be right there,” Jackson said. “Go.”


“All right.” Vala headed toward the elevators, leaving him with Jackson in the empty hallway.


“How’s the shoulder?” Jackson said, motioning to the sling Young still wore.


“Better than the leg,” Young replied.


“Yeah.” Jackson fingered the edge of his files. “So, uh, I’ve been meaning to talk with you. I was wondering if maybe we could meet later. Away from the SGC. A bar, maybe. Or even my apartment, if you don’t want to deal with—”


“Look,” Young said, “I know what you’re trying to do, Jackson, and I appreciate it, but it’s not needed. Or wanted.”


“You don’t know,” Jackson said sharply.


“Whatever it is,” Young growled, “just tell me now.”


“They’re gonna declare him dead.”


The concrete hall was silent.


“Soon,” Jackson continued. “It’ll be soon. Ninety days.”


“That’s the cutoff, is it? For ascension? For failing to ascend?”


“It’s not,” Jackson’s voice was quiet. “It’s too short. But, uh, not sure if you know this, but he was famous. In math circles. UC Berkeley’s asking questions.”


Young looked down at the concrete floor, cool and smooth and without flaws.


“It doesn’t mean anything,” Jackson whispered raggedly. “It’s a political convenience. I’ve been declared dead—so many times. I can’t even tell you how many.”


Young clamped his jaw shut and nodded.


“But I—” Jackson broke off. “It turns out—” he toyed with the edges of the files he held, “—I’m listed as his next of kin for SGC purposes. It’s gonna turn me into the executor of his will.”


Young looked up, meeting Jackson’s eyes.


“I know it must seem strange to you, but—”


“It was David,” Young guessed. “Originally, it was David.”


“Yes,” Jackson whispered. “They were close. Then they weren’t. And I went to Icarus. After Gloria died. To visit him.”


“Yeah,” Young said.


“I tried to warn him.” Jackson’s whisper twisted into a misery Young recognized.


“I know,” Young said. “I know you did.”


“Anyway.” Jackson collected himself. “I’ll sign it over to you. Everything.”


“Don’t do that,” Young said. “I don’t want it.”


“It should be you,” Jackson said. “It should be you who takes it. I wouldn’t have the first idea of what to do with all the math that’s probably lying around his house.”


“You think I’m gonna know?” Young rasped.


“Yeah,” Jackson said softly.


Young sighed.


“Why don’t you come over tonight?” Jackson asked.


“I don’t think so.”


“We don’t have to—“ Jackson broke off. “Vala will be around,” he said, backtracking. “She keeps things light.”


Young hesitated.


“Just for a beer,” Jackson said quietly.


Young nodded.


“Great. I’ll swing by your place on my way out. Around seven, if the world doesn’t unexpectedly end?”


“Sure,” Young said.


They parted ways and Young watched him go, expecting the man to walk straight through the metal of the elevator doors. But instead, he just hit the button and waited.


Like anyone else.





June


He stood on the low bridge, his forearms resting against rough wood as he looked over the water. Willow leaves floated on the surface of the slowly moving stream.


“Sam Carter told me about this place,” Eli said. “Nice, right?”


“Yeah,” Young said.


“She says the science staff comes here to think about stuff if they wanna get out of the lab.”


“Eli,” Young said. “Cut it out.”


“Yeah, okay, fine. I guess you’d know what they call it.”


“Breakdown Bridge,” Young said wryly.


I wasn’t gonna say it.”


“I’m not having a breakdown.”


“Yeah,” Eli said. “I know. Obviously. Otherwise, would I have brought you out here? No. I’m not that insensitive. I’d have brought you to a bar.”


“It’s fifteen hundred hours.”


“Everyone knows you can start drinking at noon on Saturday,” Eli said. “Everyone.”


“How’s SG-4?” Young asked.


“It is sweet.” Eli said. “The other day? We found what we think is a Furling outpost. I was all like ‘that’s cool,’ but it was more like Daniel-Jackson cool than Eli-Wallace cool, right? I thought Dr. J was actually gonna cry from happiness over the radio when we reported back. But then we found a terminal and I hooked up a naquadah generator to it, which, by the way, new skill! I’ve never done before but Carter wrote a manual that pretty much anyone with a high school degree can follow. Make a mistake and blow yourself up, though. Nowhere does her manual literally say that. As the only person without a college degree to ever be employed by the SGC, I’m gonna say, ‘Stick a warning label on the thing, lady’!”


Young smiled faintly.


So I hooked up the generator and the terminal powered up. It was amazing. They had really sophisticated solid-state storage so it’s pretty much good as new. Unfortunately I can’t read any of it, but Dr. J is, like, teaching himself Furling as we speak and it takes him basically twenty minutes to learn a new language so I’m going to start looking at it with him this afternoon.”


Young exhaled shortly in something that was almost a laugh.


“I know,” Eli said significantly. “It’s gonna be epic. Carter might drop by. Ginn is definitely gonna come hang out when she finishes the latest LA secret-spy-stuff that she’s doing. I can’t even know about it, it’s so secret, and my security clearance is high, let me tell you.”


“I believe it.”


“How’s the leg? How’s the shoulder?”


“Doing pretty well,” Young said. “I’m driving again. On my own.”


“Um, yeah,” Eli said, glancing at him obliquely. “Good. Are you going back to Atlantis? I heard Sheppard is asking for you back. I heard that you saved McKay in a pretty intense, badass, hardcore way.”


“I won’t be passing the physical reqs any time soon. I’m just lucky they okayed a planetside posting and didn’t kick me to the curb with an SGC-issued memory wipe.”


“They don’t really do that, do they?”


“Wouldn’t’ve thought they’d drown the chair of UC Berkeley’s Math Department in electroconductive gel either, but here we are.”


“Uh. God. Okay. Well, um, I heard McKay was asking for you to be reassigned ASAP,” Eli said, trying to lighten his tone for all he was worth. “He wants you on his math team.”


Young shrugged.


He watched the willow leaves flow downstream toward a distant sea.


“I also heard,” Eli said quietly, “that even though you don’t have the ATA gene, the ah—the city lit up for you. That you could fly the shuttles and use all the tech. Without the gene therapy.”


“True.”


“It’s not getting better,” Eli said. “Is it.”


“No,” Young said. “It’s getting worse.”


Why though?”


Young traced the rough grain of the wood that made up the bridge. “Remember when the four of us—he and I and you and Chloe—were in the shuttle from the seed ship?”


“Sitting on Destiny’s hull,” Eli whispered, just audible above the drone of concealed insects. “I remember.”


“While I was unconscious, he combined with the ship.”


“As in like, combined combined?” Eli asked. “Fused? He was the fusion?”


“Yeah.” Young said. “And he knew, he knew what he was, I think, but he didn’t understand how difficult it’d be for me to separate him back into himself and the AI. He didn’t understand how dangerous Destiny would be to a normal, human mind.”


“You passed out,” Eli said, “trying to pull him out of the ship.”


“Not exactly,” Young whispered. “I tried to pull him out and I failed.”


Eli was quiet.


“We needed him,” Young said. “He knew it. He took the only option available. He moved in on my mind, took my ability to ground him, and used it to tear himself apart.”


Eli said nothing, his eyes invisible behind his sunglasses. He looked over the water, utterly still.


“Interfacing with the ship like that was enough to do some real damage. To me. He fixed that damage,” Young said, “but when he did the fixing, he needed a template.”


“I guess we know where he got his template from,” Eli said.


“Yup.” Young pushed too-long hair out of his eyes.


“He thought he could come back,” Eli said quietly. “It’s the only explanation. He wouldn’t leave you like this.”


“I’m not so sure.”


“I am,” Eli said. “I’m positive. He seemed like an asshole. Had everyone fooled for a long time. But he was a good person. Prickly as hell, but a good person.”


“I don’t disagree,” Young said, his voice turning cool. “But he was also a ruthless utilitarian.”


“He didn’t have it in him to do this to you,” Eli persisted.


“He was perfectly capable of exactly that,” Young shot back. “When the alternative was letting me die. Was watching me die.”


Stubbornly, Eli shook his head. “He had to’ve planned for this. He had to have known. He orchestrated everything else so perfectly.”


“I concur,” Young said, with a slow pour of icy agreement. “And what, then, is the obvious inference?”


Eli grimaced, looking away. “We don’t know. We don’t know anything for sure.”


“Say it,” Young demanded.


“That he failed. That he’s dead.” Eli swallowed. “That he’s dead, and you’re stuck like this.”


“Yes,” Young hissed.


“I don’t believe it,” Eli said. “I don’t. I won’t.”


“By all means,” Young growled, “persist in an irrational manner if it suits you.”


Eli compressed his lips and gripped the railing of the bridge. “You’ve gotta try and fight this,” he said, his voice strained. “Not lean into it.”


Young took a deep breath. “I know,” he rasped. “I’m sorry.”


“Don’t apologize,” Eli whispered.


Together, they watched the water carry along an endless, slow sweep of willow leaves.






July


The wedding happened at dusk, outside, on the back lawn of the late Senator Armstrong’s private residence. Chloe’s mother spared no expense. Roses exploded in waterfalls of pale pink and white. Chloe’s dress was plain and elegant and made of something light and summery. She wore white flowers in her hair, but no veil.


Young stood with her, looking out at the guests, listening to the sound of the string quartet, trying to think of something to say.


Something that wasn’t sad.


Something hopeful, something appropriate.


“Chloe,” he began, with no plan, no ending.


She wrapped her hand around his elbow. “I’m glad you’re here, colonel.”


“Your father—”


She shook her head, teary-eyed, and wrapped her arms around him. She lifted up on her toes in her strappy flat shoes to kiss his cheek. “You don’t need to say anything. This is wonderful. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for coming. I know that seeing everyone is hard for you.”


He hugged her, trying not to crush any of the tiny flowers in her hair.


He lasted through the cocktail hour, the pictures, the dinner, the conversations with the crew that all played out the same way—excitement to see him, followed by the slow creep of something uncomfortable, something awkward, a note of unease in people’s voices, in their eyes.


Finally, he retreated to the shadows at the back of the house.


He found a spot next to an old, stone wall that formed the base of the portico for the hillside estate. Roses grew along a trellis near where he leaned against the masonry.


He watched the guests mingle in the setting sun.


The entire crew of Destiny had been invited.


They looked so different.


The four months they’d been back had softened their angles, brightened their hair, lightened their expressions. Camile, especially, looked happy, and rarely strayed more than ten feet from Sharon. Greer and Park had come together. Eli had Ginn by the hand, and was dragging her over to the cake, the centerpieces, Chloe’s dress, and giving little free-form lectures; Ginn seemed delighted with the entire concept of what was taking place.


Jack O’Neill came around the corner of the house, a beer in each hand. “Everett,” he said.


“General,” he replied.


“Nice ceremony,” O’Neill said mildly. He offered Young a beer. “I was gonna drink both of these, but, since you’re here—” he trailed off.


Young shook his head. “Knock yourself out. I’ll see you later.”


“Nice try. Take the beer.”


Young pulled a bottle out of O’Neill’s hand.


“Shouldn’t you be out there chatting people up? You did give away the bride, after all.”


“True,” Young said, his voice mild. “I also almost had her shot when, through no fault of her own, she became a security risk.”


There was a brief silence.


“Well,” O’Neill said, “it looks like she got over it.”


Young tasted his beer, decided it was terrible, and checked the label for confirmation. Yup. Deeply terrible. “I guess.”


“So,” O’Neill said, his folksy Minnesota twang making an appearance, “I heard you ditched your psychiatrist for an infectious disease doctor. How’s that working out for you?”


“Just fine,” Young said.


“Oh yeah?” O’Neill sipped his beer.


“Yup.”


“Carter says McKay says you’re some kind of crack math genius now,” O’Neill said. “Or computer genius. Whatever. Something about writing a code to improve the rate and safety of Lantean shield activation?”


Young shrugged.


There was a brief silence.


“I’m tempted to order you back to MacKenzie,” O’Neill said.


“Why don’t you?”


“Because,” O’Neill said, “I happen to like Dr. Lam. And this isn’t just a grief-thing, or a guilt-thing, or a bad-coping-mechanisms-thing, is it? This is something else. Something you need to learn to live with.”


“Yeah,” Young said.


They drank their beer in silence.


“Consider getting a haircut,” O’Neill said. “It’ll make things a little less obvious.”


“Yeah. It keeps slipping my mind.”


Out on the portico, he watched Chloe wrap her arms around Park and TJ in a three-way hug. The setting sun put red highlights in their hair and reflected off the crystal embroidery on Chloe’s dress.


“Write it on your hand, maybe,” O’Neill suggested.






August


He hadn’t wanted to come here.


The Strategic Air Command of Travis Air Force base, however, had required someone with upper level security clearance to explain the cloaked Lucian Alliance ship they’d shot down several hundred miles off the coast of California. The SGC was a little strapped for resources, given the Ori beachhead in the Milky Way.


That explained Young’s first Earth-based assignment. It explained the plane flight. The hours of briefing and debriefing.


It did not explain the hour-long cab ride from the base to the east side of San Francisco Bay.


Even behind his sunglasses, his eyes hurt. There was so much light here—it reflected off the white exteriors of suburban houses and the pale cement of the sidewalks.


The air was full of haze and heat.


In gardens, bees buzzed, the sound of their wings low and threatening among the blooming asters.


He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it wasn’t this. The lawn was perfectly maintained. Had to be some kind of neighborhood service, automatic payments from an account that’d never been closed.


Young stood on the sidewalk, undecided, the sun heating up his uniform.


He walked up to the porch.


He knelt and removed a loose brick to reveal a spare key.


It wasn’t breaking and entering if you had a key.


Was it?


He fought the lock on the front door, torquing the key just so.


Dust glittered in the light that entered slant-wise through irregular cracks in the drawn shades. Beneath the patina of disuse he saw what it’d been when it was lived in—clean and bright and professional. Impersonal, even.


A place where they had been, not who they had been.


He paused a moment, leaning in the doorway, thinking of Gloria.


She hadn’t wanted to stay here. It was written all over the white, pictureless walls, the spare utilitarianism of each room, the pale, characterless furniture, as if by refusing to settle in, she could make the place temporary by force of will.


In the end, it had been.


As for Nick, well, he’d been erasing himself for his entire life.


“Sorry, sweetheart,” he murmured to the empty music room.


He walked across the hall.


The door to the study was shut. He twisted the knob and pushed it open.


The room was a beautiful disaster, the sort of compartmentalized chaos that matched his own mind and that fit the man so well—


His throat hurt with it.


On the desk, was an array of pens: capless, cheap, expensive, colored, black. They spread over the layers of math that obscured the wood of the desk. Among the pens, the blade of a box cutter caught a shaft of light that’d found its way past the drawn blinds.


Rush had never come back here. He’d beamed away with the intent to return in twelve hours and—he’d never come back.


Young hooked a hand over his shoulder and massaged the back of his neck. Almost immediately, he caught himself. But he didn’t stop. His back ached. His arm. His chest. His leg.


So long as he was here, there were some things he could use.


A notebook from 1998. He’d been in a topology phase at that point, and Rodney thought he knew so fuckin’ much about geodesics; it was insufferable. Young was working on a rebuttal to “McKay’s Assertion” [Zelenka’s term: “we call them ‘assertions’ because he’s an ass”] that certain geometric configurations were impossible to achieve due to dynamic field responses under states of environmental perturbation.


The room was a disorganized mess, but it only took him a few minutes to find the thing, buried beneath the pretentiously legitimate vinyl collection.


He remembered where he’d left it.


During his search, he came across a set of unlabeled CDs: Gloria’s audition recordings, first with the London Symphony Orchestra and then with the San Francisco Symphony.


They were lucky to get her, the bastards.


On the way out, he snagged car keys, three empty notebooks and a handful of pencils.


Math with a pen was pure hubris.






September


He leaned against the side of the white Prius.


There was no reason for him to be here. Not really. It was a stupid idea. Inappropriate. Fuckin’—fuck. Just a bad idea. He’d talked with Lam about letting go. He talked about nothing but letting go. There were plenty of reasons he should. He needed to get on with his life. Talk to his friends. As himself. Stop the math. Start working out. Stop smoking. See his family.


This was the opposite of letting go.


This was hanging on.


The air was crisp and clear and smelled familiar.


He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and tapped it against his hand before removing one and trapping it between his teeth. He shielded the lighter from the early morning breeze with one cupped hand as he lit the damned thing.


“Nick,” someone called.


He turned, damn it. Force of habit.


Nick. I can’t believe—”


Young turned to see a man about his own height, with a stack of papers tucked under his arm and a cup of coffee in one hand. He did his best to wipe any hint of recognition off his face.


God, he needed some coffee. Absolutely fuckin’ required it.


“Oh.” The other man nearly lost his grip on his papers. “So sorry. I thought you were someone else. Same car, you know. And the cigarettes. I’m always forgetting my glasses—”


“I’m waitin’ for someone,” he said, and somehow, around the cigarette, he was subtly drawing out vowels and dropping a ‘g’ and modifying suffixes and this was spiraling out of control, but what’d he expected coming here?


He must be fuckin’ out of his fuckin’ mind.


The other man nodded, disappointed, and turned away.


Young knew the feeling.


A car pulled into the parking lot. A Honda Civic. Red. Somehow, he could tell, just by the slow and precise parking job, that it was Chloe.


He watched her get out, open the back seat, and pull out a shoulder bag.


Her hair was straight. Pulled back from her face. She wore designer glasses, square-framed, but with a hint of a taper. She’d taken her whole intellect to the job of looking like she belonged here. Right down to the Birkenstocks. She lifted her coffee off the top of the car settled her bag over her shoulder. She tipped her chin up.


That little quirk of the head was the only way to tell she was afraid.


Yes well.


That and the fact she was twenty minutes early for class. Simply not done. Not around here. She’d figure that out soon enough.


She didn’t look at him. She set her sights on the UCB Math Building.


He flicked his cigarette onto the pavement and stepped on it.


If she didn’t turn, he wouldn’t say anything.


But she did turn.


She looked back once, and then again. Her pace slowed. She stopped in the middle of the parking lot, one hand gripping the strap of her bag.


Her face contained something he recognized in his own eyes.


But she smiled as she approached him.


“Chloe,” he said.


“Hi colonel,” she replied, not entirely able to hide the shakiness of her smile. “What are you doing here?”


“I was in the area,” he lied. “Thought I’d stop by.”


“You know what time Set Theory meets?”


“I ought to, I—” He broke off.


Chloe wrapped both hands around her coffee, as if she were cold.


“I like the glasses,” he said quietly.


“Yeah.” She smiled again, and it was steadier this time. “Staring at screens on Destiny ruined my eyes. Eli tells me glasses are required if you want to be taken seriously in academia. That, and a working knowledge of the science of Star Trek.”


“You’ll do fine. What does Eli know about academia anyway?”


She shrugged. Her smile wavered.


He looked down.


“You look—tired,” she said.


“It’s just the traveling,” he murmured. “I come out here every so often to take care of a few things.”


“Yeah.” Chloe pressed her lips together and pulled in a long, slow breath. “Makes sense.”


“How are you doing?” Young asked.


“Okay.”


“Yeah?” He pushed his hair out of his eyes.


“Even now,” she said, “I still have the dreams. Almost every night.”


“I don’t think they’ll ever fade,” Young said gently.


“I pound against the glass,” she said, “as my mother watches me drown.”


“Yes,” he whispered. “I remember.”


“But more often now,” she said, giving him a watery smile, “I have the dream where he breaks the glass. Where I fall as the water rushes out. Where he pulls me off the floor and takes me back. To Destiny. To all of you.”


Young looked up at the clear blue of the sky.


“I remember the set of his shoulders.”


He was quiet.


“What about you?” she whispered. “What do you dream of?”


“I try not to, kiddo.”


She nodded.


“There’s a nice coffee shop around the corner,” he said, regrouping. “A lot of the grad students seem to congregate there, doing god knows what.” He gave her a half smile. “Don’t let them push you around, erode your confidence. Most of them are just fuckin’ jealous assholes.”


Her expression cracked, and she knelt to set her coffee down on the sidewalk. She straightened and stepped forward, throwing her arms around his neck, knocking him back against the car. She sobbed once, her face buried in his shoulder.


His arms tightened around her.


Chloe pulled back. She picked up her coffee cup. “You call me if you want to talk about math. Or—anything else.”


“Give me that,” Young said, motioning at her coffee.


She handed it over, and he scribbled three sets of empty brackets onto it with a pencil he pulled from his pocket.


“This?” he said, rotating the cup and pointing to the brackets. “A non-empty pure set. Starr’ll ask this. Midway through the first lecture.”


“A non-empty pure set,” Chloe repeated, looking at the math. “Thanks. I’m so used to thinking in Ancient; it’ll be hard to make the switch to English.”


“Tell me about it.”


“Are you gonna be in town for a while?”


Young shook his head. “I gotta get back. Tell Matt I said hi.”


She nodded, but didn’t turn away.


“Get out of here,” he said.


“Bye, colonel,” she whispered.


He watched her until she’d disappeared through the glass doors of the Math Building. Then he drove to the athletic fields and sat on the hood of the Prius, trying to think of games and touchdowns and the spin of the ball that was all gyroscopic stability and—fuck, trying to think of anything but math as he stared out at the open space of an empty football field and made a genuine effort to shove the personality of a dead man back into the recesses of his mind where it belonged.






October


Young lit a cigarette and looked out over the sea.


This was Rodney’s fault.


Entirely.


He’d been doing okay. Restarted physical therapy for the tenth time. Taken a position screening applications, interviewing SGC recruits, and running the mock-footholds at Cheyenne Mountain that separated the best of the new recruits.


He hadn’t done a math problem in weeks.


Weeks.


Well, eleven days, technically.


But Rodney had shown up to do his goddamned ‘congressional briefing’ and asked for his input on a singularity-based power source, like a fucking insensitive asshole.


Yes well. Fine. He’d fallen off the theoretical physics wagon. Wasn’t like it was the first time.


The thing that was becoming really bloody obvious though, was that he should not drink. Not anymore. Not at all. And, failing total abstinence, clearly not with fuckin’ Rodney.


He took a breath.


Clearly not with Rodney.


The bizarre fuckin’ blend that was his fuckin’ mind—


The state of his thoughts was such that when he drank, really bad ideas started to seem less bad.


Like this one.


This had been a bad idea.


As bad as they fucking came.


He took a breath and made an effort to calm down. Everything was much better when he could just—


Stay.


Calm.


Below him, the water broke along the dark rocks in white crests. The wind whipped through his hair, teased his jacket, and disturbed the grasses and the clusters of small purple flowers that covered the ground at his feet.


“Y’could’ve told me,” Young snapped at the empty air. “I would’ve understood.”


He hadn’t started thinking clearly until he had already flown to JFK and the transatlantic flight had taken off, changing velocity pressing him back and down and into his seat as New York spread out below him like a carpet of light.


“It explains a lot, actually,” he continued, feeling calmer as he achieved a degree of separation between himself and the dead man he was addressing. “But I suppose that’s part of why you never said anything. Not to me, not to Gloria, not to anyone.”


He took a drag of his cigarette.


“Bet the AI knew, though. I’ll bet it knew everything.”


He exhaled, watching little birds circle distant rocks.


“But not because you told it,” he whispered.


He turned and he walked over the crest of the hill, following the path Riley had taken in a place that’d looked like this one—just less sharp, less edged, less acutely painful. He found his way to the back of a small church, winding between graves old and new until he found what he was looking for.


It was mostly overgrown.


He sat gingerly, stretching his aching leg out in front of him. He ran a thumb over the flat gray stone, clearing the damp earth away from the engraved letters with his nail.


“Alexander,” he murmured. “Not your fault,” he whispered. “Not his either.”


He ripped back the overgrown, spiky grass, looking at the dates.


He’d had a sense of it already, of course, from the splintered remains of recent dreams and from—from everything, but—


“Fifteen,” Young murmured, looking at the dates. “And he must have been, what? Twelve?” He looked at the stone and shook his head. “Thirteen,” he whispered. “The way he remembers it—I thought he’d have been older.”


Young brushed the loose earth away from the grave.


“Your brother hated water,” Young said with difficulty, “for the rest of his life.”


He paused, listening to the cry of sea birds.


“But it might also interest you to know—” Young broke off, clenching his jaw. “He never believed what they said. He never believed in hell. And, even if he had, he never would’ve believed, not for a second, that you would ever end up there.”


Young said nothing for a long time.


“He kept your secret,” Young murmured. “And then, after you died, he kept you as one.”


He pulled a carved chess piece out of his pocket and set it on the gravestone.


“Don’t think I’ll be back this way again, kiddo,” he said quietly. “I’m trying to let go.”





November


Rodney was back on Atlantis, but that was fine.


Young didn’t care.


Young didn’t want to talk to him anyway. He didn’t want to talk to Rodney about Yang-Mills existence and mass gap, he didn’t want to skype with Chloe to find out how Set Theory was going and he didn’t want to talk to Carter about the theoretical implications of turbulence in the event horizon of unstable wormholes. Nope. He also didn’t want to fuckin’ go online and read the latest issue of the Annals of Mathematics and he most certainly did not want to look at the e-table of contents of Communications on Applied Mathematics even though it was a Thursday and the new eTOCs came out on Thursdays. He didn’t want to fuckin’ look and he didn’t want to fuckin’ know.


Nope.


The material conditional: if math, then drinking.


Converse indicative conditional: if he did no math, then he did not drink.


Counterfactual conditional: if he had not done math, then he would not be drinking.


All logically sound, but predicated on a causal link between math and drinking. Did causality even exist here? If not, then it was no victory to skip the math and go straight to the drinking.


If causality does not exist, then


Ah, fuck it.


He went to O’Malley’s.


It was late when he left the base, freezing rain thrown into sparkling relief by the beams of his headlights and hitting his windshield in hard, icy drops.


When he got to the bar, it was quiet.


Most of the clientele came from the base, and he’d heard rumors of some kind of Presidential Visit or Jaffa High Council or Asgard Something-or-Other happening tomorrow.


Whatever.


He ordered wine.


Then he fuckin’ well changed his order to fuckin’ beer.


A shitty American beer.


He drank his beer


Then he ordered a scotch. Compromise.


He needed to do something about this. He needed a strategy. That was how he operated. It was who he was.


He’d told JD he was coming for Christmas.


He ordered another scotch.


He sat at the bar, tracing patterns in the dark wood, trying to remember who he was.


Who he was.


He had nieces and nephews. An ex-wife who still cared about him enough to call every other month, every second Sunday. He had interests. Interests that were not math. That were not science. He liked—fuckin’ football, he supposed. And guns?


Ugh.


Right, maybe he had no great love for guns anymore.


But he liked football. He liked hockey. He liked the chain of command. Sometimes. He liked the outdoors. He liked dogs. He might like cats a little more but he still liked dogs. He liked American food. Fuck but he’d always liked American food. British cuisine—


Fuckin’ hell. No. He was confused about what he was confused about. He’d start again.


He liked classic rock. He did not like jazz. He felt one hundred percent neutral about classical music, so neutral about it, in fact, that he preferred never to hear it.


He did not currently have, nor had he ever had, any strong feelings about math for fuck’s sake.


He took out a cigarette and fished for his lighter.


“You can’t smoke in here,” the bartender said, before he’d even gotten the thing lit.


“I don’t smoke anyway,” Young snapped back.


Okay.


So he wasn’t having a good night.


Fine.


Maybe he’d just go with it.


Or maybe he’d fuckin’ go home, and really get wrecked.


Drunk.


Whatever.


He was ready to leave. He was on his way back from the men’s room, when he stumbled. An’ fuck he’d need to call a cab—but when he looked down and saw he’d caught himself on a familiar ridge of dark wood—he knew it wasn’t just a bad night.


It was a bloody terrible night.


He could no more walk away from the piano than he could shove any of the rest of it out of his head and the only hesitation of his hands above the keys was the hesitation that came at the peak of a ballistic trajectory where the remnants of an absent thrust met gravity and, for a perceptible interval, change in position over time approached zero.


He sat.


He looked at the keys.


He began to play.


Schubert’s Impromptu in G Flat clawed its way out of his mind as if it lived there, a separate thing, waiting to emerge fully formed. Continuous fluttering arpeggios moved beneath the melody, blending and falling through entire dynamic ranges, his articulation practiced and familiar and sure and god the man had not just ‘played piano’ because this was not music.


This was the sound of his mind shredding into broken triads.


He finished the piece and stood, rocketing back from the keys, losing his balance.


He would’ve fallen, but someone grabbed his upper arm.


“Hey,” Jackson said, his voice low and quiet and much, much too close.


Young shut his eyes, unable to stand the sight of the other man, unable to send him away.


“You look like you could use a ride home,” Jackson said.






December


Multicolored lights wound their way around the black metal of the porch railing in tightly spaced loops.


His breath condensed in the dark air.


Inside, Luke mock-roared as he wrestled two of the nephews.


“What happened out there, Everett?” JD asked.


“Can’t talk about it.”


“I know that.” JD stood at his shoulder, his expression tentative. Full of concern. “But there’s gotta be something you can say about whatever’s tearing you apart.”


He smiled at that, and he felt it on his face—it was Rush’s smile. Rush’s fucking pained half-smile that he’d never appreciated for what it was—this way that one could somehow feel so amused, so incredulous, and so fucking hurt.


“I left someone behind.” He angled his head up and leaned into the icy exterior of the house. “Not sure if you’ve heard, but it’s something we try to avoid.”


“I’ve heard.”


“I did it twice, actually. Same guy. First time, he made it back. Second time, he didn’t.”


The night was dry and clear. The galaxy spread above them, scattered in crisp relief over the dark.


It seemed small.


“I’m guessing you didn’t have much choice about it,” JD said guardedly.


Young shrugged, unable to speak.


“This guy,” JD said, and god if he hadn’t always been like this, ever since Young was a kid, coming like a spear to the heart of everything. “What was he like?”


“Complicated.” Young reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.


“Since when do you smoke?” JD asked.


“I don’t know.” He trapped the cigarette delicately between his teeth and fished for a lighter in his pocket. “Depends on how you look at it, I guess.”


“It’s bad for you,” JD said, ignoring the incomprehensibility of his statement and focusing on what he could understand, which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t much.


That too, he recognized.


“The best things always are,” Young replied.


“So—tell me about this guy. What happened?”


“He was a civilian,” Young said. “I was supposed to bring him home, and I didn’t.”


“Everett.”


Young took a draw of the cigarette and looked up at the linear smear of his home galaxy. “Can’t tell you specifics, but you know the whole navy mentality, go-down-with-the-ship type of thing?”


“Yeah,” JD said cautiously.


“It was that sort of scenario, and I was gonna stay. Go down with the hypothetical fuckin’ ship. But instead—” His throat closed.


“But instead it was him?” JD finished.


“Yeah.”


“And you can’t live with that.”


“In more ways than one.”


“Everett—” There was something sad in his brother’s voice, and that was appropriate, Young thought, because in a lot of ways, in all the most important ways, JD’s little brother was dead. “Does this guy have a name?”


“No,” Young said.


“Okay. We’ll call him—uh, Steve. Seems like you and Steve—”


“Nick,” Young whispered.


“Nick then,” JD said quietly. “It seems like maybe you and Nick had a relationship that was more complicated than just a military guy protecting a civilian contractor, or analyst, or whatever he was exactly.”


“Maybe,” Young said, feeling his brother slowly unravel him, letting him do it for what was probably the last time.


“So what was the deal, exactly?” JD murmured.


“He tried to frame me for murder.” Young shrugged. “He failed. I attacked him and left him to die. He fought his way back. We worked out our differences. Saved each other’s lives a few times. We slept together. He forced me to leave him behind.”


Silence.


“Um, holy shit, Everett?”


“Like I said. He was complicated.”


JD breathed evenly into the night, a long, slow exhale. There were so many avenues of attack open to him, Young was curious to see what he’d pick.


“Is he dead?”


God damn.


He smiled Rush’s smile. “How’n the hell’d you end up in this family, anyway? You’re too sharp by half.”


“I question people for a living, Everett. You didn’t answer me.”


“I don’t know. I think he is.”


“Is the not-knowing what’s keeping you going?” JD asked.


“Not sure anything’s ‘keeping me going.’ I’m not really on a sustainable trajectory here, as you’ve probably noticed.”


“Grief is never a sustainable trajectory,” JD said.


“You think this is grief?”


“That’s what it looks like from here.”


“Well, it’s not,” Young growled. “The man was a fuckin’ landslide of a human being and in the end—” his voice cracked and this was not happening to him, he was not having a breakdown on the porch of his parents’ house. He wasn’t.


He wasn’t.


“And, in the end,” continued, “he stayed true to what he was: an untrustworthy bastard fuckin’ pragmatist.”


“Nick.” JD said, like a question, like a reminder, like an admonishment—like he was using the fucking vocative case.


“Yeah.” Young’s voice shattered into nothing against the word. “Nick.”




January


He was driving across southern Wyoming when he decided he couldn’t take it anymore.


The land was flat and white. Blanketed with snow.


The clouded sky was leaden and low to the ground.


He took the first exit off the highway and pulled into a gas station in the middle of nowhere. He filled up the Prius’s tank, then asked for a key to the men’s room. He passed aisles of processed food, cheap magazines, terrible coffee.


He went outside.


It’d started to snow. Just a few dry, fragile little flakes that matched the sky and the land and the cement and the chipped paint of the gas station.


The door that he opened was gray.


Light filtered in from a vent. In the dimness, it was hard to make out his face in the mirror.


“Sorry,” he said to his reflection. “But I can’t do this anymore.”


He knelt on the floor of the men’s room, one hand on the sink.


He reached into the depths of his mind and hauled Rush forward. All he’d been burying. All that had unearthed itself. He pulled it all forward.


Everything.


After an uncounted, uncountable interval, he opened his eyes. He was still crouched on the floor. He rocketed to his feet, overcorrected, and steadied himself against the sink.


He clenched his hands. He relaxed his hands.


A muscle in his cheek twitched.


His hands were shaking. His whole body was shaking.


He braced himself against the sink and shook his hair back out of his face.


God, yes.


This was better. It was better.


He laughed once, brief and mirthless.


He leaned into the mirror, staring his own reflection down. “I told you,” he said, and the words hit as subtly accented, viscerally satisfying, as if he’d been speaking incorrectly for months. “We’d never be done.”




February


“Something’s changed.” Lam nudged a pawn forward with the edge of a short, polished nail. “You seem different. Settled, maybe? More talkative. More anxious.”


Young looked up from the chessboard. “Settled but anxious?” he smirked.


“You’ve lost weight.”


“I doubt it,” Young replied. “Personally, I think we should call this ‘improvement’.”


“Improvement,” Lam echoed, as she watched him position his bishop. “In that case, why don’t you tell me a little bit about him.”


“No.”


“One thing.” Lam nudged a pawn into place. “Just one.”


Young looked at her over the frames of his glasses.


Lam raised her eyebrows.


“He was arrogant,” Young said, “and he was practical. He was sensitive with a diamond-hard edge. He was a utilitarian who appreciated the aesthetics of art. Of science. Of math. Of language. Of deontology. There wasn’t a door or a lock or a gravity well that could hold him. He was uncontainable.”


“Uncontainable,” Lam said. “I’m getting that.”


“He was the kind of person,” Young said, “that a starship could fall in love with.”


“Destiny,” Lam said. “Destiny was in love with him?”


“Yes.” Young looked away. “It was.”

Popular posts from this blog