Force over Distance: Chapter 21
Young had misjudged the man. For years. Since day one. He’d known it for a while. But there was no denying it now.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Noon.
Additional notes: None.
Young woke before his alarm. Even though Rush was atop of the covers and Young beneath them, they’d still tangled themselves up pretty well. Rush’s head rested against his shoulder, and, somehow, Young’d managed to get an arm around the man.
Rush was still out. The guy’s poor brain was making the most of its current opportunity: dreaming of crystal configurations while sleep architectures ran clear and bright. The headache and the glassy look of the man’s thought-wind were gone.
Young sighed, stared at the ceiling, and listened to the faint echoes of crystal coming through Rush’s dreams like the ghost of an alien choir. Dimly, he recalled dropping the man out of a nightmare or two, acting on half-asleep instinct.
“I’d say that worked pretty well,” Young said softly. “I’m sure you’re gonna be endlessly pissed about it.”
He was positive that if he tried extricating himself, he’d end up waking the scientist.
And then, his day would start.
He really didn’t want another day like the last five.
“Maybe we do paperwork this morning.” Young murmured. “Maybe you take the sixteen hundred to twenty-four hundred Science Team shift? Bet you’ll go for that. It’ll include your nineteen hundred briefing.”
Rush’s thoughts sharpened, and Young’s spoken words began influencing his dreams, which shifted to ballistic trajectories, midair displays, a distant signal that only Chloe seemed to hear, full of a familiar darkness, full of—
Young hauled him up and out of the slow-building nightmare.
Rush jerked into a seated position, one hand at his chest.
“Morning,” Young said.
“Fuck you,” Rush snapped, pure reflex.
“Sorry,” Rush amended.
“You okay?” Young tried not to let his amusement show.
“Ugh. What time is it?” Rush eyed his blanket dubiously.
“Around 0700 or so,” Young said. “You slept for eight hours.”
“No I didn’t.”
Young offered the guy a look at his watch.
Rush grabbed his wrist, studied the watch, then shoved Young’s hand back at him.
“Told you it’d work,” Young said.
Rush glared at him and stood, wincing as he eased his weight onto his feet. He limped into the bathroom and shut the door. After about two seconds, the door re-opened.
“Right, but actually fuck you,” the scientist snapped, his hair a mess, two fingers pointed at Young. With impeccable timing, the door closed itself.
Young had to work pretty hard not to audibly laugh.
Rush wrested a post-breakfast soldering-session out of Young, and they spent a few hours repairing damaged circuitry in forty-degree cold. By eleven hundred they were back in Young’s quarters, laptops set up, finally, finally doing something that didn’t involve physical labor.
And a good thing too. By Young’s estimation, he was two weeks in the hole when it came to reading reports prepared by the Science Team and Wray. He was also a solid three weeks behind on writing his own. He’d made it about halfway through the episode that’d resulted in their shipwide quarantine. No point in starting on his own report until he’d read TJ’s account.
…closer examination of the viral samples obtained showed that, although this strain has similar features to the plague that wiped out the Ancients, it’s not identical. Full sequencing of the viral genome recovered from samples on Destiny revealed differences on the nucleic acid and protein level. Results from maximum parsimony analysis with bootstrapping using viral sequences from Destiny’s database are attached as Appendix D. Results indicate this virus is likely a precursor to the strain responsible for the extinction of the Ancients. If so, it may have been aboard Destiny since the ship was launched. The likelihood it came from an obelisk planet is low.”
“Shit.” Young scanned the rest of the page. “Did you know about this?”
He looked up, raising his eyebrows at his chief scientist, who had, at some point in the last hour, relocated himself from couch to floor. The man’d hooked his feet over the coffee table to keep them elevated. He was on his back, staring at the ceiling with a perplexed expression.
The guy was pretty weird.
Young wished he’d gotten to know him a little better before all this. If he had, he might have some idea whether this kind of thing was something he usually did, or whether it resulted from integration with the ship.
If Rush wanted to ignore him for an hour, maybe Young could give him that much. They’d been up to a solid forty-five feet as of 0800. It had annoyed the hell out of his chief scientist. The man did not like to be wrong. Especially not when Young was right. For his part, Young was optimistic that, even if Rush couldn’t figure out a supernatural circuit repair job, they might gain ground with time alone.
Young closed the distance between their thoughts.
The harmonies of Destiny’s shields absorbed the scientist’s entire attention. A faint echo reverberated along their link—but he knew it paled in comparison to whatever had Rush’s full focus on lock.
The shields sounded nice, for sure, but Young needed to talk to him about TJ’s report.
“Rush.” He gave the other man a mental shove to get his attention.
Rush winced. He levered himself onto one elbow and looked up at Young with a wounded, perplexed expression.
Young, unexpectedly, felt like absolute shit. “Sorry, genius.”
“I think we’re about to drop out of FTL.” Rush’s eyebrows drew together as he looked at the walls. “Not sure why. There’s an echo in the shield harmonics? A doubling? All morning—” he trailed off and looked expectantly at the ceiling.
And, sure enough, FTL cut out.
Young felt the unpleasant sensation of his stomach getting left behind as they dropped into normal space. He pulled out his radio. “Bridge, report.”
“Colonel.” It was Volker. “You’re not gonna believe this.”
“I’m looking at a seed ship right now.”
Rush raised his eyebrows. “Well, that’d certainly explain the echo.”
“I’ll be right there.”
“Bring Rush with you,” Volker said.
Young hesitated. “I’ll try and find him.”
“Yeah, good plan,” Volker replied, dry and mild.
//Not your best work,// Rush projected. //If Volker can see through it, then, I assure you, so can everyone else.//
//At least I’m trying to keep up appearances,// Young shot back.
//I never have,// Rush smirked at him. //Starting now would be out of character.//
Young snagged Rush’s crutches from where they leaned against the end of the couch and extended a hand. He pulled scientist up, wincing at the tearing sensation in his feet as the man took his own weight.
When they reached the bridge, a long expanse of a battle-scarred seed ship dominated the forward view. Visible hull breaches flickered yellow, sealed by energy fields. A debris halo arced over the vessel, its inner ring just visible from their position. Rush stepped to the rail near Chloe’s station. Young followed, posting up at the scientist’s shoulder.
There was nothing nearby Young could see. No other ships, no planet, no gate. “What’ve we got, Eli?”
“Well,” Eli said, “I can’t tell you a whole lot because amazingly, their shields are still up ,which is both a great and terrible sign. Great because it means there are running systems, still intact. Terrible because it prevents me from finding out much about the internal state of the ship. Judging by the exterior, I’d say they were in a pretty intense firefight.”
“How long ago are we talking about?”
“No way to know.” Eli shrugged.
“Actually,” Chloe said, “I think there is a way to get a rough estimate. I opened the lower bound of the size detection parameter for the long-range sensors, took mass and velocity readings, then backwards extrapolated to a debris radius consistent with a two to six month window.” Her eyes flicked from Eli to Rush and back.
“Nice,” Eli said, impressed.
Rush stepped closer, taking a look at her monitor. The swirl of his thoughts brightened as he scanned her sensor modifications. His mouth quirked.
//?// Young sent him a wordless burst of inquiry,.
//Nothing.// Rush tried like hell to tamp down his own reaction but it was no good. Young picked it up anyway.
Rush was proud of her.
Chloe turned to look up at Rush, her expression hopeful. The glow from her monitor put blue highlights in her hair.
Rush gave her a nod. A hint of a smile.
“Nice job, Chloe,” Young said.
She bent over her station. Her hair fell in a curtain to hide her face, but not before Young caught the grin she couldn’t quite fight down.
“So, is docking and boarding an option?” Young asked the room.
“No,” Brody replied.
“Maybe,” Eli modified.
“Of course it is,” Rush said.
“C’mon guys,” Young growled.
Brody spoke first. “The only way to dock with that ship would be to match their shield frequencies to ours. That’d require continuous modulation of our shields in real time as the two energy fields merge.”
“Not an obstacle,” Rush countered.
“Um, why not?” Volker asked.
“Because I’m telling you it’s not.”
//Easy,// Young projected. //They don’t understand.//
“The question is: should we do so.” Rush filed some of the edge off his tone. “With its shields up, we can’t scan for life signs. We won’t get an accurate read on life support. Environmental conditions.”
Young rubbed his jaw and stared across the space separating them from the other vessel. “We could use more supplies. A look at their database?”
“Undoubtedly,” Rush murmured. His eyes flicked into empty air.
“What’s your feeling?” Young asked in an undertone.
Rush angled his head, glanced at Young, then out at the damaged ship. //Usually I’d be all for a salvage mission like this, as we need the resources, but—// His thoughts dissolved in an uneasy swirl.
//Nothing. We should do it.//
//What were you gonna say?//
Across their open link, Young felt how unsettled he was. //You have a bad feeling about this.//
//True. A ‘bad feeling,’ however, is not adequate grounds for passing up an opportunity for salvage and research.//
//You may be selling yourself a little short here,// Young replied.
They looked at one another, hesitating on the brink of a nuanced, joint decision. Young’s propensity to follow instinct over analysis warred with Rush’s propensity to favor analysis over instinct. Young stared into Rush’s eyes, watching his chief scientist run a wordless, rawly conceptual cost/benefit: real gains stacked against visceral unease. Real gains carried the day. They always did. They always should.
“Ummmmmmmmmm,” Volker said.
//God damn it,// Young snarled, breaking eye contact.
Rush ran a hand through his hair and leaned against the forward rail.
Eli moved from his usual station to check the monitor bank behind Chloe. As he passed, he caught Young’s eye. “You guys are getting worse,” he said between his teeth in a quiet sing-song.
Young regrouped, turned to the rest of the bridge, and said, “Let’s do this. Unless anyone has any objections.” He scanned the room, getting a nod from Eli, a half-shrug from Volker, and a thumbs-up from Park. Brody didn’t look up from his monitor.
“I don’t think we should go,” Chloe said quietly.
Young and Rush locked eyes, and then, just as quickly, looked away from one another.
“I need more than that, Chloe.” Young’s voice was as encouraging as he could make it. “If you have a good reason—” He left space for her to answer.
“No.” She looked up at him. “It’s not anything specific. I just—I have a bad feeling.”
“We’ll take every precaution,” Young said.
Chloe’s eyes found Rush, but the scientist wasn’t looking at her. He was focused on empty air.
The AI was probably in the mix.
Young unclipped his radio. “Lieutenant Scott, we’ll be boarding an Ancient seed ship shortly. Start assembling salvage teams and meet me at the docking port. I want at least one military presence on each team.”
“I’m still waiting to hear how we’re going to be docking,” Volker said mildly.
“Ask the ship-whisperer over there.” Eli shrugged.
“Just initiate the protocol.” Rush’s tone was a smooth drape over sharp irritation, but Young sensed something else coming through their link. Anxiety, maybe?
//This goes better if you’re nice to them,// Young sent. //You have enough common sense to realize that, right?//
“You don’t want to talk through it?” Brody asked.
“If you’re wrong, and you can’t match the frequencies, when the shields collide, we’d be looking at the kind of explosive power you’d get from a hydrogen bomb,” Volker said. “I, for one, would like to know how exactly you plan on accomplishing this frequency-matching business. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Rush didn’t reply.
//You gotta give them something, genius,// Young said.
//I’m aware,// Rush shot back testily.
Young felt the scientist search for an explanation that’d be understandable to someone in the room. Anyone. He wasn’t coming up with much.
The bridge crew watched him, waiting for an answer.
Still, Rush said nothing.
“I think it’ll be okay.” Chloe spoke into the increasingly awkward silence. “He’s really good with harmonic oscillators.”
Young got a wave of misery across their open link. He tried not to look at the scientist.
Eli sighed. “We all saw the Magical Bullshit Thing with the FTL drive a few weeks back. How does he do any of this? He can solve NP-complete problems and he’s linked to the ship.”
Rush looked sharply at him.
“Yeah, I figured that out and immediately told everyone, by the way.” Eli turned to Volker. “It’ll be fine. He’ll do it, then we’ll figure out how it happened.”
“Okay,” Volker said skeptically, looking down at his station.
“If we’re still alive, we’ll figure it out,” Brody muttered.
“If you’re all quite finished,” Rush said, landing on the haughty side of grateful, “perhaps someone would like to initiate the docking protocol? Before one of our many alien pursuers show up?”
//You owe Eli for this,// Young projected. //Big time.//
//Yes, I realize that. Thanks so much for backing me up.//
//What the hell am I gonna say?//
//Just order them to initiate the docking protocol. Obviously.//
//Yeah. That’s worked so well for me in the past.//
//So you are capable of learning. A longstanding internal debate of mine has been put to rest.//
Young resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Okay,” he said, addressing the room, “let’s do this.”
“I have it queued up.” Eli looked at Rush. “Where do you wanna be?”
“Here is fine,” Rush said. “Go when ready.”
“Sorry,” Eli said, “I meant what station do you want? I’ll port shields to you.”
“Ah,” Rush said delicately. “Yours, I think.”
“You got it,” Eli replied.
//Do you need an interface?// Young asked.
//No,// Rush replied. //No reason Eli shouldn’t watch the data though.//
//How about using one for show?//
//This’ll be difficult enough as it is without pretending to do it via computer.//
“Everything’s queued up,” Eli said. “Chloe’s got our trajectory. I’ll be at thrusters. Dale, can you screen for debris?”
“Yep,” Volker said. “Lisa, you ready with the starboard weapons array in case I see anything?”
“You know it,” Park said, her eyes on her monitors.
“Internal systems nominal,” Brody said. “Docking apparatus in the green.”
“Course is laid in,” Chloe said.
“Go when ready,” Young told her.
Their trajectory changed, putting them on course for the seed ship.
Rush closed his hands around the forward rail. He watched the approaching seed ship, dark against a backdrop of stars. Through their link, Young felt him let go of his surroundings and focus on the harmonies of Destiny’s shields, then on the subtler tones of the seed ship.
Rush leaned into his braced hands and bowed his head, listening.
And then, he began to shift Destiny’s shield frequencies.
The ship’s pull on Rush’s mind escalated. A two-part harmony played across their link. Haunting. Achingly lonely. Young heard the man make improvisational choices, creating melodic structures that would exist only once. That no one but Young would ever hear.
Young gritted his teeth, his heart rate rising as he tried to keep the scientist present. Grounded in his own body.
“Umm,” Brody said, “I thought there was going to be frequency modulation happening here.”
“It is happening.” Eli sounded as if he didn’t believe his own words. “Check it out,” he switched his display to project into midair.
In his peripheral vision, Young sensed the unified turning of the Science Team toward the display where multicolored wave functions moved progressively into sync. He kept his eyes on Rush, a dark silhouette in front of a spectacular light show. Beyond the forward view, the shields had turned visible, reacting to the proximity of the seed ship.
The melody pouring through the open link subsumed any sense of Rush. Young was left only with music. Overwhelming. All consuming. Playing out through energy fields stretched over interstellar space, though crystal matrices embedded in circuits of spun naquadah.
His vision faded to a gray mist.
His pulse pounded in his temples.
He gripped the back of Chloe’s chair.
A harmonic line crescendoed, and, suddenly, Rush was back, aware of the herculean effort Young was exerting on his behalf. The scientist flexed his left foot, grounding himself.
Young took a breath as the pressure on his mind eased.
The shields merged with an aching, final harmony.
Rush turned his focus to fighting the pull of the ship. He leaned into his foot and clamped his hands around the rail. Young stepped close enough that their shoulders very nearly touched. With a joint effort, they pulled Rush free.
//Shit.// Young glanced around the bridge to see if anyone’d noticed anything out of the ordinary. Most of the Science Team were still huddled around Eli’s display; only Chloe watched them, her expression neutral.
Rush looked over at him and Young felt the effort it was still costing the scientist to stay focused on the bridge.
//How’s the foot?// Young asked, trying to ground the guy a little more.
“I barely feel it,” Rush murmured.
Chloe shot Rush a sharp look.
//I know,// Young didn’t bother to hide his concern. //What’s going on? I thought things had gotten better. Our link is healing.//
Rush shook his head. //Context is important. I was purposefully integrating with the ship’s systems while simultaneously stressing them.//
//Are you saying the more anxious the ship gets, the more it pulls on you?//
Rush locked eyes with him and nodded.
//I almost couldn’t keep you here,// Young said.
//I hate to say this, but tearing the hell out of your foot has turned out to be a helpful strategy.//
//Yes well. I’ve always assumed that was the primary purpose of the bolts.// Rush flexed his fingers and a jolt of pain traveled from wrist to elbow.
Rush lifted an eyebrow. //Effective.//
“Dr. Rush?” Chloe cocked her head, eyes watchful. “Colonel? Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine, Chloe,” Rush said.
The hallways of the seed ship were long and dim, lit by flickering emergency lights. Cold winds, created by the shifting pressures of unsealed doors, funneled through the corridors.
Young led his team down a long, dark hall, one hand on his assault rifle, the other on his radio.
They’d assessed life support. It was online.
They’d scanned for lifesigns. They’d found none.
They’d secured the ship as far as was possible. But—it was a big ship.
Scott put together six teams: four focused on salvage and made up of military personnel; two focused on information retrieval with three scientists and a military escort.
It was a good setup, as far as it went.
Rush, against Young and the AI’s objections, had been adamant about leaving Destiny and checking out the seed ship in person. Sure. Because that made sense. Young’d spent fifteen minutes trying to talk the man out of it. But, short of physically restraining the scientist (which, yeah, he’d considered), it hadn’t been a fight he was gonna win.
That was how Young’d found himself in command of a seventh team, which consisted of Rush, Eli, and Chloe.
He wasn’t happy about it. At all.
“Does anyone else find this creepy?” Eli whispered.
“Yes, Eli,” Rush replied. “I think everyone finds it ‘creepy’.”
Chloe, pale in the flickering blue light, said nothing.
“How would you rate this?” Eli asked. “Like, if zero is an adorable baby rabbit and ten is the upside-down spider-walk from The Exorcist.”
“Quiet.” Young shot Eli a pointed look.
A draft of icy air flowed past them.
At the back of his mind, Rush’s thoughts churned with anxiety.
There was something off about the ship. It was nothing like Destiny; Rush could barely sense its circuitry and it ignored him with an indifferent menace. No doors opened. No lights came on where he walked. It was unsettling the scientist.
//Did you expect this place to roll out the red carpet?// Young asked.
//Hardly,// Rush shot back. //But even at minimal power levels—I should rate.//
//You should rate? What does that mean?//
//I mean I should fuckin’ rate on whatever metric it’s using. This ship should be able to sense my presence and respond to at least some degree. It’s been gutted.//
//Meaning it’s got minimal life support and shields, but not much else?//
//That’s my strong impression, yes.//
When they reached the equivalent of the seed ship’s control interface room, Young’s team broke apart in a flurry of self-assigned tasks. Eli pulled a hard drive and adaptor out of his sweatshirt and began coaxing powered-down monitors to life. Chloe pulled a panel off the base of a console and dug through dead circuitry, searching for a solid-state backup of the ship’s logs.
Rush leaned his crutches against the seed ship equivalent of his favorite interface and eyed the dead console with a speculative look. He hooked a hand over one shoulder.
//You gonna glare it into submission?//
//Actually, I was considering stripping it for parts.//
Instead of answering, Rush slid his hands beneath the dust-covered console, wedged a fingernail into a small space between two plates, and depressed a hidden catch. The panel fell into his hands.
Young pulled a small flashlight out of his jacket, handed it to Rush, then posted himself outside the open doorway. He kept his hands on his assault rifle. He watched the long, dark expanse of corridor that stretched in either direction.
No one spoke.
In the back of his mind, Rush’s unease continued to ratchet up.
“Radio check in.” Young spoke quietly, broadcasting on all channels a good five minutes before the designated time. “This is team seven.”
The other teams sounded off.
Cold air currents whistled around metal corners.
Young watched the long, linear dark of the corridor.
It was very quiet.
From nothing, out of nowhere, a surge of icy terror poured from his link with Rush. Young’s heart pounded against his ribs. His head throbbed. There wasn’t enough air in the universe to fill his lungs. His hands tightened on his assault rifle. He shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet.
Inside the CI room, a datapad clattered to the floor.
Chloe stood frozen, her hands outstretched, as if to ward something off. Her eyes were wide. Full of fear. Focused on Rush.
“Chloe.” Rush mirrored her stance. Despite the uncontrolled horror of his thoughts, Young felt the scientist dig in against a rising headache, against the threatening chaos in his mind. “Don't panic,” he whispered, trying to calm them both. “Do not.” He broke off, one hand coming to his temple. “Panic.”
“Rush. What’s going on?” Young growled.
Rush didn’t look at him.
Young eyes flicked to Eli. The kid shrugged.
“They're here.” Chloe’s eyes didn’t leave Rush. “The ones that changed me. They're close.”
Young felt a prickling sensation as the hair at the back of his neck stood on end.
How could they have missed this when they scanned for life signs?
His gaze flicked wildly between the corridor and the room.
It was clear to him that this situation was about to crystallize into an unmitigated catastrophe.
Almost certainly this had been a trap. An attempt to finally take the ship. His best people were spread out over this dark, skeletal vessel, separated from Destiny, from each other.
All the enemy would have to do was undock. They’d be cut off.
That had to be their plan.
It was what he would have done.
“No,” Rush said, responding to Young’s thought. “They may try it, but no one, no one is capable of cutting me off from Destiny.”
Young believed him. It was enough to curb the desperation in his thoughts.
“They’re very close.” Chloe knelt to retrieve her datapad from the floor.
//You have any idea how many of these things we’re dealing with?// Young asked.
Rush focused on his headache, pulling it to prominence so he could analyze the alien presence. Despite his efforts, his sense of them remained vague. “Can y’tell how many there are?” Rush asked Chloe, his voice low and intent.
“Five,” she whispered. “Maybe six, all in a group. Close. Very close. Beyond that—there are more.”
“God.” Eli swiped Chloe’s datapad and shook it. “Why aren’t their life signs showing up? This thing is a worthless piece of crap.”
A burst of distant gunfire broke the tomblike silence of the ship.
Young’s radio crackled to life. “This is Greer. We’re taking fire. I repeat, we are taking fire.”
Young dialed the volume down and broadcasted on all channels. “All teams fall back to Destiny immediately. We have confirmed enemy contact. Destiny may have been boarded. Radio chatter to a minimum.”
“They’re getting closer,” Chloe said.
“This room has only one exit,” Rush hissed.
Young looked down the long, dark corridor. There was, of course, no cover.
Making it back to Destiny without sustaining casualties would be difficult with a trained group of soldiers. He had three untrained civilians, one of whom was injured. Between them, they had only his assault rifle and handgun.
They weren’t gonna make it.
//Get it together,// Rush snapped, anxiety pouring through their link, //and do not frighten them.// He shot a meaningful look toward Eli and Chloe, who inched closer together, their shoulders hunched, eyes wide.
Young gave the scientist a short nod, then pulled his sidearm and chambered a round. He handed his gun to Eli with a brief, “You’ve got our six. Don’t fire unless you’re sure you’ll hit something.”
“I—yeah. Okay. I can do that.”
“Chloe,” Young said. “You’re with Rush.”
They were the most vulnerable members of the team; putting them in the middle made sense. Plus, Chloe was reassured by the scientist’s presence, and, if he kept her from panicking, so much the better. There was a drawback the strategy he was choosing, however, because if Rush really went down, Chloe wasn’t strong enough to keep him on his feet.
They’d cross that bridge if and when they came to it.
Young unslung his rifle. He reached over, pulled a crutch out of Rush’s hand and laid it silently on the deck plating.
Chloe ducked under the scientist’s free arm. “You promised me something,” she murmured to Rush.
“It won’t come to that.” Rush’s thoughts were an edgy, unreadable swirl, but Young could tell he hadn’t liked what she’d said.
“But if it does? I’m different than you; you know I am.”
Reluctantly, he nodded at her. “Do your fuckin’ best, then? Please.”
Chloe drew in a shuddering breath, steadying herself. “I will.”
//?// Young shot at Rush.
//Not now,// Rush replied. //Let’s go.//
Young grabbed the lifesigns detector from Eli, scanning for the locations of his teams. The sooner they could run into some backup, the better. Not everyone he’d sent to the seed ship showed up on the small screen. He hoped that meant they were out of range and on Destiny.
Young scanned the empty corridors, then led his team back the way they’d come. They moved silently through darkened hallways. The going was much, much slower than Young would’ve preferred.
The emergency lighting glowed at the bases of the walls like dying embers. He wasn’t sure how long the light would last.
Chloe’s frightened whisper broke the stillness. “Behind us.”
“Go.” Young stepped around Chloe and Rush. “The cross-corridor.” He caught Eli’s eye. “Make sure it’s secure.”
//Please tell me you can make force fields here.//
//No.// Rush said. //There’s very little power to draw from, and I can’t interconvert.//
//Right, and would y’like a physics lesson, then? The answer is no.//
Young continued down the corridor, walking backward, behind Chloe and Rush. His eyes swept the darkness. His nerves tingled with the desire, the absolute necessity, of making it to the minimal cover of the intersecting corridors.
He heard them before he saw them. Their quiet gait echoed through the corridors like the beating wings of birds.
His heart pounded in his throat. He brought his weapon to his shoulder. They were thirty feet from the intersection.
Six of them solidified out of the blackness as a mass of pale blue. Their joints bent with an alien strangeness. Their eyes were a deep, unfathomable black. As a unit, they pulled their weapons.
He wanted to shout to Chloe and Rush to run, but the words died in his throat.
Young sighted down his weapon, his finger on the trigger.
At his back, maddeningly, Rush and Chloe slowed.
In his peripheral vision, he caught Chloe, half-turned to look over her shoulder, her face obscured beneath a curtain of dark hair.
“Chloe.” Rush dragged her forward.
Two aliens holstered their plasma guns and pulled out something else. Something smaller.
Young did not want to find out what.
He opened fire. His weapon pressed satisfyingly into his shoulder as he sent rounds flying into the dark. In the confined space, he took out three of the six in his first burst, but not before they got off a few shots with their small, handheld weapons.
Something hit him square in the chest.
His finger slipped from the trigger. He staggered with the impact, then regrounded himself and resumed firing.
He didn’t look down.
Behind him, Chloe and Rush ducked around the corner to join Eli in the cross-corridor.
Two more of the things hit the deck before the last turned and retreated into the darkness.
Young ducked around the corner, breathing hard.
Eli stood, gun in hand, eyeing the hallway ahead.
Chloe collapsed into a crouch against the wall, her hands pressed to her mouth.
Rush was waiting for him.
As Young rounded the corner, the scientist grabbed his jacket and shoved him against the wall. He scanned the front of Young’s Kevlar vest, then closed his fingers around the object that had buried itself there. Viciously, he yanked it out.
It was a dart.
As they watched, a small bead of liquid appeared at its tip, glinting in the flickering light.
//Tell me this didn’t penetrate your vest.//
//Thank god.// Rush carefully placed the dart against the wall, out of the way.
“They want us alive?” Eli murmured, horrified.
//I shouldn’t have said her name,// Rush projected. //They recognized her. And me, I believe. One got away, correct?//
Young nodded. His eyes shifted to Chloe, who sat against the wall, her face pale and expressionless, tear tracks catching the dim blue light. He wished Eli had kept his mouth shut.
A quick glance at Eli confirmed that Eli also wished that.
“We need to keep moving,” Young said.
At this, Chloe looked up, but not at him. At Rush.
“Come on, then.” Rush held out his hand. Chloe took it, but stood under her own power and pulled Rush’s arm across her shoulders.
They moved out silently, making good progress.
Suspiciously good progress.
There was only one exit from this ship—and it was likely they’d just become high priority targets.
The docking port was a perfect place for a flanking maneuver.
Young envisioned the narrow passage: it was entirely exposed. No cover.
At this pace, they wouldn’t reach the port for another seven or eight minutes, giving the aliens plenty of time to prepare an ambush if they hadn’t already.
They’d be cut down. Or taken.
It was inevitable.
“What’s going on?” Eli asked, edgily splitting his attention between Young and their six.
//You see the problem, right?// Young asked, projecting an image of the docking port at the scientist.
Rush searched for another solution, flipping through ideas at a breathtaking pace until finally—
//Yes,// Young projected. He locked eyes with Rush. “Let’s try it,” he mouthed silently.
“Did you guys just make a secret plan?” Eli murmured.
Young held a finger to his lips, then motioned everyone in, displaying the datapad in his hand. As they watched, the final set of four blinking dots vanished from the detector, through the docking port.
When he was sure he had everyone’s attention, he pointed to the seed ship’s shuttle.
“The shuttle?” Eli hissed. “Are you crazy? We don’t even know if it’s operational.”
“The docking port’s a no go,” Young said.
“Why not?” Eli’s voice cracked.
“They’re gathering there.” Chloe’s eyelids flickered. “Waiting for us. We won’t make it.”
Eli looked at her, a pained expression on his face. He nodded.
They moved out again, Young on point, Eli at their six.
//Once we’re back on Destiny,// Young projected, //I assume you’ll be able to get these things off the ship?//
//Yes,// Rush said grimly. //There are several options.//
//Can I make a request?// Young asked.
//I don’t know, can you? Not sure I’ve ever received a request from you before.//
//When you pick from your options, choose the one that’s least likely to kill you? Rather than the one that’s most ‘efficient’?//
//I’m touched, colonel.// Rush’s projection was desert dry, but—there was a hint of surprise laced beneath the words.
//We have guns. And a very capable crew.//
//I’m sure I’ll take it under advisement.//
They moved silently through the dim, dead corridors. The ship had grown darker. Colder. Young could see his breath in the air.
They had nearly made it to the shuttle when Chloe stopped, pulling Rush to a halt with a painful wrench that unbalanced the scientist. Young turned back, just in time to prevent the pair of them from overbalancing.
“What is it?” Young asked, one hand around Rush’s bicep, steadying him as Chloe found her footing.
“Two groups of them.” Her voice was tight with fear. “Coming up fast from behind and—” she broke off, her brow furrowing, “from that way.” She pointed into the darkness. Ahead of them. To the left.
“How fast?” Young braced his weapon against his shoulder.
“Fast,” Chloe said, her voice breaking. “Very fast.”
Young locked eyes with Eli. “Both hands on the gun,” he said. “When you fire, be ready for the recoil.”
Eli nodded, his face pale.
Young moved out again, picking up the pace. They were close to the shuttle. They were so. Goddamned. Close.
Again, he heard them before he saw them. The sound of their approach like wind tormenting a sail, came from a cross-corridor, ahead, and to their left.
They had to clear the intersection before the enemy did. Young sped up.
Behind him, Chloe dragged Rush into a near run, her breath coming like sobs hard on his heels.
When they made the intersection, the group of hostiles, coming from the left, was nearly on top of them. Young opened fire. A few short bursts slowed them down. They scattered to the edges of the hall. He fired a long burst as Chloe and Rush crossed the intersection point behind him.
“Go, Chloe,” Young shouted. “Fast as you can.”
Still on their six, Eli opened fire.
Young glanced back. Eli’d dropped two of the group on their six, but more were right behind.
They had plasma weapons, but they weren’t firing.
He felt the unmistakable sensation of a dart burying itself in his shoulder.
Through the open link, he felt a wave of dread from Rush.
He kept firing, taking down two more even as yanked the dart free.
“Eli, with me,” he shouted. They retreated shoulder to shoulder, firing at the aliens trying to regroup at the corridor intersection point. When they’d scattered them as much as possible, he told Eli to go.
He fired a final, broad spread. His aim was already deteriorating. A tingling sensation spread along his arm.
By the time he made it around the corner, he could barely hang on to his gun. Numbness spread from his shoulder down towards his hand, up his neck, across his chest.
He locked eyes with Rush. Rush nodded shortly at him.
Rush shoved Eli back the way they’d come. “Stand at the corner. Fire when appropriate.” He pulled Young’s gun from his nerveless hand and lowered it to the floor. “Chloe,” he snapped. “Help.”
Rush unzipped Young’s jacket, and yanked it down over his shoulders.
“I’m here,” Chloe whispered, already working Young’s bad hand out of his sleeve.
The world was beginning to blur and tilt. He focused on trying to help Rush with—whatever he was doing—but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t feel the wall at his back. His adrenaline was leaving him. It was difficult to focus.
//You can make it,// Young said. //The shuttle isn’t far.//
Young’s knees buckled. Rush and Chloe tried to control his slide down the wall.
“Oh crap,” Eli breathed, his shoulders square, the handgun held level in a death grip. “Oh crap.” He fired his weapon. “Shit.” He fired again. “Fuck.” He fired again. “I mean, really. Fuck.”
Rush, his hands and thoughts flying, tore off Young’s Kevlar vest, his movements economical and sure. Methodically, he removed the darts protruding from it, and pulled it over his head.
“What’s the plan?” Chloe’s voice wavered, but her hands were steady as she helped Rush into the the vest.
“You two drag him to the shuttle. I’ll cover you. Once you get there, run the startup sequence.”
She nodded at him.
As the spreading numbness turned complete, Young understood what Chloe saw in Rush. Why she’d backed him in the civilian mutiny. Why her eyes snapped to him on the bridge, in the lab, on this godforsaken ship. Because, as Rush reached for the assault rifle, Young knew, he knew that there was no one else in the world he’d trust more to pull this off.
//Stay with me as long as you can,// Rush projected.
The scientist surged to his feet. He stepped forward, reached for Eli’s shoulder, hauled the kid back, and pushed him in Chloe’s direction. He took Eli’s place, firing a sustained burst down the corridor like he did it every damned day of his life.
Young had misjudged the man. For years. Since day one. He’d known it for a while. But there was no denying it now.
Around them and along the path to the shuttle, the dim embers of the emergency lights flickered, as though trying, with whatever they had left, to light the way.
Young fought to hold onto his consciousness, but sensation faded first, and then sight.
In the end, he was left only with the clatter of gunfire, falling like hail on the tin roof of a ranger’s station, high in the mountains of Wyoming.
“Night’s coming,” his brother whispers, standing at the window, looking at the sky.