Force over Distance: The Horse and the Hound and the Horn

In the house that Jack built.

Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.

Text iteration: Midnight.

Additional notes: It’s called a ghost story...

The Horse and the Hound and the Horn

Hunter Riley, corporeal and brane-bound, wears the jeans and soft flannel belonging to an Air Force colonel in a doomed array. The night is cool, but the air coming through the open window smells like spring. Time, when it runs at all, runs thick in Riley’s presence. Able to feel the coming cull of a multiversal assassin.

He twists a corkscrew into a bottle of Pinot Noir from Kipp’s Bait and Grocery.

The quiet of the Minnesota night is broken by the sound of a distant car. The call of a bird. It’s too early in the year for the drone of insects. The War Song of the Ori hasn’t reached this far north. Not yet. But, if he listens, he can feel its vibrations in the land, sense them in the air.

Riley pours himself a glass of wine. He smells it. Takes a sip. It’s full of the warm sun and mineral soil where the grapes were grown.

The kettle whistles on the stove. He pours boiling water over waiting tea leaves.

Mug of tea in one hand, glass of wine in the other, he nudges the back door open with an elbow and steps into the night. The cheap screen door bangs behind him. He crosses the lawn. A crust of unmelted snow crunches beneath his feet.

Nick sits on the dock, legs crossed in meditation, fingertips touching, the way Sortes used to sit, millennia ago. The moon shines bright overhead, reflecting off his shirt, shining too bright off his hair and the frames of his glasses.

After the day he’s had, he’s all lift and no drop, sitting with the illusion of form.

Riley sets the mug of tea next to Nick and perches on the cold, rough wood of the dock. His legs dangle over its edge. The soles of Jack O’Neill’s boots are inches from the water.

“You preserved the illusion of time for me.” Nick speaks softly into the quiet night. “Brane to brane. For thirteen months.”

“I preserved a seasonal order,” Riley admits. “Synched to the brane you left.”

Nick drops the lift in his crystal just enough to pick up the mug. To hold it in both hands. “Y’know I didn’t even notice?” His tone is wistful, edged with rue.

“Your sense of time will never be what it was,” Riley says gently. Beneath the Minnesota moon, he sips his wine. He can taste the wild slopes and shores of ages past. His people, too, had valued this same distillation of earth and light. He holds the glory of a silver city in his mind. Its wine. Its song. Its people. He places his punishment in context.


Nick cradles his steaming tea in both hands, but doesn’t drink.

“Are you all right?” Riley whispers. He’s sure the answer is ‘no.’

Nick doesn’t reply.

The last of the snow reflects the moon’s silver light.

“Did they attempt to break your alignment?”

Nick nods.

“Did they succeed?” His breath mists in the cool night air.


“Did you hold your corporeal form for the entire verification?” Riley asks.


“Did the ship manifest?”

“Not as far as I’m aware,” Nick says, light and evasive and cyphered shut.


“It was a very—” He looks away. Subtly, his energetics flare. The lunar cast on his hair, on his glasses, on the white of his shirt, turns bright and takes on an edge of iridescence. “Let’s call it ‘thorough’ shall we?”

Riley tastes his wine, invites its familiar terroir to ground him. When he’s sure he can speak without emotion, he says, “You mean the Council suspended your awareness for portions of it?”

“Yes,” Nick admits reluctantly.

“Can you back-extrapolate any of what they did?”

“I believe,” Nick says, “Ganos Lal was permitted to look for suppressed remnants of Sortes.”

“And?” Riley says sharply.

“Had she found anything actionable, I doubt we’d be sitting here talking?”

Riley releases a shaky breath.

“But that’s no accident, is it?” Nick’s voice is soft, but carries a dangerous energetic sheen. “You pulled me, this very particular aspect of me, out of an aleph-null array. A variant with very little Sortes, but enough orphaned AI in the mix to insist on the preservation of all Nick Rush’s many and varied personal failures and frailties.”

Riley smiles faintly. The moon puts a shine on the red wine in his glass. “They’ve served you well so far, even if they’ve left you with some…unique psychological problems.”

“Oh fuck off,” Nick says, filing his edge away. “You’ve been a step ahead of the Council at every turn. I want to know how that’s possible, when y’haven’t left the Quantum Graveyard in millennia.”

“They’ve become rigid,” Riley says softly. “Full of fear. Cleaving to the ideals they’ve carved into existence.”

Nick nods, and his otherworldly shine diminishes as he gathers his energy, schools his thoughts, gives his form structure. “Tell me why y’forced me into explaining my nature to Everett Young.”

Riley looks down at his wine. Gives it a swirl. The answer, even now, isn’t so easy to formulate. Even if formulated, it’s not so easy to speak aloud to Nick Rush. “They gave you permission?” Riley asks instead.

“If they’d given me ‘permission’,” Nick says darkly, “I’d’ve led with that. What they gave me, at the end of all their verification, was a mandate. Pull him into the Quantum Graveyard or face the consequences.”

Riley shivers. “A mandate? They must be more desperate than I thought.”

“Why are they so interested in him?” Nick presses his mug of tea to his chest and gives Riley a lateral glance. The cuffs of his shirt blur into the kind of geometric detailing Sortes used to wear, in a city on the sea. “Why were you so interested in him, when first we met?”

“After all this time,” Riley says gently, “after everything they’ve put you through, you must be able to guess.”


“Alignment,” Riley confirms, looking up at the moon. “You preserved all your human frailty. All your vulnerability to the colonel’s influence. The gordian knot of landing places in your psyche for the mental connection he shares with you.”

“Much as I’d love t’claim that as a strategic choice—” Nick trails off.

“Finish your thought,” Riley prompts.

“It was an emotional choice. A shot in the dark, really. Hamstringing myself for no clear end. The worst kind of—”

“It’s what saved your life,” Riley says softly. “Your brane out of an infinite array of branes. It’s a sign you’re alignable.”


“Nick, you have more raw power than the entire Council combined. You ascended with the energy of a human, a starship, and a good chunk of a multiversal collision. The only reason they didn’t destroy you during the process is that I hid your ascension within the chaos of a branal cull. By the time they figured out what happened—it was too late.”

“Yes well.” Nick stares into his tea.

“They’ll need you, if they decide to face the Ori. But you’re anathema. They’ll never let you act on a living brane without a counterbalance. Fortunately, you have one.”

“I know,” Nick says. “I made that very argument. That he and I together formed a single operational system.”

“Um, I really hope you used a different metaphor.”

“Yes yes, celestial harmonies and whatnot, I was very poetic.”

Riley snorts into his wine glass.

Nick turns serious. “But I—” He presses his tea to his chest, as though he’s corporeal enough to be cold. “I was concerned they’d accept the argument but find some other alignment source. I half expected t’be yoked to Ganos Lal.”

Riley shakes his head. “Wouldn’t be her. She’s on thin ice as it is. Helping Dr. Jackson a little too much.”

Nick shrugs. “Or any of them, really. Take your pick. I didn’t honestly expect them to accept the argument and the colonel.”

“Colonel Young, as a quantum entity, is highly variable from array to array,” Riley continues. “But your particular counterpart is attractive to the Council. The more power he has, the more forbearance he shows. That’s very much in line with Alteran values. Multiple times he’s turned deep, bitter grudges into empathetic understanding. Another highly valued quality. Most importantly, he’s already proven himself an effective safeguard against your massive destructive potential.”

Nick winces.

“Sorry,” Riley says.

Nick descends further, until he’s lost all his otherworldly shine. His breath, like Riley’s, begins to mist in the cold spring air.

“Practicing?” Riley asks.

“I hate the glow,” Nick mutters.

“Removing the glow is a style choice, and therefore more aesthetically vain than allowing it.” Riley sips his wine.

“Yes well.”

“You seem anxious.”

“Fuck off,” Nick says, indignant. “I spent days—”


“I spent ‘hours’ getting my thought structures rearranged by an incompetent committee of chance-blind—”

Riley interrupts him before he can get going. “You spent hours winning the argument you’ve been making for a year now. I thought you’d be relieved.”

Wordlessly, Nick shrugs.

Almost undetectable beneath the quiet of a spring night, Riley hears the War Song of the Ori, moving north, moving east, coming along the vector that links Jack O’Neill’s cabin to Cheyenne Mountain, where a lonely gate sings an eternal search query for the dialing device it lost thousands of years ago.

“The colonel may not take well to my status,” Nick offers. “Already, he was unhappy with some of the choices I made. Repulsed, even, by the blend of biology and computation. I’ve no idea if he’ll consent to leave his brane.”

“I think it quite likely that he will,” Riley whispers.

“Ah fuck,” Nick says, thick and miserable, “and I’ve no idea if this will be any better. The way the Council spoke about him—he may be granted higher status than you or I. Pulled more directly into Alteran political maneuvering.”

“There’s precedent for exactly that,” Riley says grimly. “Daniel Jackson was welcomed like one of their own. He didn’t have a micron of lift in his crystal that Oma Dasala didn’t gift him.”

Nick shakes his head.

“It’ll be all right,” Riley says. “No Council member has ever set foot in the Quantum Graveyard.”

Nick’s hair flickers with his energetic distress, with the moonlight.

“Nick, they don’t come to the dead branes. They never have. You’re holding more cards than you can possibly imagine.”

Nick says nothing.

“It’ll be an invite. Their best strategy is all carrot, no stick. They need to make Colonel Young one of their own. If they’re sure of him, they can be sure of you. If they’re sure of you, then you both make it out of here. Turn the tide of the war.”

“What about you?” Nick says.

“Don’t worry about me.”

Nick looks up at the frozen mist of the galaxy, arcing across the night. The shine on his hair turns bright. His clothes now are more Lantean than Terran. He’s quiet for a long time. When he finally speaks, he says, “What happened to Fabrice?”

Riley takes a sip of his wine. “What makes you think I know?”

Nick stays silent.

“Fabrice ascended from a Lantean prison.”

“But afterwards,” Nick says. “What happened afterwards.”

“For the crime of splitting the multiverse, of magnifying, without end, the power and reach of Origen, for the crime of anathema, and as restitution for the loss of Sortes and the corruption of his song, Fabrice was sentenced to the Quantum Hammer. A blast of phase-shifted energy, in infinitely small increments, was fired at Fabrice’s ascended form. All gifts were stripped. The song of Fabrice’s crystal was forced into descent, then dispersed through space and time. Incarnations of Fabrice’s crystal appear from time to time. In different places, amongst different peoples. And, even though they’re never permitted to ascend, never permitted to reproduce, they live long, charmed lives. Even during periods of galactic conflict.”

Nick shivers.

“And that,” Riley whispers, “is why Fabrice never came for Sortes.”

“An’ is that also why the shell of Fabrice trails those multiversal incarnations?” Nick whispers. “Why, in an infinite prison of dead and dying worlds, Fabrice returns again and again and again, to Jack O’Neill’s Minnesota cabin?”

Riley stares at the reflection of the moon on the still surface of the lake. “I’m as much Fabrice as you are Sortes.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Nick whispers.

Riley looks away.

“So you’ll wear Hunter Riley’s face for eternity?” Nick asks. “On a whim? While you sit in the house that Jack built, wear his clothes, drink his wine?”

“I bought this wine,” Riley whispers.

“On dying branes y’call him t’formally rent the bloody cabin,” Nick says.

“I have manners.”

Nick sighs.

“Oh all right.” Riley sets his glass of wine on the edge of the dock.

Hunter Riley’s form is more difficult to leave than Fabrice expected. More than his appearance had been borrowed: his quiet demeanor, his equanimity, his generosity in the face of his own violent death—all of them are qualities Fabrice aspires to remember. To keep. To incorporate.

When the energetics are finished and the light show of lifting and falling crystal has reached its end, Nick looks over, one eyebrow lifted. “Nicely done.”

“I’m older than your civilization,” Fabrice says. “Don’t compliment me.”

Nick, fighting down a smile, looks up at the moon and holds his tea close.

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