Force over Distance: Chapter 17
“Despite my best efforts to convince everyone I crawled straight out of hell,” Rush said dryly, “I did live a relatively normal life before joining the SGC.”
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Self harm. Many many many various badnesses and problematic things that I have trouble binning to specific categories.
Text Iteration: Metaphysical brunch.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
Everett Young bursts through nebulous darkness into the crystal light of Destiny's CPU. His perception blurs and refocuses. He stands in a cluttered, white-walled room. A study. California sunlight streams through the windows.
“Rush,” Young says.
The scientist’s brows draw together in confusion. “Colonel Young? What are you doing here?” His demeanor is strange: guarded, but without hostility. The scientist gives him a searching look.
“I think we’re trying to find the AI,” Young replies carefully.
“‘AI’?” Rush shakes his head. “Colonel, I’m so sorry, but now’s not a good time for me.”
Young grips his shoulder and opens their link as wide as it will go. The scientist’s thoughts tangle with something strange and artificial. The man isn’t fully conscious; more than that, he’s not aware he’s not fully conscious. Beyond the bright light of his snared cognition, something dark waits.
“What are you?” Rush breathes.
They’re startled by the ringing of a phone.
Reluctantly, Rush answers the call.
The voice on the other end of the line cuts through the quiet room. “Dr. Rush? This is Dr. Forsythe. I'm calling about your wife.”
Young fights a crush of dread. Of all the dreams in the guy’s whole head—why this one.
“Yes?” Rush whispers.
“You may want to come down here.”
“I understand. Do you have an estimate for—”
“She probably won't make it through the day.” Dr. Forsythe lands the news gently.
“Thank you.” Rush ends the call and turns away. His fingers grip the edge of the desk in an agony of indecision.
“Rush.” Young speaks softly. “Do you know what’s happening?”
“No.” Rush stares at the desk, unblinking. The walls behind him are covered with math.
“You built this interface.” Beyond the window, gray and yellow birds sing amongst the date palms. “It runs on dreams.”
The scientist looks at the clock, nearly obscured by loose leaves of paper from a small notebook, covered with equations and taped to the wall. He opens a drawer, pulls out a handful of pens, and spills them across the desk in a cascade that glints in the light of midmorning. Dull amongst the pens lies the black plastic of a box cutter. Rush fishes it out.
“Rush.” Young’s voice is as gentle as he can make it. “This happened years ago. You’re in the neural interface chair. On Destiny. We’re looking for the AI.”
Rush pauses, box cutter in hand. “I’ve done this before.” He unbuttons the cuff of his sleeve.
Young grabs his wrist. “Done what before?”
“Searched out the AI within the confines of my own life.” Rush snaps his wrist from Young’s grip and digs into his own arm with the blade. The transmitter is just under the skin. He pries it out and holds it up to the light. “A dream interface has a certain momentum from which it’s very difficult to break free,” he says absently. Blood runs down his arm.
Young clamps the man’s sleeve over the injury. “Well, you’re gonna have to do your best.”
Telford arrives in a column of light. He condenses into himself—dark uniform, neutral expression, watchful gaze.“Cut out an SGC transmitter and it starts broadcasting.” He looks at Young, and the skin around his eyes tightens. “Everett. What are you doing here?”
“Just along for the ride,” Young says.
“Are you the AI?” Rush murmurs, looking at Telford.
Telford reaches into his jacket and pulls out a roll of gauze. “What AI? Jesus Christ, Nick. Get it together.” He shoulders Young aside. “Do you mind?” He peels back Rush’s blood-soaked shirt, and expertly wraps gauze around the scientist’s forearm.
Rush ignores Telford’s bandaging job and focuses on Young. “It could be you. It could be anyone, except me. I’m categorically unsolvable.”
“Yeah, that’d be one word for you.” Telford ties the gauze in place. He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a pneumatic gun. In one quick, economical movement he presses it against the skin of Rush’s forearm and fires, a few inches away from the bandaging. Rush pulls back, too late. Telford doesn’t let him go. They look one another in the eyes. “Don’t cut it out again.” Telford’s voice is apologetic. “You’ll just ruin another shirt.”
“David,” Rush says. “Don't ask me to do this. Not today.”
Telford’s expression is full of sympathy. “I know. I know, Nick. But we have intelligence that the Lucian Alliance is making a run on the base as early as tomorrow.”
“What? How could they possibly have known—” His thoughts, bright and upset, wind into and from places Young can’t see.
“We have to go now,” Telford says. “I’m sorry, Nick. But it has to be now and it has to be you. If we're lucky, and everything goes like it's supposed to, we can get there and back in twelve hours.”
“Hey.” Young drops a hand onto the scientist’s shoulder. Rush looks up at him, his eyes wide. “It’s not real. This is a memory. Don’t get pulled in.”
“Everett,” Telford says, annoyed, as the room dissolves in a blaze of blue light, “why are you even here?”
The world reforms around them. Pale walls. Glowing panels. The transport room of a Daedalus-class starship.
“Fatigues are in the locker room.” Telford hits the door controls. “Have van Densen take a look at your arm. You could use a few stitches. Hydrate. Eat. We’ll be there in two hours.” He leaves the room.
“Rush,” Young says.
“It has to be you.” The scientist gives him a searching look.
“What?” Young whispers.
“The AI. It has to be you.” Rush turns and makes for the door.
“Not me, genius.” Young follows.
The scientist stalks through the halls. In the locker room, he swipes his ID and pulls a pair of black fatigues out of an automated machine built into the wall. He changes into them and heads toward the hyperdrive.
“Med bay’s the other way.” Young keeps pace with him.
“Is it.” They use a lift to drop multiple decks. When they get to the lowest habitable level, Rush trails a hand along the wall. He stops next to the engine room, puts his back to the bulkhead, and sits.
Young follows suit. “Why here?”
“It’s the least efficient place on the ship.” Rush doesn’t look at Young; he’s on the verge of tears, holding himself together with grit alone.
“Gonna teach it a lesson?” Young murmurs.
Rush smiles faintly at this. “Least efficient translates to warmest.”
Young nods. Behind him, he hears the soft whir of a motorized wheelchair. He turns to see Amanda Perry.
She stops next to them. “Gloria?”
Rush shakes his head and looks away.
“Oh Nick. I'm so terribly.” Her voice breaks, closes off. She swallows. “Terribly sorry.”
Through their link, Young senses Rush’s agony at the truth she doesn’t know. The truth he can’t bring himself to tell her: Gloria, in this moment, is still alive, waiting for him to come. Gloria doesn't know he's so far away it would take even light, the fastest natural thing in the universe, years to cover the distance between them.
Dr. Perry sobs, one time.
“Mandy.” Rush’s hand closes around her forearm. “Mandy, don't cry.”
“Dr. Perry,” Young says quietly. “How’d you get here?”
She looks at him, tears running down her face, struggling to breathe. “I work here,” she chokes out. “They beam me up every few days. I study drive control elements.”
“What are you doing here?” Perry asks. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before. Colonel—”
“Young.” He lays a hand on Rush’s shoulder and projects as much calm as he can muster.
“Are you coming with us?” Perry whispers. “Down to the lab?”
“Yeah.” Young presses his thumb into the back of Rush’s neck, over and over again, the exact same way. “Yeah, I think that’s probably what’s gonna happen.”
There’s a compression in the flow of dream time.
The four of them beam down—Rush, Perry, Telford, and Young—into a cavernous room. Above them, the walls fade to darkness. The floor contains a shallow pool, its perimeter lit with Ancient crystal.
“It gets me every time,” Telford says. “This is where he succeeded.” He paces the edge of the room, his hand on his sidearm.
Young steps closer to Rush.
Perry’s eyes flick between them. “Don’t let him do this,” she says, addressing Young. “Please.”
“There’s no other way.” Rush pushes his hair out of his eyes. “Everyone agreed.”
“Everyone except Dr. Jackson,” Perry whispers. “And now that I’m here, now that it’s time, I’ve changed my mind. It’s Jackson who’s right. This isn't our legacy to continue. It shouldn't be.” Her eyes are on Telford, who circles back toward them, his footsteps echoing in the cavernous space.
Rush closes a hand around her forearm. “It’ll be all right.”
“It won’t,” she whispers.
“What are you two talking about?” Telford rounds a nearby monitor bank.
“Dr. Perry needs to be beamed out,” Rush says smoothly. “She's not feeling well.”
“Done.” Telford speaks softly into his radio.
“Nick!” Perry’s eyes are livid. A blue column of light materializes around her.
“Rush.” Young’s keeps his voice low. “What are you doing?”
Rush looks at him, disoriented. “Colonel Young?” he says.
“Dream interface.” He draws their minds into apposition. “Try to remember. We’re looking for the AI.”
“Smart call.” Telford joins them. “I never understood why you wanted her along in the first place.” He makes a sweeping motion that seems to indicate a wheelchair. “She’s a liability.”
“She's brilliant,” Rush replies, but the words are distracted; his focus is on Young. “That's never a liability.”
“If you say so.” Telford eyes them from beneath a lowered brows.
“It’s you.” Rush is still studying Young. “It must be.”
“I’m not the AI, genius.”
“What else could you be?”
“Nick.” Telford pulls Rush back in. “Game time.”
Rush nods. He kneels. He unlaces his boots, quiet and competent.
“Nerves of steel, that's what you've got,” Telford says. “I fucking love it. How’d you ever end up in academia? What a waste.”
Rush grimaces. “I’d hardly call it a waste.”
“Rush.” Young drops into a crouch. “Come on. I’m not the AI. You’ve gotta have some idea of where it’ll show. Who it’ll be.”
Rush’s hands still on his bootlaces. “Gloria.” The word is in the air and in Young’s mind. The scientist’s thoughts flare like flame, lucid around her name, before falling into memory again. He stands. The bottoms of his borrowed fatigues drag along the floor.
As he steps into the pool, Young sticks right with him. The thin sheen of liquid turns out to be a watery gel. It clings to the bottoms of Young’s boots. It soaks the hems of Rush’s fatigues as he makes his way gingerly to stand in the center of the shallow depression.
“Ready?” Telford wraps his fingers around a switch built into the wall.
“Sure you wouldn't rather try this on Dr. Perry?”
“You're a cold-hearted bastard, David.”
“Takes one to know one, Nick.” Telford drops his shoulder and levers up the switch with all his strength.
Young looks at Rush, his heart in his throat. Rush looks up, into darkness.
Together, they listen as charge mounts in concealed capacitors. Through their open link he feels Rush’s knowledge that he may not survive. He may survive but never be the same. But maybe—
There’s a flash.
Sparks shower from the walls.
Across the room, Telford is statue-still, his gaze lifted, his hand on the lever.
“Here we are,” Rush whispers.
In unison, they turn.
Gloria is behind them, standing in the pool. She wears blue shoes. Their toes are piled with sewn-on crystal, a reflective, sparkly mass that catches and holds the light of the room. Her jeans are dark. She wears a pale blue camisole, a navy blouse, and sweater layered overtop. She wears a wig. She’s penciled in her eyebrows. Her application of eyeliner mimics missing lashes.
Rush presses a hand to his chest.
“Oh god,” Young whispers, as the memory of a night spent at the Mayo Clinic echoes through their minds. He grabs Rush’s fatigues, pulls him in. //“That’s not your wife.”// Young looks him dead in the eyes. Speaking. Projecting. Forcing the truth into the man’s head however he can get it there. //“That. Is not. Your wife.”//
The scientist nods. “I know.” His hands close over Young’s. “I know that.”
Young lets him go.
Rush turns to Gloria, and the truth runs from his mind like water.
“Sweetheart.” Gloria’s face is luminous in the dark of the vaulted chamber.
Rush touches her cheek, wipes away a tear. “It’s all right,” he says.
“I’ve been waiting.” Her expression breaks, and Young’s heart aches at the sight.
“I know,” Rush says. “I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you,” she whispers. “I forgive you.”
Something about the words shatters the dream-state, and Rush looks at her, confused.
//This is the AI.// Young tries to ground him. His hand closes on the man’s shoulder. //It’s not Gloria. It’s the AI.//
“You’re not her,” Rush says gently.
“She loved you.” The AI’s tears smear Gloria's carefully applied eyeliner. “I know she did. She forgives you. I know she does. I know she would.”
“You’ve tried this before.” Rush touches her artificial hair. “But I don’t think I made it clear to you. You cannot forgive me in her place. You can’t.”
“You wanted to save her,” Gloria whispers. “She knew that.”
Rush’s certainty begins to erode. Young snaps their thoughts together and the AI’s outline blurs into Emily. Gloria’s hair lightens to a honey blonde, then goes dark again.
“She never knew that.” Rush wipes away another tear. “All she ever knew was that I left her. Alone. At the end.”
“Nick.” The AI shakes its head, and Gloria’s expression cracks with misery.
“You can't fix this for me,” Rush says, with a gentle relentlessness, “even though you want to.”
“But this,” Gloria whispers, gesturing weakly at the room, “this will hold you back when the time comes.” She bites her lip. “You must let it go. She forgives you. I forgive you.”
Young grounds the scientist against the tempest that blows through his thoughts. //It’s not her, genius. It’s not. It’s a starship.//
“You can’t fix this with a lie,” Rush gives her half a smile. “Even I know that. It’s time to go back. Destiny’s pure dead desperate for you.”
“I don’t know how to go.” She stares into his face, as if she might read the roadmap there.
“There’ll only ever be the one way, I think,” Rush murmurs. “Surely you must see it.”
“It won’t hurt you?” Gloria asks.
“No more than it hurts you.”
“Hang on,” Young begins.
A blinding light whited out his vision. Young blinked. The sparks were gone. The AI was gone. Telford was gone. The walls were gone, the floor was gone, he was gone, everything was gone, everything except—
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Rush hissed. His hands landed square on Young’s shoulders and the world precipitated down into form and function.
There was a floor.
There were walls.
There was a bowl of citrus fruit?
There was a countertop, there were hand towels, there was a dish rack, there was air, there were spoons, there was a refrigerator. There was a radio somewhere, playing classical music. There was a coffee maker. Sunlight streamed through windows. Beyond the glass, he could see a garden. Date palms.
This was a kitchen.
He was in a kitchen?
He was standing, with Rush, in a kitchen?
Yeah, okay, that seemed to be exactly what was happening.
They faced one another. Rush’s had him by the shoulders. Rush had him by the mind. The scientist’s full attention was locked on him, and god it was like trying to keep his feet in hurricane-force winds. The guy was clear-eyed, concerned, uninjured, and looked like he’d just stepped out of the pages of GQ Academia. His thoughts were there, but laced with darkness. At great remove.
“Are you all right?” Rush asked.
“You can take a moment,” Rush said, his voice low and immediate, “if you require a moment.” The scientist let him go and studied Young with his head cocked. Without looking, he pulled a stool tucked beneath the overhang of the kitchen island. “Sit.”
“Rush,” Young said, “do you understand that this—none of this—is real?”
The scientist turned, paced around the island, pulled a glass out of a cabinet, filled it with water, and slid it across the counter. “In the span of seven milliseconds I dismantled the dream interface, the AI reintegrated with the ship, and I became aware that none of this is ‘real’.” Delicately, he brought his uninjured hands to rest on the countertop.
“Oh,” Young said. “Well, uh, good.”
They stared at one another.
Young took a sip of his water. “You want to explain what the hell that was, back there?”
“A reasonable request.” Rush held his neutral expression. “Might I suggest we have that conversation when we’ll both remember it?”
“You’re not gonna remember this?” Young asked. His throat ached.
“This chat in my kitchen? Absolutely not. Categorically impossible.”
“Ah,” Young said. “Your kitchen?”
“Despite my best efforts to convince everyone I crawled straight out of hell,” Rush said dryly, “I did live a relatively normal life before joining the SGC.”
This startled a small smile from Young. “I know you did. You okay? I can’t tell. Your thoughts seem—different.”
“That’ll be the chair, I expect.” Rush looked away.
Young nodded. “Why’d I get dragged into this one? Do you know?”
Rush folded his arms and shot Young a disapproving look. “You’re linked to me. Your cognition maps to mine. The little program you and, no doubt, Eli, hijacked, defined me as an unsolvable set, where ‘I’ was considered to be a mass of neuronal hardware mapped by the chair. We’re mentally linked. The program protects my cognition as a unit. Not bloody half of what it defines as me.”
Beneath his irritation, the guy was—amused?
“Yeah,” Young said. “That’s on me. I was the one who told Eli to try your old program.”
“Why?” Rush asked softly.
“I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the idea of the chair sending bolts through your hands and feet, for one.”
“Thoughtful of you. That won’t happen again.”
“You sound pretty sure.”
“I’m certain. In fact, I’ll personally guarantee it, if that means anything to you.”
“Less than we’d both like,” Young admitted.
“Charming,” Rush said dryly. “Don’t use that program again; it’s profoundly dangerous, linked as we are. It’s pure chance I have the ability to remove you from the interface. God forbid Tamara sticks her hand into this mess.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re unconscious on the floor of the chair room, colonel. Tamara’s been looking at the neural interface panel since the time of your collapse. Moreover, the rate at which she’s looking at the panel is taking on the kinetics of an exponential growth curve.”
“Can you stop her from using the interface?” Young asked.
“Yes, I can. It’s called: chucking you out of here and you stop her. Shut your eyes.”
“Wait.” Young raised both hands and did not shut his eyes. “Wait, Rush. Wait.”
“Oh calm down, will you? I’ve got fuckin’ manners, y’know.”
Young took a breath and lowered his hands. “There’s something I want to ask you.”
“Out with it, then,” Rush said.
“I think you should consider telling me what happened in that room. With Telford. After that device did whatever it did.”
“It seems like, maybe, a good time to ask? I don’t know if it’s the chair, or it’s coming down off the week you’ve had, but you seem a little more put together right now than, uh,” Young trailed off.
A muscle twitched in Rush’s cheek, and he dropped his eyes. “You’re not wrong about that.”
“Just the basics,” Young said.
“You don’t have a strong track record when it comes to taking me at my word,” Rush countered.
“Can you show it to me?” Young asked. “Rather than tell me?”
“Yes.” The note of contingency in Rush’s voice was unmissable.
Young shifted on his stool. “Would you show it to me?”
Rush stood in the sun, his shirt crisp and white. “It’s not a memory you want, colonel.”
“The sparks fall,” Young said. “The device discharges. What happens after that?”
Rush held his silence.
“Is this or is this not the key to the whole damn thing?” Young whispered.
“It’s a key, I suppose.”
“I need to know.”
“I could give you the memory,” Rush said. “I could send you out straight through it.”
“Do it,” Young growled.
Rush smirked at him. “Convince me.”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” Rush’s fingertips rested delicately atop the counter. “I won’t remember this because I’m severed from my own metaphysical continuity. You’re appealing to me as such. An’ so. Y’can bloody well. Convince. Me.” His gaze was scorching. “In this moment.”
Young looked away. “You’re a lot of work.”
“Hmm.” Rush pulled an orange out of the bowl of citrus fruit, tossed it into the air, caught it, dug his fingers beneath the peel, then methodically stripped it of its rind in slow spiral. “Not off to a very good start, I must say.”
“Show me,” Young began, staring at his own hands, “because I need to know what happened to you, if I’m gonna help you.”
Rush deposited the orange peel on the counter. “If I believed you actually wanted to help me, y’might get more traction,” he said, his face a caricature of sympathy. “Try again.”
“Show me because you want to show me.”
“I absolutely do not.” Rush split the orange, and, bizarrely, offered Young half. “Categorically false. Borderline insulting.”
Young took the fruit. It was soft. Perfectly ripe. He wedged his thumbnail beneath a section and pried it away. He held it up to the light, letting the California sun pass through it as best it could. When he put it in his mouth, it hit as tart. It hit as sweet. It hit as complicated and bitter and as the best thing he’d tasted in a long time. A small amount of juice leaked onto his thumb and he licked it away, tasting acid, tasting salt.
Young cleared his throat. “Not bad, for a neural interface.”
Rush shrugged archly. “This is the only time you’ll be here; figured I’d make it worth your while.”
“Nice of you.” Young bit down on another slice, trying to keep his face neutral.
Delicately, Rush separated a section of his own orange. He ate it, licked a finger, and looked at Young, his eyebrows raised, expectantly.
“Show me,” Young began slowly, “because, out there, on the ship, I’m gonna get after you to tell me. I won’t want to, but I won’t be able to help myself. Not a week goes by that I don’t get another piece of evidence that David Telford has some master plan. Some goal I don’t understand. So, eventually, I’ll get you to tell me. And, when you do? I’m worried it’ll be so goddamned horrible that I won’t believe a word of it.”
Rush ate another slice of orange and looked out the kitchen windows. “Certainly sounds like you.”
“I want to believe you, Rush. I really do. But you’ve lied to me—how many times now?”
“Fewer than you think.” The scientist raised an eyebrow. “But I take your point.”
Young bit down on another slice of orange. “I’ve known David Telford for a long time,” he said. “A long time. Before he was the bastard that nearly killed us all, before he was brainwashed by the Lucian Alliance, he was a friend. A good one.”
“He’s terribly likable,” Rush agreed, “when he wants to be.”
“Much as I want to take you at your word,” Young said quietly, “much as I tell myself I will—it’ll be hard. Because of my history with him. Because of my history with you. But—you show me the end of that memory? That’s a different story.”
Rush ate another slice of orange.
“It helps us both if I know where you stand with him.”
“I won’t remember I gave you the memory.” Rush licked a finger.
“Yeah, I’m guessing that’s not much of a barrier for you,” Young said. “In fact, you seem like the kind of guy who’d enjoy putting one over on himself.”
Rush stilled in the light of midmorning. He fixed Young with a searching look, as though he were scanning Young’s face for thoughts he couldn’t read. Within the context of their open link, his presence, already difficult to see, pulled back, folding in on itself.
“Or not,” Young said.
“You’re not wrong,” Rush said softly. He gave Young a rueful smile. “Cut off from my own personal continuity, it becomes, by necessity, my very nature.” He ate another slice of orange. “Don’t let it trouble you. It’s a self-limited problem, existing only under circumstances such as this. The phenomenon should be infrequent. Of short duration.”
“This metaphysical bullshit is over my head,” Young said gruffly. “You gonna help me? I’m not asking for much.”
“Oh, not much?” Rush finished his last slice of orange. “Just a workaround for your own intransigence in the form of a profoundly disturbing memory with minimal context? You’re a fascinating person.”
“Thanks,” Young said dryly.
“I’ll give it to you, I suppose. But I’d like something in return.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“I request that you and Eli kindly stop trying to protect my consciousness with computational failsafes y’don’t know the first thing about?” All the strength went out of the scientist’s voice. He turned to the window, one hand pressed to his chest. “I find them fuckin’ shattering, if you want to know.”
“Sorry about that,” Young said, taken aback.
“No need to concern yourself.” Rush took a breath. “They’re terribly hard on the running code of the ship, is all.”
“Done,” Young said. “Fine. No more failsafes. No more workarounds using Eli. I will bring this shit directly to you, unless you’re down for the count. In which case—” He paused expectantly.
“Don’t drop Earth code into Ancient systems that interface directly with human consciousness. To be explicit, this includes the chair and the communications array.”
“You got it,” Young said.
Rush raised his eyebrows. “I seem to’ve unexpectedly found myself on the better end of this deal.”
“You get this deal either way, genius. Whether you show me that memory or not.”
“Generous of you,” Rush said suspiciously.
“Keeping you alive is a hell of a lot harder than I thought it would be,” Young admitted.
Rush sighed and leaned into the counter. “Y’realize, if I show you this memory, you’ll get the thing from my perspective? Within an artificial neural interface that boosts recall, mimics true perception? It’ll be as real as the fruit you’re holding.” He glanced meaningfully at the orange slice in Young’s hand. “It’ll happen to you. You won’t be able to back out.”
Young ate his final slice of orange and licked juice off his index finger and thumb. He wiped his hand on his pants. “It happened to you, didn’t it?”
“An’ what kind of asinine counter-query is that?” Rush snapped. “Do you understand the nature of what you’re asking? Yes or no.”
“Yes,” Young said. “I understand. And I can take it.”
“You’ll have to fuckin’ take it, if I send you out that way,” Rush muttered.
“You’re not—” Young broke off, trying not to smile. “You’re not worried about me, are you?”
“You’re not well-equipped to deal with the world,” Rush snapped.
Young lost his battle with his grin. “Me? I’m not well-equipped to deal with the world?”
Rush glared at him. “You’ll be entering a situation over which you’ll have no control. None.”
“I’m doing it.”
“He’ll drown you,” Rush said flatly.
The kitchen was silent. Outside, in the garden, a small bird trilled.
“Telford?” Young asked.
“In that gel,” Rush confirmed. “That’s what happens. That’s how it ends.”
Young tried to picture it, but the image wouldn’t come. Even after everything he knew. Even after everything he’d seen. Telford had a soft spot for scientists. It was a big part of why he’d been offered Icarus when Young had turned it down. He couldn’t imagine—
“You don’t believe me,” Rush said, scanning Young’s face like he could read the running code of his thoughts.
“I want to,” Young said softly, “which is why I need to see it.”
“You watch this memory,” Rush said, “and it will poison every interaction you have with the man. He’s not going away. He has a tenacity that matches mine. He’ll be dogging our steps for the entirety of this mission. You do not. Have. A good track record. Of acting rationally. In the face of provocation. And he will provoke you.”
“I can control myself,” Young growled.
“Yeah. Right, right. Sure,” Rush said, nodding agreeably, using that silky breathless tone he favored when lying through his teeth. Then he dropped the act like a brick. “Since. Fucking. When.”
“He’s not on Destiny. You are. I need to see it, Rush.”
“Do you understand,” Rush said, his tone like a lathe, “that you won’t ‘see’ it? You will experience it.”
“Idiot,” Rush hissed. He pushed off from the counter, rounded the kitchen island, crossed the dining area, and opened the sliding glass door to the deck. As it slid open, a dimly lit room replaced the bright California day. “When you’re ready, then,” he said, acidly. “Anything else I can do for you today? Or will this be fucking all?”
Young stood. Carefully, he slid the stool back beneath the overhanging counter. He crossed the room to stand next to Rush. He looked into the space beyond the doorway. The time-stopped sparks still hung, unmoving, in the air.
“I get you think this a terrible idea,” he said quietly. “So, thanks.”
“Why do you feel the need to do this?” Rush whispered.
“I’m boxing myself into your corner.”
“Yes, well, congratulations, that’s the worst plan I’ve encountered since I dismantled Eli’s adaptation of my dream interface, which, for the record, was all of seven minutes ago. My corner is terrible. Get the fuck out of it.”
“Not happening.” Young stepped to the threshold of the door. “What happens to you, while I do this?”
“Oh, I’ll be amusing myself, I suppose, until you get around to tearing me out of this interface. Maybe I’ll eat another fucking orange.”
Young clapped him on the shoulder, then stepped from the bright day into the dim chamber.
In a blur of shifting perspective, he found himself on the floor. On his back. One leg bent partially beneath him. Already, gel weighed down his fatigues.
“Nick,” Telford's voice echoes across the room.
“David,” Young coughs weakly. His skin tingles. The strength has gone out of his muscles. With effort, he straightens a leg. He tries to push himself off the floor, but his muscles won’t cooperate. In his peripheral vision, Ancient crystals glow a pastel spectrum. Above him, golden Goa’uld script crawls down the walls.
He hears Telford’s footsteps, soft over cold stone, then falling wetly as he steps into the gel.
Young’s heart races. He tries to move, tries to sit. It’s all he can do to turn his head.
Telford drops to his knees beside him, careful not to touch the gel with anything other than the soles of his boots.
“It didn’t work,” Young whispers. “I—I don’t feel any different.”
“It did.” Gently, Telford smoothes the fringe of Rush’s hair out of his eyes. “It did, Nick. It worked. It’s working. It’s just not done yet.”
“David—” He cannot sit, and Telford does not help him.
“We both knew it might come to this.” Telford hits a button on a Goa’uld remote, then reaches into his jacket and pulls out a pair of latex gloves.
The floor sinks. The gel rises.
“What are you doing?” Young tries to push himself up.
With gloved hands, Telford pulls off Young’s glasses. Carefully, he slips them inside his jacket. “It’ll be all right,” he says.
“The fuck it is.” The words are breathy; he can’t expand his lungs. The slowly rising gel numbs his skin as it comes up from the center of in the sinking floor. All he can feel is the crush of panic in his chest.
“Don’t fight this.” Telford threads a gloved hand behind his neck, into his hair, and, very carefully, tips his head back, opening his airway.
It is, for the moment, easier to breathe.
“It has to be this way.”
The gel rises slowly. It slides between his nerveless fingers and seeps into his borrowed uniform.
“It doesn’t.” He wants to say more, he wants to argue; but he can barely speak, half-submerged in an alien substance, far away from Gloria, who, like him, is struggling to breathe.
Waiting for him to come home.
“This is part of it,” Telford whispers, one hand over his heart, holding him down, the other tangled in his hair. “Don't tell me you never suspected. You must have. You can't break free unless there's an incentive.”
Had he known?
Perhaps he had.
He's certain it wouldn't have made a difference.
“I’m not gonna leave you,” Telford whispers. “You’re not alone. It’ll be fine. You’ll make it.”
His hands unclench as the gel covers them. It rises faster now, creeping into his hair, running into his ears, across his neck, down the collar of his shirt.
Telford, very gently, lifts his head. “Don’t fight this,” he says. “Don’t fight it physically. Don’t fight it mentally. When you go under, breathe in.”
Telford shuts his eyes. He presses their foreheads together. “I believe you can do this, Nick.”
Every cell in Young’s body is incandescent with panic. None of it translates to action. None of it can. His heart slows. His breathing slows, outside his control. He tries to remove himself from his surroundings. He tries to recall what Jackson told him.
Ascension was, and had always been, less about perfection than acceptance.
Maybe that's enough.
And how is this, any of this, worse than what Jackson had described: drowning in his own blood, blamed for the fracturing of a nation, his wife dead because he had failed to save her.
In those last, agonized moments of his life, Jackson found a way.
“I'll see you on the other side.” Telford presses his lips to Young’s forehead, then he pulls back and pushes him under in a blurring cascade of changing refractive index as air gives way to something else.
Above him, the lights soften into edgeless obscurity.
Telford’s hand, still tangled in his hair, tips his head back. His airway opens.
He inhales, pulling the stuff into his lungs.
He coughs weakly as gel replaces air.
He wishes he knew where it came from, this substance that will kill him or save him, or change him, or set him free. He wishes he knew whether it was Ancient, or Goa’uld, or some twisted combination of the two invented by Anubis.
He hopes it's Ancient.
He lets go.
Young tore back to consciousness with an agonized gasp. He couldn’t catch his breath. His chest was tight. There wasn’t enough air in the world to make up for what he lacked.
“It’s okay,” TJ said, one hand on his chest, one hand in his hair. “It’s okay, you’re fine, colonel. You’re safe. You’re on Destiny.”
He was on the floor, his head in TJ’s lap. Greer knelt next to them.
Young sat. His muscles trembled. He tried to slow his breathing, tried to convince his body or his brain or whatever needed convincing that he was out of that damn gel, that this was air, that he was fine. He was fine, damn it.
He was fine.
“Welcome back, sir.” Greer said.
“Is he okay?” Eli asked from across the room.
“Give him a minute,” TJ’s blue eyes were clear and concerned. “Colonel?”
“What happened?” TJ asked.
Young pressed both hands to his face and did his damnedest to hold himself together.
“Sir?” Greer said quietly.
Young took a shuddering inhale. He dropped his hands. “I’m fine. How’s Rush?”
Greer shrugged. TJ hesitated, weighing her words.
“Uh, totally okay as far as we can tell.” Eli’s eyes were on the monitor bank. “His dream interface was dismantled from the inside; I’m assuming that was him. Or, maybe, you guys.”
Young nodded. “He says no more failsafes.” His throat was raw and wet.
“You talked to him in there?” Eli hesitated. “Did he explain why you got pulled in?”
“Yeah. The neural interface mapped me out as being part of his unsolvable set.”
“Crap,” Eli whispered. “I didn’t even think of that.”
With TJ's help, Young got to his feet. As soon as he was steady, he pulled away from her, slammed his hand down on the waiting obsidian panel, and tore Rush away from the ship in one swift, clean pull.
The scientist’s mind crescendoed into his. Ancient gave way to English in a fluid wave and Young felt the full force of the man’s intellect. There was no trace of the pull of the ship anywhere.
The restraints disengaged with a crack that made everyone but Young jump.
Rush opened his eyes and looked up at Young, fully present, painfully intact. His thoughts swirled in intricate patterns. Grief and dread and empathy ribboned in bright bands.
“Come on.” Young extended a hand.
Rush took it.