Mathématique: Chapter 41
Telford gave Rush an appraising look. “No one will stop us if we walk out with confidence.”
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.
Rush sat cross-legged on his gurney, leaning forward as he studied the chessboard arrayed in front of him, his attention split between the unfolding game and the mental effort it took not to touch the cortical suppressants affixed to his temples.
“You’re fairly good at this,” he admitted, “as commissionless colonels go.”
“Commissionless?” Telford snapped, with a satisfying edge of aggression in his tone as he positioned a pawn, leaning over the board across from Rush. “Who the hell are you calling out of commission, Nick?”
“Very PC,” Young pointed out, his bad leg propped on Rush’s gurney as if he owned the thing.
“A fairly significant and prestigious cohort of your peers,” Rush replied, looking at Telford as he castled kingside with a calculated nonchalance.
Telford raised his eyebrows and castled queenside, in open challenge.
“Queenside?” Young said, with poorly concealed good humor. “You ballsy motherfucker. He’s going to take you apart. Also—did I just get called significant and prestigious?”
“Have you ever seen me play chess, Everett?” Telford asked, with that subtle theatricality Rush had always found vaguely appealing.
“Significant is a mathematical term,” Rush replied absently, as he pondered whether or not to take Telford’s suspiciously vulnerable bishop. “‘Prestigious’ referred, of course, to Colonel Carter.”
“Yeah,” Young said, looking at Telford. “They have this whole nerd romance going on.”
“Carter’s hot,” Telford said, with an equivocal shrug. He glanced briefly from the board to Rush. “Nice work.”
Rush shot the pair of them a distinctly withering look over the top of his glasses. It was wasted on Telford, who had turned his attention back to the board, but Young shifted, uncomfortable.
“You’re a dick,” Young said, looking at Telford with no small degree of fondness.
“What?” Telford said. “I was just making an observation. I’m the first to admit that smart is sexy.”
“How fucking forward thinking of you,” Rush said, deciding to forego Telford’s bishop in favor of putting a hole in what seemed to be a nascent pawn skeleton of the first order.
“So what did Lam say?” Young asked Telford.
The other man glanced up at the clock for what must have been the tenth time in as many minutes. “She said she’d know by twenty hundred hours,” Telford replied.
Rush wasn’t clear on what it was that Telford was waiting to find out. Apparently, his security clearance didn’t extend so far. Whatever it was, it was making both Young and Telford anxious.
“You want dinner?” Young asked.
“Fuck no,” Telford snapped. “Do I look like I could eat right now?”
“Who says I was talking to you?” Young replied. “Hotshot, you want something from the mess?”
“I do not,” Rush replied, “as I have been given to understand that my likelihood of getting out of here within the next several hours is high.”
“True,” Young said. “Any idea what you’re going to make for dinner? We haven’t done fish for a while now.”
Telford stared at Rush.
“Fuck off,” Rush muttered, not certain whom he was addressing, but entirely certain that it didn’t matter.
“I didn’t say anything,” Telford said.
“Come over for dinner,” Young said, eyeing Telford. “You guys can have an epic rematch if Lam lets Rush out of here. Two out of three.”
“Eh,” Telford said, looking at the clock. “Depends on what the blood test shows.”
“That wasn’t a no,” Young said, also looking at the clock.
“Do you have some kind of incurable disease?” Rush asked politely. “Because if not, may I enquire as to what exactly is going on here?.”
“Enquire all god damned day, Nick. Inquire even,” Telford shot back, burying any real answer beneath transparent logomachy, “now that you’ve relocated to the colonies.”
“Don’t worry about it, hotshot,” Young said, one hand pressed against his lower back.
With a snap of the wrist Rush attacked and appropriated one of Telford’s pawns.
“My problem is a little more—abstract than you’re envisioning,” Telford said, in covert answer to the irritation communicated by the aggression of Rush’s en passant.
“I’m sure,” Rush replied, placing the pawn on the table next to him with the crisp click of plastic on chipboard.
Telford smiled, ironic and askew. Rush smirked back, as something passed between them in dark simpatico. He remembered, suddenly, the crack of his hand against an airborne flashdrive that he’d snatched mid-arc, months ago and thousands of miles away, out of the quiet air.
“You two look like you’re plotting something,” Young said.
“What are we going to plot?” Telford snapped back, dropping his eyes to the chessboard. “Two guys without current security clearance, both more than a little lacking in practical compos mentis? No offense, Nick,” Telford said.
“None taken,” Rush replied, finally deciding he’d done enough damage to Telford’s pawn structure to take that vulnerable bishop.
“How well do you guys actually know each other?” Young asked, slow and guarded.
“Well enough,” Rush said dryly.
“You sure?” Telford replied, his voice a dark arch as he advanced his knight.
“Damn it, Rush,” Young said, looking at the board.
“Checkmate,” Telford said.
Rush sighed, and tipped his king.
The familiar tones of Young’s ringing phone split the stillness. He glanced at the caller ID, shifted his gaze to Telford, and answered.
“Jackson,” Young said, “it’s nineteen hundred hours, aren’t you supposed to be—”
Young stopped talking, his expression shutting down with an abruptness that Rush found unsettling. “Slow down,” Young said, already standing.
“What,” Telford hissed, his eyes fixed on Young, his hands hovering above the chessboard. “What?”
Young held up a hand, his eyes scanning the edges and vertices of the room, as if, already, he were looking for a way out.
“Yeah, I got you. Did you get the plates on the van?”
Telford shot to his feet.
“Who else have you called—Jackson. Jackson. Who else have you called.” The dread in Young’s voice was unmistakable, and Rush felt a sympathetic echo of it in the bones of his hands as he swept an aleatory assortment of pieces to the periphery of the board.
Telford crossed the room and pulled a phone from the wall. “Dispatch?” he said, “yeah, please stand by.”
Young turned to Telford. “Vala was manhandled into a white van. Maybe two minutes ago, if that. Jackson was too far away to get the plates. Last known location—” he paused, moved his hand and said, “Jackson, give me the address.”
Rush ran a hand through his hair, slow and controlled, in a moving blaze of four identical lines of force as his fingers pressed against his head, skirting the metal edges of his cortical suppressants.
“Dispatch, this is Colonel David Telford, please initiate code five on my authorization. Page General Landry at home—or, wherever the hell he is, let him know that we’re calling a code five on Vala Mal Doran. Scramble SG-1, SG-4, and SG-9 for a stat briefing. I’m going to need a direct line to the Colorado Springs PD and—”
Telford broke off.
“One Lake Avenue,” Young said, “got it. The code five is called. Don’t do anything stupid, Jackson—just—”
“Harriman. What do you mean I don’t have the authorization for that?” Telford snapped, “I—“
“Give it to me.” Young pulled the phone out of Telford’s hand. “Harriman, damn it, this is Young. I’ll authorize it. Get those pages done and get me the Colorado Springs PD, port it down to this phone.”
“Fuck,” Telford breathed, turning away from Young, away from Rush, his hands threading through his hair. “Fuck.”
“What’s going on?” Lam burst out of the darkness of the back hall in a flare of white, lights reflecting off her coat. Telford shook his head, one hand coming open. Lam looked at Rush.
“Something happened to Vala,” Rush said. “She was forced into a car.”
“Vala,” Lam whispered, in confirmatory reflex, over the calm cadence of Young communicating with the Colorado Springs police department.
“Yes,” Rush said, folding the chessboard still spread in front of him. “Vala.”
Lam’s gaze swept over Young and Telford, turned at oblique angles to one another, their heads identically bowed. With measured steps, she walked forward and began collecting chess pieces from the table next to his bed, fitting them methodically into her hands before transferring them to the waiting box in clusters. “By whom?” she asked quietly, her gaze dark.
“I don’t know,” Rush whispered. “I’m sure I’ll never find out.”
“Don’t say things like that, Nick,” Telford murmured absently, his arms crossed over his chest.
Briefly, Lam shut her eyes, as she pressed the pieces down into their box.
Young replaced the phone against the wall. “I’ve gotta go,” he said, looking at Telford, something like apology in his tone and on his face. “I’ve got to run this, at least until—”
“Yeah,” Telford said. “I know. You rank Cam now.”
“Stay out of trouble, hotshot,” Young said, glancing over his shoulder as he made for the exit. “And stay on the base.”
“Yes yes,” Rush sighed, as Young vanished around the frame of the door.
Half an hour later, Rush found himself leaning back against the gurney that had more or less defined the scope of his existence for days, looking at the uninspiring homogeneity of the cement ceiling.
“So what is it,” Rush asked, his eyes fixed on landscapes of tiny imperfections lacing concrete, “that you’re waiting for.”
Telford didn’t look at him. The other man was leaning back against the adjacent gurney, his arms crossed over his chest. He looked instead at the ceiling, his expression one of abstruse avidity that seemed particular to him alone. Rush could practically feel him trying circumnavigate the boundaries of regulation.
“An answer,” Telford said, “to something I’ve been wondering about myself for a long time.”
“And this answer is something you can get from a medical test?” Rush asked.
“In this part of the galaxy,” Telford replied. “Not everywhere.”
“Ah,” Rush said. “Care to elaborate?”
“Maybe one day,” Telford said, glancing at him wryly. “Hotshot.”
“Shut the fuck up, won’t you?” Rush replied.
“It’s kinda priceless,” Telford said, smiling wistfully.
“Do you think that you could possibly get me level two security clearance?” Rush asked, steering the conversation away from Young and subjective evaluations of his worth. “This is terrible, you realize.”
“Oh I know,” Telford said, the words more bitter than dry, despite what had likely been his original intent. “Believe me, I get it. I can’t stand being fucking benched, which is exactly what I am. Maybe benched for good, if Jackson gets his way.”
Rush raised his eyebrows.
“Forget it,” Telford said. “My point is, right now I know how you feel. You think I’m not dying to ask you about what you’re doing here, let alone the relatively subtle fashion accessories glued to your temples? But I’m not going to. It’s best not to appear curious while under scrutiny.”
“A policy I’ve never managed to fully implement,” Rush replied.
“But you have always struck me,” Rush continued, unperturbed, “as someone particularly adept in the circumvention of barriers.”
“Is that right,” Telford said. “Quite a compliment, coming from a cryptographer. You think you’re going to flatter me into telling you something you’re not supposed to know?”
“I’m certain I wouldn’t parse my statement as anything so fucking gauche.”
“No,” Telford replied. “No, I wouldn’t either.” He looked away, his eyes fixed on nothing. “You must know,” he said finally, “what it’s like to wonder about the truth of your existence. To wonder whether the story you tell yourself about your life and your choices is the real story.” He paused. “Or whether you’re something different than what you think you are. Than what other people think you are.”
“This,” Rush began, losing momentum as a chill spread beneath his skin. He paused. Cleared his throat. Started again. “This is a common thread of human experience.”
Telford looked over at him. “Sometimes the question becomes more pertinent than a philosophical exercise,” he whispered, glancing at the devices mostly hidden by the sweep of Rush’s hair. “Am I right?”
“I’m certain I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rush replied, fighting the urge to bring his hands to his temples.
“Yeah, me neither.” Telford looked at the clock.
It was a few minutes past eight.
As if on cue, Lam emerged from the back hallway, a file in her hand. “You’re clean,” she said, without explanation or preamble.
“I’m sure. We’ll test you again at thirty and sixty days,” she said, “but you’re clean.”
Telford shut his eyes, some of the tension coming out of his shoulders.
“Go home,” Lam said. “Get some rest.”
“I’ll stay,” Telford said. “Vala’s still missing.”
“There’s nothing you can do about that,” Lam said, with all the professional brusqueness of the curative scalpel.
“You think I don’t know that?” Telford shot back at her, raw and edged.
“Stay if you’d like,” Lam said, unflappable, but for a marginal, backwards click of one heel.
“Sorry,” Telford said. “Sorry guys. Long time in isolation.”
Lam gave him a one-shouldered shrug and turned to Rush. “I was planning on releasing you,” she began, an unmistakable note of contingency in her voice.
Rush sighed, looked away, hooked a hand over his shoulder, and tried to work some of the tension out of his neck. It didn’t go well. That wasn’t surprising. It didn’t usually go well.
The extent to and frequency with which Young intervened on his behalf and the considerable weight behind his influence hit Rush with an unwelcome mental moment of inertia. He wasn’t getting out of here. Not without Young. Not without Jackson. Not without someone to willing to shoulder the responsibility of facing down the bloody Lucian Alliance.
His personal freedom hung by the thinnest of threads.
“Nick, you okay?”
Rush looked up to find Telford and Lam looking at him with sympathy and concern, respectively.
“There’s gotta be something you can do,” Telford said, looking at Lam. “Come on. The guy hasn’t seen a window in—how many days?”
“No idea, actually,” Rush muttered.
“See?” Telford said, gesturing dramatically toward Rush. “That’s my point.”
Lam looked at Rush appraisingly. “I understand that you’re anxious to get out of here,” she said, “But I’m under certain institutional and ethical pressures. I can’t just—let you go.”
“So,” Lam continued, her tone lightening. “No windows. Sorry. But I can arrange for you to move freely about the base, and spend the night in one of the VIP rooms. Does that sound like a reasonable compromise?”
“Yes,” Rush said, trying to keep his expression neutral. Behind Lam, Telford gave a subtle fist pump.
“So,” Telford said, contemplating his coffee of deplorable quality as they lingered in the mess, “without violating any kind of security clearance, can you tell me what it was that landed you in the base infirmary for four days?”
“Beethoven,” Rush replied.
Telford looked over at him. “Beethoven.”
Rush opened a hand, sweeping it laterally and then up against an invisible asymptote of the air as he heard the echoes of falling fifths in a distant D minor.
“That fucker,” Telford said philosophically.
Rush pulled his phone out of his pocket and texted Young.
He didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
“What’s the word?” Telford murmured.
Rush sent his phone across the surface of the table with a calculated swipe of his fingers.
Telford looked at it, turned it face down, and pushed it back to him in a slow slide.
Rush. Rush. There was nothing like it, here or anywhere, perched at the intersection of two musical genres, a branching on the tree of musical parsimony; who had chosen Beethoven? Had it been him or Altera or someone, something else. He’s just—he just stopped responding to me. He couldn’t move, he could speak and it hadn’t occurred to him that the totality of the sensory experience he had been ignoring with decreasing success might cross into a physical correlate, that it might take something from him, or give something to him in a blending of which he could only ever be partially aware. If you could just solve it, Gloria whispers, would it terminate, freeing you, or would it unfold, dragging you down with it? And which would you prefer?
Rush awoke, drenched in sweat, in an unfamiliar darkness, on an unfamiliar floor.
“Fuck,” he whispered, listening for the fading strains of the Ninth, trying to banish it or call it back, he wasn’t sure which. He stood, disoriented in the dark, crossing the floor toward the lighted outline of a door imperfectly sealed. Only in throwing it open did he place himself as still on the base.
Cheyenne Mountain. Right then.
He took a deep breath. And then another.
Around a distant corner a familiar silhouette appeared, black-clad. Soigné. Telford approached, a wariness in his gaze and step as he slowed, stopping a few feet in front of Rush. “Nick,” he said, evidently surprised, evidently unaware of the providential, inappropriate nature of his own appearance. As if Rush was the one who had appeared, unlooked for.
“I have to solve it,” Rush breathed, unable to stop the disoriented, confessional of the admission.
“Yeah, of course you do,” Telford said, reassuring, familiar. He gripped Rush’s shoulder in solidarity. Gave it a subtle shake. “I know that. I’ve always known that.”
“I’m not sure they’ll let me,” Rush said.
“They’ll let you,” Telford said, with a quiet assurance that Rush found improbably convincing at an unguessed at hour of the night.
“How do you know?”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Telford said. “C’mon. What do you say to some coffee and a fucking ride home, red tape be damned? You look terrible, Nick. No one can sleep here. It’s like god damned temple to insomnia.”
“What time is it?” Rush asked.
“Four in the fucking morning,” Telford gave him an appraising look. “No one will stop us if we walk out with confidence.”
“Did you sleep at all?” Rush asked.
Telford scrubbed reflexively at red-rimmed eyes. “Sleep is for the weak. Anyway, insomnia’s inherent to the nature of the profession.”
“Yours too?” Rush said dryly.
“Grab your stuff,” Telford said. “I’ll grab the coffee. Meet me at level three. I know the guy who works the NORAD exit.”
Less than twenty minutes later, they stood in the parking lot of the SGC beneath the starred spread of a moonless night, next to Telford’s Acura NSX, its red paint warped to the venomless cast of a faded bruise under remote fluorescent lights.
Rush took a deep breath, breathing in the night.
“Feels good to be out from under that pile of rock, right?” Telford asked, looking at him over the hood of the car.
“Toss your stuff in the back,” Telford said, unlocking the car with a quiet chirp.
Rush did so, then, still holding his coffee, slid into the passenger’s seat.
Telford slid in opposite him, and started the car.
For the span of perhaps five seconds, Rush heard the unmistakable, intolerable sound of Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor. He snapped Telford’s radio off, with a frenetic swipe of the fingers.
Telford glanced at him. “Have something against NPR?”
“Fuck off,” Rush replied, reflexively, inappropriately vicious.
“Yeah okay,” Telford said, mildly. “They’re BBC wannabes, I admit that.”
“Quite,” Rush said, in the dry pull of Gloria’s most posh verbal variant.
What the fuck was he doing to himself?
He took a sip of atypically atrocious coffee as Telford pulled out into the darkness, away from the weak fluorescence of the parking lot. “This coffee is fucking terrible,” he said.
“Is it?” Telford asked. “My expectations are so low that I’ve forgotten how to be disappointed by government-issue coffee.”
“It tastes like they’re reusing the fucking grounds,” Rush said.
“Ugh,” Telford replied. “Did you text Everett? You should probably text Everett.”
“I prefer to present the information that I left the base as a fait accompli and not as a work in progress, thank you,” Rush replied.
“Yeah, I get that,” Telford said. “I hope Vala’s okay.”
“Vala is extremely resourceful,” Rush said, sipping his coffee, watching the blurring progress of night-darkened forest.
“It’s not a good sign that we haven’t heard from them,” Telford said, stark and truthful.
“I’m aware,” Rush replied.
“I should be out there,” Telford murmured, his hands flexing around the steering wheel.
“You will be, I’m sure,” Rush said. “Someone has to counterbalance Jackson. The man is a fucking intrapersonal—” He couldn’t quite turn the phrase in the manner he wanted and he tipped his head back against the seat, one hand going to the cortical suppressant at his right temple.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Telford said quietly. “He gave me a book to read while I was stuck in quarantine. Les Misérables. Any thoughts on that one? It’s driving me up the fucking wall. Why would he give me that? There’s got to be some kind of—message or iconography or something he wants me to take from it.”
“I—” Rush broke off, blinking, abruptly lightheaded in the disorienting sweep of variegated darkness on the other side of stationary glass.
“You feeling okay?” Telford asked, when he didn’t continue.
“Yes,” Rush said, with extreme effort. “I’m fine.”
“Coffee cures all ills,” Telford said. “Even shit coffee.”
Rush managed to coordinate another swallow of the atrocious stuff, but it did nothing to stop the alarmingly lethargic haze of his thoughts.
“Anyway. I’m not finished with it yet. Les Misérables, I mean. My working theory is that Jackson gave it to me because he thinks I need to be sensitized to the needs of the disenfranchised—but shit. That’s not what I think. No point in lying about it now. Not here. Not to you. I wish I’d asked Everett. I mean, really asked him. I tried it once. He just said, ‘it’s a long book, and you’re here for a while.’ Such an Everett thing to say. Is he serious? Is he not? No way to know. He and Jackson—they turned tight at some point while I was in quarantine. But that’s Jackson for you. I didn’t expect anything else. So. What’s your take? Why Les Misérables?”
Rush shook his head, trying to clear it.
“Well,” Telford said, after an interval blurred, dark landscape had passed, “it’s probably a lot to ask at four in the morning. But I’ll tell you what I think. I think he wants to send me a message about redemption. About accepting that shit. Handed down from on high or dug out of the dirt of the soul—you take it or you find it or you die from the lack of it. I’m sure Jackson tells himself that kind of thing all the time. He’d have to, just to face himself in the mirror. Just to fucking shave. I’m sure he thinks I need it. I’m sure he’d like me to have it.”
“Redemption?” Rush echoed, the word unmistakably slurred.
“Yeah,” Telford whispered. “You know about that, Nick. Don’t you? You must. Everyone does.”
Something was wrong with him. Something different. Something new.
“Oh god,” Rush said, his horror echoing in the growing space between intent and action. He tipped his head forward, but it fell back again, against the seat. “Redemption?” His coffee— His coffee had been drugged.
“I’m sorry,” Telford said. “If it makes a difference, I’m sorry.”
It was Telford. It had always been Telford.
He wasted no time on unnecessary words, on confirmation, on conversation. He released his seatbelt with a quiet click. Telford looked over at the sound—concerned, sharp, and already slowing the car.
Rush flung the remainder of his coffee in the other man’s face, opened the door on his second attempt as Telford swerved reflexively, then threw himself out of the moving vehicle with all the unity of purpose he possessed.
The shifting dark of night sky and lightless asphalt slammed into him, as forces decelerated him in a painful ending skid along the blackness of the road. He braced himself for pain that didn’t come.
It’s total absence seemed like an ominous sign. With an uncoordinated bracing of limbs and a disproportionate effort of will, he turned.
Telford’s car skidded to a stop.
It was difficult to organize his thoughts. His capacity to act was limited, pharmacologically, physically, psychologically—he was unprepared. He tried to stand. He couldn’t. All he’d bought himself was a set of unfelt injuries and about ten seconds of time.
The car door opened.
Rush pulled out his phone.
Telford stood, opaque against the backdrop of stars.
Rush dialed Young’s number and tossed his phone into the forested blackness that lined the road, hoping it would survive the parabolic arc he sent it on.
Telford moved towards him, his steps quiet on the warm asphalt of the road.
There was little evidence that he could leave of the miscalculations that had brought him here. In the short interval of time he had before Telford closed the distance between them, there was only one additional thing that suggested itself to him.
Rush pulled off his wedding ring and placed it on the surface of the road.
Telford dropped into a crouch, arriving with the smell of coffee, hands out, coming to Rush’s throat, to his wrist, turning him over, onto his back.
“Close,” Telford whispered, in obvious sympathy, obvious admiration. “If only you hadn’t taken the coffee. You might have made it.”
He couldn’t speak. Keeping his eyes open was becoming exponentially more difficult.
“You’ll be all right,” Telford said. “You’ll be fine.”
Somehow, he didn’t think so.
His thoughts were—
“Telford to Kiva,” the other man said, now only a fading voice in the darkness. “My cover’s blown to hell, but I’ve got him. I’ve got him. You’re going to have to—“