Mathématique: Chapter 26
“Did you just call me ‘gate bait’?” Rush asked.
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.
His fingers dig into loosened earth. He drags himself through the darkening landscape, up the steep slope. His progress is slow—hand over agonized hand while his bad leg trails behind him, useless. Even the air feels hot. Beside him, Telford coughs, his fists tightening uselessly into gray dust, trying to gain traction. Failing.
“We are not going to die here,” Telford says, choking on the ash in the air.
Young coughs. “No?”
“No,” Telford replies. “I will not allow us to die here.”
Young opened his eyes to the sun, streaming into his apartment through gaps in his venetian blinds. “Oh god,” he whispered, his right hand coming to his face in an attempt to shut out the clear brightness of early morning.
He was covered in a cold sweat.
The pain had woken him.
Or the sun.
Or, maybe, it had been the shreds of a dream that, even now, was already fading.
He stared at his ceiling, watching the morning creep across white paint.
His bones would heal. His bones were healing. This was just—a setback. Nothing more than a setback. He slid laterally toward the edge of the couch and lowered his right foot to the floor. With a combination of right hand and right foot he was able to level himself into a vertical position without either flexing or extending his left hip. Much.
He gripped the wall for balance as he gingerly put weight on his injured leg. He exhaled, slow and controlled.
It could be worse.
It could also be better.
He looked down at the floor and flinched in alarm. The spike of adrenaline caused him to step back and nearly unbalance onto the couch. He staggered and caught himself with a hand on the wall, pulling in a deep breath before shooting a venomous glare at the mathematician who was currently lying face down on the floor, doing an excellent impression of someone who had been left for dead.
“God damn,” he hissed, trying to calm the hell down.
If the man didn’t want to sleep in a bed for reasons of his own, Young had no problem with that. Sure, it was weird—but Rush? Yeah. A bit of a weird guy. What Young did have a problem with was how alarming he found it to wake up and find someone lying underneath his coffee table as if they had been slide-tackled by sleep.
After confirming that Rush was definitely breathing, he rolled his eyes. “Scientists,” he whispered.
He pulled his crutch away from the wall and limped toward the bathroom, where he gingerly stripped off his T-shirt and the SGC-issue pants from the previous day. He tried to avoid his reflection in the mirror, as he wasn’t inclined to face down scars that served as yet another reminder of just how far it was that he had to go before he’d made it anywhere near his usual level of functioning.
After a shower, two more Percocets, and breakfast, which was a piece of cold eggplant pizza eaten over the sink, Young felt significantly better. It was just before oh eight hundred, and he wasn’t clear on whether he was due to make an appearance at the SGC.
On one hand, there were work-hour protocols in place that kicked in after offworld travel. Duty hours would dictate that after a mission like yesterday’s he would have at least the morning off. On the other hand, often those protocols were enforced or waived by the upper level command staff, and given that he now was acting head of Icarus, he was fairly certain that the person deciding whether or not he was coming into work was himself.
He limped back into his living room and considered Rush.
Making up his mind, he retrieved the locked, kevlar-reinforced, shoulder bag he’d removed from the SGC the night before and returned to the kitchen to start coffee. He unlocked the seven-digit combination lock on the bag and pressed his thumb to the portable scanner. Once he had the thing open, he pulled out a stack of files and set them on his table before slipping his laptop out of the bag.
He opened his email to find several unread messages. He clicked through them in order.
To: Everett Young
From: Cameron Mitchell
Subject: DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT IT
If you come to work today we’re replacing you at che’swings night with your neighbor. (Seriously though, how good of a chess player do you think he is? He seems like a chess guy. Would he give me tips, do you think? Would you give me tips?) You’re gonna call me tonight, right? Heck yes you are. We’ve got some ish to discuss.
Young rolled his eyes and clicked to the next message.
To: Everett Young
From: Daniel Jackson
I’m assuming that you’ve got quite the reading list now that you’re acting head of the IP. You’re going to want to talk. 719-555-2438. FYI, SG-1 is OW day after tomorrow, not sure for how long. Hope your back is okay. And your hip. And your leg. Even though Dr. Lam is ostensibly out of commission, Cam may have given her a heads up regarding your recent activities. I would describe her as ‘irked’.
To: Everett Young
Cc: Daniel Jackson
From: Henry Landry
Colonel Young, I’ll expect your report by oh nine hundred tomorrow. I will not expect you until you’re cleared by medical. Dr. van Densen sent an internal memo regarding her assessment of your command decision as well as the efficacy of the medical clearance procedures in place at the SGC. She finds them wanting. Bureaucracy will certainly ensue, so do both of us a favor and write up the rationale behind your decision to go into the field using form H7650. Get Jackson to sign off on the thing. Politicians love the guy. Doctors love the guy. Everyone loves the guy.
The quiet whistle of the coffee pulled Young back to the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of the stuff and then returned to his dining table to take care of his email. When that was done, he sat sipping his coffee, undecided.
He could start on his paperwork; he was certain that was what Landry would prefer. On the other hand, Rush was currently asleep, and Young was not in love with the idea of trying to read a pile of classified files with the other man up and around.
No contest then.
He limped to his bedroom to retrieve his reading glasses from his bedside table. When he was back in the kitchen, he shut his laptop, dragged the files within reach, ordered them chronologically, and began to read.
—having completed a discussion of Dr. Beckett’s impressive empirical progress to date, we must turn our attention to the following questions: 1) What is the biological purpose of the ATA, LTA, and NRA genes? 2) How were these genes introduced into human lineages? 3) What are the broader implications for human evolution? 4) How can current and future knowledge regarding these genes be used to better inform our use of Ancient technology and the development of our own equivalent devices? Due to the format of this report, potential answers to these questions will be outlined briefly below for the non-specialist reader. For a more technical analysis, please see attached documents prepared by Dr. Carson Beckett, beginning on page 4.
1) Regarding the biological purpose of the Ancient genes. It is tempting to discuss the “purpose” of xenogenetic elements in terms of their observed effects. If we were to indulge this tendency we might say that ATA allows for projection of electromagnetic waves generated by the brain, and therefore activates Ancient technology. We might say that LTA is receptive, and allows for mental calibration between an activated Ancient device and its operator. This interpretation is problematic. Genes are passed from parent to offspring because they confer a survival advantage to the organism that they generate, differentiate, and maintain through their combined workings. ATA has not persisted in the human lineage because it activates Ancient technology. Regardless of how this gene was introduced to humans, it endures because it confers a survival advantage of some kind, independent of its ability to allow for effective use of Ancient devices. The same argument can be made for LTA and indeed each of these genes can be found alone, without the presence of the other. Speculation regarding the survival advantage conferred by these genes in the SGC medical community has centered on the possibility that they may allow for the primitive development of a quantifiable “sixth sense” that allows for interaction with portions of the electromagnetic spectrum that are normally outside human perception. Measurements taken by Dr. Beckett and Dr. McKay following John Sheppard’s interaction with Lantean technology (including “Puddle Jumpers,” lifesigns detectors, and the neural interface device) indicate that there may be some basis for this hypothesis, though, by its nature, this evidence is no more than anecdotal. It is teleologically appealing to speculate that a survival advantage could be conferred by the ability to sense or influence the local electromagnetic environment. Given the potential that these genes may hold, it is a mistake to restrict our interpretation and investigation of them by defining them by a side effect (“projective” and “receptive” in regards to technological interfacing) of their primary role, as this may limit subsequent advances in basic science.
2) The introduction of Ancient genes into the Tau’ri lineage. It is evident to anyone who has made a study of either ATA or LTA that these genes are not human equivalents of Ancient counterparts, acquired over time via convergent evolution. The human versions of ATA and LTA exhibit such a high degree of genetic conservation vis-à-vis the Ancient genetic code that there is no question that [even if humans are the second evolution of this form in the galaxy (an event whose independent spontaneity seems unlikely and has yet to be verified)] these particular genes were introduced into human lineage at some point in our evolutionary history. Whether this occurred via deliberate interference or as a natural consequence of sexual reproduction is a question that we cannot answer at this juncture, nor can we assess motive if this introduction was indeed a deliberate act. Examination of the genetic background of individuals with these genes has given rise to a pattern suggestive of eight separate founder events. One in Sub-Saharan Africa, two in Central Asia, two in Western Europe, one in Eastern Europe, one in the Middle East, and one in Central America. Due to the demographics of the SGC, most of the individuals that have been identified thus far can be traced back to the founder events of Western Europe, specifically the event that has been localized to the United Kingdom, which, based on genetic polymorphisms, is believed to be the source of the gene carried by Dr. Carson Beckett, Colonel John Sheppard, and General Jack O’Neill.
Young raised his eyebrows, wondering about Rush. He checked the date of Dr. Lam’s summary report against Rush’s recruitment date, and found that it predated the man’s employment by approximately two months. He skipped over her analysis of evolutionary implications of the gene, leafed through the document, and set it aside in his pile of completed files. Most of what he’d covered so far had been background—a collection of files recommended by Landry to get him up to speed before he tackled the heavy stuff. The remainder of the stack consisted of black cardstock, emblazoned with red letters denoting the security clearance level required for their removal. He picked up the next file and opened it. To his surprise, the papers were unmistakably typed. As in—on a typewriter, not printed with a laser printer. He frowned, adjusted his glasses, and began to read.
August 31st, 2007.
Unnamed Committee #4—meeting transcription
In attendance: General Jack O’Neill (JO), General Henry Landry (HL), Dr. Daniel Jackson (DJ), Colonel David Telford (DT), Dr. Carolyn Lam (CL), Aide to the General Walter Harriman (WH—scribe).
Agenda: 1) Statement of purpose; 2) Discussion of project task group; 3) Proposed actions
HL: Thank you for coming. As you know, we are currently facing a threat of nearly inconceivable proportions. This committee is tasked with the decision of whether or not to authorize the creation of an unnamed project with the express purpose of combating the threat posed by the Ori. Dr. Lam, out of all of us here, I’m betting that you’re the only one who isn’t up to speed on events of recent days. Dr. Jackson is going to fill you in.
DJ: As you know, Vala and I exchanged consciousness with individuals in another galaxy using an Ancient device we’re now calling ‘Communication Stones.’ During that experience we encountered a race of beings similar, in some ways, to the Ancients. Like the Ancients, they exist as pure energy on a higher plane of existence. They speak Ancient. But they call themselves the Ori. And, unfortunately, these beings were—are—much less scrupulous about the policy of noninterference with our plane.
CL: Hence the burning to death of their supplicants.
DJ: Right. What you don’t yet know is that they made an overt threat against this galaxy.
HL: A threat we believe they’re in a position to make good on.
DJ: They accrue power though the electromagnetic energy produced by the synchronized worship that they demand from their followers.They’re—they have become—quite formidable.
JO: Isn’t it always the way? We don’t need a blow-by-blow, Daniel. The bottom line is that we’ll resist these guys as best we can, but defeating the Ori may be a little more complicated than taking on the System Lords. It may require—unconventional methods.
HL: That’s the purpose of this committee. To explore less conventional options.
CL: I’m sorry, could you please clarify what my role is in all of this?
HL: You’re here in an advisory capacity, Dr. Lam. Dr. Jackson requested your presence in light of potential—ethical concerns that may arise.
CL: Ethical concerns.
CL: What kind of ethical concerns?
DT: Recently we’ve become aware of an option that may provide us with an edge against what essentially amounts to a hostile, ascended, ultra-powerful enemy.
DJ: There’s no evidence of that. No evidence of a tactical advantage of any kind.
DT: Nevertheless, a tactical advantage is looking likely. To bring everyone up to speed—because you may not have previously had this clearance for this either, Carolyn—a reference to a nine-chevron address has been found in the Atlantis database. The glyphs aren’t anything we recognize, and it’s been suggested that the thing is actually a cypher. Cross-referencing the address against all our databases gave a bit more detail on where it might go. I’ll let Jackson handle that, seeing as this is his area.
DJ: ‘And when the plague came for them, when it arose from that which they had wrought, they set forth over two roads. The first was their failsafe, the means by which they might alter their destiny. The second was their hope, and began in the heart of their island amongst the stars.’ The second road is clearly Atlantis itself, and the text indicates the original city might have been even larger then than we know it to be now. The first road—this is the one that’s linked to the nine-chevron address. Altering one’s destiny sounds good. It sounds promising. But we have to keep in mind that the Ancient word for ‘road’ is used frequently, and often applies to things that we wouldn’t really conceptualize as a ‘road.’ We’re applying our own cartographically informed concept of a ‘road’ here, when really what they meant by ‘road’ wasn’t necessarily a structure or even a literal or metaphorical path. It’s more like—a means by which any difficulty can be addressed and traversed—whether that was physical or metaphysical. The same word is used for “edge” and, confusingly also for “ship.” You can get a sense for that here, because they describe Atlantis itself as a road/ship, when really we’d conceptualize it more as a city, but all of those words apply. The founding documents of a city or colony, for example were also referred to with a variant of the word road, but one with more stationary connotations.
DT: Great. We get it.
DJ: Do you? Because I want to be very clear that whatever this nine-chevron address leads to—it might be another Atlantis or it might not be. It might be something like Celestis. It might be something worse. It might be a place where the Ori already are, especially if it’s outside this galaxy, which seems likely to me, given the fact that an eight-chevron address takes you to Pegasus.
DT: Or, it might be something we can use. A weapon, for example. You’re the one who’s obsessed with finding Merlin’s—
HL: Let’s stay on topic and try to avoid discussion of other, equally classified, areas.
CL: I don’t see how any of this, as outlined, presents an ethical quandary.
DJ: That’s not all there was in the database. Apparently in order to access this—destiny-altering concept or—
DT: Road. Road or ship.
DJ: We’re not calling it a ship. We’re not calling it a road. I don’t think that’s what it is and it’s a mistake to mislead ourselves into easy answers. In order to gain full access to this address, certain ‘benchmarks’ need to be met. Now, the word, as used, certainly refers to the electrophysiological changes that take place in the brain prior to ascension, and we know that because of a really, really unfortunate incident. The cloned version of Anubis. We came across inscriptions on the wall of his lab that used the exact same term.
[See attached photo-WH]
CL: So if we want to do this—we’re going to need a person who meets these same—benchmarks?
DT: That may not be as far fetched as it sounds, seeing as we have access to Anubis’ research. We may be able to alter one of our own people to within the parameters specified in the database.
CL: I see. What kind of alterations are we talking about?
DT: That’s what we would need to determine after assessing Anubis’ progress.
DJ: We are talking about Anubis here. Anubis’ progress. Are we really even putting this on the table?
DT: We’re also talking about the destruction of our species if we don’t find a way to combat the Ori. You’re damn right we’re putting this on the table.
HL: Settle down, gentlemen. We’re not committing to anything yet.
DJ: If we do this, if anyone is going to do this—I volunteer. It’s going to be me.
JO: No it’s not. It’s going to be the best genetic candidate we have.
DJ: Leave Sheppard on Atlantis. They need him there.
DT: I have another candidate who came up via the NMDP. Someone better even than—
Young jerked, startled, as a chair scraped across the wood of the floor. He winced, bringing a hand to his back as Rush dropped to sit opposite him, his movements unusually slow.
“Well. You look like you’re about ready for a clap wi’ a spade,” Rush said.
“Is that supposed to be an insult?” Young asked, shutting the file, “because you look like shit. And you sound Scottish.”
“Is that supposed to be an insult?” Rush asked, his eyes narrowed.
“Last time I checked,” Young said, “yeah, the phrase ‘you look like shit’ was an insult. ‘You sound Scottish’ is not an insult. I like it.”
“You like it?”
“You’re impossible to talk to. Make me breakfast or something.”
“It’s nearly noon,” Rush replied. “You’re looking uncharacteristically scholarly.”
“Thank you,” Young replied, pulling off his reading glasses, “and I would be willing to substitute lunch for breakfast.”
“Would you now?” Rush replied, his chin resting in one hand.
“Or, there’s eggplant pizza,” Young said.
“But is there coffee?” Rush asked.
“That’s not a meal,” Young said. “But yes, there is coffee.”
“Right then,” Rush said, wincing as he got to his feet, one hand coming to his chest, the other braced against the table.
“Sore?” Young asked.
“No,” Rush replied, lying through his Scottish teeth.
“Maybe think about not sleeping on a hardwood floor. Did you take that stuff from Brightman?”
“No,” Rush said.
“Maybe think about taking it.”
“I’ll consider it,” Rush replied, with something like ten percent of his normal hauteur.
Young waited until the other man had disappeared into the kitchen before he put his glasses back on and reopened his file. He finished scanning the minutes of the first meeting and moved on to the second.
September 14th, 2007.
Unnamed Committee #4—meeting transcription
In attendance: General Jack O’Neill (JO), General Henry Landry (HL), Dr. Daniel Jackson (DJ), Colonel David Telford (DT), Dr. Carolyn Lam (CL), Aide to the General Walter Harriman (WH—scribe).
Agenda: 1) Progress made on Goa’uld research into ascension 2) Proposed plan for dialing nine-chevron address
DJ: This is the agenda? Are we really considering going forward with—
DT: Enough with the righteous outrage, Jackson.
JO: Cut it out, both of you. There will be a time for this debate. Later. After coffee.
HL: Dr. Lam, can you bring us up to speed on what we’ve learned about Anubis’ work?
CL: I’ve prepared a document.
CL: I’ll briefly summarize what is contained in more detail in my report. I encourage all of you to read it, as our decision regarding whether or not to proceed will be made based on Anubis’ technical method and whether we deem it scientifically and ethically sound. From the clone that spent a brief time in our custody, we learned that Anubis was attempting to achieve ascension through biological means. To that end, Anubis engineered his clone with the ATA and LTA genes. In preparation for this meeting I ordered a whole-genome alignment between the biological samples obtained from the clone and those we have of Ancient tissue. As expected, the alignment revealed that the clone had two copies of ATA and two copies of LTA. What we did not expect was to discover another region of overlap.
DJ: Are you saying you found a third Ancient gene?
CL: Yes. That’s what I’m saying. We’re confirming it now, but everyone who has tested positive for either ATA or LTA is now being checked for this third gene. We already have at least one positive sample.
CL: Nicholas Rush.
DT: We have got to get this guy.
DJ: I talked to him last week. He said no.
DT: Well then we give him the hard sell.
DJ: What’s the ‘hard sell?’
HL: Dr. Lam. Please continue.
CL: We discovered something else in our research. It seems apparent that the presence of all three genes is not sufficient to begin the transformation of the mind that was noted in Anubis’ clone, in Dr. Jackson as he ascended, and in Dr. McKay following his exposure to the Ancient modification console discovered on Atlantis. Something more is needed.
JO: It’s going to be some creepy device, isn’t it? Why is it always the creepy device.
CL: Anubis’ research describes an organic compound he developed that was capable of rapid, maximal induction of the protein products of these three Ancient genes. In order to ascend, these genes are induced to undergo a massive increase in activity. Far beyond their baseline, physiologic levels. We believe this genetic overexpression can be achieved by conscious intent, as it’s described in many of the Ancient texts, but—it’s also possible to induce this overexpression artificially.
JO: So, where can we get some of this organic compound?
DJ: Did anyone else notice that that clone of Anubis had slightly psychopathic tendencies and nearly destroyed the SGC?
Young stopped reading. His eyes flicked to the kitchen, where he could hear the sound of Rush pulling dishes out of cupboard. He rubbed his hand across his mouth and continued reading.
DT: Likely that’s a side effect of the fact that it was a clone of Anubis, Jackson. Not exactly a Goa’uld known for his civilized discourse or rational worldview.
DJ: Oh really? Are you sure? Do you have a degree in advanced genetics? Do you specialize in organic synthesis? We need someone else on this committee. We need Sam. Why isn’t Colonel Carter involved in this? I think that’s a legitimate question that should be taken up immediately.
DT: When the Ancients activated these genes they ascended; they didn’t go nuts, Jackson. Calm down.
DJ: They activated their genes through conscious control, not through a twisted Goa’uld device. This is a mistake.
HL: You’re free to step down from this committee at any time.
DJ: I don’t think so.
JO: Dr. Lam, why don’t you keep going?
CL: That’s where the hard information I have ends. We don’t have a sample of this organic compound, but we do have its formula. We’re trying to synthesize a small amount of it, but so far without success. It’s proving to be difficult.
DT: We need to try to find another of Anubis’ labs. Before the LA finds one. We know they’re interested in this. We know we have a leak.
HL: Most definitely agreed. Colonel Telford, work with Jackson to come up with a list of priority targets to check out.
DT: Sure. What about Nicholas Rush?
DJ: I’ve set up some unobtrusive security for him.
DT: Not good enough.
DJ: He doesn’t want to join the program.
DT: He just doesn’t know he wants to. There’s a difference. Let me talk to him.
HL: Fine. Talk to him. But make that list.
Young flipped ahead, skipping over the report that described Anubis’ lab. He had written that one, as the person who had headed up a joint effort of three SG teams to secure and document the contents of the Goa’uld’s cloning facility. He scanned ahead through pages of meeting minutes regarding the discussion of the contents of Anubis’ lab until the next time that Rush was mentioned.
HL: So we have a candidate device to make the physiological alterations, but no actual candidate.
DT: Give me some time. I almost have Rush convinced.
HL: You have as much time as we all have, colonel. The truth of it is that we would have an Ori beachhead in our galaxy right now if it hadn’t been for Vala Mal Doran, mind-boggling though that is.
DJ: I’ll do it. We don’t need Rush.
JO: You’re not doing this, Daniel. You don’t have the genes, and we need you on SG-1.
DJ: Since when has ‘not having the genes’ ever been a problem for me? They’ll let me do it. I know they will.
DJ: The Ancients.
DT: I don’t see that this is any of their business. If they don’t give enough of a damn to help us out of a mess that they created, then we do this on our own.
DJ: We shouldn’t use this device. I’m telling you, there’s going to be a cost to doing this. Rush is a Fields medalist. He solved a Millennium Prize Problem last year. P=NP. Something about polynomial time. I don’t know. The point is, he’s extremely well known in academic circles even outside his field. He’s not a low profile candidate. People are going to notice if he disappears. People are going to notice if—something were to happen to him.
DT: As far as I’m concerned, his mathematical skills are a bonus. We can put him to work on the nine-chevron address. He can probably tell us whether or not the thing is a cypher, as opposed to all this handwaving bullshit we’re getting from our math guys.
JO: You don’t want to mess with the math guys.
DT: The point is, we snap up the top fraction of the scientific community almost every year. This is no different.
DJ: There’s a reason we do it before they win Fields medals. Or Nobel prizes. Leave him alone. Leave him to Earth.
DT: This guy belongs here. He does not belong in academia.
DJ: That wasn’t my impression.
HL: If it’s not going to be Rush, then it’s going to be Sheppard.
DJ: It shouldn’t be anyone.
DT: I understand why you feel responsible for this situation, Jackson. And—you know what? You should.
JO: Out of line, colonel. Way, way out of line.
DT: But trying to block the recruitment of the best possible candidate out of a sense of personal culpability—
DJ: You don’t know where this address leads. You have no idea. So stop framing it as if it’s some magical solution.
DT: We’re under siege. It will be a damn miracle if we don’t have to open up a second front against the Lucian Alliance within the next year. We’re going to be annihilated if we don’t do anything.
“Well shit,” Young said, quiet in a quiet room.
DJ: We’re looking for Merlin’s weapon. We’re eroding the belief structure from which the Ori draw their power. We’re unmaking their beachheads, we’re—
DT: It’s not enough. None of it is enough, Jackson, and you know it. You know it as well as I do or you wouldn’t come to these meetings.
DJ: I come because the alternative is worse. I can barely stand—
HL: Control yourselves.
HL: No decision needs to be made yet.
DJ: We’re making it. We’re making it by inches.
HL: That’s enough, Jackson.
JO: Daniel. I think we all—we know what we’re doing. We know what we’ll eventually have to ask of someone. But I think we’re all clear that it needs to be asked.
CL: There’s something I’d like to say.
“Do you have an objection to discarding this?” Rush asked.
Young jumped. “What?” he snapped, too sharp and too loud.
Rush gave him a searching look and held up the remains of the eggplant pizza. He was leaning against the doorframe, eyebrows raised.
“No,” Young said absently. “Go ahead. Whatever.”
“What are you reading?” Rush asked, his gaze flicking to the files on the table.
“It doesn’t look like nothing. It looks like a stack of classified files.”
“Exactly,” Young said. “Nothing.”
Rush rolled his eyes and vanished into the kitchen.
HL: Go ahead, Dr. Lam.
CL: I’ve prepared a document regarding the nature of the organic compound. We’re now referring to it as a genetic transactivator, because we’ve confirmed that’s its biological role. It’s lipid soluble and permeates human skin rapidly and efficiently. We believe it was designed to be applied transdermally. Upregulation of gene expression begins immediately and ramps up over the course of several days to the biological maximum.
JO: So—you rub some goo on yourself and you’re good to go? Benchmarks met?
CL: No. No, we don’t think so. We think that in order for this method to work, the person must have the LTA gene. In the presence of LTA, the electrophysiological patterns of the brain are able to be subtly influenced by Ancient technology. When LTA is upregulated by the transactivator, the carrier becomes much more susceptible to external manipulation.
DJ: I knew it. I knew it would be something like this.
JO: Dr. Lam, can you rephrase with smaller words?
CL: The goo is applied, which makes it easier to alter the electrochemistry of the brain. We think it may allow for neuronal remodeling—er, it may allow the brain to be ‘rebooted’ by an external device. This would mimic a high degree of conscious control described by the Ancients during the process of Ascension. We think.
JO: So you rub some goo on yourself, then a device resets your brain?
Young stopped reading. He pulled off his glasses. He looked toward the kitchen, where he could hear Rush’s methodical chopping. He put his glasses back on.
DJ: Not acceptable.
CL: I agree with Dr. Jackson. To present this option to a person who is one of the very few who are genetically predisposed is to, in effect, apply a form coercion.
DJ: Yes. Yes that’s it exactly. We need to find another way.
HL: Would you do it?
CL: Excuse me?
HL: Would you, knowing what you know about our current situation—if you were asked, would you do it?
DJ: The point is that she shouldn’t BE asked.
CL: Are you asking me?
HL: I’m posing a hypothetical question.
DJ: This is inappropriate. This is—
JO: Daniel. Cool it.
CL: Yes. Yes I would.
HL: We all know that Jackson would do it. What about the rest of you?
JO: What’s your point, Hank?
DT: I’d do it in a heartbeat.
JO: Sure. Why not. My brain has been scrambled enough times.
HL: All of us would do it. Knowing what we know.
DT: We should make a list of the most genetically compatible candidates.
CL: I have that list.
JO: Give us the top five.
CL: Nicholas Rush. John Sheppard. Dale Volker. Robert Caine. Carolyn Lam.
JO: Now give us the breakdown.
CL: Nicholas Rush has two copies of ATA, two copies of LTA, and one copy of NRA. John Sheppard has two copies of ATA, and two of LTA. Dale Volker has one copy of ATA, one copy of LTA, and one copy of NRA. Robert Caine has one copy of ATA and two copies of LTA. Carolyn Lam has one copy of ATA and one copy of LTA.
HL: This list is eyes only. This list cannot get out. What about Volker and Caine? Are they on the base?
DT: Yes. Volker’s an astrophysicist, so he fit right in. He’s looking for sources of naquadria that could be used to power the gate if we can dial this address. Nice guy. Caine—he was an IT guy, so—well, he’s in the IT department. I’m not sure he bought my story about why we recruited him, but neither of them know their status. Neither does Rush, for that matter.
CL: Is this why I was recruited? Because of my genetic status?
HL: You were recruited because you were the best candidate for the open position.
HL: We need to make sure that as we identify people from the national bone marrow registry they’re either placed under security or brought here.
JO: I don’t like the idea that our number one guy is the only guy who’s not on the base.
DT: Now is—not a good time for him. I think I can convince him to come in the spring. It would help if I had clearance to tell him about the address.
HL: Done. I want his name coming up on as little paperwork as is humanly possible. There’s no need to advertise his existence to the LA.
DT: Already taken care of.
HL: Walter, run a search for him in our internal database and start classifying or deleting files that contain any reference to him.
WH: Yes sir.
HL: Transcription of these meetings is to exist only in hard copy, and is to remain locked in records.
WH: Yes sir.
HL: That means you type this, Walter. On a typewriter.
WH: Got it.
Young downed the dregs of his coffee scanned through several more pages, flipping through months of meeting minutes.
DJ: Icarus. It was Rush’s suggestion.
DT: Not very optimistic.
DJ: I like it.
DT: I don’t. If you want to go with Greek, how about Project Perseus?
DJ: Can we move on?
DT: Icarus is just—a terrible name. Do you know what happened to Icarus?
DJ: Funnily enough I do. I have a Ph.D. in history and I speak Ancient Greek. Do you know what happened to Theseus? He was thrown over a cliff after his popularity in Athens began to fade.
JO: Yeah okay, let’s have the weirdly vindictive nerd debate later. Is Rush on the payroll yet?
DT: Yes. He just relocated. He’s got access as a consultant. His security clearance is level one. He’s been working from his apartment for a week now.
JO: Is there a reason you look unusually pleased with yourself, colonel?
DT: He confirmed the gate address is a cypher. And—he’s already gotten one of the glyphs to lock.
HL: That was fast.
DJ: What do you mean he ‘got one’.
DT: After seeing the address, he asked for the internal schematics of the gate itself. I gave him those, and I gave him access to Carter’s computational model of the gate. Right off the bat he pulled nine separate interlocking cyphers out of the thing. After looking at the code and the hardware, he took a crack at one of them that looked familiar to him. This morning I got Sam to interface his program with our dialing computer, and a chevron lit up and locked.
JO: No shit.
DT: Yeah. In a week he gets one? We should ramp up our search for naquadria. He’s going to bring this thing to its knees. I can feel it. We should invite him to these meetings.
DJ: No we should not. He should be told why he was recruited. It should be explained to him that it’s not for the math. It’s for something else, and that he can do—he can do whatever he wants. He can go to Atlantis. He doesn’t have to work on the cypher set.
DT: That’s a terrible idea. Our top genetic candidate is also the guy who’s getting us the nine-chevron address? That’s more than coincidence, Jackson, even you can see that.
DJ: And what would you call it.
DJ: He’s miserable. He’s unbalanced. He—
DT: He’s no more ‘unbalanced’ than you. He was cleared by psych.
DJ: Yes. That means so much here. He’s unbalanced in the sense that he has no balance in his life—
DJ: Fine. Let him unlock the gate if that’s what he wants and that’s where his skillset lies. But we need to stop talking about using Anubis’ device on any of these people. We need to stop talking as if that’s a tenable option.
DT: Says the guy who just last week begged Morgan Le Fey, begged her, on his knees, to get involved in this struggle—and when he had her convinced? Watched her get destroyed right before his eyes. Get blown away into so much gold dust. We’re not going to win this fight without another option. You know it. I know it. Fuck, it seems like the Lucian Alliance knows it.
DJ: If we persist in talking about using this device on anyone but me I’m taking this to the IOA.
JO: Daniel. Let’s not—
DJ: I’ll take it to Wray. I’ll get all of them involved.
HL: That’s unacceptable from an information security standpoint. You do that, Jackson, and I’ll strip you of your position.
JO: Whoa. Just—whoa. That is not happening. There is no way that’s happening.
DT: The IOA is going to come down on my side, Jackson. Not yours. You know why? They don’t want to be annihilated.
DJ: Neither do I. I’m giving you another option. Try it on me. On me.
DT: Fine. I have absolutely no problem with that. We’ll try it on you. And when it doesn’t do a damn thing? Then what?
CL: There’s no reason to—
DT: Then it’s going to be Rush. Do you understand that? I don’t like this any better than you do, but that’s the truth of it, Jackson. When this address is unlocked, when we’ve sent a MALP, at some point someone has to get into that god damned goo and unlock the potential of that site, or we are fucked. We are fucked. Not just us. The Jaffa. The Tok’ra. The Lucian Alliance for god’s sake. We’re facing a future of mindless, eternal, empty servitude. Tell me that doesn’t horrify you. Because it horrifies me. I. Will. Not. Serve.
DJ: You can’t put all of this on Rush.
DT: I put it on you, Jackson. I—
JO: That’s it. We’re done here. You got that? We’re done. Colonel Telford, I’m writing you up for conduct unbecoming.
DJ: You’re right. You’re right. It’s on me. You think I don’t know that? You think I don’t spend every waking minute of every day—
HL: Put a lid on it, both of you.
DT: Then make an effort to fix it, Jackson, and stop trying to sacrifice yourself in a needless, pointless way. It won’t accomplish anything except to make your own fucked up conscience a little easier to die with. Suck it up and deal. You went exploring and you attracted the attention of something horrific. It’s a consequence of what we do. Is it on you? Yes. It’s not even the first time you’ve done something like this. Accept it, and move on. The rest of us have.
JO: Shut up, Telford. That’s an order.
“Are you—feeling all right?” Rush asked, sliding a bowl of soup and the remains of some homemade bread in front of him.
Young stared at the food without comprehending what he was seeing for a few seconds. Then he snapped the file shut, stacked it with the others, and slid the pile to the edge of the table. He realized he was sweating.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m fine.” His voice sounded unconvincing, even to himself.
Rush continued to watch him.
Young looked at the soup. He made an effort to sound more normal. “So ah—what’s this stuff?”
“It’s soup,” Rush said.
“I can see that.”
“Congratulations.” Rush took the seat opposite him. The other man moved slowly, wincing as he sat. The mathematician glanced again at Young’s pile of files.
“You’re not going to give me some kind of lecture on the principles of molecular gastronomy that underlie this meal?” Young asked.
“It’s not my best work,” Rush said.
“I distinctly heard you chopping in there.” Young angled his head toward the kitchen.
“It’s canned soup, selected by Vala, marginally supplemented with un-canned vegetables.”
“It looks pretty good,” Young said, blowing on it. “Why ‘marginally’?”
“I’m quite fucking sore, Colonel, and chopping is difficult with insufficiently sharp cutlery. You need a whetstone.”
“And you need a painkiller and a nap,” Young said. “A nap that’s not on a floor.”
“I absolve myself of responsibility for the culinary adequacy of this meal,” Rush replied, ignoring his suggestion.
“Nope,” Young said. “No way. I’m definitely holding you responsible.”
“That’s your prerogative, I suppose.” Rush glanced at the files again. “Who’s the acting head of the Icarus Project?”
“Who do you think?” Young asked.
“Congratulations, I suppose. What’s in the files?” Rush asked.
“Ask me again when you have level five security clearance.”
“I’m never going to have level five security clearance.”
“Hmm,” Young said, smiling at him faintly as he took another bite of soup.
Rush rolled his eyes in a manner that managed to convey both irritation and exhaustion. “Who recruited you?” the other man asked. “The Jackson-O’Neill axis, or the Telford-Landry one?”
Young looked up sharply at the dead-center assessment. “Why do you ask?”
“Just curious,” Rush said.
“It was a combined effort,” Young said. “Landry, Jackson, and General O’Neill. I think I’m supposed to be a neutral party.”
Rush raised his eyebrows. “Interesting. Are you a neutral party?”
“So far,” Young replied.
Rush watched him. “It’s odd that they happen to choose my neighbor for this.”
“Now you’re just being paranoid.” Young said, looking down, dragging his spoon through his soup. “Believe me when I say that I have more qualifications for this job than living next door to gate bait of epic proportions.”
“Did you just call me ‘gate bait’?” Rush asked.
“I’m certain that’s an insult. It’s also far too witty to have originated with you.”
“It’s a slang term referring to a person or an object that is—some kind of resource that the SGC doesn’t want to lose. Something that invites abduction or attack or freakish accident. Also, it’s occasionally used to refer to the SGC recruitment team that gets sent to MIT, Harvard, Caltech, West Point, and so forth. They tend to be—on the more attractive side.”
“Do not refer to me as ‘gate bait’,” Rush said, looking at Young over the tops of his glasses.
“You got it, hotshot.”
Rush gave Young and unimpressed look and directed his attention toward his soup.
Young spent a moment considering the man who was at the epicenter of the conflicts with the Ori and the Lucian Alliance. “Are you—doing okay with all of this?” he asked. “With everything that happened yesterday, I mean?”
“Yes,” Rush said, without looking up. “I’m fine. And, as it seems you are as well, I’ll be heading back to my apartment, post lunch.”
“What happened to a painkiller and a nap?”
“That sounds like an excellent plan. For you,” Rush countered.
“What are you going to do in there by yourself?”
Rush gave him a nonplussed look. “The same thing I always do?”
“Take a day off,” Young said. “You’ve got five cyphers at this point. You’re halfway there. Watch some PBS or something in celebration. Do whatever it is that mathematicians like to do on the weekends.”
“They prefer to do mathematics,” Rush said, slowly getting to his feet and collecting Young’s now empty bowl. “Furthermore, it’s not the weekend. Enjoy your disturbing, classified documents.” He headed toward the kitchen.
With some difficulty, Young levered himself out of his chair and limped after him. By the time he made it to the doorway, Rush was drying dishes. “Rush—“ he began, but he was cut off by the ringing of the other man’s cell phone.
The mathematician looked at him, raising his eyebrows.
Young raised his eyebrows back. “That’s your phone, hotshot, not mine.”
“Ah. Fuck.” Rush extricated his phone from his pocket and answered it.
Young tried to think of a way to convince the other man to stay.
“Yes yes. I’m fine,” Rush said, aborting his attempt to trap the phone between his ear and shoulder with a wince. He began rubbing his free hand over the side of his neck. “Thanks for—oh. Yes, well.”
“Who is it?” Young mouthed at him.
Rush shot him an aggravated look. “I thought you couldn’t drive,” Rush said, furrowing his brow.
Young glared at him.
“Well,” Rush said. “Congratulations, I suppose. Unfortunately this week—“ he broke off, clearly getting an earful about something if his expression was anything to go by.
“Is it Vala?” Young whispered.
Rush shot him a look that had progressed beyond aggravated to something more like poisonous. “Do you mind?” he mouthed back.
“It’s Vala, isn’t it,” Young whispered.
“How far have you progressed?” Rush asked, ignoring Young, leaning against the counter, still rubbing his hand over his shoulder. “Really.” There was another short pause. Rush frowned. “I don’t know. You’re going to have to define ‘al’kesh’,” he said.
Young grabbed his phone out of his hand and held it to his ear. He could hear the tail end of a voice that was clearly Vala’s.
“—don’t you worry about it gorgeous, it’s not important. What I’m trying to say is that I have a very good sense of spatial relationships from my previous background so that makes the geometry easy, but I have an inherent horror of irrational numbers that I—“
“Vala,” Young growled.
“Oh. Hello, handsome,” she said. “What happened to your neighbor?”
“Can we please keep in mind that the man has an extremely low level of security clearance? The lowest, in fact?”
“He must find that terribly demoralizing, don’t you think?” Vala said. “But I take your point. I may have let the word ‘al’kesh’ slip by me, but I didn’t define it for him, handsome, so you can calm down.”
“Why are you calling him?”
“Because he owes me dinner,” Vala said, her voice slowing. “As do you. Is something wrong?”
“No,” Young said shortly. “Nothing’s wrong.” He shoved the phone back at Rush, who was now watching him with a wary expression.
“Vala,” Rush said. There was a short pause before he said, “I’m not sure.”
Young limped back out of the kitchen and sat down again at the dining room table, looking at the dark tower of files next to his laptop.
Jackson had prepped him for this. The man had told him nearly all of it—other than the part about screwing up the brain of their local Fields medalist, a point which Young was having a lot of trouble wrapping his mind around—but it was different to see it laid out across the pages. It was different to look beyond the typeface to envision Jackson and Telford say things to each other than he couldn’t imagine coming out of either of their mouths. He’d been involved on the LA side of things, primarily. He hadn’t believed Jackson, not really, when the other man had referenced the possibility of dismissal. Of—hell—of a memory wipe. A memory wipe for Daniel Jackson. But now—
Now Young believed him.
He had known the situation with LA was bad. But he hadn’t known how bad things were with the Ori.
Everything about this nine-chevron address was earmarked with desperation. The devotion of resources to finding a naquadria-laced planet. The building of a god damned base before the address was even half-unlocked. The recruitment of everyone and anyone found to carry more than one Ancient gene. The subtle house arrest of the world’s most famous cryptographer.
If Telford was right, and the address led to some kind of weapon, some kind of defense against the Ori, if Rush was the only one who could unlock it—shouldn’t he?
If Jackson was right, and it wasn’t a weapon, they ran the risk of destroying a human mind. His goddamn neighbor’s mind. And if not his neighbor, then it would be J Shep’s mind. Or Jackson’s. Or Robert Caine’s, whoever he was. Or Carolyn Lam, who had already demonstrated just how far she was willing to go for the SGC. God. It could already be happening to Dale Volker. Who knew how far the LA had progressed along these same lines. Who knew what they’d discovered. What they’d stolen.
“Young,” Rush snapped, looking at him from the doorway of the kitchen. From the expression on his face, he’d said his name more than one time.
“What?” Young replied.
Rush said nothing. He walked forward slowly, carrying a glass of water.
“Do not throw that in my face,” Young said wryly.
“Oh I was sorely tempted,” Rush said, “but primarily out a desire for revenge.” He slammed a large book down on the table with an obvious wince.
“I own a cook book?” Young asked.
Rush pulled a bottle of pills out of his pocket and shook two of them onto the table. He raised his eyebrows in Young’s direction and then flipped open the cover of the book. “To Everett,” he read. “Don’t starve. Good luck, Emily.”
Young shut his eyes and turned his head away, fighting a sudden tightness in his throat.
“This is what you get,” Rush said, in a reassuringly conversational tone, “when you allow your neighbors to do your unpacking.” He swallowed the pills.
“What are you doing?” Young asked.
“I plan to make an inadvisably elaborate dinner,” Rush said. “I need to prepare myself.”
It took Young a moment to organize his thoughts. “Is Vala coming over?”
“Yes,” Rush said. “I volunteered your apartment as a dinner venue.”
“She need a ride?” Young asked, not keen on the idea of Rush driving to the base to pick her up.
“She does not. She passed her driver’s test this morning.”
Young looked at Rush skeptically. “What are you going to make?”
Rush leafed casually through the book before settling on, “Paella. She also requested baked Alaska.”
Young stared at him. “Paella and baked Alaska? Hotshot, you realize you just took a pretty substantial dose of—“ Young grabbed the bottle of stuff that Brightman had given him. “Yeah, so, speaking from experience, this is definitely a muscle relaxant.”
“Oh,” Young said. “Great. Good for you.”
“Well, you try to make fucking paella when it feels like every single muscle in your entire body has performed some kind of marathon-equivalent in the absence of adequate physical conditioning.”
“Generally when I feel like that? I get take out.” Young shot him a pointed look. “I don’t make paella and baked Alaska.”
“I’m willing to wager that there are no circumstances under which you make paella.”
“Hey,” Young said.
“Furthermore,” Rush continued, “I’m completely unaffected.”
“Yeah, because you took the stuff about forty-five seconds ago,” Young replied. “Why don’t you give it half an hour and see if you still think this is a good idea.”
“Read your fucking files, colonel,” Rush said, pushing himself to his feet. “Leave acts of culinary creation to responsible professionals.”
“Okay,” Young said, not bothering to hide the skepticism in his voice as he watched Rush swipe the book off the table. “Though I’m not sure how responsible you actually are. When are we supposed to be eating this masterpiece of yours?”
“Six hours from now,” Rush said.
“Sure,” Young said, putting his reading glasses back on.
“I take issue with your tone.”
“I think you already have enough issues. I wouldn’t go taking any more.”
“Oh very witty,” Rush said. “Terribly impressive, I’m sure.”
“A sarcastic compliment,” Young said, as Rush vanished in the direction of the kitchen, “I’m moving up in the world.”
Six hours later, Young had finished reading everything he’d removed from the SGC archives and drawn up a list of additional documents to request. He had just replaced the files in the locked case when he heard a knock on the door.
It took him two attempts to get to his feet.
He limped across the floor, leaning heavily on his crutch.
“Hello, handsome,” Vala said, as he opened the door. Her hair was half down and half piled on top of her head and she was dressed in civilian clothes—a blue blouse and black slacks.
“Hey,” he replied. “You clean up nice.”
She arched an eyebrow as she held up a bottle of wine and a DVD. “I determined that this was customary,” she said, rotating the wine for his inspection.
“Yeah,” he said. “Red. Good choice. Come on in.”
“You look exhausted,” Vala, said, stepping around him.
“Long, depressing day,” Young said. “Congrats on the license. Sorry I was snappy on the phone.”
“Oh,” Vala said, with a smile that Young wasn’t quite sure was genuine. “I have a great deal of experience managing men much crankier that you, colonel.”
“Um,” Young said. “Great?” He closed the door behind her.
“Your apartment smells wonderful,” she said.
“More like half-wonderful,” Young said dryly.
She raised an eyebrow.
“The culinary genius in residence unfortunately dosed himself with muscle relaxants right before starting the dinner prep. He managed to heroically make it about halfway through the paella and ten percent of the way through the baked Alaska before he lost the ability to speak in complete sentences.” Young tipped his head in the direction of his couch where Rush was currently sleeping.
Vala pressed her fingers to her lips in an amused sweep and then looked up at him, brushing her hair to one side.
“How do you feel about take out?” Young asked. “Because I already ordered from the Italian place down the street.”
“Take out sounds wonderful,” Vala whispered, “but I am not giving up my quest to sample every possible incarnation of America’s Greatest Desert.”
“You really don’t have to whisper,” Young said. “The man is out. And I fully support your decision to make him follow through on the baked Alaska. He’d never tell you as much, but—I think he might have been kind of excited about it.”
Vala smiled at him. “Would you like to see my car, handsome? Since we have to pick up dinner anyway?”
“How do you already have a car?” Young asked.
“I’m an adept planner who also happens to be financially savvy,” Vala said primly. “Daniel graciously offered to let me borrow his for any driving needs I might have, but—“
“Stop right there,” Young said. “I get ya.”
“I knew you would,” Vala replied. “So? What’s the verdict? Want to see my charming ‘earth vehicle’?”
Young snorted. “I could stand to get out of my apartment.”
They paused, and looked over at Rush.
“Goorrrrrgeous,” Vala called.
“We’ll leave him a note,” she said, fishing around in her outlandishly large shoulder bag and pulled out yellow legal pad that seemed to be mostly covered with something that looked suspiciously like math problems. She flipped quickly to the end of the pad before Young could get a good look and scribbled the words, “Back soon, don’t leave, gorgeous!” She tore a hole in the center of the paper and threaded it over the doorknob.
Still, they hesitated on the threshold of Young’s apartment.
“They’re watching downstairs,” Vala said. “At the monitoring station.”
“Yeah,” Young agreed. “Let’s go.”
He locked the door behind them and they walked slowly toward the elevators.
“How’s the hip, handsome?” Vala asked.
“Fine,” Young said. “Little setback. No big deal.”
She looked at him from beneath her hair for a few seconds before saying, “I have very important news of a personal nature.”
“Oh yeah?” Young asked.
“September first.” Vala announced.
“Um,” Young began.
“—is going to be my birthday,” she finished, with the air of someone slightly disappointed. “I decided I should be a Virgo.”
“Oh. Right,” Young said, trying to rehabilitate his image through enthusiasm while simultaneously trying to remember back to the relevant Cosmo horoscope in Jackson’s ridiculous car. “Good choice. That’s the—perfectionist one?”
“Yes,” she said. “I think it sends the right sort of message about responsibility.”
“I’m pretty sure that most people aren’t judging your reliability via your astrological sign,” Young said. “At least—not at Stargate Command.”
“You never know,” she replied, holding the elevator door for him as he limped inside. “You wouldn’t believe the hoops I had to jump through for my psychiatric evaluation. Electra complexes. The collective unconscious. Your species has a strange relationship with itself.”
“Well I’ll give you that,” Young said. “Speaking of weird species stuff, let’s see your license,” Young said.
“Why?” Vala replied, intrigued
“Driver’s license pictures are notoriously bad.” He was only slightly curious about her picture. He was significantly more curious as to whether she was actually in possession of a valid Colorado ID.
“I’m extremely photogenic,” Vala said, fishing around in her inappropriately large bag.
“Can you explain to me why this is a thing?” Young said, waving his hand vaguely in her direction.
“What?” Vala asked. “The need for licensure in vehicular operation?”
“Um, no. Women and giant shoulder bags.”
“Ah. Well, it all has to do with preparedness, really.”
He caught a glimpse of something in her bag that looked disconcertingly like a textbook.
“Is that a textbook?”
“No,” she said. “Stop being so judgmental.”
“What is this?” she asked. “Junior high school? The contents of my bag are none of your business.”
“Okay,” Young said. “Wait. There’s no way you’ve ever been to—“
“Hold this, will you?” she asked, passing him a can of something.
“Vala—what—“ he broke off, staring at what she’d handed him. “Bear mace? Is this seriously bear mace? How do you have bear mace in your purse? You realize this is like—pepper spray but—for bears right? This is is even legal—“
“Relax handsome,” she said. “First of all, you’re misinformed. Bear mace is legal in all fifty states, nor does it require a permit to carry. Second of all, I hardly plan to use it on the street. It’s not for me anyway.”
“What do you mean it’s not for you? Where did you even get it?”
“At a sporting goods store. It’s for your neighbor.”
“Why are you giving bear mace to my neighbor?”
“I should think the reason would be obvious,” Vala said, emerging triumphantly with her wallet. She snatched the bear mace away from Young and stowed it back in her bag. “He needs some kind of defense, and he had no interest in obtaining any kind of weapons training even when I offered to accompany him to a nearby shooting range that offered certification in—”
“Are you serious?” Young asked.
“I’d prefer he carried a gun, but—”
“When did you even talk to him about this?” Young asked, trying to force his brain to operate more quickly.
“A few days ago,” Vala said stepping forward as the elevator doors opened. “He’s very anti-weaponry for some reason, but I’ve been working on him. Honestly, between you and Daniel you’d think I’m suggesting something outrageous. The man should know how to use a firearm. At the very least. Clearly he’s got some aptitude for it.”
Actually, it was a fair point, and he wasn’t entirely sure why he hadn’t thought of it himself.
Yes he was.
“If he—“ Young brought his voice down. “If he gets abducted by the Lucian Alliance, trying to shoot his way out is a good way to get himself killed.”
Vala paused in front of the glass door that led to the outside. She looked up at him and then out over the parking lot, lit up by the horizontal rays of the setting sun. “Yes,” she said quietly. “That’s a risk. But if it were me, I would want the option.” She paused, her hands closing around the handle of the door. “Wouldn’t you?”
He couldn’t keep his answer off his face.
She pushed the door open and stepped out, holding it for him. He stepped through, feeling the weight of the summer heat press down on him like an invisible hand.
“So,” Young said. “You asked him about a gun?”
“I did,” Vala said. “But as I said, he had no interest.”
“That was—bringing that up to him was probably something that should have been discussed in committee.”
“I know, colonel,” Vala said dryly. “I understand how things work around here.”
“I know you do,” Young said. “It was a good thought.”
She turned to him in a sweep of dark hair. “You think so?”
“Bear mace,” he said with a rueful smile. “I like it. Though—regular mace would probably work just fine. I’m not sure he needs bear mace.”
“I’m not sure how the two compare, honestly. The packaging leaves something to be desired.”
“There’s no way he’s going to carry the stuff.”
“Give me time, handsome.”
“How often do you talk to him?” Young asked as they proceeded slowly through the parking lot.
“Most days,” Vala said, fishing around in her bag again and handing him her driver’s license.
He took it, examining it carefully. It was, indeed, a legal Colorado ID. “Nice pic. Most days? Seriously?”
“Nearly,” Vala said, taking her license back and stowing it in her wallet. “Since our impromptu road trip.” She paused and then gestured sweepingly at the car in front of them before stepping forward to lean against the hood in clear imitation of a cliché advertisement. “Well?” she said batting her eyelashes at him as she ran a hand over the car. “What do you think?”
It was a sea green, convertible VW beetle.
He shook his head, mostly converting his laugh into a smile.
“Handsome,” she said, mock-scandalized. “Are you laughing at my car?”
“No,” he said. “No, it’s—a bit more—girly than I’d have predicted, but—”
“The word you’re looking for is feminine,” Vala said, sliding off the car. “And I’ll have you know that Sam is already planning to upgrade the engine for me in return for an unnamed favor so you watch it, buster. This little number is going to be quite formidable by this time next month.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Young said. “But—there’s no way I can fit into that thing.”
“Nonsense,” Vala said. “They’re very spacious inside.”
After only fifteen minutes they were back in Young’s apartment, sitting on either end of the low coffee table in front of his TV, take out Italian food spread out between them in white styrofoam boxes. Young stretched his injured leg out carefully in front of him as Vala leaned forward to queue up the movie. As it began, she twisted, looking back at Rush, who was still asleep, taking up the entire couch.
“Gorgeous,” she said, drawing out the word.
“There is no way that’s going to work,” Young said, sampling a breadstick.
Vala reached back to yank subtly on Rush’s sleeve. “We bought you dinner,” she said, “and a very nice Pinot noir.”
“I’m pretty sure he has years of sleep debt,” Young said, shifting his entire frame to follow Vala’s gaze. The man was on his back, eyes shut, still wearing his glasses. “Years.”
“You’re missing movie night,” Vala said, tugging at Rush’s shirt with every protracted syllable.
Rush twitched marginally.
“There’s manicotti,” Vala continued. “Manicotti and revenge and stylized depictions of violence.”
“What?” Rush said vaguely, half sitting before collapsing back with a wince, one hand coming to his ribs.
“Hello gorgeous,” Vala said. “You’re looking particularly poetic today.”
“Fuck,” Rush said.
“Hey there champ,” Young said.
“Shut up,” Rush said, clearly mostly asleep.
“Five to three,” Young said.
Rush’s eyes flicked between Young, Vala, and the TV. Eventually, he managed to get himself onto the floor in between the coffee table and the couch in a movement that was impressively lacking in coordination.
“Definitely saw that one coming,” Young said to no one in particular.
“I don’t think you need any wine,” Vala said, leaning back to look at Rush, her hair a dark curtain behind her.
“Did you do that on purpose?”
“Yes,” Rush said, grimacing as he pushed himself into a sitting position, his back braced against the couch.
“Did I—make this?” he asked, eyeing the array of Italian food spread on the table between Vala and Young.
“No,” Vala said, smiling at him. “You took some very strong pain medication and passed out on the couch.”
“You gave it a good shot though,” Young said. “You held out for a long time on pure willpower. Very respectable. I think if you’d gone with something that didn’t require continuous stirring, you might have powered through.”
“Did we have a conversation about the etymology of the word ‘pan’?” Rush asked him.
“Maybe,” Young said. “It was hard to tell.”
“Well, I think you’ve learned a valuable lesson,” Vala said, as she piled pasta onto a plate.
“Which is?” Rush asked.
“Never trust a doctor.”
“Um,” Young said pouring himself a glass of wine. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the lesson.”
“And never trust your neighbors,” Vala continued, passing Rush a plate.
“That is definitely not the lesson,” Young said, looking down, looking away, looking anywhere but the bag beneath his table that contained stacks of classified files. “Your neighbor is very trustworthy, actually.”
“I have it on good authority that it’s best to trust no one, in fact,” Vala said.
“Vala,” Young said. “You don’t want to take The X-files too much to heart.”
Vala raised her eyebrows at him and then looked back at Rush. “Trust no one, always carry your phone, and always carry a weapon. And—to that end, I bought you some mace, gorgeous.”
“You bought me mace?” Rush asked, looking more perplexed than Young had ever seen him. “What’s happening?”
“I have no idea,” Young replied. “But I plan on enjoying it while it lasts.”