Ad Noctum: Chapter 10
“I’d be delighted t’force you to kill me over a new jacket,” Rush purred.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Passing references to torture and suicidality. Insensitive discussion of mental health issues.
Text iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
The morning after Telford shot Rush, Volker holed himself up in the workroom and watched video after video of Daniel ‘Tapes Guy’ Jackson running through the basics of How Not to Die in Space. He took a break for lunch, then dived back in. He’d just gotten to the meat of a series entitled: Thirty Thousand Years of Galactic Politics when he was recruited by Telford for a staged conversation on the bridge about “idiot scientists turning themselves into ‘snake bait’.”
It was tough not to take that one personally, given the snake-sized hole in his scientist shoulder.
Immediately afterwards, out of a sense of professional solidarity, Volker decided to make sure Rush wasn’t dead.
Unfortunately, Rush had locked the door to the engine room.
Volker keyed phi into the pad next to the door but met with no success. Undeterred, he popped the control panel and had just started to study the circuitry when Telford wordlessly emerged from the bridge, pressed the panel back into place, gave Volker a significant look, then headed for the shower.
“Okay,” Volker whispered.
So, he returned to Tapes Guy, buckled down, and spent the late afternoon and evening working through Thirty Thousand Years of Galactic Politics, followed by Knowns and Unknowns in the Pegasus Galaxy, and Ancient History: Chronological Challenges and Omnipresence.
He ended the day with a small set of big-picture insights.
One: the Milky Way was a messed up place. It’d been under the control of Parasitic Spine Cobras for, like, a really long time. The other two galaxies humans had explored were also messed up. In the Pegasus Galaxy, insects had merged with something human-like to create soul-sucking monsters called the Wraith? Uh, no thanks. In the Alteran Galaxy, there were beings of pure energy who somehow fed off unreasoning human worship. They were called the Ori, and, uh, again, Volker would hopefully be taking a hard pass on meeting them.
Two: the great news about the Spine Cobras was that they were on their way out, courtesy of Tapes Guy and his friends. (Get it, Tapes Guy! Bring down those Parasitical Empires!) But, in the vacuum left by the fall of Goa’uld, the Lucian Alliance was emerging as a dominant power. They’d spent millennia carving out a culture of opposition to the Goa’uld, building themselves clandestine strongholds on backwater planets, living in dispersed networks, meeting in secret, developing mind-altering substances (as one does), until system lord after system lord toppled from their golden thrones and the LA stepped into the open with their defaced ships and their leather and their chemical coercion. Volker was currently batting for the LA team. Great.
Three: the Ancients were a whole different (and much older) deal. They’d come from the Alteran Galaxy, well over a million years ago. They’d riddled the Milky Way with gates. They’d gone to Pegasus. Who knew where else they’d been, what else they’d done? At some point, while pursuing ascension to a higher plane, they’d accidentally unleashed a plague on themselves, which—despite quarantines and new starts and all the magical technology they’d created—had wiped them out.
Four: there wasn’t much information on what it meant to have an Ancient gene. Tapes Guy really needed to do a mini-series on that. If Volker ever found a Pan Galactic Suggestion Box, he’d drop a note.
Five: even though the Lucian Alliance had been all set to take center stage as the Galactic Problem Child after Tapes Guy and Friends had taken down the Spine Cobras…Tapes Guy (Tapes Guy!) had accidentally taken a side-trip to the Alteran Galaxy via quantum entanglement (apparently a real thing that caused wars) and pissed off the Ori? Now the Ori were coming for the Milky Way. No one was happy about this, least of all the Lucian Alliance.
Six: everyone in the Milky Way, including the Air Force, the Lucian Alliance, and the shattered remnants of the Goa’uld, now needed to fight an enemy with their home turf on a higher plane.
That was pretty much where Tapes Guy had left things. Hopefully he was doing okay out there.
Volker stared up at the gold ceiling of the tel’tak and cranked over the whole thing in his mind. There were so many unanswered questions it was pointless to list them.
But Rush had given him a starting point the previous night. A weird one. A small one. The question to be asking, apparently, wasn’t why Rush had come for Volker, but how Rush had come for Volker.
What did that even mean?
Volker knew how. Well, sort of. But anything beyond the Literal How surely counted as part of the Wider Why. Didn’t it?
Eh. Rush was, maybe, not the most methodically rigorous guy. The pure math people were always the craziest. It was a known fact.
Okay, what if he broadened the question of “how?” Just a little bit.
Maybe—how had he known where Volker would be?
His office, on a weekday morning, wasn’t much of a stretch.
Maybe—how had he known Volker could help him?
That question definitely fell under the Wider Why concept as opposed to the Literal How concept, but, Volker supposed, it was a mechanistic question at its heart.
And yeah. How had Rush known who Volker was? What he did. That was weird. Was it weird?
It wouldn’t be that hard, given a search engine and a few key terms.
Except the guy didn’t exactly have easy access to search engines. No internet in space. Or—maybe there was space internet? (He’d have to look into that.) But even if there was Space Internet, it wouldn’t be spitting Volker’s name out when one searched for cosmic background radiation.
Wait, but would it though?
Maybe Rush had hardcore space interests? A little astrophysics hobby on the side? Lots of people were spacetime junkies. Maybe Rush’s closet had been full of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan and a bunch of printed out, marked up cosmology papers.
It could happen, he supposed.
But it seemed really unlikely.
He tried to piece together the order of operations that’d led Rush to his office. The guy needed a planet. For that he needed the WMAP data with Volker’s custom blend of radiometric readings superimposed. For that, he needed Volker’s dataset. Specifically Volker’s.
And Rush had—known that?
That wasn’t something the guy could easily search. Would it be theoretically possible? Yeah. But it would require a lot of reading. A lot of time. A deep dive into publicly available grant proposals because Volker hadn’t yet published on his dataset. He’d assumed that “Starr” had gotten his name from a colleague.
But Rush didn’t have colleagues. Nor did he have easy access to the internet.
Volker tried to think back, lifetimes ago, to their conversation in his office. It’d felt like an interview. He tried to remember, as best he could, what Rush had said. He’d wanted raw data on low-frequency EM emissions across the observable sky. Volker scanned back through the conversation, trying to remember every question Rush had asked.
Does it rain often at Caltech?
How complete is your dataset?
Are you married?
Do you have children?
That was it.
That was all Rush had asked.
Tiny hairs on the back of Volker’s neck prickled. That was nothing. Four questions? Rush’s demeanor had made the interaction hit as an interview, but the guy hadn’t asked anything of substance. He’d come in knowing everything but—what? How much of the sky Volker’d mapped? Volker’s marital status and whether or not he had kids? And—shoot.
What had he said about Volker’s Ancient gene?
He’d assumed Volker had one, long before meeting Volker himself?
What the heck?
This was another belated identification of a Wall Swipe Moment. Rush knew way too much, and it’d taken Volker weeks to realize it.
He stared up at the ostentatiously gold ceiling of an alien spaceship and tried to formulate his next question. It didn’t come easily.
When Volker woke the following morning, he was alone in the ship’s sleeping quarters. Telford was an early riser, and Volker was getting used to his comings and goings.
He dressed, washed his face, brushed his teeth, and found Telford in the workroom, methodically working his way through an LA MRE that was exactly the same as all the other LA MREs.
“Morning,” Volker said, crossing the room to open the crate of silver-wrapped meals.
“Morning. Find anything useful in the database we swiped from the refinery?” Telford asked.
“Haven’t spent that long on it.” Volker dropped into a seat across from the other man. “I got it onto my laptop. That’s pretty much the progress so far.”
Telford didn’t look impressed. He took a bite of his alien power bar, backlit by the linear streaks of hyperspace.
“I’ve never used Rush’s adaptor system before.” Volker felt the need to justify himself. “Not sure if you’ve noticed, but it’s kind of a tangle of disassembled hardware?”
“I’ve noticed,” Telford said shortly. “You didn’t look at it? What were you doing yesterday?”
“I looked at it,” Volker replied. “It’s mostly lists of inventory. They’re using a lot of Goa’uld terms, man. I don’t know what half the stuff is. ‘Vy’ta’ comes up all over the place. What the heck is vy’ta?”
Telford snorted, swallowed his vaguely meat-flavored protein with what looked like significant difficulty, held up the silver wrapper of his MRE, and did a jazz-type hand-shimmy.
“Ah,” Volker said. “Food.”
“Literally, it’s this food. We’re eating it. Goa’uld field rations, repurposed, in bulk, by the LA.”
“Let me guess,” Volker said, looking sourly at the silver wrapper, “the packaging used to be gold?”
Telford cracked a small smile. “Probably. Couldn’t tell you, though.”
“So.” Volker took a swig of water. “I could say, ‘hey, Varro, what flavor of vy’ta is your favorite? That’d be correct?”
“Grammatically, yeah. If you said it exactly that way, it might land as a pretty good LA joke, because vy’ta has zero variety and lack of choice is a common LA punchline. If it didn’t land, it’d probably get you tortured and/or executed because there are no flavors of vy’ta.”
“Okay,” Volker whispered to himself. “No jokes.”
Telford shot him a sharp look. “No questions, Dale. Not to Kiva’s people.”
“Hate that,” Volker said conversationally, and tore into a chunk of vy’ta.
“Just trying to keep you alive,” Telford said.
Volker nodded. “Can you teach me to fight?”
Telford looked at him without speaking, eyebrows up.
“Kinda seems like it’s gonna be an important part of staying alive,” Volker said, thinking of Tapes Guy’s impressive physique.
“It’d help,” Telford said. “Not sure you have what it takes.”
“To survive?” Volker asked.
Telford winced. “Just focus on what you’re here for.”
“To help Rush,” Volker said flatly.
“Yup.” Telford didn’t meet his eyes.
“And what happens to me when he succeeds?” Volker asked quietly.
Telford tore off another hunk of vy’ta and stared at the gold detailing somewhere above and beyond Volker’s shoulder. “I’ll try to drop you on Earth.”
“Uh huh,” Volker said. “And what are the odds of pulling that off?”
Telford chewed his vy’ta and said nothing, backlit by stars streaming behind windows covered with Rush’s math.
“Teach me,” Volker pressed. “I’m not a quick study. I admit that. I have no natural talent. I admit that too. But I’m consistent. I’m disciplined.”
Telford finished his vy’ta. “I haven’t seen a lot of evidence of commitment.”
Volker wasn’t gonna take this one sitting down. “Oh, really? You’re getting an uncommitted vibe? Maybe that’s because your completely crazy associate kidnapped me from my office.”
Telford grinned, took a swig of water, and said, “Fair point.” He folded the silver vy’ta wrapper into a small, neat square. “Meet me in the cargo bay in ten. We’ll see what you’re capable of.”
“Okay well, uh, don’t get your hopes up.” Volker watched Telford get to his feet.
“I guarantee you, Dale,” Telford said, giving him a small smile, “my hopes couldn’t be lower.”
“Uh, great,” Volker said weakly, as Telford left the room.
Ten minutes later, he presented himself in the cargo bay to find the lights turned up, bright and high. Telford was nowhere in sight. Volker scanned his personal belongings, piled against the hollowed-out bulkhead. Mendelssohn’s next of shirts and litter box were still intact, but his food and his water bowl were missing.
Behind him, the door slid open. “Where’s your cat?” Telford said sharply. “I can’t find him.”
“Pretty sure he’s hanging out with Rush, down by the engines.”
“You’re pretty sure?” Telford demanded.
“Well, his food and water are missing, and I’m ‘pretty sure’ they were relocated by Rush sometime overnight. Unless space has given Mendelssohn a whole new set of skills.”
Telford frowned at the hollowed out bulkhead. “Well, at least he’s not dead.”
“My cat, or Rush?” Volker said dryly.
“Rush,” Telford said, equally dry. “When’s the last time you checked on him?”
“Not since the night you shot him,” Volker said. “I left the engine room and couldn’t get back in.”
“Yeah. He does that. It’s gonna be very inconvenient if he dies in there.” Telford grimaced, looking down the hall.
“Um,” Volker said, “do you think that’s likely?”
“No,” Telford replied. “If I did, we’d be gutting the ship to get to him.”
“Gutting the ship?”
“That man locks a door, and no one gets through.”
Volker shivered, thinking of the way Rush had stood next to a locked door in a burning room, watching the flames creep closer. “He’s got, maybe, a little bit of a death wish, it seems like?”
Telford didn’t say anything. He just looked at the wall like he could see straight through it, into Rush’s crystal cave by the engines. Then he turned to Volker. “I’m not sure,” Telford said softly. “He uses his life as collateral. Aggressively. He’s deadly serious about that much, at least.”
“How did you recruit him?” Volker asked.
Telford shot him a sharp look. “Let’s get started on some warmups.”
Unfortunately, “warmups” turned out to be the hardest workout Volker had ever done in his life. They started with jumping jacks, lunges, squats, and push-ups, which were done bare knuckled on the metal floor. Volker managed two in a row on the first circuit, and it went downhill from there.
Contrary to what Volker had been prepared for, Telford didn’t shout at him, drill-sergeant style. He barely said anything. Just led the way, circuit after circuit after circuit of strength training done at such speed it counted as aerobics. As they moved through the repetitive exercises, Telford counted them off in quiet sets of twenty. The numbers came in Goa’uld, rather than English.
After an eternity of unrelenting exertion, Telford called for a break. He handed Volker a canteen full of metallic tasting water.
“Ugh,” was the first thing Volker said when he could speak. “We’re going all out in leather?”
“You need to get used to moving in your gear. You walk around like you’re wearing a costume.”
“I am wearing a costume,” Volker grumbled. He took another swig of water, then held out the canteen.
Telford waved it away. “Get your head in the game. I don’t want to hear that kind of bullshit.”
“Yeah. Sorry. Not a costume. The only pants I’ve ever known.”
That wrenched a small smirk out of Telford, which was swiftly strangled before it turned into a smile. “You’re damn right.” He moved back to the center of the floor space. “You still up for this?”
Volker shut his eyes, thought of Tapes Guy, then rested the canteen against the wall. He rejoined Telford in the center of the floor. “Yup.”
“You sure? Because we’re doing it all again.”
“Okay,” Volker said.
The second round went a little differently. Instead of moving through the warmups with him, Telford critiqued Volker’s technique, adjusted his positioning, and taught him how to do a proper knuckle push-up. After the first series of endless circuits, Volker had nothing left in his muscles but shaky incompetence. Ultimately, Telford had him doing push-ups with his knees on the floor.
After that, drenched in sweat, trembling with fatigue, Volker was, apparently, considered “warm.”
Standing in the middle of the cargo bay, his eyes stinging with sweat, Volker learned the basics of throwing a punch—how to form a fist (don’t trap the thumb!), how to distribute the force of his strike (wrist straight, maximize surface area), how to stand (knees bent), how to get real momentum behind the strike (rotate the hips and shoulders, exhale and recoil), how to avoid getting beaten to the punch (no wind-ups or haymakers).
The session ended with a sparring match.
“There’s never gonna be any high kicks,” Telford said, knocking Volker’s punch off course with a well-executed block and sliding out of the way. “No fancy Tae Kwon Do shit. The LA teach their fighters in style that’s probably most similar to Isshin-Ryu Karate, which emphasizes natural movements. Efficient use of energy. It’s not designed to look cool. It’s designed to be effective.”
“I have no desire to look cool,” Volker said, ineffectively sliding out of the way as Telford snapped a strike directly at his left eye. “I just wanna stay alive.” Telford clipped him, but he’d pulled the power out of his strike; it was nothing more than a graze. Volker, trying not to let it rattle him, stepped back and adjusted his stance.
“Good,” Telford said. “Shake it off. The LA aren’t flashy fighters.”
“Are you a flashy fighter?” Volker breathed, trying to ignore the sweat in his eyes.
“Don’t know about flashy, but I’ve got more range and flexibility than average.” Telford grinned at Volker, then threw a lightning-fast high kick that skimmed the edge of Volker’s curls. “It’d be stupid not to use that.”
Volker flinched. “Okay, I admit that was cool.”
“Thanks,” Telford grinned. “Keep your guard up. Or I will hit you.”
Volker raised his guard as they circled one another.
“You’ve got a longer torso.” Telford stepped laterally, bare feet silent on the metal floor. “The LA style will work well for you.” He flicked his eyes up and down Volker’s frame. “You could end up with a pretty powerful build if you get serious about this.”
“Like Tapes Guy,” Volker said mildly.
“Tapes Guy?” Telford threw a deliberately slow punch that Volker managed to intercept and sidestep.
Telford rolled his eyes. “Please. He couldn’t win a fight if his life depended on it. Come to think of it, a lot of times it does. And he still doesn’t win.”
“He looks pretty built on those tapes,” Volker replied mildly, then followed it up with the fastest punch he was capable of.
“Yeah,” Telford said, lithely stepping back. “Because his commanding officer made him work out with a Jaffa for a decade. But there’s more to winning fights than muscle. Focus. Drive. Speed. The ability to take a hit. You gotta be willing to close with someone. You gotta be willing to deal real damage.”
“I—” Voker began. But before he could finish his thought, Telford came in straight over his dropped guard and landed a punch on Volker’s cheekbone that knocked him back a pace. He staggered and brought a hand to his face. “What the—”
“NO,” Telford snapped. “Guard UP. Shake it off.”
“Right,” Volker breathed, trying to ignore the throbbing beneath his eye.
“Don’t say right,” Telford snapped. “Say ‘kel kek’.”
“What does that mean?”
“Go to hell, roughly. Mikta is ass, if you prefer that.” Telford smirked.
“Okay,” Volker breathed. He brought his guard back up. “What about ona rak?” He threw the best punch he had in him.
“You’re probably thinking orac.” Telford effortlessly avoided Volker’s strike. “Wouldn’t use that one though. It means ‘unspeakable’ and it has religious connotations to the Jaffa. Very weird insult for you to choose.”
“Does ona rak mean something?” Volker successfully blocked another deliberately slow punch.
“Ona rak is a complex phrase that depends on context. Loosely, and in isolation, it would hit as a declaration of loyalty. The kind of thing you’d pair with a gift, maybe. The words literally mean ‘what’s offered’. That which is offered. That kind of thing.”
“Ah,” Volker breathed, then managed to connect with Telford’s ribs.
“Good.” Telford grinned and stepped back. “That’s enough for the day. You’re gonna be sore as hell tomorrow.”
Volker practically dived for the canteen leaning against the wall. He was drenched in sweat. His black T-shirt clung to his chest. His leather had already started to chafe in unfortunate places.
Telford paced over to lean against the wall. “You’ve got some promise. I’ll give you that.”
“Thanks,” Volker said, unscrewing the top of the canteen.
“And you’re a quicker study than Rush advertises.” Telford eyed Volker speculatively. “Where’d you hear the phrase ‘ona rak’?”
Volker took a long drink, scrambling for what to answer. Varro or Rush or Tapes Guy or a book. Those were the choices. He took a breath. “Varro.”
“Oh yeah?” Telford asked mildly. “What, exactly, did he say?”
“Ona rak ja’do.”
Telford sighed. “Dale, I’m gonna do you a one-time favor.”
“Don’t get confused. Just because, one time, after four hours of coaching, you were able, maybe, to fool some low-IQ LA grunts, does not mean you can successfully bullshit me.”
“And, just so I’m clear, that was the favor?” Volker asked.
“Yes. The favor is a polite warning not to fucking bullshit me. Varro wouldn’t speak Goa’uld in front of you. Swearing? Sure. Technical vocab? Sure. Place names? Sure. But the Sixth House is so goddamned committed to sinking their fangs into Tau’ri culture that they’ve adopted English as their official language.”
“Yeah. ‘Ah’. Rush said it, didn’t he.” There was no real question in Telford’s voice.
“You wanna survive this? Don’t cover for him.” Telford’s expression was flat. “I’m your only real option.”
Volker nodded and took another swig of water. He didn’t say anything.
“So what does it mean?” Volker asked. “I can’t find it in any book on the ship.”
“What was the context?”
“It was before we ringed down for our Air Force adventure. I asked him how he was feeling. He said ‘ona rak ja’do’.”
Telford said nothing. His expression already closed, didn’t shift.
“So what does it mean?” Volker asked.
“Literally it means a spitefully destroyed offering, but since the subject and object of the phrase is left understood and there’s no difference between between the present and simple future tense in Goa’uld he could have been referring to his state or to his intentions and he could be either the offering or the destroyer. Possibly both.”
“So, uh, how would you translate it?”
“I feel like piss-spiked communion wine,” Telford said. “Either that or ‘I plan on pissing in the communion wine of your selfhood. Could go either way, really. Or about a thousand other ways.”
“Um,” Volker said. “Where’s the ‘communion wine’ coming in?”
Telford shrugged. “I was raised Catholic. ‘Offerings’ in Goa’uld culture are usually religious in nature.”
“Here’s my real question though,” Volker said, sipping his water, feeling a vague sense of misgiving. “If the LA don’t speak Goa’uld, and if it’s not in any book on the ship, where did he learn a phrase like that? From you?”
“It’s probably in a book,” Telford said. “A database. One of Jackson’s tapes.”
Volker was skeptical. “How did you learn it?”
“Everyone at the SGC who lived through the Anubis-era knows that phrase,” Telford whispered.
“Anubis? Rush is casually quoting some half-ascended Goa’uld supervillain?”
Telford nodded. He wasn’t looking at Volker. “It’s a famous phrase,” he murmured, his expression hunted. “He could have encountered it anywhere. He speaks alien languages all the time. Mostly Ancient. But he’ll break into Goa’uld here and there. He’s got a mind for it. A crazy talent. That’s all it is.”
“You seem worried,” Volker said tentatively.
“I’m not worried,” Telford replied, his eyes on the floor. He shook himself, looked up, and met Volker’s eyes. “I’m not worried,” he said again, with more confidence. He pushed away from the wall. “I’m gonna put in an appearance on the bridge. Same time tomorrow?”
“Sure,” Volker said.
Telford hit the door controls, and the door swished open. Telford hesitated on the threshold. “Maybe you should learn Ancient.” He locked eyes with Volker. “Maybe we should track what he’s saying, when he’s not speaking English.”
“Yeah,” Volker said. “Maybe we should.”
By the time the afternoon rolled around, Volker had completely given up on the data from the refinery, most of which he couldn’t interpret anyway, and had returned to the WMAP. Definitely more familiar territory. He was neck deep a polarization algorithm that would span the entire dataset when the door to the workroom swished open to reveal—no one.
Then he heard a very polite meow.
He ducked beneath the table and saw Mendelssohn’s princely approach.
“Hey buddy,” Volker said. “Nice to see ya.”
The cat inspected the cuff of Volker’s leather pants with interest, then started using his calf as a scratching post.
“Okay, okay.” Volker lifted Mendelssohn into his lap. “Take it easy on my new outfit. Only one I’ve got. Then again, I guess I could make up a story about fighting a pack of wolves.”
Mendelssohn sprang from his lap to the table, and stood there, tail ticking back and forth. He gave Volker a look that very clearly said, “Where have you been?”
“He locks me out of the engine room, man,” Volker replied. “You’re the only one with entrance privileges. You wanna say hi you gotta come out here.
Mendelssohn made a petite, inquisitive sound.
“Yeah, I’m pretty good, thanks for asking.” Volker scratched the cat behind the ears and was rewarded with his familiar, motor-like purring. “You’re living it up in a crystal palace, aren’t you? Yes you are.” Mendelssohn shut his eyes. “C’mon,” Volker said. “Crazy mathematicians who live in the walls don’t give ear scratches like this.”
The doors to the workroom slid open again.
This time, Rush stood in the doorway, his good hand braced against the frame. He was specter-pale, and dressed in his Alliance leather rather than Volker’s borrowed clothes. Along the jagged line that Volker had made to cut the guy out of his jacket, the leather had been bound back together with a cross-stitch patterned weave of a narrow cord.
“Wow,” Volker said. “Nice repair job.”
“What?” Rush looked at him like he was the crazy one.
“Your jacket?” Volker clarified. “Very cool.”
“Ah. David’s handiwork I assume. Stitching skin, stitching leather, it’s all of a piece.”
Rush shrugged with his good shoulder. Then he stalked forward and dropped into a seat on the opposite side of the table.
“You feeling better?” Volker asked mildly.
Rush propped an elbow on the table, braced the heel of his hand against his temple, and studied Volker with what looked like some difficulty. “Did y’find a planet?”
“Did y’figure out why the naquadria refinement facility ‘consumed’ its workers?” Rush asked.
“Uh, also no. But I did get the data transferred onto my laptop, which I felt pretty good about. Started translating words?”
Rush shot him an unimpressed look.
“I’m an astrophysicist. Not a cross-civilizational hacker, okay? I felt pretty good about even rendering the stuff for Earth hardware.”
“It’s not nothing,” Rush sighed.
Volker reached behind him, opened the rations crate, and pulled out a silver-wrapped packet of vy’ta. He opened it, then slid it across to Rush. “You don’t look so good.”
“I’m aware,” Rush said, bored and unimpressed.
Mendelssohn hopped onto the table, crossed over to Rush and sniffed delicately at the vy’ta.
“You can have it,” Rush said, addressing Volker’s cat in a dead-serious conversational tone that hit as both really weird and a little charming.
Mendelssohn meowed and stalked away, leaving the vy’ta untouched.
Rush sighed theatrically and took a bite of Space Pirate food.
“Is there Space Internet?” Volker asked.
“No,” Rush said, in the midst of chewing with methodical misery. “There are semi-public networks active within certain interstellar geographies. Most of the galaxy operates on peer-to-peer protocols.”
“And you don’t have, I don’t know, wikipedia on a hard drive up here or something, right?”
“No,” Rush said dryly.
“So how did you know I could help you?” Volker whispered.
Rush flashed a there-and-gone smile at Volker.
“Seriously. Rush.” Volker leaned forward. “The question isn’t ‘how you came for me’ but how you found me in the first place. Right?”
Rush took another bite of his Space Food and said nothing.
“Without internet, right? Even if you’re parked in low-Earth orbit you’re not gonna tap into an Earth network without the hardware. So unless Telford beamed you down to a public library—”
“Which, to be fair, would’ve been quite easy,” Rush said, dry and unimpressed. “Not sure what key insight you think you’ve stumbled upon, Volker, but—”
“You said you made an assumption about my genetic status long before you ever saw me,” Volker whispered, leaning forward. “Long before? Combine that with what I know of you, Telford, and the dynamic that is you-and-Telford, the idea of you googling me in a public library while David watches your six is pretty hard to picture. Even if you’d found my NSF grant you wouldn’t have been able to assume anything about my genetic status from that.”
“Well well,” Rush said. “Learning Air Force vernacular along with Goa’uld? Terribly enterprising of you.”
“You can manipulate EM fields,” Volker whispered savagely, unwilling to be deterred. “You can alter the conductance properties of your own skin. Did you read something out of the air? Can you sense people with an Ancient gene? How did you find me?”
“Fuckin’ control yourself.” Rush adjusted the frames of his glasses. “I requested a list of everyone who’d ever downloaded NASA’s complete dataset then cross-referenced those names with an automated search query that booleaned them with ‘radio spectrum,” then cross-referenced the positive hits with NSF grant applications. I had to read three grants. Yours was the best.”
“Oh,” Volker said, taken aback. “Yeah. Okay. That’d—that’d work. That’s actually pretty smart except—wait. Did you do that?”
Rush raised his eyebrows propped his elbow on the table top and smirked at Volker, and took another bite of his vy’ta. “Keep going, I’m enjoying this.”
“That’s definitely doable. But it would take time. And either you’d be hacking NASA or filing Freedom of Information Requests to get that initial list of names, which, while not infinite, would definitely have been long. And then you’d be writing a program—no way did you have the time for all of that.”
“You don’t think so?”
“Dang it, Rush!” Volker whisper-hissed. “I don’t know! I don’t even know what I don’t know!”
“Correct,” Rush took an unconcerned bite of vy’ta.
Mendelssohn laid a delicate paw on Volker’s forearm and meowed solicitously. “Tell me about it,” Volker said. He gathered up his cat and settled him over his shoulder, then gave Rush a steely look. “How did you find me?”
“Unanswerable,” Rush said.
“Oh, it’s ‘unanswerable’ now? So everything that just came out of your mouth about the database and the cross-referencing—all of that was just some made-up crap?
“I wouldn’t say ‘crap’ if you want to stay alive,” Rush replied coolly.
Volker took a breath. He petted his cat. He decided to try a different angle. “Why do you rescue crystals?”
“They can’t rescue themselves,” Rush said, solemnly. He took another bite of his vy’ta.
Volker tried to think of any follow-up question that might get him anywhere. At all. “How do you know where they are?”
“They tell me,” Rush replied, like they were talking about the weather.
“But how do they tell you?” Volker asked.
“Telepathically,” Rush said, with maybe a shade too much earnestness.
“Are you messing with me?” Volker narrowed his eyes.
“If I were,” Rush said, the picture of politeness. “It’d only be because you make it terribly easy.”
They stared each other down.
Mendelssohn made a small chirp-like meow, then sprang over Volker’s shoulder to land gracefully atop the crate of vy’ta behind him.
“Is the way you found me,” Volker said slowly, “similar to the way you locate lost crystals?”
“That,” Rush said, “is an an interesting question.” He finished his vy’ta, and then, without ceremony, said, “The answer is no. It’s categorically different in an indescribable way. How long, would you say, until you find a planet?”
“Um, I don’t know, man,” Volker said helplessly. “I’m working on a polarity algorithm to scan the entire dataset. It’ll take some time. A few days to finish, a few days to run? It might turn up some hits. Can we get back to why—”
“Might I borrow your knife?” Rush asked lazily. “I’d like to pry up an edge.”
Volker sighed, then leaned down to unfasten the blade from his ankle. “Really, it’s your knife.”
“I gave it to you.”
“Well, uh, that’s very consistent of you, buddy. Thanks.” Volker slid the knife across the table. “But seeing as I’d like to go back to my astrophysics life after this space sabbatical? I’m gonna consider it eternally ‘borrowed’.”
Rush sighed. He picked up the knife and delicately ran a finger along its blade. “I’ll be back shortly. Unless—” he glanced over the tops of his glasses into empty air, then refocused on Volker. “On second thought—mentorship.”
“Terribly important, don’t you think?” Rush said archly.
“Oh, I think mentorship’s important. For sure. I used to—”
“Right then.” Rush pushed himself to his feet with what looked like a burst of artificial energy. He beckoned to Volker like the prima donna Fields Medalist he was.
“Wait. We’re talking about—me? You and me? You’re gonna mentor me right now?” Volker wasn’t sure how he felt about this turn of events. On one hand, yeah. He’d kill for some space mentorship. On the other—
“Yes.” Rush hit the door controls and paced into the hallway. “Keep up, please, Volker.”
“Uh, okay.” Volker uneasily followed Rush into the gold-paneled hallway. “Is, uh, where are we going? I don’t think we need to go to the bridge,” he whispered, as Rush headed straight for it. “There are listening devices there, remember?”
“Oh, I’m counting on it,” Rush threw the words back over his shoulder like a skein of pure silk.
“Is Telford going to be involved?” Volder hissed.
“Why?” Rush asked, smooth and unconcerned. “Is he your favorite?”
“Right now, a little bit, yeah,” Volker muttered. “Hang on. Rush. Rush? Can we talk about the knife?”
“This knife?” Rush adroitly flipped his grip, pressing the blade of the weapon against his own forearm, concealing it from easy view.
“Rush,” Volker hissed, but there was no time for anything else, because the guy had already hit the bridge door controls.
Rush strode across the small space like he owned it, but instead of taking a seat in the co-pilot station and propping his feet up on an active console, he decided on a Star Trek: Next Generation Will-Riker reverse chair-mount of the pilot’s seat.
The pilot’s seat where Telford was already sitting.
Okay then. Volker decided he’d take the copilot seat. Since it was free.
“Uh, hi,” Telford said, only slightly phased by America’s Most Vanished Cryptographer straddling his lap. He shot Volker a livid lateral glance.
Volker shrugged helplessly.
“Hi,” Rush breathed, propping his good elbow on Telford’s shoulder.
“You seem like you’re feeling better,” Telford offered, with a stiff neutrality.
“Let’s go to Rolan,” Rush said, winding the toe of a boot around Telford’s ankle. “The good part. Northern Continent. Visit the capital. Height of Dust Season. Unmissable, they say.”
“Nope,” Telford said evenly. “Very missable. You wanna get out of my face?”
“Not particularly,” Rush whispered, staring Telford straight in the eyes.
“Um,” Volker offered, with zero follow-up plan.
Telford looked as unsettled as Volker had ever seen him. He didn’t so much as twitch as Rush leaned into him. “Why do you want to go to Rolan?”
“You ruined my jacket,” Rush explained, his tone bizarrely reasonable. “I need a new one.”
“We’re not going to Rolan,” Telford said.
“No?” Rush asked, and with a flick of the wrist, the tip of Volker’s knife was pressed against the underside of Telford’s jaw.
Telford stiffened. “Nick.”
“I’d be delighted t’force you to kill me over a new jacket,” Rush purred.
Okay. Well. For the record, Volker was not gonna consider this “mentorship.”
“Your jacket looks great,” Telford said softly. “I fixed it for you.”
“And, while I admit, it now carries a certain Mary-Shelley charm, it lacks structural integrity,” Rush replied.
“Who’s Mary Shelley?” Volker asked, thinking of the listening device picking up everything they said.
“Some Earth thing,” Telford said, his gaze still locked on Rush. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Rush delicately dragged the tip of the knife down Telford’s neck, over his collar bone and his sternum. He didn’t stop the blade until it rested, point down, straight over Telford’s heart. “I don’t feel you’re taking me seriously, David.”
“We’re taking you seriously,” Volker said, hearing the anxiety in his own voice. “We’re taking you very seriously.”
Telford’s looked at Rush with firefight eyes—a hot/cold glitter of intense focus. “You just wanna see your girl.”
“His girl?” Volker echoed. He’d been pretty sure this whole dynamic was going somewhere—different. Really fast.
“So what if I do?” Rush replied, casually, still draping himself against Telford.
“Who’s his girl?” Volker asked.
“Small-time freelance con artist. Nice smile. Great ass. Talks too much.” Telford said, keeping his cool.
“It’s almost like you want this knife in your heart.” Rush feigned puzzlement. “Do you?” He pressed the tip of the blade into and, uh, maybe through Telford’s leather jacket.
“Not really,” Telford said, his face impassive.
“How’d you meet her?” Volker asked, trying like heck to de-escalate the knife situation.
It didn’t work, because no one paid any attention to him.
“In Star Trek they get shore leave,” Rush pointed out, as though he expected this argument to carry real weight.
“This isn’t Star Trek,” Telford said evenly.
“You shot me,” Rush said.
“As a favor,” Telford replied.
“Yes well. You’ll find I’m not over it.” Rush leaned a bit into the point of the knife.
“I can see that,” Telford said, through clenched teeth. “You want shore leave, Nick? You gotta show Kiva some progress.”
“Y’know what I think’d be tremendously popular?” Rush asked, in a wistfully conversational tone, readjusting himself around the knife he still held to Telford’s heart.
“What?” Telford said carefully.
Rush sighed, then laid his head on Telford’s shoulder.
Very cautiously, Telford wrapped an arm around him. He didn’t try to take the knife that Rush still had pressed to his heart.
And yeah. Okay. If Volker’d had any real doubts before this moment, they were put to rest. These two were completely insane. Both of them. He knew that. He’d known it from day one, but between the LA-style fighting lessons and the astrophysics—he kept forgetting.
Stop lending Rush your knife, he told himself sternly.
“A demonstration of an ordinal cypher crack,” Rush said, nestling into knife-edge cuddling like it was a thing he did all the time. “First four chevrons. I could get them to lock. Make it a real fuckin’ show. You could invite Kiva. You could invite whomever the fuck y’like.”
“Are you bullshitting me?” Telford whispered, pulling him closer “You can get four to lock?”
“I can open up the DHD and make that gate fuckin’ sing,” Rush whispered. “But I’ll only do it. On the Northern Continent. Of Rolan.”
“The Rolan gate is located in the middle of a city,” Telford said. “Not exactly low profile. No one’s gonna go for that.”
“Propose an alternative, then.”
“Kiva will want to name the location,” Telford said.
“Fine,” Rush said. “But she’ll have to tell us in advance. I need to ensure the gate hardware is up to my standards. I can’t work with salvaged, displaced garbage powered by second rate circuitry.”
“No one’s asking you to,” Telford said soothingly. Very slowly, very deliberately, he brought his free hand to Rush’s calf, and pulled him a little closer.
Volker kept waiting for Telford to make a move on Rush’s knife, but it didn’t happen.
“Shopping first,” Rush said.
“Sure,” Telford said soothingly. “One night on Rolan to stock up, a few days to vet Kiva’s chosen gate—think you’ll be ready in five days?” Very slowly, he trailed his hand up from Rush’s calf, over his knee, over his thigh, then lifted it, lacing his fingers, with Rush’s around the handle of Volker’s knife.
“Make it six,” Rush murmured. “In case there are unexpected technical difficulties.”
“Whatever you want,” Telford said. He drew the knife out of Rush’s grip and passed it to Volker with a blazing, stop-handing-people-your-knife look.
Volker took the knife, secured it at his ankle, and looked up to find Telford giving Rush a full-on hug. It lasted for a good minute, maybe minute and a half. And then, without warning, Rush pushed back, fluidly dismounted from the pilot’s seat, said, “Fuck you, David,” and stalked off the bridge.
Telford watched him go, pale and unsettled, his expression a thousand-variable equation that Volker had no prayer of solving. As the door swished shut, Telford’s gaze shifted to Volker.
“Was he always this crazy?” Volker asked, trying to sound like he’d lived his whole life under the yoke of a parasitic snake on a golden throne. It came easier than he’d expected.
“No,” Telford said softly, looking out at the linear streaks of passing stars.