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: Witching hour.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
Young woke before his alarm. Even though Rush was on top of the covers and Young underneath them, they’d still managed to tangle themselves up pretty well. Rush’s head was resting against his shoulder, and, somehow, Young had managed to get an arm around the guy.
Rush was still out. The guy’s poor brain was probably trying to make the most of its current opportunity. He was dreaming of crystal configurations. His thoughts ran clear and bright. The headache of the previous night was gone.
Young sighed, staring at the ceiling, listening 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 nightmares multiple times over the course of the night, mostly running on instinct.
“I’d say that worked pretty well,” Young murmured, “but I’m sure you’re going to be endlessly pissed about it.”
He was pretty sure if he tried to extricate 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.
“I think today we’ll do paperwork in the morning.” Young said quietly. “Maybe you can take the sixteen hundred to twenty-four hundred science team shift? Bet you’ll go for that. It’ll include the 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 pulled him up and out of the slow-building nightmare, and Rush jerked awake, coming into a seated position, one hand at his chest.
“Good morning,” Young said.
“Fuck you,” Rush snapped, pure reflex.
“Sorry,” Rush amended.
“You okay?” Young asked, trying not to let his amusement show.
“Ugh. What time is it?” Rush eyed his blanket dubiously, his eyebrows pushed together.
“Around 0700 or so,” Young said. “You slept for eight hours.”
“No I didn’t,” Rush said flatly.
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, then stood, wincing as he eased his weight on his feet. He limped into the bathroom and shut the door. After about two seconds, the door opened again.
“Right, but actually fuck you,” the scientist snapped, his hair a mess, two fingers pointed at Young. The bathroom door swished shut of its own accord.
Young had to work pretty hard not to audibly laugh.
Rush managed to wrest a post-breakfast soldering-session out of Young, and they spent two hours repairing damaged circuitry in forty-degree cold. But, by eleven o’clock 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 roughly 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 had resulted in a shipwide quarantine. No point in starting on his own report until he’d made it through TJ’s account of the incident.
…closer examination of the viral samples obtained revealed 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 both 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 that was ultimately responsible for the near extinction of the Ancients. If this is the case, it may have been on board Destiny since the ship was launched. Alternatively, it may have been liberated following the full activation of areas of the ship that had previously been dormant. The likelihood that it came from the second obelisk planet is very small—”
“Shit,” Young murmured. “Did you know about this?” he asked Rush, his eyes still scanning over the report.
He looked up, raising his eyebrows at the scientist, who had, at some point in the last hour, relocated from the couch to the floor.
Rush had his feet hooked over the low table to keep them elevated and was lying 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 of 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.
Then again, if Rush wanted to ignore him for an hour, 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 Rush. The guy 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 some ground with time alone.
Young closed the distance between their thoughts.
Rush was listening to the harmonies of Destiny’s shields, only peripherally aware of either Young or his surroundings. Young could hear them as well, a faint echo reverberating through his mind—but he knew it paled in comparison to what the scientist was getting.
The shields sounded nice, for sure, but Young really needed to talk to him about TJ’s report.
“Rush.” Young 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—” Rush 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.”
It was Volker who responded. “Colonel, you’re not going to believe this.”
“I’m looking at a seed ship right now.”
Rush raised his eyebrows. “Well I suppose that would 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 said. //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. //Unlike you.//
//I never have,// Rush smirked at him. //Starting now would be out of character.//
Young picked up Rush’s crutches and extended a hand to pull the scientist to his feet, wincing at the tearing sensation.
When they reached the bridge, the forward view was full of the long expanse of a seed ship. It was battle-damaged, with visible hull breaches sealed over by flickering yellow force fields. Rush stepped right up to the rail near Chloe’s station at the forward monitor. Young followed, standing at the scientist’s shoulder.
There was nothing nearby that Young could see. No other ships, no planet, no gate.
“What have we got, Eli?” Young asked.
“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’s likely a lot of running systems that are 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?”
“There’s no way to know, really.”
“Actually,” Chloe said. “There is a way to get a rough estimate. I just opened the lower bound of the size detection parameter for the long-range sensors. I picked up a debris radius consistent with a two to six month window.” Her eyes flicked from Eli to Rush and back.
Rush raised his eyebrows at her, and stepped forward, taking a look at her monitor. The intent swirl of his thoughts brightened as he scanned over her sensor modifications.
//?// Young sent him a wordless burst of inquiry as Rush’s mouth quirked.
//Nothing,// Rush replied, trying to tamp down on his own reaction. It was no good. Young picked it up anyway.
Rush was proud of her.
Chloe turned in her seat to look up at Rush. The glow from her monitor put blue highlights in her hair.
Rush gave her a nod. A hint of a smile. Then he turned his eyes back toward the ship centered in the forward view.
“Nice job, Chloe,” Young said.
She flashed him a smile then bent back over her station. Her head fell in a curtain to hide her face.
“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 up. “The only way to dock with that ship would be to match their shield frequencies to ours, which would mean 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 with his still-splinted hand, and stared across the space that separated them from the other vessel. “We could always use additional supplies. A chance to 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, and then back out at the damaged ship. //Usually I’d be all for a salvage mission like this as we desperately need the resources, but—// His thoughts dissolved in an uneasy swirl.
//Nothing. We should do it.//
//What were you gonna say?//
//Nothing.// But across their open link, Young could feel how unsettled he was.
//You have a bad feeling about this,// Young said.
//True. That, however, is not adequate grounds for passing up an opportunity for salvage and research.//
They hesitated on the brink of indecision, looking at one another. Together they tipped seamlessly into the inevitability of Rush’s cost/benefit analysis. A visceral sense of warning wasn’t strong enough to counter the likely benefits.
“Ummmmmmm,” Volker said quietly.
//God damn it,// Young snarled, as they looked away from one another.
Rush ran a hand through his hair and stepped laterally, to lean against the forward rail.
Eli moved from his station to check the monitor bank behind Chloe. “You guys are getting worse,” he said between his teeth in a quiet sing-song.
“Okay.” Young turned to the rest of the bridge. “Let’s do this, unless anyone has any objections.” He scanned the room, getting a nod from Eli, a half-shrug from Volker, and an enthusiastic nod from Park. Brody didn’t look up from his monitor
“I don’t think we should go,” Chloe said quietly. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
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 trailed off, and looked at her from beneath his eyebrows.
“No, no. It’s not anything specific. Something just seems—not right.”
“We’ll take every precaution,” Young said.
Chloe’s eyes found Rush, but the scientist wasn’t looking at her. He was focused on the empty air. Probably the AI was 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 replied.
“Just initiate the protocol.” Rush’s tone was a smooth drape over sharp irritation, but Young could feel something else coming through their link. Anxiety, maybe?
//This’ll go 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 first?” Brody asked.
“If you’re wrong, and you can’t match the frequencies, when the shields collide we could be looking at the kind of explosive power you’d get with 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 could feel the scientist searching for a way to explain what he was planning to do in such a way that at least someone would understand it. He wasn’t coming up with anything.
The entire bridge crew was watching him, waiting for an answer.
Still, Rush said nothing.
“I think it will be okay,” Chloe said softly, into the increasingly awkward silence. “He’s really good with harmonic oscillators.”
Young got a wave of pure misery across their open link. He tried not to look at the scientist.
Eli spoke up. “I mean, we all saw that 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 shrugged and turned back to the bridge. “It’s going to 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,// Rush said, acidly.
//What the hell am I going to 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 now 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 said, looking at Rush. “Where do you want to 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.”
“Okay, 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 is going to 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?”
“Got it,” 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 is in the green.”
“Go when you’re ready,” Young told her.
Their trajectory changed so that they were heading directly toward the seed ship.
Rush stepped to the rail in front of the forward view and closed both hands around it. He leaned forward, looking out at the seed ship, dark against a backdrop of stars. Through their link, Young could feel him let go of his surroundings and focus, intently, on the harmonies of Destiny’s shields, then on the subtler tones of the seed ship.
Rush leaned against his braced hands, his head bowed, listening.
And then? He began to modify Destiny’s shield frequencies.
The ship’s pull on Rush’s mind escalated. A two-part harmony echoed across their link. Haunting. Achingly lonely. Young could feel the man making 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 to at least some degree.
“Umm,” Brody said, “I thought there was going to be frequency modulation happening here.”
“It is happening,” Eli replied, sounding as if he didn’t quite believe his own words. “Check it out,” he switched his display to project into midair.
In his peripheral vision, Young could sense the unified turning of the science team toward the display where multicolored wave functions moved progressively into sync. Young kept his eyes on Rush, a dark silhouette in front of a spectacular light show. Beyond the forward view, the shields had become visible, reacting to the proximity of the seed ship.
The melody coming 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, suddenly aware of the herculean effort that Young was exerting on his behalf. The scientist shifted his weight. He flexed his left foot, grounding himself.
Young took a deep breath as some of the pressure eased on his mind.
The shields merged with an aching, final harmony.
Rush turned his entire focus to fighting the pull of the ship, leaning into his foot, clamping his hands around the rail. Young stepped next to him, close enough that their shoulders were very nearly touching. With a final joint effort, they pulled Rush free.
//Shit.// Young projected at the scientist, glancing around the bridge to see if anyone had noticed anything out of the ordinary. Most of the science team were still huddled around Eli’s display. Only Chloe was looking in their direction, her expression carefully neutral.
Rush looked over at him and Young could feel the effort it was still costing the scientist to stay focused on the bridge.
//How’s the foot?// Young asked him, trying to pull him in.
“I barely feel it,” Rush murmured aloud.
Chloe shot Rush a sharp look, but said nothing.
//I know,// Young shot back, not bothering to hide his concern. //What’s going on? I thought things had gotten better. Our link is healing. The ship—//
Rush shook his head, picking up on Young’s train of thought. //As we have discovered with our link, context is important. I was purposefully integrating with the ship’s systems. While simultaneously stressing it.//
//Are you saying that 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 actually 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, causing a jolt of pain to radiate down his arm to his elbow.
//Ugh,// Young sent back, disgusted.
Rush lifted an eyebrow. //Effective.//
“Dr. Rush?” Chloe asked, her voice cautious, her head cocked, eyes full of wordless inquiry. “Colonel? Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine, Chloe,” Rush said quietly.
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.
The ship was very quiet. Very dark.
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 had put together six teams. Four were focused on salvage operations and were made up entirely of military personnel. Two teams were focused on information retrieval. Those teams consisted of three scientists and one military escort—either Scott or Greer.
It was a good setup.
As far as it went.
Rush, of course, against both 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 had spent almost 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.
And so. Young had found himself in command of a seventh team, which consisted of Rush, Eli, and Chloe.
He wasn’t happy about it.
“Does anyone else find this creepy?” Eli whispered.
“Yes, Eli,” Rush whispered. “I think everyone finds it ‘creepy’.”
Chloe, pale in the flickering blue light, said nothing.
“How would you rate this?” Eli whispered. “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 feel it with his mind, 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 fucking 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, shields, but not much else?//
//That’s my strong impression, yes.//
When they reached the equivalent of the control interface room on the seed ship, Young’s team broke apart after a flurry of whispered, self-assigned tasks. Eli pulled a hard drive and adaptor out of the pocket of his sweatshirt and started trying to coax powered down consoles to life. Chloe pulled a panel off the base of a console and started digging through dead circuitry, looking 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. Carefully, he placed it on the floor.
Young pulled a small flashlight out of his jacket, handed it to Rush, then posted himself just outside the open doorway. He kept his hands on his assault rifle. He watched the long, dark expanse of corridor that stretched in opposite directions.
No one spoke.
In the back of his mind, Rush’s sense of unease continued to ratchet up.
“Radio check in.” Young spoke quietly, broadcasting on all channels before the designated time. “This is team seven.” He listened to the other six teams sound off, trying to feel reassured at the sound of their voices.
Cold air 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, he—
Inside the CI room, a datapad clattered to the floor.
Chloe stood frozen, her hands stretched in front of her, palm open, as if to ward something off. Her eyes were wide. Full of fear.
She was looking directly at Rush.
“Chloe,” Rush whispered. He had both hands raised, mirroring her stance. Despite the uncontrolled horror of his thoughts, Young felt the scientist dig in against a rising headache, against the rising chaos in his mind. “Don't panic,” Rush whispered, trying to calm them both. “Do not—” broke off, one hand coming to his temple, “panic.”
“Rush,” he whispered. “What’s going on?” Young’s eyes flicked to Eli. The kid shrugged.
It was Chloe who answered. “They're here,” she whispered, her eyes never leaving 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 lifeforms?
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 gain access to Destiny. 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 whispered, 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. And that was enough to bring his own mind back under control.
He nodded, still watching the corridor.
“They’re very close,” Chloe whispered, her voice barely audible.
//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 focus on the alien presence. Despite his efforts, his sense of them, remained vague, difficult to localize, and painful. //Chloe may be better at this.// “Can you 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 hissed, picking up the datapad that Chloe had dropped and shaking it. “Why aren’t their life signs showing up? This thing is a worthless piece of crap. Why does this always happen to us?”
A short burst of distant gunfire broke the tomblike silence of the ship. They all jumped.
“This is Greer,” Young’s radio cracked and he turned down the volume immediately. “We are taking fire. I repeat, we are taking fire.”
Young pulled out his radio and broadcast on all channels. “This is Colonel Young. 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 whispered.
“This room has only one exit,” Rush hissed. “We need to get out of here.”
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 going to 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 had inched closer together, their shoulders hunched, eyes wide.
Young gave him a short nod before pulling out his handgun and chambering a round. He handed the gun to Eli with a brief, “You’ve got our six. Don’t fire unless you’re sure you’re going to hit something.”
“I—yeah. Okay. I can do that.”
“Chloe,” Young said, and her eyes briefly snapped toward him. “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 huge drawback the strategy he was choosing, however, because if Rush really went down, Chloe was not strong enough to be able to keep him on his feet.
They’d cross that bridge if and when they came to it.
“Okay.” Young unslung his rifle. He reached over, pulled a crutch out of Rush’s hand and laid it silently on the deck plating.
Chloe pulled the scientist’s arm over her shoulder. “You promised me something,” she murmured to Rush.
“It won’t come to that,” he whispered back. His thoughts were an edgy, unreadable swirl, but Young could tell that he didn’t like 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 was showing up on the small screen. He hoped that meant they were out of range of the device, and back 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 have preferred.
It had also gotten darker. The emergency lighting had stopped flickering. It glowed at the bases of the walls like a dying embers. He wasn’t sure how long the light was going to last.
Chloe’s frightened whisper broke the stillness. “Behind us.”
There was an intersecting corridor one hundred feet in front of them.
“Go.” Young stepped out and around Chloe and Rush. He caught Eli’s eye. “The cross-corridor,” he murmured, “make sure it’s secure.” Eli gave him a startled look, but moved out ahead of Chloe and Rush.
//Please tell me you can make force fields here.//
//No.// Rush said shortly. //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, just 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.
They came with a faint rushing sound. Their quiet gait echoed through the corridors like the beating wings of birds.
His heart pounded in his throat. He brought his weapon up 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 straightened. 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, continuing to back up, his finger on the trigger.
At his back, maddeningly, Rush and Chloe slowed.
In his peripheral vision, he caught Chloe, half-turned to look back over her shoulder, her face obscured beneath a curtain of dark hair.
“Chloe,” Rush snapped in a whisper, dragging her forward.
Two aliens holstered their plasma guns. They pulled out something else. Something smaller.
He did not want to find out what.
Young opened fire, feeling the weapon press satisfyingly into his shoulder as he sent rounds flying into the dark. In this confined space, with an assault rifle, he was able to take out three of the six in his first burst, but not before they got off several shots with their small, handheld weapons, before scattering to the walls.
Behind him, Chloe and Rush ducked around the corner to join Eli in the cross-corridor.
He’d just begun his second burst when something hit him square in the chest. His finger slipped from the trigger of his weapon and he staggered with the impact, then regrounded himself and resumed firing.
He didn’t look down.
Two more of the things hit the deck before the last turned and retreated back into the darkness.
Young ducked around the corner, breathing hard.
Eli stood, gun in hand, looking watchfully into the darkness ahead.
Chloe had 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 quietly. //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 whispered.
At this, Chloe looked up, but not at him. At Rush.
“Come on, then,” Rush whispered to her, holding out his hand. Chloe took it, but stood under her own power and pulled Rush’s arm back across her shoulders.
They moved out silently, making good progress.
Suspiciously good progress.
There was only one exit from this ship available to them—and it was likely that 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 imaging of the docking port at the scientist.
Rush searched for another solution, his mind 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.
He pointed to the seed ship’s nearest shuttle.
“The shuttle?” Eli whispered, his voice barely audible. “Are you crazy? We don’t even know if it’s operational.”
“Unfortunately, the docking port is a no go,” Young whispered back.
“Why not?” Eli replied.
“They’re gathering there,” Chloe confirmed, her eyelids flickering. “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 rebalanced.
“Two groups of them.” Her voice was tight and full of 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.
He heard them. The sound of their approach like wind tormenting a sail, coming 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.
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 into a cross corridor and 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.”
Eli opened fire.
The second group of aliens were coming from behind. Eli’d dropped two of them, but more were right behind.
They had plasma weapons, but they weren’t firing.
In that moment, he felt the unmistakable sensation of a dart burying itself in his right shoulder.
Through the open link he felt a wave of dread from Rush.
He kept firing, taking down two more even as he pulled the dart out with his left hand.
“Eli, with me,” he shouted. They retreated shoulder to shoulder, firing at the aliens who were trying to regroup at the corridor intersection point. When they’d scattered them as much as possible, 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.
“Stand at the corner. Fire when appropriate.” Rush pointed back the way they’d come and gave Eli his most intense glare. He pulled Young’s gun from his nerveless hand and lowered it to the floor. “Chloe,” he said. “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, and reached for Eli’s shoulder. He pulled the kid back and pushed him in Chloe’s direction as he took his 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 the 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 tried to hold onto 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.