Ad Noctum: Chapter 7
“Felicitations,” Rush said dryly. “Be sure you tell Kiva just how on fire I set everything.”
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Injuries. Violence. Torture. Death. Decay. Loss of agency. Mind control. Really bad boundaries. Gaslighting. Purposefully insensitive discussion of mental health issues. Interpersonal manipulation.
Additional notes: None?
As soon as Volker could feel the firmness of the deck plating beneath his feet, he launched himself at Rush with a half-strangled shout. The impact of the tackle and subsequent landing jarred his vision and sent a shock of pain through his head and his injured shoulder.
“Dale. Dale. God damn it.” Telford was pulling him back—just in time to blunt the force of the knee Volker took to the face as Rush scrambled away from him, unwilling to lose his third fight of the day.
With a burst of pure fury, Volker tore himself free from Telford’s grip and managed to take Rush down in an inelegant sprawl, connecting pretty well with the knuckles of his right hand in the process.
“You bastard,” Volker shouted. “You complete psychopath. You—”
“That’s enough,” Telford said through gritted teeth, trying to separate them.
Rush landed a solid blow against Volker’s cheekbone, knocking him back.
Volker recovered, twining his hands in the loose material of Rush’s SGC uniform, trying to pin him to the floor.
“Recedere.” The word came as a hybrid of scream and snarl. Rush twisted violently, nearly breaking Volker’s hold.
And, this time, Telford acted with real intent. He wrenched Volker away from Rush—his hand digging into Volker’s injured shoulder with a blaze of agony. The room skewed, and Volker found himself shoved across the floor. He hit the wall.
A faint echo rang through the room or through his head. Pain shot from his shoulder down his arm and up his neck. The blood rushed in his ears, fast and rhythmic. He reoriented himself, came up to his knees—
Only to find that no one was looking at him.
Telford and Rush were staring at one another, breathing hard, their expressions closed.
Yeah. That seemed about right.
Volker sank back against the wall, curling around his aching shoulder. At some point, his eyes had begun to water. He scrubbed at his face with his hand and tried to catch his breath.
“What did you say?” Telford stared at Rush.
The mathematician levered himself up on one elbow, shook his hair back, adjusted his glasses, and didn’t answer. He lifted his eyebrows, swept his gaze pointedly around the room, and shot Telford a look that communicated profound disappointment.
Telford compressed his lips, shut his eyes, and looked up at the ceiling with the air of a guy who was about one million percent done with hidden LA surveillance devices. When he spoke again, his tone was pitched to carry. “You going to stay here? Or am I going to zip tie you and leave you on the floor?”
“I’d zip tie him,” Volker said, the words coming out before he could stop them.
Unbelievably, Rush gave him a vaguely hurt look.
Volker glared at the guy with everything he had.
“Okay,” Telford said, sounding almost cheerful, as he reached into his pocket and—
Actually pulled out some zip ties.
“Cousin Dale votes for zip ties,” Telford said pointedly. “At least until we leave this system and complete our internal scans.”
“Unnecessary.” Rush mustered every ounce of dignity Volker had ever seen him scrape together. He didn’t move from his calculated recline on the floor.
“If you could reliably control your behavior for more than ten seconds at a time, maybe I’d believe you,” Telford said. “Hold out your hands.”
Rush narrowed his eyes at Telford. He didn’t move. “There’s a fight we keep deferring,” he said, silkily. “Would you care to have it now?”
“Maybe,” Telford said, “maybe, on your absolute best day, you could do me some real damage. But this is far from your best day. You’re exhausted, you have to be sore as hell from getting worked over by Kiva, you inhaled a Kassa derivative, you’re disinhibited, and you just lost three fights. Two of them to Dale.”
Rush stared at Telford, his expression terrifyingly and totally neutral.
Volker felt acutely guilty. Then he felt guilty for feeling guilty. Then he felt confused about feeling guilty for feeling guilty. Rush had nearly killed the pair of them. Not even twenty minutes ago. He could spend a night in zip ties for that.
“Actually,” Volker said, “he seems more or less fine right now; maybe we could just hold off on the zip ties—”
Telford glared at him. “You have so many opinions about it? You do it.” He dropped his handful of zip ties on the floor next to Volker. “I’ll be back. Don’t kill each other.” With that, he walked through the door to the transport room, sealing it shut behind him.
“Y’know, he will surprise you at times,” Rush said conversationally.
Volker slumped back against the metal plating, and buried his face in his hands. He sobbed, once, mostly facing the wall.
He wanted his old life. With its radio arrays and infinite cat food and reality TV. Its internet. Its reasonably sized beds.
Rush leisurely gathered himself off the floor of the transport room, got to his feet, then paced over to stand next to Volker. He turned on his heel, back to the wall, and slid down the metal with a pained expression, until they were shoulder-to-shoulder.
“What are you—” Volker began.
“Shh.” The mathematician pushed his glasses up his face and straightened his borrowed uniform. Then, with truly impressive dignity, he selected a zip tie from the floor and wrapped it around his own ankles, feeding the free end through the self-locking mechanism, and yanked it tight.
Volker stared at him.
Wordlessly, he held a second strip of the stuff out to Volker.
Volker wiped his eyes and took it.
Rush held out his hands.
Volker sighed and wrapped the plastic strip around the other man’s wrists. Rush shook his head. Volker moved the tie slightly. Rush shook his head again, then pulled his own hands out of the open loop. He grabbed the cuffs of his borrowed Air Force uniform and pulled them down, so the tie would be over the cloth, rather than digging into his skin. Volker nodded, then tightened the plastic strip, a little at a time, until it was just enough that Rush couldn’t pull his hands through it.
Rush rolled his eyes, then made a small motion with his wrists to indicate Volker should keep going.
Volker shook his head.
Rush glared at him.
Volker sighed, and then tightened the strip as much as he could, while still being sure of not hurting the other man. Rush shot him an unimpressed look, brought his hands to his mouth, and used his teeth to tighten the tie further. He gave Volker a pointed look.
Yeah. Because that’s really what his day had been missing. Zip Ties 101.
Volker tipped his head back against the wall and let a few tears flow back into his hair. “Sorry,” he said, ragged and quiet, and if the LA had left new monitoring devices that picked that up then that was just too darn bad for everyone because he’d decided that Dale the Space Pirate was gonna be a nice guy and stay a nice guy.
Even if it got him killed.
Rush sighed, then leaned his head against Volker’s shoulder.
You’re the worst, Volker mentally informed him, the tears still leaking silently from his eyes. You were definitely going to let us die in a fire.
The door to the room swished open and Telford reentered the room. He stopped just inside the door. “Fucking hell,” he whispered, staring at the pair of them. “What was in that dust?” The door swished shut directly behind him.
“The room’s clear, I take it?” Rush asked. He lifted his head with a small pained sound in the back of his throat.
“Yeah,” Telford said. “No new devices. The only ones on the ship are the one on the bridge, and Dale’s communications sphere. We’re back in hyperspace.”
“Felicitations,” Rush said dryly. “Be sure you tell Kiva just how on fire I set everything.”
“What did you do to Dale?” Telford asked darkly, dropping into a crouch directly in front of Volker. Carefully he reached forward, taking Volker’s chin in his hand, holding up a finger. “Follow,” he said, moving it smoothly through the air. He frowned, slowly letting Volker go, and then backed away a few steps, dropping into a cross legged position directly next to Rush’s bound ankles.
Telford tried to get a finger beneath the narrow band of plastic. When he couldn’t, he gave Volker a nod. “You did a good job.”
“Thanks,” Volker said dryly.
“You give him a hard time?” Telford asked, looking at Rush. “Shout some more Ancient at him, maybe?”
“Fuck off, David,” Rush said. “No clue what you’re referring to.”
“Recedere,” Telford repeated, his expression flat, his eyes dark. “That’s what you said.”
“You’re mistaken,” Rush replied lazily, watching Telford through half-lidded eyes.
“I heard you,” Telford replied. “You said you’d keep me informed.”
“You know everything that I know,” Rush said, the mildness of his tone deeply unsettling.
“I want a knife,” Volker said.
They both stared at him.
“I get I can’t have a gun,” he said. “But I want my own knife. And my own zat. Today.”
“Disinhibited,” Rush said, lifting his eyebrows at Volker. “Yes I suppose I can see it now. You can have a knife.”
“You can have a knife when I’m sure you won’t stab Rush with it,” Telford said.
“That means never,” Rush said, looking sympathetically at Volker. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll find you one.”
“Hey,” Telford said, gripping Rush’s calf, pressing a thumb, hard, against what had to be sore muscle. From the face Rush made, it looked like it hurt. “Can we focus please? I don’t know everything you know, Nick.”
“You do,” Rush said, his control cracking almost as soon as he’d applied it, each word breaking off into silence with an unnatural suddenness. “Ask yourself how it could be otherwise. When you’ve been with me nearly every single fucking moment of every fucking day. When you—” he broke off, reflexively trying to bend his knees, as Telford pressed harder.
Volker shoved Telford back.
Both Telford and Rush stared at him in total astonishment.
Volker turned to Rush. “So, do you have a knife on you, maybe?”
“Let’s say, for the sake of argument, I did. What would you like to do with it?” Rush asked him politely.
“Cut you free,” Volker replied, giving Telford a hard look.
“Interesting,” Rush said. “It seems Dr. Volker doesn’t care to participate in Casual Friday Torture. Not sure he’s going to fit very well into the workplace culture you’re building here, David.” He looked back at Volker. “I appreciate the sentiment, but, for the record, I suspect Colonel Telford is correct regarding the effects of that dust.” He glanced at Telford. “Maybe you should zip tie Dale, as well?”
“What?” Volker said. “No! I swear to god, man. Every time with you.”
“No one’s zip tying Dale,” Telford sighed, coming back into a seated position. “Nick,” he said, sounding defeated. “What happened on Altera? Will you just fucking tell me?”
Altera? That didn’t sound like a Goa’uld word to Volker. It sounded Ancient. It sounded like a place. And more than that. There was something in the name itself that seemed to stick in Volker’s mind. Like there was more to hear in the word than just the sound of it.
“I told you,” Rush said, exhausted, leaning his head back against the wall. “I proved the Riemann Hypothesis.”
“Shut up,” Volker said. “You did not.”
They both looked at him.
“Well, he didn’t,” Volker said, looking at Telford. “There’s no way.”
“I did,” Rush smirked. “All nontrivial zeroes of the analytical configuration of the Riemann zeta function have a real part of—” Rush broke off, looking at the pair of them expectantly, like he was leading a senior seminar.
“One half,” Rush said, with theatrical disappointment.
“Bullshit,” Volker snapped. “I don’t know what Altera is, but you didn’t prove the Riemann Hypothesis there. That’s not just a thing you go and do.”
Telford pressed his palm to his face. “You haven’t broken into Ancient since Altera,” he said, trying to scrape together some patience. “And I want to know why it just happened again.”
“Well,” Rush said smoothly. “Not exactly a Millenium Prize problem, is it? I was attacked. Directly confronted with the prospect of death-by-astrophysicist.”
“You’ve been attacked more times than I can count,” Telford said. “This was something else.”
“Feel free to speculate,” Rush said coolly. “I’ve got nowhere to go.”
“It was either the dust, or it was Dale. Which.”
Volker raised his eyebrows at Telford.
Rush shut his his eyes and sighed dramatically. “Or perhaps I do have somewhere to be after all. Volker,” he said quietly, “there’s knife at my left ankle. Fetch it for us, would you?”
“Dale then,” Telford said softly, taken aback.
“What?” Volker asked, through a tight throat. “What does that even mean?”
“Piss off, David,” Rush said, snapping his eyes open. “You can get t’fuck. It certainly wasn’t ‘Dale.’ Dale is wholly trivial. He’s here because we needed an astrophysicist. Get a grip on yourself. You’re an embarrassment to your civilization. Barely capable of a shred of rational thought, let alone real deductive reasoning. Hours into my last ‘meeting’ with Kiva, I told her you needed to be fucking replaced. Really made her work for it. Like she dug it out of me. My greatest, most closely guarded secret. Your. Total. Incompetence.”
Telford stared at Rush, his expression neutral, his eyes dark. “Yup. Okay. So definitely Dale.”
Volker hoped his brain was going to catch up with whatever was happening and start offering ideas. Right now, it was fresh out.
“Dale is immaterial,” Rush snapped. “I’m tired and disinhibited. I’ve had a notable week. The drive to speak Ancient is always there.”
“Is it?” Telford said, looking speculatively at Rush. “I wouldn’t know. But—Dale was affected by the kassa derivative back at that facility. Pretty strongly, from the looks of it. The LA has been experimenting with chemical compounds of all types, but—” He trailed off. He seemed to be internally debating something with himself. Finally he asked, “Is he like you?”
“Fuck off. No. Don’t be ridiculous. No one’s like me. No one could be.”
“What do you mean am I like him?” Volker asked.
Telford’s eyes flicked to Volker, then back to Rush.
“Go ahead,” Rush whispered, staring at Telford, his eyes glittering. “Ask me. Ask me everything you think is important. Ask me everything you want, so badly, to know. Tell me all of your questions. Define your knowledge gaps for me. Who can say? Maybe I’m disinhibited enough to throw some answers your way out of pure spite.”
“What about a trade?” Telford whispered. “Question for question. Answer for answer. Single round.”
“Questions up front,” Rush said, his voice hard. “You’re first.”
“Why am I first?”
“Because I’m zip-tied on the floor,” Rush said, icily polite.
“Fine. My question is why’d you really take Dale.”
“Unanswerable. Pick something else.”
“Okay my question is what happened on Altera.”
“Also unanswerable. Do better.”
“Fine. How many cyphers have you cracked.”
“Answerable. My question is what’s the full name and rank of the undercover operative we met tonight.”
“No. Off the table.”
“You guys do this a lot?” Volker asked, looking at them askance.
The pair of them glanced at him, then back at one another.
“Fine. No deal,” Rush said.
“Think of something else.”
“Why, do you want his surname so badly? So you can blow his cover the next time you see him? He’s a friend of mine, believe it or not. I tell you his name and he’s probably as good as dead.”
“A friend of yours? Interesting. Threaten to execute your friends on a regular basis, do you?”
“More often than I’d like, yeah.”
“I won’t blow his cover. Tell me his surname. That’s the price.”
“Tell me why you want to know so badly.”
“If I agree,” Telford said. “If. How do I know you won’t lie?”
“I’ll lock the fucking chevrons for you, next time we’re in front of a stargate.”
“How will you know I’m not lying?”
Rush turned to face him, pulling off his glasses. He scanned the room, his eyes lingering for a moment on Volker, then flicking through the air. “I’ll know,” he said. “You first.”
“Everett Makepeace,” Telford said quietly. “Rank of Commander.”
Rush dragged his eyes away from empty space, and looked back at Telford, eyebrows lifted. “Four,” he said quietly. “I can get four to lock in an ordinal fashion.”
“Four,” Telford repeated. “And how many have you disclosed to Kiva?”
“I’m on your side,” Telford said.
Telford swallowed. “I really am. You can tell me,” he said. “As you solve them.”
Rush slid his glasses back into place. “Certainly,”
“Nick. Really. You can tell me.”
“Who else am I going to tell? Fucking Dale?” Rush pushed his hair out of his eyes with his bound hands. He reached forward, pulled the knife from his own boot, and used it to slice through his ankle ties. He flipped his grip adroitly, catching the tip of the small blade beneath the plastic at his wrists. With small application of pressure, he snapped the tie free.
He spun the weapon by its blade, which seemed like a bad idea, then presented it to Volker, handle first. “Be good,” he said. Then got to his feet and strolled in the direction of the door. “Always a pleasure, David,” he threw back casually, over his shoulder.
Telford said nothing.
The door swished shut.
Volker set the knife down next to him on the floor of the transport room.
“So next time you restrain someone,” Telford said evenly, “you don’t want to leave them their knife.”
“Yeah,” Volker replied, his voice a cracked whisper. “I guess not.”
He bent his head and ran his hands through his hair, the faint smell of smoke and kassa wafting through the air as he disrupted the strands. It triggered a sudden spike of adrenaline, and he tipped his head up. He took a deep breath and tried to picture wide the wide openness of the coastline—the sun-drenched Pacific Coast Highway where, from the cliffs, one could look out until only the curvature of the Earth ended one’s line of sight.
Everything was fine. He was alive. He hadn’t died in a firefight. He hadn’t died in an explosion. He hadn’t died of smoke inhalation. He hadn’t burned to death in a locked room. He’d opened the door. He was alive. Everything was fine.
Volker shifted his gaze to Telford, who was staring intently at the closed door to the transport room, his eyes dark and his expression unreadable.
“What did you mean?” Volker whispered. “When you asked him if I was—like him. I’m nothing like him. We couldn’t be more opposite.”
Telford looked over at Volker. “Nice try,” he said.
“Nice try?” Volker echoed, high-pitched, high-strung, and maybe just high. “You think I’m bullshitting you? You think he’s told me anything? He’s told me nothing. At all. I have no idea what’s going on here. I don’t know why you’re upset about the Ancient, if that’s what that even was, I don’t know why it’s significant, I don’t know anything. So you can tell me why the heck you think he took me.”
“Don’t say ‘heck’,” Telford murmured absently, still staring at the door. “The concept of ‘hell’ exists in Goa’uld and Alliance culture. The concept of ‘heck’ does not.”
“I don’t give a heck,” Volker shot back. “Why do you think he took me.”
“It’s a long shot,” Telford said, looking at Volker, his dark eyes intense. “But it’s possible you could be a carrier.”
“A carrier of what?” Volker hissed.
“Come with me,” Telford said, pushing himself to his feet, then offering Volker a hand. “There’s a way to know.” He led Volker in the direction of the work room. “Most Goa’uld technology is an ostentatious shellack job over older, more sophisticated hardware. The essence of Ancient design powers it, sometimes is concealed beneath it—but anyone can use Goa’uld tech. Pure Ancient devices? They have a genetic requirement.”
“A genetic requirement?” Volker echoed.
“Yeah,” Telford went to the wall, opened a crate in the corner, and began pulling a mixed collection of interesting-looking devices out, placing them haphazardly on the floor. “You’ve got to have a special gene to turn them on. There are at least three genes. Maybe more.”
“And you think I have one—why?” Volker asked. “Because Rush screamed some Latin at me?”
“Maybe,” Telford said. “Maybe.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Volker pointed out, politely.
“It might from his perspective,” Telford muttered, more to himself than Volker, still rooting around in the crate.
“Even from his perspective—whatever that might be—he knows I don’t speak Ancient. It would make no sense to address me in Ancient.”
“He was disinhibited and under duress,” Telford said, coming up with a small, hand-held device. “That much is true. But more than that—there’s always been a connection between the language, the genes, and the tech.” He walked up to Volker, a dead device in his hand. “They intertwine. It’s not common knowledge. The only reason I know it is because it drove Dr. Jackson crazy. And he and I—well. I’ve made a study of him.”
“The guy on the tapes? Is that why we have so much of his stuff?” Volker asked. “He’s like—your intellectual crush?”
Telford gave Volker a dark look. “Replace ‘crush’ with ‘enemy’ and you’ll be closer.”
“The guy on the tapes is your enemy?”
“Yes. And one of the things that irritated the shit out of The Guy On The Tapes is that if you have the Ancient gene—it’s easier to learn their language. The more genes you have, the easier it is to learn. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. He was so irritated about it that he barely admitted it was a real phenomenon, but it is. Maybe you’ll figure out how it works.”
“Me?” Volker asked.
“Maybe,” Telford said. “Now. Hold out your hand.”
Volker extended his hand.
Telford set the device on his palm. As soon as Volker’s fingers wrapped around it, the little thing lit up, a friendly, glowing blue.
Volker was so startled he nearly dropped it.
“Okay,” Telford whispered. “Now. Just hold it. Hold it and wait.”
“Wait for what?” Volker said.
Telford shook his head, watching the door.
Volker, his heart beating fast and hard for no reason he could explain, watched with him.
They didn’t have to wait long.
The door swished open with a pneumatic hiss.
Rush stalked into the room, his expression thunderous. He walked straight up to Volker, snatched the device out of his hand, and spun on his heel. At the doorframe, he turned, glaring at the pair of them like he could light Air Force uniforms on fire with the power of his gaze alone, then he vanished into the darkness of the hall, in the direction of the engine room.
Telford let out a slow breath. “He didn’t know I had that, I don’t think,” he said, quietly.
“Well you don’t have it anymore,” Volker replied dryly.
“Worth it,” Telford said. “Because we confirmed two things. You have at least one of the genes. And—he can directly detect powered-up Ancient tech. I’ve always suspected it, but I haven’t known for sure.”
“How the heck is he doing that?” Volker asked. “I mean, how could he possibly—even—theoretically, how—”
“Don’t say heck,” Telford murmured, staring after Rush.
After showering away any remains of the kassa derivative that might still be on his skin and eating one of the silver-wrapped meal packets, Volker felt significantly better.
He sat in the cargo bay, back in his usual Alliance leather, idly arranging pieces of dried cat food in the shape of a Christmas tree on the reflective surface of the cargo bay floor, trying to outpace Mendelssohn’s progressive crunching. He figured he'd used up two handfuls worth of cat food on the tree, which was maybe not the best decision on his part. He was going to have to start thinking about where in the galaxy one might get food for Space Cats.
“Merry Christmas, buddy,” Volker said. “It’s kinda hard for me to say if I’m getting the dates right what with all the um—time zone changes and, time dilation, and lack of real ‘day,’ and real ‘night’ and dead iPhone batteries and whatnot, but, yeah. We’ll say it’s Christmas. I owe you one ‘Kitty Christmahanakwanzika Basket’ from the Dog and Cat Emporium down the street.”
Mendelssohn looked up at him and meowed.
“Oh I’m sorry,” Volker said. “Am I disturbing your dinner with all of this boring conversation?”
Mendelssohn went back to eating.
“So what did you do today?” Volker asked. “Sleep? Explore the cargo bay? Sleep some more?”
The door to the room slid open with a pneumatic hiss.
Volker shut his eyes in a long, pained blink, resolutely refusing to look up at Rush.
“What the fuck is that, exactly?” the mathematician asked, sounding—not unfriendly. It was more like he had been startled into some semblance of profane politeness.
“Um,” Volker said, looking at his partially-consumed, stylized version of a tree and trying to think of anything to say besides "a Christmas tree." After about two seconds, he had it. “Sierpinski gasket." He gave Rush a small shrug.
“It doesn’t look very accurate,” Rush said.
“Well my cat has destroyed the self-similarity by—you know. Eating it. Obviously.”
“Mmm,” Rush said, seeming to find this response entirely reasonable. He bent down, ostensibly to examine Volker’s Christmas-tree-turned-fractal, but really petting the cat. “This is a piss-poor rendering, you know.”
Volker shut his eyes. “Can I ask you something?”
“I really despise all the fucking prefacing, Volker. It makes me wonder where in life you found it necessary or desirable to pick up the art of obsequiously levering normalcy on whomever you find yourself with. As if to be a paragon of sanity isn’t insult enough. You have to foist it upon others.”
“Um,” Volker said. “So I’m gonna go ahead and interpret everything you just said as, ‘Yes, Dale, you can ask me a question’.”
“Your prerogative,” Rush said, petting the cat.
Volker was pretty sure that if he opened with everything he really wanted to know, Rush was going to walk right back out of the cargo bay. Because it just seemed like that kind of night. Day. Whatever.
“Are you crazy, or are you faking it?”
“Neither,” Rush said, not looking at him.
“Soooooo. Crazy, then.”
Rush smiled faintly. “How insensitive.” He switched his position, coming to sit on the floor next to Volker, stretching his left foot out in front of him.
“Insensitive? Me? You have got to be kidding me.”
Rush, moving slowly, lifted the edge of the Air Force uniform he still hadn’t changed out of. He unbuckled a leather ankle cuff with an empty sheath. “You’ll be needing this.”
“Is this—like, your weird apology for almost killing us both?” Volker asked, taking the interlocking strips of leather. “I left your knife in the transport room. I didn’t think you were seriously giving it to me.”
“Looks like you left your knife in the transport room,” Rush said airily.
“Uh, thanks. I guess. It definitely doesn’t make up for almost burning to death, in case you’re wondering. But I’ll try not to stab you with it.” Volker buckled the leather guard around his own ankle.
“It wasn’t an apology,” Rush said, “and I certainly won’t hold it against you if I find myself on the receiving end of the thing. Now. My question, which I will not preface, is do you want to sit in an empty room doing fucking nothing, or would you prefer to be analyzing your database, which, aside from the inherent interest that such an undertaking likely has for you, may improve our long term chances of survival?”
“I wasn’t doing ‘nothing.’ I was feeding my cat.”
“Mmm,” Rush said. “Noted.”
“Aren’t you tired after the whole getting-tortured-for-hours-and-then-drugged-by-Telford thing?”
Rush shot him a disapproving look. “That was yesterday.”
“And then getting your ass kicked while under the influence of a Lucian Alliance psychotropic drug,” Volker finished. “Twice. Two-point-five times, maybe. Today.”
Rush shook his hair back, then economically swept what remained of the cat food off the floor and dumped it into his pocket. Mendelssohn looked up at him plaintively.
“Yeah, so, just so you know? Hoarding cat food? It’s not helping my perception of your mental health.”
Rush shot him a withering look, got to his feet, and walked over toward the door. “Hey,” he snapped. “Script Kitty. Let’s go.”
“No,” Volker said, half to Rush, half to the cat. “You do not get to rename my cat. And even if, in some kind of bizarro alternate dimension, you did get to rename him, which, to be totally clear, is not happening? I veto ‘Script Kitty’.”
Mendelssohn padded over toward Rush. Rush looked down at him, cocked his head, and took a piece of cat food out of his pocket. He held it up, then pointed at the door.
“Are you trying to train him?”
Mendelssohn looked at Rush, one paw coming off the floor in hopeful anticipation.
Rush looked back at the cat, quirking one eyebrow.
“Cats cannot be trained, Rush—”
The door swished open. Rush tossed the piece of cat food into the hall, and the cat darted after it.
Volker got to his feet. “Did you program the doors to—”
“Obviously,” Rush said, heading toward the workroom, ignoring Mendelssohn, who was looking at him, clearly hopeful. “Are you coming?” He hit the door controls and entered the other room without waiting for a response.
“I feed you,” Volker said as he bent down to scoop up Mendelssohn. “Okay? You got that? Me. At least, I bought that cat food that he’s been feeding you. Don’t be fooled.”
It wasn’t until several hours later, after Telford had called it a night, after Volker’s eyes had begun to burn from staring for too long at his glowing display, when Mendelssohn had sprawled out on the floor adjacent to the doorway, that he finally shifted his laptop aside and cleared his throat.
Rush ignored him.
Of course he did.
“So. I have some special gene.”
“Do you?” Rush said, without looking at him. “Congratulations.”
Volker stared at linear streaks of hyperspace and tried to hang onto his patience and let go of his despair. “Is that why you brought me here?”
Rush shut his eyes. He sighed, pulled his glasses off and pressed the heel of one hand against his right eye.
“You haven’t told me anything about this address that Telford says is like—the final final frontier. You haven’t mentioned it. Not even one time.”
Rush said nothing, his eyes scanning the room.
“You don’t need me for this,” Volker said softly. “To merge two databases and then to mine them? For this you could get by with an enterprising undergraduate.”
“True,” Rush said.
“You’re a cryptography rockstar. There are probably like—I don’t know, a whole bunch of Dateline Specials and podcasts and Nova documentaries about what happened to you.”
“Classless,” Rush sighed, looking plaintively at the empty air.
Volker smiled faintly. “Yeah. Maybe. But look at this from my perspective. The P=NP Guy shows up at my office and decides to abduct me? Me. A Pretty Good Astrophysicist? Says he needs me? To help with what? A cryptography problem? Telford seems to find it semi-reasonable, but that doesn’t erase the fact that, actually, it makes no sense.”
“Right. Because what I actually need you for is the location of a Naquadria-laced planet.”
“So why not just take the dataset?” Volker asked. “It. Not me.”
“Unanswerable,” Rush whispered, like he was reading answers out of the air. “Try something else.”
“Did you know I had the gene to turn on Ancient technology?”
Rush stared at nothing. He nodded. One time.
“When did you know?” Volker asked him, trying to keep his questions simple. Concrete.
“That’s harder,” Rush said. “I’m not sure.”
“How can you not be sure?” Volker asked. “Did you know I had the gene when you came to my lab? The first time you saw me, when I walked down the hall? When you were waiting, standing outside my door. At Caltech. Did you know then?”
“You don’t care about when,” Rush said. “What you really want are why and how.”
“I care about when,” Volker countered. “When is related. When is probably the easiest of the three.”
“Yes,” Rush said. “Relatively, it might be the easiest. But, in an absolute sense, it’s not easy.”
“Okay,” Volker said. “But is when—unanswerable?”
“No,” Rush said slowly, his eyes on empty air, as though it was giving him permission.
“Great. So, when did you know I had the gene?” Volker asked.
“It was an assumption I made long before I ever saw you,” Rush said.
“An assumption? Based on what?” Volker asked.
“Unasnwerable,” Rush said. He slid his glasses back into place, and looked down at his laptop.
Volker reached across the table and closed the display, forcing Rush to look at him. The other man’s eyes were wary, his features frozen in place.
“Tell me anything,” he said. “Any piece of it—what you want, why you want it, how you came here—anything, Rush. Anything. Anything at all.”
“Find a planet,” Rush whispered, and left the room.
It took him three days of combing his database and superimposing sets of data to find even one example of a planet with the type of energy signature that he was looking for. After only half an hour of playing around with the numbers, he determined the planet wasn’t emitting sufficiently to meet the minimum criteria that Rush had specified.
In other words, it didn’t have enough naquadria.
That didn’t mean, however, that it wouldn’t be useful.
Rush had been forthcoming enough that Volker had at least some understanding of the mechanics of what they were trying to achieve—what essentially amounted to tapping the energy of vast deposits of a radioactive, unstable element and using it to power the establishment of an Einstein-Rosen bridge that traversed an unusually great distance, or, rather, really freaking distorted the topology of spacetime.
Much as he was dubious of Rush and Telford, he found that the idea of harnessing energy on a planetary level and thereby putting humanity solidly on the Kardashev scale was something he could get behind.
It had taken almost no convincing for Volker to persuade Telford and Rush that even though the planet wasn’t suitable for their purposes, it was worth a trip to improve their capability to detect and map naquadria deposits.
Volker had been working his way slowly through the information in the ship’s databanks that pertained to naquadria, but there wasn’t much other than a chemical composition, which at least gave him something to go on in terms of predicting its likely emission spectrum. The Goa’uld had considered the material sacred; a fun fact that he found completely unsurprising—they seemed to consider pretty much everything sacred—and consequently hadn’t left much additional information lying around in the database of a generic tel’tak. That didn’t stop his painfully slow translation of the pertinent entries, Jackson’s text in one hand, hunched over the laptop-based interface with the mainframe that Rush had rigged up.
That was where Telford found him, when they were a day out from the planet.
Volker hadn’t even looked up when the other man entered the room, figuring he was just on his way to grab a silver-wrapped meal. Instead, Telford sat down at the table opposite Volker and fixed him with the kind of look he usually reserved for Rush.
“Hey,” Volker said warily.
“Hey,” Telford replied. “How’s it going?”
“Okay. Better. With the translation, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Telford said quietly. “It’s been about five days since Varro gave you that communications sphere.”
“I know you don’t want to hear this,” Telford said, his voice low, “but you’re going to have to contact them.”
“Already?” Volker asked, trying to fight the dread the other man’s comment produced. “Today?”
“It’s a perfect opportunity,” Telford said. “You have something to tell them. You can set Rush up as the one who discovered this planet and who wants to take this little trip there. Best case scenario, they’ve heard of it and we get some intel we can use about what might be down there.”
“Worst case scenario?” Volker asked dryly.
“You blow your cover,” Telford said. “And then,” he waved his hand.
“Torture, death, yadda yadda yadda,” Volker replied.
“Yeah,” Telford said with a half smile. “So don’t fuck up.”
“Thanks,” Volker said dryly. “Thanks for that.”
“You’ll be fine,” Telford said. “Compared to the face-to-face meeting we had, this should be a snap. Just don’t make any witty, Earth-based observations and you’ll be fine.”
“Don’t be witty,” Volker said. “Check.”
“Don’t say ‘check’.”
“Right. Got it.”
“Good,” Telford said, pushing himself to his feet. “Let’s go.”
“Wait, you want me to do this now? Right now?”
“Yeah,” Telford said. “So let’s go.”
Volker stood, trailing after the other man as they left the room. “Well, can we maybe practice first, or something?”
Telford didn’t reply until they had entered the cargo bay, where they had sequestered the little silver sphere. Then he turned to Volker, his gaze intent, his eyes nearly black in the dimmed, evening-level light.
“The best way,” he said quietly, “to survive this, the best way to succeed when you’re undercover, is to become who you pretend to be.”
Volker stared at him uncertainly. “Is that what you did?” There was a hint of challenge in the words that he hadn’t meant to give them.
“Become the man who doesn’t need to practice,” Telford said. “The man who speaks Goa’uld, who’s grown up in a culture that doesn’t prize wit, or sentiment, or sensitivity. The man who lives for the work of his hands, for the advancement of the Alliance against all who would subjugate a people who have known nothing but slavery to false idols. Become hard. Shut your mind. Shut your mouth.”
“That’s not who I am,” Volker whispered.
“I know.” Telford put a hand on his shoulder and dug his fingers in, giving Volker a subtle shake that was almost sympathetic.
Neither of them said anything. Telford’s hand fell away.
“To activate the communications device, just hold it up and look at it.” The other man bent down, carefully lifted Mendelssohn off the floor and settled him over his shoulder. “Let me know how it goes.”
Volker watched incredulously as Telford left the room, carrying his cat.
“Seriously?” he said to the quiet air.
No answer was forthcoming.
With no other option, he slowly approached the corner of the cargo bay that contained the hastily assembled vestiges of his old life. He’d stuffed the communications device into a pair of socks. He pulled it out and carried it over towards a small space between boxes, just large enough for him to wedge himself into, just in case the little silver sphere offered the observer a three hundred and sixty degree view of the surrounding environment.
He tried to envision himself, not as Dale Volker, tenured Caltech Professor, but as Dale of the Sixth House. Dale who spoke Goa’uld, Dale who was cautious, Dale who was smart, Dale who didn’t talk more than absolutely necessary.
Dale, who was, most of the time, a nice guy.
He eased the sphere out of the sock. It fell into his hand, heavy, smooth, and slightly warm.
He held it up, and the surface shimmered gold and then resolved into an image of Varro’s face, looking at him in mild surprise.
“Dale,” Varro said. “I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon.”
“I have something to report,” Volker said, preventing a shrug at the last minute. “Is now—“ he broke off with a convulsive swallow, “a convenient time?”
“If it works for you,” Varro said quietly, “then it works for me. Go ahead.”
“Rush has found a planet,” Volker said quietly.
Varro said nothing. His face was difficult to read.
“He’s not sure it will work for whatever Kiva wants it for,” Volker said, “but he wants to check it out anyway.”
“Why?” Varro asked.
“He thinks he can get more information about this naquadria stuff if we make a stop there. Readings that will help him with mapping and possibly with the detection of a planet that would meet Kiva’s standards.”
“Where is this planet?” Varro asked.
Volker rattled off the spatial coordinates according to Goa’uld convention, and Varro looked down, as if he were inputting data into a device that Volker couldn’t see. He frowned.
“That’s an old Alliance outpost. Fourth House. It was abandoned last year.”
“Why?” Volker murmured.
Varro looked back at him steadily. “Long term exposure to the radiation produced by naquadria is not conducive to the kind productivity expected by the leadership of Fourth House.”
“Ah,” Volker said.
What the heck did that mean?
“If I were you, Dale,” he said quietly, “I’d just get those readings and go. Don’t linger planetside.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Volker replied.
“Do you have anything else for me?” Varro asked.
“No,” Volker said.
Varro gave him a measured look.
Volker felt compelled to say something else. To justify his lack of information. “Rush keeps to himself mostly. Working on—whatever it is that he’s working on.”
“But he is working?” Varro asked.
“He does nothing else,” Volker said truthfully.
Varro nodded. “Keep us apprised.”
Volker nodded back. “Will do.”
The display shimmered back to silver as Varro’s face faded away, replaced briefly with a sweep of gold detailing as Volker lowered the sphere. The image faded as he shoved the thing back inside his sock.
He took a long, shuddering breath and shut his eyes, leaning against the crates behind him.
That hadn’t gone badly.
At least, not in an obvious way.
The planet was hot. The air, thick with humidity, fought his efforts to draw it down into his lungs. Overhead, the trees formed a canopy of verdant darkness through which light faintly filtered, making its way through and around leaves larger than the palm of a human hand.
“What I would like to know,” Rush said, his accent thickening slightly with what Volker assumed was irritation as he took in the impressive structure of corroded metal in front of them, “is whose fucking idea this was.”
Telford said nothing, his gaze fixed on the structure before them, as he absently swatted some kind of blood sucking insect away from his own neck.
Volker squinted into the dim haze, struggling to follow the boxy outline of the overgrown, corroded building in front of them. “Um,” Volker said, swiping at the sweat beading at his hairline. “When you say ‘fucking idea,’ what part of this—” he waved his hand at the building in front of them, “would you be referring to, exactly?”
“Don’t even start,” Telford sighed.
“Every part. I didn’t specify otherwise, did I?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Knock it off,” Telford snapped.
“Who builds an iron-based structure in the middle of a swamp?” Rush continued undeterred. “It looks like shit, structurally it’s shit—”
“You know what, Rush?” Telford snapped. “Structurally, you’re—”
“Don’t finish that sentence,” Rush shot back. He turned to Volker. “Are you even looking for the naquadria signature?”
“Right,” Volker said dryly. “Let me just check my tricorder.” He pulled out the little Ancient device that Rush had given him before they ringed down.
“Did you just say ‘tricorder’?” Telford asked.
Above their heads, a flock of winged animals burst from the dark canopy, startling all three of them with the abrupt rustle of shifting leaves and the snapping sound of featherless wings striking the air. Volker flinched at the noise, as did Rush. Telford stood impassive, watching the small dark shapes tear across the patches of clouded sky visible through breaks in the overhead canopy.
“Those look carnivorous,” Telford said, darkly.
“Great,” Volker breathed, trying to ignore his racing heart. “So if I’m not supposed to call this thing a tricorder, then what am I supposed to call it?”
“A modified Ancient lifesigns detector,” Telford said.
“A MALD?” Volker asked.
“Absolutely not,” Rush replied.
“Sure,” Telford said simultaneously. “But loose the ‘m.’ It sounds too much like ‘MALP’.”
“And a MALP is what, exactly?” Rush asked.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s a military term. Not for you.”
“So we’re calling this thing an ALD?” Volker asked dubiously.
“No,” Rush snapped. “We’re not calling it that.”
“ALD is good,” Telford said. “I like ALD. What the fuck do you think we should call it?”
“A modified Ancient lifesigns detector,” Rush replied.
“We’re going with ALD, and this conversation is over. Pay attention to the fucking tree-line so that we don’t get ambushed or eaten by indigenous wildlife.”
Rush sighed, looking out over the marshy clearing in front of them in a bored, grandstanding sort of way, his gaze sweeping along the dark border of the trees that stood apart from the front of the corroded iron building.
“Yeah, not getting eaten. Check.” Volker cleared his throat. “I like that. But just—so you know? If you want me to perform a high level spectroscopic analysis of an unknown compound using a foreign device?” He waved the ALD in Telford’s direction. “It’s nice to give me more than five minutes to learn how it works. Especially if you’ve had it on board this entire time. Either that, or, you know, abduct a materials scientist.”
Telford said nothing; he turned his head to look pointedly at Rush.
“It’s intuitive,” Rush replied to the silent half-accusation. He shrugged fluidly. “Like your iPhone. Furthermore, I believe it was you who wanted the additional data.”
“Like my iPhone? Did you seriously just say that?”
Rush ignored him.
“Well thanks.” Volker swatted at a small insect that seemed intent on landing on his neck. “That’s very helpful. And yeah. I ‘wanted’ the additional data kind of like, um, Spock ‘wanted’ to help the people of Sigma Draconis VI.”
Neither Rush nor Telford dignified that with a response. Nor was it strictly true. He had been curious.
He looked down at the display, alight with foreign symbols in a language he had yet to even begin learning.
“There’s not a Goa’uld version of this thing?”
“There is indeed a shit version, yes,” Rush replied.
Telford exhaled, short and sharp. Either amused, or irritated, or derisive—maybe all three. It was hard to tell.
“Oh. Indeed. A shit version,” Volker parroted under his breath as he narrowed his eyes at the Ancient tricorder. What he really wanted was to find a concentrated deposit of naquadria and then obtain, if not a sample, then at least a highly detailed analysis of its chemical composition so as to facilitate later confirmation of emission spectra, with the added potential benefit of being able to map deposits of it on candidate worlds.
Emission spectra, he was great at. That was his wheelhouse. Parsing out elements in situ in the crust of alien planets? Not so much his forte.
Rush was already heading toward the metal building.
The corroding, creepily-abandoned metal building.
If there were zombies, or giant Anaconda-esque snakes, or flying piranhas, or velociraptors, he was going to be so so so upset.
But not surprised.
“We’re going in there?” Volker asked uncertainly as Telford started forward. “Because I mean, I don’t really—I don’t need to. For science.”
“We picked up no lifesigns,” Telford said neutrally. “There’s no reason to think that it’s anything other than what it’s tagged as in the LA database—an abandoned chemical refinery.”
“Yeah,” Volker said, nervously splitting his attention between his Ancient tricorder and the dark greenery that surrounded them as he followed Rush in a slow loop around the featureless structure. The building was rectangular, its edges blunted by corrosion.
“You know,” Volker said, when they were back where the started, “according to Dr. Jackson’s handbook, the Goa’uld don’t really have a word for ‘chemical’.”
“How is that relevant?” Telford asked blandly, his eyes invisible behind his sunglasses.
Rush didn’t respond at all. His hands were on the metal, his gaze directed up the planar surface above him.
“Well, the word is more like ‘substance of the earth.’ This is how Jackson translates it. And at first I’m thinking, is this guy a hack? C’mon. I mean—” Volker made a hand gesture to encompass their clearly non-Earth surroundings. “Earth seems kind of—provincial out here right? The assumption though, is that he chose ‘earth’ as an indicator of like soil, or dirt, but yet he didn’t say that, right? He says ‘earth’.”
“Right,” Telford said with a rising intonation that seemed to suggest that Volker had better be making his point soon.
Rush’s gaze flicked over toward him, but he said nothing.
“He doesn’t choose ‘dirt’,” Volker continued. “He doesn’t choose 'soil.' He chooses ‘earth,’ I think, because of the whole connection to something that transcends the literal. Like the ancient Greek elements. Air. Water. Fire. Earth. That kind of earth. Something broadly encompassing and yet grounded in the physical.”
“Yeah,” Telford muttered, as they waded through ankle-deep water. “Jackson’s a fuckin’ savant. Tell me something I don’t know. What are you implying? That this may not actually be a chemical refinery?”
“I’m simply pointing out,” Volker said, nearly tripping over a tangle of reeds obscured by murky water as they moved forward, “that its name doesn’t really give us an understanding the nature of this place, other than something implied from our own experiences, which may be misleading. I mean, we learned from the computer that this place was occupied by the LA. Varro confirmed it. This is a naquadria-laced world, supposedly, and now it’s abandoned? Given its potential as a power source, naquadria seems like something that you don’t walk away from.”
“Point taken,” Telford said quietly, “But if they were working with the stuff here—in whatever capacity—this may be the place to go to get your detailed readings.”
“Maybe it’s better not to know what happened here,” Volker said, as they drew even with Rush, who had stopped in front of the forbidding structure and was running one hand along its surface, looking for an entry point. “Why don’t we just stay outside? Let me scan for the stuff. Maybe we can find a vein of it and track it. We’ll get some readings, plus or minus some sample collection?”
“Maybe,” Telford said, his fingers tapping a slow rhythm onto the edge of the zat in his hand.
“I’ll make you a deal, Volker,” Rush said, absently running his hands over the rough and pitted metal. Flakes of black came away beneath his fingers.
“Dale,” Telford hissed. “We’re calling him Dale.”
“You get what you need before I find a way inside this place, and we’ll go,” Rush said, ignoring Telford.
“Uh, yeah, that’s a bit too National-Science-Olympiad-meets-Heart-of-Darkness for me, man,” Volker said. “No deal.”
Rush’s intense appraisal of the building took on an amused cast.
Telford watched the dark border of the trees.
Volker looked down at the device he held. Elegant blue symbols were arranged in a radial pattern around a central circle. He tapped the image that looked like a sine wave, hoping that it indicated electromagnetic radiation. He was rewarded with another radial menu, this one with green text and multicolored icons.
He spotted what he wanted immediately. The icon consisted of horizontal rectangle—black, with four vertical lines, each a different color—greeting him like an old friend. “Oh hey there, Balmer series,” he murmured, tapping the emission spectrum of hydrogen.
It took him almost no time to understand that what he had in his hand was an extremely beautiful, extremely responsive, extremely sensitive and exquisitely portable spectrum analyzer. At a minimum.
He felt a surge of affection for the little gadget he held. The Ancient tricorder. The A-corder?
He wasn’t sure he wanted to give this thing back to Rush.
The display shivered, rippling briefly through the spectrum, the entire display going from green to blue to indigo to violet, swinging back around to red, frequency going up, wavelength going down, until it settled back at green.
Volker raised his eyebrows, not entirely sure what had prompted the cheerful cycle through the visible spectrum. He gripped the device a bit tighter, and then started scanning the local environment. It seemed his signal-to-noise ratio was unacceptably low. But. That ratio increased when he pointed the device at the building in front of him.
He touched the screen, dragging a thumb across its smooth surface, not entirely sure where he was going with the motion of his finger, but knowing that he wanted to separate the naquadria emission spectrum from the surrounding environment. With a downward swipe, he was rewarded with the separation of the muddied signal into three fluctuating, analog measurements, labeled with Ancient text.
His mouth dropped open.
He looked intently at the device, his hands frozen to its borders, and focused as hard as he could on his memory on everything he knew of naquadria, including its predicted emission profile, and watched as one of the lines turned red.
When Rush had said intuitive, he’d really meant it. Literally.
So apparently Ancients were freaking awesome.
He needed to learn Ancient. Like, ASAP. Today.
He started recording, saving his readings to wherever this little handheld miracle saved things. He’d have to look into that later.
“Does this seem odd to you?” Rush murmured to Telford, catching Volker’s attention.
“Compared to what?” Telford responded just as quietly.
“The color is wrong,” Rush replied. “The building is corroded, but—“ he broke off, rubbing his fingers together. They were coated with a grayish blue patina of dust and flaked metal.
“Isn’t it iron?” Telford asked, stepping closer to examine the bluish dust. “Usually when the LA slaps together a structure like this, they go with an iron alloy, and not a sophisticated one.”
Volker looked back at his device, and the three signals it displayed. He pointed the device in his hand down at the water that reached up to their ankles, and was rewarded with one of the lines rising to prominence and turning red.
“What do you use to refine naquadria?” he asked.
“They weren’t refining naquadria here,” Telford said dismissively. “That would be so fucking stupid. The LA doesn’t have the tech to attempt anything that dangerous.”
“Naquada,” Rush said quietly, his fingers pressing into the blue-gray metal. “Naquada.” He fixed the device in Volker’s hand with an intent, meaningful look.
Volker shut his eyes briefly, and focused on the unfamiliar word. When he looked down at the device in his hand, he saw the signature he’d picked up from the water flash several times like a strobe.
He looked back at Rush, startled.
Rush looked away, his expression shuttered.
“There’s naquada in the water?” Volker said.
“Is there?” Rush murmured dryly, turning back to the building, bending down to run his fingers just below the waterline. “You don’t sound sure.”
“Take a look,” Volker said, stepping forward through the dark, shallow water, turning the device so Rush could see it.
Rush nodded, confirming the identity of the spectral trace.
“They weren’t refining it here,” Telford said. “They weren’t. There’s no way.”
Volker looked back down at his device. With the feeling of pieces snapping into place in his mind, he watched as the lines shifted—a real time rearrangement in response to his gelling insight. At the bottom of the screen, in a cool green-blue trace, was the naquada emission spectrum. At the top was the slowly pulsing red of the naquadria signature. And in the middle, now colored yellow, was something that could only be an intermediate product.
“Yes,” Volker said, his voice quiet. Sure. “They were refining it here. There’s naquada in the water. And, in this facility,” he murmured, holding the device aloft, “there’s both naquadria and something that’s clearly an intermediate product.”
“Mmm,” Rush said, smiling faintly.
“Let me see that,” Telford snapped, holding out his hand for the device.
As it left Volker’s fingers, the display died.
“Damn it,” Telford said.
“Oops,” Volker replied, taking it back, angling the screen so Telford could see the display.
Telford stared at it, brow furrowed. “Honestly, Dale, I have no idea what I’m supposed to be looking at, here.”
Instinctively, Volker glanced at Rush. The mathematician gave him a cautionary tilt of the head, but didn’t interfere.
“Look.” Volker reached out, touching the device, separating and coloring the three signals again with a brief spread of his fingers. “The green is naquada. The red is naquadria, and the middle—that’s your intermediate.”
“Well shit,” Telford murmured. “I see what you’re saying.” He watched the minor fluctuations in the spectral readings. “I’m looking at—wavelength along the x-axis?”
“Yeah,” Volker said, unable to keep the surprise out of his voice. “Good job.”
Telford looked up at him sharply.
Volker kept his face neutral.
“And the spikes represent wavelengths at which this shit is emitting—”
“Photons,” Volker finished.
Telford nodded shortly.
“So if they can’t find a naquadria-laden planet,” Rush said, his tone suspiciously reasonable, “they make one. How exquisitely enterprising. It does seem very like them, doesn’t it? So determined.”
“That’s what it looks like,” Telford replied, as if the words were being forced out of him. “And for us to pick up the signature on your galactic map, or whatever, they must have made—well, a lot of it.”
Volker nodded, eyeing the forbidding metal box next to them. “More than would fit in there. Unless that thing—goes deep. Really deep.”
“I’d say that’s a safe bet.” Telford eyed the building grimly.
“Oh yes,” Rush said smoothly, “the question becomes, why did they stop.” The mathematician stepped back from the dull gray metal, but his eyes didn’t leave the structure. “Why did they leave, when they’d made a near success of it?”
Telford said nothing. He turned his head, looking out toward the tree line, grimacing faintly.
“Pass me your knife,” Rush said, holding out his hand in Telford’s direction.
“You have ten minutes to get in,” Telford said, pulling an extremely normal looking pocket knife out of his leather pants. “After that, we ring back and get out of here. The sun is on its way down and I don’t particularly want to stick around after dark.”
“Agreed,” Rush said. “Fortunately, I won’t need ten minutes.” He pried the blade out of the knife, and bent down, reaching into the water, probing with the blade.
“Look, I know you’ve got the crazy genius thing going,” Volker said, “with a heavy emphasis on the crazy, but I don’t see how you could possibly—”
He broke off as Rush adjusted his stance and brought the knife up and out of the water. Volker flinched at the unpleasant shriek of metal-on-metal. Rush drew the weapon across the surface of the building, blue rust flaking away behind the blade. The other man stopped the arc only when it extended up beyond his easy reach.
“Well,” Telford said, staring at the line in the metal, “that’s one way to ruin a knife.”
Volker stared at the perfect curve Rush had carved—no. Traced. He’d been following an arc that was inlaid into the building itself, invisible beneath the strange blue naquadah-rust. “How did you know that was there?” he asked.
“a is to b as a plus b is to a,” Rush breathed.
“Great,” Telford said, with a frustrated roll of his shoulders.
“Um,” Volker said, trying to visualize what Rush had just said.
“More secure than a simple door,” Rush said, walking through the water as he abandoned his partially scraped-out curve to proceed further down the building. “But childishly inadequate nonetheless. This is what happens when you borrow codes based on semiotics as opposed to say—” he broke off to scrape away another piece of an arced line that was conveniently located at chest-height, “the factoring of large integers. If I gave a fuck, I could save Kiva a great deal of trouble. Alas, I have no such fucks to give.”
Volker scanned the lines of the building, trying to ignore Rush’s self-satisfied monologue and focus on the pertinent details. “Is this thing a golden rectangle?”
“Of course it is,” Rush replied, driving the tip of the knife into the convergence point of the spiraling arc that he'd carved with the blade. He worked the tip of the weapon in several different directions until a pane of metal came away to reveal a control panel. Rush cocked his head, then began to key in a code.
“Rush,” Telford hissed, splashing through the shallow water. “What are you doing?”
“You said I had ten minutes to get in,” Rush murmured. “It seems I only needed three.” He hit the last button, and the center of the logarithmic spiral broke open and folded inward, resolving piecewise into a rectangular doorway.
Inside, there was nothing but darkness.
“What did you just type in?” Telford hissed, his fingers curling around his weapon.
“Phi,” Rush said. “Well, to be more correct, an eight digit approximation thereof. One couldn’t actually type in phi without an input including a representation of a radical. This is just a keypad.”
“Phi,” Telford whispered, pulling off his sunglasses.“What the fuck is phi?”
“Named for the mean of Phidias,” Rush said. “He was an Ancient Greek sculptor.” He paused, cocking his head, then added, “I wonder if he was a Goa’uld?” He shrugged. “Not pertinent. It’s a fucking ratio, David, one plus the square root of five over two, suggested by the proportions of the building. Look it up next time you’re on Earth.”
“I don’t get how this is supposed to be secure,” Volker said, resisting the urge to take a step back from the gaping darkness in front of them.
“Obviously it’s not,” Rush replied. “But it’s meant to be—exclusive.”
“So knowing the golden ratio is like having the AmEx black card?” Volker asked.
“What?” Rush asked.
“He’s not good with pop culture,” Telford said.
“Knowing the golden ratio—it’s like a status thing in the Goa’uld world?”
“Yes. A ‘status thing’.” Rush managed to pack an impressive amount of disdain into four words.
“Well, I appreciated the layperson explanation,” Telford said, dragging Rush back by his leather jacket as the other man stepped toward the opening.
“You’re welcome?” Volker offered.
Rush shook his hair back, pulled free of Telford’s grip, and shot them both an affronted look.
“Guys, are we seriously going into this—building? Refinery? Underground death trap structure-thing? I mean, I’m not a professional space criminal or anything, but like, this has bad idea written all over it.” Volker crossed his arms, staring at the gaping chasm of blackness in front of them.
“We’re not space criminals,” Telford said shortly.
“Worst case scenario,” Rush replied in a manner that sounded like it was supposed to be reassuring, “we’re all killed.”
“I don’t think so,” Telford said, pulling a flashlight out of his jacket.
“You don’t think what?” Volker asked, shifting his weight as he watched the white light play over dull metal. “You don’t think we’ll be killed, or you don’t think that’s the worst case scenario?”
Telford peered forward into the dark interior of the building. “Option two.” He shook his head with a rueful exhalation and looked at Rush.
“Varro advised against hanging around this planet when I talked with him,” Volker said.
“Did he,” Rush said smoothly.
The words hadn’t sounded like a question, but Volker responded anyway. “Yeah.”
Rush met his gaze steadily.
“I’m with Dale on this one,” Telford said quietly, still peering into the dark, downward sloping tunnel. “I’m not getting a good feeling about this place.”
Rush said nothing.
“Tell me I’m wrong about this,” Telford said, his eyes flicking between the darkness and Rush. “Tell me you really think this is a good idea.”
Rush turned, his entire attention focused on Telford, and gave the other man a smile that was twisted with something Volker couldn’t identify. “You’re with Dale, are you? How illuminating.”
“What are you talking about?” Telford hissed.
“Did they tell you not to look?” Rush hissed straight back. “I know you talk to them. I know that you—”
“No,” Telford snapped. “No. We are not having this conversation. Not now. Not here—”
“Then where?” Rush breathed. “On the ship where they’re listening? In an Alliance holding cell? Whom do you work for?”
“Guys,” Volker said, his voice low.
“If you’ve flipped—” Rush began.
“I haven’t flipped, Nick. God.”
“Maybe you never needed to,” Rush said grimly. “Do you even have a primary affiliation? Have you ever?”
“Fuck you, asshole,” Telford hissed, “I’ve done nothing but cover for you with Kiva, who, if you’ll remember, is actually your employer.”
They stood, staring each other down on the corroded threshold.
“Mmm,” Rush said, stepping back in one slow, smooth movement. “True. Technically.”
Telford seemed to lose his balance in the face of Rush’s de-escalation. He looked distinctly unsettled. “Fine,” he said quietly. “I’ve got no problem taking a look around for ten minutes or so if it makes you fucking happy.”
“Oh exceedingly,” Rush said, pulling out his own flashlight.
“Fine,” Telford snapped. “Take our six.”
“I think I’ll take point,” Rush said, stepping forward. “I have a hypothesis,” he added. “I’d like to direct our trajectory.”
“Oh yeah?” Telford said, falling in behind Volker. “Is your hypothesis that fucking asshole scientists fare better against hostiles in the dark than trained military personnel? Because if so, I really have to admire your experimental setup.”
Rush actually smiled at that one.
Even near the door, the darkness was oppressive.
“I feel like it’s been maybe a day since I told you guys that I hate you,” Volker said. “I just want to reassure you that that’s still the case.”
“My favorite part of our working relationship is the part when you say pointless things,” Rush replied.
“We don’t have a working relationship,” Volker whispered. “Our relationship is kidnapper to kidnappee.”
“Everyone is shutting the hell up now, and focusing,” Telford hissed, as the dark closed in around them.
As they advanced down the narrow, sloping passage that led into darkness, it became obvious to Volker that the space they’d entered was larger than a single surface structure.
A lot larger. A lot deeper.
The air was close and humid. It carried the hint of a smell—sickly-sweet and cloying—that set his teeth on edge.
As they moved forward, Volker fought his claustrophobia by following the beams of their three flashlights as they cut forward through the dark, interweaving, mapping out the space ahead of them and behind them in the passage, and by watching the readings on his A-corder shift with a friendly brightness in his hand.
There was plenty of space. He just couldn’t see it all. Didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
“Stop,” Telford said, low and abrupt. “Lights down.”
Rush flipped his light ninety degrees. Volker followed suit, but not before he caught sight of something further down the corridor.
Something his brain hadn’t had the time or the ability to process.
Telford paced forward, with a murmured, “Watch our six,” to Volker.
Halfheartedly, Volker glanced back behind them, in the direction they'd come.
Telford's boots made scuffing noises over the floor.
Volker turned back. As Telford drew level with Rush, he grabbed the man’s elbow, locking him in place, their outlines dark against their lowered flashlights. Light reflected off the leather of their jackets and off the bright frames of Rush’s glasses, but it was quickly swallowed down to nothing by the press of the dark.
Volker pulled a slow, shallow breath. The smell was stronger here.
“Did you see it?” Telford murmured.
“Yes,” Rush breathed.
“See what?” Volker asked, feeling sick with dread.
“Turn around,” Telford said quietly. “Watch our six.”
“See. What.” Volker’s throat tightened.
“Do what I say.”
Volker turned. He pointed his flashlight back the way they had come, watching the beam until it was swallowed by the darkness. Behind him, he heard Telford and Rush advancing together without speaking.
Their footsteps stopped.
Volker held tight to his flashlight. His eyes still fixed on the darkness around his flashlight beam, he carefully slipped the A-corder into his pocket.
Behind him, a boot had slid laterally across the dusty floor in a startled half-step. Rush, probably.
Volker undid the snap that attached his zat to his thigh. He wrapped his fingers around the weapon.
“You said,” Telford began, his voice so calm that it prickled the hair at the back of Volker’s neck, “that you had a hypothesis.”
“I don’t—” Rush breathed. “I don’t understand what I’m looking at.”
“It’s the positioning of the wound that’s the key.”
“She was a host,” Rush said, his voice hollow. “This was supposed to be an Alliance outpost. You said it was Alliance.”
“Spies everywhere,” Telford whispered. “You should know that better than anyone, Nick.”
“Guys,” Volker said in a hoarse whisper. “Seriously. What the heck is going on here?”
“Does this jive or not jive with your hypothesis about what happened here?” Telford asked, ignoring Volker.
“It’s neither expected nor unexpected. It’s likely unrelated.”
“Does anyone want to clue me in on—” Volker wasn’t sure whether he turned out of habit or frustration, but the words died in his throat as he took in the unmistakable sprawl of a human form on the dark metal of the floor, skin distorted and tight with decay, the front of the throat torn open, dark hair spilled across the floor—
He spun back, facing the darkness, drawing in a startled, shallow breath, his hands unsteady, his vision distorting as the dark pressed in on him. The smell that had been permeating the air seemed to hit him full force, resolving into something nearly unbearable now that it was identifiable.
“Hey,” Telford said quietly, crossing the distance that separated them and putting himself straight in front of Volker. “Hey.”
“Yeah,” Volker said, his throat clamping shut on him. “I’m okay.” He barely got the words out past the image burned into his mind.
“I told you not to look,” Telford said.
“Yep. You did. I know. But I’m fine. It’s okay. I’m fine. I’m fine. With this.”
“Yeah,” Telford echoed him, one hand closing over Volker’s uninjured shoulder, interrupting his meaningless monologue. “You are. You’re fine.”
“Yup,” Volker said.
“It’s dead,” Rush said from behind them.
“Really?” Telford hissed back. “Can you try for ten seconds to not be such an—”
“The Goa’uld.” Rush snapped. “It’s on the floor. Not three feet from her.”
Telford exhaled short and sharp. He dug his fingers into Volker’s shoulder in a brief pulse of reassurance before stepping back toward Rush.
Volker took a deep breath in through his mouth and then turned around again. He tried to ignore the dead woman and focus on the rotting snake-like thing on the floor. It was only marginally easier.
“That thing?” Volker asked, horrified as he got a good look at the pale, nearly featureless line of decay. “That’s a Goa’uld?”
“Yeah,” Telford said, his hand in front of his face, as if that would do anything to block the smell.
“That thing can live inside a person? It must be—ten inches long,” Volker said, his voice rising, his heart hammering in his chest.
“What the fuck happened here?” Rush asked. “It tears out of her throat and then dies, not three feet away?”
“It was cut in half,” Telford said. “Hard to tell with the decomposition but—ten inches is too short. They’re more like eighteen.”
“Eighteen?” Volker echoed.
“So it tears out of her and was then killed by—fucking parties unknown?” Rush asked. “And where’s the other half of this thing?”
“Eaten, maybe?” Telford breathed.
“Pardon me, but what the fuck?” Rush asked politely.
“Eaten?” Volker’s voice cracked. “Why’re we jumping straight to eaten?”
“It’s a thing that the Goa’uld do. They consume their young. It’s supposed to impart vitality. They’d probably eat one another under duress.”
“So let me just weave your assumptions into a linear narrative,” Rush said, looking edgily into the dark.
“Go for it,” Telford said, frowning as he examined the Goa’uld.
“For some reason this thing left its host. During this transition, it was intercepted. Half of the thing was either consumed or carried off, likely by another Goa’uld, while the other half was left to rot on the floor.”
“Yeah,” Telford said quietly. “And not that long ago. Maybe a week? Maybe less? Also—these bastards are fast. It’s very difficult to kill them when they’re trying to transition between hosts. Unfortunately.”
“Varro said this place was abandoned by the alliance last year,” Volker whispered. “You think she was killed a week ago?”
“Why eat only half?” Rush asked. “If it was eaten?”
“No idea,” Telford said.
“This is going to bother me,” Rush murmured.
“Which part?” Volker asked, his voice cracking.
“The half-eaten thing.”
“The part that bothers me is the part where there’s another one of these things down here,” Volker whispered furiously.
Rush looked at Telford. “This will be an unpopular question I suspect, but, say, for the sake of argument, that you cut one of these things in half. Would that unequivocally kill it? Or might the ‘head’ end be able to survive being, er, favorably bisected?”
Volker and Telford stared at him.
“No one’s sure. Right then. Let’s keep going,” Rush said.
“Are you nuts?” Volker asked.
“It’s just getting interesting,” Rush replied.
“I’m taking point,” Telford murmured. “Form up, and let’s keep it tight. Rush, you’ve got our six.”
Caught between Telford and Rush, with no choice but to go on or face the darkness of the return journey alone, Volker readjusted his grip on his flashlight and stayed close on Telford’s heels as they advanced deeper into the refinery.