Mathématique: Chapter 14
“I'm going to make my continued involvement with the stargate program contingent upon you taking a computer literacy class,” Rush snarled.
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.
Inside the monitoring station on level sixteen, Young braced himself against the wall next to the door and focused pulling oxygen into his lungs. The smooth, cool plane of the cement behind his back, the strange, faintly acrid tang in the air, the quiet hiss of the appropriated breathing units that Vala had removed from the stunned LA personnel—all of it helped him ignore the perpetual, sustained agony of stress placed upon healing bone.
“Oh no,” David breathed. “Oh Christ. Oh shit, oh fuck.” Ash fell like snow, covering rock and metal. It settled over David’s hair in a pale dusting. “They’re coming.”
“Well,” Rush said, the word clipped and darkly amused. “This is not a good sign.”
Young blinked and refocused on the mathematician, who was bent over what looked to be the most prominent computer out of the selection in the room. His hands were braced against the table, and his hair clung to his temples and the back of his neck in damp tendrils. The stark white of his shirt caught the blue glow of the emergency lights.
“What?” Young replied in a ragged whisper, readjusting his grip on his gun.
“Someone’s locked the console.”
Vala was prowling the edges of the room, opening drawers, peering into supply cabinets, hunting for god knew what. Resources. Good on her.
“Well, unlock it,” Young growled, fighting the urge to shift his stance, pulling in a deep, slow breath.
Rush angled his head up, shook his hair back subtly and half-smiled. “Oh yes. Why didn’t I think of that? What would I do sans these practical insights of yours?”
“Don’t give me a sanctimonious lecture about human social norms, give me any fucking usernames and passwords you have that you think are likely to work. Both of you. Now.”
“Hate to break it to you, gorgeous,” Vala said, coming forward with a roll of duct tape she had pulled out of the recesses of the supply cupboard, “but appearances to the contrary, I’m not yet a full-fledged member of this organization.”
“Young,” Rush said, snapping his fingers. “Come on then. User names. Passwords—” He broke off, looking down at Vala, who had dropped into a crouch and clamped her hands around Rush’s calf just below the knee. “What are you doing?”
“Trying not to die,” Vala said brightly, bringing her hands down in one smooth motion, causing a disruption to the white gas that settled thickly near the floor and was flaring a subtle red around Rush’s ankles. “What are you doing?” She began taping around Rush’s ankle, presumably to minimize whatever EM signal he was giving off.
Rush raised a brow, faintly impressed. Then he looked back at Young, expectantly. “Any time now.”
“Rush, I can’t just—“
“You can’t what. You asked me to compromise security base-wide in a time efficient manner and you don’t want to grant me expeditious access?”
Young clenched his jaw. The enormity of what he’d asked Rush to do seemed to settle down over him. “All you need to do is to free up an elevator,” Young replied.
Rush fixed him with a dark, penetrating gaze. “And to do that,” he replied, “I need control of all systems.”
“All systems?” Young asked.
“Well, most. This was your idea,” Rush reminded him.
“Username is y-o-u-n-e-v-4,” he said spelling it out. “Password is ah—Emily, capital E.”
“Right, so we’re going to need to have a talk about your complete lack of common sense when it comes to information security,” Rush said absently as the monitor unlocked. “As passwords go, that is one of the worst choices you could have possibly made.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Young snapped, shifting his weight next to the locked door and gritting his teeth at the agonizing flare of pain that shot from his back down his leg.
“Where would I even begin,” Rush muttered, his eyes scanning over the monitors. He sank into the chair as Vala finished her taping job.
Vala positioned herself directly in front of the door, her zat out, her stance lateral, so that she could watch Rush and the door simultaneously. “Access to the live feeds wouldn’t be a bad thing,” she said in Rush’s direction.
“Enjoy examining featuresless white screens, do you?” Rush shot back.
“I’m assuming that we have access to more than video,” Vala whispered, flinging her hair back over her shoulder with a haughty swish of turbid air. “We can at least risk turning up the radio.” Her eyes flicked over to Young.
He carefully dialed up the volume on the radio, listening to the chatter, trying to get a feel for what was going on, as he watched Rush click through windows at the monitoring station. From what he could tell, it seemed that the worst of the firefight hadn’t spread above level twenty-seven.
“How’s it going over there?” Young asked, motionless against the wall, trying not to picture LA members converging on their single-exit room.
Rush pulled something that looked like an external hard-drive out of his back pocket and connected it to the computer. “Better than expected,” he said shortly.
“What kind of timetable are we talking about here, Rush?”
“Do you have any kind of intellectual understanding of what I’m doing?”
“I gave you my password,” Young growled. “What more do you need?”
“For administrative access to the entire SGC? A good deal more than the poorly chosen password of a single colonel, thankfully.”
“I need a timetable.”
“And for what, exactly, do you need a timetable? We’re stuck here until either I gain system access or we’re killed and/or abducted.”
Young tried not to wince. He wasn’t sure whether it was the idea that he’d just enabled a civilian with no common sense or training to access to the mainframe of the world’s most classified military complex, or the cavalier attitude about abduction and death that bothered him more.
“He’s got a point,” Vala said.
Young shot her a disapproving look.
She shrugged at him.
They waited, Young taking a turn using Vala’s self-contained respirator. He tried not to count the seconds. Instead, he counted his breaths. After one hundred, he passed the unit back to her.
Around them, monitors came alive, flickering pale in the dim light.
“I’m in,” Rush announced. “For the moment.”
“Unlock an elevator,” Young growled.
“Hmm,” Rush said. “Curious.”
“What’s curious?” Vala whispered, edging forward slightly.
“The gate is no longer active,” Rush replied.
Young turned up the chatter on his radio a bit more, wishing he had his earpiece.
“Well that’s very interesting,” Vala said in a tone that implied she did not find it at all interesting. “But—“
“Shh,” Young said, holding up a hand, focusing in on his radio.
“I repeat—“ someone said, voice crackling over the open channel along with the sound of gunfire. “They have a hostage—one of the science staff. And there’s something wrong—he’s emitting some kind of—visible light?”
“Do you have an ID on the civilian?” Landry’s growl was low and unmistakable.
“Volker. Dr. Dale Volker. Astrophysics.””
“The gate is activating,” Rush cut in. “Someone is trying to dial out.”
The radio channel exploded into chatter.
“They’re dragging him forward.”
“Well, stop them.”
“Don’t fire, in this mess targeting isn’t worth shit.”
“Sam. Sam, respond.”
“They still hold the south wall of the gate room. They must know where the manual shut down is. They must know.”
“Where is Carter?”
“Can you disable the gate?” Young asked Rush over the radio chatter. “Cut power from here?”
“With a window of seconds? No.” Rush was scanning the screen.
“You’re not going to even attempt it? That guy could be you in ten minutes. They—”
“Gate is active,” he heard Mitchell call out over the radio. “Repeat, gate is active.”
“Oh shut up, will you?” Rush snapped. Young was a bit uncertain as to whether Rush was talking to him, to the radio, or to the systems he was peeling through with the easy rhythm of his fingers against the keyboard.
“The iris just activated,” Scott’s voice crackled over the open channel.
“Did you do that?” Young asked.
“Yes,” Rush replied testily, “of course I did.”
“They’ve got another hostage,” Mitchell said grimly over the radio. “Again, emitting some kind of—energy signature.”
“ID,” Landry snapped.
“It’s ah. It’s Dr. Lam,” Mitchel said, his tone clipped. “I repeat, hostage two is Dr. Lam.”
There was a brief and unnatural silence on the open channel.
“Understood,” Landry said.
“Can you tell how many there are?” Vala asked. “How many people are glowing?”
“Yes,” Rush replied, “but not in a time efficient manner.”
“Focus on the elevator,” Young said. “We have to get out of here, and if the LA can’t get through the gate—they’ll be heading in our direction.”
“Possibly,” Rush said, “but they’ve got someone—“ he trailed off, frowning.
“Someone what, Rush,” Young growled.
“Someone’s in the system trying to override my control. Based on what they’re doing; I’d guess they’re unfriendly rather than friendly.”
“Great,” Young said. “That’s just great.”
“What’s the number on your ID badge?” Rush snapped.
A bolt of pain ran like an electric shock up and down his back as he shifted to unclip his ID and look at it.
“On the back,” Rush said with a rising intonation, clearly impatient.
Young read the number off to him.
“Iris is open,” he heard Jackson shout over the radio.
“Oh no you don’t,” Rush hissed.
“Cam, stop,” Jackson’s voice peaked and crackled over the open channel.
Vala’s shoulders visibly tensed.
“Shut that thing and keep it shut,” Young snapped.
“I'm going to make my continued involvement with the stargate program contingent upon you taking a computer literacy class,” Rush snarled. “You can skip the motivational speech.”
“Less McKay more Carter..”
“Do you think that was understandable to me?” Rush asked, typing furiously, his eyes glued to the screen in front of him. “Because it was not. Nor was it a sentence. This is not my typical area of expertise; I’m a cryptographer, not a hacker, so kindly stop speaking.”
“On your left, Colonel Mitchell,” he heard Teal’c, shout over the radio, abrupt and hoarse.
“This is Scott, I’m taking heavy fire on twenty-seven—“
“Got you,” Rush hissed.
“What—the iris, or the elevator?” Young asked tensely, not entirely sure which he’d prefer.
Young’s teeth ached under the strain of his clenched jaw. “Rush—“
“I locked her out.”
“My LA counterpart. I closed her access ports. Should hold her for maybe—ten minutes. Maybe less if she’s a quick learner.”
“Great. Now do something useful.”
Rush’s fingers flew over the keys, and then—
“The iris is shut,” Mitchell’s voice came over the radio, choked and faint. “I repeat. The iris is shut.”
“You’re welcome,” Rush snapped at Young before he could say anything. “The central elevator is back online and keyed only to your ID card.”
Young nodded. “Time to go then, good work, hotshot.”
“Yes,” Vala whispered, “Fantastic job, I’m sure. Unfortunately, I would say there’s a ninety-nine percent chance that they’re waiting for us right outside this room.” Vala edged toward Young, indicating the closed door with her eyes. “There’s been some quiet movement in the hall.”
“Yeah,” Young replied, “but I’m hoping there won’t be many of them. They might not be looking specifically for him. They’re clearly trying to nab other people as well; they’re probably taking anyone who’s genetically tagged. They may not even know for sure that he’s on the base.”
Vala gave him a skeptical look.
“Right now,” Young said, “it really doesn’t matter. The longer we wait, the worse it will be.”
Vala stepped in close, and when she spoke, her voice was low and didn’t carry. “Give him your card, handsome,” she murmured.
He nodded at her.
She smiled at him with all her typical brashness, then turned to Rush. “Come on, gorgeous, clock’s ticking.”
“I’m aware.” Rush disconnected his hard drive, and returned it to his back pocket.
“Oh sure,” Young said, coughing faintly in the misty air. “You remember your hard drive, but leave your damn signal scrambler god knows where.”
Rush gave him a shrug as he picked up his zat.
Young motioned Rush over against the wall next to him, putting himself between the scientist and the door. He unclipped his ID card and offered it to the other man.
Rush looked at it, but made no move to take it. Young clipped it to his shirt. “I’d say don’t be stupid—“
“But talking to oneself isn’t situationally appropriate,” Rush said sympathetically, unclipping the ID in one crisp motion and curling his fingers around its edges with a faint grimace.
“If I tell you to go,” Young said, “you go.”
“When you get to the elevator, hit level one,” he whispered, “but throw the emergency stop at level three, and force the doors.”
Rush raised his eyebrows.
“Go left when you get off the elevators on three. That’s west. You’re going to look for the westernmost wall of the level.”
“Are you seriously—“
“Listen,” Young said. “You’ll be looking for a metal doorway over an access point. It’s in a corridor, and it’s unmarked. Inside is a ladder that stretches the entire vertical distance of the base. Climb up two levels. It’ll put you about a quarter of a klick from the main road. Do not report to the evacuation point. Do not go back to your apartment. Ditch your phone.” Young pulled out his pocketknife and passed it to Rush. “Once you’re out, cut out your transponder, but don’t destroy it. Plant it somewhere, if you can. Throw it down a goddamned ravine. Somewhere it will take hours to search.” He gave Rush an appraising look. “Can you handle all of that?”
Rush stared at him coolly over the tops of his glasses. “It’s not exactly conceptually difficult.”
Young suspected that was as close to a ‘yes’ as he was likely to get from the man.
Young looked over at Vala. “You ready?”
Vala squared her shoulders, both hands on her zat, which was held out in front of her. She locked eyes with Young and nodded once, short and determined, her hair a dark curtain in the dim light.
Young reached out and, in one quick, twisting, painful motion, he unlocked the door and flung it wide.
Vala advanced immediately, firing without hesitation, her features lit up by the blue glare of her weapon. Above the sound of her discharging zat, Young heard the impact of a body against the floor.
He waited, one hand on his weapon, one hand on Rush’s shoulder, holding the other man back. He couldn’t see anything around the frame of the door, but the trajectory of an incoming blast of an energy-based weapon broke Vala’s firing rhythm and told him that they were arrayed directly opposite the door, if not lateral to it as well.
He released the safety on his sidearm as Vala rebalanced and kicked open the closing door with enough force to knock back another member of the LA. Young fired, taking down a man who made the mistake of edging past Vala and around the frame of the door. The shot was at close range, the minor kickback of the gun ricocheting down his injured leg. He followed Vala into the hazy air of the corridor, limping, dragging Rush forward, past the dead LA member and out into the hallway.
“Don’t look,” Young said through gritted teeth, as they stepped over the body. His fingers were wrenched into the material of Rush’s shirt, his breath coming in pained gasps as he tried to exert any kind of leverage with one good leg.
Rush got his act together and stepped forward, taking some of Young’s weight.
His breath burned in his lungs as they advanced incrementally, trying to break laterally in the direction of the elevators. The quarters were close and the visuals were poor and really the only thing that they had going for them was the fact that with the mist as thin as it was, and with Rush’s pants taped at the ankles, the identity of the person the LA wanted wasn’t immediately apparent and so—
They weren’t shooting to kill.
In his peripheral vision, Young saw Vala’s silhouette flare as she took a hit to the shoulder from one of the energy-based weapons the LA carried. She staggered sideways with a muffled cry before she was tackled by the man who had clipped her.
Rush began to fire.
Young took careful aim at Vala’s assailant as the LA operative forced her down into the mist. She was clenching her hands inside her sleeves, trying to avoid any contact between her skin and the white, alien gas, but the LA member was on top of her, his knee driving down into her back, his hand over her neck, pressing her shoulders and then her face against the floor where the mist was the thickest.
Young’s finger had tightened on the trigger when the sudden darkening in his peripheral vision split his attention as someone slammed into Rush bodily from the side in a clear attempt to bring the pair of them to the floor. Young shifted his center of gravity back and laterally onto his good leg, separating himself from Rush enough that the mathematician took most of the force of the impact. Rush went to his knees before Young was able to pull him up and out of the grip of the man who had tackled him.
Vala bit off a scream behind teeth that were clenched shut as the man pinning her wrenched her hair back, exposing her throat.
Young shot the man just as he pulled his knife.
He and Rush advanced, and in a move that looked more instinctive than calculated, Rush kicked the body of the LA member off of Vala and reached down to help her up.
Young’s eyes swept the corridor. The bodies of six LA soldiers lay on the ground, either dead or stunned.
The hallway was silent.
Next to him, Rush was vibrating with tension.
Vala straightened, her zat in her left hand, her right arm held tensely against her ribs. Through her mask, he could hear her breathing, ragged and fast. oung watched her do her own visual sweep of the corridor before bending down to retrieve another self-contained breathing unit from one of the fallen LA members.
Wordlessly, she held it out to Young.
He took it from her and quickly strapped it in place. “How bad?” he asked her, cocking his head toward her shoulder.
“Not bad. Let’s go, shall we, boys?” Vala asked, her voice trembling.
They started forward together, weapons out, creating turbid swirls over the mist-covered floor as they advanced in fits of nervous speed, accompanied by pained pauses to regroup.
In short order, they reached the elevator, which Rush opened for them with a single, fluid swipe of Young’s ID. Young had been half-expecting nothing to happen, but a tiny indicator light flashed green and the doors slid wide, revealing a darkened, empty interior. There were no lights inside, save for the faint glow of a display near the top that indicated the current floor.
“Well this looks fun,” Vala said, her mask distorting the low melody of her voice.
Young shot Rush a sidelong look. The man didn’t seem like he would be one for enclosed, lightless spaces, but the mathematician looked unperturbed.
Vala, on the other hand, was edgy. Nevertheless, she stepped forward first, hitting the appropriate button before spinning, her hair a dark flare that caught the dim light from the corridor.
Young limped forward, supported by Rush.
“It’s a good thing that no one here is claustrophopic,” Vala said, as Young positioned himself with one hand on the elevator’s emergency break. “Yes,” Vala continued. “Very fortunate. It would be—“ she faded out as the doors began to close, the light from the corridor narrowing relentlessly until they were plunged into darkness that seemed to press against the eyes. “This would be difficult for someone who really didn’t like enclosed spaces. Don’t you think?”
The only thing that existed in Young’s visual field was the pale red number sixteen. He felt the subtle upward acceleration of the elevator as a painful pressure in his hip and back.
In the close opacity of the air, the sound of their breathing was very loud.
“It would be very awkward if, say, one of us had been buried alive,” Vala continued, her voice breathless and high. “Just as an example.”
“What the fuck?” Rush hissed, with a flinch that Young felt rather than saw.
“Vala,” Young said, and even he couldn’t tell if it was a warning or a reprimand or sympathy or concern or none of those things.
“But, fortunately, that happened to no one here,” Vala said, her voice unsteady and disembodied in the darkness. “No one here,” she repeated.
Young grimaced, his expression invisible in the darkness. “Vala,” he said again.
“It was, if you want to know, a plot point in the movie Kill Bill, which I consider to be the pinnacle of cinematic achievement in your culture.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Rush breathed.
“Take it easy,” Young murmured, low and quiet.
“Say what you like, gorgeous, but despite claims to the contrary, I consider Quentin Tarantino to be an uncompromising—“ she broke off abruptly, as if her vocal cords had betrayed her by closing unexpectedly, “—an uncompromising if misunderstood feminist.”
“I can’t say I’m informed on the subject” Rush replied. The edge was gone from his tone.
“We’ll watch it together,” Vala whispered into the dark.
“Sure,” Young said. “Sounds like a plan.”
“So, Wednesdays are good for me,” Vala said unsteadily. “I’ll make cocktails.”
“Great,” Young said. “We’re in.”
“I think you’re confusing your pronouns,” Rush replied.
“Everyone wants to watch movies with yours truly, gorgeous. I’m terribly charming. My commentary is very witty. Ask SG-1. Ask anyone.”
Young hit the emergency stop on the elevator, and a grinding sound tore through the darkness, a sudden deceleration pressed on his inner ear, unbalancing him as it occurred in the absence of any visual input. He reoriented and stepped forward, his fingers searching in the darkness for the seam in the doors. He felt Rush do the same.
“I think I may move to a different building,” Rush said.
“You think that’s going to solve any of your problems, hotshot?” Young asked, his hand grazing over Vala’s as he dug his fingers into the crack in the metal.
“Solves my problem of overbearing meddlesome neighbors that seem to take some kind of inappropriate satisfaction from coercing me into making them dinner,” Rush said.
“I really don’t remember it happening that way,” Young said, gritting his teeth as he pulled at the doors despite the pain in his back and leg.
“You cook?” Vala asked breathlessly, as a sliver of light shone through the darkness between the slowly yielding doors. “Because I would not be averse to dinner and a movie.”
“No,” Rush said, “I do not cook.”
“I think he like—creates elaborate works of culinary genius or something,” Young said, managing to wrest a few more inches out of the door.
“That’s an acceptable description, yes.”
“Well, I would not mind appreciating a work of culinary genius with my movie,” Vala said, stepping back to pull out her zat as Rush and Young wrenched the doors back entirely, revealing the offset edge of the third floor, about four and a half feet above where it should be.
Vala stepped forward, scanning the portion of the hallway that she could see. Her eyes didn’t leave the corridor as she whispered, “give us a boost, gorgeous?”
Rush interlaced his fingers and Vala stepped up, twisting to protect her injured right shoulder as she sprang out and up onto the third floor. She scanned the hallway and then dropped into a crouch, her good hand extended down.
“Go,” Young said, shaking his head at Rush’s still-interlocked fingers and lifted eyebrow.
“Don’t give in to the allure of your own machismo, please,” Rush snapped. “This is the only option that makes sense.”
“Not a fan of the attitude,” Young growled, but with a grimace, he shifted his weight onto his bad leg, grabbed Vala’s hand, and let Rush boost him out of the elevator.
Rush scrambled out behind him, and they set off toward the western wall. The air was clear and the floor was quiet. With a swipe of Young’s ID card, they swung open the thick metal of the access hatch to reveal the rungs of the ladder.
Vala leaned inside, looking up and down, her zat following the line of her sight before she pulled back.
“It looks clear,” she whispered, “but I can’t get a good visual of anything on the lower levels—the mist is too thick. It’s sitting in a well-defined border, maybe seven or eight levels down.”
“Seven levels?” Young asked. “That seems awfully—high.”
“No air recirculation in the ridiculous escape shaft?” Rush asked.
“Guess not,” Young replied quietly.
“Well,” Rush hissed, “if the air recirculators don’t operate in there,” he pointed at the ladder with two fingers, “What the fuck is their chemical tag doing sitting at the bottom?”
Young wasn’t sure if the question was rhetorical or not.
“Someone’s was in there,” Vala concluded. “The hatch was opened on at least one flooded level. Likely level seven.”
“A logical assumption,” Rush whispered. “But what I would not assume,” he paused, his eyes flicking from Vala to Young and then back again, “is that there is no one currently in the shaft.”
Young rubbed his jaw, and locked his facial expression. “Then we go quickly.”
“Remind me why we can’t just leave the base the normal way?” Rush hissed.
“Because then we can’t avoid the security checkpoint,” Young hissed back. “There’s been a catastrophic security breach and we are not fucking advertising your location, Rush.” He took a breath to steady himself, and then looked over at Vala. “You’re on point,” he said quietly. “I’ll take our six. Do not wait for me,” he said, looking at both of them. “Either of you.”
“This is a terrible idea,” Rush whispered. “People pay you to navigate situations such as this? This is your actual job?”
Young glared at him.
Vala hooked her zat to her belt and crawled through the hatch in the wall, wincing at the weight on her shoulder. She balanced briefly on the platform, then grabbed a rung of the ladder and began pulling herself up, one-handed.
Young waited for Rush to follow her, then climbed through himself, pulling the hatch shut with his good leg.
The shaft was silent.
Below him, he could see the line of white opacity like the bottom layer in a shot glass.
He looked up, and began his climb.
Good hand, good leg.
Good hand, bad leg.
Good hand, good leg.
Good hand, bad leg.
It wasn’t a rhythm because calling it a ‘rhythm’ would imply that it was something other than a lurching, painful advance, his bad side only coming even with his good side, never extending. His breath burned in his throat, the air from his stolen breathing apparatus dry and sterile.
“Oh no,” Telford breathes. “Oh Christ. Oh shit. Oh fuck.” Ash falls like snow, atop the rock, the metal. It settles over the dark of Telford’s hair, a pale corolla. “They’re coming.”
The land is red. Like rust, or ancient blood. The air is choked, debris-flakes fall in windswept waves.
He had chosen this direction for two reasons. One—he had hoped they wouldn’t follow. Two—if they did follow, there was still a chance that the Alliance wouldn’t succeed. There was a chance that they would all die here.
“They’re coming,” Telford repeats, and his voice is calmer. Harder. “Where did you leave the ship?”
Young spits blood into the reddish dirt and swallows. “Where do you think?” he replies with a trace of real amusement in a smile that can look nothing but ghastly. His eyes flick upwards, toward the steep slope of the active volcano ahead of them.
Telford follows his gaze, shaking, bloodied, barely on his feet, but undefeated. He looks back down at Young, the corners of his mouth quirking upward. “You know, you’re a priceless son of a bitch at times.”
Young laughs and he feels the pain from his spine to his toes.
“Which way is it going to be?” Telford asks, not looking at him. “The hard way, or the hard way?”
“The hard way,” Young grinds out. “It’s always the hard way.”
“Yeah,” Telford says, bracing his shoulder against the twisted wreckage of their downed craft. “Good answer.” He pulls out an alien first aid kit, but Young shakes his head.
“No,” he says.
No use, is what he doesn’t say.
Young’s right hand, slick with sweat, slipped on the rung. He caught himself with his left hand. The jolt of pain down his injured side was only a half-step up from the constant agony that tore from his back all the way down his leg.
Above him, Rush looked down, pausing.
“Rush,” Young whispered, tipping his head back and getting a good view of the man’s shoes. “Keep going.”
Rush shook his hair back in a move he managed, even behind the mask of an alien breathing unit, to lace with irritation.
Young focused on moving upwards, one rung at a time, forced himself to keep pace with the two above him, step after painful step.
“I think Sanchez might have a crush on me,” Telford says, dragging him, shoving him up the barren, rocky slope. “What are your thoughts—“ he breaks off, coughing in the acrid air, destroying the cadence of his question, “—on this.”
“You wish,” Young says through blood, his free hand sliding over stone as fingernails scramble for purchase on loose rock.
“What do you mean I wish?” Telford asks.
“Everyone—“ Young breaks off as he seizes up with a wave of pain, “wants to date a combat engineer.”
“Yeah,” Telford says, barely audible, barely visible through obscure air. “Short though. I don’t know about the hair.”
Young inhales slowly, trying to breathe past blood. “You’re a dick. Anyone ever tell you that?”
“I save your life, and this is the thanks I get?”
“Still a dick,” Young rasps.
The memory was so vivid, the acidity of the air so immediate, the pain of his injuries so pressing, that he didn’t notice that Rush had stopped until his hand hit the other man’s ankle. Again, he caught himself with his left hand, shutting his eyes against the jolt that ran down his side.
Above Rush, Vala unstrapped her zat, transferred it to the hand that she had hooked around the top rung of the ladder, and with a pained grimace, flung the top hatch open, letting in a blinding shaft of natural light. Young shut his eyes, but too late to prevent the searing negative of her outline from being imprinted on his retinas.
He squinted up through already tearing eyes to see Vala clear the rim of the access tunnel. Rush followed her through, and Young made his way up behind them a few seconds later, pulling off his breathing apparatus, his lungs aching in the hot, dry air.
Vala stepped around him, steadying him as she passed, to swing shut the metal hatch through which they had emerged.
“Are you all right?” Rush asked, eyeing him dubiously.
“Yeah,” Young said, his eyes scanning the trees as he pulled out his gun. “You?”
“Fine,” Rush said shortly, breathing apparatus in one hand, zat in the other, he stepped in, taking some of Young’s weight.
“Fine,” Vala replied, pulling off her own mask and stepping into place, clearly intending to take some of his weight, despite her shoulder injury. “Might I suggest we keep moving?”
Young waved her off. “Take point. Let’s get out of the open before we cut out our transponders.”
“I’ve had better days than this,” Rush said conversationally, as they limped forward beneath the merciless sun.
“Me too,” Young said.
“Me three,” Vala said quietly, “but I can tell you one thing that may cheer you up,” she paused, her eyes sweeping the trees as they stepped into the shade.
“What’s that?” Young said, his eyes flicking back to scan their six.
“It seems that in all the confusion of unscheduled offworld activations, Daniel’s car keys have ended up in my jacket pocket.”
For a moment neither Rush nor Young said anything.
“How terribly convenient,” Rush said.
“I never said it was coincidental,” Vala replied, a bit stiffly.
“You stole Jackson’s keys?” Young asked, feeling slightly affronted on the archeologist’s behalf.
“I borrowed his keys,” Vala corrected, her chin flicking upward, her eyes still watchful. “I have a habit of picking up useful objects in uncertain times.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about that kind of habit,” Young said.
“Well,” Rush said, “I think it’s fucking brilliant.”
“Thank you, gorgeous,” Vala said primly.