Force over Distance: Chapter 16
“And how long would it have lasted?” TJ whispered. “That dream? That life?”
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
The science team stood around the ruined device, enclosed by the glimmering field Rush had thrown up in the nick of time. Greer was on his feet, eyes darting between the energy barrier and Rush. The scientist sat on the floor, leaning unsteadily on one arm. He regarded the blackened, twisted metal with a wistful expression.
Young wrestled down a surge of exasperated anxiety. Hard on its heels came a bizarre pride in his chief scientist, which, he was sure, he had no business feeling.
“Hope that thing wasn't important,” Brody said.
“And this force field came from where now?” Eli caught and held Rush’s gaze.
Rush gave him a haughty stare, or as haughty as he could manage from the floor at the kid’s feet. “Destiny’s quite capable of containing instrumentation overloads. It's a basic safety protocol.”
“Yeah, to seal off the room,” Eli countered. “Not to create a force field from nothing, with a radius just large enough to protect everyone.”
“Don't be ridiculous.” Rush shook his hair out of his eyes. “Electromagnetic fields aren't generated from ‘nothing.’ They—” he broke off, blinking hard. Through their link, Young got a wash of vertiginous exhaustion before the scientist reasserted himself. “They’re created by unequal charge distribution or a changing magnetic field, which—”
“Oh, I’m good with the Physics 101, thanks,” Eli said. “But I’m pretty darn sure there’s no mechanical basis for creating an unequal charge distribution or a changing magnetic field along the circumference of this circle. The walls have the ability to hold or disperse charge in certain places, but—”
“What's your point, Eli?” Young’s tone was forbidding.
“It's obvious that—”
Young upped his glare a few notches.
“Obvious that Destiny is just, um, really neat.”
“Yes," Young said. “Yes it is. Okay people, I want this room sealed off for now, and no more exploring until I give the go ahead. Am I clear?”
He got nods from Greer and Scott. Volker and Brody had already started for the door. He looked down at Rush. The scientist gave him him a short nod. Young dropped into a crouch next to him.
“All right there, Cassidy?” Young asked quietly. He closed his fingers around Rush’s shoulder. Rush winced. Through their link, Young got a sharp spike of pain. He let go immediately. “What happened?”
“Someone nearly dislocated my shoulder.” Rush raised an unimpressed eyebrow that left little doubt about the identity of the offending party.
Young did his best to clamp down on a surge of guilt, but, if Rush’s eye roll was anything to go by, the scientist had picked up on most of it.
“Admittedly,” Rush said, his tone unreasonably reasonable, “I’d taken you hostage with your own handgun at that point, so, all things considered, your response was quite restrained.”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“Oh yeah,” Greer confirmed, dropping into a crouch next to them. “It definitely happened.”
“More than once,” the scientist added.
Greer and Rush smirked at one another.
Young eyed the pair of them as he rubbed his jaw, careful not to jostle his still-splinted fingers. “How many—” he made a circular motion to indicate temporal loops, or whatever it was they were calling them.
“Twenty eight.” Greer’s eyes flicked away from Rush to make sure Young was clear on the implication. “That was almost eight hours, and probably a good seven miles of walking.” He unbuckled a watch from around his wrist and handed it to Young.
Young frowned, examining it. The time, incredibly, read a little after 1700 hours. The watch was identical to the one he was wearing.
Hang on. It was identical to the one that was missing from his wrist.
He looked up at Greer. “This is mine?”
“Sure is. You loaned it to us about twenty-six loops back,” Greer said.
“Thanks.” Young refastened the band around his wrist. “Sergeant, go on ahead. Bring TJ up to speed. For all she knows, it's still oh nine hundred hours. We'll meet you there as soon as we can.”
Greer nodded, slapped Rush on the back, and shot to his feet. Rush watched him go with raised eyebrows.
“Looks like you made a new friend,” Young said dryly.
“Despite my best efforts, I assure you.”
“It really feels like 0900 hours,” Young said.
“T’you, I’m sure it does.”
“You were supposed to have a day off today,” Young said, watching the scientist's eyes drift shut.
Rush cracked his eyes and shot Young a suspicious look. “Maybe you’d penciled that into your Tyrannical Dayplanner. I need to find the AI.”
“Uh huh. Well, first TJ’s gonna need to look at whatever’s left of your feet.”
“Let’s get you out of here.”
“Do not. Even think about it," Rush snapped, sensing from the change in Young's position that he was about to get hauled off the floor.
Young sighed. “Yeah yeah. God forbid anyone helps you out.”
Their progress toward the infirmary was every bit as slow and agonizing as Young’d expected. He had no choice but to block a small portion of Rush’s sensory input in order to stay on his own feet. This, of course, made it increasingly difficult for Rush to maintain his coordination. More alarmingly, Young could feel his thoughts slipping in and out of Ancient.
“Stop.” Halfway to the infirmary, Young grabbed Rush’s bicep and relieved the scientist of one of his crutches. He pulled the man’s arm over his shoulders. “This would be so much easier for both of us if you’d just let someone carry you.”
"Experi. Animadverte quid veniet,” Rush muttered.
“That was a threat, wasn't it? God but you're a lot of work.”
A door to their left hissed open, startling both of them.
Young caught a flash of the chair in his peripheral vision and—
They stopped in tandem in front of the open door.
Young’s mouth was dry. His palms were damp. The desire to enter the room was overwhelming. The neural interface was beautiful, lit up with an ethereal glow. How was it possible he’d never noticed its graceful lines? Its elegant contours? It was perfect. A gateway to knowledge. To more than that. Destiny herself was there, inseparable from the interface. It was where she had waited for them for millennia.
It was where she waited now.
Young took a step toward the chair, dragging Rush with him.
He wanted to touch it. He needed to touch it. Just—simply—to—
Rush went down.
The scientist’s knees buckled. He slid straight out of Young loosening grip and hit the deck plating. Hard. The shock of it brought Young to his senses. The temptation to touch the chair faded. He staggered, his full horror of the device returning redoubled as he realized the thing hadn't been calling to him at all, but to Rush, who, even now, reached toward it from where he’d fallen.
Young had been lucky, unbelievably lucky, that Rush had been so tired he’d physically buckled under the pressure of the chair. If the scientist had made a break for the device, linked as they were, Young would’ve let him go.
He might even have helped him.
Young bent down, grabbed a handful of Rush's jacket, and dragged the scientist bodily into the corridor before slamming his hand down on the door controls. Even out of sight, the chair exerted the same pull—as if Rush's proximity had flipped a switch that no distance would soften.
Young knelt next to the man, breathing hard.
Cautiously, he placed a hand on Rush’s chest and felt the pull of the chair distorting everything, invading everywhere, including Young's own mind. He pulled back just enough to resist, but Rush—Rush couldn’t do the same. The man had nowhere to go.
“You just can't get a break, can you?” Young murmured. “Even for ten goddamn minutes.”
“I have to find her.” Rush’s eyes were fixed on the closed door that led to the chair room. His skin was the color of chalk, his pupils dilated. “I have to find the AI.” His mind was so distorted by the drive to reach the chair that it was barely recognizable.
“Do you know where you are?” Young asked him quietly. “Or who you are?”
“If I could just—get back in twelve hours, she might still be alive.” A cascade of pens spilled across Rush’s mind, glinting in the light of midmorning.
“Wrong answer.” Young pulled the man into a seated position, wedged one of his own shoulders beneath Rush’s arm, and lifted the scientist bodily off the floor. Rush struggled weakly in his grip, orienting himself toward the neural interface. Through their link, Young felt the overwhelming desire to carry the man straight to the thing.
Without other options, he started building up a block.
“Sorry about this,” he whispered, as all the fight drained out of Rush. “It’s temporary.”
By the time Young passed the threshold of the infirmary doors, his arms were burning. The main floorspace was deserted. As he approached the back room he could hear TJ and Greer, mid-conversation, speaking quietly. Young rounded the corner to see them leaning against adjacent gurneys, their expressions intent. They looked, up, startled by his sudden appearance.
“What happened?” The sergeant covered the distance between them in a few quick strides, and took some of the scientist’s weight. “I didn't think he was this bad.”
“He wasn’t,” Young ground out. “This is something else.”
They laid Rush carefully on the gurney TJ indicated. As soon as Young put him down, he began to dismantle the partial block between their minds.
“You should have called me down to that lab.” TJ’s voice was grim as she took Rush’s pulse. “When did he collapse?” She pulled a blood pressure cuff off the shelf and tore open its velcro.
“Just now.” As the last barriers fell between their minds, the unmitigated draw of the chair slammed back into Young. “But it wasn’t—”
“Hey,” TJ said, cutting him off, the pitch of her voice changing as Rush's eyelids flickered open. “Hey, Dr. Rush, are you with us?”
“Tamara.” Rush made an uncoordinated grab for her wrist.
She caught his hand and held it. “Yeah. Hi. It’s me. How do you feel?”
It took all of Young’s self control to resist the terrible draw of the chair.
“I have to go.” Rush struggled to sit. As unobtrusively as possible, Greer and Young held him down. It didn't take much, and he didn't seem to notice.
“Where do you have to go?” TJ asked soothingly as she tipped his head back to look at his eyes, flashing a penlight into each of them in turn.
Rush flinched away from the light. “I have to—I have to interface with the central processor.”
“The chair,” Young translated. “He wants to sit in the chair. We didn't do anything other than walk by the damn room, and he got hit with this intense—desire, I guess, to go in. I almost couldn't stop him.”
TJ’s eyes widened in alarm.
“Today is not your day, doc,” Greer said, adjusting his grip on Rush’s upper arm.
“Tamara,” Rush said insistently. “Tamara. I can't leave her there. Alone. Waiting for me. They're always—” he broke off, unable to speak. “Omnes. All of them—just, waiting. Waiting for me.” Young felt the other man's thoughts turn to Gloria.
Was the scientist even separating his wife from the AI? It sure didn’t seem like it.
“Okay.” TJ carefully extricated her hand from Rush’s grip. She looked up Young. “What is this?” she mouthed.
“It’s Destiny.” Young kept his voice low. “The ship. Or the AI—who the hell knows, TJ. But he’s not gonna stop trying to get back there while he’s conscious. Can he do it now? Safely?”
TJ shot him a worried look. “His vitals aren’t looking good.”
Rush made another attempt to sit, and Greer pressed him back. “What the hell are you doing, doc?” the sergeant asked. “You just colocalized some temporal reference frames. Seems like you should get the rest of the day off.”
“Greer,” Rush said, as though noticing the sergeant for the first time. “Could you please explain to them that I have to go?”
“Ugh, doc, you’re killin’ me,” Greer murmured. “They know, okay? They know.”
“Can we sedate him?” Young mouthed at TJ. “Buy a few hours, maybe?”
“I’m not sure,” TJ’s eyes were full of warning. “His genetics make it risky. It would be better if we could get him to eat and drink.”
“They don’t know,” Rush said earnestly, still focused on Greer.
“TJ,” Young said, fighting the pull of the chair, “we either put him out or let him go; this middle-ground bullshit is just—shredding his mind.”
“Sure they do,” Greer said. “They’re trying to help you.”
TJ shot Young a look that was equal parts anxiety and dismay, then turned to her collection of pharmaceuticals.
“Tamara,” Rush said insistently.
“Yup, I’m coming right back,” she said. “We've got to get you back on your feet okay?” She unscrewed the top of a miniature bottle, which, in a previous incarnation, had held someone's travel-size shampoo. She poured half its contents into a cup, then topped it off with her homemade electrolyte solution. She unsealed a cabinet with a code, and pulled out a power bar.
“Drink this,” TJ said, approaching the bed. “The whole thing.”
Young helped the scientist sit. “Egeo ire,” Rush said, trying to get a foot on the ground. Greer grabbed his ankle and repositioned it before the man could get any momentum going.
“Yeah, okay, Rush we get it.” Young took a breath and wrestled down the intense pull of the chair. “Just—drink first.” Young helped Rush steady the cup. The scientist determinedly downed the contents and then tried, again, to get off the bed.
“Sit for a minute, doc,” Greer said.
Rush shook his head and made another attempt to get to his feet.
“Sit,” Greer said again, one hand closed over Rush’s shoulder.
“How long?” Young mouthed at TJ. As subtly as he could, he clamped his hand around the back of the scientist’s jacket.
“No idea.” TJ tore open the power bar, broke it into thirds, and set it on the bedside table within Young’s reach. “See if you can get him to eat at least some of that before—” she made a hand motion to complete her thought, then glanced down at Rush to make sure he wasn't following their discussion.
“We’re definitely gonna go,” Greer said. “Just—a little later.”
“Later is unacceptable.” Rush lunged forward, but was stopped by Young’s grip on his jacket.
“Hey,” Young said. “Take it easy.”
“I’m pretty sure later is acceptable,” Greer said. “Want to put it to a vote?”
“This is not a democracy.” Rush went for the edge of the gurney like he didn’t remember Young still had one hell of a grip on his jacket. It was about as effective as the last time he’d tried it.
“Well,” Greer said, dryly, “you’ve got a point there.”
Young could feel the scientist’s frustration escalate. “Hey,” Young said, leaning close to Rush. “You eat something, you let TJ fix up your feet, and then we’ll go.” He did his best to frame the words with images, projecting the idea of a trade into Rush’s distressed thoughts.
The scientist nodded.
Young picked up a piece of the power bar and offered it to Rush. Rush took it and started eating. TJ sorted through her bag, piling gauze, scissors, and tape on the bedside table.
Rush had made it through about two thirds of the power bar when the stuff TJ gave him started to kick in, slowing the urgency of his thoughts, diluting the effect of the chair.
“Did you drug me?” Rush asked, appalled, refusing the piece of power bar that Young was holding.
TJ froze, her expression pained. Greer looked at the floor. Young folded the wrapper around what was left of the power bar, then looked at Rush. “Yeah, we did,” he said finally.
“Why—” the scientist paused, struggling to construct a sentence, “why would you do that?” It was a good-faith question. Earnest, bewildered, and laced with so much exhaustion that it made Young’s chest ache.
“Because,” Young said gently, “you weren't gonna stop trying to get back there.”
“You don't understand,” Rush said, his diction losing its usual crispness. “It's been—almost twenty four hours since I've seen her. It's not—it’s never gone so long. Never. I should’ve tried to find her yesterday. I shouldn’t have let you convince me—”
“Rush,” Young broke in. “You can't right now.”
“I have to,” Rush made another effort to get off the gurney, which was more of a poorly coordinated dive for the floor than anything.
“I know.” Young caught his shoulders. “I know, okay? I do.”
“But then—” Rush’s train of thought shattered beneath the weight of its own distress. “Why?”
“Oh my god,” TJ whispered. She turned away, one hand pressed over her mouth.
“Genius,” he murmured, “I don’t care how tough you are—this isn’t sustainable.”
“She's a person,” Rush said. “Not a bloody machine that you can just turn off when it suits you.”
“She's a starship, Rush, you're the person.”
“Of course you’d say that.” Rush pressed a trembling hand to his forehead. “Please let me do this.” His fingers closed around Young's wrist. “Please.”
“You’re not thinking clearly, Rush.” Young whispered. “You’re done.”
Rush didn't reply, his thoughts a miserable swirl as he struggled to stay conscious. “Greer,” he murmured. “Can you—can we—”
“I’m with the colonel on this one, man,” Greer said. “You don’t look so good.”
Rush made an inarticulate sound of pure frustration.
“I need his jacket half off,” TJ murmured from behind them. “He’s getting an IV.”
“Doc,” Greer said, unzipping the scientist’s jacket. “Just go with this for a few hours. Then you can do your thing. Whatever that is.”
“Fuck off,” Rush breathed.
Carefully, Young eased the jacket over the man’s shoulder and freed one of his arms, mindful of the man’s injured wrist.
“What happened to your wrist braces?” Young asked, rewrapping the jacket around the scientist.
Rush didn’t reply. His thoughts were focused on getting off the gurney. On the route he’d take to the chair room.
“He sliced them off early on,” Greer said. “Whole reference frames ago.”
Young caught Greer’s eye. “Sergeant,” he kept his voice low. “Thanks for your help. Take the rest of the day off.”
“Day’s over,” Greer said.
“Right,” Young whispered. “Sorry.”
“Doc” Greer said, leaning over Rush, “you stay out of trouble.”
Rush leveled an impressively fiery glare at the sergeant.
“There ya go.” Greer squeezed Rush’s shoulder, then turned and headed for the infirmary doors.
“Okay,” Young said, projecting calm at Rush for all he was worth. “Let’s lie down.” He threaded a hand behind the scientist’s shoulders, and eased him back. At the contact, the pull of the chair became nearly unbearable. Young gritted his teeth. Through their link, he felt Rush battling whatever TJ had given him, hanging onto consciousness by pure tenacity alone.
“Tell me something.” Young pressed the scientist him against the pillow.
“I have to go,” Rush whispered with soul-crushing sincerity.
“Something else,” Young said, his voice as calm as he could make it. “C’mon. I hardly know anything about you. Tell me something about yourself.” Young hooked his foot around a chair and dragged it next to the gurney. He dropped into it, resting an elbow on the mattress.
TJ glanced sharply at him. Young nodded, once, in acknowledgement.
“Nothing to tell.”
“I doubt that,” Young said. “Why UC Berkeley?”
“San Francisco Symphony,” Rush breathed. He’d started to lose his death-grip on consciousness.
“You ended up at Berkeley for the symphony?” Young asked. “Seriously?”
Rush’s eyelids fluttered. “Gloria,” he murmured. “Gloria was a violinist.”
TJ looked at Young, her eyes wide.
“Okay. Makes sense.” Young reached across to carefully pull the man’s glasses off his face. He folded the frames and pocketed them. “How’d you meet her?”
“In the rain,” Rush murmured and, against his will, his mind was suddenly full of it, pouring down over a street that Young had never seen but, all the same, could recognize as New College Lane, in Oxford, England. Her coat had been a pale blue. Her hair, soaked with rain, had clung to her forehead. She hadn't had an umbrella. It’d been late in the day, the gray sky darkening as the sun set behind cloud cover. She’d stopped beneath Hertford Bridge to wait out the downpour.
“It’s really chucking it down out there.” Even staring into darkness, her voice is full of mischief and music.
“Too fuckin’ right,” Rush breathed. The memory fragmented as the scientist lost his grip on consciousness. As it happened, Young pressed him down and through dreams of the neural interface and into something deeper. The grinding draw of the chair faded.
But it didn’t fade entirely.
Young exhaled shakily and brought a hand to his forehead. He looked up at TJ.
“He’s out?” Her eyes were wet in the gold light of the infirmary.
“Why is this happening?” TJ murmured.
“The damn ship is trying to get him to use the neural interface by literally implanting the desire to do it in his mind.” Young leaned forward, his elbows on the mattress, his head cradled in his hands. “God, I can still feel it, TJ. Even when he's unconscious.”
“But why?” TJ asked. “For what? Why does it want him in the chair?”
“It has something to do with the AI,” Young said. “It’s been missing since the communication stone disaster. He’s been looking for it—or I guess he looked for it yesterday. Today we got stuck in a time loop.”
“I keep forgetting it’s not morning,” TJ whispered.
“Me too,” Young confessed.
“Do you—” she broke off. She swallowed, took a breath. When she spoke again, her voice was unsteady. “Do you think we did the right thing, putting him out?”
Young nodded, his throat tight. “He needs a break. He and Greer went flat out for something like eight hours.”
TJ nodded and began to set up her supplies on the bedside table. “So he’s gone all day without eating? Without drinking?”
“His vitals have taken a hit,” she said. “I’m hoping that’s the dehydration.” She began unwrapping and connecting IV tubing. “How are you doing?”
Young looked away. “I’m okay, TJ.”
“Uh huh. Tell me another one.” The words were wry, but her tone was gentle.
“I’m doing a shit job is how I’m doing,” Young growled. “How many times has he been here in the past ten days?”
“Most of that isn’t your fault.” TJ soaked a small shred of gauze in Brody’s ethanol, then pulled Rush’s half-open jacket aside, swabbed the crook of his arm, and inserted an IV.
Young shot her a look from beneath his eyebrows. “No?”
TJ secured the IV with a small square of tape. “We’ve had a run of bad luck.” She moved to Rush’s wrist, inspecting what was left of her bandaging job before cutting it away. Young could see that the scientist’s hands were healing quickly—better than he’d have expected, given the amount of strain the man had been putting on them.
“These are looking good,” TJ murmured, as if she were thinking along the same lines.
“No,” TJ said. “It's not like what we saw with Chloe. This is within normal limits. Maybe slightly accelerated, but—” she looked at him. “We really don't know what to expect.”
“Guess not.” Young kept his tone neutral.
“So,” TJ said, asking the question that’d been hanging between them, “he's going to have to sit in the chair again, isn't he?”
Young nodded. “Assuming the ship keeps doing what it's doing, we won’t be able to stop him except by physically restraining him.”
“Not a long term option,” TJ said, as if she suspected he might try it.
“Not even a short term option,” Young confirmed. “If you could feel what it's like—” He shook his head. “Even a few hours of this would destroy his sanity. What's left of it.”
“Yeah, I was getting that.” TJ began unlacing Rush's boots.
“How long do you think he’ll stay under?” Young asked her.
“Greer and Volker burned through this stuff in about eight hours,” TJ said, “but his physiology has changed. Is changing.”
Young nodded, watching her gingerly ease Rush’s first boot off his foot.
“Oh god,” she said, through clenched teeth. “His sock is coming with it. That’s not a good sign.”
Young slept in the infirmary again that night.
He woke at 0730, when TJ brought him breakfast. Young ate it, sitting in the gurney he’d slept in, scanning Rush’s mind for any indication the scientist was anywhere close to consciousness. He got nothing other than the echo of the chair.
He cleaned himself up, grabbed the laptop TJ had left for him, and boosted himself onto the edge of Rush’s gurney. He figured he might as well start reviewing the science team’s paperwork. Volker and Brody had started a collaborative draft of a formal report on the charred and twisted Time Loop Device. Young scanned through it, noting that Eli had made only one modification so far, which was to strike through the words “Time Loop Device” every time they appeared, and replace them with his preferred name.
At 0900 he was interrupted by a knock on the door. He looked up to see Eli and Greer standing in the frame.
“Sergeant.” Young shut his laptop. He lifted his eyebrows at Eli. “Demonic Delorian? Seriously? That’s what you want to call it?”
“Just—let me have this,” Eli whispered, his eyes shut. “I never get to name anything.”
“You name shit all the time,” Greer said, looking meaningfully at the kino that trailed behind Eli.
“Ahem.” Eli cleared his throat. “Greer filled me in on the fun new feature of the chair. Like stalker-attack-chair isn't enough? We also get creepy-addictive-heroin-chair? That just doesn't seem right. Anyway. We came to see how it was going.”
Young sighed. He looked over at Rush, who was still thoroughly sedated. “Could be worse, I guess.”
“So it can pretty much always be worse,” Eli said, “as I have come to realize.”
“What's the plan, sir?” Greer asked.
Young rubbed his jaw, and winced at the twinge in his injured fingers. “I’m gonna let him do it.”
“Yeah, so that sounds like a completely terrible idea,” Eli said. “Just, y’know, from an outsider's perspective. A sane outsider.”
“When?” Greer asked.
“As soon as he wakes up.” Young shifted his gaze to Eli. “How much do you know about the software buffer he used the first time he sat in the chair? The one he rigged up with Brody?”
“I tried to take a look at it,” Eli said. “But he locked it down, by which I mean he password protected it on his laptop. I can only tell you two things about it. One: the file size is small, so it can’t be anything super elaborate. Two: there's no way it worked the way Brody explained it, because writing a software buffer that turns an information stream into a dream interface is impossible. Even for Rush.”
Young fought down a smile. “So he wasn't entirely forthright about that. Big surprise. What do you think the program did?”
“It probably did slow the rate of data transfer.” Eli shrugged. “Somehow. But he couldn't have created a platform with a program that small. I doubt he even adapted the massive program driving the interface with the chair. It’s gotta be, like, a cheat code. Something simple.”
Young sighed. “What I really want to know is whether you think it’d be helpful to run the program when he sits in the chair later this afternoon.”
“Why don't you ask him?”
Greer snorted. “Good luck.”
“He’s not gonna be firing on all cylinders today,” Young said.
“It’s that bad?” Eli asked.
“Well, I can’t know without looking,” Eli said, “and I can’t look without the password.”
“If you bring me his laptop, I may be able to open the program for you.”
“How?” Eli asked.
“Muscle memory?” Young shrugged.
“Oh he'll hate that,” Eli said with a grin, already heading toward the door. “I'm in. For the greater good, and all. Be right back.”
Greer crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe. “What's gonna happen to you when he sits in the chair, sir?”
"Guess we'll find out, sergeant.”
Greer nodded. “You need anything?”
Young shook his head. “Keep your radio on you.”
“Yes sir.” Greer pushed away from the doorframe.
Twenty minutes later, Young made short work of cracking Rush's password for Eli. The scientist had absently typed it enough times while their thoughts were linked that Young had a sense of what the keystrokes should be. From there, it was just a matter of relaxing and letting his fingers do the work before passing the computer over to Eli, who had taken up a cross-legged position on the gurney adjacent to Rush.
“This is weird,” was Eli's first comment.
“Weird?” Young echoed.
“Shhhh.” Eli stared at the screen.
Young rolled his eyes.
Eli’s brows knitted. “This isn’t a cheat code.”
“Okay,” Young said, “what is it?”
“Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm,” Eli said.
“Oh my god,” Eli whispered.
“Eli,” Young growled.
“Sorry. I take back what I said earlier. This is a short program, but not a simple one. And—” he looked up at Young, his expression uneasy. “It's not in any programming language I've ever seen.”
Eli stared at him expectantly.
“So?” Young asked.
“I feel like you don’t get the significance of this.” Eli glanced at Rush. “The guy invented a programming language. Like, it did not exist before. It’s new. It seems to work on both Earth laptops and Ancient systems, which just—WHAT. I mean, what?? Like, he’s got a compiler for the SGC software, but I don’t think he even needs it for Destiny. It’s almost weirdly conversational if you know your way around Ancient code architectures—” Eli clamped his jaw shut, stared at the top of the nearest wall and drew a slow breath in through his nose.
“Can you break this down for me?”
Eli shut his eyes. “I just—hate him so much sometimes,” he said in a whisper.
“Eli,” Young growled. “What the hell did he do.”
Eli’s eyes flew open. “Oh. Um, sorry. This isn’t bad. No need to throw him in the brig or anything. This is more, like, so good that it inspires real rage. This is definitely the up-close and personal view of his ship-whispering abilities. Pre-chair era. Like, when did he even invent this? And why? And how. But mostly when? And also mostly how.”
“So—could he have manufactured a dream interface?” Young asked.
“Umm, no. Impossible things? They're still impossible. Give me a minute. Or five.”
Young raised his eyebrows in Rush’s direction. Through their link, muted images flickered, too dim for Young to make out.
“Dang,” Eli said, after his five minutes had elapsed. He looked up at Young, giving him an unsettled smile. “This is really sophisticated.”
“You sound surprised,” Young replied. “Last time I checked, the guy was still some kind of computational genius.”
“Well, no, I mean, sure. Rush is—smart, I guess. He is. But it’s a very confusing kind of smart?”
“Yeah,” Young said. “I get that.”
“I think he thinks he's smarter than he actually is.” Eli paused, frowning at the computer. “Or.” He drummed his fingers on the edge of his laptop.
“Or?” Young prompted.
“Here’s the thing. The guy definitely has problems with basic math, which he likes to pretend to be awesome at, but seriously, have you noticed how many people he has doing calculations for him? I’ve always found this—confusing. I mean, dude is a Fields Medalist.”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“But this—” Eli’s eyes were locked on the screen. “This is something else.”
“How so?” Young asked.
“Well, the syntax he’s got on this thing is Ancient, but if I’m parsing this correctly, I think he’s using a variation of recursion theory to define himself as a set with a high degree of unsolvability. That’s—well, that is hot.”
“Damn it, Eli,” Young growled. “Help me out here.”
Eli shrugged. “I just wanted to give you a sense of it. What this allows him to do is interrogate Destiny, in the computational sense, without the reverse being true. Meaning the information used to build the interface between them would’ve been provided by Rush himself. What the neural basis is for that, I don't know, but I'd guess it was some unconscious or semiconscious process, detected by the electrodes built into the chair.”
“So he made a dream interface, then?” Young asked.
“No,” Eli said, defensively.
Young looked at him.
“Well, kind of,” Eli admitted. “Yeah, okay, that’s exactly what he did. I’m also not totally sure about this, but I think—crap.” Eli stared at the laptop, his brows furrowed.
“What?” Young did his best to keep the dread out of his voice.
“Oh! Sorry.” Eli looked up guiltily at whatever it was he heard in Young’s tone. “That was a crap-I’m-an-idiot ‘crap,’ not a crap-we’re-all-gonna-die ‘crap’.”
“Why are you an idiot?” Young asked.
“Hang on. Am I an idiot?” Eli stared at the screen, his eyes flicking back and forth over lines of code. “Yeah—yup. Okay. Oh my god.” Eli covered his face with both hands. “Oh my god,” he whispered. “I’m—I’m too embarrassed to tell you. I can’t right now. Ask me again in three days.”
Young snorted. “You can have three minutes.”
Eli placed the laptop next to him on the gurney, stood, walked across the room, stared at the nearest wall, walked back, looked at the open computer screen, and then met Young’s gaze. “Okay, in my defense, the entire science team should have figured this out. Anyone. Everyone. Well, except maybe Chloe.”
“What?” Young growled.
“Do you know what Rush won his Fields Medal for?” Eli asked.
“Eli, I barely know what a Fields Medal is. Some fancy Math Prize?”
“Yeah. Fancy math prize. But do you know what he won it for?”
“Honestly? Kinda. Basically. Except not really at all. What he won it for—and I know this because there’s a Nova documentary on it—was showing that if you can quickly check the solution to a problem, there’s a way to quickly solve the problem. For problems of incredible difficulty.”
“Okay,” Young said.
“Yeah, I know. Sounds kind of esoteric, right? It’s not. It’s infinitely practical. Most of this I don’t understand and I’ve never been more sad we don’t have the internet—that’s a lie, I’m equally sad on a daily basis—but maybe with the unlocked database I can—”
“Eli,” Young said. “Can we move this along, please?”
“Right, sorry, okay. It’s hard for me, I’m still coming to terms with my own stupidity. So, these Problems of Incredible Difficulty. The technical term for them is ‘NP-complete.’ They involve things like choice and ways around and through sets of things. Like the Traveling Salesman Problem. You have a guy selling—whatever. Computers. And he has, like, a bunch of cities to visit. He wants to hit each city once, and he wants to do it on the shortest path. That’s an NP-complete problem.”
“Doesn’t seem like it would be that hard.”
“It’s not, for three cities. But for three-thousand cities?”
“Okay, I get you.”
“Anyway, Rush took one of these problems. A set theory one. It’s called the ‘Independent Set Problem.’ I think. I don’t understand what that problem is in a mathematical sense, but, from the Nova program, I remember that certain representations of it, when graphed, can look a whole heck of a lot like a nine-chevron gate address. This was the NP-complete problem he solved. It’s probably why he snagged the notice of the SGC.”
“Maybe,” Young said.
“So he solves this problem. He shows it can be solved quickly. Like, five people in the world really understand the proof. But the thing about showing a problem of this class can be solved in real time? It means that ALL such problems can be solved in real time. Figuring out what he did, how to implement it across systems—that takes time. But ultimately society benefits a lot. Either that or everything falls apart or whatever.”
“Falls apart?” Young said, glancing at Rush.
“Welllll” Eli said, following Young’s gaze. “His proof renders most existing cryptosystems useless. But, on the other hand, it also solves like a million other problems so.” Eli shrugged. “Maybe it’s a wash?”
“How does any of this translate to you being an idiot?” Young asked.
“Like, a million times since we’ve gotten here, literally one million times, the science team has said something along the lines of ‘how the hell is he doing this?’ Right? Have you or have you not heard that? Multiple times per week? For years?” Eli gestured to the screen. “It’s this! Right here. This is it. This is the thing. This is what he’s doing. And, you know what? He’s right. We’re all idiots.”
“He’s using his proof?” Young asked.
“He’s USING HIS PROOF,” Eli shouted. “DUH.”
“Eli,” Young hissed. “Keep your voice down.”
“Sorry,” Eli said in hushed tones, glancing at Rush. “Oh my god, he’s really out.”
“Yeah,” Young said uneasily.
“Anyway, so he can solve NP-complete problems. Even with the proof, it’s not easy to do. He has the bones of the solution, but, for every problem, he has to correctly render categorical information, transform it properly—it’s not easy. Even if I understood his proof, which I don’t, I couldn’t necessarily use it in new ways. His own understanding of his proof doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be able to use it in all circumstances. But—a lot of the time, yeah. And I’ll bet—I’ll bet he’s getting better at it. That magical bullshit with the FTL drive—that was him doing it on the fly. Probably. He might be able to do it with his brain now, within Destiny’s systems. The only thing that I still don’t understand is why he farms out Chloe and Lisa and I to do calculations for him, because when I look at what I’m pretty sure are the logic gates on this thing? I mean god damn. God damn. The only thing wrong with this is how freaking right it is.”
“I thought you were the one who unlocked the nine-chevron address.” Young raised his eyebrows.
“I was,” Eli said. “Yeah. I came in after he’d already gotten most of the way there, I’m guessing. I solved a bunch of puzzles within the game before the Air Force showed up at my house.”
“How many?” Young asked.
“Eight,” Eli said softly. “One for each chevron, maybe. I—I’ve never asked him about it. But he probably solved and rendered all of those for the game. That he could even render the last one without having solved it—I don’t understand that.”
“I feel like an idiot.”
“Well, I suggest you get over it.” Young kept his voice brusque. “And figure out how to interface that program with the chair.”
Eli raised his eyebrows. “You think it’ll help?”
“Eli, at this point, I’d take anything. If we use it, at least we know he won’t get bolted through his wrists and feet.”
“Good point,” Eli said. He picked up Rush’s laptop. “I’ll find Brody, see what we can do.”
Young nodded. “Thanks.”
“One more thing,” Eli said slowly, “and I hate to say anything, but—here goes. If you think about it, this program,” he pointed to the open screen, “making a dream interface? Well, it’s a crap defense against what happened to Franklin—aka an information dump. It’s really a defense against the opposite phenomenon—against the ship taking anything from Rush's mind that he didn't give it. That makes it a very good defense against what ultimately happened to him. Which kind of makes you wonder how much he knew going into all of this.”
“Yeah,” Eli said, turning toward the door. “I hear ya.”
TJ brought Young a bowl of paste from the mess around 1200 hours. She ate with him, took Rush’s vitals, then started reorganizing her shelf of pharmaceuticals. Alphabetically. Then back to color. Then by type of bottle.
“You’re worried,” Young said from his perch on Rush’s gurney, watching her start pulling bottles off the shelf for the fourth time.
She glanced up at him. “Yeah,” she said. “I am.”
“He’s coming back up,” Young said. “Not fast, but I’m starting to feel the chair a little more.”
“Anything else?” TJ asked, carefully setting the last of the containers on a low table with the rest of her collection.
Young wrapped a hand around the scientist’s calf and concentrated. “Hard to say. I’m getting some random firing now.”
“Less organized than REM sleep,” Young clarified, “a little more intense than deep sleep. Some math. Some music. Some—graphical thing. I could probably—” he glanced up at TJ and caught her staring at him, her expression locked. “What?”
“I—” TJ swallowed, shaken. “Maybe you should tell me a little more about this link.”
“What do you mean?” Young asked.
“You can—assess his consciousness in that much detail?” Her hands hovered over her collection of small bottles, rainbowed on a bedside table.
“Pretty sure that’s the job, TJ.”
“Why?” she whispered. “Why would the Ancients design it like this?”
“You ever hear stories of the Atlantis Expedition?” Young asked. “The way John Sheppard walked up the silver stair in their gate room, and the lights came on under his feet?”
TJ shook her head.
“This ship is a far cry from Atlantis. But—from day one, when it took us to a planet that’d let us fix our CO2 scrubbers—it’s known we were here. This is the same phenomenon. Just—more intense. More personal. It comes with a cost. Like most things.”
“Can he see your dreams?” TJ asked.
“I’d say that’s a pretty safe bet,” Young said. “He seems to be able to see just about everything else.”
“That has to be strange.” TJ left her pharmaceuticals on the table and came forward to stand next to Rush’s gurney.
“It is,” Young confirmed. “Very.”
“You like him any better?” TJ asked.
“No,” Young said.
“Liar,” TJ said, with a small smile. Her hair caught and held the gold infirmary light.
“I’ve always almost liked him,” Young said mildly. “Now I almost like him a little more.”
“I like him,” TJ said.
Young rolled his eyes. “He stranded you here, you know.”
“Sometimes I forget that,” TJ murmured.
“Yeah, well, I don’t.”
“People were always going to come here,” TJ said. “Humans, I mean. To Destiny. To figure out where it was going, what it was for.” She gave him a weak smile. “Not me, though. I was going back to school. Medical School. At the University of Washington. So I could help people.”
“And how long would it have lasted?” TJ whispered. “That dream? That life?”
“TJ,” Young said gently.
“Six years,” TJ said, staring at a bare patch of metal bulkhead. “Six years before I can’t walk. Ten years before I die. Maybe a little longer. On Earth.”
Young looked at her without speaking.
“I’m not sorry I’m here,” she said, the words spare, almost hard. “I’m not sorry he brought me.”
TJ walked to the wall and pressed her hand against the bulkhead she’d been studying. An invisible seal released beneath her touch, and a depression in the wall opened to reveal a glittering array of hand-held devices. TJ extended her hand, palm out. As though they could sense her presence, the devices glowed brighter as her hand approached, flaring hopeful blues and greens.
Young raised his eyebrows.
TJ chose one of the devices. It glowed a friendly blue in her hand. “I have the ATA gene,” TJ said softly.
“I thought this ship predated that technology,” Young said.
“Hmm hmm. And who told you that?” TJ asked, with the ghost of a smile.
Young sighed, glancing at Rush.
“A lot of the crew have the ATA gene,” TJ said. “Or the LTA gene. Or a handful of other genes that they don’t even know about on Earth. I think there may be as many as six different genes in the mix here.”
“How can you tell?” Young asked.
TJ held up the device in her hand.
“Do I have any of them?” Young asked.
“No,” TJ said gently.
Young nodded. “How many people are we talking about?”
“A lot. More, by far, than you’d predict. Way too many to be random chance.”
“Give me a number.”
“Two thirds of the crew,” TJ said.
They looked at one another in silence.
“I’ve started casually asking people with the gene how they came to join the SGC,” TJ continued. “Most of them were recruited by Colonel Telford.”
Young nodded slowly. “He recruited Rush. Who else did he recruit?”
“Volker,” TJ said. “Park. Barnes he pulled from SG-22. James and Greer he recruited out of the SGC’s internal training pathway; they came up together. He also recruited me.”
“You?” Young asked.
TJ nodded. “I was on the short-list for SG-14, working with Dr. Lam. He was the one who convinced me to apply for Icarus.”
“When did you figure this out?” Young asked.
“A few days ago. During the fiasco with the communications stones. I discovered the devices just before ship-wide power went. James and I had made it back to the infirmary with Rush. The emergency lights kicked in; I knew we’d lost main power. I wanted a way to monitor him. So badly. And—right as everything was going down—a wall panel opened.”
“Anything like that ever happen before?” Young asked, unsettled.
TJ shook her head. “But it seems like the ship is a little more awake to all of us, ever since Rush sat in the chair.”
Before he had time to get a handle on any of the implications of what TJ’d just told him, a headache came out of nowhere. It escalated rapidly and settled itself behind his eyes.
He leaned forward pressing both hands to his temples.
“Colonel?” TJ said, alarmed.
“I’m okay,” he said, looking at Rush. The scientist shifted. The swirl of his thoughts and the draw of the chair ratcheted up in intensity. “He’s waking up.” Young pulled his radio off his belt. “Young to Eli, please respond.”
“Eli here,” the radio hissed.
“How you coming with your interface?”
“Good to go,” Eli said. “I mean, I think.”
TJ deftly removed the IV from Rush’s forearm.
“Young to Greer,” Young said into the radio. “Sergeant, please report to the infirmary.”
“On my way,” Greer replied.
“Do you think he’ll be able to eat?” TJ asked, watching Rush’s eyelids flicker. “He really should eat.”
“Not a chance in hell.” Young slid off the gurney, resisting the intense pull of the chair that was flooding their open link and increasing by the second. “I don’t think he’ll even—”
Rush opened his eyes.
The pull of the chair slammed into Young’s mind with so much ferocity that his knees buckled. He dropped into a crouch, one hand braced against the floor, breathing hard, rooted to the spot. His mouth was dry. His heart was racing. His hands were cold.
“Colonel?” TJ’s voice rose in alarm, as she looked uncertainly between him and Rush.
This would require some fancier block-work than Young had ever done.
With the vanishing sliver of his mind that could still concentrate, he started layering in some semi-separation between them. He mapped the web of their link, identifying the places where the draw was strongest, then preferentially blocked those lines. He went just far enough recover the ability to move. Just far enough to think. Just far enough to keep himself from sprinting for the chair room and hurling himself into the damned thing.
He looked up, meeting TJ’s eyes.
She extended a hand and hauled him to his feet.
“Get your bag,” Young murmured. “I’m okay.”
The scientist made increasingly coordinated attempts to sit. Young got the guy back into his jacket, then grabbed his chin, forcing the man to look at him. “Rush,” Young said. “Can you talk?”
He got nothing back through their link other than a pure, chair-directed imperative.
Young breathed out shakily. “Okay,” he murmured. He pulled one of Rush’s arms over his shoulder and lifted the guy off the gurney. “C’mere. We’re going.” He tried to project his intent at the other man, hoping it would help take the edge off.
He got nothing back, other than urgency.
Rush shifted weakly in his grip, orienting toward the chair room. Young started walking, projecting reassurance for all he was worth. Impossibly, he felt the compulsion intensify further.
“I’m right behind you.” TJ shoved a few last-minute items into her bag.
They met up with Greer just outside the infirmary doors. Young sent the sergeant ahead to clear the corridors as best he could. The closer they got to the chair, the worse the strain on Rush became, and, through the lacy barrier of a partial block, Young moved in on Rush’s thoughts. He anchored everything he could against the consciousness-shredding compulsion.
“He’s not moving,” TJ murmured. “At all.”
“He can’t,” Young said, through gritted teeth.
“Is he conscious?”
“Yes,” Young said. “No. Hell if I know, TJ.”
“Do we need to stop?” Her voice was tight.
They rounded the last corner to see Greer waiting for them in front of the chair room. The door was open, the monitors aglow, the interface active. Eli was crouched near the base of the chair, in front of his laptop. “It’s ready,” Eli said, as soon as they entered.
Young could barely breathe through the urge to touch the thing.
The door swished shut behind them.
“You need a hand?” Greer asked, flanking him.
Young’s mouth was dry. He tried to speak, but couldn’t.
“Careful,” Eli said, they approached the chair.
With Greer’s help, Young lowered Rush down into the thing, muscles shaking in anticipation, mind shredding under the strain. He was ready for the carbon loops, for a change in light, a change in tone, a build of charge, but—
Maddeningly, nothing happened.
Greer carefully maneuvered Rush’s forearm down into the open wrist restraint. Slowly, as if the chair was trying not to frighten anyone, the metal bracelet closed over the scientist's wrist. Young followed suit with Rush’s other forearm. Greer knelt to do both feet.
Carefully, Young tipped the scientist’s head into position.
The neural interface bolts engaged with a crack that made everyone jump.
A profound, soul-crushing relief was the first thing that hit him, and then—
“TJ,” was the only thing Young had time to say.