Mathématique: Chapter 55
“Sorry, buddy,” Young whispered, dropping to his bad knee to get eye-level with Jackson. He put one hand on the archeologist’s shoulder. “You can’t save it. They already know."
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. Again, this is a rough one.
About an hour after Camile Wray had managed to snag some real quarters for the LA Defector, Young felt his phone buzz. He hit save on the seventh form that Wray had insisted was “absolutely necessary” to complete today, and checked the caller ID. It was Jackson.
“Hey,” Young said, bringing his phone to his ear, unable to contain the urgency in his voice. “Jackson. What’s happening?”
The line was quiet.
There was a long pause.
And then, “Yeah, I’m here.”
“Shit. What’s wrong?” Young was half out of his seat, his back spasming in protest. He tried to relax. Sit back down. Slowly.
“Nothing,” Jackson said, his voice cracking. “Nothing’s wrong.” He paused, and Young could hear the wind whistling across his phone speaker. “We, um, we have her. We got her. She’s here. On the base.”
“Good,” Young said, feeling his heart hammer against his throat, not sure why Jackson’s voice was so unsteady, not sure how to force down the fear and the hope that was rising in his heart and mind, not sure what to do, not sure how to factor Vala into the search for Rush, not sure what kind of shape she might be in—
“She’s in the infirmary,” Jackson said. “The team’s with her.”
And, yup. The guy was clearly crying.
“Is she—Jackson, is she okay?”
“Yeah,” Jackson said, unsteady, hard to hear over the wind. “Yeah, physically, I guess. She, um, she has no personal memories?” He stopped, drew a shuddery breath.
“Jesus. Okay. Hey, Jackson, where are you? You sound like you’re outside.”
“Yeah. I am. I’m topside. I just—needed a minute. Because.” There was another long pause. And Young could almost see the guy, one arm wrapped around his chest like he’d taken a knife to the solar plexus, trying to hold himself together.
“Right outside the main entrance. I’m not going anywhere. I just. I think. Sam said—” The archeologist’s voice broke against itself. There was a long silence. “It’s a nice day, you know? So I’m outside. I went outside.”
“Okay. I’m gonna come meet you,” Young said, getting to his feet, a little more carefully this time, wishing he hadn’t fallen so far behind on his physical therapy.
“I just,” Jackson sounded like he was dying, his pitch high and tight. “I needed a minute. Because. Because she was waitressing?” The guy broke off, breathing hard. “She worked at a diner? She has no personal memories. None. None beyond eight weeks of learning diner slang and saving up for nice shampoo.” Jackson’s voice cracked again.
“Jackson,” Young said. “Daniel.”
“Just—dreams.” Jackson continued in a whisper. “Dreams of gold hallways. Dreams of silent space battles she watched from great remove, sitting on a throne. Dreams of math. Of the arcing of lines through space and through time, which was sacred to them.”
“What ‘them,’ Jackson? Sacred to whom?”
“The Goa’uld,” Jackson said, his voice cracking. “They build a culture of worship. To themselves. But they worshiped as well. The stars. The astral roads the Ancients built. Ballistic trajectories. The perfect circle of the gate.”
Young could hear the guy weeping, quietly, probably into his hand, probably into the wind.
“And Landry.” The name frayed with anger and the tears Jackson was trying like hell not to shed. The man stopped, took a shuddery breath. “Landry says we have to do it today.”
“Do what?” Young asked smoothly, scrambling to close windows, save his work. “Do what today, Jackson?”
“Get them back. Get her memories back. With the Tok’ra device. And her memories. Her memories aren’t just hers? She’s going to see—she’s going to think—it’s going to be long. We’ve never done it on a host. Not on anyone who was a host for more than days. She may—she may carry the genetic memory of the Goa’uld.”
Young felt a chill along his spine. He paused. Fingers on the edges of his laptop.
“It’ll be long,” Jackson said, drawing a ragged breath. “It’ll be terrible and it will take,” his voice cracked. “It will take a long time. And it may pull things up out of her mind that aren’t even hers. That stretch for millennia.”
“Stay there, Jackson. I’m coming up.” Young shut his laptop. “Where’s Carter? Or Teal’c? Why aren’t they—”
“You think I can talk to them about this?” The question was barely understandable. “They already know, they’ve seen it. They’ve gone through it. And if I—if I seem upset—already they want to—there’s only so much they can take—” Jackson broke off with a strangled sound.
“Okay,” Young said, the word strained as he reached for his cane and felt an uncomfortable pull in his back. “Got it. I’m—”
He broke off at the fraying static of an overhead page. “Colonel Young, please report to General Landry’s office. Colonel Young, please report to General Landry’s office.”
“Shit,” Young said, staring at the ceiling. “You hear that?”
“Yeah,” the man said, swallowing, his voice still thick. “What’d you do?”
“Oh, you’re gonna love it,” Young said, gently. “I’ll tell you later. Something to look forward to.”
The line was silent.
“Look, Jackson, I gotta go see Landry, but I’ll find you right when I’m done, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Jackson whispered.
“You did good,” Young said, standing next to his desk, leaning against his cane. “You’re doing good. You know that, right?”
“All the time,” Jackson said, a cracked whisper. “All the time, trying. Hitting the mark maybe fifty percent?”
“Come on now. More like ninety-eight percent,” Young said. “I’ll find you after my meeting with Landry.”
“Right,” Jackson said, like a guy trying to build back some armor out of shell and paper.
“You’re not alone,” Young offered, at a loss.
“I know.” Jackson’s voice, still thick with weeping, turned dark. “I don’t think I’m ever alone.”
Young could practically picture the guy staring bleakly into autumn air, looking at ascended beings he couldn’t see.
“Hey. Daniel.” Young kept his voice low. “We’re gonna get through this. You and me. We’re gonna get through this, and we’re gonna get all the rest of them through this.”
“You sound so sure,” Jackson whispered.
“That’s because I am sure,” Young said. “You’ve saved me, I don’t know, twice over. At least.”
“I nearly killed you, Everett.”
“Exactly,” Young said, quietly. “Exactly right. And so you’ve got me in your corner. Forever. We want the same things.”
“Oh yeah?” Jackson said, his voice ragged. “How do you know?”
“We’re peaceful fucking explorers,” Young said.
Jackson laughed, once, through tears. “Don’t let Landry fire you.”
“I’d better get down to his office then,” Young said. “I’ll find you after.”
“Okay,” Jackson said, and the line went dead.
Young stood, staring at the dark screen, most of his weight on his cane, his chest aching.
Vala was back. He'd as good as written it off as a possibility. But maybe, maybe, when she retrieved her memories, they’d find something to lead them to Rush. What did it mean that she’d been on her own? Out in the world? Free, but locked away from herself? Waitressing, for god’s sake. Under no one’s control. How could that possibly have happened?
Young pocketed his phone.
He left his office and began to make his painful way through the corridors, trying not to get jostled by passersby.
“Good luck,” someone called from behind him, as he hit the button for the elevators. He turned to see Wray giving him a dry look. She eyed the ceiling, in the direction the nearest speakers, referring to the recent overhead page.
“Thanks,” Young said, feeling a little spark of something like kinship with the woman, even if only because they’d been thrown together in the midst of Ginn Keeler’s bureaupolitico nightmare.
“The IOA will have your back on this one,” Wray said, her arms full of—
“Are those street clothes?” Young asked.
“I thought Ginn might like a few more things to wear,” Wray said.
And yeah. Ginn probably would like a few more things to wear. Ginn would probably like a few more of a lot of things, but he suspected that what Ginn needed was a friend. With about the same degree of intensity that Young needed a pristine spine.
“Maybe you’ll get her to join your governance club after all,” Young said, as the elevator doors slid open.
“A woman can dream,” Wray said.
He made his way to Landry’s office, was waved straight through by Harriman, and took the seat the General indicated. They looked at one another over the wide expanse of the man’s desk.
“You,” Landry said, frowning at him, “just pulled a Jackson.”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“I don’t like it,” Landry growled.
Young cleared his throat. “Sir,” he began, but that was about as far as he got.
While he wanted to give a good explanation of why, exactly, he’d stuck his neck out so far for Ginn Keeler, it wasn’t coming easily. It was difficult to explain to Landry how terrible it had been to see her there, in that holding cell. Not just a vulnerable women trapped between two literal parasites, but—
An LA operative? A high level one at that? Stuck between two of the worst oppressors of her people? For thousands of years, the LA had opposed the Goa’uld. All the terrible drugs the LA manufactured, all the intelligence gathering, all the torture, all the hampering of their own scientists—were a reaction to millennia of atrocity, attrition, repression, enslavement at the hands of the Goa’uld.
They built a culture of worship, Jackson had said, weeping.
“Are you going to say anything?” Landry asked.
Young tried to get some professionalism to come out of his mouth, but there was an obstacle in the way. Some block sitting at the back of his throat that Mackenzie and his SSRIs had yet to touch. The turning of Telford, however it had happened. The shattering of his spine in a speeder (on a table). The way Young would always, always, until he died, remember that lie of a second story as if it had been first; the way he’d found David, the way he’d come to get him out, the way that he had, the way that David had refused to die, had laughed under a falling cloud of ash and dragged Young up a mountain.
“I wasn’t gonna leave her there,” Young ground out, not a “sir” in sight.
Maybe he’d have been able to muster up a little more professionalism if Landry had caught him before that little slip of a girl—with unwashed red hair and a curve starting to bend its slow way into her spine—had asked him if he was going to execute her.
Maybe he’d have been able to muster up a little more professionalism if Landry had caught him before Jackson’s phone call, before he’d had to imagine the guy, leaning against the wall of the base, the wind in his hair, crying, by himself, because he couldn’t stand to see what his own despair would do to his team.
Landry propped both elbows on his desk and interlaced his fingers over the file that rested atop his desk. He stared at the weave of his own hands. “We need to talk about Jackson.”
“Jackson’s got nothing to do with this,” Young said quickly. Too quickly.
“No?” Landry replied, in slow, mock surprise. “Going to Wray? That has Jackson written all over it. The man walks a fine line. He walks several. Tell me, Colonel, why do you think Jackson still has a job?”
Jackson’s beyond hired or fired, Young had the urge to say. Jackson is this place. The concrete of it was poured around the frame of the guy’s bones. But that wasn’t true. Cheyenne Mountain had existed, had housed an arsenal, long before it had housed Jackson’s stargate.
Jackson can’t be stripped of his power because it comes from who he is, Young wanted to say. But years ago they had locked Jackson up in a place down the road, and the man still wouldn’t talk about it, when he’d talk about everything else—about his body being stolen, about the way he’d failed to kill his wife, about the way he'd brought the Goa'uld down on humanity, the Ori—and Mackenzie had looked away when Young had asked him about it, had said, “It was a mistake, Colonel, the worst mistake I’ve ever made, and it won’t just be me who’s never free of it.”
Because he’s always right, Young tried, thinking of Telford, of Rush, of the way that Jackson had known. But the man made mistakes, he talked about them constantly. The way he’d brought the Goa’uld down upon them. The way he’d brought the Ori.
“He’d get into too much trouble if he were fired,” Young said, after a long pause.
Landry laughed, quiet and low, a real laugh, not a show of false joviality. “There’s some truth to that,” the man said. “But that wasn’t the answer I was looking for.”
“You want me to guess?” Young asked.
“He still has a job because he’s not military. He never was. When he’s ‘insubordinate’ he can’t invoke the chain of command. Were Jackson to have command in the way that you have it, he’d have set his own options on fire years ago. He wouldn’t have been able to help it. But he’s not under military jurisdiction at all. The IOA view him as their champion. They’ll never view you that way. And so if you feel the need to pull this kind of shit? You pull it differently next time, because I’ve had one hell of a year, Colonel, one hell of an awful god damned year. Everyone has. And I’d rather not bench you for good because you’re going straight off the deep end, so do me a favor and pull yourself together, son,” Landry growled.
Young wasn’t sure what to do with the block in his throat and the gray coat of paint on the inside of his skull and the way that the spring had been full of pain, the way the summer had been full of slow burning menace, and the way the autumn was dragging out into something confused and long and colder every day.
So he nodded, and tried to give Landry something the man could understand. “It wasn’t a Jackson move,” he said. “I can see how it looked like one. But it wasn’t.”
“Oh no?” Landry asked.
“No,” Young said. “She’s just a kid, doesn’t look like much, but she’s some kind of mini-Carter, or something. I don’t know. And if you’d gone up there, to the holding cells, if you’d seen her there, between Nerus and Ba’al, if you’d ever seen the LA’s ships, the way they deface everything that reeks of Goa’uld, if you’d ever seen how angry they are about those snakes that ground them down for so long, if you’d had some idea of the way she must have grown up, drafted into a war that started as underground smuggling and biochemistry and morphed into outright battle when we upset the power balance, if you’d had any idea how deeply FUBAR’d that whole thing would’ve had to be for her, then maybe it would have seemed less to you like a situation that could be solved with two weeks of committee meetings and votes behind closed doors. Maybe. Maybe not.”
Landry sighed. “The LA’s taken enough from you already. Don’t let them tank your career, Colonel.”
“I guess I think of my career as already tanked,” Young said. “I guess, in the grand scheme of things, riding a desk for thirty years didn’t seem worth much. Not worth leaving that kid in that cell. Not for half a day. Not for half a morning.”
“Get your head on straight,” Landry said, picking up a pen, opening a folder and looking down at a form.
“Am I dismissed, sir?” Young said, trying to make the words a question.
“I don’t dismiss consultants,” Landry said.
Young pushed himself painfully to his feet, steadying himself on his chair. He picked up his cane, leaning heavily. onits support as he made his way toward the door. He was deconditioned enough that half a day of anything other than lying on his couch was more than his back could handle.
“You can keep your little team,” Landry called after him. “I’ve reassigned them to Ginn Keeler’s personal security detail.”
“For how long?” Young asked.
“For as long as it takes this mess to sort itself out. They’ll report to you, you’ll report to me. Oh and Colonel?” Landry said, finally looking up from the file in front of him. “Dismissed.”
“Understood,” Young said.
Young found Jackson pacing back and forth in a back room in the infirmary, glancing repeatedly and often at the isolation room behind a one-way mirror where Carter and Lam were smiling at Vala, showing her the Tok’ra memory recall device, as if it weren’t something to fear.
Young stepped up to the one way glass.
Vala was watching Carter and Lam with a strange sort of innocence, at once bold and afraid. She cracked a smile at Carter, her face blazing with unreal wattage that made Carter smile right back. It turned them both into kids, somehow, talking about whatever smart little girls talk about, treehouses or boys or secrets or magical devices that can rip your mind open and pour the shard-filled sludge of past horrors all over the floor.
“Hey,” Young said quietly, sure the archeologist had noticed him by now.
“It’s so awful,” Jackson whispered, coming to stand next to Young. “Losing who you are. It rips you open. It puts everything out there that you’d otherwise try to hide. And look at her. She doesn’t even know. I didn’t, when it happened to me. But I’ve seen the tapes.”
“What did it look like,” Young asked, watching Vala toss her hair over one shoulder and then pull it back forward, running both hands over a hank of it, again and again. “You, on the tapes, I mean?”
“I was quiet,” Jackson said. “They could all, they could all see—” the man broke off, one hand coming to his face.
“See what?” Young asked quietly.
“How afraid I was. Of what I might say. That’s what Sam told me. Later. There was a lot of crying. That’s one of the things she cried about. One of the things she said was so sad.” Jackson swallowed hard.
“You being afraid, you mean?” Young asked.
“The sad thing,” Jackson said, like he was breaking each word out of his own bones, “she said the sad thing was that she could see I understood. I understood I should be terrified of the things that come out of my head. Out of my mouth. She didn’t know I lived like that. With that much fear.”
Young nodded. “She thought you were just some kind of interspecies savant, or something?”
“You’d think,” Jackson whispered, “that if you lose your memory—you’d think that so much of who you are would be gone. But it’s not. It’s just right there. You don’t know how to hide it. You don’t even know that you should.”
Young turned, looking directly at Jackson. The guy had his arms wrapped around his chest. His eyes were raw and red-rimmed.
“People don’t understand that,” Jackson whispered, looking right back at him. “How intensely, personally revealing it is to be stripped of memory. It’s the last thing you’d expect to happen.”
“Yeah,” Young said, and his eyes flicked to Vala. She was tracking Carter and Lam hungrily, as if she’d need to rebuild them later, in her head, from scratch. “I’m getting that, a little bit.”
“I hate myself,” Jackson whispered. “I really do, sometimes.”
“I hear that,” Young said.
Jackson laughed, short and sharp.
“You gonna elaborate?” Young said.
“She religiously read Cosmo,” Jackson murmured.
“Yeah.” Young shifted his weight, redistributing more of it to his cane. “I noticed.”
“What did you think of that?” Jackson asked.
Young shrugged. “I didn’t think about it much. Probably a combination of liking earth shoes and figuring a way to blend as much as possible as fast as possible. She had fun with it.”
“Yeah,” Jackson whispered. “Well, I thought it was stupid. She had all of countless cultures to learn about and she picked Cosmo. Typical, I thought. Typical of her. But she played me. Or tested me. Or just straight-up didn’t trust me, and why would she, really, I guess, after of the kind of stuff that would come out of my mouth? And ugh, even that, even that take on it is so egocentric it makes me sick.”
“Jackson,” Young said, “cut yourself a break for the love of—”
“She outed herself in the car,” Jackson plowed over him. “On the drive back. The way she’s outing herself right now. Look at her face. She is studying them and and she’s learning from them and she’s not hiding it. At all. She hid that exact aspect of herself from me for the entire time I’ve known her and why. I have no idea.”
“What did she say in the car?” Young asked.
“There’s a strange aspect to this particular drug that the LA has developed. We haven’t seen it before. At least, not in isolation. Personal memories are lost. But skillsets are retained. She’s good at math, she realized. Really good. She was telling us about it.”
“Math,” Young repeated.
“I’m guessing that’s what she talked to Rush about every day. Don’t you think? I’m guessing that she had whole pads of equations hidden under Cosmopolitan magazines. And why? Because she thinks it’s something worthy of disdain? Yes? No? Because she wanted it badly and she thought someone would use it to hurt her? There’s no way to tell. But she deliberately waved the Cosmo in my face because she thought that I would disdain it. And she was right. Imagine how interesting I would have found it if she’d revealed an interest in calculus. But she didn’t want me to know. She’s hidden this from all of us for months, beneath Cosmo and consumerism and cosmetics. Do you realize how incredibly careful she’s been about this? How much it must mean to her, especially given how the Goa’uld view numbers? How incredibly stupid I am? Do you realize that I will probably never find out why she did it, because she can’t tell me now and she won’t tell me later?”
“You in love with her, Jackson?” Young asked, quiet in a quiet room.
“No,” Jackson said, flat and final, the truest lie Young had ever heard.
He hesitated, looking at Jackson, how he was holding himself—his shoulders hunched, his arms crossed, but his chin up, his eyes icy, like a guy who was half dead and a guy who was half impersonating Cam Mitchell. And doing it badly.
“You saying that because you think some higher plane of existence doesn’t already know?” Young asked. “If they’re watching you all the time, you think they haven’t seen how you nearly killed yourself to get her back? The way you’re looking at her?”
“Shut up,” Jackson said, his voice cracking. “You don’t know anything about it.”
“Uh huh. Here’s the kicker though. What about the way she’s looking for you, right now? When she doesn’t know who she is but she still, somehow, knows that any minute here, you’re gonna walk through that damned door?”
Jackson bent forward, his hands braced against his knees, trying to eat the air. “I’m not. I can’t. Sam and Carolyn and Cam are going to do it. They’re going to go in shifts. They—”
“Bullshit,” Young said. “She’s looked at that door fifteen times since I got here and she’s not looking for Cam. Cam is a lot of things and he’ll step up and be there for her because he’s that kind of guy, but he’s not gonna to know what’s coming, what’s down there, lost in her head. But you’ve got every kind of idea.”
“I don’t love her,” Jackson said, agonized, announcing it to the empty air, “any more than I love anybody else.” He sank into a crouch.
“Sorry, buddy,” Young whispered, dropping down to his bad knee to get eye-level with Jackson. He put one hand on the archeologist’s shoulder. “You can’t save it. They already know.”
“Why are you doing this?” Jackson whispered into his hands. “Why are you saying this, out loud.”
“Because, Daniel,” Young said, shaking his shoulder once. “They’ve already got it in for her. In for you. Because she was with you when you found them, right? She carried that prophet of theirs to term, and why? Because you loved her?”
Jackson shook his head.
“Yeah. I doubt it. Because she killed their supergate. Not you. Her. And you know what? Maybe, it wasn’t even you that found them. Maybe it was her. She’s got her own slot on the Ori shit list that she, personally, earned. She’s someone you’d like to protect, sure. But she’s never asked that from you. Never wanted that. That’s not her. She’s not your first wife. She’s on your team. She’s your partner. She’s the one who was with you at the critical moment. And they’ve always known that, if they’re ever gonna know anything, right from day one.”
Jackson looked at him, his expression agonized.
“So you gain zero from standing in this room with a poker face you can’t even hold.” Young continued. “And she? She loses a hell of a lot.”
“She does,” Jackson whispered, looking at something Young couldn’t see. “Doesn’t she.”
“Yeah,” Young said through gritted teeth, one hand clamped down over his left hip.
Jackson straightened, looked at the one-way mirror, then turned to look down at Young, still kneeling on the floor at his feet. He reached down and helped Young stand, then steadied him against the wave of agony from deconditioned muscles that had been left to their own confused devices for too long.
“Thanks,” Jackson whispered finally, still not looking at him.
“For what,” Young said, trying to control his breathing. “You were going in there anyway, Jackson. Sooner or later, you were going in. I saved you probably about three minutes.”
Jackson smiled at him, sad and unbearable. “A lot can happen in three minutes.”
Young nodded, looked away.
“Text Cam for me, will you?” Jackson whispered. “Tell him to let Teal’c know.”
“Yeah,” Young said. “I’ll head them off at the pass.”
SG-1 stood in a line. It was the damnedest thing Young had ever seen. Mitchell was on the left, his arms crossed over his chest. Carter stood in the middle, her left hand pressed flat against the place where Brightman had cracked open her sternrum to dig out an LA round, her right hand curled into a half fist and pressed against her mouth. Teal’c was on the right, at parade rest, his gaze fixed on who knew what.
Landry leaned against the back wall, listening to the audio that came from the mic in the adjacent room. Harriman stood beside him, taking notes.
Young was half perched on a table, trying to take some weight off his back and hip and leg.
“Q’tesh,” Vala said, high and terrified, on the other side of the one way glass. “That was my name.”
“No,” Jackson said, low and quiet. “Your name is Vala. It always has been. Vala is before and after.”
Young had started out watching Jackson, watching the man set up an array of candles, watching him turn down the lights, strike match after match. He watched him get up on the gurney where Vala was sitting. Watched him cross his legs and reach out, both of his hands opening into empty air so that no one could ever ever do anything but take them.
But, eventually, it got too hard to watch Jackson.
So Young switched to watching Vala.
“You saw,” Vala whispered, her eyes glittering in the candlelight. “You saw. I did terrible things. All those people, I—”
“No,” Jackson said again. “Don’t evaluate it yet. You can’t see all of it. I can tell you it wasn’t you. And it wasn’t. But don’t—”
“Don’t evaluate?” Vala said, her voice rising.
Over he past hour, Young had watched her learn to hide what she was feeling, had watched her get better and better at it, had watched her face down things that made Jackson shut his eyes and turn away from the monitor. Jackson, who had been sealed into a nightmare by an ascended Goa’uld and forced to confront the darkest aspect of their legacy. Even Jackson hadn’t been able to stay with memory number three.
At the fourth memory, Young had watched Vala yank her hands away from Jackson midway through. He’d watched her face as she asked Jackson to leave after the seventh.
“Vala,” Jackson whispered.
“My name is Q’tesh,” she hissed, venomous, powerful, bitter, afraid.
“No it’s not,” Jackson said, gently. “Of course it’s not.”
And then Young—couldn’t watch Vala anymore.
So he started watching Lam.
Lam with her white coat like armor and her unflappable demeanor and her cool competence. Lam, who had stayed with him, who had held his hand during the rite of M’al Sharran. Lam who had the best professional armor Young had seen in a long time.
But Lam was feeling it. He could see it starting to get to her—Jackson and Vala and that terrible thing hidden beneath Vala’s hair—getting to her, starting to seep in and freeze, cracking her cool. She’d begun by standing at Jackson’s shoulder, watching Vala, but she’d started moving. So, so slowly toward Vala, until she was there, right there, at Vala’s shoulder.
Young wasn’t sure why he was here.
Young knew exactly why he was here.
Lam stiffened, her eyes widening at something she and Jackson could see on the monitor and then she stepped forward as Vala arched her back and screamed in total primitive terror. “No,” Lam said, high and terrified, her arms around Vala’s shoulders, standing too close to someone who was way, way too out of control. “No no no no no,” Lam said, again and again, “not real, not real, not real, it’s not real; it’s not happening now. You’re with us. You’re still here. You’re not in there, you’re here. You’re with us,” her eyes shut tight like a child’s.
Young decided it was no good watching Lam.
Back to Jackson, then.
“Vala,” Jackson was saying, again and again, slow and strained until the memory was over. “Vala.”
“I’m sorry,” Vala gasped. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt you, beautiful?” she asked, reaching up to her own shoulder, pressing her hand to Lam’s hand.
“No,” Lam whispered. “No, of course not. We could try something else. We could try something new. We could wait. Take off the device.”
“The waiting is the worst part,” Vala said, trying to smile. “I’d rather—” she broke off as the thing on her head pulled another memory free and Young looked away from the room. At the floor, trying to think of something else, of anything else, of Wray, who was a few levels up, talking to Ginn about the US Constitution or women’s blouses while Greer and James quietly bullshitted outside the door and someone from housekeeping put sheets on a bed in the room next to Teal’c’s.
“It’s okay,” Young heard Jackson say. “You don’t have it yet. You don’t have your full context.”
“Will they all be like this?” Vala whispered.
“I think we should stop,” Lam said, the words a rush. “That wasn’t even from her life; she still retains at least some portion of the collective memory of the Goa’uld that’s laid down in the brain of the host; who knows for how long this will go on; I can’t—I don’t feel comfortable with this, I—”
“Nicholas Rush,” Jackson said.
Young looked up.
Jackson had Vala’s hands again, and the man’s eyes shone in the candlelight. “He’s a mathematician and he’s missing. Do you remember him? Nicholas Rush.” Jackson smiled at her and cocked his head. “You called him ‘gorgeous.' He’s about Dr. Lam’s height. Great hair. Square glasses. Attitude to spare. Says ‘fuck’ more frequently than you’d think an Oxford man would.”
Vala stared into the distance, her brows pressed together. “Yes,” Jackson said, his eyes fixed on the screen. “Yes. That’s him.”
“That was the first day,” Vala murmured, smiling faintly at nothing Young could see. “You built a bed. For Colonel Young. You measured the space for it. For the bed. To see if it would fit. And then you built it there. It came out of a box that was much too flat. I’d never seen such a thing.”
“IKEA is, arguably, humanity’s greatest achievement,” Jackson whispered. “We built that bed together. You and me. Remember?”
“And then you left the apartment,” Vala said. “I made lemonade. Like a real Earth Girl. I drank it with Colonel Mitchell. And with Colonel Young. Then you knocked on the door. Loudly. Too loudly.”
“I kicked it, actually,” Jackson whispered, watching the monitor, where, presumably, he could see the inside of Young’s apartment from Vala’s perspective. The way she had darted toward the door and flung it open for Jackson, who’d stood there, Young’s neighbor in a sloppy fireman’s carry, a put-upon expression on his face. “I didn’t have a free hand.”
“And I said,” Vala murmured, “that doesn’t look like the last of the furniture.”
“And I said, I don’t understand why this always happens to me.” Jackson gave her a watery smile. “And you said—”
“Don’t you?” Vala whispered, smiling back at him. Then she pressed her eyes shut. “Osiris, I thought. That night I stayed with you, slept on your couch.”
Lam turned her eyes away from the monitor and stepped back from Vala, moving towards Jackson.
“Osiris,” Jackson repeated, taken aback, looking at the screen, seeing himself there, or, maybe, seeing a handsome, gilded system lord.
“Killed by Set, over and over, pulled apart, sealed into a sarcophagus, driven mad there, reassembled by those who loved him. Q’tesh wept for him when he left his host and returned to the Great River. His host, too, wept for him. And that was a thing Q’tesh had never seen, except among the Tok’ra. But it happens,” Vala whispered.
Jackson turned away from something on the monitor and bowed his head, clutching her hands as she cried, her eyes looking at something else, her face impassive. “You remember now?” he asked her. “You see how it was? How she let you go?”
“She could have killed me. Ridden me into the afterlife she was never sure was there,” Vala whispered.
Young shifted his weight, fighting the ache in his back, fighting the ache in the room. There was something terrible about this Tok’ra recall device, about watching it work, about a life compressed down from years to hours—how much of what came back came back in the right way? How could it come back, how could it possibly come back right? Even with someone like Jackson catching the pieces as they came, looking at them, trying to put them where they belonged. But how could Jackson, how could even Jackson, do that for Vala, who’d kept so much about herself unmentioned beneath the exterior armor she showed the world?
“She let you go,” Jackson said, dropping the words like some ancient prayer, like part of an incantation, like Vala was special in some way for having been spared. Like that was a place where someone could stand.
And, maybe, she could. Or, maybe, Jackson had understood that she’d always stood there, in some little lee of a merciless, ravenous false god, catching and using whatever kindnesses had trailed in the thing’s wake.
“Do you remember when you told me that?” Jackson asked, just an uncertain guy on a hospital bed this time, not some reader of ancient scrolls.
Young stared determinedly at the gray concrete of the floor.
“It was late,” Vala said, “four days after you came back from Vagonbrei. You were the last to wake. Colonel Carter said it was because you’d been so tired before the mission had even started. Colonel Mitchell said it was because you had a tolerance to stimulants at baseline.”
“I hated the idea of sleeping,” Jackson said, “so I taught you to play checkers.”
“But I’d learned the game before,” Vala whispered, like maybe she was smiling. “I beat you.”
Young swallowed hard, staring at the floor, thinking of them in the infirmary, a board set up between them. Trying not to see it, seeing it all the same.
“What about the second time?” Jackson asked, like maybe he was smiling too.
“I let you win, darling.”
“And that’s when you told me,” Jackson said, his voice tight as he looked at something on some screen that Young never wanted to see. “About Q’tesh. What she said to you at the end.”
Vala cried out and Young’s eyes snapped up to see her face contorted in grief, one hand at her throat, one hand gripping Jackson’s with a strength that looked like it might be enough to crack bones.
Lam was standing with Jackson now, her expression locked into total neutrality, her eyes burning with everything that wasn’t on her face.
“It’s all right,” Jackson said, so quietly that the speakers nearly didn’t pick it up, “it’s all right to grieve for something that hurt you. We do it all the time.”
And there it was.
The thing that Jackson would have said if Young had asked him what to do, not about Telford, the defecting bastard, but about David. The guy who carried a little notebook and wrote down interesting physics facts that he picked up from the science staff, the guy who’d spent seven hours with Cam’s foot in his lap on a cramped car-ride to Vegas.
Jackson’s words were destabilizing, threatening, shifting landscapes, undermining psychological crutches of all kinds, because beneath Young’s anger and beneath Young’s dread was something vast and horrible. A sea of loss that was more than enough to swallow up everything he’d built over the ice on its surface because he had lost everything—his wife, his body, his health, his confidence, more than a handful of friends to this place, to these very walls. And he’d lose more before the whole thing was done. Maybe just his life. But maybe his family, his culture, all cultures, his planet. The god damned dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico that Emily loved so much. All of it was on the chopping block. All of it was always on the chopping block—to the Goa’uld, to the Ori, to the Lucian Alliance—and whose fault was it really?
And who is his goddamned ‘we’ anyway? Young asked, an internal snarling that sounded vaguely of his memory of Telford, of something imagined, coming off a typewritten, transcribed page.
But it was nothing, a last gasp, a last grasp, a last attempt at hanging onto the only thing he’d ever known how to hang onto—whatever it was that Jackson cracked apart wherever he went. What was the man doing to Vala, who had maybe, maybe, built her whole soul around denying a grief that Jackson had just let right in the front door for her? Or maybe he’d seen into her that night he’d thought he was teaching her checkers, when he’d been half dead and she’d been worried and she’d said something to him.
Something that had hit the guy across the face, cracking like a slap, something that let him understand that maybe some part of her had loved that snake in her head, loved what she’d learned, loved the life she’d lived, loved parts of the whole, the math and the civilization and the art that the Goa’uld had built atop a grotesque and oppressive culture.
Jackson’s whole life must be full of those moments.
They must happen once a week, once a day, once an hour and it must be terrible; this kind of shit must hurt like a bitch going in and hurt worse coming out. Because he’d never seen this kind of agony in a set of two rooms. He hadn’t thought anything could break that unified, stone faced front that SG-1 was displaying to the wrong half of a one-way mirror but—
“It’s all right to grieve for something that hurt you,” Jackson said, again, louder, more sure of himself, gathering Vala’s hands together, looking into her eyes. “We do it all the time.”
And SG-1 shattered right out of alignment like the guy had fired a round through the window—Cam spun toward the far wall, pacing a few steps and then leaning his forearm against planar cement; Carter dropped into a crouch, her eyes red, one hand pressed to her face like she was trying to keep it intact; it was only Teal’c who stayed in front of the one-way glass, his head inclined as if in agreement, one hand pressed over his heart.
“All the time,” Jackson whispered.
“She said forever,” Vala said, a ragged whisper.
“Why,” Jackson asked. “Why did she tell you it would be forever?”
“Because there is an element of blending,” Vala whispered. “Because they find it a burden to live with unchanging horror. Native indifference. Because they find it a joy to live with curiosity. That’s why she told me forever. That’s why Ba’al hasn’t changed his face in five thousand years. Why Apophis and Hathor lived for millennia in the same bodies but Athena changes once a decade.”
“God damn, Jackson,” Mitchell whispered, pacing the back of the room.
Carter, back on her feet, pressed fingertips to her face, her eyes red-rimmed. “He can’t. He can’t take this.”
Young looked back at the room to see Jackson leaning forward, his hands clasped with Vala’s, looking like someone had ripped out his heart and had handed it to him.
“Yeah, Sam’s right,” Mitchell said. “I’m going in there.”
“You will not interfere,” Teal’c said.
“Teal’c, the guy is not going to make it through this. Look at him. His wife—”
“Do not speak to me of Sha’re,” Teal’c said, turning to look at Mitchell with a poise full of more icy threat than Young had ever seen.
“Teal’c,” Carter said, her voice thick, her eyes burning. “He doesn’t know.”
“I don’t know what?” Mitchell asked.
“It’s not in any of the mission reports,” Carter said, still talking to Teal’c.
“Seven years ago,” Teal’c said, a slow build toward something Young definitely didn’t want to hear the end of, “Daniel Jackson watched as I fired my staff weapon into the heart of the false god Amonet, who wore the face of his wife. He offered me words of forgiveness before he even left her tent. He offered me words of forgiveness before he rose from the ground where she had put him. You will say nothing in this matter. He will decide of what he is capable. He will decide what he wishes to do.”
Teal’c turned back to the window, breathing heavily.
“Teal’c,” Carter whispered, one hand pressed flat against her chest. “Teal’c. This year. It’s been so much for him. So fast. You know it has.”
Teal’c inclined his head toward her and she looked at him, just looked at him, and there was so much there that even halfway across the room it hit Young like a truck, an up-close and personal glimpse into what Carter’s life must have read like for the past decade and he felt sorry for her because there was a hurricane in the back of her eyes, sorry for Teal’c who looked like he’d like to rip out someone’s spine, sorry for Mitchell who was just trying to look out for a guy he wished weren’t the trashcan for all the fucked up shit in the universe but somehow always was anyway, sorry for Landry who was standing in back like a guy who’d lost control of whatever command he’d ever had over this place that leaked like a sieve and was full of people who just wouldn’t fall in line, sorry for Lam who, for some reason felt the need to stand there in her low heels without her goddamned kidneys and bear witness to whatever nightmares were showing up on those monitors, sorry for Vala who was trying to pick up the broken glass of her memory and make it into something before it cut her to death, and for Jackson who was trying to help her, for Rush wherever he was, halfway across the galaxy or under the ground, for David, for that guy who'd been in the speeder and who’d been brave, the kind of brave that would break your heart, the kind of brave that was too good to be true, the kind of brave that no one ever was or could be, maybe.
And so that’s what Young decided he’d ask Jackson, one of these days, in a bar somewhere, over beers or coffee or coffee and beer—he’d say, “Jackson, if it’s okay to grieve for a thing that screwed you over, what do you think about grieving for a thing that wasn’t even real? Can I get a yes/no on that one?”
“I’m sorry,” Mitchell said into the air, some kind of formless, hopeless apology, looking at Teal’c, who wasn’t looking back.
No one said anything else.
Over the speakers in the wall, Jackson said, his eyes glittering with tears. “You were special to her.”
“Yes,” Vala replied, like she’d wrenched the word free.
“Of course you were,” Jackson said, letting the tears fall. “How could you not be?”
“But it’s terrible,” Vala whispered. “It’s terrible, you must see that.”
“It’s not terrible,” Jackson said, freeing up a hand and reaching forward to push her hair out of her eyes. “It’s neither good nor bad. It implies nothing about your nature. The works of hand and mind define us, and you’ve had so little time to use yours.”
“So little of it is mine,” Vala said. “I didn’t think there would be so little. I didn’t think that what there was would be so petty.”
“Not all of it is petty,” Jackson said. “I promise you it’s not. Do you remember when I took you out to dinner?”
“Our date,” Vala said, something pained in her voice. “I wore blue.”
“Yeah,” Jackson whispered. “You had a flower in your hair. We sat down and you got up to go to the ladies room and you didn’t come back. Do you remember what happened after that?”
“A man,” Vala said, “came from behind, injected me with something.”
“And then what?” Jackson asked, and Young looked up to see the man looking at the monitor now, rather than Vala. “Where did you wake up?”
“On a tel’tak,” Vala whispered. “In a modified cargo bay. The ship had belonged to Ba’al, but his cartouches were defaced. It was an Alliance ship. There was something running across the back of my hand. An IV.”
“Were you alone?” Jackson asked.
“No,” Vala said. “I was with Rush.”
“Yes,” Jackson said, his tone still light, “you were.” He reached out, hit a button, and the monitor on the far wall snapped to life, doubling the feed that Jackson hand Lam had been watching.
On the screen was the dark gold of a deserted cargo bay. The perspective was nauseating, shifting with movements he couldn’t control, focusing on elements he wouldn’t have spent so much time on, wavering with dizziness, or nausea, or a tenuous grip on consciousness, but finally she looked straight at Rush who was lying on an adjacent bench or table or whatever.
Young could feel his heart in his throat. The image hit him with the strange crispness of the real guy, not the half-romanticized memory Young had been trying not to hang onto.
He’d been there all right.
His shirt was a mess and the cortical suppressants were dark at his temples and he was bleeding sluggishly in a few places, and—Vala’s vision swung away from Rush as she stood, ripping the IV out of her hand, steadying herself as her vision swam. The image wavered, and Jackson said, “try to stay with this one. Don’t let it fragment. You got up. You pulled out your IV. Talk me through it.”
“I—” Vala said, as the image sharpened. “I pulled his out as well.”
On the monitor, Young watched as she yanked the IV out of Rush’s arm and pressed the edge of his already bloody shirt against the place it had been. Watching this was maddening in the extreme. He couldn’t direct the vector of her gaze and he clenched his jaw in frustration.
“I said, ‘gorgeous’,” she continued, and Young saw her reach out to shake him, looking from his arm to his face and back. “I—for some reason I couldn’t think of his name,” she said. “Every thought I had seemed to slip away as I had it, the way that they’re coming back now.”
“Hang onto this one,” Jackson said, tight and urgent. “Hang onto everything you can. You tried to wake him up and it didn’t work. Then what did you do?”
The image on the screen turned crisper as Vala crept silently to the door of the cargo bay, her eyes darting around the room, to the lock on the door, and back to the room. Young watched as she rubbed her hands on her thighs and then looked down to unfasten her belt, pull it free, and twine it around her hands. Then he watched her enter a code.
“An override code?” Jackson asked.
“Yes,” Vala said. “I remember thinking I should have told you—I should have—” the image again began to waver and something began to fade in, a white underlay beneath the gold.
“The tel’tak,” Jackson said, gently. “Stay with the tel’tak. You opened the door with an override code.”
The image on the monitor scrambled into something unreadable and then there was the brief image of Vala looking down at a man she was strangling without sound. The image began to blur again—into water this time, water beneath blue willows on an alien world.
Young instinctively pushed to his feet, as though he might, somehow, stop the change in context.
“Don’t back off from it,” Jackson said, the words falling like rain. “It’s okay. Stay.”
“I don’t want you to see,” Vala whispered, “I—”
“Don’t back off,” Jackson continued smooth and reassuring, “this is who you were in that moment and only that moment. Don’t back off from what scares you. Let it play through.”
“Jesus H. Christ,” Mitchell said, watching as Vala silently lowered the dead LA operative to the floor of the tel’tak.
“I killed him,” she whispered. “I did, not Q’tesh.”
“Don’t evaluate.” Jackson kept his voice low and soothing. “You don’t know yourself yet. You can’t. You’ve hardly seen anything. Stay with it. Stay with it. We need this memory. That’s why we’re doing this now. Today. So hold it. Hang onto this one.”
“I dragged his body into the room,” Vala whispered, as Young watched her stare determinedly at the ceiling, the perspective shifting as she rocked her weight back and silently, slowly, began to drag the LA operative out of sight. “In the hallway, with the door open, I could hear them. They were in the forward compartment, talking about Athena.”
The image on the screen wavered again and this time the dark roar of fire was threatening beneath the quiet interior of a ship and Vala gasped, pulling in a breath like she was about to start screaming but—
“No,” Jackson said, the word a calming pull. “The tel’tak. Stay with the tel’tak.”
“You’re afraid of something,” Vala said, her voice high-pitched, terrified. “You’re afraid of me. You’re afraid of what you’ll see.”
“No,” Jackson said, the word cracking. “That’s not what I’m afraid of.”
“You’re afraid of something. You’re shaking, Daniel.”
“You heard them in the forward compartment,” Jackson said, his voice smooth and controlled, completely at odds with his eyes, the shaking grip he had on Vala’s hands. “Who? How many of them?”
“Three,” she said. “A woman and two men. One of voices was familiar to me. But I couldn’t see them. They were talking about me. And Rush. I wanted to get off the ship. To get back to you.”
On the monitor, Young watched her slip off her shoes, blue ones, and run, barefoot and silent back to the cargo bay. Watched her cross the room again to Rush, watched her bend to put down her shoes, make a fist and lean into the man’s chest with her full weight on her knuckles trying to wake him up.
“I wanted to get us both off the ship. I—was having trouble remembering who he was, why I should help him. I was losing everything—I can’t hold this memory; there are too many others trying to come—”
“Vala,” Daniel said, his voice cracking. “I know. But please try. He needs you now just as much as he needed you then.”
“Nicholas Rush?” Vala asked, her eyes wide and terrified.
“Nicholas Rush,” Jackson confirmed. “He needs you right now. What happened to him?”
Young’s arms folded over his chest, his heart pounding in his throat, in his temples, he watched Vala drag Rush into a fireman’s carry and get him to the transport room on the tel’tak. He watched her scan through blurred maps of the ground beneath the ship.
“Our guys will get a location from this,” Cam muttered, from next to Young’s shoulder. “They have to. You can see enough, even blurred as it is—” The watched as Vala selected a location. Zooming in on a coastline, glittering with the gold lights of civilization at night, a patch of ground near dark water—
“Did you get him there?” Jackson breathed, his hands laced with hers, their foreheads nearly touching.
“Yes,” Vala whispered. “Yes.”
“Okay, then let it go,” Jackson whispered, pressing his forehead to hers. “You can let it go. Let the next one in.”
“How long will this last?” Vala asked him, agonized.
“I don’t know,” Jackson said. “But I’ll be here. I’ll be here the whole time.”
Young stared numbly at the monitor, where Mitchell had paused the screen.
Rush’s beam-down point.
The LA didn’t have him. The LA had never had him. A lot could happen in eight weeks or so, but—he’d had a chance. A better chance than Young had ever thought possible. He was still staring at the screen, thoughts slow with shock, when Carter pressed a flash drive into his hand.
“Get this to the Orbital Imaging Department,” she said. “Right across the hall from the Infrared Spectroscopy Unit. It was dark, and the image was blurred, but—I gotta say, that looked a lot like the eastern seaboard of the US. Somewhere between New York and Portland, maybe?”
Young stared at the flash drive in his palm. “Yeah,” he said. He closed his hand around the drive. “Yeah,” he repeated. His brain felt like it wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
“It’s still going be a job finding him,” Carter said. “And if he’s got no memories, that’ll complicate the extraction. But.” She smiled a watery smile. “He has a real shot at surviving this. His odds just went from basically zero to—I don’t know, if he managed to stay out of LA hands and on the east coast of the US—maybe 80%?”
“I was so sure,” Young whispered, practically choking on the hope he was feeling. “So sure they had him. The LA. That he was being tortured.”
“A lot can happen in eight weeks,” Cam said, a note of caution in his voice as he joined them.
“I know,” Young said. “But—this changes things.”
“It does,” Carter said. “It really does.”
Behind the glass, Vala shrieked, high and terrified.
“Can you stop this?” Young asked Carter, wincing. “Now that we’ve got what we need?”
“When your memories are bad,” Carter replied, “stopping halfway is worse than never starting. Daniel told me that, once. You lack context. It makes the good things loose their meaning. It makes the bad things unendurable. He’s one of the few people who understands what this is like. He’s lived it.”
“Yeah,” Young said, his voice rough.
“Maybe,” Cam said, looking at Young. “Maybe give that to the orbital imaging guys, and maybe—maybe come back. We could, probably use a little help with,” Cam paused, his eyes sweeping over his team, “I don’t know, man. Everything.”
Behind the one-way glass, Jackson spoke quietly to Vala as the candles burned their slow way down.