Mathématique: Chapter 40

“It’s not a date,” Jackson said sharply. “It’s a dinner meeting to discuss Vala’s cultural acclimatization.“

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. Injury.

Chapter 40

Even though Young had only done it a few times, dragging Jackson to O’Malley’s happy hour was starting to acquire the trough-like mental contour of a forming habit.

“Why do people do this?” Jackson asked, his hands empty and restless, in search of anything that might submit to shredding.

“Do what?” Young countered, one hand spread on the lacquered wood of the bar.

Jackson didn’t answer him.

Young shut his eyes and tried to ground himself in the press of warm wood against his fingers, the smell of alcohol and of dust, tried to sink himself firmly into the solidity of a late afternoon in August, tried to anchor himself to the pain in his back and the gold tint of the light beyond closed eyelids.

“I’m so sorry,” David whispers, covered with ash and blood. “Oh Christ. Oh shit. Oh fuck, I’m sorry. This is my fault.”

Young’s eyes snapped open.

“What’ll you have?” the bartender asked them, his hands swiping a towel in an endless circle over the flared edge of a drying glass.

“I’ll take a Coors,” Young said.

“Pick something for me,” Jackson said.

The bartender looked skeptically at Jackson and set down his glass with the quiet, leveling click of surfaces aligning.

“He’ll take a Coors too,” Young said.

“No,” Jackson countered, the word stretched into something uneasy. “I want you,” he continued, holding the gaze of the unassuming bartender with an inappropriate intensity, “to pick it for me.”

The bartender looked at Young with a lateral swing of his gaze before returning to an uncertain contemplation of Jackson.

“Pick anything,” Jackson said. “Anything that you think that the universe wants me to have.”

“Yeah, so I’m pretty sure the universe wants you to have a Coors,” Young said, giving the bartender a subtle shrug and mouthing the words ‘rough day,’ in his direction, outside the likely scope of Jackson’s peripheral vision. Without saying anything, the bartender reached into a fridge below the bar, levered the top off a bottle of beer, and set it down in front of Jackson.

“Arrogant Bastard Ale,” Young read.

“An inspired choice,” Jackson said, still looking at the bartender, as if he expected him to be someone he wasn’t. “How did you know?”

“Lucky guess,” the bartender replied dryly.

“Eh, I’ve met better fits for the ‘arrogant bastard’ label than you, Jackson,” Young said. “Come on.”

“It’s Daniel, actually,” Jackson replied, acquiescing to Young’s pull on his arm after a brief, instinctive resistance.

“Yeah yeah. I know,” Young said, leading the way though a wooden maze of chairs and tables, glinting warm in the afternoon sun, and into the back, to a booth out of sight of the windows, out of sight of the piano, which stood silent and ominous in an illuminated corner of the room.

Young hadn’t wanted to bring Jackson here. But there was nowhere else to go. And Jackson—well, Jackson needed to get out more, as a general rule. They sat down. Young took a sip of his beer.

“That was bad,” Jackson said, bracing his elbows on the table, pressing against his temples with one spread hand. “Yesterday, I mean. That was bad. Was it bad? It was. I know it was. I shouldn’t have done that. Probably. It didn’t make a difference.”

Young said nothing.

He holds Rush down as his back arches, as monitors wail beneath and behind the sound of Lam’s voice and the pointing of her fingers, while Jackson, Daniel, at the foot of the bed, stands with his gaze up, his voice an agonized indictment, a hopeless demand for intercession, calling for the destruction of all that he had studied.

“It turned out okay,” Young said mildly.

“What was I thinking,” Jackson whispered.

“You were trying to help,” Young replied.

“Yeah,” Jackson said hollowly, staring at the table. “That’s what I was doing. Trying to help.”

It was only because Young was watching Jackson’s hands that he saw the subtle tremor there as they shifted to interlock over the bottle in front of him.

“Thanks,” Jackson said. “Thanks for—“ His grip shifted and his thumbnail slipped beneath the edge of the label on his beer. “Well, these things. They can ramp up or down depending on external circumstances. You know what I mean. It’s always nice to have an unquestionable rock of sanity saying things like ‘maybe making a direct appeal to ascended beings will be helpful in this situation’.”

“I said that?” Young asked, skeptical, trying not to remember the particulars of the previous afternoon.

“You were a little more laconic about it,” Jackson said, giving him a half smile in return, “but that’s all to the good, I think. It reads better.”

“It ‘read better’ because it was true,” Young said pointedly.

“Mmm. Well, there’s that too. I miss truth.” Jackson took a sip of his beer and made a face. “You hold onto that one as long as you can.”

“Truth?” Young said.

“You have to keep track of it,” Jackson said. “Didn’t you know?”

“Yeah, okay. Thanks for the tip.”

“Any time,” Jackson said, in unadorned deprecation.

Young looked away and took a sip of his beer. “You doing okay now?”

“Yeah,” Jackson said, as the label on the bottle started to give way beneath the persistence of his thumbnail.  “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m absolutely fine. I mean, I was also fine yesterday? Just to be clear.”

“I know that,” Young said.

“Good,” Jackson replied. “It’s important to me that you know that. I mean, Cam and Teal’c and Sam—they get it. They know. They know what it’s like. Standards are different. The way we operate, on a plane more askew, a little to the left, everything slantwise, or something. It’s just different and sometimes, when people don’t understand that, then there are unfortunate consequences, such as—”

“Daniel,” Young broke in, “you flipped out at some ascended beings, and Mitchell and Teal’c talked you down, eventually. Totally understandable, not a big deal, I get it, SG-1 gets it, Lam gets it. Everyone who was there gets it.”

“Right,” Jackson said, peeling a strip away from the label and depositing it on the table.

The silence between them was punctuated by the irregular rise and fall of conversations scattered through the slowly filling room.

“It’s just that there have been times,” Jackson said, without looking at him, without finishing.

“Yeah,” Young said, “I heard a little bit about that. But not this time.”

“You heard about that?” Jackson asked. “Who told you?”

“Lam said something.”

“Carolyn?” Jackson repeated, surprised.

“She didn’t say much. Not anything, really. She was just putting a few things into context. The reason why the medical protocols and the psych protocols are the way they are. She mentioned it was because something happened to you. Years back. She didn’t say what.”

“Ah yes,” Jackson said, taking a sip of his beer. “Context.”

“You want to talk about it?” Young asked, and took a sip of his Coors.

“Huh,” Jackson said. “Maybe. I like that you haven’t already heard. I like that I could tell you the entire, horrible story about the psychopath who tried to steal my life and then managed to induce a very realistic psychotic break from beyond the grave. I like that it would be, entirely, my own story to tell. You haven’t heard it before.  You probably haven’t even heard his name.”

“Try me,” Young said.


“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Young replied.

“It means ‘butcher’,” Jackson said.

“Ugh,” Young said. “No thanks.”

“He was a great man,” Jackson said, looking absently down the length of the room. “Engineer. Artist. Rebel. He overthrew a system lord. Ares. He was tortured and driven mad by too many turns in a Goa’uld sarcophagus. His wife was made host to Eris. As a punishment. For his crimes.”

“But he stuck around I guess,” Young said. “Long enough to do a number on a peaceful explorer from the backwaters of the galaxy.”

“Yeah,” Jackson said. “Bitterness will do that. Confer staying power.”

“So,” Young watched another strip of the beer label come free under Jackson’s nails. “You going to tell me the story?”

“No,” Jackson said. “Not today. Over time, well, you get a sense for these things. There are days when you can speak about certain topics, and then there are days when the past has too much power. When it feels like more than prologue.”

“Foreshadow,” Young said, lifting his beer and turning the word into a mock toast.

Jackson nearly choked on a mouthful of Arrogant Bastard Ale, swallowed it and then laughed, once, giving Young a wild-edged grin. “Oh my god,” the archaeologist said, taking several successive deep breaths.  

“Breathe air, not beer,” Young advised.

“Foreshadow,” Jackson said, tipping his head back to stare at the ceiling.

Young shrugged artlessly and then ruined it by smirking. “I know what you mean, though.”

Jackson took a deep breath, wiped the corners of his eyes, readjusted his glasses, and said, “One of these days, if we both live long enough, and when I’m drinking a beer I like better than this one, I’ll tell you about Ma’chello, Rebel of Dendred.”

“Or not,” Young offered. “Maybe the footnote to that fucker’s entire life is that he’s the asshole that Daniel Jackson was too busy to remember.”

“The ignominy of obscurity,” Jackson said, peeling away another strip of label.

“Exactly,” Young said.

“I haven’t thought of him in years,” Jackson said. 

“Well there ya go.”

“I do think of Mackenzie, though, on a semi-regular basis,” the archaeologist said, tracing a grain of wood in the table with his fingernail. “How’s your neighbor?”

“He’s better,” Young said, letting the man have his abrupt subject change without missing a conversational beat. “Better than yesterday. He woke up late last night, and Carter calibrated the cortical suppressants.”

“That must have been awful,” Jackson whispered, still looking away.

“Yup,” Young said, knocking back a quarter of his beer in one go. “It was pretty bad.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Why?” Young asked.

“Because,” Jackson said, his hands stilling, his gaze returning to Young.

“Who the hell are you, anyway, Jackson?” Young asked.

“Your neighbor says I live at the tail end of the bell curve,” Jackson said, giving Young a twisted smile. “I’m not sure he’s wrong. It sounds vaguely demonic though, don’t you think?”

“Um,” Young said.

“Sorry,” Jackson said. “Sorry. It’s been a difficult week, and you’re such a vault of practical laconicism, I can’t help myself. You remind me of Jack sometimes.”

“O’Neill?” Young said, incredulous.

Jackson ran a restive hand through his hair. “Only in your capacity to normalize, which you should not underestimate. You might actually be better than Jack in that regard. Mitchell doesn’t have that particular skill—he just gets concerned, you know, does a lot of intense talking with an immobilized expression,” Jackson said, imitating Mitchell’s characteristic jaw-clenched, icy gaze. “And Teal’c, well, Teal’c’s really only going to step in if it looks like I’m going to throw myself off a balcony or something. He’s got a lot of confidence in—“ Jackson spun a finger in a sloppy, horizontal circle. ”All of it,” he finished.

“That’s a specific example,” Young said.

“See—look at you. You’re perfect,” Jackson said. “Don’t think I don’t notice.  Don’t think Jack hasn’t either. Regarding the balcony though, Teal’c wasn’t actually there. It was Jack. Weird light, pleasure palace, depression, cardiac arrest, long story.  Again, for a time with better beer. But you’re dodging my question.”

“You make them a little hard to find,” Young said.

“Only when I’m helping you be evasive,” Jackson replied. “Tell me about it. I wanted to be there, but even I could see that would be a bad decision, so—“ he tore off another strip of label, “tell me.”

“I’m not sure which was worse,” Young said, looking at the table, “before he knew what we’d done to him, or the moment he figured it out.”

Jackson said nothing.

“He tried to take it off,” Young said, trying not to recall the panicked, agonized, flexing of Rush’s hands toward the devices at his temples. “The cortical suppressant.”

Jackson nodded.

“There was a window,” Young said, feeling the echo of strain in his back, remembering the cool press of Lam’s hands over his own, “of maybe about two minutes where—“ he stopped.

Jackson said nothing. The momentum of his silence pulled Young forward.

“Two minutes where he understood that something was happening, that Carter was doing something, that we were all, all of us, doing something, but he wasn’t quite getting what it was. He just wanted that thing off his head. And we stopped him. Physically stopped him.” 

Young looked away.

“It was hard for Carter,” he said.

“I know,” Jackson replied.

“And it was hard for Lam,” Young said. “She’s a tough one but—“ he trailed off.

Jackson nodded once.

“And for the medic who was there,” Young said, keeping any recognition from his voice. “Johansen.”

Jackson nodded again.

“He gets it now,” Young said, the words laid down like a swipe of spackle. “Rush, I mean.” He took another sip of his beer and looked at his watch. “Perry should be with him, for calibration session number five.”

“How does he seem?” Jackson asked. “Normal?”

“Well, he’s seemed pretty normal to me since the end of the first session,” Young said. “But I guess they’re trying to give him his mental icing back—whatever it is that lets him do the stuff he does.”

“Mental icing,” Jackson repeated. 

“What?” Young asked, defensive.

“Nothing,” Jackson said, his expression breaking and reforming under the pressure of a quick smile. “I just love it, that’s all.” The other man peeled back yet another strip of label from his bottle of beer. “So he seems okay?”

“Yes,” Young said. “He seems okay, other than the fact that he’s got a seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollar, untested, alien prototype affixed to his head, preventing him from having auditory hallucinations and repetitive electrical discharges intense enough that they might cause permanent neurological damage.”

“Yeah,” Jackson said dryly. “Other than that.”

“But yeah, he’s insulting me and science-flirting with Carter, which seems about right.”

“Good,” Jackson said, looking out into the central space of the room.

“So any clue what the hell happened to him?” Young asked. “Lam isn’t saying anything yet, though she seems to have been working on it pretty much non-stop for the past forty-eight hours.”

Jackson said nothing and took a sip of his beer.

“You think it was Altera?” Young asked. “You think it mentally screwed him up somehow, and it’s been building all this time?”

“That’s the prevailing theory,” Jackson said. “A delayed reaction to an unknown electrophysiological insult. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen something like this. It wouldn’t be the first time there’s been a gap between exposure and end result.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re not buying it?” Young asked.

“I buy very little,” Jackson said. “Archeologists tend to pillage, by historical tradition.”

“Jackson,” Young growled.

“Daniel,” the other man said, one hand coming away from his beer to hover open above the table, as if he could ward Young off. “Like the one in the lion’s den who prayed all through the night. Shut up the words and seal the book,” he finished, with a pronation of his palm and a sardonic slant to his gaze.

“What do you think happened to him?” Young asked, direct and without patience.

“The same thing that happens to us all,” Jackson said, looking him straight in the eyes, “when our identity and our context collide.”

Young took a sip of his beer.  So you don’t know,” he said.

“Not a clue,” Jackson said. “But the Ancients, well,” he looked out over empty floor space, “they’re not exactly known for their unity in forbearance.”

“You think one of them might have directly messed with him?”

“Possibly,” Jackson said, his gaze restless, roving around the interior of the room, “Unfortunately, in keeping with mythological tradition, I’ve been mnemonically blinded post-interaction with them, which simultaneously warps and clarifies my perspective. I think I—I have a sense for them though. When they’re present. There’s—something I can feel.”

Young raised his eyebrows. “You get a sense of it back there?”

“I did,” Jackson said. “Which is why I went a little—overboard. I went too far. I always know it’s too far when it’s Teal’c talking me down. Teal’c gives me more latitude than anyone.”

Young nodded, and his gaze fell upon the edge of the piano, barely visible in his current position.

“What happened,” the Jackson said, with uncanny, merciless insight, “when he played.”

“It sounded like shit,” Young said. He took a long swallow of his beer.

It had not sounded like shit.

It had sounded expert but knocked askew—impossible to explain unless witnessed. Young found it difficult to justify the reflexive reticence he felt in telling Jackson about what it had been like to watch Rush persist in an artistic distortion that was both intensely troubled and intensely personal.

“Strange,” Jackson murmured. “I wouldn’t have predicted that.”

“Well,” Young said, his gaze turning back in the direction of the piano, “he was having an off day.”

Jackson shot him a sharp look and said nothing, pulling out the silence between them.

“He’ll be okay,” Young said, not at all sure, but speaking out of some strange, probably misplaced, desire to throw some kind of verbal shield over the memory of an unprotected mismatch of fluid fingering and tonal dissonance that might guard Rush by proxy from the Jackson’s exploratory compassion.

“Mmm,” Jackson said, as if he knew exactly what Young was doing. As if he approved of the evasion.

“He just needs some god damned duct tape over those cortical suppressors. That shit glows.”

“I noticed,” Jackson said dryly. “That’s the problem with Lantean technology. It’s a blend of form and function, so—well, it’s meant to look pretty. I’m pretty sure the glowing results from power running through the crystal-based, um—crap. What was it—Sam told me—it’s a control element, I just can’t remember the particular variant. It’ll come to me, one minute—”

Young sighed. “Whatever. Would it have killed McKay to have encased the thing in lead?”

Jackson paused in his progressive label-peeling to open his hands. “They’re already working on a second version that apparently won’t glow and won’t have quite as much of an electronic signature that’s detectable over the air.”

“Yeah, that’s great,” Young said. “Except for the part where in the meantime he’s broadcasting a signal and looks like he just stepped out of Total Recall.”

“We can remember it for you wholesale,” Jackson quoted in an arid sing-song.

Young rolled his eyes.

“We’ll go talk to Sam,” Jackson said. “We’ll do it right now. You’re right. They’re not going to let him off the base with The Future attached bilaterally at the temples, and staying on base is going to drive him out of his mind.”

“Agreed,” Young said, knocking back the remainder of his beer and beginning to fish in his pocket for his car keys.

They found Carter in her lab, one hand pressed against her still-healing chest, sitting in front of her laptop, studying a formidable looking screen filled with wave functions of some kind.

“Uh oh,” Jackson said, pulling her out of whatever she was doing with the familiar slide of long practice. “You have that look.”

“What look,” Carter said, glancing up and flashing a smile at both of them. “Hi, colonel.”

“Hey,” Young said.

“That look like you’re trying to phase-shift something. Again.”

“Daniel,” Carter said. “Wouldn’t you like to be able to unphase shift? Because that’s actually the point of gaining reliable, reproducible control of de Broglie waves. I’m not doing this for my own amusement.”

“Yes you are,” Jackson said with unmistakable fondness. “You most definitely are.”

“I’m doing it for you,” Carter replied, rolling her shoulders subtly. “For the next time you touch something you shouldn’t and—”

“Um, okay so that’s not me anymore? That’s Mitchell these days.”

Young and Carter exchanged a significant look.

“What’s that look?” Jackson asked.

“What look?” Young shot back.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” Jackson continued, boosting himself up onto Carter’s lab bench.  “The look they teach you at Colonel-Day-Camp, or wherever you people get indoctrinated into the jingoistic rituals of this inverted temple to military superiority.”

“And you’ve worked with this guy for how long?” Young asked Carter, indicating Jackson with a wry twist of expression and tilt of his head. “Ten years?”

“Give or take,” Carter said, before turning to Jackson. “Inverted?” she asked dryly.

“The gate’s at the bottom,” Jackson said, raising his eyebrows, his hands spreading, palms down, as if smoothing an invisible fait accompli into the air. “We have a question.”

“Yeah, I thought you might,” Carter said, her glance flicking over to Young. “Regarding Dr. Rush, I presume?”

Young nodded, shifting his weight to lean against the edge of the lab bench and ease some of the strain on his his left hip. “Bottom line,” he said, crossing his arms, “there’s no way he should be leaving the base until those things that are attached to his temples are, at a minimum, not glowing.”

“Yeah,” Carter said, drawing out the word with an expression that was slightly pained. “So just to clarify, this wasn’t an oversight, it was just that—well, in order to perform the calibration, we needed access to the hardware of the units themselves, so they had to be left partially open.”

“So—can we close them?”

“Once we’re sure we’re done calibrating,” Carter said, “there should be no problem at all in soldering a little piece in place to block the light. Until then—“ she broke off to rummage in a drawer before emerging with a roll of electrical tape hooked around one finger.

“Seriously?” Jackson asked, eyebrows pushed together.

“What’d I tell you,” Young said, glancing in his direction.

“We’ll give him a few more days,” Carter said, “and if he’s doing well, we’ll solder a plate in place to block the visible EM emissions. In the short term, if he doesn’t like looking like an ambassador for the future, he can just tape over the exposed portions.  It shouldn’t cause any problems.”

Young grabbed the tape and pocketed it. “Thanks,” he said.

“Not my best work,” Carter said with an apologetic shrug, “but we’ll get there.”

“Thanks, Sam,” Jackson said.

“No problem,” Carter replied. “Anything else?”

Jackson looked at Young.

Young shook his head. “How’s the ah—“ he gestured vaguely at his own chest.

“Sore,” Carter said ruefully, “but healing really well, thanks to Dr. Lam. I’ve already started rehab.”

Young grimaced in sympathy.

“You know, colonel,” Carter said, “tomorrow night we’re having a ‘Che’swings Night Part Deux’, at my place if you’re interested. Vala says you play chess.”

“How does Vala know that I play chess?” Young asked.

“Vala’s very well informed in general,” Carter replied. “You could ah—bring your neighbor, possibly? Dr. Lam was talking about releasing him tomorrow—” Carter seemed to lose momentum.

“Um,” Young said.

“Sam is dying to pick the guy’s brain on computational complexity theory,” Jackson explained, extending the toe of one boot to gently nudge Carter’s chair.

“Well—it’s just kind of awkward,” Carter said defensively. “I can’t just be like, ‘hi, I just adjusted the EM interference signature that determines your subjective experience of the world, now let’s talk about polynomial time’, now can I?”

“Sounds reasonable to me,” Jackson said.

“It’s definitely not polite,” Carter said.

“Isn’t it?” Jackson said.

“It’s not polite and it’s not sensitive,” Carter continued. “But inviting him to an evening of chess and wings, while maybe a little bit questionable in terms of social norms for someone accustomed to the wine and cheese platters of academia, might be a context in which—“

“Yeah, okay I’ll ask him,” Young said, interrupting Carter.

“Er—about tomorrow,” Jackson said, interrupting Young and then stopping.

Carter and Young looked at him.

“Well, I, ah, so it turns out that I can’t really make it tomorrow.”

“What are you doing?” Carter asked, flashing a smile that bordered on conspiratorial. “Got a hot date?”

“No,” Jackson said, quick and emphatic. “No. No, it’s more like a meeting. A dinner meeting.”

“Well,” Carter said, “at least this’ll be a good trial run to see if Mitchell can beat Vala without your constant back-seat chess-driving, since he doesn’t do very well with it, as we found out last time.”

“Yeah, so about that,” Jackson said, glancing at Young and then at the doorway. “Vala—um, Vala isn’t going to be there either.”

Young raised his eyebrows.

“Oh really,” Carter said archly. “Is Vala also going to be at this ‘meeting’?”

“Yes,” Jackson said, sliding off the lab bench.

“So it’s you and Vala and—“ Young trailed off, looking at Jackson expectantly.

“Well it’s just the two of us, but it’s very—“

“Oh my god,” Carter said, grinning. “Teal’c owes me twenty bucks.”

“God damn Jackson,” Young said. “Finally.”

“It’s not a date,” Jackson said sharply. “It’s a dinner meeting to discuss Vala’s cultural acclimatization.“

“Where are you taking her?” Carter asked.

“We’re having our meeting at Il Fiore Bianco,” Jackson replied, wrapping his arms around his chest.

“That is totally a date,” Carter said. “Il Fiore Bianco?”

“Yeah, so that’s definitely on the list of top ten Colorado Springs romantic restaurants, just FYI,” Young added.

“It is a meeting,” Jackson said. “I made this very clear to all parties.”

“Right,” Carter said.  “So when I go ask Vala about this—”

“She will, I’m sure, tell you that we are having a meeting,” Jackson said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, those inscriptions from P3X-whatever aren’t going to translate themselves.” With that, he turned and walked out of the lab.

Young looked at Carter.

Carter sighed.

“Lotta work?” Young asked, glancing at the doorway through which Jackson had disappeared.

“You have no idea,” Carter said.

“Maybe not,” Young said, “but you might be surprised.”

Fifteen minutes later, Young rounded the door to the infirmary to find Vala standing next to Rush’s gurney, two different shirts in hand.

Yeah, that seemed about right.

“I think I’m leaning toward the blue one, gorgeous, what do you think?” Vala asked, holding the shirt up to her own shoulders.

“I don’t have an opinion,” Rush replied, his arms crossed, his expression trending toward confused disapproval, looking a hell of a lot closer to his typical baseline now that he’d graduated to normal clothes and lost the IV fluids at some point over the past several hours.

“But you have excellent taste,” Vala countered.

“Only by proxy I assure you.”

“Pink is more classically feminine, and maybe a good color choice for someone who spends their days in the gender-neutralizing regalia of your culture’s military uniforms,” Vala said, examining the three-quarter sleeved rose shirt. “Don’t you think?”

Young cleared his throat, and Vala spun with a subtle flair of shirts and hair. “Oh hello, handsome,” she said.  “What do you think, pink or blue?”

He glanced at Rush. The mathematician cocked his head in subtle greeting, his hair mostly obscuring the small devices affixed to his temples.

“Blue,” Young said.

“See, gorgeous, that’s how it’s done,” Vala said, twisting to look at Rush again. “Just pick one.”

Rush rolled his eyes. “I recommend you perform your own cost/benefit analysis and come to your own decision.”

“Pink or blue,” Vala said, unperturbed.

“Blue,” Rush said.

“Blue,” Lam added from the periphery of the room, before vanishing into the hallway that lead to her office. “The cut is more flattering.”

“Thank you, hot stuff,” Vala called after her. “She’s very fashionable,” she whispered to Rush. “Did you see her shoes?”

“No,” Rush said pointedly.

“You’re welcome,” Lam called back, already invisible in the recesses of the back hallway.

“What’s the occasion?” Young asked artlessly as he limped forward to take a seat on the end of Rush’s gurney.  

Rush shot him a significant but, unfortunately, uninterpretable look. Young shrugged at him. Rush rolled his eyes.

“I,” Vala said primly, “have a date.”

“Oh yeah?” Young said, crossing his arms. “With who?”

“With Daniel,” Vala replied airily.

“I heard it was a ‘dinner meeting’,” Young said mildly. 

Rush shot him a disapproving look. Young raised his eyebrows.

“Yes,” Vala said. “That’s what he’s calling it, but it is, most definitely, a date.”

“For the record,” Rush said, “I’m certain you could do better than Jackson.”

“Um, I’m pretty sure everyone agrees that Jackson is the pinnacle of humanity,” Young said.

“Not everyone,” Rush replied.

“Are you volunteering yourself, gorgeous?” Vala asked, raising one eyebrow. “Or simply indulging your winning penchant for iconoclasm?”

“Good question,” Young said, looking at Rush.

“It’s a terrible question, actually,” Rush replied, “as it’s a false dichotomy.”

“Well, you can’t blame a girl for trying,” Vala replied, critically examining the blue shirt she was holding.

“I suppose not,” Rush said.

“In any case, I need to do some more research regarding ‘dates’,” Vala said. “The issue of what to do about post-dinner ‘coffee’ that may or may not be actual coffee seems particularly complex.”

“Maybe don’t overthink it,” Young offered.

“That’s terrible advice,” Rush said. “I’m certain there’s no such thing as overthinking.”

“You’ve never played a day of sports in your life, have you?” Young asked.

“I was otherwise engaged,” Rush replied. “Every day.”

“So was that a ‘yes’ on the post-dinner coffee or a ‘no’ on the post-dinner coffee, then?” Vala asked, her gaze flicking between them.

“It depends,” Rush said. “Furthermore, I think Jackson might need coffee to survive, which complicates the issue.”

“Just go with your gut,” Young said.

“Or design an algorithm that will guide your decision-making,” Rush replied. “For example, if Jackson refuses to admit that you’re actually on a date, then I’d say post-dinner coffee loses all significance.”

“I’m pretty sure you don’t need an algorithm to tell you that,” Young said.

“Well it couldn’t hurt,” Vala said. “We’ll talk later, gorgeous.”

“Of that, I have no doubt,” Rush replied dryly.

Vala rounded the doorframe with a vanishing flash of blue and pink, leaving Rush and Young in the quiet infirmary.

“Seriously,” Young said, “an algorithm? You’re just messing with her.”

“I happen to be atypically gifted in the art and science of algorithm design,” Rush replied. “And whether one is explicitly aware of it or not, all decision making is fundamentally algorithmic in structure.”

“There is no way that even you could be serious about a dating algorithm.”

“You’ve fucking met Jackson, correct?” Rush asked, lifting his gaze toward the ceiling and tipping his head back.

“The guy is really not that bad,” Young said.

“So you keep asserting,” Rush replied. He looked back at Young. “Any chance that you might be able to find me a laptop?”

“Today?” Young asked. “Probably not. You’re supposed to be taking it easy. How was the session with Perry?”

“Successful,” Rush said, pressing two fingers against the space between his eyebrows. His gaze flicked over to the packet of what looked like math on the bedside table beside him.

Young picked it up and leafed through the pages of impressive looking equations. “Genius level IQ fully present and accounted for, it seems like?”

“So it would appear,” Rush replied. “One can never be certain, of course, when one is trying to replicate a subjective experience.”

“Speaking of subjectivity,” Young said, pausing as Rush looked up, a faintly amused cast to his expression, “how are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Rush said. 

“Yeah?” Young said skeptically. “You look like you have a bitch of a headache.”

“Well, this is not atypical for me.”

“I get that. But you feel okay otherwise?”

Rush nodded. “Any chance you can get me out of here?”

“Maybe tomorrow,” Young said. “Maybe.”

Rush sighed.

“C’mere,” Young said, shifting a few inches and dragging his bad leg up onto the bed. “Let me see these things.”

Rush raised his eyebrows fractionally, but slid forward and tipped his head as Young brought a hand up to sweep his hair aside.

“They couldn’t make them not glow blue?” Young growled, using his fingers to pin Rush’s uncooperative hair out of the way as he examined the one of the two faintly glowing devices attached to the other man’s temple.

“Haven’t the fucking faintest,” Rush replied.

They glanced at one another and then, abruptly, away.

“Yeah, so this isn’t exactly low profile,” Young said, running a thumbnail over the blue light that ran along one border of the device. “But it’s what we’ve got while we wait for the properly shielded, smaller, untrackable version two point oh. Fortunately we can do a little bit of a camo job in the meantime.”  He pulled the electrical tape out of his pocket.


“Yeah,” Young said. “Electrical tape. Little strip, right over that light—problem solved.” Young tapped delicately on the small piece of metal.

“You’re planning on putting fucking tape. Over an indicator light.”

“A really stupid indicator light.”

“Dr. Perry likes it.”

“It makes you look like a dork,” Young said, nonchalant and untruthful.

Rush shot him an unimpressed look. “I didn’t design it.”

“I’m not saying it’s your fault you look like a dork, hotshot, I’m just making a statement of fact here.”

“Fuck,” Rush sighed.

“The tape is only temporary,” Young said. “Carter’ll solder plates in place in a few days, once they’re sure that they’re done with whatever ‘tweaking’ it is they’ve gotta do.”

“So I heard,” Rush said, watching as Young pulled out his pocketknife and cut a small piece of tape free of the roll he held.

“You,” Young said, as Rush swept a handful of hair away from the device at his left temple, “need a haircut.”

“Yes yes,” Rush replied. “I’m aware.”

“But maybe not until you get rid of these things,” Young said, carefully stabilizing his hand and affixing the opaque tape to block the emitted light.

Rush let his hair fall back into place.

“Not bad,” Young said, cocking his head. “If I wasn’t looking for the things, I doubt I’d notice them.”

Rush shifted slightly, exposing his right temple as Young cut a second piece of tape.

He pressed it down, smoothing his thumb over the edges.

Rush let his hair go, and shook his head.

“Much better,” Young said. “You look a little bit less like you belong in a Philip K. Dick novel.”

“If only I felt that way,” Rush said, adjusting his glasses.

“We’ll get this figured out, hotshot,” Young replied, readjusting a piece of Rush’s hair to entirely conceal any hint of the metal beneath it.

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