Force over Distance: Chapter 22
Rush had grounded the pair of them. Straight into whatever remained of Young’s split-open mind.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Dawn.
Additional notes: None.
Young regained consciousness in pieces. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t open his eyes. He couldn’t tell where he was in space. He couldn’t feel the deck plating beneath him. He could hear the quiet hiss of air, flowing over metal edges. The sound of a few people shifting inside a room too small to echo.
He got only the faintest hint of Rush through their link. The swirl of the man’s consciousness was weak. Far away. Laced with darkness.
Young clawed at the walls of his own mind, trying to fight a disembodied panic until—
Eli’s voice cut through the darkness.
“Seriously, Chloe.” The words and the tone and the presence of the kid himself was just about the most reassuring thing Young had heard in his goddamned life. “It’ll be okay. I know it will, because, hi, let’s be real: this is exactly like at the end of Empire when everything looks bad, but then they fix the hyperdrive and—”
“Eli.” Chloe’s voice came thick and exasperated, like she was smiling through tears. “We have to focus.”
The three of them, at least, had made it to the shuttle.
But what about Rush? The scientist’s thoughts were troublingly dim. They didn’t feel close. At all.
Again, he tried to open his eyes.
Again, he failed.
“Right. You’re right. Okay. But. Consider that, if there’s someone here who needs to focus? It’s not me.” Eli paused. “Rush. Rush, come on, man.” The sharp crack of a strong snap broke the quiet, echoing off close metal walls.
A softer sound came, skin on cloth, and Nick Rush fired off a sentence in Ancient.
The wave of relief that washed over him was so intense he felt vaguely sick.
They’d made it. All of them. Thank god.
“Ow!” Eli sounded aggrieved.
“Eli,” Chloe snapped.
“Don’t ‘Eli’ me. He grabbed me.”
“You can’t just yank away like that. His wrists are injured.”
“Crap. Yeah. He scared me though.”
“Well, what did you expect?” Chloe asked. “He’s distracted, not dead.”
“What did he say? Did you get that? It’s hard to tell when he uses colloquialisms.”
“Knock it off, you ridiculous child.” Chloe sniffed.
“So, not helpful,” Eli said, with wounded dignity.
“Dr. Rush?” Chloe tried this time, speaking clearly and distinctly. “Dr. Rush, can you talk to us? Or, actually—potes dicere?”
“Yeah,” Eli agreed. “He’s focused on something else. Just wish he could tell us what.”
“Why is he like this?” Chloe murmured. “Why is he all Ancient-y?”
Young finally managed to get his eyes cracked open. They didn’t stay that way, but it was enough to see Chloe and Eli, backed by a field of stationary stars, looking searchingly at Rush. Their faces were lit from beneath from the glow of a live display.
“Why is he ‘Ancient-y’,” Eli repeated, stalling for time. “Umm, not sure.”
“You’re such a liar.”
“What do you mean?”
“Eli. If you didn’t know, you’d be climbing the walls to figure it out. Plus, you’d be talking about it nonstop. Making theories left and right. You know exactly what’s going on, and you have for a while now. Spill.”
“Really I can’t,” Eli said. “I promised. But hey. Maybe if you guess correctly, then, y’know, I won’t have told you anything?”
If Young had been able to roll his eyes, he would have. It was clear he’d need to have a conversation with Eli about the meaning of the word “classified.”
Chloe sighed. “We don’t have time for this.”
“Actually, we do. We’re parked underneath the FTL drive, we have no weapons, we have no communications, and Destiny’s not going anywhere, so—time is pretty much the only thing we have.”
“Eli. We could jump to FTL at literally any second.”
“Not true. First of all, we’re sitting under the drive, so we’d have a solid twenty seconds of warning, probably more—”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
“Second of all,” Eli said, continuing undeterred, “Destiny’s not going anywhere without Rush on board. Literally. Boots to deck plating, if you know what I mean. They’ll be lucky if they have even minimal power.”
“He’s that integral?”
“Yup,” Eli said quietly. “I’m pretty sure.”
“Okay,” Chloe said, with a soft exhale. “Guessing. I can guess, I guess.” She took a moment to think. “Rush is linked to Destiny,” she murmured. “Everyone knows that at this point, but no one’s really talked about the fact that he speaks Ancient like a native.”
“Yeah, but he always did, right?”
“No,” Chloe said softly. “Did you not realize that? He was always very good. The best of all of us. But now, his accent has changed. His constructions have changed.”
“How do you know?” Eli sounded uneasy. “It’s not like we speak a lot of Ancient aloud.”
“Maybe we should,” Chloe whispered. “It’s beautiful. I read the database aloud, sometimes, to Matt. He likes hearing it.”
“Really?” Eli asked softly.
“Yeah. I hope he’s okay.”
“I’m sure he is,” Eli said bracingly. “C’mon. He’s Matt. Remember when he ran a marathon with a bag of sand in ninety-degree heat? I sure do. Aliens are like, so easy for him. Walk in the park.”
Chloe didn’t say anything.
“Stop stewing, Chloe,” Eli said. “Figure out why Rush is weird so I don’t have to tell you.”
“I think it has something to do with the colonel being out of commission,” Chloe said. “Something strange has been going on between them.”
“Strange! Yes! Odd! Super freaking bizarre! Keep going.”
Young forced his eyes open again. This time, through the forward view, he recognized the gentle curve of Destiny’s FTL drive.
“They’re always together,” Chloe continued. “I haven’t seen Dr. Rush on his own since we were yanked out on the stones.”
“Interesting,” Eli said.
“Rush is right. You are ridiculous.” Young heard the smile in Chloe’s voice. “And then the colonel gets shot with one of those darts and Rush gets weird almost immediately? That’s more than a coincidence.”
“It does seem that way.”
“The colonel has been helping him. I know he has.” She paused. “Dr. Rush told me he felt like the ship had a real hold over him, but now I’m wondering—”
“Wait. Rush told you that? Rush talks to you? Like, about stuff?”
“Are you jealous?” Chloe sounded amused.
“Jealous? No. No. Definitely not,” Eli’s tone turned nonchalant. “Keep going.”
“So—I’ll guess he’s somehow linked to the colonel,” Chloe said quietly, “in the same way he’s linked to Destiny?”
“Got it in one,” Eli murmured.
They were quiet while Chloe digested this new information.
Young cracked his eyelids and managed to keep them open at half-mast. Try though he might, he still couldn’t turn his head. He watched Eli and Chloe their faces illuminated by the the light from the consoles. His chief scientist was a dark silhouette next to the science station.
Chloe studied Rush. “This is more than just speaking Ancient. He’s not aware of us.”
“Yeah,” Eli said wearily. “It may surprise you to know that, despite the number of demands I get per day, neither one of them ever tells me anything. I’m pretty sure that, without the colonel, Rush gets ‘trapped’ with the ship. Meaning most of his attention is being taken up by Destiny right now. Like, he has to have no idea we’re talking about him. Otherwise he’d look—I don’t know. More pissed.”
“Maybe,” Chloe said guardedly. “That’s what it seems like. Although, he was with it enough to yell at you when you were snapping your fingers in his face.”
“Which we both understand,” Chloe said dryly.
“Bottom line, though?” Eli said, “I don’t think he’ll be much help in terms of figuring out what the heck we should do.”
“I think it’s up to us,” Chloe agreed.
With a supreme effort, Young shifted his head.
Some of his sensation was coming back; he felt, now, the cold of the deck plating and a distant burn where the dart had penetrated his arm.
Hopefully that’d be temporary.
Feeling more awake, he searched out Rush’s thoughts, dim and distant as they were, and started to work the man free of Destiny, mapping edges, pulling back, pulling down, trying to anchor him.
This time, Rush pulled back.
Alarmed, Young stopped his extraction attempt.
Rush kept pulling.
Young found himself in the odd position of grounding himself against the interwoven forces of Rush and Destiny. He resisted for all he was worth, his heart rate rising, breath coming slightly faster. The burn in his arm intensified. The deck plating chilled.
In response, the pressure on his mind eased. He got a faint but unmistakable wave of exasperation from the other man.
//All right, fine,// he growled. //Don’t make me regret this.//
He shut his eyes, stopped grounding himself, and let Rush pull him out of his body.
There was a moment of mental vertigo, brief and terrible, then—
He opened his eyes. He was still in the shuttle. Except. All the lights were on. Everything was bathed in a friendly gold glow. The deck plating was warm. The consoles were live, the stars behind the forward view were bright, and, playing from the shuttle’s com system, he could hear piano.
Young sat easily. The pain and the numbness in his arm were gone.
Chloe and Eli were nowhere to be seen. Rush watched him with an amused expression.
Young studied the scientist, taking in his altered appearance. Rush’s hair was short. Well, shorter, growing out of cut that might’ve, once upon a time, been neat. A crisp, white shirt had replaced his black military jacket. He was wearing designer shoes Young had never seen. His glasses were intact.
“Hi,” Young said cautiously.
“Hello,” Rush propped his feet on a locked console, steepled his fingers, and tried not to smile.
There was something off about him.
There was something on about him.
The man was put together. Body and mind, a spectacular fit. This was the echo, maybe, of the math professor Young had never known. Alive. Charming. The brightest thing in a room full of light.
“Um, where are we right now?” Young asked, adrift.
“Difficult to say.” Rush said, almost gently. “I’m hosting your cognition in a novel way. I created this representation so we could talk.”
“You made this?” Young got his feet under him and stood.
“Mmm hmm.” Rush swept his hair out of his eyes, and gave Young a searching look. “Do you like it?”
“Yeah.” Young heard the hesitation in his own voice. “I like it, but, uh, why bother?” He came to lean against the science console immediately next to where Rush had propped his feet.
“Because,” the scientist said, “the unaltered human mind can’t interpret direct input from Destiny, which, unfortunately for us all, has annexed my attention and most of my consciousness. This allows me to shield you. Effectively, I’ve buried everything you can’t tolerate beneath a perceptual overlay.”
Young raised his eyebrows. “So what the hell is this supposed to be?” He gestured at their surroundings. “A shuttle with improved lighting? You can build any interface you want? And you choose the shuttle?”
“An’ what’s wrong with the shuttle?”
“Nothing.” Young fought down a smile. “It’s just not very imaginative.”
“Next time, I’ll consider making brunch. Right now? I’m extremely busy.” Rush smirked at him.
“I’m sure you are.” Young’s tone turned sober. “What’s going on?”
“The most concerning thing our uninvited guests have done thus far is rig the communications array to broadcast a strong, short-range signal designed to alert neighboring ships to our presence. I’m suppressing it, but there was a brief window when it was broadcasting live.”
“Good,” Young said. “What else?”
“They’ve got barely any power to work with, so that’s making their lives difficult—”
The man couldn’t give a report in a military manner to save his life.
“Rush. Numbers. Locations.”
“I don’t know. The sensors aren’t picking them up.”
Young sighed. “Right. Why is that, do you think?”
“They must be broadcasting some kind of interference pattern, the probable purpose of which is to prevent my prior tactic of venting them to space in a targeted manner.”
“Any information on the crew?”
Rush shook his head.
“We’ve gotta get back to the ship.” Young said. “Physically.”
“I agree, but, for once, let’s not go off half-cocked, shall we?”
Young cleared his throat. “What do you mean?”
“First,” Rush said, counting off on his fingers, “outside my head, you’re lying paralyzed on the floor. Second, I’m stuck with Destiny, and third, well—I’ll illustrate.”
The lights in the shuttle dimmed. Like transparent specters, Eli and Chloe faded in, their voices faint, the outlines of the main console visible through their bodies.
“We’ve got power.” Eli scanned his console. “We’ve got navigation—mostly. Pitch is a workaround, but that’s okay because there’s two of us, and someone can do yaw and roll while the other does pitch, so we can go where we want. The question is—”
“—where,” Chloe finished. “We have to decide now. It’s already been forty-five minutes. We have to help them.”
“Chloe, we have no idea what’s happening on Destiny. Plus, we have two injured people here. Or, one injured person, one sanity-challenged person. Who, okay, yeah, also has injuries. Anyway, the smart thing to do is to wait. Let the cavalry take care of things.”
“We very well may be the cavalry, Eli.”
“Okay, in principle, maybe. But if we are the cavalry? Then we’re the worst cavalry in the history of all cavalries. First of all, we have barely any ammo left, and I for one don’t think that we can really take these blue guys on without lots and lots of bullets. Second of all, what the heck are we supposed to do with them?” Eli made a sweeping motion that encompassed Rush and the rear of the shuttle, where Young was still laid out on the deck plating. “At a minimum we need one of them.”
“Eli, we’ve got to do something before—” she broke off, raising her hands in a helpless gesture. “They’ll tear through the crew.” She said, speaking with difficulty, her expression distorting under the pressure of threatening tears. “You don’t know—”
“Okay,” Eli murmured. “Okay, we’ll go.”
Rush let Chloe and Eli fade from his interface and they vanished from the shuttle. The scientist raised his eyebrows at Young. “It’s a bizarre mix of adorable and terrifying, is it not?” he asked. “If we make any kind of move now, Chloe and Eli will be implementing it.”
“This is maybe a bit out of their league,” Young admitted.
“You think so?” Rush asked. His sarcasm, delivered with no bite, hit as pure charm.
Young looked away, trying to get his head on straight.
“You’d better go back,” the scientist continued “and stop them from doing anything premature. When you’re ready, and, to be explicit here, by ‘ready’ I mean not paralyzed, tell them to proceed to the port side of the ship. There’s a cargo bay about three quarters of the way toward the bow. I can open it and pressurize it when necessary.”
“And get them working on a way to modify the sensors to track our guests.”
Young nodded. “When do you want to be pulled out?”
“Don’t attempt it until we make it to the cargo bay on Destiny. The ship—is more than a bit anxious, frankly, and it’s got an—“ he broke off, his eyes sliding away “—an unusually good grip on me.”
“No kidding. I can barely feel your thoughts, genius.”
Rush nodded. “Well, in any case, I’m not inclined to fight it at the moment, as I’m actively suppressing outgoing communications, amongst other things.”
Young nodded. “Are you going to be able to keep suppressing that signal when I pull you out?”
Rush’s expression was pained. “I’m not certain. As you know, I have a difficult time holding myself in that middle ground between reality and the ship when I’m trying to manipulate systems. It ends up being quite a bit harder on you than on me, I’m afraid.”
Young nodded. “Like with the shield harmonics.”
“Precisely. And you’re not in the best shape at the moment.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“Too bad we can’t separate.Then you could leave me on the shuttle until you’d retaken the ship.”
“There’s no way I’d ever consider that.”
Rush raised his eyebrows. “It’d be safer. You should consider using the chair. Pulling me free of the ship without it will be difficult.”
“You’re difficult,” Young muttered. “I’m not dragging you to the chair room in the middle of a foothold situation.”
“Oh I can tell.” Rush’s voice was smooth and dark, like slow-poured molasses.
Young cleared his throat. “I should get back before Chloe and Eli do something—” he paused, searching for the right word.
“Ill-advised?” Rush suggested.
Rush nodded, then sat forward, pulling his boots off the console. He looked up, meeting Young’s eyes. “Are you all right? I can’t tell for certain.”
Young shifted, uncomfortable beneath the full force of Rush’s gaze. The guy had enough personal magnetism for three people, and—like this? As a well-dressed, intergalactic math professor? Who definitely had a sense of humor? Style in spades? Forget it. Young couldn’t take it. He had to look away to collect himself.
“I’m fine.” He hoped it was true.
Rush said nothing.
The silence lengthened between them.
When Young finally looked back at the other man, he was still getting that same expression. Young cleared his throat. “You figure out how to bottle that look, genius, and you’ll make a fortune.”
“What?” Rush went straight from smoldering concern to confused concern. It didn’t help. At all. If anything, it was worse.
“You’re a hell of a lot of work,” Young whispered, holding his gaze.
“Sometimes,” Rush said softly, “I’m not certain I know what you mean by that.”
“Good.” Young smiled faintly.
They looked searchingly at one another in the gold light of a cognitive construct.
“Shut your eyes,” Rush murmured.
“I have to dismantle this interface, and, as I do, you’re not going to be able to interpret any residual sensory input that you might get.”
“So it’s going to be unsettling if you try to watch it.”
Young reached forward and, very carefully, brushed the fringe of Rush’s hair away from his glasses. “Be careful,” he said.
“Hmm,” Rush replied. “Doesn’t much sound like me, does it?”
Young leaned into Rush’s personal space, one hand on the arm of the man’s chair, one hand on the locked console where the man’s feet had rested earlier. “Do your best.”
Rush held his ground. “That,” he said quietly, “I can guarantee.”
Young shut his eyes.
The sound of rushing water filled his ears. He felt the brief press of something dark and unknown as he transitioned away from Destiny. With an immediacy that was shocking, the full force of his senses slammed into him.
The deck plating was colder than he remembered cold could be. The air was raw through his airways. His clothing scraped his skin. The burn of his wounded arm was almost unendurable.
“—and you’re the super genius, so, you know, do your super genius thing.”
“Sure. My thing. So we know we can’t land at the normal docking sites because—”
A distressed hiss escaped through Young’s clenched teeth.
Eli and Chloe both turned, their faces lit with relief.
“Colonel,” Chloe breathed, already up.
“Sweet.” Eli was hard on her heels.
Young tried to sit, but didn’t get far. At all.
“Hey,” Eli said, “Are you okay? Can you talk? Can you move? Do you know where you are? Probably that’s a no, actually, because you didn’t really see how we got here, so I’ll just tell you that we made it to the shuttle. This is the shuttle. We’re in it. Duh. You probably knew that. Can you talk? How’s your arm? Are you poisoned? Okay, two blinks for yes, three blinks for no.”
“Eli,” Young managed. “Settle down.”
Eli looked like he was about to burst into tears from pure relief. Chloe had already crossed that bridge. Young tried to give them a reassuring smile. He wasn’t sure how well he pulled it off.
“You can’t move, can you?” Chloe sniffed, wiping her nose with the edge of a sleeve.
“It’s coming back to me,” he said, clenching and unclenching the fingers of his still-bruised left hand. He couldn’t move his right arm at all. “Slowly.”
He had a makeshift bandage wrapped around his right arm, consisting of Chloe’s undershirt and Rush’s belt. It didn’t seem to be doing much good.
“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Chloe said worriedly. “We haven’t been able to stop it. It was a small dart. It’s not bleeding fast—it just—it won’t stop.”
“How much is ‘a lot’?” Young asked.
Eli shrugged. “Your jacket is soaked through and Chloe’s shirt is ruined, that’s about all I can tell you.”
“Great.” Young shut his eyes, trying to figure out what kind of trouble he was in. He felt pretty good, all things considered, but that didn’t mean much. “Report,” he said.
“So we got to the shuttle, obviously,” Eli began, “and we relocated to Destiny’s hull about two hundred feet from the FTL drive, then powered down except for minimal life support. We’re not sure exactly how to get back on board, but we’re working on it.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Young said. “Rush has it covered.”
“So, um, I’m thinking that maybe actually he doesn’t? He’s gotten progressively more—“ Eli trailed off, waving a hand in a circle. “Or maybe progressively less—”
Young shook his head. “He’s okay.”
“Really? ‘Cause, looking at the guy, it doesn’t seem like he’s okay in any way.” Eli moved over to give Young a better view of the science console. He could see Rush in profile, hands gripping the edges of the monitor bank, eyes unfocused, muscles locked, his posture rigid.
“He’s okay,” Young repeated. “He’ll be better when we get back to Destiny.”
This was an explanation that both of them seemed to accept for the time being.
“Have you tried your radios?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Eli said. “Our creepy friends are broadcasting some kind of electromagnetic interference. I can’t get anything but static. Communications on the shuttle are down.”
“Of course they are,” Young sighed. “What happened after I passed out?”
“Um, you missed what was possibly one of the most badass Rush moments ever,” Eli said. “I wish I’d had a kino. Because, you know, when you think of Rush, or at least when I do, the word ‘badass’ doesn’t necessarily come to mind, but seriously. It was awesome. He literally stood in front of Chloe and I while we dragged you backwards and took out all of the remaining aliens that were moving in on our position.”
“Sorry I missed it,” Young said, suppressing a smile.
“Me too,” Eli said. “No one’s going to believe me, except for maybe Chloe, who saw it anyways, and, like, barely cares for some reason.”
“How many times have I told you,” Chloe snapped. “He rescued me. From an alien ship. We had nothing. No one.”
“Yeah, okay, well, no offense to you guys, but I couldn’t ever really picture it. Now I can. Kinda.”
Chloe and Eli continued regaling him with the details of their escape and repair of the shuttle. Young let them do it because it was improving their spirits, and because he needed the time to regain his ability to move. After they’d gotten most of it out of their system, he put them to work on the problem of modifying the sensors to detect whatever type of interference the aliens had begun to employ.
Despite their easy banter with one another, he could tell they were unsettled—especially Chloe. Eli was doing his best to keep her mind off their current situation by referencing obscure science fiction movies, amongst other strategies, but when she wasn’t actively engaging with him, her expression took on a pained, pinched look.
She glanced often at Rush.
Young struggled into a sitting position.
He tried to focus on his immediate surroundings, rather than the rising anxiety he felt for the safety of his crew. Anything could be happening on Destiny.
The thought of losing even one person was intolerable to him.
Half an hour after he’d regained consciousness, he was finally able to push himself to his feet. He grabbed the nearest console as the room spun. That’d be the blood loss, he was pretty sure.
His right arm was a complete deadweight, hanging lifelessly from his shoulder. The small wound throbbed mercilessly.
If he’d ever been in worse shape going into a firefight, he couldn’t remember it.
“Okay kids,” he said to Chloe and Eli, trying to put forward the appearance of more strength than he felt. “Let’s head down the port side of the ship. About three quarters of the way down, there’ll be a cargo bay that Rush’ll open and pressurize.”
“Seriously?” Eli said, looking over his shoulder at Rush. “And he knows this?”
“It’s his plan,” Young said mildly, glancing at the scientist, who was still sitting rigidly at his station.
“Well, does his plan involve keeping us off Destiny’s sensors? Otherwise, this is gonna be a real short trip.”
“I’m sure it does.”
“Did he say that explicitly? Because sometimes he—”
“Eli,” Young said, dropping into the pilot’s seat. “Get up here. Let’s go.”
It didn’t take long to reach the point that Rush had indicated. As expected, the cargo bay doors opened at their approach, then sealed behind them, allowing the bay to pressurize. There were no lifesigns in their immediate vicinity, and no indication they’d been detected.
“He doesn’t seem better,” Chloe said, kneeling next to the scientist.
Young pushed himself out of the pilot’s seat, then leaned against the back of the chair, fighting the way his vision kept trying to gray at its edges. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “I gotta anchor him back in his body.”
Eli and Chloe watched him anxiously.
“Is that hard?” Eli murmured. “Because, um, you don’t look so good.”
“I’ll get it done,” Young said quietly.
Despite the strength he tried to put into the words, he hoped Rush would be able to help, to at least some degree. Young didn’t like his odds of pulling this off solo.
He stepped forward, leaned against the console in front of Rush, placed a hand the scientist’s shoulder, took a deep breath, and shut his eyes.
Young seized onto his sense of Rush and began to pull. He could feel the scientist trying to help him, trying to fight his way free of the darkness of the ship, but almost immediately, Young’s vision began to gray out. Blood roared in his ears. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest.
Dimly, he was aware of Eli talking to him, of Rush flexing his foot.
It wasn’t enough.
Not nearly enough.
Rush was more entwined with the ship than he’d ever been, and Young had no stamina left.
He was going to fail.
Distantly, he felt Rush make a snap decision and move into a hairpin turn, pulling something from Young, turning it back on him—Rush was, somehow, anchoring.
It was brilliant.
It was shattering.
Rush drove a stave of light straight into the heart of Young’s consciousness. His perception cracked and exploded into a terrifying landscape of circuits and energy gradients. Currents rushed around and through him like waterfalls in the dark.
He was losing his sense of himself, but—
He wasn’t alone.
Rush had grounded the pair of them. Straight into whatever remained of Young’s split-open mind. That was the hairpin. Now came the turn. The scientist sheared himself apart, separating along lines that only Young could show him, executing it perfectly. In the instant of the rending, agony blazed through their link.
The intolerable pressure vanished from Young’s thoughts.
He opened his eyes to a world that didn’t make sense.
Everything was eerily still.
“Fuck,” Rush hissed, far away. Terribly immediate. Somewhere in between. “Fuck.” The man sounded upset.
Young’s knees buckled, but Rush was there, one arm around Young’s back. The room spun around him as they went down together in a fall that Rush barely managed to control.
He couldn’t move.
“Colonel? Oh my god, colonel?”
“What’s going on?”
“Quiet.” Rush’s voice cracked with strain. “Go do something useful. Both of you.”
“I said go.” Rush knelt next to him, ignoring the pain tearing through his feet, his mind a dismayed swirl of color, of music, of language that Young couldn’t hope to follow.
“Colonel,” the other man said, low and urgent. His hands grazed over Young’s chest, over the makeshift bandage around his arm. “Answer me.”
Young couldn’t move. His thoughts were clear, but carried no urgency. No link to the physical. Something was wrong. He tried to remember how to feel upset about it.
“Colonel,” Rush said again. “Everett.” Though their open link, the scientist unfolded a search query straight into Young’s mind. It ran like lace and ache, barely detectable. “Talk to me,” the scientist said. His eyebrows were drawn together.
Young couldn’t. He was locked in his own mind, unable to do anything other than send a wordless burst of frustration along their open link.
“Ah.” Rush placed a hand against Young’s cheek. “Talk to me,” he said, staring straight into Young’s eyes. Beneath his words, in that lace he’d laid down, was something else. A fairy-tale spell. Young would forever be trying to talk.
//Keep at it,// Rush projected delicately over the searing longing to speak. //Talk to me.//
His thoughts flowed like water over and through the damaged places in Young’s mind. As it continued, as Young tried, over and over, to speak, he began to understand that, somehow, Rush was healing him.
Healing his mind, restoring pathways that had shorted out.
//Talk to me.// Rush continued to project with a gentle insistence.
//What are you doing?// Young was finally able to ask.
//Fixing things.// The words were light, undemanding. //You’re not so different from Destiny, really. Voltage differentials. Neuronal impulses. It’s all of a piece.// The scientist poured energy into their link. His presence eased away the existential horror of what had just happened before it could fully take hold.
//I’m flattered.// The compulsion to speak was draining away like water.
//You should be.//
//When did you figure out how to do this?//
//Just now,// Rush replied, his tone controlled and reassuring, soothing away what was left of Young’s unease. //It’s not so difficult. A circuit is a circuit, after all.//
Young could feel his own thoughts settling into their normal, linear, interpretable pattern.
“Can you speak aloud?” Rush asked, pulling his hand away from Young’s face.
Young nodded, bringing a hand up to his temple.
“Very helpful,” Rush said dryly. “You’ve overshot stoicism and landed squarely in the realm of stupidity.”
“Are you seriously harassing him?” Eli called from across the room. “He just fainted, and it was probably your fault.”
“I can speak,” Young said, squinting up at Rush. “You’re such a jackass sometimes.”
“Yes well, I’ve never claimed otherwise.” Rush’s thoughts were a bright, relieved swirl as he helped Young sit.
“Are you—” Young hissed as a shock of pain jolted down his injured arm. “Are you still blocking the signal?”
Rush looked at him blankly. “What signal?”
“The aliens are broadcasting our position. Calling for reinforcements?”
Rush stared at him. “And I was preventing this?”
“That’s what you said.”
“When?” Rush asked, confused.
“About an hour ago? You built an interface and we talked?”
Rush’s brows furrowed. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“This day just keeps getting better.” Young ran his left hand over his injured arm. “Look, you need to try and stop Destiny from transmitting that signal.”
“I can’t.” Rush looked directly into empty air, like he was listening to something. “I can’t do that. Neither can the AI.”
“What do you mean you can’t?” Young repeated.
“We’ll need to be quick,” Rush said, avoiding Young’s question. “It’s possible we can kill them all before reinforcements arrive. Worst case scenario, we jump to FTL. I’d rather eliminate them first. The nature of their collective consciousness may make it possible for them to roughly track our FTL trajectory if any of them are alive when we jump.”
Rush’s thoughts splintered, like cracks feathering through brittle glass.
“Have you two been able to modify the lifesigns detector yet?” Young asked Chloe and Eli, who were sitting at the forward monitors, ostensibly working but, in actuality, focusing on every word of the conversation between himself and Rush.
“Nope. I’m not magical, okay?” Eli snapped. “Chloe? Are you magical? No. You’re not. We can’t just modify sensors to detect some unknown interference pattern that’s broadcasting somewhere on the electromagnetic spectrum.”
Young caught a hint of a smile in Rush’s expression as he snapped, “Eli.”
“Oh. ‘Don’t panic.’ That’s great. That’s just great. Coming from the guy who regularly passes out from stress, it really means a lot.”
“Yes well.” Rush reached beneath the science console and came up with his remaining crutch, “in order for us to retake the ship, we need to know how many of them there are. We also need to know where they are. Therefore, it follows that we’ll need to—” he paused, looked down, cleared his throat, then tipped his chin up and shook his hair back. “We’ll need capture one of them to determine how they’re generating the interference pattern.”
Young, Chloe and Eli all stared at Rush in naked disbelief.
“Capture one?” Chloe asked faintly.
“That’s what I said.” Rush got painfully to his feet and collected Young’s sidearm, which had been abandoned on the science console. He ejected the clip, checked the ammunition, then snapped the component parts back together.
Young watched him with a mix of horror, admiration, and something less easy to put a word to.
“Are you crazy?” Eli asked.
“Are you taking a poll?” Rush handed Eli the gun. He picked up Young’s assault rifle, checked it over, and handed it to Chloe.
“Wait a second, why—” Eli started.
“Sergeant Greer tells me Chloe’s one of the best shots on the ship,” Rush replied archly. He limped over to Young and held out a hand. //Can you stand?//
Young grabbed his arm behind the elbow. Slowly, the scientist pulled him up.
“Let’s go,” Rush said.