Mathématique: Chapter 57
“Unscheduled on-world activation?” the voice over the speakers said, slowly.
Warnings: Stressors of all kinds.
Additional notes: None.
The day after Vala’s memory recall session, Young woke with a sense of renewed purpose. He watched the sunrise from his kitchen—drinking coffee in the light of a pale dawn.
He and Jackson had made it through the Rite of M’al Sharran. Vala had survived eight weeks among the missing. Carter’s bones were healing. Mitchell and Lam had gone on their first date. The little LA defector was out of her cell. And, according to the Orbital Imaging team, it was a virtual certainty that Rush had been dumped in Boston, of all places. They were just working on refining the details.
Young smiled faintly, sipping his coffee.
Even the ache in his back seemed, maybe, a little better.
He dressed, collected his cane and his shoulder bag, locked his apartment, and headed toward the parking lot, where his Charger waited. He’d made it out into the crisp morning air when he felt his phone buzz in his pocket.
It was Jackson. Young checked the time, raised his brows, and leaned against the driver’s side door of his car. The cold of the metal seeped through his fatigues.
::It’s a little early for you, isn’t it?::
::Hmm. Technically, I consider this “late.” But don’t worry. No intergalactic crises happening::
::You’ve flipped the bar, Jackson. For sure. It becomes early at sunrise::
::But how do you feel about Dan?:: Young smirked.
::You can try it. No one’s ever been able to pull it off. Not to my face. Not for any length of time::
::Having a rough go of it. The Tok’ra use a variant of REM sleep to pull the memories forward so…::
::More like night terrors, but yeah::
::I hear that::
::Me too. You here yet?::
::About to make the drive::
::Last I heard, the Orbital Imaging team was making good progress. They’d decided it was a definite yes on Boston? Maybe check in with them, and then…we should talk about Nick::
Young raised his eyebrows, watched the little indicator on his phone that told him Jackson was still typing. He pulled his keys out of his pocket, twirling them through his fingers while he waited.
::I was talking to Lam this morning. She doesn’t think we’re going to be able to use the Tok’ra recall device on a person wearing cortical suppressants::
“Shit,” Young said, into the still October air.
::Shit:: Young typed, into the waiting screen of his phone.
::Yeah. Exactly. So we should think about how we’re going to do this, presuming we can find him, because we probably can’t swoop in with guns and a promise of his memories back if only he comes with us::
Young took a moment to picture it, leaning against his car. It was hard to visualize the other man. Would he be homeless on the streets of Boston? Employed somewhere, working a blue collar job? Could he have worked his way into something more permanent, more stable? However the guy was living, it was hard to imagine convincing a memory-less Nicholas Rush of anything.
“Ugh, hotshot,” Young murmured into the quiet morning air. “You’re gonna be a lot of work. You know that?” He looked down at his phone, considering. ::We’ll think of something:: he told Jackson. ::Let’s not try to figure out everything at once::
::That sounds nice::
::I’m on my way. See you soon::
Young kept the windows down on the drive to the base, letting the October air stream through the car, crisp and cool. He allowed himself, for the first time, to game out a Boston beam down point for his vanished neighbor.
“Okay,” Young said, adjusting his shades, squinting into the glare of the rising sun as he waited at a traffic light. “First question. Did you figure out who you were, and how long did that take?”
Would the man have had his wallet?
Fifty-fifty on that one.
He should have had his wallet—Lam should have given it to him when she gave him back his street clothes, which he’d been wearing for a few days prior to his disappearance. So he should have had ID on him. The man locked himself out of his apartment on a fairly regular basis though, so his track record for hanging on to important personal items was a little dicey.
The wallet itself though—that should be traceable. He could check with Lam. He could check with whomever it was who’d finally been put in charge of the evidence from the night of the the guy’s abduction. If they didn’t have his wallet in a box somewhere, there was a good chance Rush had had it with him.
Then the question became: had Telford left it on him?
The light changed, and Young accelerated, feeling the ache in his back against the seat of the car.
He had to work to bury the surge of anger that thoughts of Telford triggered.
As he took a few deep breaths, he felt the wind tangling the curls of his hair.
If Rush hadn’t had his wallet, he’d have been pretty out of luck when it came to figuring out who he was. Mathematicians weren’t the kind of people who got recognized. It wasn’t like he could image-search himself. Or—hmm. Well, maybe he could? Young’d have to ask Carter about that.
If he’d had his wallet though—that would have changed things. He’d have easily been able to look himself up and figure out he was a cryptographer working for the Air Force. Knowing that set of information—plus the fact that he’d woken alone with no memories and a set of devices attached to his head—it would raise some questions for sure.
Not a great look for the Air Force.
“So maybe,” Young said, into the wind, “you’ve been avoiding us.” He smiled slightly, adjusting his sunglasses. “I have to say, that does seem like you, hotshot. Might be tough to convince you to come back with us.” He sighed. “Jackson’s already worried about it. And the guy isn’t wrong about much, seems like.”
For the remainder of the drive, he examined the problem from different angles. The more he examined it, the thornier it became.
“One step at a time,” he told himself, navigating the winding road up Cheyenne Mountain.
An hour later, Ginn and Young stood in the Orbital Imaging Department, watching the team refine code, cross reference satellite imaging, discuss time-stamps, debate the likely altitude of a cloaked tel’tak, and slowly put together their best estimate of where Vala might have beamed Rush.
James and Greer, now less on Ginn’s security detail than they were under Young’s tenuous and nameless command, stood on either side of the doorway, watching, at a loss as to what they were supposed to be doing.
“Colonel,” Ginn said quietly, after a long silence.
“Yeah?” Young looked down at her.
The kid was now sporting SGC-issued fatigues and boots. The uniform didn’t fit her very well. She was swimming in the jacket and pants. No muscle on her to fill them out. It made her look about fifteen.
“Even though I’ve been given a uniform, I haven’t been absorbed into your military hierarchy?” She spoke in a whisper, looking anxiously at the Orbital Imaging team.
“Nope,” Young said, normal volume. “You’re a civilian consultant.”
“Like you?” Ginn asked, following his lead and dropping the whisper. “Camile Wray said you were a civilian consultant.”
“Eh,” Young said, rubbing his jaw. “Yeah. Sort of. Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m in a gray area right now. I was in command of a huge wing of the program, for, I don’t know, maybe a few weeks? Then I realized I’d been exposed to coercive persuasion and turned myself in. It looked like I might get benched for good. But then Jackson figured out how to hire me back as a civilian. First thing I did was spring you out of your holding cell. But the way I did that, I think, rattled some of the military higher-ups. So, in my most recent meeting with General Landry, he put me in command of a two-man team.” Young motioned over his shoulder at Greer and James. “So—” he shrugged. “My status is pretty complicated right now.”
Ginn Keeler fixed him with a wordless, neutral look.
“How much of that made sense to you?” Young asked.
“Do I follow your orders?” Ginn asked, rather than answering. Kid was sharp. That was for sure.
“James and Greer follow my orders,” Young replied. “You follow them too, if they seem reasonable to you.”
Ginn considered this. “So Lieutenant James and Sergeant Greer must follow your unreasonable orders?”
Young snorted. “Yeah.” He glanced back at the pair of them, to find them working not to smile.
“But not me? I don’t do ‘unreasonable’ things?” Ginn asked.
“I mean, you’re a civilian. So, ideally, you’d tell me why you think they’re unreasonable and then I’d convince you that they’re not as crazy as they sound,” Young replied.
“I don’t like this,” Ginn said, frowning. She bent her head, staring at the floor.
“Why not?” Young asked, eyebrows raised.
She looked up at him, a hint of challenge in her eyes. “Do you execute me if I don’t convince you?”
“Ginn,” Young said sharply. “Cut it out it with the execution talk. There’s gonna be no executing, okay? Zero. Ever. I know that’s an LA thing, but it’s not a Tau’ri thing. At all. So just—stop mentioning it.”
“It’s just,” she said quietly, looking at him with large eyes. “I’d like to be sure. Before I make any mistakes.”
“You can be sure,” he said, gently. “No executing. Not for any mistake. Even if you, I don’t know, murder someone in cold blood in your right mind, we usually would put you on military trial and then confine you to a high security base for the rest of your natural life.”
“What happens if I disagree with you?” Ginn asked.
“We have a fight about it,” Young replied.
“With what kind of weapons?” Ginn asked.
“Oh my god,” Young said, dropping his face into his palm.
“You walked right into that one, sir,” Greer said, from behind him.
“We have a fight with words, Ginn. You know what? Why don’t we just—okay. What if I tell you to burn down this building?”
“I would say that’s very unreasonable of you,” Ginn replied.
“Well, I don’t think so,” Young countered. “Convince me.”
“It’s underground. It’s made of materials that don’t burn easily. Also, it’s full of our allies.”
“Great points. I agree. We’ve settled our differences in a fight. In the Tau’ri manner.”
“The Tau’ri fight with words,” Ginn said, nodding. “I knew this about your people. Camile Wray must be very highly respected. She has many ways of using words.”
Young cocked his head, considering. “Huh. True enough,” he decided.
“So I am a civilian consultant even though I wear your military colors, and I follow your orders unless they are unreasonable, in which case we have a Word Fight until we come to an agreement. And I do this forever, in exchange for room and board and protection from the assassins of the Sixth House?”
“Right,” Young said. “But also? You definitely get paid.”
“Paid how?” Ginn asked, frank astonishment on her face.
“Um,” Young said, “you get resources in exchange for your service.”
“Like—weapons?” Ginn asked. “I can earn my own weapons? Maybe a book sometimes?”
“Er, no,” Young said. “Eventually you might get issued a weapon. There’s a waiting period for that, to make sure you’re adjusting to Tau’ri culture first. Books you can buy, because you get paid withTau’ri money.”
“I do?” Ginn asked. “I get money? Not Colonel Carter?”
“Colonel Carter? Why would Colonel Carter get money?” Young asked, perplexed.
“She recruited me,” Ginn explained. “So any value I accrue to your organization should go to her.”
“Ah,” Young said. “Nope. That would be an LA thing. She doesn’t get anything.”
“She gets nothing? I get it all? That doesn’t seem right,” Ginn frowned at him. “I should give her a cut. Out of respect.”
“You definitely should not cut Carter in on your salary,” Young said. “You should keep it and spend it on—whatever. Books. Clothes.”
“Alcohol,” Greer suggested from behind them.
“Shoes?” James added. “A car, maybe?”
Ginn glanced back at them uncertainly, then looked at Young. “But it’s a sign of respect for her to take a cut of what I earn. It honors our connection within your organization.”
“Yeah,” Young said, “I get the sentiment. But not here. Carter’s just gonna think it’s weird.”
“I shot her in the chest,” Ginn whispered, her eyes huge and dark. “And then she helped me.”
“I know, kiddo. She knows too. It’s nice you’re grateful. But maybe tell her with words? Don’t give her a cut of your paycheck. She’s going to like words more. Trust me on this. It’s a Tau’ri thing.”
They turned back to watching the Orbital Imaging team zoom in on different locations along the Charles River. “So, I am to help you find Dr. Nicholas Rush?” she asked.
“That’s the idea,” Young said.
“How can I help most?” Ginn asked.
“Well, it’ll take some time to get you up to speed.” He looked back over his shoulder at Greer and James, to make sure they were listening. “There’s a good chance we’re going into the field. Where by ‘field’ I mean Cambridge, Massachusetts, to do a very delicate extraction of a math professor who doesn’t remember that we’re the good guys. Not sure if we’re gonna bring you along or not.”
“New Earthlings attract attention,” Greer said quietly.
Young raised an eyebrow at him.
“Sir,” Greer added belatedly.
“True,” Young said. “But this one can probably spot an LA operative trying to blend in with the regular Boston crowd.” He flicked his eyes to Ginn, then back to Greer.
Greer nodded. “Yes sir. Sorry, sir.”
“Relax, sergeant. It was a good point.” Young turned back to Ginn. “Kid—do you know anything about an LA drug that can strip personal memories, but leave skillsets intact? Because the working theory is that they used something like that on Rush, but he was then, um, partially rescued, I guess, by Vala Mal Doran.”
Ginn nodded. “There’s an extremely valuable compound,” she said slowly. “It’s used often on high profile recruits, especially scientists. The LA don’t manufacture it. They—purify it.”
“From where?” Young asked.
“The ground up corpses of Goa’uld symbiotes,” Ginn said flatly. “It is one of many compounds a parasite is capable of secreting into the nervous system of a host.”
“Ugh,” James said quietly. “And they inject people with that?”
Ginn looked back at her. “They do,” she said. “It’s not well-known. There are many amongst the Alliance who believe that nothing of Goa’uld origin should be used to further our ends. But we—they—value practical expedience above almost anything else.”
“So—this is a totally different compound than the coercive persuasion drug then?” Young asked.
“Yes,” Ginn confirmed.
Young let out a slow breath and nodded at her.
He felt his phone buzz. It was Jackson.
::VIP Suite #4. Anytime. Door’s open.::
“Okay,” Young said. He motioned Greer and James closer, then pulled out his wallet, and handed Ginn twenty dollars. “You know what that is?”
“Tau’ri money,” Ginn replied, turning the bill over in her hands.
“Here’s what’s gonna happen. James and Greer are going to take you up to the Starbucks by the NORAD exit.” He looked at them, and they nodded, then he looked back at Ginn. “A Starbucks is a place where you can get food and drinks. You’re gonna go in there, and you’re gonna sit at one of the tables. You’re gonna watch what people do. You can watch as long as you want. Then, when you think you’re ready, you’re gonna get up and use the money I just gave you to buy something for yourself, Greer, and James. But these two?” Young said, gesturing toward Greer and James. “They’re not gonna help you. Then, the three of you are going to sit there, and you’re going to try to carry on a normal conversation without mentioning anything related to what goes on down here. Talk about weather. Talk about books. Talk about physics. But no ‘Tau’ri.’ No spaceships. No stargates. No Lucian Alliance.”
“So I’m to blend in,” Ginn said quietly. “What happens if I fail?” Her face was a mask of concern.
“Nothing,” Young said. “But we’ll know how quick a study you are.”
“Okay,” Ginn said, squaring her shoulders.
“Any questions before we start?” James asked.
“Yeah, you need a lesson on money?” Greer suggested.
“I know about your money,” Ginn said, offhandedly, her hands in her pockets, already channeling Earth Girl to the best of her ability. “It’s a collective delusion tethered to paper. I’m ready.”
James and Greer stared at her.
“You three have fun,” Young said. “I’m gonna talk to Dr. Jackson, then I’ll be back here.”
“So,” Ginn said, casually, as they left the room. “What kind of drinks do you guys like?”
Atta girl, Young thought.
He knocked twice on the door of VIP Suite #4 before pushing it open. The overhead lights were off, but every table lamp in the place was on, giving the room a warm glow. Young could hear quiet voices beyond the unused kitchenette.
He rounded the corner to see Vala in the king-sized bed, her back against the headboard, half under the covers. She had her SG-1 jacket wrapped around her, patch in place. The thing was pulled across her chest, tight as she could get it, both hands clutching the fabric and both arms wrapped around herself, as though she were cold. Or as though the jacket might go somewhere if she didn’t hold onto it for all she was worth.
Jackson had dragged an armchair so he could sit facing Vala, with his feet propped on the end of the bed. The guy had his glasses on, and a box of files next to him, CLASSIFIED writ red and large across the thing. He had a folder in hand, and was reading aloud from it. But quietly. His voice was shot to hell. Like he’d been talking for the better part of a day and night.
Probably, he had.
Young knocked on the wall, and they both looked up at him.
Jackson nodded, but didn’t stop what he was reading.
“Question eight. When your BFF, which would be, if I’m understanding this correctly, your ‘best friend forever,’ calls you at midnight, you a) drop everything you’re doing, b) silence the call; you’ll get back to them in the morning, or c) answer the call, but have a discussion about boundaries.”
“A,” Vala said decisively. “No question. Hello, handsome.”
“Hey,” Young said, leaning against the wall, taking some weight off his bad leg.
“Yeah,” Jackson said, frowning at the paper. “I mean—do you think that one should count for us, though? Like, whenever we get midnight calls we’re dropping everything, it’s kinda part of the whole deal. We could cut this from the overall stats.”
“Oh keep going, Daniel, honestly, no wonder it takes you so long to finish translations.”
Jackson shot her a look over the tops of his glasses, then cleared his throat. “Okay, question nine. You just bought a new outfit. Your bestie compliments you with a) a wink, b) thoughtful feedback on your style choices, or c) is too flustered by how attractive you are to say anything.”
“I’m going to go with b on this one,” Vala said, primly. “Though I usually have to do a little prompting.”
“Jackson,” Young said, looking over the archeologist’s shoulder, trying not to smile, “you cut the quizzes out of Cosmo while she was gone?”
“B. Got it,” Jackson said, studiously circling the letter, avoiding Young’s question.
“Oh he has quite a collection now,” Vala said, smiling at Young. “He’s begun to make a bit of a project out of them, haven’t you, darling?”
“Are You Best Friends or Something More?” Young read over Jackson’s shoulder. “You guys need a quiz for this?”
“Question ten,” Jackson said determinedly. “A ‘friend date’ is most likely to involve a) dinner and a movie, b) a trip to an exciting location, or c) an intellectual discussion.”
“Hmm,” Vala said, looking at the ceiling, her hands running through a lock of her hair. “I’m really quite split on this one between a and c. We’ve done both. Probably c, though.”
“Not b?” Jackson asked.
“Well, my Terrestrial BFF has practically been under house arrest for the entire time I’ve known him,” Vala said. “He can’t really go many places.”
“Wait, what?” Jackson asked.
Young rolled his eyes.
“Don’t you roll your eyes at me, handsome, I see you over there, looking—well, ah, very seasoned.”
“I’m not rolling my eyes at you,” Young said pointedly.
“Oh, carry on then,” Vala gave him a quick smile. “Love the hair. You should keep it this way.”
“Guys,” Jackson said. “Vala—sorry, I think I’ve been operating under a mistaken assumption here.”
Vala looked at Jackson with an overly solicitous sympathy. “Oh, I’m sorry darling, did you—think you were my Terrestrial BFF?”
“No,” Jackson said, defensively.
“He did,” Vala stage-whispered to Young, wincing. “This is awkward.”
“Okay. I get it. Your ‘Terrestrial BFF’ is Nicholas Rush. That’s fine,” Jackson said. “I wish you two the best of luck. I really do. I’ll just tally these up for you, shall I?”
“Darling, don’t be offended. I learned from your Earth Magazines that’s it’s best to keep things professional in the workplace. You’re categorically out of the running. We’re colleagues.”
“Mm hmmm. Very appropriate,” Jackson said stoically, scribbling numbers in the margins of the quiz. “And we have now determined that you and our abducted Fields Medalist have, and I quote: ‘Uncommon Chemistry.’ It’s capitalized. Both words. ‘You and your BFF have an undeniable spark that’s obvious to everyone around you. Only time will tell whether you take things to the next level’.”
“Ah,” Vala said. “Differential equations. It could happen.”
“That’s ‘next level,’ is it?” Young asked. “Differential equations?”
Jackson smiled at Vala. It was a tiny, almost hidden thing. The kind of smile that had probably broken a heart, here or there, across the Milky Way.
“That’s how my Terrestrial BFF defines next level,” Vala clarified, primly. “Any word on where I managed to drop him?”
“Orbital Imaging has narrowed it down to Cambridge, Massachusetts as of about ninety minutes ago.”
“That’s—” Jackson’s overstrained voice cracked and went entirely. “That’s phenomenal.” He tried again. No sound. “That’s phenomenal. Also ridiculous.” He coughed. “I can’t believe he got dropped in Cambridge Massachusetts, probably without a memory, and he’s stayed off the grid for eight weeks.”
The man fixed Vala with a burning look, pure blue fire. “You saved him,” he whispered. “I really think you did.”
Vala looked down at her hands, then, hopefully, back up at the pair of them. “I’m glad,” she said.
“Me too.” Young said. He couldn’t help adding, “Hopefully the LA didn’t find him.”
“I feel—” Jackson said, entirely without sound.
“You okay there?” Young asked.
Jackson cleared his throat and tried again, with no better success. “I feel like we’d know—” he broke off, coughing.
Vala pulled a tissue from the box on the nightstand and handed it to him, her expression carefully neutral.
“Jackson, hold that thought,” Young said. He turned, rounded the corner, and found a glass in the darkened kitchenette. He filled it with water, listening to Jackson cough on the other side of the wall. He limped back into the bedroom, and handed the thing to the archeologist.
“Thanks,” the man rasped, and took a sip.
“We need to get you some cough drops,” Vala said quietly, looking at the man with wide, wet eyes.
Jackson nodded at her, then looked at Young. “I have no evidence for this,” he whispered, his fingertips resting on the side of his neck. “I just feel like if the LA gets Nick Rush—something shatters in the universe. We’d feel the cosmic reverb.”
“Maybe you would,” Young said quietly.
There was a long silence.
“Cambridge, though,” Jackson whispered, smiling at Vala. “Cambridge. Did you know how perfect that would be?”
“I was only looking for a river,” Vala said quietly. “That’s all.”
Jackson nodded. “Sometimes—sometimes I—” He closed his eyes. “We stumble into so many terrible things. But then there are other times. Other times we get so lucky. It’s almost unreal. And I—” his voice broke, and he pulled off his glasses, pressing his fingertips to his brow. “I do like to think that even if I don’t remember it, that I tried to do what could be done, when I was ascended. I’ve been told I tried, and I know there have been others—” He shook his head. “Others who have risked exile, who have accepted the eternity of constant battle—and I hope—” Jackson wiped his face, took a shuddery breath.
Vala and Young shared a significant look in the warm lamplight.
“I really shouldn’t say what I hope,” Jackson said silently, no voice left. None at all. “What I fear. Just—as frustrated as I am—I’m also grateful. Terribly, terribly grateful. From time to time.”
“Daniel,” Vala said, her voice wavering, clutching her jacket tighter around her small frame. “How long has it been since you’ve slept? It’s been over a day since I’ve been back—and then, before that, how long?”
“Oh,” Jackson said. “Some time, I think. Sorry guys. Just gotta get, like, one more missing person back, and then, y’know. Find a weapon to defeat a non-corporeal near omniscient enemy. Make sure the missing guy doesn’t become that weapon, somehow. But that’s actually a very very reasonable to-do list. I’ve had worse. Much much worse.”
“Wait,” Young said. “What?”
“Excuse me?” Vala asked, at the same time.
“I do worry about him,” Jackson whispered. “Very much. He’s unstable. Not mentally. Ontologically. Like a radioactive element. He might give off some energy and become something else. I understand. I’ve done it. I know the look. That’s the Cosmo Quiz I need. Are You Ontologically Stable?”
Again, Young met Vala’s eyes. From the cast of her face, she was feeling the same chill in the bones that he was.
“What?” Jackson asked, his eyes flicking between them, the word a cracked whisper.
“This is the first I’m hearing about Rush being a weapon,” Young said, hearing the grind of strain in his own voice. “Unlocking things, yes. Hitting benchmarks along the road to ascension, yes. Actually being a weapon? No.”
“Well, I admit it was probably optimistic of me to hope that people, ie, you guys and the rest of SG-1 were putting that together. Telford, I’m sure, understood. Understands still, wherever he is.” Jackson paused, taking a shuddery breath. “You know what? Forget it. We can just chalk it up amongst the many things I probably shouldn’t have said aloud over the past 24-48 hours,” Jackson said, letting his eyes fall shut again. “Or ever.”
Young watched him. Though his face looked relaxed, the guy was crying again, tears leaking out beneath closed eyelids.
“But, as someone rather dramatically pointed out,” Jackson whispered, “there are whole categories of things I can’t save. Because they already know.”
Young wondered just how much mental strain he’d caused the previous day with his speculating on what ascended beings might or might not know. What was it Jackson had said he’d seen in himself when his own memories were gone?
So much fear that Carter had wept for it.
“You,” Vala said, her voice steely. “Lie down in this bed and stop talking.”
“Vala gets it,” Jackson whispered, giving her a small smile. “Sorry.”
“Come on, Jackson,” Young said, taking a few steps forward and offering the archeologist his hand. “I think she’s right.”
Jackson had already started reaching for his hand when the overhead alarms crackled to life, startling all of them.
The archeologist sighed and collapsed back into his chair, looking away from both of them.
“No,” Vala whispered, pained.
“Can we not get a break?” Young growled.
“Unscheduled—” Harriman’s voice began, only to cut off into nothing.
“Wonderful.” Young tried to keep the dread out of his voice.
“That can’t be good,” Vala said, shooting the ceiling a dark look.
“Unscheduled,” Harriman’s voice was slower this time. “Unscheduled on-world activation. I repeat. Unscheduled on-world activation.”
“On world?” Young echoed, perplexed.
“All right,” Jackson said, hauling himself out of the chair. “Let’s go.”
Vala swept the covers aside, revealing pink underwear with white trim and a whole lotta leg.
Young and Jackson stared at her, then turned around in belated simultaneity.
“Oh, very gallant of you both, I’m sure,” Vala said, her tone amused. Young could hear her behind them, presumably pulling on her pants and socks. “Let’s go, boys.” She preceded them out of the room, snagging her boots from where she’d left them by the door.
“Hey,” Young said, grasping Jackson’s shoulder briefly, while Vala jammed her feet into her boots and tucked the laces inside. “You’re okay.”
The man nodded at him, his eyes bloodshot, his face ashen.
They took the elevator down to the lower level, Young swiping his badge for emergency access. When the doors opened at the base of the mountain, they saw Mitchell and Carter bursting out of the nearest stairwell.
“I heard it’s Midway,” Carter said as they approached. “We’re dialing Midway.”
“Midway?” Vala echoed.
“Pegasus,” Young clarified. “We’re dialing Atlantis.”
“We’re dialing Atlantis?” Jackson said silently. “We are?”
“Aw, Jackson,” Mitchell said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Your vocal cords finally throw in the towel? I thought they’d be the last thing to go.”
“Shut up,” Jackson rasped, managing to get a little more sound. “We’re dialing Atlantis?”
“Yeah, looks that way, and not by choice,” Mitchell confirmed.
“Did we get hacked?” Carter asked, breaking into a jog. “Oh crap.”
“I don’t see any other way we get an unscheduled on-world activation,” Mitchell called after her as Carter moved from jog to sprint, heading for the control room. “Yeah,” Mitchell said, turning to Jackson, Young, and Vala. “She thinks we got hacked.”
“Should we run?” Vala asked, her jacket still wrapped tightly around her, her voice heartbreakingly uncertain.
“I’m thinking everyone can just choose their own pace on this one.” Mitchell looked at the ceiling. “Even the overhead lighting is undecided.”
Young glanced up. It was true. The hallways were dimmer than usual, but they hadn’t gone to full emergency mode. The characteristic unscheduled activation alarm had already been shut down.
He wondered how Ginn was faring on level three.
“I’m not great with hacking,” Jackson whispered.
“Yeah, none of us are.” Mitchell said. “You also really don’t look like a guy who should be running right now.” Mitchell pulled something out of his pocket. “Jolly Rancher?”
“Thanks,” Jackson rasped, unwrapping the small piece of hard candy.
Teal’c joined them a the cross-corridor nearest the control room.
“Teal’c,” Mitchell said. “Hey, man. Jackson lost his voice. This ever happen before? I want to know how concerned I should be. Your expression says maybe an eight? A seven? Seven point five. That’s my final answer.”
“Are you well?” Teal’c asked Jackson quietly as they moved through the halls.
“Yeah,” Jackson rasped, smiling faintly. “Thanks Teal’c. Seems like someone maybe hacked our system. We’re dialing Atlantis right now, and—”
“Jackson,” Mitchell said. “Shh. Suck on your budget cough drop. Literally anyone else can brief Teal’c on the one fact we know. No need to turn it into the Gettysburg Address. Save your voice for whoever’s hacking us. I’m sure someone’s going to need a Jackson Monologue before the day is out. I’ll tell ya what. You can whisper it to me, and I’ll give it this time.”
Jackson rolled his eyes, but said nothing.
Young caught Mitchell’s eye, and the pair of them dropped back, following Jackson, Teal’c, and Vala. Young let a little space build between them, then glanced at Cam. “Jackson’s in rough shape.”
“I can see that,” Cam replied, voice grim, eyes hard.
“It’s worse than it looks,” Young said quietly. “A lot worse.”
“You do not look well, my friend,” Teal’c said, ahead of them, trying to slow Jackson’s pace with a hand on his arm. “Perhaps you should rest. We can summon you if your presence is required.”
Jackson shook his head.
“Well, I think we’ve learned our lesson, haven’t we darling,” Vala said, threading her arm though Jackson’s. “No matter how culturally informative we find Cosmo Quizzes, we won’t stay up all night doing them. Not ever again.”
Teal’c raised his brows at the pair of them.
“You wanna try ordering him to take a nap?” Mitchell asked Young quietly. “Because I’ve tried.”
“I don’t think that’s the issue,” Young replied.
“Well, it’s an issue,” Mitchell said mildly. “What are you driving at?”
“Could you live with the feeling you were being watched every day, all of the time, by ascended beings of various motives?” Young asked.
“Yeah,” Mitchell said shortly. “I do live with that feeling. So does all of SG-1. So do you, probably, now. Sorry about that.”
“At best, we live with the knowledge of it,” Young said. “But he lives with the feeling of it. And I think we gotta get on his wavelength, real soon, or we’re gonna lose the guy. Because he’s making moves in a game we don’t think about.”
Mitchell glanced at him. “Lose him?”
“He’s getting backed into some kind of corner I can’t map,” Young said. “We need to figure out how to help him, Cam. More than we are.”
The other man took a long, slow breath. “Yeah. Okay. Let’s regroup on this after we figure out the latest—” Mitchell waved a hand at the ceiling. “But I’m open to any and all suggestions.”
They rounded the door to the control room, to cluster behind Carter, who was sitting at one of the central workstations, her fingers flying over the keyboard. Landry stood at her shoulder, frowning down at her workstation.
“We transmitted something,” she said tightly. “It was very short. and while the matter transit queuing protocol between us and Atlantis takes thirty minutes to account for buffer safety protocols; EM radiation is almost instantaneous through the linked series of gates. So, whatever it was? It’s already there. Also? It was heavily encrypted. Not a great sign.”
“How did it get into our system?” Landry growled.
“It—” Carter stopped typing. Her hands hovered above the keyboard. “Oh god.”
“What?” The entire room snapped at her.
“Ummmmmmm,” Carter said, both hands coming to press over her upper sternum
“Sam,” Mitchell said slowly, “are you—blushing?”
“No.” Carter snapped. “No. I just. I’m. It’s—Rodney McKay and I have a back line link. For emergencies. We’ve never used it, but we built it into the system for ourselves in case we needed—well, in case we needed it.”
“You and Rodney McKay, huh?” Mitchell said. “Interesting.”
“Hey. It’s the McKay-Carter Intergalactic Gate Bridge,” Carter said, defensively, eyes flicking to Landry. “Do you know how many catastrophic systems failures McKay and I are asked to—it was supposed to be for emergencies only.”
Landry was looking at Carter, eyebrows inching toward his hairline.
“So—someone’s dialing Atlantis using a backdoor program that you and McKay rigged up for your own personal use?” Mitchell asked.
“Yes. And I didn’t share it with anyone. That was the deal. It was supposed to be entirely private. There’s no way you could trigger this protocol without a very specific key. Only two exist. One for him. One for me. Short enough to memorize, long enough to be secure. And yeah. It is McKay’s key so—this is definitely on him,” Carter said, grimly. “Hang on. We’re getting video. They’re talking to us.”
Carter switched displays and they found themselves looking at Rodney McKay. John Sheppard was leaning over his shoulder. “Hey home team,” Sheppard said. “What’s happening?”
“McKay,” Carter snarled, true rage in her voice.
“I can explain” Rodney said, slowly, his voice calm, his hands held toward the video feed, palms open. And then, in a rush, he said, “Thisisentirelyhisfault,” and pointed at Sheppard.
“Yeahhhhh, sorry,” Sheppard said, not looking sorry at all. “It’s definitely my fault. McKay told me about your super secret and super efficient Back Door for Friendship and Science one time when we both thought he was losing his mind. He made me memorize it.” Sheppard shrugged.
“You thought you were—losing your mind?” Carter asked.
“Very very briefly,” McKay said, looking away. “Lifetimes ago. No one really remembers it. Not important.”
“Anyway,” Sheppard said, shooting a piercing look at McKay. “Fast forward to a day where I died like twenty seven times in a row and spontaneously gave my phone number to a Fields Medalist. I’m guessing he kept it.”
There was a long silence in the control room.
Young, feeling pieces fall into place in his head, remembered the torn scrap of paper that Sheppard had given him to give to Rush.
It felt like a lifetime ago.
“Are you saying,” Carter said slowly. “That the person who dialed another galaxy from outside our system, using our backdoor protocol is—Nicholas Rush? The missing Fields Medalist. With amnesia. Who’s been off the grid for months.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.” Sheppard replied, grinning at her. “Happy Wednesday. Is it Wednesday there? It’s Wednesday here. I just asked him for his physical address, but, y’know, in a chill way. He didn’t give away much in his initial message. Just asked for my PGP key. Maybe keep the gate open. I’ll tell you what he says.”
“Yeah, hopefully it’s him and not the Lucian Alliance,” Mitchell said quietly.
“We thought of that,” Sheppard said, picking up on Mitchell’s observation. “Gonna be pretty hard to confirm or deny if he really has a total lack of personal memory. But I did ask him about the Riemann Hypothesis, so we can see what he says about that. I don’t know, though, dialing Atlantis to say hi seems pretty low yield for the LA. I have a feeling it’s him. The message was pretty witty and fun.”
“What did it say?” Carter asked.
“It said ‘All the other boys try to chase me, so here’s my PGP key, so encrypted message me, maybe.”
There was a long silence.
McKay shoved his way back on camera. “It’s from a pop song,” he said.
“It matches Sheppard’s original message to him,” Young offered the room. “I’ve seen the diagram.”
“You diagrammed our STMP protocol for him?” Carter snapped, incredulous.
“A little bit,” Sheppard said. “I wrote the whole thing in Ancient, so it wasn’t exactly readable.”
Carter buried her face in her hands, then lifted her head to look at the camera. “A giant swath of the global population is learning Ancient.”
“What?” McKay and Sheppard echoed.
“Also, I mean, it’s not that dissimilar to Latin,” Jackson said, inaudibly, at Young’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t call it secure.”
“Yeah. It’s part of a game associated with the Wormhole Xtreme franchise,” Carter said shortly. “McKay, as soon as Rush doesn’t need this backdoor? We need to reconfigure the whole Midway Protocol.”
“Ugh, really?” McKay leaned an elbow on the table, abruptly exhausted. “Yeah. You’re right. Of course you are. Okay. Fine. That will only take days. Like, five, extremely high-stress days, maybe six, where we barely sleep and worry constantly about reinventing something incorrectly and cutting off communication forever.”
Young’s attention was caught, suddenly, by the gleam of light off something at Sheppard’s temple. He pushed his way in front of Cam, and leaned over Carter’s shoulder, feeling the pull in his back.
“John,” he said.
“Everett,” Sheppard replied. “Hi. Nice hair.”
“You wearing cortical suppressants?”
“Um,” Sheppard said.
“Yeah, hi,” Rodney said, literally shoving Sheppard off camera. “So can we please, for the love of god, have a joint Milky Way/Pegasus briefing? Now, maybe? Because this Need-to-Know stuff is killing me. Like, personally, it’s taking years and years off my life. I could drop dead any day. Did you guys know or care that Sheppard has been BENCHED? For WEEKS? First because he was going unresponsive during runs through the city, alone, and we were finding him psychically communing with, I don’t know, ANCIENT SIDEWALKS, and now because he can’t help taking the damn things off and mentally communing with Atlantis? I had to rig up force fields so he can’t mess with them! Like you do for dogs. Except it’s those cone things instead of EM fields. Does anyone read the reports we send? Or do they go straight into a locked vault? He’s not okay! Not even remotely. He hasn’t been okay since that trip to Altera, and—”
“I’m fine,” Sheppard shouted from off camera.
Abruptly, McKay vanished, as though someone had applied a boot to a rolling chair, and Sheppard was back in his place.
“I’m fine,” Sheppard said. “It’s just a temporary precaution. I will tell you though, since we’re talking about it, that I’ve been dreaming a lot, I mean, a lot, about pouring coffee. Making those little rosette patterns in lattes. So either I really pine for the local coffee shop scene on a subconscious level, or someone’s missing Fields Medalist has a job as a barista.”
There was another long silence.
“You have some kind of dream link with Rush?” Young growled. “And you’re just telling us now?”
“I didn’t actually put it together until this last message that just came through,” Sheppard said, looking at something offscreen. “But he wants to meet at a Boston coffee shop called Rational Grounds. And, uh, I’m pretty sure that’s the coffee shop I’ve been dreaming about.”
“You’ve been dreaming about a specific coffee shop?” McKay demanded. “Since when?”
“Since always. They make variations on classic drinks. I could make you one right now.”
“We should be able to verify this,” Carter said, pulling out her phone. “Hang on. Yup, okay. They exist. And they have an online menu.” She looked up at Sheppard. “Give me a drink name and it’s components.”
“Kafkaesque Cappuccino,” Sheppard said, no hesitation. “Cinnamon. Chocolate. A variable element that symbolizes bureaucratic despair.”
“Wow,” Carter said, staring at her phone.
“You are the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met,” McKay snapped at Sheppard. “With that kind of specificity? They might have found the guy weeks ago. Which is why,” he said, turning to the camera, “we really should be TOUCHING BASE EVERY NOW AND AGAIN.”
“I’ll make it up to you,” Sheppard said, “with an Absurdist Americano.”
“Well, that would be a start,” McKay said, aggrieved.
“Where’s Woolsey?” Landry asked, moving forward to take Young’s place at Carter’s shoulder.
“Right here, general,” Woolsey said, his head half in the frame.
“Can you spare these two for a few days?” Landry asked. “I think Dr. McKay’s suggestion has some merit.”
“Less a suggestion, more like a plea for a more rational world,” McKay muttered.
“I think that can be arranged,” Woolsey said.