Mathématique: Chapter 31
“Pointless meeting? Check. Chess tutorial? Check. Fluid dynamics consult? Check.” Rush pulled Young’s sunglasses out of his bag. “Do you have cooking wine? I feel like lighting something on fire.”
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.
The lights in the bar weren’t on, but the sixteen hundred sunlight came in slantwise and sufficient through the open windows, gleaming off the keys of the piano in the corner and off the polished wooden surfaces of bar and barstools. In the back, vacant pool tables waited for the inevitable, incoming crowd from Cheyenne Mountain.
“This isn’t really a thing that I do,” Jackson said, the words barely audible over the irregular rise and fall of happy hour at O’Malley’s.
Young took a sip of his beer and checked his phone for something like the eighth time in fifteen minutes.
“What, happy hour? Leaving work before seventeen hundred hours? Drinking beer, generally? Taking an interest in eccentric mathematical hotshots?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Jackson said, staring at a bottle of a local, limited-edition microbrew.
Young was also drinking a local beer. It was called ‘Coors’.
Young looked around the room, taking in the slowly thickening crowd of SGC personnel. SG-14 seemed to be at the center of some kind of expanding knot of celebration. There were matching T-shirts in abundance that showed a sequence of four items: the number 14, a carrot, a wrought-iron representation of a picket fence or some other bullshit, and then a worm on a fishing hook.
“These T-shirts are getting really obscure,” Young said.
Jackson glanced across the room. “Fourteen-carat ‘gate bait’,” the other man said, without missing a beat.
“You,” Young said. “are just lethal at crossword puzzles, yeah?”
“Eh, I’m hit or miss,” Jackson replied, still staring at his beer. “I’m better with abstruse wall carvings.”
“Wall carvings,” Young repeated, taking a sip of his beer. “Uh huh. Seems like those tend to rouse a hell of a lot of hell around here.”
“I should have been a cruciverbalist,” Jackson agreed, his thumb rubbing the edge of the label on his beer bottle.
Young picked up his phone and texted Rush. ::You’re still on base, right?::
“How are you doing with all of this?” Jackson asked, his gaze directed at the surface of the table.
Young sipped his beer, studying the defeated line of the other man’s shoulders, wondering who Jackson was when he wasn’t the place where the galaxy piled its problems and its anger and its injustice. He wondered why Jackson had wanted to come here. Was it to ask Young the question he had just asked—or to ask him something else entirely.
“Feeling like it’s all going to shit,” Young said. “No two ways about it. How are you doing?”
“Me?” Jackson said, glancing at Young. “I’m fine.”
“Yeah?” Young said.
“I hate it,” Jackson said, quietly conversational.
“Their plan?” Young asked. “The game?”
“Mathématique,” Jackson said, closing his eyes and letting the word wrench its way out of him in an accented cascade. “Not just the expansion pack, but all that comes with it. The entire project is grounded in the wrong place. Not in exploration, but in warfare. In fear. In desperation.”
“I’m getting that,” Young said.
“As a word, though, it captures something. Mathématique.”
“Does it?” Young said.
“Ask me about French mistranslations sometime,” Jackson murmured.
“Okay,” Young said.
“I should have seen this coming.” Jackson edged his thumbnail beneath the label on his bottle of microbrew and teasing it up. “I should have seen it coming and warned him. I would have—I just—I don’t pay attention to anything associated with that stupid Wormhole Extreme franchise. Not the movies. Not the merchandise. Not the game. But this—encoding the actual cyphers into the thing—I should have realized. I should have known that this was something else.”
“I don’t think I’d have seen it at all if he hadn’t pointed it out,” Young admitted.
“He’s perceptive,” Jackson said, peeling off a strip of the label on his bottle.
“And a little too much of an impolitic ass for his own good,” Young added, his eyes sweeping over the array of half-filled bottles of Scotch and Irish whiskey behind the bar.
“I wonder,” Jackson murmured. “You heard what Sheppard said at the post-Altera debriefing.”
“Grossly underestimated,” Young said. “Maybe.”
“I think it’s probably true,” Jackson said, “but that assessment, coming from Sheppard, didn’t help the situation much.”
Young’s phone vibrated.
::No, catching a lift to the fucking Andromeda galaxy::
“You ever think,” Young began cautiously, “that we should just—let the guy do what he wants to do? Let him be who he is?”
“It’s already too late for that,” Jackson whispered, peeling away another strip of multicolored label. “He’s—he was—he didn’t want this. He said no. When I approached him, he said no.”
“Yeah,” Young replied, “but he changed his mind.”
“When they see the gate,” Jackson whispered, “they all change their minds. I did. Sam did. Lam did. Volker did. No one has ever said no. Telford showed him the schematics. The software and the hardware.”
“I remember,” Young said. “It was in the files.”
“The ‘hard sell’,” Jackson murmured, working his thumbnail beneath a wide swath of the label on his beer bottle. “How well do you know him?”
“David?” Young asked.
“I wish you hadn’t come,” David whispers, choking on ash, a dark silhouette in turbid air. “I wish to God you hadn’t.”
Jackson nodded silently.
“Well,” Young said. “Very well.”
“Do you think that there is any chance,” Jackson said, his eyes closed, his expression twisted, “that Telford is the one who—“
“No,” Young said quietly. “David? Do you—“ his throat closed. “Do you know,” he said, regrouping, his voice a rough whisper, “how much he hates them? Do you have any idea? I’ve never met anyone who hates them so much.”
“He’s not the one who came back with a broken spine,” Jackson said, penetrating. Steady.
“There are worse things than a broken back,” Young said. “Things much, much worse.”
“Oh I know,” Jackson said. “I know that.”
“Yeah,” Young said, unable to meet the other man’s eyes. “I guess you would.”
“I know what they did to him,” Jackson whispered. “I’ve been tortured by the Goa’uld. I’ve been murdered. I’ve been brought back to be tortured again. I’ve been toyed with. I’ve been manipulated. I’ve been forced to act against my will. And I know—that hatred, that real,” Jackson paused, the word fading down into a sound of strangulation, “real hatred, grants you immunity from nothing but peace.”
Young couldn’t speak.
Jackson peeled another strip of label away from his beer bottle.
“Yup,” Young said finally.
“He—“ Jackson said, “David is a consequentialist. He judges the morality of an act by its consequences and I can’t—“ he looked away, running a hand through his hair, “I can’t say he’s wrong. I can’t, categorically, say he’s wrong to do that. Not now. Not when we can’t trust ourselves, our motives, to really be our own. And even if we could—I’ve made similar choices, I—I—I’ve weighted outcomes, I can’t claim anything, I can’t know anything for sure, I can’t—“ Jackson broke off, his gaze fixed on the half-empty bottles above the bar.
“But you’re not like that,” Young murmured. “A consequentialist, I mean.”
“Of course I am. I’m no better than anyone. No more trustworthy. No less selfish. Deontology is the provenance of blind ideologues and wishful thinkers.” Jackson peeled away another strip of label. “David is right about me. I created the situation we find ourselves in. I attracted attention. I indirectly made your neighbor the resource he is. I see a box labeled ‘do not open’, and what do I do? I open it. That’s what I do. You know where the word ‘sin’ comes from? It comes from Latin. It comes from Ancient. It’s tremendously complex. There are elements that imply guilt, deviation from correct path. There was a right way. I didn’t take it.”
“The only thing you did is what we all do,” Young said. “What we all do. Every day.”
“He’s going to unlock it,” Jackson whispered. “Your neighbor. I know he’ll do it. I can feel it.”
“I don’t think we can stop him,” Young agreed. “I don’t know that we should.”
“One day we’ll open the box that will unmake us,” Jackson said, shredding the peeled remains of his label. “It’s happened before. In other realities.”
“Well,” Young said, sipping his beer, “we’re a box opening people. It’s what we do. I’d rather people like you and Carter and McKay open them than anyone else.”
“Maybe,” Jackson said, completing his stepwise removal of the label.
“Daniel,” Young said, “don’t go looking for a sword to fall on. They’re all over the place these days.”
“The trick,” Jackson said, absently toying with his pile of shredded paper, “is picking the right sword.”
Young’s phone vibrated again and he flipped it over to reveal another text from Rush.
“You ever think about—talking to psych about any of this?” Young asked.
“Haven’t you heard?” Jackson asked. “I don’t talk to psych. Not ever.”
“Okay,” Young said.
“Don’t suggest that again,” Jackson whispered.
“Okay,” Young taken aback. “I didn’t mean to imply—”
“I know,” Jackson said, looking away. “It’s all right.”
He found Rush in Perry’s office, his feet on her desk, gesturing vaguely at a midair display. They glanced at him when he appeared in the doorway, but did not interrupt their discussion. Young leaned against a wall, listening to them go on about fluid turbulence in a way that suggested some kind of mathematical innuendo.
Or, maybe it was just mathematical puns? He wasn’t sure. Fluid turbulence wasn’t really his area. Whatever they were discussing, it was pretty clear that both Rush and Perry looked significantly less upset than they had earlier in the afternoon. Young shifted, trying to take his weight off his left side.
“I realize your schedule is somewhat chaotic,” Rush said, “but I’d appreciate at least a partial differential of the available possibilities regarding solution sets that might fulfill the defined criteria for describing turbulence in the event horizon.”
“Oh I’d be Stoked to contribute,” Perry replied, looking strangely pleased by Rush’s mostly incomprehensible sentence. “My schedule may be chaotic but I Navier said it wasn’t fluid.”
“That’s atrocious,” Rush replied, grinning. He glanced up at Young. “I have to leave. Do try to streamline things for me, won’t you?”
“If by ‘atrocious’ you mean ‘worthy of envy’,” Perry said. “I’ll work on it continuously. I’m sure it will all go smoothly.”
“Yes I’d hate for you to run into any kind of turbulence.”
“Oh I doubt that will happen,” Perry said. “I know how it goes. Big whirls have little whirls that feed on their velocity, and little whirls have lesser whirls and so on—“
“To viscosity,” Rush finished, settling his bag over his shoulders. “Write me a textbook on wormhole physics, won’t you? I know next to nothing about the operating principles of ninety percent of Ancient technology.”
“Do you need to know?” Perry asked. “Go write a formal proof and win another medal. Leave the practical applications of fluid turbulence to the real scientists.”
“You realize that mathematics is the apex of the quantitative hierarchy, correct?”
“But physics is cooler.” Perry shifted her gaze from Rush to Young, her smile widening fractionally. “Am I right, colonel?”
“Um,” Young said, “I prefer ice hockey myself.”
Rush and Perry looked at him in deeply disappointed silence before switching their gazes back toward one another.
“Besides,” Perry continued, “it’s not a hierarchy, it’s a pendulum, and pure math swings back around to land right next to abstract art.”
“It most certainly does not,” Rush said, affronted.
“And on that note,” Young said, “I think we should get out of here. Before you guys get started with pendulum-related puns.”
“Please. We only periodically pun,” Perry proclaimed. “Besides, pendulum puns are pretty paltry. I mean, you can’t do much with a ‘massless rod’ or a ‘rigid body problem’. Nowhere to take those.”
“And let’s keep it that way, shall we?” Rush asked, looking at Perry over the tops of his glasses. He stepped carefully past Young and out into the hall, heading toward the elevators.
“Bye,” Perry called after him. “I guess.”
Young looked after him, but did not immediately follow. “He’s not really a guy for pleasantries, is he?”
“No,” Perry said, clearing her throat. “But I’m not complaining.”
“You think he’s okay?” Young asked Perry quietly.
“I don’t know,” Perry replied, looking back at him, serious and still across the clean expanse of her desk. “That project—I had no idea.”
“Are you okay?” Young asked.
“I don’t know,” Perry whispered.
“I get that,” Young said.
“You’d better go,” Perry said, tilting her head in the direction of Rush had gone.
Young nodded and peeled himself away from the doorframe. He limped through the halls, barely avoiding a stressed civilian kid who had no doubt just translated his first civilization-level death threat. He caught up with his neighbor in front of the central elevators. Rush had one hand pressed to the side of his temple and was using the other to dig through his bag.
“How’s it going, hotshot?” Young asked. “You get all your stuff done?”
“Pointless meeting? Check. Chess tutorial? Check. Fluid dynamics consult? Check.” Rush pulled Young’s sunglasses out of his bag. “Do you have cooking wine? I feel like lighting something on fire.”
“Um,” Young said.
“Rum, also, would be acceptable.”
“I do have rum,” Young said, “but I don’t think my kitchen is really the kind of kitchen where you can just go lighting pans of things on fire—“
“Yes I’m sure you do think that,” Rush said, his eyes fixed on the closed doors of the elevator, the sunglasses held ready and unfolded in his hand.
Young considered pressing Rush into talking about what had happened that afternoon, about what he thought of the SGC and its institutional cruelties and kindnesses, what he thought of Jackson, what he thought of Telford, what had happened to his wife, why he was here rather than on Atlantis, which seemed like the only place in the universe where he might have a chance of anything approaching a normal existence—
But he said none of those things.
“Headache?” he asked.
“Yes,” Rush replied.
“You get an awful lot of headaches, hotshot. You ever get anyone to look at that?”
“Yes,” Rush said.
“I’m prone to headaches.”
“Maybe if you’d sleep on a regular basis—”
“Excuse me, did I solicit your advice at some point and then suffer a memory lapse?” Rush asked politely.
“Not really, no,” Young said.
“Well, given that we’ve set a precedent of unsolicited advice, I suggest you content yourself with silent contemplation of your incipient dinner, or ‘ice hockey’, or whatever it is you think about when not speaking.”
“Young seven, Rush four.”
“I didn’t say it,” Rush said, glancing at him with narrowed eyes.
“Hate to break it to you but, ‘I suggest you content yourself with silent contemplation’ is just ‘shut up’ with some verbal window dressing. I’m wiping the floor with you here, hotshot.”
“Paraphrased, bastardized, or otherwise altered versions of the words ‘shut up’ were not covered under your initial description of the rules of this game and if you want to implement them I’m going to need fair warning.”
“Fine,” Young said. “Consider yourself warned.”
The elevator opened.
“So,” Young said. “Lighting things on fire. Why do I get the feeling that this is a longstanding hobby of yours?”
“I can’t imagine,” Rush replied.
After the drive home though the scorching remains of the day, after the Steak Diane and the minefield of dinner conversation with Rush, after the phone call to Mitchell and the three shots of Jack Daniels it took for him to force his mind into a state where he could sleep—
After all of that, he dreamt of David Telford.
Telford leans against the skimmer’s inner door, his skin pale where it’s not covered with blood. His hand, trembling, is pressed against his face as they speed over the darkened, ash-choked surface of the planet toward the place where their concealed ship waits for them.
Telford does not speak. Maybe he cannot.
“I came to get you out,” Young whispers, his voice too loud in the stillness of the small craft.
“I know,” Telford says, his voice a ragged smear across the thick and turbid air between them. They proceed with a quiet whir of engines toward the source of the darkness that spreads over the city.
Behind them, reddish light throws dark structures into chiaroscured relief.
“I’ll never be able to thank you. To repay you.”
“Things aren’t like that between us,” Young replies. “This falls outside the bounds of debt. Outside repay.”
The defenses on the city limits activate. Warnings flare in gold; Goa’uld script ignites beneath his fingers as he directs the craft. Behind him, a swarm of drones and speeders fades in and out of ash-filled air. He stays ahead of them, a deft hand atop the bright controls. he only person who has ever matched him when it comes to piloting is Sheppard. He’s light years, thousands of flight hours, and endless Earth-based simulations ahead of the best that the Lucian Alliance can offer. On any other day they wouldn’t be able to touch him.
But he’s low on fuel.
And there are so many of them.
His sensors are choked with ash.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” Telford says, his eyes dark, his expression agonized. He is shaking as he shifts to look at the displays beneath Young’s hands. A slantwise glance reveals the bleeding, blurred insignia of Sixth House, cut crudely into the other man’s chest before Telford shifts the remains of his jacket to shield it from Young’s view.
It will scar.
It’s meant to.
“I know,” Young replies, his eyes on the sensors. “Did they give you the drug?”
“I don’t think they did,” Telford says, “but then, how would I know?”
The whir of the small craft becomes a whine as the ash in the air thickens. He can feel the motor struggle with a valiance that seems out of place for an engine trapped beneath the ostentation of the Goa’uld. The controls have become sluggish.
The forces of the Sixth House arrayed behind them begin to fire.
“Where’s your Tel’tak?” Telford asks conversationally, as if he’s merely curious, as if nothing crucial rides upon Young’s answer.
“Nearby,” he says, the word a calming pull.
Telford smiles but his eyes are haunted. One hand is pressing down upon the mark that has been cut into his chest. Young knows it’s not the only such mark he bears.
A well-placed shot by their pursuit silences the overburdened engine. Silhouettes of darkened rocks consume his field of view. He does all that he can to keep the craft aloft, to keep it from rolling, to twist it, to align himself, instead of David, on the side that will meet the unyielding rise of red-black slopes.
When he regains consciousness, he’s lying on his back in dust.
“Oh no,” Telford breathes. “Oh Christ. Oh shit. Oh fuck.” Ash falls like snow, atop the rock, the metal. It settles over the dark of Telford’s hair, a pale corolla. “They’re coming.”
The land is red. Like rust, or ancient blood. The air is choked, debris-flakes fall in windswept waves.
Young had chosen this direction for two reasons.
One—he had hoped they wouldn’t follow.
Two—if they did follow, there was still a chance that the Alliance wouldn’t succeed. There was a chance that they would all die here. While not ideal, it’s an outcome with which he can live. At least—for now.
“They’re coming,” Telford repeats, but his voice has calmed and hardened. “Where did you leave the ship?”
Young spits blood into the reddish dirt and swallows. “Where do you think?” he replies with a trace of real amusement in a smile that can look nothing but ghastly. His eyes flick upwards, toward the steep slope of the active volcano ahead of them.
Telford follows his gaze, shaking, bloodied, barely on his feet, but undefeated, and then looks back down at Young, the corners of his mouth quirking upward. “You know, you’re a priceless son of a bitch sometimes.”
Young laughs and he feels the pain from his spine to his toes.
“Which way is it going to be?” Telford asks, not looking at him. “The hard way, or the hard way?”
“The hard way,” Young grinds out. “It’s always the hard way.”
“Yeah,” Telford says, bracing his shoulder against the twisted wreckage of their downed craft. “Good answer.”
He pulls out an alien first aid kit, but Young shakes his head.
“No,” he says. No use, is what he doesn’t say.
Telford pulls him up and the pain is unbearable, untenable, unbelievable, past endurance, and he cannot stand, he cannot speak, he can only dig his hands into Telford’s uniform. Telford, who is injured, who has been tortured, who has been pushed past any ledge that words might name, who can barely support himself.
They’re back on the ground.
“What was I thinking,” Telford chokes, trying to breathe through ash. “We’re doing this the hard way.”
“The hard way,” Young repeats, tasting blood and sulfur. “What’s the hard way?”
“Clawing, crawling your way to an objective,” Telford rasps, his hand closing over Young’s as he drags them forward. “The struggle in the dirt.”
Young’s fingers dig into loose earth. He drags himself through the darkening landscape, up the steep slope.
Their progress is slow, hand over agonizing hand while his bad leg trails uselessly behind him.
“I wish you hadn’t come,” Telford whispers, choking on ash, a dark, dynamic force in turbid air. “I wish to God you hadn’t.”
“It’s too late for that,” Young replies.
The atmosphere is searing.
Beside him, Telford coughs, his fists tightening uselessly into gray dust, trying to gain traction. Failing.
“We are not going to die here,” he says.
Young coughs. “No?”
“No,” Telford replies. I will not allow us to die here.”
“It’s not looking good,” Young says.
“Yes it is,” Telford says. “Because you know—“ he breaks off, shielding his face from a blast of heated air.
Young has never been in this much agony.
He is cold.
He is hot.
He cannot breathe.
But he must move.
He must keep going.
He must keep going or kill himself.
He cannot wait for the Lucian Alliance.
Neither of them can. Because the Alliance will not kill them.
“I think Sanchez might have a crush on me,” Telford says, dragging him, shoving him up the barren, rocky slope. “What are your thoughts—“ he breaks off, coughing in the acrid air, destroying the cadence of his question, “—on this.”
“You wish,” Young says through blood, his free hand sliding easily over stone as fingernails scramble for purchase on loose rock.
“What do you mean I wish?” Telford asks.
“Everyone—“ Young seizes up with a wave of pain, “wants to date a combat engineer.”
“Yeah,” Telford says, barely audible, barely visible through obscure air. “Short though. I don’t know about the hair.”
Young inhales slowly, trying to breathe past blood. “You’re a dick. Anyone ever tell you that?”
“I save your life, and this is the thanks I get?”
“Still a dick,” Young rasps.
Telford’s breathing is irregular and harsh.
“If you make it back,” Young says, “and I don’t—“
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Keep an eye on Emily, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Telford gasps, “but no. We’re both going back. That’s the deal.”
“That’s the deal, is it?”
“That’s the deal.”
Young woke, sitting with a reflexive, agonizing pull of his lower back, his hands coming to his chest, trying to soothe the ache in his lungs that was nothing more than a memory.
It took him a moment to orient himself in the unfamiliar dark of his apartment.
He was on his couch, covered with sweat. In the air he could still smell the lingering traces of the dinner Rush had cooked, hours before.
Emily’s absence was more acutely unbearable than it had been for months.
He buried his face in his hands.