Mathématique: Chapter 16
At the bottom of a nameless ravine, microprocessors had rained down from a cloudless sky.
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. Injuries.
Rush had been driving for half an hour without any sign of pursuit.
There was a slow burn in his right forearm in two different places. The sensation flared to prominence every time the unbuttoned cuff of his dress shirt grazed across the paired, shallow cuts where he had used Young’s ostentatiously masculine pocketknife to remove his two subcutaneous transmitters. They had left him, along with his phone, in a parabolic arc, brought down by gravity, falling in a ballistic, glittering shower.
At the bottom of a nameless ravine, microprocessors had rained down from a cloudless sky.
The wind blew through his hair, hot and dry, as he accelerated and decelerated as dictated by the sinuous turns of the road that led northwest off Route 25. Even with Jackson’s sunglasses, the light still shattered its way through his skull, growing into a headache as unmanageable as it was useless.
“Yeah so,” Young said from the passenger’s seat, “this makes The List.” The words had the mental feel of Inappropriate Capitalization.
“You don’t strike me as a terribly gifted concatenator, but, by all means, explain yourself,” Rush replied, unable to prevent the loosely associated idea of infix notation from twisting into his consciousness with the ease of any other mathematical concept that by its nature, construction, or connotation suggested a pair.
The Venn diagram. The Cartesian product. The focal points of an elliptical orbit. The—
“List of worst getaway vehicles,” Young said.
“This is a list that you have.” It wasn’t a question, it was more along the lines of a disdainful observation, but Young chose to interpret it as an interrogative.
“Yes,” Young said, shutting his eyes as he shifted his position and exhaling in a hiss through clenched teeth. “Yes it is. And a 1978 Dodge Dart with no air conditioning in the height of summer in the Intermountain West definitely qualifies as a shitty getaway vehicle. Or do you disagree?”
“I don’t disagree. However, I suspect this is not a list that existed before we encountered clear evidence that Jackson takes cultural preservation a bit too seriously.”
“And you would be wrong about that,” Young replied.
“What do you want—a literal list? That I physically wrote out? Prior to this moment?”
“Yes,” Rush said, one hand coming to the side of head, as though he could derail the building momentum of his headache.
“Well, it’s always been more of a mental list,” Young said, “so I don’t know what to tell ya.”
“That’s fine,” Rush said, amenably.
“How is that fine?” Young replied. “You just said—”
Rush accelerated out of a turn. “I will simply remain unconvinced.”
Young sighed. “Do you know how much civilians make at the SGC?”
He wasn’t certain what to make of Young’s apparent non sequitur.
“Yes,” Rush said dryly, “seeing as I am a civilian consultant.”
“Well,” Young replied through clenched teeth as he shifted in his seat, “then you know it’s enough to buy a nicer car than a 1978 Dodge Dart. A Dodge Dart. Rush. Even you—”
“I don’t understand your preoccupation with cars,” Rush said, adjusting his rear-view mirror to get a quick view of Vala. Her face was pale despite the heat, her good hand holding her injured arm to her side.
“Well, I don’t understand your lack of preoccupation with cars,” Young replied.
Rush said nothing, and glanced again again at Vala. She had been quiet during their scramble through the underbrush down the western slope of the base. She had been quiet through the shallow, subcutaneous slicing of transmitter removals, and quiet through their doubling back to the exterior of the security perimeter to join the cleared, nonessential personnel leaving the base in an orderly fashion.
“Vala, you still with us back there?” Young asked. He turned his head, but was clearly unable to twist in his seat to get a look at her.
“Oh absolutely, handsome,” she replied, her voice inflecting with its usual flowing cadence. “I’m invincible, you know. It’s just a flesh wound.”
Rush glanced back at her again then looked over at Young.
Young raised his eyebrows.
Rush looked back at the bleached asphalt of the road that twisted away in front of him, up into the mountains.
“How’s the shoulder?” Young asked, undeterred. “You bleeding at all?”
“Just a bit, handsome,” Vala said, her voice wavering slightly. “Just a bit. It’s mostly cauterized.”
“When you get a chance,” Young said quietly, his voice pitched low and directed toward Rush, “pull over.”
“Let’s go to Vegas,” Vala said, without any of her usual energy.
Rush said nothing.
“Vegas?” Young replied, clearly humoring her as she tried to humor them.
“Well, we have to go somewhere,” Vala continued, with a determinedly flirtatious ring to her tone, “and I see no reason why it can’t be Las Vegas.”
“Um,” Young said.
Rush could practically feel him trying to come up with a response, but was not particularly inclined to assist him in any way.
“I don’t think we need to go that far,” Young said. “We’ll give them a few hours to get the situation back under control before we use a pay phone to check up on things.”
“And if things—are not going well?” Vala asked.
“Then,” Young said, “we make a new plan.”
“We’re trackable in this car,” Vala said.
“I know,” Young replied. “But we’re conventionally trackable, as opposed to unconventionally trackable. Meaning that no one is going to be beaming us up to any cloaked ships without those transponders or the tags in our phones. Can highway patrol trace us? In this thing? Yes. But I don’t think highway patrol cares about us yet.”
Rush drummed his fingers over the narrow torus of the steering wheel and tried not to feel the weight of Young’s gaze. It was not at all apparent to him that ‘the situation’ at the SGC had ever been ‘under control’. Certainly he had no validated metric by which such a thing might be assessed. Even if one could have previously made an optimistic assessment regarding information security on base, it appeared unlikely to him that control, computational or otherwise, could be maintained in the face of determined, repetitive assaults by the Lucian Alliance.
They would get what they wanted, given sufficient time and patience. It was inevitable.
Young was looking at him.
Rush did not look back.
“No one ever wants to go to Vegas,” Vala sighed.
They hadn’t told him. They hadn’t told him any of it.
“Aren’t you like—an intergalactic jet setter or something?” Young asked. “Vegas is probably going to seem pretty tame. Just cheap lights, cheap alcohol. A fountain here and there.”
All of them had lied. The math was secondary. It was secondary.
“I’ve heard that, in Vegas, a game called ‘poker’ is frequently played,” Vala said. “I’m very interested in learning the rules.”
“Nice try,” Young said. “Does that kind of thing work on Jackson?”
Rush drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
“More often than you might think,” Vala replied, her voice tight with pain or regret or some other application layer emotional constraint.
He could feel a muscle in his cheek twitching. If the math were to be considered secondary, what then would be primary?
“Hey,” Young said. “Rush.”
Genetics. Obviously the genetics were primary. That was never a good sign, when genetics were primary. To be wanted for one’s mind required the functioning of said mind. To be wanted for one’s genes, well—as far as he understood it—that did not necessarily require the same functionality, depending on the goals of the interested parties.
He drummed his fingers over the steering wheel in an aborted mockery of the descent of the chromatic scale.
“Rush,” Young said.
This was what Jackson had known, and finally managed to communicate. This is what Telford had known and had always concealed. Who else knew?
Lam knew. She must. Landry knew. Mitchell knew, at least part of it.
Had Vala known? Had Young?
“Rush,” Young said again, louder this time.
“What.” He broke the word off with so much viciousness that Young actually flinched.
Regardless of who knew about it, it seemed that he had some kind of genetic advantage or he was of genetic interest, but he had no idea what the sequelae of his Mendelian allotment was or was supposed to be.
“You need to hold it together,” Young said tightly. “We’re not out of this yet.”
Who was ‘JS’?
Jackson would know. Hopefully Jackson hadn’t just been killed by the Lucian Alliance.
“I realize that,” Rush replied.
“We need to find a place to pull over and take a look at Vala’s shoulder.”
“Yes yes. I’m aware.”
Young was still looking at him. “What were you doing in the infirmary?” he asked. “I thought you were meeting with Dr. Perry.”
Rush’s fingers drummed another asynchronous arpeggio over the wheel. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Vala was looking directly at him, her eyes serious and full of an import that he couldn’t read other than to postulate that she had at least some level of knowledge regarding is current situation, but whether she was in possession of data of or metadata remained to be seen.
“Reading my medical file,” Rush replied, fixing his eyes again on the road.
Young shifted again in his seat, grimacing. “Anything interesting in there?”
Rush glanced back at Vala. She shook her head fractionally, her eyes searing a warning—but of what, against what—he couldn’t say. She knew something. She knew something and was letting him know that she knew.
Young seemed to be in the dark. Either that, or he was an excellent actor.
“Possibly,” Rush said.
“Oh,” Young said testily. “Possibly. Okay. That’s great.”
Rush exhaled, short and sharp. “I’m not obfuscating, I fucking said ‘possibly’ because I meant possibly.”
“So, what was was possibly interesting?”
“Gorgeous, I wouldn’t,” Vala said quietly.
Young tensed, his expression closed.
“It contained a genetic analysis,” Rush said. “Specifically—“ he broke off, one hand coming open against the rim of the steering wheel before closing again. “Specifically it contained information relating to the expression levels of three genes. ATA. LTA. NRA.”
In the rearview mirror, Vala shut her eyes.
Young’s gaze swung back to the road. “Three genes,” he said, like he was turning the information over in his mind with the deliberation of a rock grinder. “Three?”
“Yes,” Rush snapped. “It’s a number. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It comes after two and before four. I was hoping for something useful.”
Young shot him an affronted look, which the other man had the gall to draw out for a few seconds, clearly taking some kind of visceral pleasure from methodical deliberation in the face of overt anticipation.
“Well,” Young said finally, “it does explain some things.”
“Specify,” Rush snapped.
“Why you’re at the top of the LA’s list. Why Jackson wants to send you to Atlantis. Why Sheppard and McKay want you there. Why they put you on a cryptography project that was already fully staffed by a team of math guys. Why you were so aggressively recruited even though you’re—”
Young trailed off and Rush narrowed his eyes behind Jackson’s sunglasses. “Even though I’m what?”
“Maybe like—“ Young trailed off again. “Kind of—“
Rush said nothing.
“You’re not really a team player and the SGC is a very team-based organization,” Young finished.
Rush pried a hand away from the steering wheel for a moment to press it into the tense musculature at the base of his neck.
“What are they?” he asked finally.
“The genes?” Young replied.
“Yes,” he said, hearing his own irritation hissing in the word but unable to rein it in and lock it down.”
“I’ve never heard of the last one. The other two—well, they’re Ancient genes. What they do exactly, I don’t know, but they’re necessary to operate a lot of the Ancient tech we’ve found.”
The import of that particular piece of information was enough to torque the trajectory of his thoughts into something so twisted by its own internal tension that he couldn’t— “The Ancients built a genetic requirement into their technology?”
“You sound—upset,” Young replied in that slow careful way that was fast becoming an indicator to Rush, and it occurred to him to wonder whether this prolongation speech patterns was merely correlative with his own emotional barometer or if there were some element of causation there.
He was driving.
He was driving and now was not the time for anything other than rigid methodology.
He wasn’t upset.
“I’m not upset,” he said. Smooth cadence. Still hands. Appropriate acceleration.
“Okay,” Young said. “Good. Maybe we should talk about something else right now.”
That was unacceptable.
“I don’t see why the Ancients would impose a genetic requirement to the use of their technology,” he said in a polite, reasonable tone.
“Maybe this is something to talk to Jackson about,” Young said quietly, clearly trying to defer this conversation to a point in time at which they were not in a moving vehicle. “He’s going to be a lot better at—“
“I don’t like what it implies,” Rush said.
“It’s not all their tech, obviously,” Young said, clearly uncomfortable. “Look at the stargates. Anyone can walk through.”
“Oh yes,” Rush said dryly. “I’m sure the full functionality of the gate network is well understood.”
The car was silent.
“So that’s it?” Rush snapped, finally.
“That’s all you know about these genes? That they’re required for full functionality of Ancient technology? You’ve never looked into this at all?”
“It’s not really my area,” Young replied, “and even if it were—well, there’s a reason they haven’t told you, Rush.”
Rush glanced back at Vala, reflected in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were dark and serious. “Don’t look at me, gorgeous,” she said. “They certainly don’t let me into their top secret briefings.”
He hooked a hand over his shoulder as he pulled out of a hairpin turn and accelerated up the incline ahead of them.
“Speed limits aren’t just for the amusement of the Colorado department of transportation, you know,” Young said edgily.
Rush eased up on the accelerator.
“Rush,” Young said.
He found that holding the linear narrative of his thoughts was difficult given his overwhelming desire to wrest everything he could find out of the SGC’s encrypted database. The ache in his hands for a keyboard was nearly impossible to bear.
“If I knew more,” Young said, sounding earnest and unsettled, “I would tell you.” His head half-turned back toward Vala. “We would tell you,” he repeated, including her, forming some kind of tenuous verbal alliance in what Rush was certain was a calculated, tactical maneuver of undetermined purpose. He was also fairly certain it was in breach of whatever kind of security policy was in place at the SGC.
Implicit trust was everywhere—in peer-to-peer communications, within the tangled networks of social interaction and within the machines that modeled those same connections. Those same networks. Had he trusted the SGC with their air of pseudo-enlightened, relatively-rational, scientific, entrepreneurial, industrial, intergalactic, colonialism? He supposed that he had—if not explicitly then implicitly.
He smiled faintly and felt the twist in his own expression.
“Yeah,” Young replied. “I would. Look, I know it’s been a lot to deal with, this past week—“
If he had trusted them, it was only insofar as he had seen no reason to overtly distrust them. That was, until Jackson’s quiet disapproval had escalated. Now, however, any implicit trust settings that had heretofore existed had been scrapped and overwritten.
“—with, you know, almost being abducted two times, and—“
It was staggering to him, staggering that the SGC thought they could keep anything from him. Nothing was kept from him. Not from him. If he could crack a lock no one else could even see within the stargate, did they think he would hesitate, even for a moment, to turn his considerable skills in information security straight at their systems?
“—not to mention passing out a couple of times—“
Did they think he feared any kind of repercussion from the SGC? Did they think he had anything to lose?
“—and the math stuff, which seems like it stresses you out maybe more than firefights, weird as that is—”
To be wanted for one’s genetics was insulting. Keeping personal information from a cryptographer was disrespectful at best. The SGC had underestimated him in nearly every parameter by which they had assessed him. Previously, he might have let such a thing slide. Previously, he might have complied with the debriefing that Mitchell had threatened him with. Previously he might have—
He stared into the light, trying to burn his mind into temporary silence.
Previously he might have done many things differently.
“—are you even listening to me?”
He wasn’t entirely sure how long Young had been talking. “No,” Rush admitted.
“Great,” Young growled. “Some scenic overlook bullshit is coming up on your left. Pull over, will you?”
The late afternoon sun filtered down through irregular gaps in parched pine branches as Rush stopped the car. He pulled the keys out of the ignition with a fluid twist and opened the door. Dead needles crackled subtly underfoot as he stood. The view of the valley that spread below them was mostly obscured by intervening, needled greenery. Somewhere, far below, he could hear the dull roar of a hidden river.
Rush watched as Vala slipped out of the car, one hand tight on the metal of the frame. He struggled to focus on the present, struggled to keep his considerable anger at the SGC from coalescing into any kind of definite plan. He slammed his door shut and started around the back of Jackson’s car as Young got painfully to his feet.
Vala closed her car door and staggered, nearly loosing her footing.
“Shit,” Young said, slamming his own door, already reaching for Vala.
“Don’t,” Rush snapped at Young, as he stepped behind Vala, who turned into his approach, her good arm sweeping around his shoulders. Instinctively, Rush brought his other arm around as she swung her legs up, the entire thing coming together with just the right amount of effort to look like an unorchestrated, well-executed attempt on his part to sweep Vala off her feet.
Which had certainly not been what he’d intended at all. The end result of the entire thing was that he was left holding her bridal-style, staring at Young with what he hoped was an impassive facial expression.
He was, at most, thirty percent responsible for this state of affairs.
Young raised his eyebrows and angled his head in such a way that seemed to indicate he was impressed. That, or suspicious. Rush couldn’t tell.
He looked down at Vala. Her eyes were closed, her forehead pressed against his shoulder.
“I’ll see if Jackson’s got a first aid kit,” Young said. “Put her on the hood.”
“Very dashing, gorgeous,” Vala said into Rush’s ear as he stepped forward, carrying her away from Young. “Very well executed. If I ever have to make a break off this planet, remind me to take you with me.”
He raised his eyebrows at her. “Was there a point to this?” he asked, pitching his voice low, “or are you simply amusing yourself?”
She winked at him, but then her expression turned earnest. “ATA,” she whispered, “is projective and activates Ancient technology. LTA is receptive and allows low-level mental calibration between device and operator. Not sure about NRA. No one is.”
He laid her down carefully on the hood of the car.
“Don’t you trust Young?” His words were nearly silent.
“Trust is a bad habit. Facts are gifts.” She smiled faintly at him. “Protect your sources, gorgeous,” she whispered, “if you want to keep them.”
Young closed the trunk of the car.
“I suspect,” she said, her smile evening out, “that you are a treasure.”
Rush pulled back and straightened, looking up as Young limped forward, waving the first aid kit in their direction. It rattled as unseen pieces within impacted the hard plastic casing.
“We’re in luck,” Young said. “Turns out Jackson has at least some common sense. That, or Mitchell put this in his car.”
“Daniel can be quite practical at times,” Vala said, “his reputation notwithstanding.”
“Yeah,” Young said, drawing even with Rush and setting the kit down on the warm metal of the hood near Vala’s hip. “Well, he’s got quite the rep built up by this point.”
“Oh do tell,” Vala said with a wince, as she helped Young gingerly ease her jacket down over her shoulder. “I need some gossip for the next team bonding night.”
“Do you guys seriously have ‘team bonding nights’?” Young asked.
“Oh yes,” Vala said, fully exposing the charred, sticky material of her undershirt.
Rush flinched as his mind processed only that what he was seeing was something that looked wrong, that looked deep and blackened and—
“Damn it, Vala,” Young breathed.
Rush looked away, watching turbulent eddies revealed by small dust particles in the air that caught the pine-filtered light. He looked back.
“Yes,” Vala continued, her chin angled up, her eyes fixed on the pines above them. “Team bonding. Scrabble and beer.”
“You should have said something,” Young growled at her, his fingers hovering at the tattered edge of her shirt.
Rush reached for the first-aid kit, flipping the lid open.
“Can you believe that?” Vala asked. “Scrabble. Daniel always wins. Or he did until I made it a point to memorize all the two letter words.”
“I thought you were clipped,” Young said, his voice rising. “You said you were clipped. I—“
“I was clipped, handsome,” Vala whispered, cutting him off with her gaze. “Just—‘more clipped’ as opposed to ‘less clipped,’ if you know what I mean.”
“We could have left you,” Young hissed. “We could have dropped you somewhere. Anywhere. But now we’re in the middle of god damned nowhere with Jackson’s shitty first aid kit. This is not something to fuck around with. What do you think you’re doing?”
Rush scanned the contents of the kit, pulling out relevant items as he half-listened to Young and Vala go back in forth in an conflict that seemed, by its construction, to be partially comprised of a pissing contest that had sprung de novo out of Young’s shocked assessment of Vala’s shoulder. The other portion of their exchange seemed to be vociferous cover for the more delicate work of determining the trustworthiness of the other party.
“I’m doing,” Vala said, her voice pitched low, but cutting through Young’s building monologue, “what I judge to be best.” She came up on her good elbow, lifting herself free of the hood of the car. The implication behind her words hung heavy in the air between the three of them.
Both Vala and Young shifted their gazes to look over at him.
“Say it,” Young said. “Go ahead and say it.”
“It’s better with both of us,” Vala said quietly, her eyes shifting back toward Young.
Rush had no real means of assessing either of their motives. Not in any kind of objective way. It was painfully clear to him that he had very little leverage or knowledge of regarding his current situation. Such things could be remedied. With time.
He pulled a pair of scissors out of the first aid kit. They looked sharp.
“No mystery why you’ve still got probationary status,“ Young growled. “This was a bad call. Your shoulder looks like shit.”
Rush stepped forward, tipped the scissors to angle them beneath the collar of Vala’s dark undershirt. He locked eyes with her, and at a brief tip of her chin, he cut a straight line from her neck to the outer edge of her shoulder, the blades shearing easily through the thin cotton.
Vala made a strangled sound in the back of her throat, and flinched as he shifted the material of her shirt, exposing the burned and bleeding skin beneath.
“Apologies,” Rush whispered, appalled by the damage that was revealed as he eased the dark material back to expose the injury.
“Let’s tell Daniel about this,” Vala gasped.
“Which part?” Rush asked dryly, watching Young study the sluggishly oozing injury with a practiced eye. “The part where you stole his car keys, or the part where I cut your shirt off?”
“You are my favorite amongst all Earth men,” Vala said, a catch in her voice. “Let’s go to the supermarket together.”
Young rolled his eyes. “Cut some of those open, will you?” He glanced at Rush and gestured toward the paper packets contained in the first aid kit. “Don’t touch the gauze if you can help it.”
“Is this a thing they do on your planet?” Rush asked, cutting open gauze packets. “Supermarkets?”
“First of all,” Vala said, “who said anything about me not being from this planet?”
“It’s been implied,” Rush replied dryly. “Heavily. Many times. By multiple parties. Including you. On separate occasions.”
“Second of all,” Vala said, “supermarkets are amazing, wonderful places, and this is coming from a woman who’s erected more than one pleasure palace in her day.”
Rush lifted his eyebrows.
“Okay,” Young said grimly. “I’m going to clean this out, cover the whole thing with antibiotic gel, and put a loose dressing on it.”
“Sounds like a plan, handsome,” Vala whispered, the muscles of her throat working as she swallowed, staring up at the sky as if trying to steel herself against what was coming. “Five minutes with a healing device when we get back to base is going to clear this thing right up.”
“Not if you get some kind of infection.”
“Right. Then it’ll be more like fifteen,” Vala replied.
“This is not something to mess around with,” Young growled.
“So get on with it,” Vala said sharply.
“You want something to bite on?” Young asked.
“Ugh, you Earth men,” Vala replied, rolling her eyes.
“Shoulder and elbow,” Young said quietly to Rush.
It took him only a moment to get Young’s meaning.
“Not necessary,” Vala said, an edge creeping into her voice.
“Yes,” Young said, “it is. This is going to hurt like hell. You’re not going to be able to hold still.”
“No one,” Vala said, “holds me down. No one.”
Rush looked out into the shimmering, dry air—away from the car, away from Vala, from Young and stared into the blue scatter of the atmosphere. He swallowed, consciously. With difficulty. He felt the throb of his headache.
No one spoke, and he felt the weight of their attentions turn towards him.
“No,” he said, not looking at either of them, but speaking to Vala. “Of course not.” He offered her his right hand and she took it without hesitation, their fingers coming together in a slow enlacing that was as terrible and familiar as he’d known it would be. He didn’t look at her.
“I’m going to start,” Young said quietly.
Vala said nothing, but through her grip Rush could feel the moment that Young began—her arm, her entire frame, stiffening as she pressed herself down onto the unforgiving surface of Jackson’s car, the nails of her free hand sliding over the metal with a faint screech. Her fingers pressed into the back of his hand, cold and strong and painful.
Not looking was too familiar to be a tenable option.
Rush turned his head and saw the pained and subtle arch of her back, her clenched jaw, her fisted hand, and her hair, spread around her in a dark fan. “Breathe through it, kiddo,” Young told her, and she inhaled, her nostrils flaring, her eyes tightly shut.
Looking wasn’t tenable either, for other reasons.
“I’ve got the melted—“ Young paused, his voice strained, “the melted shit out of it. We’re halfway there.”
What was melted?
Parts of her shirt?
The velcro backing for an insignia patch that she still lacked?
Rush focused on her shoulder, on the scrubbing actions of the brownish-orange disinfectant swabs Young was using, tried to lock in on the purpose behind what was happening as he watched Young clean the blistered, charred, bloody wound in repeated, widening spirals. Once. Twice. Three times.
“Almost done,” Young said, “you’re doing good. Real good.”
Vala’s free hand was at her mouth, her fisted fingers pressing against her lips. Her nails dug into the back of his hand.
Rush watched as Young covered the injury with some kind of antiseptic gel in a liberal, methodical series of intersecting lines squeezed from a small tube, before peeling back paper casings to deposit the gauze, without touching it, on top of his antiseptic network. “Taping,” Young announced, as he pulled a piece of tape out and away from the roll.
The sound of Vala’s shallow gasping in the quiet beneath the pines was nearly too much for Rush to bear. He wanted to step away from her, to step away from them both, to look out and away and into the light that was losing its brutal quality and lengthening into something less searing as more and more atmosphere stood between him and the sun. But he couldn’t step away. She was still holding his hand.
“Vala,” Young murmured.
She wasn’t looking at them, her head was turned away and her hand was now at her eyes.
“Vala,” Young said again, louder.
She took one more breath and then turned to look at them, her smile fragile and unfixed. “Plasma burns,” she said, her eyes flicking between them. “Who knew?”
Young snorted and shook his head as he eased her damaged jacket back up and over the dressing he’d placed on her shoulder. He bent a chemical cold pack with a quick twist of his fingers and handed it to Vala. “Hold that over your jacket. You want to dry swallow a painkiller?”
Vala nodded shortly and Young fished around in the first aid kit for a moment.
Rush made a halfhearted attempt to free his hand. Vala’s fingers tightened around his and then released. She pulled her hand in towards her chest with a grimace and made a shaky attempt to sit under her own power. Young handed her a pair of reddish brown pills, and she swallowed them without water.
Rush could feel the pressure of his own anxiety, the pressure of everything that had happened, beginning to work its way into the open places in his mind.
“So,” Young said, looking at them both as he leaned forward, bracing his hands against the car.
“We’re doing good.”
Vala nodded, her eyes shut.
“Hotshot, you want to look around and see if Jackson’s got a map stashed somewhere in there?” He tipped his head toward the car.
Rush looked at him.
“Any time now,” Young said.
Young was pale, his skin glinting faintly with the sheen of sweat in the irregular streamers of sun that broke through the pines. It struck Rush abruptly that he had no idea what the other man’s injuries were. That Young could be bleeding internally—could be hurt worse than Vala—could be hurt much worse than Vala was. It seemed a terrible oversight that he had never inquired as to the nature of Young’s injuries, despite days of opportunity.
He hadn’t needed to know. Now, however, he did.
“What’s wrong with you?” Rush asked.
Young sighed and looked over at him. “Can you just—keep it together?” he asked, clearly exhausted. The other man hadn’t answered his question; instead he’d addressed whatever it was he’d heard behind Rush’s tone. It was a wonder the man could function at all, preoccupied as he was with motivation, with things that were implied, with the primitive, instinctive machinating of his own limbic system.
“Are you hurt?”
Young back at him, evidently doing his own recalibrating. Though it was possibly less of a ‘recalibration’ than a changing of filter sets. “No,” Young said.
“Dial it down a notch, hotshot,” Young said, raising one hand. “I’m fine.”
Apparently, he was going to have to be exquisitely explicit about what he wanted to know. “How were you initially injured?” Rush asked.
“Car crash,” Young replied easily, but without looking at him. “A few pins, a few bolts, a few surgeries later and—“
“A car crash,” Rush repeated.
Young sighed. “Fine. It was a low-class, propulsion-based, four-person, manually piloted, low-atmosphere alien vehicle that weighed about as much as a Ford Mustang. And it was shot down. So.” Young looked over at him, hands still braced against the hood of Jackson’s Dodge Dart and shrugged wearily, “Car crash. Broken hip, cracked pelvis, shattered vertebrae. Assorted soft tissue damage.”
“But it’s all fine now,” Young said. “Bolts and pins still holding—well, whatever it is that they hold.”
Wordlessly, Vala fished around in the first aid kit and handed Young the unopened second packet of ibuprofen.
Young laughed, short and sharp. Apparently, the man had an appreciation for understatement. He didn’t take the packet Vala offered. Instead, he looked at Rush and said, “Map?”
Rush stalked around the car, opened the passenger door, and began searching Jackson’s glove compartment. He found an expired insurance card, an owners manual from the seventies, a collection of rocks of uncertain significance, a small plastic jar of partially melted chocolate-covered espresso beans, fourteen pens, a flashlight that didn’t work, an expired package of Claritin, The Pocket Guide to Sanskrit, and finally, at the back, a map. He stood and spread it out on the roof of the car.
It became immediately apparent to him that it would not be helpful.
“Mmm,” Young said, coming to stand beside him, eyes scanning the title of the map. “The Giza Plateau. Circa like, 1985. Great. Useful.”
Rush handed him the chocolate covered espresso beans and the Sanskrit pocket dictionary and began a more thorough search of the car as Vala eased herself off the hood.
The backseat of Jackson’s car contained several books, one of which appeared to be in Russian.
Under the seat he found a second pair of sunglasses, which he placed on the hood of the car.
“Mmm,” Vala said, looking at them approvingly from where she stood, trembling, one hip braced against the metal frame of the Dart. “Retro.” She slipped them on with her good hand.
A search of the trunk yielded no map, but instead a set of items that looked like they could have come straight out of a disaster handbook prepared by a helpful federal agency.
“No map?” Young asked.
“Indeed not,” he replied. “Apparently, like the rest of us, Dr. Jackson has come to rely on his phone.”
“Could one even drive to Egypt from here?” Vala asked, studying the map. “I wasn’t under the impression that was possible.”
“No,” Young said. “No you can’t.”
“Then why would—“ Vala began. “Never mind,” she finished wryly.
Young ran a hand through his hair. “Right now we need water, about three more hours between us and the base, and a pay phone.”
Rush hooked his left hand over his shoulder, pressing fingers into the tortured muscle there.
“You good, hotshot?” Young asked.
“Let’s go, then,” Young murmured.
They returned to Jackson’s mercilessly hot car, Young sliding into position beside him with a pained slowness that was as difficult to ignore as it was to watch. When both Vala and Young had fastened their seatbelts, Rush threw the car into reverse, backed away from the overlook, and sped north and west, accelerating into the setting sun, obliquely chasing the axial rotation of the Earth.