Force over Distance: Chapter 20
“Bit of a hairpin turn, really,” Rush said.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Just before breakfast.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
Well past when he’d hoped to be in bed, Young walked the corridor outside his quarters with the business end of a tape measure in hand. Flexible metal spun itself out behind him. Fifteen feet. Twenty. Twenty-five. He trailed a hand along the cool metal of the wall. His headache, sharp and dull, pounded through both temples.
//You can’t be more than eight meters.// Twenty-five feet away, Rush leaned against the wall. His other hand was extended, the end of the tape measure hooked over the tip of his index finger.
//Twenty-five feet.// Young pulled out his phone and started a timer.
//We agreed on thirty.//
//I’m the one in the field, Rush.//
//Making the hard decisions, are we?// The question was snide, edged with the dust and rock of an abandoned desert world.
The man was. Un. Believable.
Young leaned into the wall, closed his hand around the tape measure, and kept his breathing slow. He focused on the cool metal at his back. Not the vertigo. Not the headache. Not the asshole located exactly twenty-five feet away trying to goad him into yet another terrible decision.
“Everett.” Emily appeared out of nowhere, her face inches from his own. “This is a bad idea.”
Young flinched. He dropped the tape measure. He dropped his phone. His startle response, plus the vertigo, plus the growing headache sent him to one knee. “God damn,” he breathed, trying not to let his dinner end up on the deck plating. His right hand ached. His feet were on fire. His knee stung like hell. The floor didn’t feel all that stable.
“Get up.” Emily knelt next to him. The corridor lights glared off her white shirt. “You won’t feel better unless you close the distance.”
Twenty-five feet away, Rush had dropped into a crouch. The scientist had a hand at his temple and a hand braced against the floor. His head was down. His hair was in his eyes.
//You okay?// Young fought off a wave of vertigo.
In response, he got pain, disorientation, and a wave of wordless dismissal as Rush focused on some bullshit schematic and a set of equations.
And yeah. That’d been about par for the course for the past week.
Young swept the tape measure and phone off the floor and got to his feet. He closed the distance between himself and Rush, one hand on the bulkhead. “I don’t feel,” Young ground out, looking down at the man, “even remotely sorry for you.”
“Y’know,” the scientist said faintly, “I think there must be some kind of banked energetic requirement, or, maybe, it’s a capacitor problem—” he trailed off breathlessly, and goddamned leaned against Young’s goddamned leg.
Young dropped into a crouch and held onto his temper. “I told you we shouldn’t pull a double shift,” he growled. “Lie down, you complete idiot.” He pried the scientist out of his semiconscious crouch, got him flat on the deck plating, and scraped together the last of his self control.
It’d been a hell of a set of days.
“Hi Nick.” The AI had followed Young. Somewhere along the way it’d switched from Emily to Jackson. It wrapped its arms around its chest and dropped into a crouch.
Rush blinked blearily at it.
“What are you doing?” The AI’s tone was full of Jackson’s polite curiosity.
“Pretty sure he’s trying to kill us both,” Young said.
“Ah yes,” Rush breathed. “Sounds right.”
The AI’s gaze flicked between Rush and Young, as though it were trying to decide if Rush was serious. It settled on Rush, and borrowed one of Jackson’s more earnest expressions. “Do you understand that separating is what caused the problem? Don’t do it more. Do it less.”
Rush draped his forearm over his eyes like he wasn’t the guy who’d harassed Young into this completely terrible plan in the first place.
Young leaned against the wall, which had stabilized at a nice, unchanging angle with the floor, and got a grip on himself. It’d been a week since they’d gotten drunk together on Brody’s grain alcohol, and, in that time, each consecutive day had gotten progressively more difficult.
Nick Rush. Did not have. An off switch. Other than unconsciousness.
“Maybe that thing has a point,” Young growled.
“Probably shouldn’t call it ‘that thing’,” Rush said mildly.
Young resisted the impulse to bang his own head against the corridor wall.
Jackson shrugged. “I am a thing, I think. More like a sunset than a bulkhead, but I’ll answer to ‘thing’.”
“See?” Young growled, “there you go.”
“Oh god,” Rush breathed. He still had his arm over his face, but Young was pretty sure the man was amused beneath the vertigo, beneath the headache, beneath a terrible cold, beneath the way his vision was still graying at its edges—
“Okay,” Young muttered. “Guess we’re doing this.” He shifted his position, crossed his legs, picked up Rush’s ankles, and resettled the man’s boots in his lap.
Rush hissed, pulling his right foot back. Based on the way this day had gone so far, he was probably prepping to send it straight into Young’s jaw. Young really didn’t give a damn. He bent in and got his left arm around Rush’s left boot, wedging the toe between his bicep and forearm. Using his right hand, he started unlacing. “Don’t test me, Rush,” he growled.
“Don’t test you?” Rush repeated. “Don’t test you?”
“Yup.” The knot came free under his hand. He wrenched the boot open, tucked the loose ends of the laces between the leather and Rush’s sock, then let the man’s foot go. He grabbed Rush’s right ankle, pulled it in, and trapped it in the same manner. “First we’re gonna see if we can get some blood to your brain. Then we’re gonna go back inside and negotiate some terms.”
Rush glared at him, but didn’t argue.
The AI looked anxiously at Young. “Please stop trying to separate.”
Young shot it a dark look. “Not helpful.”
He finished his work on the second boot, then deposited the scientist’s feet on the ground. He pushed away from the bulkhead and crouched next to the man. With maybe a little more aggression than was appropriate, he tore apart the velcro closures at Rush’s jacket cuffs, unzipped the top of the jacket, and wrenched his collar open.
Rush levered himself up on one elbow. “Feel better?” he asked poisonously.
Young pushed him back down. “Has anyone. Ever. Explained to you. How to avoid losing consciousness?” He unclenched his jaw before he cracked a tooth. “I ask because you seem to have no idea how it works. None. At all.”
Rush shot him an impressively imperious look.
“Your heart,” Young explained, using the same tone he’d used to explain the rules of football to his five-year old nephew, “pumps blood to your brain. Your brain needs blood to think. If it doesn’t get that blood? It will make you horizontal.”
“I had no idea you could hold so much in your mind at one time,” Rush hissed.
“So,” Young continued, undeterred, “there are things you can do that make a difference. Like lying down. With your feet up. If you’re sitting, you can put your head down. You can pump your fists. You can eat. You can drink. You can avoid sixteen hour shifts.”
“I’ve already explained this to him,” the AI said, looking at Young. “Ancient physiology is similar.”
“Uh, okay,” Young said. “Good to know.”
“Is it?” Rush started to push himself up. “Is it really. Because—”
In one smooth motion, Young got an arm under the man’s shoulders, an arm under his knees, and lifted the scientist bodily off the floor. Before anyone could start a fight, Young set him, very carefully, on his feet.
“Fuck you,” Rush said, with princely dignity.
“You’re welcome,” Young growled. He pulled Rush’s nearest arm over his shoulder. They were outside his quarters, so he hit the door controls and pulled Rush into the anteroom. “Any idea why our radius goes to shit at the end of the day?”
“I think it must be fatigue,” the AI said earnestly, walking straight through the damn bulkhead.
Young flinched so hard he nearly took himself out. Rush steadied him.
“Sweetheart,” Rush said, patiently, when they were solid on their feet. “We’ve talked about doors.”
“Sorry.” The AI pushed its eyebrows together and gave them Jackson’s most apologetic expression. “Sorry, Nick. I got caught up in the moment.”
“Seriously?” Young muttered.
//Quiet,// Rush slid the word into his mind like a blade.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” Rush said, gathering himself, “and—ah, we’ll certainly consider your insights. No need to trouble Colonel Young further.”
“You can trouble me.” Young looked at Jackson. “In fact, why don’t we start with why the hell you trapped my chief scientist in your chair.”
“Goodnight,” Rush said quietly.
The AI vanished.
“Thanks.” Young dragged Rush toward the couch. “Thanks a lot. Do you know what it wants with you? I’m guessing you probably have some idea.”
//It’ll make my life quite a bit easier if you don’t antagonize her?//
//Yeah? And when are you going to start making my life easier?// Young asked.
“Oh, any day now, I expect.” Rush dropped onto the couch and propped both feet on Young’s coffee table. As Young turned on the overhead lights, the man flinched, one hand coming up. “Ugh. Why.”
The lights dimmed of their own accord.
Young seriously considered manhandling the scientist into a horizontal position but restrained himself. Barely. He sat on his coffee table and glared at the man. “What. Are you. Doing.”
Rush shot him an affronted look and opened his hands.
Young clenched his jaw, took a breath through his nose, and tried again. “Are you dragging me through hell for any particular reason? Or just spite?”
Delicately, Rush repositioned his glasses. “Excuse me?”
“We welded shut damaged power conduits in the port-side sensor array. We sat though a three hour briefing on the FTL drive. We pulled every intact crystal out of whatever the hell that thing was that you overloaded last week. We worked those crystals into a shattered monitoring panel at the edge of the habitable zone. We spent an hour talking to Brody about LIDAR mapping using kinos. We—”
“I recall the day,” Rush said dryly. “I’m less clear on your point, if you have one.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“I do this every day, you realize.”
“Bullshit,” Young said.
“I maintain a starship,” Rush said, all polite venom, “with a team of five. I’m simultaneously, trying to determine the scope of the damage to whatever the fuck this is.” He made a fluid back-and-forth motion between himself and Young with two fingers. “It requires, as you are so fond of pointing out, a lot of work.”
Young took another breath. “When you drive yourself into the ground, you also drive me into the ground.”
“So?” Rush asked.
Young leaned forward, buried his head in his hands, and tried not to throttle the man. His face hurt. He had no reserves. Or Rush had no reserves. Or they both had no reserves. He couldn’t tell, and didn’t know if there was actually a difference. When he spoke, he could hear the strain in his own voice. “Can we please. Design some kind of system. So we don’t murder one another.”
“I assumed that, should you have anything at all important to do, you’d simply order me to accompany you? Such as that completely pointless meeting with Wray where the pair of you cross-referenced what you remembered of SGC standard operating procedure regarding whatever the fuck it was it fucking was? I’ve been more than accommodating—”
“Yeah,” Young said. “You have. No need to get out your soap-box; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the sheer number of hours per day that you work.”
That seemed to set Rush back. Young could feel him confusedly wrestling with the concept, trying to make it into an accusation.
“I want a schedule where we eat and sleep,” Young clarified. “That’s all. Eight hours of actual sleep, not the bullshit arrangement we have, which is you pretending to sleep for twenty minutes then getting up to work on your laptop. Three meals per day. You assign yourself one shift.”
“Completely unacceptable,” Rush snapped. “Ludicrous, in fact.”
Young squeezed his eyes shut and buried the urge to come back with: You’re ludicrous, in fact. He took a breath. “This is the part where you make a counter offer. That’s how negotiations work, Rush.”
Rush contemplated Young. He bridged his fingers. “You sleep eight hours,” he said, “during which time I will do as I see fit in your immediate vicinity. I assign myself an alternating schedule of double and single shifts. Meals will take no longer than twenty minutes. You’ll stop working against me and actively participate in attempts to repair our link.”
“Everything you’ve done has made it worse,” Young growled. “Not fifteen minutes ago you laid both of us out. For what? For a bullshit measurement? You still look like shit. You want to fix this link? Sleep, Rush. In a bed. For more than ninety minutes at a time. For the love of god.”
“That won’t fix anything.”
“You want me to beg?”
“I want you to leave me alone.” Rush’s thoughts were a disorganized, upset swirl.
Young leaned forward, braced his elbows against his knees, and dropped his head into his hands. “I’d like nothing better. Literally nothing.”
Reflected misery echoed through their link.
“Theoretically,” Rush murmured, “if we can do even the smallest amount of repair work, we should be able to separate enough that I can fuckin’ sleep on your fuckin’ couch.”
“Tomorrow,” Young said, into his hands. “Mornings are better.”
Young fought down a wave of despair.
“Pull yourself together,” Rush snarled.
Young looked away.
The man was impossible to reason with. He didn’t even seem to understand the problem. He was killing them both by trying to force through a work schedule that made no accommodation, none at all, for the fact he couldn’t walk without pain, that he was exhausted to the point of collapse, that he was linked to a starship that spent all day and all night trying to drag him in. Rush was racking up terrible choice after terrible choice.
Young was at his breaking point. If he could just get some damn sleep maybe things would be different, but—
“I’m not willing to agree to a regimented schedule that I’m certain you’ll wield like a club,” Rush said, his tone cool, “but I am willing to prioritize repairing our cognitive connection. And—” the scientist hesitated, like he was on the point of a major concession, “—I’m willing to take your input.”
“Great.” Young’s voice cracked on the word. “Thanks so much.” He stared at the floor of dull, matte metal.
“An’ here’d be where you counter,” Rush said, almost gently.
“I want to you to let me try something,” Young whispered, at the end of his rope.
“I wanna shove your consciousness straight through the floor,” he admitted.
Rush said nothing.
Young looked up to see the man giving him a skeptical look over the tops of his glasses.
“I’m afraid, if that’s a request, you’ll have explain what you mean.”
“I’m pretty sure I can get you to sleep. And, even if you don’t give a damn about that, which is so stupid, Rush, but even if you don’t, it’ll at least give us an eight hour break from one another.”
To Young’s complete astonishment, Rush seemed to be considering his proposal.
“One night,” Young pressed. “Eight hours. And, in the morning, if our radius is significantly improved, you reconsider your approach to the problem.”
“Even if you could influence my consciousness level,” Rush said, his eyes narrowed, “I doubt you’d get eight hours out of it.”
“You doubt most things. All you need to do is agree to let me try.”
Rush’s thoughts were a cautious, aching swirl.
“What else?” Young said, trying not to sound desperate. “You wanna lay down some rules?”
“Not really,” Rush replied. “I don’t like the idea, but I doubt you’ll be successful.”
“Then what?” Young asked. “Name it.”
“No set schedule, and we continue our attempts t’repair the link tonight.”
“I’d agree to that.”
“Then we have a deal,” Rush said, his voice smooth.
They looked at one another. From beneath the deck plates came the faint, reassuring hum of FTL.
“Seriously?” Young asked. His own surprise and relief echoed across their link. He’d made the proposal out of pure frustration, with no real hope that Rush would even tolerate the idea of letting Young influence his consciousness level, let alone agree to actually do it—
Rush draped an arm over the back of the couch. “Let’s have it then.”
“Your plan. We’ve spent five nights attacking this my way and we’ve got fuck all to show for it. So what d’you suggest? I said I’d take your input. So.” The man spiraled a hand and pointed at himself. “Input.”
Young shifted on the coffee table. “Sorry. I’m just—surprised?”
“Get over it,” Rush said, unimpressed.
“Okay.” Young cleared his throat. “Maybe you fire up that schematic of our link you created in Brody’s bar?”
Rush looked at him blankly. “What ‘schematic’?”
Young bit back his frustration. “Fine. Artistic rendering. Whatever you wanna call it.”
“Describe it,” Rush said slowly.
“You describe it. It’s yours. I’ll just sound like an idiot.”
“Your only area of expertise.” With the kind of poise that could only come from decades of terrifying college students in lecture halls, Rush said, “Do it anyway.”
“Fine.” Young growled. “The thing with two ends? The bright half with the star, the web in the middle, and the dark half with the gravitational lensing effect?” By the end of the description, he’d wrung most of the irritation from his voice and from his thoughts. No point in antagonizing the scientist when he was finally, finally starting to unbend.
“Y’can recognize gravitational lensing?” Rush furrowed his eyebrows.
“I work in space.”.
“Right then. Fair point. Sorry. Describe more.” Rush spoke delicately, and his thoughts fractured, fractal-like.
Young focused on his memory of the mapped link. “There’s the one end that looks like an energy source. There’s a bunch of connecting pathways. There’s a darker portion. More felt than seen, really.”
“Voltage source, connective path, resistor, maybe?” Rush’s eyebrows were pushed together.
“Sure. Whatever you want. So, I guess you’re the voltage source, the link itself is the complicated connective path, and I’m the resistor?”
Rush looked at him, his expression impassive. His thoughts were uninterpretable. “Maybe. Keep going.”
“That’s pretty much it. Why don’t we take another look at it?”
“What’s stopping you then?” Rush asked.
“You’re the one who has to fire it up,” Young said. “I’ve tried. I can’t.”
“Interesting,” Rush said softly. “Remind me of when I did this?”
“In the bar, after I said ‘block the room’. You—remember this, right?” Young shifted uneasily.
Rush raised his eyebrows. “So y’want me to do that again? Focus on you? Block the room?”
“Ideally, yeah.” Young said, uneasy. “You ignored my question though. Do you remember this?”
But Rush’s focus was already narrowing. “Doing it now.”
The room faded, and, again, Young saw a fantastical web of dark and light.
This time, the whole thing looked—underpowered. The wattage from the star wasn’t as high. The bright part of the web looked glassy, almost translucent in places. Fragile. As before, his sense of Rush’s mind was strong. Again, he could feel interest from the scientist, he could feel the power of the man’s concentration, but—there was something else.
It wasn’t a block. It was a force. A pressure. A momentum, maybe? Whatever it was resisted movement through the entire network.
He waited for Rush to do something. To say something. To kick a metaphorical door off its hinges.
He could feel Rush’s mind through their wide open link. The guy was so absorbed there was an almost hypnotic quality to his thoughts. They ran fast and hard, smooth and bright. Like they did when he was coding.
Young decided to wait him out.
//Rush,// he projected. //What the hell are you doing?//
The words echoed across their link: Young speaking them, Rush’s perception of them, Young’s perception of Rush’s perception, Rush’s perception of Young’s perception of Rush’s perception. All of it occurred within the active link and within the schematic.
The words faded.
Nothing else changed.
This was getting ridiculous.
Carefully, Young pulled them toward what he thought of as his own half of the map, toward the dark gravity well that’d land them in synchronized physicality. It wasn’t happening easily. Traversing the web ached. Deep in his mind, a dull, dangerous, brittle pain threatened to snap through into something much worse. It reminded him of the way his knee had felt, years ago, just before he’d blown his ACL on an alien hillside.
Young marshaled his focus and tried to bring the room back in. On his own.
He concentrated on the ghostly sensation of the table edge under his fingers, under his thighs. He was still blind to the room, but his body was coming back. He focused on his breathing. He bit the inside of his cheek. Hard. That helped quite a bit.
Overlaid on the visual of the link, he saw the bright, overhead light of his quarters. He blinked. The room started to resolve. Lines and planes became ceiling and floors.
“What the hell was that?” Young glared at Rush. A headache slammed into place behind his eyes.
The scientist blinked. His thoughts collapsed out of their hyperfocused flow like someone’d dropped a wrench into his running engine. He shook his head.
“You okay?” Young asked, grudgingly.
“You don’t sound sure.”
“Would you mind trying that again?” Rush was distracted. Polite, even.
“Yeah. Turns out I would mind.” Young leaned in and pushed Rush’s hair out of his eyes. His skin was cool and clammy. His eyes were glassy. That being said, Young’s touch sharpened him right up.
“Ugh.” Rush shot him an affronted look and ducked away from Young’s hand.
“Does firing that up that take something out of you?” Young sat back. “You didn’t look normal.”
Rush averted his eyes and swallowed. “It’s difficult to say.” He looked back at Young. “You were certainly concentrating very intently. What did you see?”
“You know what I saw.” Young checked his watch. “We were in there for twenty minutes, Rush. What the hell were you doing?”
“Were we really?” Rush murmured. “Can y’show me your memory of your—perception, I suppose?
Young shot him an image of the link architecture, glassy and brittle; dark and inaccessible.
“Ah,” Rush said, smiling faintly. “That’s marvelous.”
“Rush,” Young growled. “Make sense.”
“What you just saw? I don’t see.” Rush said.
“It’s 2200 hours and I just scraped you off the floor. Make more sense than that.”
“I think I’ve got it. One more time.”
“No,” Young said flatly. “You explain or no dice. I’m not going in again unless you tell me what the hell you were doing in there.”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Rush said. “It was, I think, entirely you.”
“No, it damn well wasn’t. You landed us in there. You were focusing on something.”
“Yes,” Rush said. “You.”
“Not me,” Young growled.
“I assure you I most certainly was focusing on you. When I focused on you to the exclusion of all else—I think I inadvertently triggered a diagnostic algorithm.” Rush looked at him searchingly. “How odd. I wonder why that happens.”
“You what?” Young repeated, lost.
“It’s the same thing I use to assess Destiny’s circuitry. The capacity to perceive and map the link comes from me. That, I’m sure of. But you, somehow, are instinctively, possibly selectively—borrowing it?”
“No way,” Young shot back.
“You’re angling my own ability back toward me to get a view of the link. A view, by the way, that I don’t share.”
Young stared at him. “What.”
“Bit of a hairpin turn, really,” Rush said. “Quite inventive on your part.”
“Rush. If that’s happening, and I stress the if, then I’m not aware of doing it. At all.”
“Fascinating,” Rush said.
“If you don’t see the map of the link, what do you see?”
“You,” Rush admitted. “In isolation. All your running circuits. Nothing of myself. Nothing relational. Just your network. The way it runs.”
“And you decided to spend 20 minutes just—staring at it?”
Rush looked away. “It’s interesting. You’re very different than a starship.”
“Okay, great. Well, our link isn’t looking so good,” Young said. “Relative to the last time I saw it, right after you came out of the neural interface chair? The whole network is full of resistance. Underpowered.”
“Is it too much to ask for a fuckin’ manual?” Rush sighed. “Tech specs on the thing?” He gestured back and forth between his temple and Young. “Half of this seems—accidental. And needlessly complicated. Redundant. What kind of resistance?”
“Not sure. But it’s coming from you.”
“That seems unlikely.” Rush raised his eyebrows. “I have had very little luck resisting any of this.”
“Shit.” Young rubbed his jaw. “Yeah. It really felt like you though.”
Rush shrugged. “When you look at the link, can you see any damage? Anything that might be amenable to fixing?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t look great, honestly. Even compared to last week, when we first did this. But I have no idea how to fix it. You’d probably be better at it.”
“Undoubtedly. Unfortunately, I can’t see it.”
“So we need to find a way to give you my view.”
“Several,” Rush said. “I think the least dangerous method would involve synchronization. You set up your while-loop, I reverse it, call up the diagnostic algorithm, and hope I can see it.”
“Least dangerous?” Young growled.
“There’s a small possibility we get stuck in a loop we can’t break.”
“But we know the physical synchronization loop is quite delicate. Difficult to maintain, even. That should provide some protection.”
Young sighed. “You really think that if you can see this thing, you can repair it?”
“I do. Possibly tonight.”
“If you repair this thing, our deal still stands,” Young said. “Otherwise I’m out.”
“If I repair the link, we’d be able to separate,” Rush said. “I see no reason why—”
“People die from lack of sleep, Rush,” Young growled.
“You’re terribly fuckin’ solicitous. Did you mistake yourself for someone who gives a damn?”
“I have a direct stake in your physical survival.”
Rush sighed. “Fine. Set up your while-loop and let’s get this done.”
Young anchored the man in his physical body with a satisfying snap.
But that was about as far as he could get.
The physical anchoring was actively distracting. There was more pain than there should be. More tension. The closer their thoughts became, the more intense their headache turned. The swirl of Rush’s consciousness was slow and disorganized. Young picked up more from it than usual: a sense of intense frustration; Ancient-annotated power flow diagrams; a strangely detailed memory of the railing of the central bridge over the FTL drive; the middle of the FTL briefing; Chloe arguing with Eli about spacetime topologies; the searing disorientation of their separation in the hallway—
“Try to relax, genius,” Young said.
“Fuck you. I am,” Rush snapped back.
“Oh yeah. You sound real relaxed.”
Young wrapped a hand around Rush’s nearest ankle. He regrounded them. He focused on the tension in the scientist’s shoulders and drew the man’s attention to it. Instead of relaxing, Rush tensed further.
“Okay,” Young muttered.
“What?” Rush snarled.
“No. I’m not. I can’t be.”
“Well someone is resisting,” Young growled. “Pretty sure it’s not me. Forget setting up a loop. I can’t get enough of a toehold for a single round.”
Rush glared at him. “Stop being so tentative and make. It. Happen.”
“You can’t force someone into relaxing,” Young said through clenched teeth. “You are the one who needs to dismantle those resistances. You, Rush.”
“You don’t know that.”
“One hundred percent? No. But I’m pretty damn sure about it. You’ve done it before. You did it when we physically synched our movements. You’re not blocking, but you’re—force-fielding. Firewalling. Something.”
Rush squeezed his eyes shut and took a slow breath. “Interfering,” he said coolly. “It’s possible.”
“Maybe we try again in the morning,” Young suggested.
“I would vastly prefer,” Rush said, his voice cracking with the strain of keeping an even tone, “that we fix this now.”
“You’re pushing too hard,” Young said.
“You agreed to this,” Rush hissed.
Young grabbed the man’s ankle, grounded him viciously, and started again. This time, the resistance was worse. He tried to find a way in, any way, at all, but got nothing. Even his grounding felt like it was eroding under the pressure of Rush’s thought spiral.
Giving up wasn’t gonna go over very well.
//It ever occur to you that maybe we’re not supposed to do this?// Young projected carefully into the restive swirl of Rush’s thoughts.
//No,// Rush replied testily.
//You’re interfering within your own network. Which seems, I don’t know, fair? Normal? I’m not sure I’m supposed to be in there.//
Rush’s wave of irritation landed like a slap.
Young did his best to shake it off. //My point is I’m messing with your territory when I do this.//
//You’re constantly ‘messing with my territory’.//
Young hesitated. Because, yeah. That was true.
//Will you please,// Rush hissed, his eyes livid, //just try something?//
“There’s nothing to try.” Young stopped projecting and backed out of the connection. “My guess? Your interference patterns need energy to change within the network.” He stood, and offered the scientist his hand.
“Sit down.” Rush made no move to take his hand.
“You’re a lot of work,” Young growled. “A lot.”
“Sit,” Rush hissed.
“You get up, get ready to sleep, lie down, and we’ll give it one more round.”
“You have no discipline,” Rush said flatly.
Young threw up his hand, turned, and headed for the bathroom. He clenched his jaw against the headache that ratcheted up once he got there.
Rush lasted about seven minutes on the couch before he showed up in the doorframe of the bathroom just in time to watch Young spit TJ’s most recent effort at toothpaste into the sink.
“Discipline,” Young growled, “is adhering to a routine. You eat. You sleep. You fit your work in there. You do it again. Same way, pretty much, every day, in a sustainable manner. You know why we’re making no progress?” He rinsed the sandy remains of the homemade toothpaste off the brush.
Rush glowered at him.
“Because you are not disciplined, Rush. You.” Young slammed the toothbrush down on the edge of the sink. “Discipline isn’t throwing yourself at something until it caves or you do. That’s desperation.”
“You are the most rigid, least adaptable human being I’ve ever met,” Rush hissed. “Some problems take more time to solve than the fifteen minute increments you allot them. If you want to make progress, we need to persist.”
“I’m rigid? You’re the one who won’t compromise.”
“My entire existence is compromise.” Rush frustration spiraled out of his control. “Are y’really incapable of seeing that?”
Young stepped out of the bathroom. “You need to cool down. You want to work on our link? Stop shouting at me while I try to brush my damned teeth. That’d be a start.”
Young stalked into the bedroom.
Behind him, the bathroom door swished shut.
Young resisted the urge to send his fist into the nearest bulkhead.
If the scientist weren’t so pathologically stubborn, maybe they’d get somewhere.
Young took a breath. Then another. Slowly, he walked to the door and checked that the lock was engaged. He straightened the cushions on the couch. He realigned the coffee table. He turned the bedside light up and the room lights down. He sat on the edge of the bed, took off his boots, and placed them, neatly, next to the nightstand.
On the other side of their open link he felt the absolute idiot in the bathroom gripping the metal molding of the sink hard enough to cause a deeply unpleasant ache in both his forearms.
More than anything, Young wanted to block.
//Just fuckin’ do it,// Rush projected, picking up on the impulse.
//Not a chance.//
Rush slammed an incredibly complicated, extremely frustrated, rawly conceptual mental concept into his thoughts that seemed to be structured around—
Young was pretty sure he’d just been told to take his sense of discipline and shove it.
He shut his eyes, smiled faintly, and tried, like hell, to scrape a small sense of enjoyment out of how completely ridiculous the man was.
They weren’t going to fix the link.
They just weren’t.
He could feel it.
Their connection was a mess.
Rush was a mess.
He was a mess.
Young took off his jacket and draped it carefully over his boots.
He reached beneath the nightstand to pull out his battered, blood-tinged paperback copy of The Trial. He flipped through the pages, picked a random spot, and began.
One afternoon—K. was very busy with the final mail collection—his uncle Karl, a small landowner from the country, pushed his way into the room between two clerks who were bringing in papers to be signed. K. was less horrified at seeing his uncle than he had been by the long-harboured thought that he would come. It was inevitable that his uncle would come.
At the back of his mind, he was aware of Rush, very slowly, prying free of the sink.
K. had realized that for about a month. He had pictured him even then, stooping, a little, the squashed panama hat in his left hand, his right hand already held out towards K. from afar and then thrust across the desk in reckless haste, knocking over everything that lay in his path. His uncle was always in a hurry, for he was tormented by the unfortunate notion that during each of his visits to the capitol, which never lasted longer than a day, he had to accomplish everything he had planned to do, and yet not let slip any conversation, business, or amusement that might arise. In all this K., who as his former ward was particularly indebted to him, had to assist as best he could and even put him up for the night. “The phantom from the country” is what he used to call him. As soon as they had greeted each other—he had no time to sit down in the armchair K. offered him—he asked K. for a brief talk.
The bathroom swished open.
Rush stepped into the frame of the door and stopped. He crossed his arms, shook his hair back, and looked imperiously at Young. The man’s jacket was open, its sleeves ripped wide. His boots, unlaced, looked less like they fit him than usual. His glasses were half designer, half improvised solder-job. He should’ve looked ridiculous. Instead, as he took his weight off his left foot and leaned against the doorframe, he looked like the room was his. Like the ship was his. Like, if someone gave him the whole damn universe, he’d know just what to do with it.
“I’ll say this for you,” Young said. “You’ve got style, genius. Doesn’t really do you any favors, but style, all the same.”
Rush cocked his head and his hair fell into his eyes. “Excuse me,” he said, “but are you reading a book?”
“Yup.” Young turned the page.
“It’s necessary,” he said, swallowing painfully, “it’s necessary for my peace of mind.” K. immediately sent the clerks out of the room with instructions to admit no one.
“What book?” Rush asked.
Young raised his eyebrows. “The Trial. Franz Kafka.”
“The Trial,” Rush echoed softly. “How’d you come by it?”
“Get t’fuck,” Rush said, his tone almost friendly. “You came through with nothing but the communications stones. You cannot be implying you were carrying the thing on your person.”
Young held up the small, worn volume and tapped the bloodstained pages. “Fits right alongside a block of C4.”
“Lovely.” Rush pushed away from the doorframe and limped the few steps to the bed, favoring his left foot. “And you developed a fondness for Franz Kafka how?” He sat, crossed right foot over left knee, and began working his boot off.
“Read it as a teenager.”
Rush placed his boot on the floor and switched feet.
“You ever read it?” Young asked. “You seem like you’d be a reader.”
“Do I?” Rush’s thoughts were a guarded swirl. “Well, I’ve never read any Kafka. What’s the appeal?”
Young shrugged. “The SGC bureaucracy can be tough to tangle with, sometimes. Nice to know I’m not the only one who sees it.”
“You and Franz Kafka?” Rush side-eyed him hard over one shoulder.
Young shrugged. “Doubt you’d understand.”
“And why not?” Rush asked through gritted teeth, as he eased his left boot off.
“You’re never gonna see yourself in a book like this.” Young thumbed its well-worn pages. “Not anywhere. Not in the bureaucracy. Not beneath it. Not outside it. Nowhere.”
Rush laid down on the bed.
“Because in this book,” Young continued, “there’ll never be a hotheaded bastard who can stand in front of a locked door and get it to knuckle under just because he asked.”
Rush crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t like you,” he said flatly.
Young was a little taken aback at the aggressive non sequitur. “Yeah. Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I’m not telling you,” Rush said. “I’m reminding myself.”
Young snorted. “Oh yeah?”
“I think we should try again.”
“Big surprise. Y’know, when you injure a joint, your muscles tighten up around it.”
“You think that’s related?”
“The link looks different tonight. And you look like shit. Despite what you may say—hell, despite what I can feel you want? We’re getting nowhere with that while-loop.”
“I’d think you’d be able to establish it, regardless of my energy level.”
A flicker of uncertainty passed over Rush’s face. “The first time y’set it up was while Chloe and I were in quarantine.”
Young nodded, trying not to think too hard about the incident in question. “Yeah.” He flexed the book in his hands. “You were in rough shape that day, no doubt. But, even so, we only got you into a loop after you threw in. You’re the juice, genius, and you’re about tapped out, I think.”
“I’d know if that were the case.”
“Yeah,” Young said quietly. “You have a really accurate sense of your own limitations. I’ve always admired that about you.”
“You crash like a hard drive,” Gloria whispers, leaning over him, her hands on his shoulders. He’s face down over a desk covered with paper. “It’s really annoying, sweetheart.” She brings the cold with her, the smell of clove and cinnamon. Beyond the window, snow falls.
The memory shattered in a wave of despair. Of piercing, wrenching grief.
“Oh god.” The words came before Young could think better of them. “Sorry.”
“Fuck you,” Rush whispered hollowly. “I’m over it.”
Young squeezed his eyes shut. His throat was tight. “Yeah,” he said. “Got it.”
He turned away from Rush, set the book on the small bedside table, and turned out the light.
The scientist laid next to him, staring at the ceiling, his thoughts bleak.
Young sat, reached for the base of the bed, grabbed a spare blanket, and dropped it on Rush. “I hear it helps if you don’t lie there fully clothed like a goddamned vampire waiting for morning.”
The perimeter of the room began to glow, the emergency lights producing a soft, atmospheric light.
“Nice,” Young said.
“Forget it,” Young muttered. “Go the hell to sleep.”
“Vampires don’t wait for morning,” Rush pointed out. “They wait for the night.”
“Well if it isn’t the local vampire expert,” Young said dryly. “Thanks for the tip.”
Rush came up on one elbow and looked at Young like he was waiting for something. The soft light of FTL and the pastel perimeter glow the scientist’d somehow coaxed out of the walls gave him an otherworldly cast.
“This is not how you go to sleep, y’know,” Young whispered.
“I thought there was going to be some kind of attempt to ‘shove my consciousness through the floor’?”
“Yeah,” Young sighed, “but then we had a whole conversation. Like reasonable human beings. Pretty sure it was our first one ever. I didn’t wanna ruin the moment.”
“We had a deal,” Rush said.
“Yeah, I know, genius. But you’re off the hook.”
“I—” Rush began delicately. “I wouldn’t actually mind an attempt.”
Young tamped down on his surprise, but it echoed through the link anyway. “Really?
“You were right about a good deal more than I gave you credit for.” Rush gazed bleakly into the dark.
“Don’t take it so hard,” Young said. “You’re right about most things.”
“Don’t fuckin’ console me about it; that makes it worse.” Rush dropped back against the pillow.
Young snorted. “All right. If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure,” Rush said.
“Let me know if you want me to back off,” Young said. Very gently, he leaned against Rush’s running thoughts, creating a steady pressure, defining the boundary between them. “I’ve done it a few times now. This is pretty much it.”
“What is that?” Rush murmured.
“Pressure,” Young said. “Thought friction.”
“Thought friction,” Rush repeated. “Brilliant. As a name, it’s very descriptive. As a way to shut off my consciousness, it’s not working. At all.”
“Well I haven’t ramped it up yet,” Young said.
“I don’t see how this is supposed to accomplish anything. Maybe y’could use it to distract me, slightly, during a complex cognitive exercise?”
“Genius,” Young said, exerting a little more pressure, watching the scientist’s mind fight itself like hell, “it ever occur to you that you might’ve taken some real damage to your ability to sleep somewhere along the way?”
“I was never any good at sleeping,” Rush whispered.
“Yeah, I can picture that.” Unbidden came the memory of SG-7’s civilian scientist, bent over a Goa’uld healing device, trying to get the thing to activate without bloodstream naquadah. She’d worked through a night of mist and frost, trying to save her commanding officer. Young, on fourth watch, had kept his peace as the sun put rose gold in her frozen hair. By the time the mist had burned away, her CO was dead. She didn’t last the day.
He couldn’t remember her name.
“I never went into the field,” Rush murmured.
“What?” Young asked, startled.
“You’re drawing some kind of parallel between me and exhausted dead scientists you’ve known,” Rush said. “Very cheerful. Thanks for that. I’m just telling you that I never went into the field.”
“Never?” Young asked softly.
“You seem surprised,” Rush said. “I was genetically unique. I was intellectually valuable. I was a high-profile Lucian Alliance target.”
Young nodded, looking down at the man in the blurred starlight. He stepped up the pressure against the scientist’s thoughts. Within the familiar swirl he could feel the structure of REM sleep emerging. “You sure you’re okay with—whatever the hell this is? Some kind of sleep workaround?”
Rush looked back at him, his eyes watchful. “You’re hesitating. Why?”
“Depressing my consciousness becomes too much of a cheap trick for your puritanical streak, when push comes to shove?”
Young snorted. “I don’t have a puritanical streak.”
“Yes, y’fuckin do.” Rush shot him a knowing look. “But if not that—then what?”
“It seems pretty invasive; and it’s a little weird you can’t tell it’s working.”
Rush looked back at him, his eyes dark. The soft light of FTL gleamed in his hair and in the rims of his glasses. “If it makes y’feel better, I think I could stop your heart.”
Young shivered. “Oh yeah? I’m surprised you haven’t done it already.”
The corner of Rush’s mouth quirked. “An’ y’know what they call that?” he asked.
“Okay.” Young looked away before his smile could get the better of him. “Point taken.” Carefully he pulled Rush’s glasses off, increasing the pressure further. “Don’t sleep with these on.”
“Seems awfully optimistic,” Rush said. “It’s not working.”
“Hate to break it to you, genius, but yeah. It is.”
Young pressed against Rush’s mind, hard and predictable. Distantly, he felt a deep mental ache. This time, it wasn’t totally unpleasant. Almost the equivalent of what he might get if he really went to work on the years-old knot in the man’s neck.
An instant replay of their day began to flash across the screen of the scientist’s mind, interspersed with other things—his hand pressed flat against glass in a lab lit up cold and blue; his left ankle resting on his right knee, wedged into a chair in a dark concert hall; Gloria, achingly young, wearing a cable-knit sweater, pulling him up and off the spread of his math, just before breakfast, because she’d wanted him to look at the snow.
Young dropped the man straight down through REM.
“Told you it’d work,” he whispered.