Mathématique: Chapter 63
“I’m extremely normal,” Rush informed Young.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Memory loss.
Additional notes: Let’s start arcing this new arc, kids.
Rush rematerialized in a small room of featureless white. The floor asserted itself aggressively against the soles of his shoes. The world pitched. His hands came to Young’s shoulders as the other man steadied him on the room’s low platform.
“Thanks,” he breathed, disoriented, his eyes shut as he tried to reintegrate kinesthetic input.
“Gets pretty much everyone the first time,” Young said quietly, one arm still wrapped around Rush. “Eventually, your brain learns to edit out the ground hit.”
“Ah,” Rush said, opening his eyes.
They looked at one another. Young seemed terribly immediate against the bright expanse of the walls. Rush was caught in a vertiginous sweep that involved gravity, perspective, and the fabric of spacetime. He shut his eyes again, in a long blink.
“You okay, hotshot?” Young looked at him from beneath knitted brows. “You drink any water today?”
Rush narrowed his eyes. “Why do I feel like the term ‘hotshot’ is being employed with some degree of irony?” It occurred to him that he was leaning rather heavily against the other man and he made an effort to regain his footing.
“Nope,” Young said, slowly letting him go, fighting a smile. “No irony. You’re always running in the red, is all.”
“Mmm hmm,” Rush said, stepping back, in full possession of his equilibrium. “Very convincing.”
Young’s expression broke into a grin, which he directed straight at his boots. “C’mon. Hotshot is a serious nickname. Didn’t you disarm someone earlier today?
“John Sheppard,” Rush said.
“What about him?” Young asked.
“That’s who I disarmed. John Sheppard.”
“You disarmed—wait. Shep pulled a gun on you? Shep did? Colonel John Sheppard. Pulled a gun. On you.”
“That’s the one. Though, in fairness, he was trying to implant a transponder in my forearm. I was the one who pulled his gun.”
“Unbelievable.” Young had mostly mastered his amusement.
“Ta,” Rush said dryly.
“Sorry, not unbelievable that you pulled his gun—unbelievable that he tried it. He gave a speech to the whole strike team not six hours ago about how no one was supposed to try to take you by force. It was five minutes long. Very passionate. The term ‘Nightmare Bar Fight’ was used to describe your style. Multiple times.”
Rush cocked his head, considering this. It had a certain ring of truth to it. And yet. “Seems a bit much for an academic cryptographer, no?”
“Maybe not for a real hotshot one.” Young smirked at him.
“Mmm. Well executed,” Rush said.
“You like how I brought that back around?” Young stepped off the transport platform with the careful placement of cane and foot.
“I appreciated it, yes,” Rush said, following him down. He scanned the room, noting a control console along one wall. There was subtle plating in the ceiling that matched the plating on the platform itself. Interesting. Like as not some kind of field gradient was necessary for matter reconstitution?
“Looks a fair bit like Star Trek,” Rush said doubtfully.
“You sound disappointed,” Young replied.
“Well,” Rush said sympathetically, mostly maintaining his straight face. “One does like to be surprised, here and there.”
Young snorted. “I thought your intern was gonna have a stroke when we brought him up with the thing. We couldn’t get him out of the room for a solid ten minutes.”
“He’s here?” Rush asked.
“Yup,” Young said. “We just gotta get you cleared by medical and then you can see him. Dr. Van Densen’ll be the one checking you out, I’m guessing. She heads the med team up here.”
As they approached the door, it swished open with sound Rush recognized as being straight out of Astria Porta: Prometheus. Or, vice versa, rather.
“Do I know her?” Rush asked, as they stepped into a brightly illuminated corridor, lined by doors, entirely lacking in windows. It probably wasn’t terribly easy to carve windows into spaceships. The pressure differential on a metal-glass seal would be substantial.
“Van Densen? Nope. This is the first time you’ve been on the Odyssey. In fact, pretty sure it’s the first time you’ve been to space. Well,” Young amended, choosing a direction and starting forward, leaning heavily on his cane, “it’s the first time you’ve been to space and also been conscious.”
“Mmm,” Rush said, unimpressed.
“Hotshot,” Young said, tentatively, “don’t get weird with Van Densen.”
“Get weird?” Rush echoed, pointedly.
“Don’t, uh, ask her about her relationship to time, is what I mean.”
Oh yes? He, Nicholas Rush, who’d done nothing but proceed through time in a linear manner (to his knowledge, thus far) was getting some kind of lecture on appropriate temporal comportment from Everett Young, who was, like as not, decoupled from a normal relationship with causality?
“I’m extremely normal,” Rush informed Young.
“Yeah, of course you are, all I’m saying is maybe save your, um, metaphysical commentary, if you have any, until we can get you in with Dr. Lam.”
He was being patronized, which would have been pure dead annoying if it weren’t so fucking tragic. Rush had only a sliver of the knowledge he should have, but at least he was aware of his missing context. Colonel Young seemed to have no insight, at all, into his complex metaphysical status.
“Dr. Lam would be a psychiatrist then, I’m assuming?” He tried to keep the question as neutral as possible.
“No,” Young said, glancing over at him. “No, she specializes in infectious disease. My point is that while Van Densen’s fine for a clearance check, Carolyn Lam is actually your doctor. She can handle weird metaphysics questions. She’s the one who helped you with the problem in D-minor you were having.”
“The D-minor problem resulted from an infectious disease?” Rush asked, hearing the disapproval in his own voice. “I’m not a medical doctor but cortical suppressants seem like the wrong choice for—”
“No,” Young interrupted. “Sorry, this is hard to explain in a reasonable way. Especially since no one really understands the D-minor thing. But we don’t think it was infectious. Something happened to you on an alien planet.”
“I thought I hadn’t been to space,” Rush said.
“Travel through the stargate er, via the DHD, whatever the hell happened—you went planet surface to planet surface.”
“Seems a bit of a fine point,” Rush replied, looking at Young over the tops of his glasses.
“Yeah,” Young said, his expression apologetic. “I’ll give you that one.”
“Keep score, do we?”
“Sometimes,” Young said, smiling faintly.
“You know, you haven’t explained these at all,” Rush said, tapping the cortical suppressant at his left temple with two fingers. “Why is my consciousness trying to compose D-minor symphonies?”
“We think it might have something to do with your genetics,” Young said, wincing as the sentence drew toward completion.
“My genetics?” Rush sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “This is becoming fair fuckin’ ridiculous.”
“Yeah, I’m thinking this is gonna be pretty rough, hotshot,” Young said, sympathetically. “Trying to get by, missing all your history.”
“The thought had occurred,” Rush said, reseating his glasses.
“Yeah, well, a bunch of people are already on deck to help you out,” Young said, as they rounded a corner. “Including Daniel Jackson. He’ll be great. You can ask him about his relationship to time all you want.”
“You realize I don’t make a habit of walking up to people and asking them about their metaphysical state, correct? You’re a special case.”
“Thanks. I think. But all I’m saying is that Jackson scores a ten out of ten on the Weird Metaphysical Experiences Scale. So, y’know. If you had any weird metaphysical experiences, he’d be the go-to guy.”
“I’m troubled that this is a metric you have at your fingertips,” Rush said. “Out of curiosity—where would you rank yourself on that scale?”
“Huh,” Young said. “Never really thought about it. Maybe a two? Eh. Make it a three.”
Privately, Rush was fair certain that Everett Young should be ranking a solid ten on that scale. He himself might also rank a ten. It was very possible that Rush’s relationship to his own theoretical Mozartian variant was akin to this Everett Young’s relationship to his black-fatigued alter ego. He couldn’t be sure, of course, but the more he interacted with this man, the more he was favoring a hypothesis that featured a superpositioned pair as well as collapsed variant pairs, of which he and this particular incarnation of Young would represent one pair in a sea of variants.
The difficulty was—
A superpositioned pair, presuming such a thing was possible, would have to come from somewhere. The key questions then became—what would the relationship of that pair be to the arrow of time? What about causality itself? How possible would it be for such a pair to physically interact with D-branes other than their original brane of origin?
In short, there was a strong case to be made that he himself was destined to become Mozart. That Colonel Young would end up, somehow, in faded black fatigues. If one was truly superpositioned, would one know one’s own origins? Would one even have origins, anymore?
Ah, fucking hell. He’d chosen cryptography over quantum mechanics for a reason. He’d choose latte art over quantum mechanics, given the option. He was going to have to brush up on the mathematics of quantum mechanics and the philosophy tethering those mathematics to physical reality. And dear god, but didn’t that just seem like a bottomless pit of uneasy aggravation?
Perhaps there was something to be said for Young’s approach.
“You’ve ‘never really thought about it’,” Rush echoed contemplatively, eyes wandering over the track lighting that lined the upper edges of the walls.
“Yeah yeah. You’re probably about an eight, I’d say.”
“Seems a bit low, given my present circumstances.”
“Well, I grant I don’t know the whole story on your end—but you gotta meet Jackson before you judge. He spent some time as incorporeal energy.”
Rush raised his eyebrows.
“Maybe you and Vala and I can watch some Wormhole X-treme episodes. They hit the more ridiculous highlights of the guy’s life, I’m pretty sure.”
“The Wormhole X-treme franchise is based on the experiences of a real person?” Rush asked.
“Loosely. A group of people, actually. A team called SG-1. Jackson and Vala are both on it. The team, I mean. Watching the show might not be a bad way to get you up to speed. I know they made Teal’c a robot—but other than that—”
“Yeah, he’s an alien. But on the show they made him a robot.”
“Ah. Naturally. So just the one name, then?”
“Yup. Like Cher.”
“Right. And Vala is also a Wormhole X-treme character?” Rush asked.
“Nah, she’s new. I think they’re writing her in now.”
“Ah,” Rush gave the featureless wall a meaningful look. “Someone’s going to need to make me a deck of flashcards to keep all of this straight.”
“I bet Jackson’ll do it for you. Actually—I wonder if we could get Jackson to hate-watch Wormhole X-treme. Maybe if we bought him some of that fancy hipster beer he likes. And told him it was something else. Some classic movie, maybe. Doctor Zhivago.”
Rush let his eyes wander over the curving corridors of the Odyssey, hoping for an exterior window. There had to be one somewhere. “You want to lure Dr. Jackson into watching television based loosely on his bizarre metaphysical experiences, and you want to do this under false pretenses?”
“Good point. When you put it that way, yeah, that does seem like something that’s going to go real bad real quick.”
“What did you do without me all this time?”
Young’s expression was piercing, full of pain and doubt. “No idea, hotshot.” He looked nearly indistinguishable from his spectral alter ego in that moment, other than the cane and the clothes. What was it the man had said, on the shadowed edge of a New York rooftop?
We’re wrapped up in each other across space and time.
Yes well. So it seemed.
Young turned down a side corridor, motioning Rush to follow. “C’mere. You want to see the planet?”
“It’d be something of a waste to spend an evening on a ship in planetary orbit an’ not look out the bloody window,” Rush replied, shaking his hair back.
“Agreed.” Young stopped in front of a door as unremarkable as all the other doors they’d passed, pulled out his wallet, and swiped an ID card. “Observation deck.” He motioned Rush through.
The room was darkly paneled and dimly lit, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the planet below. Rush walked forward slowly, coming right to the pane of the window. They were positioned over the Atlantic Ocean, with the Eastern Seaboard approaching from the west in a carpet of light. The curvature of the planet was appreciable, and the diffuse glow of the sun cast a crescent at the edge of the atmosphere.
“High Earth orbit,” Young said, coming to stand next to him, leaning on his cane. “Ground track moves west because our velocity is less than Earth’s rotational speed.”
Rush raised his eyebrows, glancing over at Young. “Have a physics background, do you?”
Young looked away, fighting another smile. “I think that might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. No, no physics background. You pick a few things up in this line of work. Plus, I like the view.”
“Love a good window,” Rush agreed, looking back at the planet. “I’d imagine that’d be something of a consistent perk when it comes to Air Force employment.”
“Air Force. Do it for the view.” Young glanced over at him. “We could put that one on a T-shirt.”
“Hmm,” Rush said. “There’s a truly excellent physics pun buried in there somewhere.”
“Mmm. Scientific definition of a force, plus the physical displacement inherent to a view, coupled with something one does for work—I don’t quite have it. It’ll come to me.”
Young’s phone began vibrating in his pocket. He checked the caller ID and pulled it out. “Hey Shep,” he said. “Yeah,” Young glanced at Rush. “He’s here.” There was a pause. “We stopped on the observation deck.” There was another pause. “Yeah. Sounds good. And that way I can—” Young cleared his throat, making a clear effort to hold a neutral facial expression, “—return your sidearm?” He grinned at whatever Sheppard said next. “Oh yeah. Very reasonable.” There was a long pause. “Okay,” he said. Another long pause. “Uh huh,” Young made no effort to hold onto his facial expression. “Sure. Yeah, I mean, I really look forward to reading your mission report.” He couldn’t quite keep the laughter out of his voice as he ended the call. He looked over at Rush. “It’s really important to me that he never be allowed to live this down.”
“Consider it done,” Rush said mildly. “You know, McKay’s theory was that John Sheppard has such strong insubordinate tendencies he can’t respect even his own authority.”
Young laughed aloud at that one. “That—that sounds right to me.”
The door to the observation deck swished open.
John Sheppard and Rodney McKay entered the room, still dressed in their much-abused formalwear, nearly identical expressions of exhausted hope on their faces. McKay bent double in apparent relief at seeing Rush, one hand on his chest, on hand on the wall. “OhthankGOD,” the man said quietly, to no one in particular.
Sheppard grinned at the pair of them, walking forward, his jacket open, his collar unbuttoned and stained with blood from the cut along his hairline. “Hi,” he said, pulling Rush into a hug. “I appreciate not needing to chase you around Manhattan. I’d have done it, though.” He let Rush go and turned to Young. “And you. C’mere.” He wrapped his arms around the other man. “That was three-way Hail Mary. Me putting you there. Him getting to you. You convincing him. How’d you do it?”
“Still not sure,” Young said, locking eyes with Rush over Sheppard’s shoulder. Sheppard let him go, and Young produced the man’s sidearm, handing it over with a mostly straight face. “Y’know, you owe us dinner for this. Think of all the forms you’re not gonna have to fill out now.”
“Oh I’ll buy you guys dinner. We have to bring McKay though. Otherwise he gets sad.”
McKay, who was still leaning theatrically against the wall, glared at Sheppard. “Shut up. I don’t get sad.”
“I haven’t spent money in, I don’t know, five years?” Sheppard grinned at them. I could probably buy you a restaurant. McKay, you want a restaurant?”
“No,” McKay said. “Not really.”
“Again, sorry about the tagging-you-by-force thing,” Sheppard said, looking at Rush. “I had a whole Riemann Hypothesis metaphor I was gonna use. You know how the critical line—”
“Shhh,” McKay said approaching. “SHHHHHH. Save it. What if you need it in the future? He could decide to run away at any time.”
“I’m not planning on it,” Rush offered, looking at Sheppard encouragingly.
“Okay so, picture the zeta function as—”
“Or,” McKay said, breaking in, “don’t picture it, because literally no one wants to hear John Sheppard talk to Nick Rush about the Riemann Hypothesis.” He glared at Sheppard.
“Hey,” Sheppard said, reaching out to give McKay a small shove. He shifted his attention back to Rush. “I’ll tell you later. I need a glass board anyway. Or paper, I guess. Do you like paper? You seem like maybe a paper guy. I could see it. I can use paper. I remember how.”
“He’s been known to write on a wall, here or there,” Young said dryly.
Rush turned to him, eyebrows raised. “Have I really? Seems a bit ostentatious.”
“Come to Atlantis,” Sheppard said, shrugging, shoving both hands into the pockets of his dress pants. “Write on sheeted crystal with light pens. You’ll never go back. Er. To paper. I mean.”
“Atlantis,” Rush repeated. The word snapped free in his mind like it had been waiting there. Like a Mozart sonata or a cryptographic hash function. Wrought metal and glass. Water and sky.
“Mmm hmm.” Sheppard gave Rush a significant look, then stepped directly behind him, and, resting a hand on Rush’s shoulder, pointed along a directional vector into deep space. “It’s that way,” he said, softly.
“You can tell?” Rush asked.
“Always,” Sheppard said quietly.
“So this is going to be hell for us,” McKay said, turning theatrically to Young. “Absolute hell. Have you realized this yet?” He snapped his fingers at Rush and Sheppard. “Hey. Lantean Dream Team. I hate to break this up before someone solves another Millennium Prize Problem, but we showed up for more than just hugs and a cross-galactic comparative analysis of writing materials.”
For some reason, McKay decided to glare at Rush this time.
Rush felt slightly hurt by this.
It was an irrational hurt, given that he didn’t know McKay. Not in a technical sense. But—he’d dreamed of the man consistently. For weeks now. McKay was, arguably, the only person who felt at all familiar to him, even if it was a borrowed familiarity.
As Rush looked at him, McKay’s expression changed, snapping straight out of a glare and into uncertainty.
“Take a hug where you can get a hug, I say,” Sheppard replied, stepping away from Rush. His eyes turned serious. “Everett, I know you’re not gonna like this, but Landry called an emergency briefing. You, me, Mitchell, Carter, Teal’c. McKay is going to escort Rush to medical.”
“An emergency briefing,” Young repeated, neutrally. “On the Odyssey?”
“Yeah,” Sheppard replied, his eyes flashing to Rush, then back to Young. “There’ve been a few complications resulting from the Au Coeur Op. But McKay is going to stick with him. Like glue. Right, Rodney?”
“Dermabond,” McKay replied, nodding. “If he gets abducted, I will also get abducted. And then I will rescue him. Immediately.”
Sheppard and Young stared at McKay.
“No one’s getting abducted,” Sheppard said, glaring sternly at McKay.
“Well, we can’t control everything in the universe, can we now?” McKay replied. “I’m just trying to demonstrate that my commitment level is high. Sorry I don’t have a P-90 to aggressively hold while saying it.” McKay glanced at Rush, communicating something along the lines of can-you-believe-the-idiocy-I-have-to-confront-on-daily-basis?
Rush tried to wordlessly communicate intense sympathy while simultaneously wondering what a P-90 might be.
McKay looked surprised.
This prompted some confusion on Rush’s part.
McKay’s expression softened into something that seemed to suggest—pained understanding?
Perhaps he’d overdone sympathy and ended up somewhere else.
“What?” Sheppard asked, taking in their silent eye conversation.
“Nothing,” McKay said shortly. “Nothing.”
Sheppard looked at McKay.
McKay looked at Sheppard.
They both glanced at Rush, then back at each other.
Rush looked at Young. Young shrugged. “There’s a reason we call them McShep,” he said.
“I get it,” Sheppard said quietly to McKay, clapping him once on the shoulder. “And it’s ShepKay, by the way. Everyone agrees.”
“No one agrees,” McKay said. “McShep has more of a ring.”
“Uh huh,” Young said, unimpressed. “Who’s in medical?”
“They brought Lam up,” Sheppard replied.
“The Odyssey has a medical staff,” Young said, the words coming slowly. “Headed by Sandy Van Densen, last I checked.”
“Yep,” Sheppard said. “They’re busy. Lam’s already here.”
Something wordless and important seemed to pass between the two colonels. McKay caught Rush’s eye and gave him a significant look. Unfortunately, what the significant look might signify was entirely lost on Rush.
Young nodded reluctantly, then turned, fixing Rush with a strong glare, resting two fingertips on Rush’s chest. “Do NOT get abducted by the Lucian Alliance,” he growled.
“Well, I’ll certainly do my best,” Rush replied, diplomatically.
“Rodney,” Sheppard said, with considerably less intensity. “Don’t let him get abducted by the Lucian Alliance.”
“Thanks for the pep talk, colonels,” McKay said. He gave them a saccharine wave. “Bye! Enjoy your classified briefing!”
Sheppard and Young left the room, both of them looking over their shoulders as they went. The door swished shut behind them with a pneumatic hiss.
“Ugh,” McKay said. “They’re a lot. I mean, to be fair, John and I are a lot. You and John are a lot. You and I have, on at least one occasion, been a lot. Eventually, my goal is for me and Colonel Young to be a lot. Just to even things out. For the purposes of symmetry. You think it could happen?”
“What?” Rush asked.
“Yeah,” McKay said, turning away from him to look out the window. “Nice planet. You live there, I guess?”
“That’s my understanding,” Rush said, slightly perplexed by the question. “Aren’t you from Canada?”
McKay smiled, and it was a small, pained thing. He crossed his arms. “Yes. And that’s the second time you’ve pointed it out. Tonight. At no time, ever, in our entire acquaintance, have you even once asked or cared where I’m from. And now? You somehow just—know.”
“Is that a problem?” Rush asked, faintly uneasy.
“Almost certainly,” McKay said, his tone turning brisk as he faced Rush in the dim light. “Before we go to medical, let’s just get a few things straight, shall we?”
Rush said nothing. He could tell, from remembered dreams that didn’t belong to him, that Rodney McKay was upset. Upset and trying to hide it.
“Great. One—I’ve spent, oh, I don’t know, the last several months of my life doing you a bunch of favors, occasionally up close but mostly from a distance, that you don’t even know about. Like, to be clear, even if you had your memories, you still wouldn’t know about them. Partially because of the transgalactic need-to-know policy, which is restrictive and stupid, but partially because I don’t think you really paid all that much attention to anything outside your cypher set. This annoys me, because by now we should be friends, but we definitely aren’t. That makes this awkward. Two—John Sheppard has had a tough year. A VERY tough year. And you are just heartbreak city right now so please do your best, which, damn it, you probably will, so you know what, just forget two. Two can take care of itself. Well, two can’t take care of itself, but that’s not really your problem right now. It’s more my problem. Three—stop looking at me like that. Four—this one was supposed to be two. I’m going to do you a favor, and I’m telling you it’s a favor, so you know. The favor is this: I’m going to tell you what’s going on right now, even though no one wants me to, because—because I just am. Because I know what it’s like to have people try to decide what you can and can’t understand or handle or whatever and I—everyone’s having a very hard time right now, and I just—this is my choice,” McKay’s voice cracked, and he looked away. “Sorry. Sorry. Everything’s just a lot. All the time. I fight soul sucking monsters. Did you know that? Literally they suck your soul out through your chest. And by soul I mean, I don’t know. Proteins. That you need. To live. Ugh, who cares. That’s their whole deal.” He wiped his eyes. “And great. What’s your security clearance level?”
“No idea,” Rush said, taken aback.
“Yeah,” McKay said, his voice breaking. “Of course you don’t know. Well, you hacked my Gate Bridge, even if it was, arguably, more social engineering than anything. So. I can argue you’re at least a level four by default if they drag me in front of the IOA.”
They stood in silence. The other man’s expression was locked on the slow sweep of the planet below. His eyes glinted, too bright, in the otherwise dim room. Rush wasn’t sure how to proceed; he only knew that he wanted to say something. Because, other than Young’s quantum mechanical alter ego, Rodney McKay was the only person with whom Rush had even a sliver of a connection. Even if it was borrowed. Based in dreams.
“Rodney,” Rush said quietly. “Did you build these?” He tapped a fingernail subtly against his cortical suppressant.
“More or less,” McKay whispered toying with the edge of a white shirt cuff. “I laid down the code that runs on them.”
Rush nodded. “Piezoelectric circuitry, wired to crystal, running Ancient software, which creates an EM field across my cortex in real time without interfering with higher cognitive processes.”
McKay looked at him, his eyes wide. “How could you possibly know that?”
Rush decided against mentioning Dr. Geiszler’s MATLAB program. “When I sleep,” he said, “I dream from Colonel Sheppard’s perspective. Which means I dream of Atlantis. Flying. You.”
“Me?” McKay echoed.
“You. Countless times. Coming to his rescue. Adjusting the devices attached to his head.”
McKay stared at him. “Oh,” he said, weakly. “You dream of me? That’s—surprising. It shouldn’t be? And yet. Here I am. Surprised.” He paced away a few steps, along the floor-to-ceiling windows, then turned back to Rush. “I pictured you dreaming of Sheppard, somehow. But you’re dreaming AS Sheppard. So you—you know me. That’s how you knew I was Canadian, isn’t it? From dreams. My uniform. I mean—John can make Absurdist Americanos. He recognized Eli Wallace. It makes sense. So you must also know the Atlantis team. By sight, at least. Teyla and Ronon. Woolsey. Zelenka, probably. Radek Zelenka? He built your hardware. He’s got a flair for marrying crystal shards to circuit boards. He wants to meet you so much. It’s a little.” He broke off, looking down at the planet below. “It’s a little bit sad, actually,” he finished in a whisper.
They all seemed so terribly strained—these Air Force personnel. As though they’d given more than they had. All of them. Over a prolonged period. Had he, himself, been the same way? It seemed likely.
“You said you were going to tell me what was going on?” Rush moved to stand next to the man. Beneath them, the East Coast of the United States was an irregular carpet of electric light.
“I know I did,” McKay said, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat. “I’m regretting it already.”
“Why?” Rush asked.
“Because you’re not going to get it,” McKay whispered. “It’s not your fault. But—you used to be like me. Putting on a real good show. For everyone. Even yourself. Especially yourself. But you’ve got no show now, Nick. You’re very different. It’s hard to watch.”
Rush’s head ached. He had sore muscles running from the base of his skull to his fingertips. He could feel bruising along his ribs where Dale Volker had tackled him. He wasn’t sure what to say to Rodney McKay. He wasn’t sure what to say to any of these overburdened Air Force personnel.
He traced the lacy line of light where land met sea. “I suspect we’re friends,” Rush offered.
“What?” McKay snapped, one hand coming to his chest, as though checking for damage beneath the narrow lapels of his jacket.
“You said we weren’t friends, but I think we must have been.”
“No,” McKay said. “We don’t like each other. I’m doing this out of professional courtesy.”
“Well, you’d know, I suppose,” Rush said, not looking at him, using his aching right hand to massage his aching left hand.
“Oh shut up with that face,” McKay said, defeated. “Fine. We’re ‘friends.’ You’re very likable right now. It’s super annoying and honestly a little bit triggering for me. So triggering that I’m doing all kinds of terrible hypothesis generating about Lucian Alliance drugs. I wish my brain would leave me alone about it.”
Rush raised his eyebrows.
“There was this time,” McKay said. “When I lost—I lost a lot of my defenses, intellectual and personal, to an alien parasite. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot. Like, all. We don’t need to get into the details, but there are some commonalities to your situation. Because you were—well, you were very defended. Very. And now you’re zero defended. Nobody likes that. Even I, who didn’t even know you all that well, feel weirdly loyal to past-you. And past-you? He would hate this. I mean, despise. But present-you is likable. Incredibly likable. Too likable. It’s concerning. Present-you also makes past-you seem like way less of an asshole and way more tragic. Not a lot of people are going to expect that. I didn’t. It’s an intense mix.”
Rush nodded. “My wife died last April.”
“What?” McKay breathed.
“I was married,” Rush said, shrugging apologetically. “My understanding of the timetable is that my wife died in April. I seem to have joined the Air Force around the same time. I’m guessing this probably accounts for some of the more dramatic change in my demeanor.”
“Oh god,” McKay said, one arm crossed over his chest, one hand covering his mouth. “And you found this out how?”
“The internet,” Rush said.
“Right. Sure. The internet.” McKay stared down at the night covered planet, stricken.
Rush hooked a hand over one shoulder and tried to press away some of the ache at the base of his neck.
“So you were grieving, presumably, and whatever they did—disrupted that.”
“It seems likely, yes.”
“So I have this desire,” McKay said, his gaze fixed on the planet below, one hand opening like he was ready to receive something straight out of the air, “and it’s really strong. The desire is to do right by past-you. Even if that’s not necessarily the best thing for present-you. Except present-you is the one who’s here. So, intellectually, I know I should be acting in the best interests of present-you. Already I can tell that a lot of people are going to have this exact problem. So, um, do you have a preference?” He turned to look at Rush.
“You can say it,” McKay said, softly, his expression effortfully stoic. “Whatever it is you think I don’t want to hear. Better me than anyone else. I’m telling you that I get it. I get it in a way most people won’t. A deeply personal, intensely awful way.”
Still, Rush hesitated.
“I lost most of my cognitive abilities over a period of weeks. Kind of like—rapid onset dementia. But I knew it was happening. It was not a great time for me. But ah. There was a strong memory component to the experience. Different than your situation. But with enough commonalities to—” McKay broke off, toying with the cuff of his dress shirt. “Well.”
“So tell me,” McKay said, looking up at him. “Whatever it is, I swear to god, I won’t tell a soul.”
“He seems dead.”
“Past you?” McKay asked, trying to control his expression, mostly succeeding.
“Yes,” Rush confirmed.
McKay compressing his lips. “Uh huh. Yup. Of course he does. Like another person. Unreachable. Not actually you.”
“Not just unreachable. Categorically unknowable.”
“And, for you, yes. He might be. Because those things on your head, those things I let Zelenka talk me into coding, are the things that are going to keep it that way and, damn it, I knew. I knew—” McKay broke off, struggling heroically to control his expression. “They said you were dying, they said there was no time, but I never wanted this, and I am just. Really sorry. I’m not the guy who murdered past-you. But I am, for sure, the guy keeping him dead.”
“Not sure I’d look at it quite that way,” Rush began.
“Oh yeah? Well, what do you care? Past-you is dead,” McKay snapped, high-energy, high-volume, in high Earth orbit
Rush opened both hands.
“Sorry,” McKay said, his tone softer. “But just—don’t try to be nice to me about this. I don’t need it. I definitely don’t want it.”
“Oh get t’fuck, will you?” Rush said, smiling faintly.
“Ha,” McKay replied. “That’s a little better. Still way too nice. But, getting there.”
“You’re fair fucking difficult,” Rush informed him.
“Wow, you bringing your whole IQ to bear here? Because that’s a genius-level insight if I ever heard one. You’re gonna want to pace yourself. This isn’t a sprint, Nick. It’s a marathon. In which we’re usually sprinting.”
“Noted” Rush said, dryly.
They watched the planet in silence.
“I’m going to work on this,” McKay said, finally. “I have—some shredded optimism in me somewhere. But—more than that. We have a doctor on Atlantis. She’s incredible. She fixed me. She and I, together, may be able to fix you. She’s going to tell you we can’t do it. She’ll tell you we can’t, over and over again, in a really convincing manner. Everyone except me will believe her. And then—one day—” he opened a hand, looked at Rush, then dropped his eyes and shrugged. “I’m gonna fix this.”
“I appreciate the optimism, Rodney,” Rush said. “But I won’t hold you to it.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll hold me to it.”
McKay stood in his worse-for-wear suit, shoulders hunched, head bowed, staring down at the floor.
“Shall we?” Rush asked.
“Hmm?” McKay asked, lost in thought.
“Go to the medical wing, or bay, or—wherever it is we’re supposed to be going?”
“Um,” McKay said, not looking at him.
“Don’t tell me you’re secretly on the payroll of the Lucian Alliance,” Rush said, his tone as dry as he could make it.
“What?” McKay said, looking up. “Ew. Don’t insult me.”
“Apologies.” Rush looked at McKay expectantly.
“So, believe it or not, all of that stuff we just talked about—it wasn’t what I was referring to when I said I was going to tell you what was going on.”
“Really?” Rush asked.
“Yeah, I know, right? Sure seems like it should have been enough,” McKay whispered. “But no. All of that just kind of came out. What I wanted to tell you is—even though you won’t understand what this should mean—Vala Mal Doran was badly hurt tonight, trying to get you out.”
McKay paused, watching him.
“Ah,” Rush said.
“She’s your friend. A good one. A real one. Not sure if you know that.”
“Colonel Young mentioned it. Apparently I was teaching her calculus.”
“Seriously?” McKay said, smiling wistfully.
“So I hear,” Rush replied.
“Well, I guess that’s why she was asking me about solids of revolution. I thought she was a linguist, but she’s not. She’s a former con artist with a math hobby. We talked about Gabriel’s Horn while she took my measurements. She told me she considers you her terrestrial BFF.”
McKay looked at Rush, searching for something that Rush was certain wasn’t on his face.
“Is she going to be all right?” Rush asked, wishing he had any idea what she looked like. Which of the four women she’d been.
“Two of the best surgeons on the planet are working on her now,” McKay said. “It was David Telford who shot her. With an Air Force sidearm. The rest of the fight was zats. We think he targeted her directly. She was wearing kevlar under that dress, of course. But he shot her in the thigh. Cracked the bone, hit the artery. You can bleed out in minutes that way.”
“He was trying to kill her?” Rush asked. “Her specifically? Why?”
McKay looked away. “Two theories. One: the Lucian Alliance and the Trust have teamed up, weird as that sounds—oh wait. You have no idea who any of these people are. Okay scratch that. One: her interstellar con-artist past is catching up with her and this was a side-job. Two: it’s an attack on Daniel Jackson.”
“The archeologist?” Rush asked.
“Uh, sure. I mean, I guess he’s an archeologist. That’s probably not how I would describe him. I think of him more as a linguist? But yeah. He and Telford were enemies. And Jackson and Vala were close. Are close.”
“Which one was she?” Rush asked. “Of the women in the elevator—which one?”
McKay flinched, like a man at the end of his resources, who’d been scraped raw by the world too many times to count. But, when he spoke, his voice was gentle. “Long black hair. Burgundy dress. Boots to the knee.”
McKay stared down at the planet.
Rush stared down at the planet.
“So this whole thing I’m doing right now,” McKay whispered, “having this heart-to-heart where I dredge up my least favorite recent memories—it’s not even really for you, is it? I mean, from your perspective, I’m pouring one on the floor for a guy who isn’t even here anymore.”
Rush opened a hand. “An’ yet, here you are, crashing ahead anyway. Because—”
“Because we’re friends,” McKay said, quiet and sad-eyed. “You complete math brat.”