Mathématique: The Graveyard: Part 5

Every door he opens deepens the debt he owes.

Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Grief. Physical injuries. Mental health challenges.

Text iteration: Witchingest hour.

Additional notes: None.

The Graveyard: Part 5

A little after dawn, Daniel follows Nick through the mists of Faskally Wood. The road, where Everett waits with the car, lies to the east. Ahead, Nick slips soundlessly beneath spectral pines. A carpet of pine needles and loam muffles their steps; the only sound is the rush of the River Tummel, carving its way between the Caledonian foothills.

As they walk, Daniel struggles to recall what he can of Ludwig Wittgenstein. His memory, more energy than biology, is sharper now than it’s ever been.

One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one's eyes. The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all.

It’s all he can remember.

The dawn suffuses the mist that lingers in the narrow glens and creeps up forested slopes. The world is cloud and tree and sloping ground. Daniel rests a hand on a ghostly silver birch just to convince himself it’s there. Its papered bark is cool beneath his palm. His sweater blends into the fog.

These are Morgan’s woods. The forest primeval. Running below the murmuring pines and the hemlock, the river they follow sings her song and whispers all the names it’s ever had: Tummel, Teimheal, Temelis, Tenebrosus. 

In graduate school, he’d given up on the history of the Celts. Too many tiny tribes. Too much controversy about origins and not enough written word or primary source material to be sure of anything other than the Roman perspective. Even the etymology of “Celt” was a mystery; Κελτοί meant about six different things.

He regrets he never spent the time.

His regrets can get in line.

Because, god—he won’t remember any of this when he goes back. Not the Breakers, not Sam’s superpositioned aspect, not what happened to Nick Rush, branes and branes to the right of his own.

It’s hard to recall his own perspective stripped of memory of ascension. He’d lived, descended, with shattered shards of impulse. Instinct like distant song. He’d been convinced of Nick’ importance since first he met him—and he’d been right, but what use is that contextless hunch?

The loss of his current understanding closes his throat.

Ahead, Nick slips through Morgan’s forest, a chthonic silhouette in the mist.

As an archeologist, a historian, a linguist, he’s limited by what the quirks of time and fate preserve. All his professional life he’s chased lost things. All through his childhood, he’d done the same. He worries this untethered, multiversal trip will be the apex of his insight. That after this there’ll be nothing but fall. When he dies, if he’s permitted that, he will, by necessity, lock into limited perspective.

Into his mind comes another misted forest, tropical rather than temperate: the riot of insects at sunset, the cries of the howler monkeys, the trills of nightjars and the calls of tree frogs and his grandfather standing at the entrance of their tent, adding his own voice to the sounds of the dusk.

“Death closes all,” Nicholas Ballard whispers, staring toward the hills where, somewhere, a crystal skull lies buried. “But something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with gods.”

“Nick?” Daniel asks, curled on a child-sized cot, his legs aching with growth or with breakbone fever.

“Rest, Danny.” The night softens his grandfather’s Dutch accent. “There’s luck in the moon tonight. I have a good feeling about tomorrow.”

The going gets steeper as they climb away from the sounds of the river below.

Still Daniel follows.

There will come a day when his living time is wholly spent. When every aspect of himself has ended. Already, so many of them must have come to a close: The selves that traveled to alien worlds and didn’t make it home; the selves that Catherine Langford never found with her necklace from Ra and her special Air Force project.

He’s done as well as he has because he’s found ways not to cling to life.

But it’s becoming harder. Every door he opens deepens the debt he owes.

He need look no further than the man, the starship in front of him to know as much.

David Telford would never let himself pile up the weight of cosmic debt that Daniel carries on his shoulders. Maybe that’s why Nick has always liked David more. David with his urgent, utilitarian arguments. David with his hard, spare plans. David, who flicks his intellect like backhand blade at the end of a punch.

Ahead, Nick scrambles up a bare patch of schist, silver gray and slick in the mist. Daniel follows, a little more cautious, lifting his crystal to enhance the grip of his worn shoes. The rock is cool under his fingertips. Flakes of mica shower the moss below.

Nick’s outstretched hand is in front of his face. Daniel grasps his forearm. Nick hauls him onto a narrow ledge, just above the fog line. The sky is overcast. Below the brume at their feet, the rush of the river quiets as it as broadens into a loch Daniel can sense, rather than see.

“Queen’s View,” Daniel murmurs, recalling Sarah Gardiner with a telephoto lens and the Scottish wind in her hair, snapping picture after picture.

“Near enough,” Nick replies. “But the road and the view are on the other side of the loch. Further west.” He stands on a patch of bare rock, feet planted, like he’s ready for the forest itself to pick a fight. Below, the mist streams with the wind, gliding through the valley like a river of silent spirit.

“Why are we here, Nick?”

“There’s one thing yet to do, before I send you back.”

“Send me back?” Daniel repeats. “What about the Wraith Queen? Securing the alliance with Morgan?”

Nick gives him an unimpressed side-eye. “Not exactly a job for an afternoon, is it?”

At their feet, the mist moves like water.

“I—” Daniel swallows. “Nick, I—”

“You understand, I think,” Nick says, “that your path involves an intimate brush with Origen itself.”

Daniel’s heart hammers in his throat. It’s his biggest fear and the best idea he’s heard.

It had come, of course, from David Telford.

He sits on the safe side of isolation glass, the weight of a book in his hands. Telford, in blue scrubs, drags the only chair in the room right up to the observation window. The metal legs screech across the floor. He positions it pointedly, then drops into it. They stare into one another’s eyes.

“Come to gloat?” Telford’s eyes glitter in the fluorescent light.

“I brought you a book.” Daniel holds up Les Miserables. “Ever read it?”


Daniel places the chunky volume into the sterilization slot where meal trays pass. There’s a flash of violet light, and the compartment opens on the opposite side.

Telford studies the book the way he might size up an enemy. He doesn’t touch it. “I had an idea while I was sitting in an LA holding cell. An endgame strategy for the war with the Ori. When it all goes to shit. And I thought to myself: I hope I live long enough to tell Jackson. I prayed to live. Just for this.”

“Oh yeah?” Daniel tries not to show the fear he feels.

“You send me shit like that.” Telford keeps his voice even as he points to the book, “like you think I’ve missed your argument.”

The fluorescent lights buzz overhead.

“But I haven’t,” Telford continues. “We didn’t take down the Goa’uld with naquadah-powered bombs and strategic C4. We took them down with a message. A message that spread like wildfire. The Ori will be no different.”

“What’s the message.”

“You’re the message, Jackson.” Telford gives him a thin smile. “In the end, you’re gonna walk into Celestis and give yourself up. They’ll swallow you whole. And they’ll choke.”

Daniel takes a measured breath.

Telford crosses an ankle over his knee, picks up the book, and opens to the first page. He glances up at Daniel. “You’ll know when.” With that, he begins to read.

He blinks, grounding himself on the stone beneath his feet. He wills his heart to slow. Nick places a hand on his shoulder and soothes the energetic patterns disrupted by a dread Daniel can’t shake. A dread he’s carried for years.

“It’ll happen,” Nick confirms, “but it will be all right.”

“Will it?” The mist devours the strength of the question.

“It will. You’ll carry Morgan’s sonic banner.” He pours the words like Sha’re had poured water: in smooth arcs, meant to catch all the light the world has on offer. “Morgan is known for her deceit, Daniel. For concealment. For betrayal. For the gap between appearance and reality. On the Mediterranean, at the height of the plague, she wove crystal itself. When the time comes, you’ll layer yourself away as the shackles of Origen bind the surface layers of your mind. I’ll show you how it’s done.”

I can’t face that. Daniel doesn’t speak the words, but they hang in the morning air anyway. “Nick,” he begins, but nothing else comes. He can’t refuse Nick’s offer. He can’t refuse his own path. Origen comes for him regardless of his choices now.

“You’ll have time,” Nick says gently. “The pieces don’t come together immediately. Morgan’s aspect on your brane called the lift into your crystal t’direct you to Atlantis. You’ll go. You’ll put her clues together. There’ll be a reprieve before the storm.”

Daniel nods. He takes a breath.

Nick studies him.

“I was so confident when we first met.” It’s all he can think to say.

“Which time?” Nick asks dryly.

“Every time. You must find me insufferable. So sure I see the whole picture. So sure I know right from wrong. Are there branes where I don’t leave you to face down Anubis and get blasted back to coporeality?”

“There is no brane in the living cosmos where you can bear to leave the people of Abydos to Anubis.” Nick gives the fog a small smile. “An’ I don’t consider that t’be a fault, for the record.”

Daniel breathes in the scent of damp pine and condensation-slick stone. “You’re a true blend, aren’t you? A living ship. A living man.”

“My array contained every possible ratio of the two you could imagine. Fabrice pulled only one into the Graveyard.”

“What’s the winning combination?” Daniel asks. “Do you know?”

“The entire consciousness and sterling personality of Nick Rush,” Nick gives the mist a wry smile and pulls a cigarette out of nothing, “physically and psychically fused to the raw power of a literal starship with certain built-in weaknesses, which were also scrupulously preserved. But my choices were only half the story. There’s Everett to consider.”

Daniel smiles at a dark peak, rising out of the fog across the lake. “He’s taken you under his wing on my brane, too.”

“He usually will. If we don’t murder each other.” Nick’s smile turns knife-sharp.

The east wind blows at Daniel’s back, cool and dry. He can feel its pressure between his shoulder blades. Next to him, Nick is no barrier to the air. He listens to the melody of his own crystal and imagines it caught and crushed and transformed by the War Song of Origen.

Something ere the end.

He looks at Nick, his presence blended into the day so completely that ,as the wind passes through him, he becomes it. And Daniel recalls that fairy stories originate on this ground, grown from Morgan’s crystal song, whispering itself open and closed through the lines of her descendants.

Some work of noble note may yet be done.

“Everett gave me a speech about Wittgensteinian Dignity,” Daniel says. “The personhood of sufficiently complex webs of associative arrays. I’m a little worried about what it implies.” He’s even more worried when he considers that Morgan hasn’t claimed Nick, despite their direct connection. That she won’t do so until he shows up with her ἕνα πολύτιμον μαργαρίτην.

Nick sighs. He hooks a hand over one shoulder.

“Morgan doesn’t consider you a person,” Daniel says softly. “It’s why she hasn’t claimed you.”


“What about Everett?”

They watch the wind begin to carry the mists away from the ridge they stand on.

“He was against this,” Nick admits after a long pause. He makes a sweeping hand gesture that takes in his whole person. “Deeply against it. He’s trying to reckon with it now.”

“Using—Wittgenstein?” Daniel looks at Nick from beneath furrowed brows.

“Oh don’ give us tha’ look,” Nick says, all Glasgow lift and glottal stop. “He’s doing his best.”

“I can see why Wittgenstein might seem more tractable than contemplating Ancient koans, but, uh—” he hesitates. “Morgan called him your ‘keeper’.”

“He is. Formally. He can pull the power out of anything I do.”

Daniel frowns, scooping his question from the bottom of a well. “Whhhyy?”

“It was a safeguard built into the ship. It constrains me too.”

“Ugh, Nick. I did this. Twice over. I—”

“Oh stop. I’ll thank you not to take all the credit? I’m the cresting wave of two colliding histories. Plus, all the self-recrimination you do is pure dead boring.”

“It is,” Daniel admits. “It is boring.”

“Find something new,” Nick suggests.

“My purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset,” Daniel whispers, “and the baths of all the western stars, until I die.”

Nick smiles. “Better.”

“My grandfather loved Tennyson,” Daniel says. “His name, too, was Nicholas. Νίκη λαός. Victory of the people.”

“And patron saint of mariners,” Nick adds. “My father was a ship-builder.”

Daniel gives him a small smile. “‘Daniel’ comes from Hebrew. It’s usually translated as ‘God is my judge’.”

“Usually?” Nick arches a brow.

“There’s another meaning. ‘The justice of God’.”

Nick grins at the sea of mist. “I like that one better.”

“Me too,” Daniel confesses.

The mist thins with the rising wind and day. To the west, Daniel glimpses a narrow stretch of gray water, its surface rippled by the breeze. The air smells of pine and peat.

“Is there anything I can do?” Daniel asks. “Anything that would make any of this easier?”

“Oh little ghost,” he whispers, concealed behind shields that sing to the void. “I do want to help you.”

“What would you do in my place?” Nick stares into the sea of mist at their feet, “If you weren’t just labeled a machine, but—if y’were one? Something new. Metaphysically continuous with your past self, but not the same.”

Daniel silently contemplates the question as more of the loch below comes into view.

“What happened to you is what happens to us all,” he decides. “We change. Slowly, sometimes; gradually. But there are watershed moments. And I’d put what happened to you in that category. There’s even precedent. The Tok’ra have blended their minds with their hosts for thousands upon thousands of years. Individual elements are maintained and they choose to present a dual front but they’re very clear that it is a blending.” He looks laterally at Nick. “That’s what I’d argue.”

“Doubt it’ll get me anywhere, but it’s a nice thought.” Nick’s eyes glint with amber light even on this gray, overcast day. “The AI trapped Nick Rush into the initial integration. He didn’t seek it. And the AI didn’t fully understand the implications of its action. Everett threw himself into the whole bloody mess out of a sense of honor and did his damnedest to save my human aspect.”

“From what I’ve seen, it looks like he succeeded,” Daniel offers.

“Not in the way he wanted,” Nick says.

“Maybe.” Daniel thinks of Everett Young, gently pulling dishes out of Nick Rush’s hands. “But you’re not the only one who changes over time.”

Nick glances at him.

“Just a thought,” Daniel says.

Nick nods.

“You need me to argue for you in front of the Council, you let me know,” Daniel says. “I’ve done it before.”

“Successfully?” Rush asks dryly.

“No,” Daniel admits.

Rush smiles. “If I do get consigned to the Vault, I’m sure you’ll be the colonel’s first call.”

“You really think they’d choose the Vault?” Daniel asks.

“Citadel’s too risky with all the malevolent players behind those walls,” Rush says simply. “It’s why the Vault is separated.”

“The Vault is for objects,” Daniel protests.

“Yes well. Fuckin’ exactly.”

Daniel looks over his shoulder in the direction of Pitlochry. “I—I’m not sure I should leave things like this. Take me with you to Pegasus. After you have Morgan’s daughter, I’ll come back with you. Talk her around. A true alliance between the two of you could shift the balance of power away from the Council.”

“Daniel, your ordinal time needs to progress for me to unmake the Wraith Queen.”

My ordinal time? Mine personally? You’re going to unmake a Wraith Queen on my brane?”

“Yes,” Nick says.

“Um, I’m—honored? But. Why?”

“There are several advantages, which would be pointless to spell out, given you’ll not retain any memory of what happened here once you’re descended and brane-bound. So let’s spend what time we have working on the cognitive distortion necessary to protect your mind from the homogenization of Origen, shall we?”

The loch appears, blue gray beneath the slow-clearing mist. The charcoal of Nick’s Lantean clothes shifts back to the white shirt, jeans, and blazer of a UC Berkeley math professor. The slate of the hills and the blue of the water embroiders itself in mathematical patterns at the sleeves of his cuffed shirt.

“Fairy magic,” Daniel murmurs, thinking of the Mabinogion. “Concealment. Illusion. Invisibility. Communion with nature. Enchantment through song. Healing. The mutability of form. It persists here because of Morgan.”

“It ‘persists’ because the best Ancient Geneticist of all time still dabbles too much for her own bloody good.” Rush rolls his eyes in a manner that looks almost—fond? “Let’s borrow a bit of it on your behalf, shall we?”

Daniel nods. “I’m ready. Tell me what to do.”

Rush offers Daniel his hand, palm up.

Daniel takes it. Nick’s palm is cool and dry as he interlaces their fingers.

A ripple of fiery maritime energy runs through Daniel’s self-concept, forcing his crystal into full descent. He shivers. Tiny hairs prickle along his arms and at the back of his neck. “What was that for?”

“This.” Nick gives him the quicksilver grin of an academic asshole about to skewer someone on a technicality, and—

Sprints for the cliff edge.

Daniel can no more resist the full forward momentum of a starship than a sheet of paper can stop a bullet.

Three steps later and there’s no ground beneath him.

Daniel shouts wordlessly. His crystal struggles to lift, but it can’t, it won’t—gossamer strands of Nick’s energy run along his own, forcing him into descent. 

They hurtle toward the surface of the loch. Blue-gray water rushes at their feet. The cold air stings Daniel’s  face, catches his sweater, and fills his mind with feathers, beating wings, the Oidheadh Chlainne Lir: first of the Three Sorrows. Morgan’s song grows louder. It echoes through his thoughts and through his bones. Her melody is everywhere. 

In the sky.

In the land.

In the oncoming water.

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