Mathématique: Chapter 25

He hated photons. They were the cheap grief of the cosmos.

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.

Chapter 25

Creare machina id potest sentio est crudelitas. There is something at the heart of the city that wants him, that wants them both. Longing edged with alien, mechanized intent. A feedback loop designed to equalize pressures has been coopted into another pathway in an attempt to modify subroutines into a correction of an imbalance or, put another way—to right a wrong. Possibly that's it. Or possibly it’s algorithmic retribution in which he’s annexed as part of a debt that hasn’t been repaid, that cannot be repaid as long as time flows as he conceptualizes it, which is not a given, not anymore. He need look no further for this kind of perceptual betrayal than a photon-level perspective of propagation velocity at the theoretical maximum, through a vacuum, where time slows into something with the consistency of concrete, meaning there would be no sensation of transit, only emission and instantaneous absorption when the time came for the smashing into a sea, or a retina, or a star, or a radio telescope, or something quite fucked up that the cruelties of relativistic physics implied, or nothing. It wasn’t clear to him what would be worse but what did it matter? He hated photons. They were the cheap grief of the cosmos.


He was aware that there were processes that required initiation, completion, termination. Either there were, or there had been. This wasn’t right. It was or had been some kind of monotonic, diatonic, tritonic, tetratonic, pentatonic, hexatonic, heptatonic, octatonic, intervaled thing that was only half his mind. It was torquing things—L’isle Joyeuse in the Lydian mode, that was probably the closest—descending cadenza he could think of, but he was—

“Are you awake?”

Rush began to dig in against what had happened to him, knowing that something was not right, something about the too bright light or their too bright, too far star had pressed his mind into some kind of indentured servitude. It hadn’t wanted to let him go, it hadn’t wanted to be alone with its cascades of grass and its empty sea and its white light that hadn’t been able to hurt him through the wall of desolation it had projected into his mind.


It wasn’t her. He could already tell that it wasn’t her.


He opened his eyes. He didn’t recognize the woman looking back at him. He couldn’t move. It was an effort even to breathe—he felt disconnected in some way, like he’d lost his graphical processing unit. He was in a bed but he did not sleep in beds he held this as policy.


He placed her by her too wild eyes in her too still frame and the edge of contingency in her voice. Amanda Perry.  Placing her, he placed himself.

“Hey.” He echoed her almost perfectly which had seemed a good idea at the time he’d conceived it but in execution it was drawn out and American for fuck’s sake and though this was something he tried to remember to do with only marginal success, this emulating of Americans, he certainly hadn’t remembered now. 

He wasn’t certain of his internal template. It seemed to be fluxing.

“Are you okay? Do you want me to call someone? I think I should call someone,” Perry said. “What the hell are they doing just—“

He grabbed for her forearm, missed, tried again, connected.

She looked at him, startled.

“Don’t,” he managed. This time he sounded more correct, dropping his final consonant in a haze of linguistic uncertainty. “Not yet.” Had he been speaking with Sheppard in English? Or had they slipped into Ancient somewhere along the way, in the afternoon when the alien star was halfway to set? That seemed likely.

“Well talk to me then,” Perry hissed, her eyes wide.

Rush blinked, trying to think of something to say that would prevent a psychiatric evaluation, because at the moment he didn’t think he’d pass. They fucking loved those things here; they also loved telling people that there were no negative consequences to psychiatric evaluations but if that were true he didn’t think they’d propose it so often. There was nothing wrong with him except for the need to reintegrate patterns of motion and thought. This, he was already doing. 

No wonder SG-1 had mastered the art of the witty repartee. Sometimes the only safe ground was flippant insincerity.

He pulled his hand back from Perry and brought it to his forehead. He shut his eyes and reopened them.

“There’s something wrong with you,” Perry said, as if she could negate the vector of his thoughts by reversing it with her own thought vector. How had she known what he was thinking? Had he said any of it aloud? If he hadn’t, how could she be sure of anything internal to him? Was her comment an observation unrelated to his own thoughts regarding his own agency?

Upon examination, this seemed most likely.

“I’m fine,” he said. His statement approached veridicality even if it wasn’t already a member of the veridical set. Perry, however, did not look convinced. “How are you?” That was a typical thing to say.

“Awful,” she whispered, swallowing, glancing to her left, her eyes sweeping the room. “Thanks for asking. What happened?”

He tried to remember.

“There was a city,” he said, and just the thought of it was enough to send the memory of crystal towers bursting across his mind, tearing though his narrative. There had been other things besides just a city; it had been cold and there had been tones and fields and Sheppard he had fallen and what release may come of it feels like, felt like—

He drove the heel of one hand against his left eye, trying to decide if he had a headache or whether he could still feel the ache where Altera had been inside his head. And were those things different.

“I’m pretty sure that someone should be assessing you for—” Perry paused too long before finishing with, “—something.” She turned her head, taking a deep breath, about to call out.

“Mandy,” he said.

She looked back at him, their eyes level.

“It worked,” he said, feeling the realization and the words come simultaneously.

“Yeah,” Perry whispered. “I know. I was in on the conference call. What did you do to that DHD—and god, can you please not try to sit right now? That seems like a—”

He pushed himself up, grounded by the limited physicality of the movement. He felt stiff. That or air resistance was a more substantial thing that he remembered.

“—bad idea,” Perry finished.

“Where’s Colonel Sheppard?” he asked.

“Getting debriefed,” Perry said. “With all the colonels. And McKay. And Brightman. They woke him up half an hour ago. Something’s happening on Atlantis. He looked terrible—but not as terrible as you do.”

Rush brought his hands to his face, parsing what she was saying into the paired ideas that Sheppard was neither here nor dead. 

His muscles felt like they were actively resisting the electrochemistry that powered them. He wasn’t wearing his clothes. He was wearing a hospital gown. That was a problem.

“How long?” he asked her, trying to remember anything other than the quality of the light—its reflection off planar glass, its refraction through shields.

“Since you left? Sixteen hours. Since you disappeared? Eleven hours. Since you reappeared? We estimate five hours. Since you came back through the gate? Four hours. It’s two o’clock in the morning, Mountain Standard Time.” Her words partitioned his memories into extensional sets.

“That was helpful,” he said.

“You sound surprised,” she replied. Her tone carried an edge of amusement, but her expression remained drawn. “I know how you like it.”

He had been in his apartment, in his car, on the base, in the gateroom, through the gate, on the planet, disassembling a DHD, which, after a certain point, had taken its own disassembly upon itself. 

“You don’t seem like yourself,” Perry said. “If you can’t—”

“The manual control of an input/output cycle with subsequent quantum error correction of the response half of a call-and-response architecture generated enough mechanical resonance to shatter portions of the device,” Rush said. “It—cracked apart.”

“Yeah,” Perry said, the word slow and even. “I know. Then what?”

“We touched it.”

Sheppard had outlined the possibilities and he tried to interpret them now in light of being here with Perry at the SGC but found that he still could not determine—

“Then what,” Perry prompted.

“We had the subjective experience of being somewhere else.”

“The city?” Perry murmured.

“No. Not the city.” There had been grass and metal and the sound of wind through leaves—littoral and endless. There had been a pressure on his mind, an unseen subluxation of something broken and buried. There had been places beneath open spaces that were closed, that were dark, and where exit did not exist, except through, except through

And what release may come of it—

Except through.

And what release may come of it feels like—

“Nick?” Perry said.

He torqued his own thoughts.

“Spatial translocation occurred several times, or at least the perception of it, within the framework of the entire experience,” Rush said.

“Okay,” Perry said. “So—you were different places, including a city.”

“Yes,” Rush said, relieved. He had no particular wish to describe death, subsetted. Best to skip to the end, then. “At the end of it I—“ Yes. At the end. “Fuck,” he snapped. “Where are my clothes. I—had it.”  He stood and nearly overbalanced before he steadied himself on a combination of bed and IV pole. He had gotten it, a physical requirement for access—like a fucking second factor, suggestive of a second factor, certainly a second factor—he’d been holding it, that constellation-shaped crystal, and he was not holding it any more.

“Hey,” Perry called, rotating her chair, clearly not talking to him, looking for someone else, “Excuse me? Hello?”

A woman rounded the corner, her blonde hair piled in an elaborate twisting. “Whoa,” she said, her hands up, palms out, clearly talking to him. “Whoa.  Let’s just—lie back down, okay?”

“Feel free,” he replied, managing to organize himself a bit better and identify the impediments to his current goals. He pulled a sensor off his finger and ripped a blood pressure cuff of his arm with the rending sound of separating velcro.

“You’re going to need to calm down,” the doctor or medic or nurse or passerby said.

“I’m perfectly fucking calm,” he informed her, as he ripped out his IV. 

“Nick,” Perry snapped, her voice sharp. “Stop. Think.”

This was, usually, a good suggestion.

He stopped.

Had any of this even happened? Was he here? Had he been there? Was Altera a place or a virtual construct?  Did the crystal he had taken exist at all? If it existed, did it exist physically or was it a psychic construct? If it existed physically, where was it? Should he tell anyone about it? Would the Lucian Alliance find out about it? Did they already know? If it existed psychically or virtually, then how would it manifest? Was it a symbolic representation of an alteration of his mind? Had he been altered in some way? Had the gate? Had the DHD? Could modifications, given they existed, propagate through the gate network? Were all DHDs altered?  Was he losing or had he lost touch with reality? If he had, did causative agency lie with himself, with the city, with the crystal? If he thought he had lost touch with reality, should he disclose that possibility? If he thought he hadn’t, could he trust himself? Did he have any way of verifying anything?

He felt like shit. Subjectivity remained reassuringly subjective.

He draped IV tubing with its attached dressing and cannula over the top of the bag of fluid that had been, only a few seconds ago, attached to his vasculature. He clamped a hand over the crook of his elbow, and sat down.

“I need my clothes,” he informed the blonde woman, “and—whatever else I was brought in with.”

“Did you bring something back with you?” Perry asked slowly. 

There was a correct answer to her question. Unfortunately he didn’t know what it was. “I think so,” Rush said.

The other woman stepped closer, her hands coming down. “Do you want me to check?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Would you?”

“Sure,” she replied. “Everything’s in the next room, bagged for examination and decon. It’s no trouble.” She took a step forward. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m fine. I’m perfectly fine.”

She looked less convinced than Perry looked, which was a look he would label as ‘unconvinced.’

There had been a time in his life in which he had not had to convince anyone of the efficiency or soundness of his mental functioning. He was certain of this. He was also certain that if relative circumstances were taken into account he was doing a more than passable job holding his worldview together in the face of external assault. Jackson would likely be impressed, if he knew the complete context.

“TJ.” Rush recognized Young’s voice, pitched low.

The woman’s eyes widened briefly before her expression smoothed out. She turned and, behind her, Rush could see Young, a crutch under one arm and a torn piece of paper in his free hand. He stood in the doorway. Pale. Exhausted.

“Hey,” Young said, looking at the woman.

“Hi,” she replied quietly.

For another long moment, no one spoke.

Rush wondered what the fuck was going on.

“Hello, colonel.” TJ spoke with the air of someone effecting or affecting a restart. “How can I help you?”

“Can you give us a minute?” Young asked, indicating Rush with nothing more than a brief flick of his eyes.

TJ appeared undecided.

“TJ,” Young said, absently toying with the scrap in his hand.

“Okay,” she said. She glanced at Rush, already walking toward the adjacent room. “I’ll be back.”

Young stood in the doorway, watching Rush and Perry. Rush looked away abruptly, trying to relax his muscles, regain control of his breathing, and begin the process of figuring out how to address the problem of the missing crystal that might or might not exist.

“Dr. Perry, I presume?” Young asked.

“What gave it away?” she countered.

Young seemed vaguely uncomfortable, his eyes flicking restively over Perry, her chair, the floor.

“You must be the mysterious neighbor,” Perry said.

“Yeah,” Young replied with an air of faint surprise as he leaned into the doorframe. “You guys talk about me when you’re doing—quantum physics?”

“We do not talk about you,” Rush said, feeling subtle muscular tremors begin as he tensed his shoulders.

“And it’s quantum cryptography, actually,” Perry said.

“Isn’t everything physics underneath?” Young asked, limping forward. “That’s what they’re saying at the water coolers these days.”

“Turns out,” Perry said, “it’s all math underneath.”

“Flatterer,” Rush murmured, looking at her rather than Young as the other man took a seat on the end of his bed.

“What can I say? You’re having a bad day,” Perry replied.

Rush shot her a pointed look.

“Dr. Perry,” Young said. “What’s your security clearance?”

“Level four,” Perry said.

“Fuck,” Rush said.

Both Young and Perry shot him sharp looks.

“You okay?” Young asked.

“Jealous?” Perry asked dryly.

“Yes,” Rush said. “And no.”

“All you have to do is reverse that for factual accuracy,” Perry said.

“Well, if it isn’t little miss brilliant,” Rush whispered.

Perry quirked her lips at that one, her eyes flicking briefly toward the floor.

“Can I run something by you?” Young asked, directing his question at Perry.

“Sure,” Perry said.

Young took the paper that he’d been absently fingering and folded it carefully along certain lines, clearly in an effort to conceal some information. “What do you make of this?” He held it out so that she could see it.

Rush watched them with narrowed eyes.

“Huh,” Perry said. “Looks like a simplified diagram of the chain of events that tags non-urgent messages for Atlantis-bound transmission. It’s written in Ancient. The word in the leftmost box says ‘you.’ The next box is a phonetic spelling of the English word for ‘server.’ The word under the arrow that cuts through the, um, stylized version of the stargate is ‘dialing.’ The castle-shaped box says, ‘City of Awesome,’ and the last box says, ‘me’.”  Perry looked in Young’s direction, turning her head fractionally. “It’s cute,” she added.

“And this is?” Young asked, unfolding one of the creases.

“That’s the prefix that needs to attached to the email header to flag it for the server,” Perry said, “and someone’s authorization code.”

Young sighed, glanced at Rush, and unfolded the remaining crease.

“And this?”

“It says—“ Perry broke off, cracking a brief smile, “‘so call me maybe’?”

“Of course it does,” Young said dryly, handing the paper to Rush.

He took it and examined it. The thing seemed to have been torn off the bottom of a piece of notebook paper. Beneath the drawing and text was half of a watermark that had probably originally read ‘classified’. At the foot of the page, ‘J Shep’ was scrawled, the angularity of the letters somewhat reminiscent of Ancient text.

“Can you give us a minute?” Young asked Perry.

“Sure,” she said. “I will commence the logistical nightmare of getting home at two o’clock in the morning.”

Rush grimaced.

“Um,” Young said.  “Do you—“

“No,” Perry said. “I have a system. But I do require compensation of some kind.” She looked pointedly at Rush.

He cocked his head, lifting his eyebrows.

“We’ll talk later,” she said.

“I’m not founding an interest group,” he said, as she maneuvered her chair towards the door.

“But maybe you’re co-founding one,” Perry replied. “I’ll see you later. Glad you made it back.”

“Yes yes,” he replied.

He and Young watched her go, saying nothing.

“You okay?” Young asked, exhaustion lacing his voice.

“Yes,” Rush said.

“That’s complete bullshit,” Young said. “I was at Sheppard’s debriefing.”

Rush wished intensely, irrationally, that Sheppard were still here—wished there was someone he could ask if any of what he thought had happened had actually fucking happened and, if so, which parts.

“Carter has the crystal,” Young said very quietly. “It’s locked in her lab. The only people who know about it besides you and I are Sheppard, Landry, Jackson, and Carter. So don’t say anything about it. To anyone. We’re putting it out that the mission was a failure.”

Rush let out a shaky exhale.

So it had been a physical object.

“Can you—get me out of here, possibly?” Rush asked.

Young turned to look at him, his expression conflicted, but about what, Rush couldn’t say.

“Yeah,” Young said. “That’s the plan. Take it easy on the medical staff, hold your shit together while they give you a physical to make sure you’re not brain damaged—and I’ll spring you.”

Rush nodded.

Less than an hour later, after Rush had been examined by Brightman and given a new set of fatigues, a lecture, and a bottle of pills, Young showed up in the infirmary again. This time, he had a black bag slung over his right shoulder.

“Ready to go, hotshot?” Young asked.

Rush stood, feeling the tremors of his own overtaxed muscles. The literal physicality of his experience was still unclear to him in its scope, but something had caused this entire-body muscular fatigue. There was likely no way to circumvent the reflexive contraction of musculature at the perception of death whether or not said ‘death’ had actually happened.

Rush said nothing until they were in the elevator, heading out of the base. “And what happened to you, then?” he murmured, gesturing vaguely at Young’s crutch.

“Eh,” Young said, leaning against the wall of the elevator. “Little setback. No big deal. I might have been promoted and then immediately used my new rank to make a questionable decision about going into the field.”

It took Rush a moment to work that one out. “You ended up on the planet?”

“Yeah. The weather was not good, turns out.”


“No,” Young said. “We spent a few hours on the Odyssey until the storm passed. At that point, the pair of you were back.”

The elevator doors opened and they walked a short length of hall to emerge into the warm dark of late July. The night was clear and the stars overhead were a familiar spread against the dark. He thought of Altera and could, possibly, feel the subtle pull of the planet against his thoughts, even across vast spacetime distances.

“Hey,” Young said quietly.  “You okay?”

Rush yanked his gaze away from the stars and back to the parking lot, realizing he had stopped in front of the doors. He wished he knew what Young knew. What Sheppard had told them. It would make things easier.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m fine. Give me your keys.”

“In what lifetime,” Young said conversationally, “do you think I’d let you drive right now?” He reached into the bag he was carrying and pulled out a portable signal scrambler. He clicked it on and handed the faintly glowing device to Rush. “This, you can have.”

Rush sighed. He reached up towards his shoulder. The movement was slow, as if the air itself was resisting him. “Do you want me to—” he motioned vaguely at the bag that Young was carrying, belatedly realizing that he probably should have offered earlier.

“I’m good,” Young said.

“Oh yes,” Rush said, with a pointed glance at Young’s crutch. “You look it.”

“This thing?” Young said, glancing down at the crutch. “Purely for fashion.”

“I see,” Rush said.

They walked in silence across the expanse of asphalt to where Young’s car was waiting, a reflective black in the darkness. Young unlocked it remotely with a quiet chirp. Rush had a difficult time with the mechanics of door-opening, which required a cross-body stabilization of right hand with left and then a double handed peeling away of the door from the body of the car.

On the opposite side of the car, as he put his bag into the back seat, Young watched him. 

Rush got into the car.

Neither of them said anything.

The intervals are nonstandard but predictable and he has to wonder now, given what he’s learned about his own genetics whether this is part of it. Of course it would be, the ability to hear and identify absolute pitches. Was it chance that had combined musical proclivity and inclination, was it chance that he is, had always been, technically skilled in this way, chance that he can hear it, whatever it is? He doesn’t yet know its nature but he knows what it sounds like. Is it chance that he is too entrenched in the sound to snap himself out of it? 

There is no out. There is no place to make a stand. He is within it and it is everywhere.

“Talk to me,” Sheppard says. “Talk to me.”

There had been a time in his life when he could listen; a time when she would play for hours and it hadn’t bothered him. The partita in E major was the thing that had caught his attention and the thing that had led to the rest of it because before that there had been no intersection of their sets. All civilized people played the piano, at least to some extent. But it turns from one in E major to one in E minor and that turning must be him; he had always had a preference for the minor triad on the tonic note and she had thought that morbid but a touch amusing as well because of course he preferred the minor, of course you do, sweetheart, you would—

“You don’t hear it?” he manages. “I can’t shut it out.”

“There’s nothing to hear,” Sheppard says. 

And that is what, recently, he has come to fear. That there is nothing to hear, that his mind is coming undone, his consciousness conquered by some kind of neuronal conflagration that must begin in his auditory cortex and spread outward. It was not unheard of.  It had happened before. To others. Would it be better if he played or would it be worse, would it be infinitely worse—

“Hey,” Young said. “Hotshot. Wake up.”

Rush sat forward so abruptly that his seatbelt engaged and he slammed into the strap with a painful contracture of muscles, his hands coming up and wrapping instinctively around the belt as if it had attacked him.

“You were dreaming,” Young said, unnecessarily slowly.

Rush struggled with his seatbelt, struggled with the car door, and finally escaped into the exterior air. After only a few heartbeats he identified his location as the parking lot of his apartment building. He tried to take a slow breath in the suffocating, warm air and failed. He tried to think of nothing but he knew their tonal inclinations now and it was difficult to prevent his mind from turning toward what would be the last cypher. The one that—

“Hotshot,” Young said, getting out of the car.

“Don’t call me that,” Rush snapped.

“Okay,” Young said. “Open the back door and grab the pizza, will you?”

He didn’t remember that they had acquired pizza at any point. Something of this must have shown on his face because Young raised his eyebrows.

“You were sleeping,” the other man said, “and there are only a few places in Colorado Springs that are open at three hundred hours. I figured you’d prefer this to wings, given the choice.”

“I prefer neither.”

“Too bad,” Young said dryly. “Brightman said you should eat.”

“When did you talk to Brightman?” His mind felt fractured, existing as a thing in pieces without perceptual continuity.

“In Sheppard’s debriefing. Less questions, more grabbing the pizza,” Young said, fishing his bag and his single crutch out of the back seat on the driver’s side of the car.

“What did she tell you?” Rush asked, opening the back door of the car and pulling out the pizza.

“That both of you were mildly hypothermic and suffering from exhaustion. You blood work showed massive amounts of adrenaline and indications of muscular injury. You’ll both likely be sore as hell tomorrow.”

He found that pronouncement reassuringly conventional.

Rush followed Young to the door, carrying a fucking pizza. That seemed to err on the side of being a little too conventional and so again, he found himself slightly unsure whether any of this was actually happening. 

Furthermore, did it matter? He wasn’t sure. 

“What does that mean?” Young asked.

“What does what mean?” Rush replied.

“That thing you do,” Young said.

“What thing?”

“You just did it.”

“What?” he asked.

“The thing you do,” Young said, slurring his words in exhaustion, as he unlocked the door to the building. “You know what mean. Where you blink kind of—slowly.”

Rush said nothing, trying to figure out how such a question might be addressed.

“It looks like you’re trying to pretend you’re somewhere else, surrounded by geniuses.”

Rush raised his eyebrows.

“It’s the pizza, isn’t it?” Young said, as they stepped onto the elevator.  “You hate normal things.”

Did he?

“I don’t think so,” Rush said.

“There’s eggplant on it,” Young said.

“Why?” Rush asked.

“Because it was the weirdest shit they had,” Young said.

“I don’t consider eggplant to be particularly ‘weird’,” Rush said.

“You know, Jackson thinks you don’t eat.”

He wasn’t clear on whether that was related, and if so, how. The elevator doors opened and they walked toward the end of the hall. Young was moving extremely slowly. Without thinking about it, Rush reached over and pulled the shoulder bag off Young’s right shoulder. As soon as he had initiated this chain of events he realized that it had, potentially, not been a good idea.

He then lost track of things for a few seconds.

When he was next cognizant of what was happening, the bag, the pizza, and the crutch were on the floor and Young’s forearm seemed to be mostly against his neck. He also seemed to be against the wall, and Young seemed to be somewhat unbalanced, trying not to choke him, and trying not to fall over in equal parts.

“Bad idea,” Rush managed. “Sorry.”

“You think?” Young said through clenched teeth, managing to use the wall to rebalance himself. “What the hell was that?”


“Great,” Young said, taking a deep breath. “Uh, thanks.” He slapped Rush on the arm in a way that was probably supposed to be reassuring and possibly also meant to also convey gratitude. “Sorry. Long, stressful day.”

Rush bent down and, with some difficulty, retrieved the crutch, which he handed to Young. He then shouldered the bag and picked up the pizza, trailing after Young to his apartment door. The other man opened it with the clatter of keys against lacquered wood. Young flipped on his light and Rush followed him inside, depositing the shoulder bag on the floor and the pizza on Young’s table.

“Goodnight,” he said. “Thanks for—“ he tried to think of a pat way to summarize everything that he should be thanking Young for, came up blank, and compensated with a vague wave of the hand.

“Nope,” Young said. “Not goodnight. Sit.”

“I don’t think so,” Rush said.

“Sit,” Young said, lowering himself with a wince into a chair.

“Enjoy your dinner,” Rush said. “Breakfast,” he amended. “Eggplant.”

“Sit, or I’m calling Jackson,” Young said.


“Debatable,” Young said, pulling a piece of pizza out of the box. “You have two choices. Either we eat this here, or in your apartment. Since we’re already here, and you’re weirdly secretive about your apartment, I vote for option number one.”

Rush dropped into a chair, planted an elbow on the table, curled a hand under his chin and considered the pizza in front of him.

“You’re going to eat this, right?” Young asked. “I got this eggplant for you, you know.”

“Why would you do that?” Rush asked.

“Because Brightman said you need to eat.” Young clarified. “As I explained. Already.”

“Was this a plan that you had?” Rush asked. “I thought we had established that you were to make no decisions about food.”

“Maybe you established that. In your own head.”

“That sounds like something I might do,” Rush agreed, picking up a piece and taking a bite. He decided that he was ravenously hungry. After several minutes of attacking the pizza with silent voracity, he realized that Young was watching him.

“So,” Young said. “What happened.”

Rush looked back at him. “I thought you’d been debriefed.”

“Yup,” Young said.  “By Sheppard.”

He was too tired for this.

He considered the potential outcomes of telling Young nothing.

He considered the potential outcomes of telling Young everything.

He considered the potential outcomes of delay.

“Are you going to say something?” Young asked.

“Yes,” Rush said.

Maybe he should just focus on the salient details.

“Anytime now,” Young said.

“I think the crystal is a second factor,” Rush said.

“Is that supposed to make sense to me?” Young asked.

“It’s a principle of authentication,” Rush said, taking another bite of pizza. “We’re trying to open a lock. We determine how to dial each chevron—and that’s something we know. The first factor. But now we have a physical object that was obtained—with some difficulty. It serves as a stand-in for the qualities required to obtain it, and it will likely interface with the gate in some way. Hence, a second factor.”

“Okay,” Young said. “So, just to be clear, you and J Shep hit this one out of the park?”

Rush shrugged with one shoulder. “The crystal is shaped like a glyph, which is likely the identity of the fifth chevron. I’m guessing that if we interface this crystal with the gate it will allow the unlocking. It may—” he paused, letting the train of thought begun on Altera, on the floor of a crystal tower, drop into place. “It may allow for sequential dialing,” he finished. “Something that has, so far, eluded us.”

“But you have five chevrons now,” Young said. “I thought as you solve each one—“

“What makes you think that the five I have are the first five in the sequence?” Rush asked. “I have no idea which of the nine they are. We can get them to lock, but we can’t—“ he freed up a hand and twisted it in the air. “We can’t dial from one to the next.”

“You think maybe with this crystal plugged into the gate—you think then you can dial?”


Young made an approving sort of noise as he chewed.

Rush resumed eating his pizza. He was feeling slightly better, his thoughts sharper than they’d been the entire night.

“So, that wasn’t really what happened, hotshot,” Young said, after a moment.

“What do you want,” Rush asked, “a narrative?”

“Yeah,” Young said.

“Why?” Rush said.

“Because,” Young replied. “This is your debriefing.”

Right then. Of course it was.

“Your official paperwork is already in as an unnamed civilian adjunct to a highly classified mission that falls under the military purview of Atlantis. We’re trying not to create a paper trail.”

“So why do I have to be debriefed at all?” Rush asked.

“Because the acting head of Icarus has decided it’s a good idea and General Landry concurs.”

“Why now?”

“Because you’re too tired to railroad me.”

“We gated to the planet, cracked the cypher, broke open the DHD, Sheppard and I were transported in space and possibly time to the Ancient homeworld, passed a merit-based evaluation system, obtained a crystal, and woke up on Earth, feeling wretched. Who’s the acting head of Icarus?”

Young sighed.

Rush took a bite of pizza. “Who’s the acting head of Icarus?”

“Then again, maybe you’ll never be too tired to railroad me.”

Rush smirked.

“Describe the planet,” Young said.

“Covered in grass,” Rush replied, trying to banish the feel of the place from his mind and hang onto his own irritation. “We only saw two locations. One was the place we were initially transported to, and the other was—“ he broke off, wrenching his thoughts away from abandoned systems. “A city.”

“The first place,” Young said. “What was it like?”

“There was a low-built structure in a radial pattern,” Rush said. “Mostly obscured by grass. The DHD was located in the center of a metal circle. Immediately upon arrival we encountered a holographic projection of a woman.”

“How did you know she was a hologram?” Young asked.

“She identified herself as such,” Rush said, starting in on a second piece of pizza, dropping his eyes.

He wasn’t entirely sure what Sheppard would have communicated in the briefing, but it seemed like a minimization of uncertainties and subjective unpleasantries was his best course of action.

“What did she say?” Young asked.

“She gave us a standard greeting,” Rush said, “and then she asked us what we wanted.”

“What did you say?”

“We identified that we wanted the cypher key and she said ‘correct’—as if she were granting a computational validation. She then invited us to proceed.”  He did not feel inclined to continue his description with this level of detail.

“How did you know where to go?” Young asked, taking another bite of pizza.

“We looked for a break in the low metal wall that surrounded our position.  There was only one such gap.”

“So you went through,” Young said.

“Yes,” Rush said, his eyes scanning the solid regularity of the internal geometries of Young’s apartment—the books, chairs, lamps, and conventional furniture, all of which had been doggedly unpacked.

“And then what?” Young said.

“We passed a series of tests,” Rush said, taking another bite of pizza, “and obtained the crystal.”

“Yup,” Young said, fingering the corrugated cardboard edge of the box. “What was the first test?”

It occurred to Rush that Young had dragged him to the brink of describing something he did not want to discuss with a deftness that was terribly at odds with his perception of the other man. The resultant realization followed sans effort: Young was excellent at precisely this.

He was better than Jackson. Possibly. David would have been the ideal choice for a debriefing but David was—unavailable. Rush felt sure that if there was anyone who could have understood the nature of Altera it would have been David. The other man had always seemed to him to feel the drive of some motivational whip but the origin and outcome of such a drive remained obscure to him.

Young was excellent at this.


Rush could still torque things to his advantage.

He set down his pizza.

Bad idea.

He picked it back up, muscles contracting against the invisible force of fatigue.

Young raised his eyebrows.

Excessive abstraction seemed to cause him problems, but such things could be skirted in favor of the practical. So. He would torque this.

“There were seven rooms in total,” Rush began, “and it’s possible that the length of the entire ordeal was my fault because as soon as it became apparent to me that this was a trial of some kind I immediately extrapolated to what I thought would be its likely structure, which was a microcosm of the encoded chevrons used to dial the gate. I felt that there would be a relationship between the form of the trial and the function of it, which was to facilitate dialing. So, I predicted seven for the gate, or ten for the cypher, with a third, less likely, possibility being nine, for the encrypted address. Once Sheppard and I began to suspect the trial was adaptive, I began the attempt to come up with a cogent rationale for the thing to be six. I think I may have influenced the outcome.” He shrugged and took a bite of his pizza. “But you asked about the first room.”

Young was regarding him with an expression that was taken aback and wary.

“The first room consisted of two force fields that extended laterally for its entire length, floor to ceiling, and advanced toward one another, trapping us in between. Subjectively, we experienced pain, loss of motor control and death before ‘resetting’ as it were, back to the center of the field.” He took a bite of pizza. “Repeated failures seemed to have a cumulative effect on our physiology.  We attempted outrunning the field,” he began counting off on his fingers, “altering the circuitry of the wall, and following an irregular line of text along the floor until we realized that we had to let the fields collide, pass through one another, and create places of destructive interference that were traversable.” 

Young tried to get a word in edgewise, likely the beginning of a request for more detail, but Rush continued as though he hadn’t noticed. “The second room was really more Colonel Sheppard’s purview. It seemed at first to be a test of physical force against a computational opponent, but given that the difficulty level was—adjustable, I think the contest was inherently unwinnable and therefore a misdirection. It would have been avoidable entirely had we realized that simultaneous handling of the weapon was all that was required. He took another bit of pizza. “The third room was relatively straightforward once I realized that—“

“Wait,” Young said, his hand coming up. “Just wait. The difficulty level was adjustable? What do you mean by that?”

He wished he had employed different phrasing.

“I mean it was adjustable,” he said, trying to generalize his way out whatever Young’s concerns were. “There was no way to win.”

“Do you mean you were fighting?”

Apparently Sheppard’s debriefing hadn’t been as thorough as Rush had been imagining. Or perhaps Sheppard’s phrasing had been less explicit. In any case, there was no point in equivocation.

“Yes,” Rush said. “In order to effect a reset, we both had to fail.”

“So you’re saying that after you saw Colonel Sheppard get taken down, then you had attempt the same thing?” Young’s shoulders were tensed, his arms braced against the table.

“Yes,” Rush said, looking away. “Categorically, getting one’s throat cut by a holographic projection is no more disturbing than death by force field when neither are real and both result from subconscious expectations influencing external processes.”

“Please,” Young said, “tell me you’re not so screwed up you actually believe that.”

Rush shrugged and forced himself to take another bite of pizza. He tried to think of nothing. Failing that, he tried to think of the Riemann hypothesis because that had been room three. “As I was saying,” he continued, “with the third room we were successful in a single attempt.  The solution didn’t require a mathematical proof per se, it was more of an identification of a notable feature of famously unsolved problem—“

“What did it look like?” Young asked, watching him with an intensity that was only partially veiled.

“Well,” Rush said, taking another bite of pizza, “it was a floor-to-ceiling representation of the complex plane, but the correct point of egress was clearly—“

“No,” Young snapped. “The holographic projection. From room two. What did it look like?”

“Like a person,” Rush said, looking away, “dressed in clothing of an unfamiliar, likely Ancient style, holding a weapon identical to the one I was holding.”

He wished he knew what Sheppard had said, or not said. It seemed as if the other man had been somewhat circumspect about portions of his narrative, possibly due to time constraints, possibly due to constraints of other kinds.

“Did it change appearance?” Young asked. He didn’t even give Rush a chance to respond before stating, “it must have, if you and Sheppard simultaneously holding the blade short-circuited it.”

Rush nodded, forcing down another bite of pizza.

“Who was it?” Young asked.

“Technically, it was no one,” Rush replied. “It was an adaptive hologram that changed height and build and appearance depending on whether it was facing Sheppard or myself.”

“But whom did it look like, hotshot?” Young asked.

“When I was facing it, it looked like me,” Rush said.

“Yeah, of course it did.” Young looked away and then looked back. “Did it talk to you?”

He hesitated to the point at which there was nothing to say except— “Yes.”

“What did it say?” Young asked.

“Nothing salient,” Rush replied, “only dark reflections of my own subconscious irrationalities. Room four was some kind of basic competency in Ancient philosophical texts, in which we, unfortunately, burned to death several times before Sheppard was able to either recall or intuit the correct response. It wasn’t clear to me at the time nor he did not seem particularly inclined to elaborate as to the manner in which he obtained the answer. He seemed to place a great deal of stock in the idea of thinking at the technological architecture that lay beneath what we were actually experiencing.  Apparently, this is something that often works for him in these types of scenarios.”

“Huh,” Young said.

Rush took another bite of pizza. “Room five was somewhat complicated in that it consisted of a static, emitting, lethal field that was briefly warped by means unclear to me. The warping resulted in patches of constructive and destructive interference that created an aesthetically pleasing pattern that we were able to duplicate via force of will transduced into electromagnetic force—terribly interesting, but not a clue how that worked, if it even ‘happened’ at all—at which point a new pattern would be presented. Unfortunately, areas of destructive interference did not always overlap, which meant that one had to be positioned correctly before the next pattern was displayed, lest it killed you. Room six was—“

“Sheppard said that you had a hard time with room five,” Young said carefully.

“Yes well,” Rush took another bite of pizza, trying to come up with something that would be factually accurate and that would not give away any additional information that would lead to subsequent lines of questioning and that would also not remind him of musical theory or Ancient interval preferences when it came to pitch because there was now something in his mind that had been theirs. It was very much like what having one piece of fucking Chopin would tell an alien culture about western music.  There were generalizations that could be made—

But he wasn’t going to make them now.

He was not going to make them now.

“He said you seemed to think there was a tonal component.”

“There was,” Rush said.

He couldn’t hear it,” Young said, with a subtle emphasis on the pronoun.

“Well I’d be willing to bet he can’t hear a dog whistle either. Do you feel qualified to pit two subjective experiences against one another, as if there’s any metric you could use to test the validity of one versus another?”

He couldn’t prove them wrong; he couldn’t prove them right—whatever it was they suspected—because they all suspected something; he just wasn’t sure what and he wasn’t sure if they were sure either. 

“No,” Young said slowly. “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m not saying you’re wrong—”

Which was good because he wasn’t wrong, there was no way, objectively, that he could be wrong. Such a determination would be impossible.

“—I’m just saying that it wouldn’t be the first time that something like that had—upset you.” Young was clearly being careful, because even though his last statement was correct, he had certainly, certainly meant to imply that the tonal nature of the room might have been nothing more than an imagined construct, which it had not been, not anymore than all of the rest of it had been.

“True,” Rush replied, allowing Young to backtrack, as it allowed him the latitude to move on. “Room six was a bookend to room one, its aesthetic opposite, full of—“ his throat closed. “Full of water. There was a path that we were able to reveal in short order based on another Ancient phrase.”

“Sheppard said you also seemed to have a hard time with that one,” Young said.

He did not like the water.

“I was getting tired of fucking dying by that point,” Rush said.

There had been a cost to willing an early end to the test, for trying to force it into six rooms, and whether that cost had been truly inevitable or there only because he believed a cost to be inevitable—it didn’t matter.

“Makes sense,” Young said.

As soon as he had known the nature of what it was that had trapped them, he had known there would be water. “So we drowned a few times,” Rush managed with a tone he felt was passably cool. “We were then transported to a room in a city that contained the crystal we were looking for. I retrieved the crystal, and we were transported back to the planet.”

“There was no test in the seventh room?” Young asked.

He thought of the heartsick city, alone under a white star. Even now he wasn’t certain why or how he’d left it. He didn’t have to wonder what Sheppard had told them. He knew.

“No,” Rush said.  “There was no test.”

“You don’t remember anything after grabbing the cypher?” Young asked.

“No—“ Rush said, breaking off abruptly as a quick flash of darkened sky and the whisper of rain through trees imposed itself on his mind. “I was only conscious for a few seconds.  Long enough to know I had it.”

There was no sound in the apartment save the low hum of Young’s air conditioner. The other man said nothing, looking at him with a haunted expression as he rubbed his hand absently along the line of his jaw.

In the absence of an overt line of questioning, Rush’s thoughts seemed to lose their edge.

“Are you okay?” Young asked finally.

“Obviously,” Rush said.

Young stared at him. “Sheppard said, and I quote, that we’d ‘grossly underestimated’ your capabilities.”

“Yes, well, I’m sure he’s right about that.”

Young snorted. “Probably. You sure you’re okay?”

He stared back at Young, wondering if there was something wrong with himself that he hadn’t noticed. “I’m fine,” Rush reiterated.

“Good,” Young said quietly, toying with a half-eaten piece of pizza.  “I’m glad to hear it.”

They stared silently at the congealing pizza.

He felt his thoughts slowing. “It’s half past three in the morning,” Rush said.  “This cannot be what you people usually do for briefings.”

“Why don’t you sleep on my couch,” Young said.

“No, thank you,” Rush said.

“How about ‘yes’?” Young said. 

“Why would I do that?”

“I bought you dinner, the least you can do is make me breakfast.”

“If we are doing some kind of quid pro quo exchange,” Rush said, “I think you owe me something like fourteen meals at this point.”

“I told Brightman that I’d keep an eye on you,” Young said.

“Yes well, she’ll never have to know,” Rush replied.

“And I told her that you’d keep an eye on me,” Young said.

Rush looked at Young. The man was sitting gingerly on the edge of his chair, his expression troubled.  The skin around his eyes was tight, and there was a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead. The crutch he hadn’t left the apartment with that morning argued for some kind of event on the planet that was likely more physiologically significant than exertion brought on by bad weather.

“What happened?” he asked, toying with the edge of the pizza box.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow, hotshot, I’m too fucking tired right now.”

Rush nodded shortly, then said, “I do not sleep on couches.”

“Fine,” Young said. “You can sleep wherever you want. I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“Are you done with this?” Rush asked, indicating the pizza that they’d mostly consumed. 

“Yeah,” Young said.  “It tastes like shit, actually.”

“You think I’m unaware?” Rush asked dryly. “This is the problem that comes with elevated culinary standards.” 

He picked up the box and headed through the door of the shadowed kitchen.

“You can never go home again,” Young agreed.

“Precisely.” He had a hard time mustering the fine motor control necessary to tear aluminum foil.

“This does not bode well for the ‘chess and wings’ night that Mitchell has planned for later in the week,” Young said, following him into the kitchen, leaning on his crutch.

“Chess and wings?”

“He’s calling it che’swings,” Young said. “One word. Because he’s a dork. And he thinks this is going to teach Teal’c lesson about giving earth food a Jaffa name. This is how he’s ‘redefining his leadership role’.”

Rush had no idea how to respond to that.

“You’re doing it again,” Young said.

“Doing ‘what’ again?”

“Wishing you were surrounded by geniuses,” Young said. “That, or you’re about to pass out. I’m never quite sure.”

“It’s neither,” Rush said, planting the fourth and fifth fingers of each hand against the counter as he folded the foil over the pizza.

“If by neither, you mean ‘both’,” Young said, “then yeah, probably.”

“Colonel Mitchell does not strike me as a chess player,” Rush said, turning to open the refrigerator. He squinted in the glare of the fluorescent lighting and layered the foil-wrapped pizza atop an impressive array of beer.

“He’s not,” Young replied, leaning against the doorframe, backlit by light from the next room.  “He’s just doing it for the ladies.”

“That’s nice,” Rush said, attempting to break down the pizza box, but lacking the requisite coordination to do so.

“Don’t worry about it, hotshot,” Young said.

Rush completed his crass folding job on the cardboard box and shoved it beneath the sink next to Young’s paper recycling.  He leaned against the counter for a moment, recovering, hoping the fine muscular tremors from overuse were not at all noticeable.

“Or,” Young said, “that’s good too.”

“Shut up, will you?” Rush said.

“Four to three,” Young said.

He looked over at Young. It took him a moment, but finally he said, “Fuck.”

“You should take whatever it was that Brightman gave you if you want to be able to move in the morning.”  Young reached into a cabinet, and grabbed himself a glass. “I plan on taking a responsible dose of painkillers myself.”

“I’ll consider it.” 

“Consider away,” Young said, limping back toward the kitchen table where he had deposited his bag. “In the meantime, want to watch infomercials?”

“How could I resist?” Rush asked dryly.

“I’ll be back,” Young said, heading toward his bedroom.

Rush leaned forward, his hands braced against the table, trying to suppress the subtle shaking of his muscles.  He wondered what John Sheppard was doing. He imagined the other man facing down some nebulous threat halfway across the universe—exhausted, full of secrets, kept company by his city on the sea. He could very nearly visualize it. A dock of silver filigree. The afternoon sun. Sheppard, staring out, over bright water.

Rush shook his head, fished the medication that Brightman had given him out of his jacket pocket and regarded it with narrowed eyes. He repocketed it without opening the bottle.

He opened one of Young’s closets, looking for spare bedding. He was fairly sure that the man had inherited quite a bit of it. He remembered unpacking at least one handmade blanket crafted by a relation with a dubious knack for color coordination. He found it without much effort.

After a few minutes, Young reemerged in a t-shirt and vaguely athletic looking pants, his crutch under one arm, a blanket and pillow under the other. He dropped the bedding on the floor next to the couch.

“You missed,” Rush said dryly, looking at the floor.

“That’s for you,” Young said. “I’m good with just the couch. But um,” he looked at the blanket that Rush had retrieved. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” Rush replied.

“Can I get a hand, here, hotshot?” Young asked.

Rush stepped in, and they locked forearms as he helped Young sit, counterbalancing the pull of gravity.

“You need anything else?” Rush asked, as Young gingerly dragged his left let off the floor with the help of his right hand. “Twenty more IQ points, possibly?” He reached in to slowly pull Young’s foot up to the level of the couch. The controlled movement taxed his already exhausted muscles, and he tried to suppress the resultant tremors.

“You could probably spare them,” Young said, his teeth gritted, grimacing as he shifted position. “You’re such an asshole.” There was no mistaking the amusement in his tone.

“It’s a gift,” Rush said as he straightened. “Try to contain your envy.”

“Yeah,” Young hissed, finally easing back into position. “I’ll do my best. God damn,” Young continued, sounding slightly breathless. “So, that was worse than I thought it would be.”

“What happened?” Rush asked, scanning the room for the television remote.

“Outrunning death-by-high-voltage turned out to be less ‘light duty’, and more ‘regular duty’,” Young said. “But, on the plus side, I didn’t re-break anything.”

“Congratulations,” Rush said dryly. “Death by high voltage?”

“Lightning storm,” Young said. “Scratch that. Normal storm. With lightning. And by ‘normal storm’ I mean freakishly large storm. But it had rain. And hail. You and Sheppard were lucky you came back after the worst of it was over.”

“Apparently,” Rush agreed, retrieving the remote from Young’s bookshelf.

“Thanks,” Young said, as he took it. He turned on the TV.

Rush turned down the lights and then sank to the floor, his back against the couch. Belatedly, he realized that his lap was missing his laptop, but the idea of going to retrieve it from his own apartment seemed like too much of a barrier in activation energy.

“Hotshot,” Young said, changing the channels in predictable, short intervals, “you know that was fucked up, right? What happened on that planet?”

Rush said nothing.

“Because it was,” Young said. “The entire thing.”

“I suppose,” Rush replied.

“It doesn’t usually go like that,” Young said. “But sometimes, when you get in the way of a thing that you don’t understand, it plows over you.”

For a long time, Rush said nothing, a muscle twitching subtly in his cheek.

Young stopped his channel switching on an instructional tutorial regarding how to best render trees while painting a landscape. After a time, Rush could hear the other man’s even breathing as a forestscape came to fill the canvas on the screen.

He thought of the gate, of the cyphers within it. He thought of Altera, of its ceaseless, interrogative loops that ran forever unanswered. He thought of the mathematics, of the blurring of the line between truth and its description.

“I don’t think that’s the problem,” he whispered finally. 

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