Ad Noctum: Chapter 8
No. Just no.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Injuries. Panic. Violence. Death wishes. Thought control. Purposefully insensitive discussion of mental health issues. Boundary problems. Interpersonal manipulation.
Additional notes: None.
Not alien parasites.
But cannibalistic, parasitic, alien snakes?
He hated his life.
He hated his life so much right now.
The darkness pressed down on Volker like a collapsing wall as they moved further into the refinery, down into warm, damp air. Occasionally, drops of what he very much hoped was water fell from the invisible ceiling above them and landed on his face and in his hair.
Telford stopped, one hand upraised, creating a dark silhouette against the diffuse light that spread out from his down-directed flashlight. Volker swallowed his questions, trying to suppress a flinch of surprise as Rush stepped forward, coming up beside him on his left, sweeping his flashlight up and ahead of them.
The downsloping metal of the floor ahead of them was covered with a thin sheen of liquid.
They stood silently, listening to the irregular patter of dripping water. Volker swept his eyes over the parts of the walls that he could see. He couldn’t identify the source of the water—though he did notice a slight beveling where the panels that made up the wall met the panels that made up the floor.
Telford looked at Rush.
Rush swept a hand out to encompass the path ahead of them, turning the movement into an ostentatious bow.
Telford glared back at him and then turned to Volker. “Scan it,” he said, pointing at the water.
Volker pulled out his A-corder and crouched down. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be looking for. He started with what he knew, identifying traces of naquadah, not one but two intermediate products, and naquadria.
No surprises there.
He navigated back to the main screen on his device and tried to think through what he wanted. It would be nice to know if the stuff was radioactive—
An icon was flashing at him. It looked like the nucleus of an atom, with a shadow-like f-orbital surrounding it in a reddish haze.
Ugh he loved this thing. He simultaneously wanted to take it apart to see how it worked and murder anyone who tried such a thing.
The device rainbowed for him.
“Thanks buddy,” he whispered, and tapped the icon.
A new display came up, showing a symbolic representation of an alpha particle in the corner of the screen. The rest of the display was dark with rare showers of green and yellow pixels. They increased as he moved the detector closer to the surface of the water.
The little guy was currently functioning as a visual, silent, Ancient, equivalent of a Geiger counter.
He adored this thing.
He did not so much adore ionizing radiation.
Volker brought the device close to the liquid that coated the floor, and saw the showers of color on the screen increase in both intensity and frequency, turning from mostly yellow to mostly green, with an occasional burst of blue. Ooh. Maybe a beta particle here and there? The range of the alpha particles was definitely limited. He was pretty sure that tracking through this water wasn’t going to kill them.
With a whisper of leather, Rush dropped into a crouch next to him. The other man grabbed the A-corder by its rim, and the screen exploded with annotated sidebars, all in Ancient. Its colors cycled brightly, continuously, through the visible spectrum.
Rush smiled faintly.
Volker felt unspeakably jealous.
Rush examined the display, his head cocked, then let it go as he surged to his feet. The screen simplified itself, fading to a blue-gray briefly, as though it missed him when he went.
“Come on,” Volker whispered encouragingly. “I’m not so bad.” The A-corder brightened up, its blue turning a little more intense. “There ya go.” Volker looked up to find Telford watching him.
“You done talking to the tech?” Telford asked, his eyes flicking between Volker and the dark passages on either side. “What did you find?”
“It’s radioactive,” Volker whispered.
“It’s fine,” Rush said, pacing the edge of the dark water, his eyes sweeping the walls.
Telford glared at the pair of them, then seemed to decide that glaring at Rush was more productive.
“It’s radioactive and fine,” Rush clarified. “Unless you plan on drinking the stuff or living here for a prolonged period.” He stepped delicately into the dark liquid.
Telford yanked him back. “You,” he said, the word nearly silent, “have our six.”
They started forward again, the beams of their flashlights reflecting irregularly off the surface of the water, throwing the sides of the passage and the ceiling into better relief. Volker followed the metal paneling with his eyes, noting the dark crust of blue-gray rust that coated every surface.
As they went, Volker kept the A-corder in his hand. He glanced down at it often.
//Please help me,// he thought in its direction. //Please. Whatever you can do, little guy. Please help.//
The little device glowed a bright, cheerful blue, showing him spectra and ambient particle counts. That definitely counted as help.
Finally, they came to a door.
The tunnel split away on either side, forming a “y” with branches to their left and right that sloped downward at a terrifyingly steep grade. The beveling that Volker had noted earlier had become more pronounced. The metal tunnel that they currently occupied as well as both branches ahead of them had no planar surface. Every edge was rounded.
Yeah. So. The door in front of them was less a door than it was a hatch.
Volker caught Rush’s eye and gave the other man a significant look, tilting his head toward the door. Rush nodded, like he got it. Did he get it? Maybe.
“This,” Volker mouthed to Telford, waving a hand at their current surroundings, “is meant to be submerged.” He pointed at the door in front of them. “That’s an airlock. Water,” he continued in a whisper, “floods this place.”
Rush flinched, taking an instinctive step back the way they had come. So. Okay. Maybe he hadn’t gotten it. He and the mathematician were gonna have to work on their silent communication.
Telford swung to face Rush, and they looked at each other intently. Volker eyed the pair of them. “Does that—mean something to you guys?”
“Water? No.” Rush looked down the right passage, into darkness, shaking his hair back out of his eyes. “It means nothing.”
Telford grimaced as he stepped forward and began to turn the wheel mounted on the metal door. It opened with a well-oiled silence that seemed to unsettle even Rush. Volker glanced down at the A-corder. It showed him a little firework that probably came from an ambient beta particle.
Telford directed his flashlight into the darkness of the opening. It hit another door of dull gray metal that was located less than five feet behind the first. The space was small.
“No,” Volker said, and even though he had spoken quietly, the word echoed subtly off the metal walls. He shook his head. “We don’t know where that thing leads. We don’t know what’s on the other side. It’s not worth it,” he hissed at the pair of them. “It’s not—”
Rush grabbed him by the front of his leather jacket and yanked him in, arranging a quick apposition of lips and ears. “It is,” the other man said, so quietly Volker could barely hear him. “It is worth it.” Rush shoved him back. “Pull yourself together,” he snapped.
“Quiet,” Telford whispered. “Both of you.” The other man glanced over at Rush, then stepped forward, into the hatch.
“We have to know,” Rush mouthed at Volker.
“Why?” Volker replied soundlessly.
“Because they never would have voluntarily abandoned this,” Rush whispered, the words tripping over one another. “Never. Do you understand? Please understand. When people are unwilling to stay—”
“The Alliance make them stay.”
“Yes,” Rush said. “But not here. Not here.”
“There’s always a workaround,” Rush whispered. “Always. Even for coercive persuasion. There must be. We just have to find it.”
Volker tried to force air into his lungs. He nodded, the movement likely invisible in the dim light.
“What are you guys talking about?” Telford called back, out of the dark, small space.
“Dr. Volker needs help with his iPhone,” Rush said dryly, following Telford into the confining dark. “Fear not, I’ve made him an appointment at the Genius Bar.”
“For the last time, asshole, we’re calling him Dale.”
Volker followed them, stepping into the confined space of the airlock with great difficulty. In the oblique light that came from Telford’s vacillating flashlight, he could see the other man attempting to turn the wheel of the far door.
“If this place is really meant to protect against differential pressures,” Volker whispered, “then that side isn’t going to open until this side is closed.”
Telford stopped struggling against the immovable wheel and stood, the hand holding his flashlight braced against the thin rim of metal attached to the door. “I know,” he said.
With a clang that startled both of them, Rush pulled the rear door shut.
Volker shut his eyes. The frantic pounding of his heart drove all the air out of his lungs.
Along the walls, vertical panels of backlit hieroglyphic writing flared to life, glowing gold in the darkness.
Volker took in a slow breath and tried to focus on the script that flowed down the walls around them, picking out the words for “power,” some kind of variant of the word “time,” and “water,” right away. There were also corresponding sets of numbers.
“Ah,” Rush said. “Propitious.”
“What is?” Telford murmured, scanning the panels.
“The time of our arrival,” Rush scanned his way over the glowing script. “These tunnels are cyclically flooded.”
“Maybe they were,” Telford said dubiously, “back when this place was in operation, but that body we came across had been there for at least a few days.”
“It was close to the surface,” Rush said.
“You think this place might still be running?” Telford asked. “We picked up no life signs—either from orbit or on the surface.”
“If it’s automated and well-constructed,“ Rush said, “then it’s a possibility. Clearly—” he broke off, one hand coming up to the side of his head just as Volker felt the subtle pain in deep in his ears that indicated a building pressure differential.
“Rush.” Telford had both hands at his ears, his head angled up toward the too-close ceiling.
With a pop, the pressure on Volker's eardrums eased.
The need to get out of the enclosed space was overwhelming.
“How long—“ Volker was cut off by the closing of his throat. “Do you think this might take?”
“You doing okay over there, Dale?” Telford asked, his tone a mixture of warning and concern.
“I might be a little claustrophobic,” Volker admitted, doing his best not to hyperventilate.
Rush, a dark outline against the lighted panel of the back wall, snapped two fingers against the glowing glyphs. “If you immediately know the candlelight is fire,” he said, “the meal was cooked a long time ago.”
“What?” Volker said, bewildered.
“Relax, Dr. Volker.” Rush ran his hands fluidly over illuminated panels, as though he was playing an instrument. Two counterposed sweeps and—
The opposite door unlocked with a sound like a gunshot.
Telford and Volker jumped.
“Maybe a little warning next time?” Telford asked.
“I do try,” Rush replied archly, “but I confess warnings aren’t my strong suit.”
Telford swung the door open, revealing a three-dimensional blackness that seemed to exert its own metaphysical gravity. They trained their Lucian Alliance flashlights down a dark, dry hallway, lined by sealed doors.
Rush stepped forward, skidding slightly on the downslope.
“Hey.” Telford pulled him back. “Do you have a learning disability of some kind? You have our six.” Telford turned to Volker. “Take a look at the ALD,” he said.
“Um,” Volker said, “I think we should go with ‘A-corder,’ actually? Ancient-tricorder. Also, kind of like the word accord? Get it? It’s kind of a pun?”
“Whatever,” Telford hissed. “Scan for lifesigns.”
“Okay—“ Volker began, only to cut off as Rush yanked the device out of his hand. “Or, yeah. Maybe that’s better.”
Rush navigated the device one-handed, his expression intent, angling it in such a way that it made it impossible for Volker to see what he was doing. “We’re clear,” Rush said, shoving the device back at Volker. “There’s no one down here.”
“You’re sure,” Telford said.
They proceeded carefully along the hall, stepping laterally along the steep grade.
Volker was relieved to be out of the airlock, but wasn’t fond of the idea that they’d have to go back through the thing to get out of this place. He tried to distract himself by sweeping his light along the walls, looking for Goa’uld words that he knew.
Two symbols that he was going to guess that together meant something like “resupply,” or
“extra supplies,” or, huh. Maybe it was “enrichment?” Enrichment would make sense if this place was really a naquadah refinery.
“Stop.” Rush paused at an otherwise unremarkable door. His flashlight swept over a set of symbols that Volker didn’t recognize. “This one.”
“Why this one?” Telford asked.
Volker looked down at his A-corder. An icon was flashing.
“Well,” Rush replied, “being that it’s a monitoring station, and I find myself in the position of wanting to fucking monitor a thing or two, it seems a logical choice of door to open.” He glanced between the gold edged writing and Telford, his eyes narrowed. “Can you not read this?”
“I can read it, asshole. I’m a little busy making sure nothing kills us.”
Volker tapped the icon and was presented with a mostly black screen. Outlined faintly in gray was a maze-like series of lines.
Telford motioned Volker back against the wall.
On Volker’s A-corder, four clustered dots appeared. Two were blue, two were green.
Rush and Telford, flashlights and weapons aligned, stood in front of the door. Rush hit the door controls. An acrid smell wafted into the dry air of the corridor.
It occurred to Volker, as he was studying the ghosted gray outlines, that he was looking at a map.
//Neat,// he thought, studying the display. //Thanks, buddy.//
One of the blue dots was bigger than the other and positioned at the center of the map, giving off you-are-here shivers in its diameter. That must be the A-corder itself. Or. Actually, maybe that was Volker, since he was holding the A-corder?
If dots were people, and it sure seemed like they were, there were four dots in close proximity.
That couldn’t be right.
Rush had checked.
Rush had checked.
“Hey guys,” Volker whispered, in growing horror, glancing wildly around. “Wait—”
“I’m sure that no one is interested in what you have to say, Volker,” Rush said archly, stepping deliberately ahead of Telford, a dark outline against the limited glow of his flashlight.
“It’s just that I think that there might be someone—” Volker broke off as Rush was yanked off his feet, his light clattering away from him, careening wildly off the dark solidity of something inside the room.
Telford darted forward, gun and flashlight up and aligned.
Volker followed Telford into the room, his heart beating wildly, his hands sweeping the grooved and ornamented metal of the walls until his fingers found a panel. He lifted a lever, and the lights came up to reveal Telford, Rush, and a third person struggling in a massed knot on the floor.
Volker exchanged his A-corder for his zat, wondering what would happen if he shot all three of them.
Probably they would all be rendered unconscious, presuming that zats operated in a manner that—
It was anyone’s guess.
With the addition of the lights, Telford resolved the situation into something that Volker was able to parse out as decidedly in their favor: Rush, unsurprisingly, was lying on the floor, pinned by his assailant, who was currently frozen with Telford’s gun pressed to his head.
The man was pale, emaciated, his eyes red-rimmed and wild. He scanned them from beneath a fringe of sparse hair. He wasn’t old, but he looked sick.
“Back. Off,” Telford snarled, applying more pressure with his weapon.
“So they finally sent someone,” the man hissed, his hands raised as he climbed off Rush.
Around the edges of the the room, dark display screens covered nearly every work surface.
“Who are you?” Telford asked.
“Cowan,” the man hissed, “of Fourth House.” He coughed, bringing up a trickle of blood that he wiped across the worn leather of his jacket cuff. “You Fourths?”
“No,” Telford said. “Sixths.”
“Sixths,” Cowan hissed, his eyes raking over Volker and Rush. “Do you have a ship?”
Telford said nothing.
“Why?” Rush asked, the word a smooth pull. He raised his eyebrows. “Do you find yourself in need of transportation?”
“Quiet,” Telford snapped at Rush. “Get off the damn floor. And get back here. Behind me.”
Slowly, with the air of a guy granting a huge favor with poor grace, Rush got to his feet. He didn’t shift his position. He looked down at Cowan, studying the man at close range.
“You must take me with you,” Cowan said. “I’m the last one left.”
Volker looked down at the A-corder, scanning the map, alert for any other dots. He saw none.
“I’m not picking up any other lifesigns,” Volker said quietly, directing his words at Telford.
He got a short nod in return before Telford looked back at the man on the floor.
“What happened here?” Telford asked, readjusting his fingers on his gun.
“Everyone is dead,” Cowan whispered.
“Did you kill them?” Telford asked evenly.
Volker touched the blue circle that was dead-centered on the screen of the A-corder.
“No,” Cowan said. “It was the Goa’uld.”
The A-corder was presenting him with a set of what were probably numbers he couldn’t read, and a fast wave that looked like heartbeat. Curious, he pressed his fingers to his own wrist. His heart rate and the wave on the monitor synced up perfectly.
“You expect me to believe you’re not a snake-head?” Telford snapped. “We found your lunch upstairs, fucker.”
“Lunch?” Cowan said, coughing. “I’ve been locked in this room for the past four days. There were ten Goa’uld here,” he continued. “They were sent among the most recent crew of—replacements.”
“Replacements?” Rush prompted.
“This place,” Cowan continued, “consumes workers.”
“What do you mean it ‘consumes’ them?” Telford demanded.
“Before they die,” Cowan said, “they lose the will to work. The Goa’uld were meant to last longer. They were meant to resist the effects of this place.”
“The Alliance doesn’t work with Goa’uld,” Telford snapped.
“Perhaps Sixth House doesn’t,” Cowan replied darkly. “If that’s true, then you should count yourselves fortunate.”
Volker glanced up. Cowan’s eyes were on him, baleful in his pale, sweaty face. He shuddered and focused back on the A-corder. Volker zoomed in on the four lifesigns, allowing them to take up the entire screen.
“Pardon me,” Rush said, his voice polite and smooth, as though he were attending a science conference somewhere nice, “but I was under the impression that the Lucian Alliance has the means of preventing acts of open revolt, even by Goa’uld. No matter how—deplorable the circumstances.”
Volker kept one eye on the ongoing interrogation, one eye on his A-corder. It was clear from the orientation of the dots, that the other blue dot was Rush.
Telford and Cowan were green.
Special genes were blue? Unspecial genes were green?
Volker shivered. How. How could a hand-held device possibly detect and localize genetic sequences over the air? The presence or absence of a specific gene? He’d never heard of anything like this.
“Something about this place,” Cowan whispered, “destroyed their means of control.”
Volker tapped Cowan’s green dot on the A-corder. The first thing he noticed was a heartrate that was more than double his own, a panicked wave on the monitor. Heart rate he could understand. That could be sound waves. Subtle, barely detectable, but there all the same.
“What, specifically, about this place allowed for such a thing?” Rush asked, inching closer to Cowan. “Do you know?”
“Rush,” Telford said, the warning in his tone unmistakable.
Volker tapped a glowing icon that looked like a teardrop on the A-corder. He was going to assume that had something to do with blood, though how the little device could tell anything about Cowan’s bloodstream across the room, Volker had no idea.
When a small window popped up, he found himself looking at a familiar emission spectrum.
God. The guy must have ingested a truckload of the stuff.
No naquadria was registering though. Nor were any of the intermediate products showing up.
That was weird.
“Do you know?” Rush repeated his question.
Cowan coughed again. “Yes,” he said. “Yes I know.”
“Tell me,” Rush said, low and cool.
Volker angled the A-corder toward Telford, pointing with one finger toward the flashing naquadah emission spectrum.
Telford looked at him, his eyes questioning.
“We’ll give you passage off this planet,” Rush said, “if you tell me.”
“Naquadah,” Volker mouthed at Telford, “in his blood.”
Telford froze. His eyes, locked on Volker, went from startled to neutral in the span of a heartbeat. His gaze flicked to Rush.
“Give me passage first,” Cowan said, “then I’ll tell you.”
Telford’s hand closed around Volker’s forearm.
“I don’t think so,” Rush said.
Cowan coughed again, his eyes fixed on Rush.
“Hands,” Telford mouthed, “free.” He stepped behind Volker, moving laterally, under the guise of looking at a monitor, his gun still trained on Cowan.
He didn’t particularly like the sound of that.
Volker pocketed his A-corder.
“I will have passage off this poisoned world,” Cowan snarled.
Volker watched Telford anxiously, hoping for some kind of sign.
“Not unless you tell us what you know,” Rush replied, low and intent.
“I will have passage,” Cowan repeated, and as he spoke, his voice doubled, dropping a register as his eyes lit up, the whites flashing an ominous, unearthly gold.
Volker tried to suppress a surge of terror, his hands coming up instinctively, as if he could ward the thing off. Certainly it was not human, but that was all he could process—his thoughts were an incoherent, frozen block of unreasoning terror.
From somewhere to his left he heard the click of a weapon cocking and firing in quick succession.
The single shot that rang out in the enclosed space of the room carried with it an instinctive relief that was undercut by Volker’s realization that it was not Cowan who had gone down, it was not Cowan who had fallen, it was not Cowan whom Telford had shot—
It was Rush.
It was Rush.
Telford had just shot—
Cowan’s mouth opened. His frame convulsed. His eyes and stance shifted away from Rush and towards Volker as—something, oh god, something horrible—came out of his mouth, launching itself into the air with a coiled spring, screeching as it came.
Volker tried to duck but he was too slow.
The thing hit him in the shoulder with a burning agony. It was trying to tear its way into him. With teeth.
He screamed, making an instinctive grab at it, his hand closing around it as he fell back, feeling the powerful convulsions of contracting, alien muscles beneath his desperate fingers.
With the clatter of a falling gun and sweep of leather Telford was beside him, both his hands closing around Volker’s, pulling the thing out of him, his fingers digging into his skin, into his shoulder, inside the injury, one knee braced against Volker’s ribcage as he dragged it back, dragged it out, crushing it beneath his hands, winding the thing around his fist—until finally, finally he yanked it out, slammed it to the floor, and crushed it beneath his boot, beneath his hands, smearing it along the metal even as it tried to twist around enough to dig teeth into his wrist.
Telford kept at it until the thing was a dead streak on the floor.
Volker lay against the cool metal, his shoulder burning, his breath tearing through his throat. Every muscle in his body was trembling.
A few feet away, what was left of Cowan slumped to the floor, blood trailing from his mouth.
Telford looked at Volker.
“Hands free,” Volker shouted, his voice high and terrified and nothing like himself. “HANDS FREE!?”
Telford said nothing, just turned away, shifting laterally to kneel next to Rush.
Volker sat up, one hand clapped to his shoulder, trembling.
“Rush,” Telford snapped, his fingers probing the wound in Rush’s left shoulder.
“You—shot me,” Rush said, as if he wasn’t quite sure. Beneath him, narrow rivulets of blood were creeping across the floor.
“You lied about the lifesigns,” Telford said, his expression tight, his tone even.
Volker’s breath was coming in short, pained gasps as he struggled to process everything that had just happened. His entire body was shaking. He was cold. He was hot. He wasn’t sure.
“Lied?” Rush replied, his pale under the gold cast of the overhead lights. “Lied is such a strong word, David.”
Telford ignored his comment and twisted to look at Volker. “Are you wearing a real shirt?”
“What?” Volker asked shakily.
“Are you wearing anything that isn’t leather?”
“Yeah,” Volker gasped, lightheaded.
“Can you take it off?” Telford said, speaking slowly. “I need it.”
Volker tried to focus on breathing. Getting air.
“Dale,” Telford said again. “I need your shirt.”
“Oh,” Volker said, his eyes watering, his voice unsteady. “Sure. Why not. I’ll be happy to give you the shirt off my back in order to make an unsanitary bandage for the guy who led us straight to that thing.” He was shouting, somehow. He tried to dial it back. Do some more breathing. He gestured vaguely at the dead Goa’uld on the floor and at poor Cowan, who was now an aged, dead husk of whomever he had been.
“We’ll discuss that later,” Telford said. “Right now, I’d really like to get out of here.”
Volker eased his jacket down over his re-injured shoulder, which was now bleeding sluggishly immediately below his healing knife wound. He pulled off his repurposed, now nearly unrecognizable black dress shirt and tossed it to Telford.
“It should heal pretty quickly,” Telford said, pulling out his knife, his eyes flicking toward Volker’s injury. “They release a substance that stops bleeding and promotes tissue repair.”
“Oh,” Volker said weakly, “that’s nice.”
“You owe Dale a shirt,” Telford hissed at Rush, as he sliced the material apart.
“Well, add it to my tab,” Rush said. “Ten more years of indentured servitude ought to cover it.”
“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Telford said, positioning a folded square of fabric beneath Rush’s shoulder.
Volker shivered in his undershirt. He pulled his leather jacket back on, gingerly.
“If I were Volker,” Rush said conversationally, “I’d be fair fucking pissed to find myself the quo in a quid pro quo. Not sure he’s realized that’s where you were were going with—”
Rush broke off with a strangled sound as Telford applied the other half of Volker’s shirt to the entry wound in his left shoulder, pressing down with a vicious amount of force.
“Oh I’m sorry,” Telford said, with theatrical courtesy. “Is this painful for you?”
“Um,” Volker said, “is it too much to ask that you guys just—”
“No,” Rush replied, breathing shallowly. “By all means, David, do your fucking worst.”
“Oh I will,” Telford said, shifting his position to replace his hands with his knee, driving it down atop Rush’s injury. “Keeping pressure on these kinds of injuries is crucial.”
Rush had blanched to an alarming shade of white.
“Maybe that’s not the best idea,” Volker said.
“Do not pass out, Rush,” Telford said, removing his belt. “This is your fucking mess, and damned if I am dragging your ass out of here.”
“And you need your belt for what now?” Volker asked.
Telford shot Volker a disapproving look from beneath lowered brows as he wound the belt around the makeshift bandages on either side of Rush’s shoulder. Okay, that was reasonable.
“I would never dream of inconveniencing either of you in such a manner,” Rush replied.
Telford yanked the belt tight around Rush’s shoulder and buckled it to maintain pressure on both sides of the injury. Rush choked back a sound deep in his throat as Telford dragged him into a sitting position.
“How does it look?” Telford asked Volker.
“Um, as bandages go, I’ve seen better.”
“I was talking about the detector,” Telford said.
“Right,” Volker said. “Just us,” he said numbly, studying the A-corder.
“Let’s get out of here,” Telford said, pulling Rush to his feet so quickly that Volker was suspicious that despite his protestations to the contrary, Telford wouldn’t mind it if the man actually did pass out.
“Right after we download their database,” Rush said, snapping himself out of Telford’s grip. He headed toward the nearest monitor. As he went, he pulled a hard-drive and a Goa’uld-to-Earthware adaptor out of his pocket.
“You have a gunshot wound,” Telford hissed.
“Yes well. I prefer to think of it less as an injury and more as an investment,” Rush said, his right hand clapped to his left arm.
“An investment?” Volker echoed.
“On which I would like some kind of return,” Rush clarified.
“Can we please go?” Volker snapped, his eyes flicking back and forth between the pair of them.
“How long is this going to take?” Telford asked.
“Depends upon the size of the database,” Rush said. He glanced pointedly at Telford. “You realize it’s something we can, potentially, give to Kiva.”
“Fine,” Telford said shortly.
Rush snapped his adaptor and hard drive into a nearby monitor, and began setting up the transfer.
Telford took up a position near the door.
Volker stayed on the floor, his gaze determinedly fixed on the unchanging display of his A-corder. He was claiming the thing for personal use. Forever. In compensation. For being offered as bait for a freaking flying, cannibalistic, parasitic, alien snake.
“So,” Rush said, drawing out the word in a slow pull that broke the silence. “I wasn’t aware that it was possible to manually prevent a a Goa’uld from reaching the nervous system once it had entered the skin.”
Volker looked up, his gaze switching from Rush to Telford.
Telford didn’t look at either of them. “I’ve seen it attempted, but I’ve never seen it done,” he said.
“You’ve never seen it done?” Volker echoed. “Thanks, man. Thanks a lot.”
Telford said nothing, his hands wrapped around his weapon.
“Get off the fucking floor, Volker,” Rush said.
“The ‘fucking floor’ suits me just fine right now,” Volker replied, still watching the A-corder, absently rubbing his burning shoulder.
“Leave him alone, Rush,” Telford said, looking into the darkness of the hallway.
“Yes well, fine. If you have no interest in learning the subtleties of Goa’uld databases, then by all means, continue to sit on the floor contemplating the smeared remains the thing that would have dug itself into your central nervous system and enslaved you.”
Volker turned away from both of them and threw up the remains of Lucian Alliance field rations all over the floor.
“Sensitive, Rush,” Telford said. “Really. Fucking. Sensitive.”
“Sensitivity is not my forte.”
Volker spit several times, trying to rid his mouth of the taste of bile. It didn’t work. At all. He got to his feet unsteadily, then reached out, wrapping his fingers around the edge of the monitor bank where Rush was standing.
“Subtleties?” he said, his voice rasping.
“Indeed,” Rush said in a manner that bordered on conciliatory.
Volker looked at the monitor below Rush. It looked anything but subtle. He could see a string of hieroglyphics that ticked over, indicating percent completion.
Rush navigated to a different screen and opened a Goa’uld equivalent of a text editor. He typed out short string of characters, the final one rotated ninety degrees to indicate a question.
Volker looked at him, his eyebrows raised.
Rush raised his eyebrows right back.
Volker pulled out Jackson’s pocket dictionary, flipping through the thing to try and decipher some of the unfamiliar words. Finally, he had a string of guesses.
The first word was knowledge, in a dative construction. Likely this was a “do you know” kind of situation. And then came the word for “here.” After that, it got harder. The best Volker could do was “incremental destruction” and “mind control.” The whole thing probably came together into something like, “Do you have any idea how this place erodes Lucian Alliance mind control?”
Unbelievable. The guy was trying to have a secret conversation with him. In front of Telford. In the creepy, flooded basement of an alien chemical refinery. While bleeding to death, probably.
“No,” Volker said, his voice hoarse. “Do we really have to worry about this now?”
Telford glanced back at them.
“It’s always good practice to cover one’s tracks in alien systems,” Rush replied, as if double-speak was something that came to him without effort.
“Yeah,” Volker said dully. “Okay.” He pulled out his A-corder, switched back to his emission spectra, and pointed at the naquadria. Then he shrugged at Rush.
Rush typed something out that didn’t look quite right to Volker, even with his limited experience with the language.
“Sometimes,” Rush said, “unusual words or words with foreign influence are spelled phonetically.”
“Good to know,” Volker replied, glancing at Telford as he mentally sounded out the Goa’uld word.
“That’s your suggestion?” Rush asked, eyebrows raised, tapping the word.
Volker nodded again.
Rush cocked his head, considering. “You think radiation might contribute to the erosion of system-control architecture in some way?” Rush pressed again.
“No idea,” Volker said, rubbing his shoulder. “Radiation breaks things, though. Computers. People. Their DNA. It’s kinda what it does. Just little subatomic particles slamming tracks wherever they go.”
Rush gave him speculative look that turned—almost friendly the longer it went on.
“Uh,” Volker said. “Are you okay, man?”
“How long?” Telford snapped from across the room.
“Only five minutes,” Rush said. “Their records are far from voluminous or meticulous.” He turned back to Volker. “I don’t think much about radiation,” Rush murmured. “As a concept. But you—that’s practically your whole field.”
“Well, I worked with the non-ionizing end of the EM spectrum,” Volker said. “But yeah, I guess you could think of it that way. When most people say ‘radiation’ they’re thinking of the breakdown products of unstable nuclei.”
“Which is what we have here,” Rush said. “All around. In the walls. In the air. In the water.”
Telford looked over at them. “Why are you guys talking about radiation?”
“The database is partially corrupted,” Rush said smoothly.
For a long moment, no one said anything. And then—
“Radiation was what killed Jackson,” Telford murmured, looking out into the dark.
“Was it, now?” Rush said softly. “That’s interesting.”
“Wait,” Volker said, suddenly and completely upset, his eyes beginning to water. “Wait. Wait. The Guy on the Tapes is dead?”
“No. He’s not dead. Well, he was. But he got over it,” Telford replied dryly. “Spent some time as an incorporeal being of pure light, or whatever, then descended back to our plane.”
“Uh,” Volker said, still pretty worried about Tapes Guy. “Okay. Well, pretty sure that’s not possible, so—”
Rush sat abruptly, falling into the nearest seat in a motion that was about as far from coordinated as Volker had seen him get. Both hands came up to grip the edge of console, as though he needed to steady himself.
“Rush,” Telford snapped. “You faint and we leave you here.”
“Promises, promises,” Rush replied, breathlessly. He unhooked the hard drive and adaptor as the transfer finished.
“Now can we go?” Volker asked.
“Oh, if you insist,” Rush said.
They passed back into the corridor, their boots scraping quietly over the dusted floor as they climbed the inclined hallway back toward the airlock. When he came face-to-face with the thing for the second time, Volker felt another wave of nausea at the idea of reentering it.
But there was no other choice.
They stepped into the tomb-like opening, their flashlights cutting through the darkness. Telford swung the door shut behind them, sealing them inside.
The wall of glyphs lit up.
Volker waited, counting his breaths, enduring the shaking of exhausted muscles.
“Rush?” Telford asked. “I’m not feeling any pressure change.”
“I noticed,” Rush replied, sounding breathless. “I believe that—the ah—”
“Rush,” Telford said sharply.
“I believe that the area beyond this airlock may have flooded while we were otherwise engaged.”
“What?” Volker said, choking on the word.
Behind him, he felt Telford shift, attempting to open the door behind them. “Can you unflood it?” Telford asked his voice strained, clearly having no luck with the door.
“I—” Rush said, sounding more than a little bit faint.
“No,” Telford said, as close to panic as Volker had ever heard him. “Rush, don’t you dare—”
Rush fell in a space that was too confined to really permit any such thing. He slammed into Volker, who overbalanced into Telford, who hit the posterior wall with a resounding clang. They all went down in an oppressive, struggling tangle.
He couldn’t move, he couldn’t straighten, pinned between Rush and Telford. He thrashed wildly, overcome with panic, lost in a sense of confinement, buried under water, sealed in a small coffin-like space, unable to get out he had to get out he could not but he had to he had to, he—
“Dale,” Telford shouted, his flashlight falling, the light moving irregularly over the walls, their bodies that were too close—
“Dale,” Telford shouted. “We can get out. We can.”
Volker took a deep breath, pressed against the glowing panel of lights, mostly on top of Rush.
“We can get out,” Telford said, dropping his volume, smoothing his tone. “It’s fine.”
Volker was gasping, pressing himself against the lighted wall as Telford pulled Rush away from him, creating a small space.
“We can get out,” Telford repeated slowly.
“Yeah,” Volker finally managed. “Yeah.”
“And we will,” Telford said.
“Yeah,” Volker said, trying to force his voice into a normal range.
Telford reached forward, arranging the flashlights on the floor in a crisscrossing pattern.There wasn’t enough room in the confined space for three people to sit. Telford was crouching, balanced on the balls of his feet and the tips of his fingers, over Rush who was propped against the opposite wall.
Volker tried to breathe past the tightness in his throat.
“Why don’t you stand up and take a look at those glyphs,” Telford said carefully. “See if you can’t find a way to figure out how to unflood the space ahead.
“Okay,” Volker said shakily, “but Rush—Rush would be better.“
Telford nodded, tipping Rush’s head back and slapping his face several times with careful deliberation. No response.
“I’m thinking maybe you want to give it a shot,” Telford said, his brow furrowed, his eyes never leaving Rush.
Volker took a deep breath and reached into his pocket for Daniel Jackson’s manual.