Mathématique: Chapter 12

“Less talking,” Young said grimly, as the sound of gunfire approached their position, “more climbing.”

Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Grief. Physical injuries. Mental health challenges.

Text iteration: Witching hour.

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 12

Landry was running two hours late.

Young perched on a chair outside the general’s office, listening to the flow of the air circulators and watching the closed door. It didn’t do a lot to distract from the dull ache in his back, his hip, his femur. His quads were sore. He’d been tense on the car ride in. The math professor next door drove like he’d spent his twenties trying to qualify for Formula 1.

He wondered how the man would do behind the controls of an F-302.

Best not to think about it.

His thoughts wandered to John Sheppard. Now there was pilot. Talked no game. Brought zero swagger. Riding in a car with the guy was indistinguishable from sitting in a stationary chair. After the inauguration of the McKay-Carter Intergalactic Gate Bridge, Young, Mitchell, Sheppard, and Telford had driven to Vegas for thirty-six hours to celebrate Cam finally losing his crutches. On long, empty stretches of road, behind the wheel of a red mustang, Sheppard had blown speed limits with so much subtlety that none of them had noticed what was happening until they hit the Vegas strip two and a half hours ahead of schedule.

God, he missed the guy.

Unfortunately, Sheppard rarely left Pegasus. He seemed to go out of his way to avoid trips home. With the war with the Ori and the LA insurgency problems, Young couldn’t blame him.

The solid wooden door to Landry’s office swung open. The general stood in the frame.

Young stood, trying to ignore the way his back gave him hell after hours of sitting. He saluted, leaning into his cane for support.

“Colonel.” Landry returned the salute with his usual jovial irritability. “Good to see you. Sorry about the wait. Come on in.”

Young entered the office to find General O’Neill in a chair in front of the desk.

“Sir.” Young snapped off another salute, this one crisp enough to ricochet from his lower back to his left heel.

“Everett.” O’Neill waved away Young’s salute and shook his hand with a brisk clap to the forearm. “How’s the back? And the hip? The knee? Eh, y’know. All of it.”

“Fine,” Young said. “Improving.”

“Advil?” O’Neill held up a Tic-Tac container full of orange pills. “You look like you could use some.”

“No thank you, sir. I’m fine.”

Things seemed to be shaping up as more informal than formal, if the Advil masquerading as Tic-Tacs was any indication. When dealing with O’Neill, however, it was best not to assume anything. This could be friendly banter, or it could be the camouflage tarp over a staked pit.

“Take a seat, colonel,” Landry said.

Unfortunately, sitting was no better than standing. Young made the best of it, lowering himself into the chair with a controlled slide. It was hard to take his time with two senior officers breathing down his neck. He drew in a long, subtle breath and tried not to betray any discomfort at the shift in position. The chair was hard. It didn’t help.

“What do you know,” Landry began, “about the Icarus Project?”

“Same things everyone knows,” Young replied. “That a nine chevron address was discovered on Atlantis. That once you dial the first five of the sequence, the lock on all of them is lost. That there’s an cypher system buried in the gate network keyed to each chevron. Milky Way gates have it, Lantean gates don’t. Even if dialing is successful the amount of energy required for event horizon formation is so vast that it’d require a planet’s worth of naquadria to power it.” Young shrugged. “That and my neighbor is the guy decrypting the chevrons.”

Landry flashed a smile, there and gone.

“You two are neighbors?” O’Neill squinted at him. “Seriously?”

“Yes sir,” Young replied.

“You can cut it out with the ‘sirs’ every two seconds,” O’Neill said. “This is a chat, Everett. Informal. Technically, you’re still on leave.”

Young did his best to veil his skepticism. The guy at the top of the LA wish list didn’t seem like the type to inspire casual conversation.

“So what’s he like?” O’Neill asked.

“Rush?” Young played for time, trying to get a read on the situation.

“Yeah,” O’Neill replied.

Young was sure O’Neill knew exactly what Rush was like—a troubled hypergenius who looked a little too good in a half-done dress shirt and had no business at the epicenter of the gathering shitstorm building around Cheyenne Mountain. “Oh, y’know.” Young shrugged. “Smart guy. Good in the kitchen.”

O’Neill and Landry exchanged a quick look. “Excuse me?” O’Neill said. “Did I hear you say ‘the kitchen’?”

“Yep.” Young gave them a tight smile. “He’s got a whole repertoire.”

“Fascinating as that is,” Landry began.

“Ah ah ah,” O’Neill said, forestalling Landry with a raised palm. “I’d like the list.”

“The list?” Young asked.

“You said ‘repertoire’,” O’Neill said expectantly.

“Oh. Uh. Sure. Well, there was an omelette in the French tradition. Crepes. Coq au vin I think it was, on Saturday night? He seems to be into French cuisine. Don’t know if that’s a phase or more of a long term thing. Maybe just inspired by what I have in my kitchen? I’ve only known the guy about four days.”

His two superior officers took a beat to stare him down.

“Can he make quiche though?” O’Neill asked. “You can’t find good a good quiche in this town to save your life.”

“I’m sure he can,” Young said.

“I love quiche,” O’Neill sighed. “They always make it too dense at that place on Crescent. What was it?” He stared at the ceiling.

“Madeline’s.” Landry eyed O’Neill, running out of patience at whatever tangent Young had led them down.

“That’s it. Madeline’s. The crust isn’t bad but—” O’Neill trailed off with an equivocal hand gesture. “Y’know.”

“Yes sir,” Young said, even though he’d never heard of Madeline’s and had no faith in his ability to judge a good quiche from a mediocre one.

“Jack, we gonna get this show on the road?” Landry rumbled.

“Yes.” O’Neill clapped his hands against his thighs. “Everett, that was a fun fact about your neighbor. Points for style. But we were after your assessment of his capability to go into the field.”

“Like I said,” Young held to neutral, “I’ve known him four days.”

“Yeah, during which he lived with you for a chunk of the time.” An edge came into O’Neill’s tone. “Cut the bullshit Everett. You’re hedging.”

“I am,” Young admitted, “but he’s a complex guy.”

“There are two people on this base who know him well enough to make an assessment,” O’Neill said. “Daniel and David.”

“Their opinions on his capabilities diverge,” Landry added, low and wry. “Wildly.”

“We want your take.” O’Neill said. “Quit stalling.”

“He’s a quick thinker.” Young shifted in the hard wooden chair. Winced at the pain in his back. “Witty. Lots of snap, lots of energy. Lots of focus. He kept his head in a crisis.” He paused there, marshaling the rest of his thoughts.

Landry gave O’Neill a pointed look. “Identical to Colonel Telford’s assessment,” he said, like he’d scored a point.

“Does he look finished to you?” O’Neill asked. He shifted his attention to Young. “Keep going.”

Young chose his words carefully, deciding that less was probably more here. “He gets lost in his work. Really lost. He’s passed out twice in the past week, once from dehydration and once from what looked like a panic attack. He’s sensitive. To sounds, to light—”

Not so good for the field.” O’Neill eyed Landry, “which is what Daniel said.”

“I think it could be done,” Young said, “but he’d need the right team.”

“And I’m working on it,” Landry replied. “We need that nine-chevron address unlocked.”

No one spoke.

Young heard the subtle ticking of three watches in the heavy air.

Landry and O’Neill stared each other down across the broad mahogany desk.

“This isn’t about Rush going offworld to take apart a DHD,” Young asked. “Is it.”

“Nope.” O’Neill didn’t break eye contact with Landry.

Reluctantly, Landry nodded.

“There’s a base.” O’Neill switched his focus to Young. “It’s under construction. Going up on a planet so laced with naquadria it’s a miracle it hasn’t blown itself up. Scheduled to be completed in November. Code name Icarus.”

“Short timetable,” Young said.

Silence descended again, thick and full.

“We may want to send your neighbor. We may need to send your neighbor,” O’Neill amended.

Young kept his expression neutral. “Why him?”

“Do you think,” O’Neill asked, ignoring his question, “that he could handle a prolonged, resource-poor, dangerous mission?”

“No,” Young said.

Landry and O’Neill eyed each other again, awarding more points in their silent debate.

“Jack,” Landry said.


“You saw what Jackson found,” Landry rumbled.

“And I heard what ‘Jackson’ said,” O’Neill shot back. “Colonel, how’d you like command of the Icarus Base and its associated project, presuming we’re able to dial the gate.”

It hadn’t sounded like a question. “Excuse me?”

“The man is on medical leave,” Landry growled. “Dr. Lam isn’t sure he’ll ever be approved for anything other than light duty.”

“He can watch stuff happen from a control room,” O’Neill said mildly. “That’s why we have MALPs. I like him for this. The pentagon likes him for this. As far as I’m concerned, it’s done.”

“With respect,” Landry said, “Colonel Telford was the IOA’s choice—”

“Telford isn’t here.”

“He has six hours left on his window.”

“You arguing with me, Hank?” O’Neill asked.

“No, sir,” Landry said, slow and wry.

Young cleared his throat, trying to soft-shoe through the viper’s nest he’d landed in. “You want Rush on Icarus doing—what?”

“He’s the brains.” O’Neill sat back in his chair. “Goal of Icarus is to dial the nine-chevron address, see what’s behind it. And he’s got the cryptography chops to open the gate.”

“Seems like I’m missing something, here.” Young glanced between them. “He’s been doing just fine cracking cyphers from his bedroom. Why does he need to be on site?”

O’Neill inclined his head in Young’s direction, his eyes on Landry. “He’s sharp.”

Landry eyed Young warily, ignoring O’Neill. “He wasn’t recruited for the math.”

“Yeah, the fact he’s blown the Area 51 nerds out of the water when it comes to unlocking the gate is just a nice bonus,” O’Neill said.

“So why was he recruited?” Young asked.

“He was recruited for another project,” Landry said. “A project that took tissue samples from national banks to look for the ATA gene.”

“He’s a natural positive?” Young asked. “Like John Sheppard?”

“He is,” Landry confirmed. “Within the past year, over a dozen people in this country have been ID’d as having not one but two different Ancient genes. We’re sure there are more out there.”

Two Ancient genes?” Young asked. “I thought there was just the one.”

“Turns out no,” O’Neill said dryly, “the Ancients had lots of genes.”

“Right.” Young resisted the urge to let his face turn even mildly insuborinate. “Where are the other people? Besides Rush.”

“Recruited or vanished,” O’Neill said.

“Vanished?” Young repeated.

“A seventeen year old Harvard freshman,” Landry said, the gravel grinding in his voice. “A a fifty-six year old doctor. Both turned up by the screen and vanished within a week. Presumably targeted by the LA. The other ten are in Colorado Springs with as much security as we can spare.”

“When Rush turned up,” O’Neill said, “within hours we had set up security for him. We also sent Daniel to give him the spiel.”

“I’m surprised he went along with a security detail,” Young said. “Rush, I mean.”

“He wasn’t gracious about it,” O’Neill replied wryly. “It was Telford who convinced him. Telford who coordinated security for him in San Francisco for two months before he finally moved down here.

“What changed his mind?” Young asked.

“That’s his business,” O’Neill replied. 

Young nodded. O’Neill’s revelation explained why the LA was so keen to get their hands on a math genius who was also the next John Sheppard, but it didn’t explain the pall of wrongness that seemed have been cast over the entire situation from the moment that Jackson had deposited Rush on his couch four days ago.

“Jackson and Telford have been at odds about something,” Young began, knowing he was treading on dangerous ground. “Might that have anything to do with this project?”

“They’re fighting about wall carvings,” O’Neill drawled. “That’s all you’re getting until we know if you’re in or if you’re out.”

“I need some time to think this over,” Young replied. 

They looked at him as if this were some kind of moral failing.

“Rush has clearance for none of this,” Landry said. “You’re not to discuss it with him.”

“Right,” Young said. “Can I talk to Jackson?”

“Yeah,” O’Neill said. “Go right ahead. Hopefully he’ll only tell you three classified pieces of information rather than ten.”

Landry sighed and looked down at his desk. 

“We’ll need your decision soon. Within forty-eight hours,” O’Neill said.

If Colonel Telford doesn’t make it back,” Landry clarified. 

“Yeah.” O’Neill looked at his watch. “Of course. I’d never dream of upsetting the IOA.”

“You don’t think going over their heads to appoint Colonel Young to the post qualifies?” Landry asked. 

“It’s within my authority to appoint Young as Telford’s executive officer, effective immediately. If it turns out that Telford’s window of opportunity closes—” O’Neill waved a hand and looked over at Young. “You’ll have the command if you want it.”

“Understood,” Young said.

“And if the window doesn’t close?” Landry growled. “If he makes it back, what then? Colonel Young isn’t suited to function as Telford’s number two. The man can barely walk, Jack.”

Young tried to keep a neutral facial expression.

O’Neill sighed. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Any materials I can look over before I decide?” Young asked.

O’Neill shook his head. “You’re in or out on this one, Everett.”

Young nodded.

A flash of a blue overhead drew their gazes and turned to a slow strobe. 

“Unscheduled offworld activation.” Harriman’s voice came over the sound system.

Young tensed, pushing himself up from the chair with his arms more than with his legs and back. Landry shot to his feet. O’Neill followed, not really delaying, but managing to telegraph nonchalance as he looked up at the light. “Ah—that takes me back,” he said dryly.

Landry beat them both to the door, though not by much, and they descended the stairs as a unit, Young bringing up the rear, forcing himself to keep pace with the other two through gritted teeth as they headed toward the control room. 

Young looked up through the windows to see the iris, reassuringly shut in front of the spinning gate, as the three of them filed into place behind Harriman.

“They’ve locked on six, sir,” Harriman called back with a quick glance over his shoulder. “Sirs,” he amended.

“Hey Walter,” O’Neill said. “Long time, no see.”

“General,” Harriman replied.

The gate flared to life with a pale blue flash against the back wall of the room. The trinium iris obscured most of its brightness.

“We getting anything?” Landry asked.

“Not yet,” Harriman said.

Streaming lines of various colors on monitors arrayed around the room jumped simultaneously.

“We just had an impact against the iris,” Harriman said.

Young grimaced.

On the monitors, flat lines rose into blips and sinusoidal waves burst into brief flights of increased frequency.

“And another,” Harriman called out, “and another.”

“Where’s Carter?” O’Neill snapped, his hands coming to the back of Harriman’s chair. “She still shows for these things, right?”

“Right here,” Carter’s voice came from the back of the room as she threaded her way forward. “What have we got?”

“We’ve got no signals,” Landry growled, “but three impacts.”

“Four,” Harriman said, as the monitors jumped again.

“Hi,” Carter whispered as she slipped past O’Neill.

“Hi yourself,” O’Neill said softly, as she slid into position next to Harriman.

“Five,” Harriman said, with a terrible sort of finality.

SG-3 and Telford. 

They might have lost their GDOs. 

They might have lost their radios.

They might have had nothing.

They might have figured that death was better than whatever they were escaping from.

No one spoke.

Seconds ticked by.

“Six?” Harriman said, as the lines jumped again.

“The force of the impact indicates the iris is being hit with something with a mass between zero point two and two kilograms,” Carter said, swinging around.

“Meaning what?” Landry growled.

“Meaning I think someone’s throwing rocks, sir,” Carter said, her eyebrows lifting.

“Yeah, or grenades,” O’Neill said.

Carter tipped her head to the side with an equivocal expression as she shrugged. “True.”

There were three impacts in quick succession.

“Morse code?” Young suggested. 

There were three more impacts, separated by long pauses.

“Still no GDO,” Carter said, her voice tight. “If we’re going to open it, we should do it now, before they attempt to come through.”

“Scramble a team,” Landry growled. 

“Lieutenant Scott,” Harriman said into his radio. “Lieutenant Scott, you have a go.”

“The LA knows so much about us,” Young said quietly, trying not to picture David on the other side of that event horizon. “You think they don’t know Morse code?”

Landry shook his head once, his expression tight and unhappy. 

To open, or not to open. It wasn’t an easy decision. Teams went missing on a regular basis. Sometimes they were able to extract themselves from whatever scenarios they found themselves in. Sometimes they were able to retrieve their GDOs, or at least their radios. Sometimes they weren’t.

Landry and O’Neill glanced at one another.

“Hey,” Mitchell said, appearing at his shoulder, out of breath. “What’ve we got?”

“Morse code with rocks,” Young said. “Maybe.”

“You think it could be Telford?” Mitchell asked.

Young shrugged as he caught Mitchell’s eye in the dim light of the control room.

Mitchell gave him a short, grim nod.

“Why not dial the alpha site?”  O’Neill asked. “That’s where they should be going if they’re coming in without GDOs.”

“They apparently don’t have radios either,” Carter said. “We’re getting no EM signals. The alpha site isn’t going to open their iris without radio contact because they don’t have a high-enough ranking officer to override the protocol. Telford might be gambling that with the upper level command staff stationed here, we’ll be more likely to deviate and let him in. That, or—it’s someone else. The LA. The Ori—it could be anyone.”

“This seems like him,” Mitchell said. “Morse code rocks and then a ballsy Hail Mary? It seems like something David would do” 

“Agreed,” Young said.

“Agreed,” Carter added. “Without GDOs or radios—if they somehow made it out—” she trailed off.

For a moment, the room was silent.

“Open the iris,” Landry growled.

Young crossed his arms and clenched his jaw as the iris dilated, the light putting blue highlights in Carter’s hair. Mitchell stood next to him, his arms crossed, his feet set apart.

A rock, roughly the size of Young’s fist, came through the gate. It was followed by another.

“Well, that’s a good sign,” O’Neill said.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then—

Reynolds appeared first.

The man crashed back into material form, hitting the ramp in a high velocity, uncontrolled, bloody fall. He was screaming, something short, monosyllabic, and repetitive, but the shock of his sudden appearance made it difficult for Young to focus enough to make it out.

“Oh god,” Carter said, half out of her seat. “He’s saying no. He’s saying no.”

There was a brief interval of silence.

Then, the room exploded into noise.

“Shut it down,” Landry roared.

“Iris is not responding,” Harriman said tightly.

“What the hell is that stuff coming through behind him?” Mitchell called, pointing at a thick white substance flowing through the bottom of the open gate.

“I’m trying and I don’t know,” Carter replied. “We don’t have the equipment for an on-the-fly analysis. But it’s continually in transit.”

“Shut the iris,” O’Neill snapped. “Shut the iris, Carter.”

“Yes,” Carter said, “I’m trying, sir.”

“Lieutenant Scott,” Landry growled into his radio, “move on the room.”

Telford came through next, as if he had been shoved, covered with blood, his shirt half-torn away.

“Aw shit,” Mitchell said. 

“Shut it down!” Telford looked up at them with a sweeping, terminating hand gesture. “Shut it down, shut it down SHUT IT DOWN SHUT IT—” Telford’s warning cut off as Ramirez pitched through the gate and slammed into him. The pair of them fell in a tangle of limbs as they skidded down the ramp.

Young stepped forward to stand directly behind Carter, his thoughts racing, trying to pin down a purpose to whatever the LA was doing—because there was no doubt in his mind that it was the LA.

Why send their own people back to them?


Unless these three had been meant as a human incentive of the right mass and chemical composition to get the SGC to open the iris. Maybe they had been meant to provide convincing sensor signatures if the rocks hadn’t done the trick.

“Where’s that iris, Carter?” O’Neill, evidently, was thinking along similar lines.

“Sergeant Siler, do you copy? We need you to prep the vents,” Harriman shouted into his radio to be heard.

“Matter is actively being transmitted,” Carter called over her shoulder. “The iris won’t close when material is in transit—it’s built into the safety protocol.”

Behind Telford, Young could see the white vapor continuing to stream through the gate, settling along the floor, dense and thick.

That shit?  Are you kidding me?” Mitchell snapped. “How is some gas different from air? Air doesn’t transmit, water doesn’t transmit, what the hell is that stuff?”

“It’s denser than air,” Carter snapped, her eyes on the monitors. “Just look at it, Cam, it’s denser than air.  And it’s being pumped through. It has momentum.The stargate transmits discrete units that are moving with intent, meaning sufficient momentum, which apparently this—”

“Send in the team,” Landry shouted over Carter’s explanation. “Pull them out of there and vent this garbage through the filters.”

“We can’t vent it,” Carter snapped, “until we know what it is.  It might be a placeholder so they can keep the gate open, or it might be a neurotoxin.”

“Well this is a shitshow,” O’Neill said, as the event horizon rippled.

No other members of SG-3 were shoved through, but this time four people appeared, leather clad, weapons at their shoulders, standing in the white swirl of gas. They were wearing self-contained breathing units.

“Put the base on alert,” Landry snapped. “Give the order to evacuate all nonessential personnel. This is a foothold.”

Overhead, the light levels dimmed to a pulsing red. Below them, the doors to the gateroom opened and Lieutenant Scott’s team moved into the white opacity of the air. The sound of gunfire began, muted on the other side of the thick glass. 

Young watched Telford come from the side and drag one of the incoming LA party down into the smoke that had begun to rise like water in the room. But four more LA members appeared. And then another four. And then another set of four. Then he lost track of them in the thick white smoke that poured through the gate, into the room, and out into the corridor beyond, fluidly passing around and past the rearguard of Scott’s team, silhouetted at the edges of the doorway.

“We need more manpower down there,” Landry snapped at the room. He pulled out his radio and looked down at Harriman. “Who’s planetside?” he growled.

“SGs one, five, nine, eleven, twelve, fifteen, and twenty-two.”

“Get them down here, along with base security.”

“I’m going in,” Mitchell said. He pulled out his radio and spoke into it as Harriman finished calling out his litany of backup. “Teal’c, this is Mitchell, what’s your location?”

“I am on level twenty-eight in the armory,” Teal’c voice came over the radio.

“Pick me up a mask, I’ll meet you at the gateroom.” Mitchell looked over at Carter. “I assume we’re doing the manual-power-cut-thing?”

Young ached with the desire to accompany him.

“Yes,” Carter said, her expression pained, “but I don’t know how easy that’s going to be.” She had to raise her voice to be heard over the sound of gunfire in the gateroom. “They’re still coming through.”

“Rush is here,” Young said, a flash of realization that flowed into the spontaneous silence in surrounding conversation.

“What?” Landry growled, rounding on him. “What do you mean ‘here’.”

“I mean on the base,” Young clarified. “Level nineteen.”

“Well, get him out of here,” Landry said. “Either do it yourself, or find someone else, but get it done.”

“Yes sir,” Young said, already heading toward the door.

“Everett,” Mitchell said, falling in next to him as they threaded their way past. “He’s on twenty-one.  The infirmary.”

“I told him to—never mind,” Young said.

“Yeah.  We can talk about your neighbor later. He—“

Jackson and Vala nearly plowed into the pair of them as they entered the control room. “Daniel,” Mitchell snapped, “with me. Vala—you’re with Young.”

Jackson and Mitchell peeled away from them, heading toward the armory as Young and Vala stepped together into the hall.

Young felt his eyes beginning to water. Already, the whitish haze had spread along the floor throughout the level, obscuring their boots as they headed away from the control room.

“Well, handsome,” Vala said, her whisper punctuated by a mostly muffled cough. “Where to?”

“Level twenty-one,” Young replied, the acrid air irritating his lungs as well. “We have to get Rush out of here.”

“Your neighbor?” Vala asked. “He’s here? Talk about bad timing.”

“Maybe,” Young said grimly. 

Vala shot him a significant look. “So I’m hoping this white stuff isn’t going to kill us.” She fanned the air in front of her face. “I vote for masks.” 

“Come on.” Young limped forward, trying to put the pain in his back out of his mind. “It’ll get better as we go up.”

“Right,” Vala said, barely audible over the approaching sound of gunfire. “Well, no time like the present.” She pulled her Zat. 

Young pulled his own sidearm and together they advanced back toward the periphery of the level.

“So,” Vala said quietly as they rounded a corner, “the elevators are shut down, so my question for you, handsome, is—are we doing this the hard way, or the very hard way?”

The question pried up an edge in his mind. With an effort, he refocused. “Meaning?” Young growled.

“The stairs,” Vala said, “or the ladder in the wall?”

“Stairs,” Young said. “We want to be fast.”

“Well, if speed is what you want,” Vala said, “perhaps you should let me go.”

She had a point, but he didn’t trust her. He didn’t know that he necessarily trusted anyone these days. 

“Let’s stick together,” he said, coughing quietly. “It’s only six flights of stairs and we’ve got a lead on the LA, presuming they manage to hold them off at the gate room.

“And presuming they have no one on the inside,” Vala said. “And presuming that your neighbor is still where we think he is. And presuming that you can make it up six flights of stairs in a timely fashion.”

“Yes,” Young replied. “Presuming all those things.”

And presuming this white stuff,” Vala swished a boot in a delicate arc, “doesn’t kill us after half an hour or so? That’s more presuming than I’m usually comfortable with.”

“Yeah,” Young said grimly, trying to muffle a cough. “I think if this stuff were going to kill us, it already would have. It’s probably a means to an end.”

“What end?” Vala shot him an anxious look.

“Keeping the gate open,” Young said, “and maybe—maybe something else.”

“I don’t like it,” Vala said, as they reached the base of the stairs.

He looked up. The ascending concrete tunnel of the stairs angled away from them and out of sight at linear intervals. The emergency lighting gleamed off the concrete, stark and unfriendly. “Less talking,” Young said grimly, as the sound of gunfire approached their position, “more climbing.”

“Whatever you say, handsome,” Vala whispered.

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