Mathématique: Chapter 12

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

Revised Author’s Notes: This is a piece of fan fiction. It’s a trope-twisting, epic-length, crossover AU that spans all three series of Stargate. There’s a lot of science. A lot of plot. A lot of emotions. Timelines have been slightly altered so that season 4 of Stargate Atlantis (without Carter in command) occurs contemporaneously to season 10 of SG-1, which occurs in the year prior to season 1 of SGU.

Disclaimer: I’m not making money from this; please don’t repost to other sites. 

Warnings: Stressors of all kinds.

Chapter 12

Landry was running two hours late.

Young perched uncomfortably on a chair outside the general’s office, timing his wait in the periodic flow of cold air from the vent above his head as the base AC kicked in at regular intervals. He tried not to watch the flat, unchanging surface of the closed door. He tried to keep his thoughts away from the snarled mess of confused musculature that seemed to comprise his back and hip these days, a mental exercise that would have been far easier had he not been subjected to Rush’s unexpectedly NASCAR-style driving style earlier in the day.

He tried to ignore the intense urge to find out how Rush would do behind the controls of an X-302.

He suspected it might be pretty damn impressive.

But then again, maybe not, because John Sheppard was the best, most natural pilot that Young had seen in his entire life, and riding in a car with Sheppard was virtually indistinguishable from sitting in a stationary chair. 

Well, except for that time just after the inauguration of the McKay-Carter Intergalactic Gate Bridge when Young and Cam and J Shep and David had all driven out to Vegas for thirty-six hours for no real reason other than to celebrate the fact that Cam was finally off the crutches.

On long, empty stretches of road, Sheppard had a thing for acceleration, circumstances permitting.

God, he missed that guy.

McKay came back on a fairly regular basis to do scientific things or whatever, which mainly seemed to consist of talking about how great he was and annoying Sam Carter. Sheppard rarely left Pegasus. He seemed to love Atlantis. That, or he hated Earth, one of the two.

Young’s musings were cut short as the solid wooden door to Landry’s office swung open to reveal the general standing in the frame, looking simultaneously jovial and irritated.

Young got to his feet and saluted.

“Colonel,” Landry said, returning the salute, “Good to see you. Come on in.”

Young entered the office to find General O’Neill seated in one of the two chairs in front of the desk.

“Sir,” Young said, snapping off a second salute—this one ricocheting down from his lower back to his left heel.

“Everett,” O’Neill said, waving dismissively at his salute and shaking his hand instead 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 that was 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 foliage draped around a metaphorical staked pit. It made it somewhat difficult to respond to the general’s statement in an appropriate way.

“Have a seat, colonel,” Landry said.

Unfortunately, sitting really wasn’t much better than standing. Young lowered himself into the chair with a slide that wasn’t slow enough to prevent another twinge of agony in his back. It was hard to take one’s time when being meticulously observed by two senior officers. He drew in a long, subtle breath while they watched him like indecisive hawks. He did his best to remain unperturbed, but the quiet of the room was unsettling.

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

“The same things that everyone knows,” Young replied cautiously. “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 entire cypher system buried in the gate keyed to each of chevron. That even if dialing is successful the amount of energy required for event horizon formation is so vast that it would require a planet 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 asked, squinting at him slightly. “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 looked at him, trying to veil his reflexive skepticism. “Sure,” he said. “Sure thing.” Rush wasn’t the kind of guy that one had casual ‘chats’ about.

“So what’s he like?” O’Neill asked.

“Rush?”  Young asked, stalling for time.

“Yeah,” O’Neill replied.

Young was certain that O’Neill knew exactly what Rush was like—a troubled hypergenius who had no business at the epicenter of the gathering storm that seemed to be building around Cheyenne Mountain. “Oh, you know,” Young said, with a casual shrug. “Smart guy. Good in the kitchen.”

O’Neill turned to Landry and they exchanged a quick, incredulous look. “The kitchen?” O’Neill mouthed. 

“He cooked for you?” Landry asked. “Rush. Nicholas Rush.”

“Yup,” Young said, giving the pair of them a tight smile. “An omelette in the French tradition. Crepes. Coq au vin I think it was, on Saturday night? He seems to be into French cuisine generally, but that could just be—I don’t know. A mood thing. It’s hard to say. I’ve only known him for about four days.”

Whatever they’d been expecting him to say, it hadn’t been that.  They stared at with identical expressions.

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

“I’m sure he makes an excellent quiche,” Young said.

“I love quiche,” O’Neill said. “They always make it too dense at that place next to the kinkos—what was it—Madeleine’s? The crust isn’t bad but—“ O’Neill trailed off with an equivocal hand gesture. “You know.”

Landry shifted in his chair.

“Okay,” O’Neill said, clapping his hands against his thighs, “that was a fun fact about your neighbor, but we were hoping for something a bit more along the lines of your assessment as to how capable he is of going into the field.”

“I’ve only known him for four days,” Young said neutrally.

“Yeah, during which he lived with you for a chunk of the time,” O’Neill said, a subtle edge to his tone. “You’re not generally one for hedging, Everett.”

“Well,” Young said, “He’s a complex guy.”

“There are two people on this base who arguably know him better than you do,” O’Neill said. “One is Daniel, and the other is or, more likely was, Colonel Telford.”

“I see,” Young said, trying to keep his face neutral.

“Their opinions on his capabilities diverge,” Landry added, with his low, rumbling cadence. “Wildly.”

“He’s a quick thinker,” Young said, grimacing involuntarily as he shifted in his seat. “Witty. Lots of snap, lots of energy. Lots of focus. He stayed calm in a crisis, even after its magnitude became apparent to him.” He paused, marshaling his thoughts.

Landry gave O’Neill a pointed look.  “Almost identical to Colonel Telford’s assessment,” he said, as if he had just won a point.

“With respect sir,” Young said.  “I wasn’t finished.”  He paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully, deciding that less was probably more here. “He’s passed out twice in the past week, once from dehydration and once from what I would guess was a panic attack.”

Not so good for the field,” O’Neill said, shooting Landry a pointed look of his own, “which is what Daniel said.”

“As I mentioned to you on the phone,” Young said, looking at Landry, “I think it could be done, but he’d need the right team.”

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

The room was silent. Young could hear the subtle tick of someone’s watch, loud in the heavy air.

Landry and O’Neill were waiting for one another—to do what or to say what—Young didn’t know. “This isn’t about Rush going offworld to break a DHD,” he asked finally.  “Is it.”

“Not really,” O’Neill admitted. “No.”

Young glanced back and forth between the two generals, waiting for someone to put their cards on the table.

“There’s a base,” O’Neill said, “that we’re constructing on a naquadria-laced planet. It will probably be completed sometime this fall.”

It was already late July.

“Short timetable,” Young said.

“Yes,” O’Neill replied.  “It is.”

Silence descended again, thick and full.

“We may want to send him. We may need to send him,” O’Neill said.

Young kept his expression neutral. “Why him?”

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

“No,” Young said.

Landry and O’Neill looked at each other again, and Young had the feeling that points were being awarded in some kind of silent debate.

“Jack,” Landry growled.

“Hank,” O’Neill said smoothly. 

“You saw what Jackson found,” Landry snapped.

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

It hadn’t sounded like a question. “Excuse me?” Young asked, trying to organize what O’Neill had just said into a string of words that made any kind of sense.

“The man is on medical leave,” Landry growled. “Dr. Lam is unclear as to whether he’s going to ever be approved for anything other than light duty—“

“Then he can watch stuff happen from a control room,” O’Neill said mildly. “That’s what we have MALPs for.”

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

“Telford isn’t here.” O’Neill said icily.

“He has six hours left on his window—“

“Are you arguing with me, general?” O’Neill asked.

“No, sir,” Landry said, his expression difficult to read.

So. Landry and O’Neill were opposed, with Landry supporting Telford and O’Neill supporting Jackson. No surprise there. Landry seemed to want Telford in command of Icarus, while O’Neill wanted anyone but Telford in command of Icarus. And, of course, Rush was at the heart of it all. Might be a good idea to figure out why.

Young cleared his throat. “What is Rush’s role in all of this?” Young asked.

“He’s the brains,” O’Neill snapped, sitting back in his chair.

“Plenty of smart guys out there,” Young replied, trying to figure out a way of asking what he wanted to ask without laying it all on the table. “That’s why you want to send him? Because he’s got the cryptography chops to open the gate?”

They both looked at him sharply.

“Just—seems like maybe I’m missing something, here.”

O’Neill looked at Landry, indicating Young with his eyes. “He’s sharp.”

“That’s not why he was recruited,” Landry admitted, ignoring O’Neill.

“Yeah, the fact that he’s completely blown the area 51 nerds out of the water when it comes to unlocking the gate—well, that’s 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.”

“Ah,” Young replied. “So he’s a natural positive?”

“He is,” Landry confirmed. “In fact, within the past year, over a dozen people in this country have been ID’d as having not just one but two different Ancient genes. We’re sure there are more out there—the screening process goes in batches, and not everyone’s a bone marrow donor.”

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

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

“Right,” Young said, resisting the urge to let his face turn even mildly insuborinate. “So 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 give them.”

“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.”

“Well 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 left and 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.

“What,” Young asked, knowing he was treading on dangerous ground, “have Dr. Jackson and Colonel Telford been fighting about?”

“Wall carvings,” O’Neill said shortly.

Young looked at him, trying to decide if he was being serious or not.

“That’s all you’re getting until we know if you’re in or if you’re out.”

“I need some time to think things 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 about three classified pieces of information rather than ten.”

Landry sighed and looked down at his desk. 

“We’re going to need a 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 would 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 second in command, effective immediately. If it turns out that Telford’s window of opportunity closes, then—“ O’Neill waved a hand and looked over at Young. “You’ll have the command if you want it.”

“Understood,” Young said shortly.

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

Young tried to keep a neutral facial expression.

“Well then,” O’Neill said, “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Any materials I can look over before I decide would be—“ Young began, but stopped when O’Neill shook his head.

“You’re in or out on this one, Everett.”

Young nodded.

In the ensuing silence, the subtle flash of a blue, mechanized slow strobe caused them all to look up. 

“Unscheduled offworld activation.” Harriman’s voice was clipped 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 lend an air of 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 just 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, the abrupt appearance of the event horizon reflecting 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.

The monitors jumped again, flatlines rising into blips, sinusoidal waves bursting 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 murmured, 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.

Several 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’ an easy decision to make—teams and individuals went missing and presumed dead on a fairly 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—but, sometimes they weren’t.

Landry and O’Neill glanced at one another.

“Hey,” Mitchell said, appearing at his shoulder, slightly 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 just—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 whispered, 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 screamed, looking up at them, with a sweeping, terminating hand gesture. “Shut it down, shut it down shut it down shut it—“ he was cut off as Ramirez slammed into him bodily as she was pitched through the gate, knocking them both partway 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, silhoutetted 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,” her 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 the conversation around him.

“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 is not going to kill us,” she said, fanning the air in front of her face. “I vote for masks.” 

“Come on,” Young whispered as he 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, the word barely audible over the approaching sound of gunfire. “Well, no time like the present,” she whispered, pulling 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 just let me go.”

She had a point, but he didn’t entirely 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,” Vala whispered, “presuming this white stuff,” she glanced down at their feet, swishing one boot in a delicate arc, “doesn’t kill us after half an hour or so. That’s a lot of presuming, don’t you think?”

“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.”

“But what end?” Vala whispered, shooting him an anxious look.

“Keeping the gate open,” Young replied.  “And maybe—maybe something else.”

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

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

“Whatever you say, handsome,” Vala whispered.

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