Force over Distance: Chapter 23
“We remember you.” Chloe’s voice was slow and cold.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
Young gritted his teeth against the burn in his right arm. As he watched Eli struggle with the door controls to the cargo bay, he tried to maintain even the smallest sliver of hope that things might shake out in their favor.
They were facing a foothold of undetermined magnitude.
His team was untrained, terrified, and injured.
The aliens that had boarded Destiny had not only managed to evade the Ancient lifesigns detector, but were broadcasting an EM signal that interfered with radio communications, making coordination between teams impossible.
The only assets they had going for them were a handgun, an assault rifle, Chloe’s ability to sense the enemy, and Rush’s ability to—
Well, Rush generally counted as an asset, Young supposed.
The guy had figured out how to use Young’s own brain to tear himself free of the ship, and now, despite his injuries, not only was he on his feet, but he was supporting Young. Physically and mentally. Energy poured through their link. The scientist was running on pure adrenaline.
That had to be it.
Nothing else explained the iron grip the man had on Young’s good arm. They were pressed against the wall of the cargo bay, waiting for Eli to open the doors.
“Eli,” Rush hissed. “What in god’s name are you doing? This shouldn’t be complicated.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t do this with the power of my mind, like some people, okay?”
“Oh my gosh,” Eli said, exasperated. “Yes, okay? Stop backseat troubleshooting. You always do this. It drives me nuts. Can I have fifteen seconds to look at the entry mechanism? Is that too much to ask?”
Rush rolled his eyes, but stayed quiet.
“Ye of little faith,” Eli whispered, as the cargo bay doors slid open.
Chloe moved into the open space without being told, raising her assault rifle and sighting down the corridor. Young watched her through vision that kept trying to blur. The tension in her muscles was slowing her down, but, otherwise, her stance was passable. Someone had given her some training. Scott, most likely.
//Are you sure it should be Chloe with the assault rifle?// Young shot at Rush. //What if she panics?//
//She’ll deny it, but she performs well under pressure,// Rush replied.
“Okay.” Chloe motioned them to join her.
“The word is ‘clear’,” Eli said, “not ‘okay’. Even I know that.”
“Whatever,” Chloe replied.
//Besides,// the scientist added, //nothing deters panic quite like an assault rifle. Isn’t that one of the central tenets of your profession?//
//So, let me get this straight. You gave Chloe the gun because she was most likely to panic?//
//Not anymore,// Rush snapped in irritation.
//I hope you’re right about that.//
Rush didn’t bother to respond. His eyes flicked between the long stretch of corridor and a point just inside the cargo bay doors.
Chloe shifted nervously, waiting for instructions.
“Let’s move out,” Young said quietly. “Eli, do you still have that lifesigns detector?”
“Got it.” Eli pulled the device from his pocket. “We should at least be able to see our people.”
Young studied the distribution of glowing dots. The majority of the crew was in the mess. Young hoped that was by choice, and not because they were being held there. Several groups of four were scattered around Destiny in promising locations; Young assumed they were the teams that had made it back from the seed ship. Most importantly, the path to the nearest armory was clear of any of Destiny’s crew. Young hoped that at least that meant they wouldn’t be walking into the middle of an in-progress firefight.
“Um,” Eli said, looking at Rush.
The scientist wasn’t looking at the screen in Eli’s hand. He was staring at the empty air.
“No,” Rush said flatly. “Not an option. I need something else. Something that falls within the parameters of my own—” Rush broke off like he’d been interrupted. “I already did that. As you can very well see.” He paused again, then snapped, “Yes, well, thanks a lot.”
Cautiously, Eli pressed two fingers into the scientist’s shoulder, and gave him a tiny shove.
“What?” Rush hissed.
“Soooooooo,” Eli said. “Talking to invisible people now? Unbelievably, that’s a step down for you.”
Rush sighed and looked away, his thoughts an unhappy swirl.
“Give it a rest, Eli,” Young said. “It’s the AI.”
“No—I didn’t—I mean—”
“That was pretty harsh,” Chloe whispered.
“Yeah. You’re right. Sorry.” Eli shifted his weight, uncomfortable. “You uh—you just talk to invisible people all you want. Go crazy. I mean—well. Not literally crazy, obviously, but—”
Rush leveled a glare at Eli. “Do yourself a favor?”
“Yup. Got it. I’ll stop talking,” Eli murmured.
//You okay?// Young projected.
//Fine,// Rush said shortly. //Negotiating with the AI. It’s not being particularly helpful. Armory?//
Young sent him a wave of assent and motioned to Chloe to take point. She nodded and moved ahead of them into the darkened corridor. Without being told, Eli brought up the rear.
They moved quietly, but not quickly.
As they passed through Destiny’s halls, the emergency lighting at the base of the walls came up in a slow flare. While it was helpful when it came to seeing where they were going, it was a bad move in literally every other respect.
//Are you doing that?// he projected at Rush. //Cut it out.//
//What about it?//
Young sent him an image, directing his attention.
//Oh for fuck’s sake.// Rush pressed a hand to the corridor wall, and the track lighting along the deck plating faded back to a dim uniformity. “If you’re looking for ways to be useful you could add that to the list,” the scientist whispered, looking at the empty air.
//That was for the AI’s benefit, I assume?// Young asked.
//Yes,// Rush said.
//So neither you nor the AI was doing the thing with the lights?//
//No. That was Destiny. Or, rather, one of the many interlocking hardware/software units that comprise the ship as a whole.//
//So—what? The lights missed you?// Despite the gravity of their situation and the gut-wrenching pain in his arm, Young couldn’t help but be slightly amused. //Like a dog?//
//It’s not a bad analogy but can we stay focused? Please? Losing thirty percent of your blood volume is an unacceptable excuse for the level of distractibility you’re displaying. Don’t you train for this sort of thing?//
//Yeah,// Young growled. //I do. Which is why I noticed the damn lights, Rush. I need to know if the ship is going to do anything else to give our position away.//
//I don’t think so. The AI should be inhibiting most of what might indicate my presence.//
//It’s not exactly batting a thousand, is it?//
//It’s anxious. Stop making conversation and focus on surviving this, please?//
//You’re a lot of work.//
Rush ignored him, his attention focused on the span of corridor ahead of them. The faint parallel tracks of emergency lights disappeared into the darkness.
In the back of Rush’s mind, a sense of unease was growing again.
When they made it to the armory, they ducked through the door and sealed it behind them. Rush pushed Young against the wall just inside the door and did his best to control Young’s slow slide down the cold metal. Eli moved over to lend a hand.
God but he was cold.
Rush knelt next to him, one hand closed over Young’s shoulder.
Young shut his eyes on unstable walls and brought their minds together. The energy he was getting from the other man was the only thing keeping him going. Rush, as though he realized this, dug deeper, opened whatever bottomless energy store he had even further, and did his best to focus Young’s mind.
//How the hell are you doing this?// Young asked.
//Best not to question it.// Rush used Young’s shoulder to lever himself back to standing, then joined Chloe and Eli, who were studying an array of weapons.
“How do we know what to pick?” Chloe murmured.
Young directed Rush’s attention appropriately. In short order, each of them had a fully equipped assault rifle, a kevlar jacket, a handgun, and all the extra clips that they could reasonably carry on their persons.
Eli and Rush pulled Young to his feet, and Rush shoved an extra sidearm into Young’s empty holster.
“Soooooo. Do we have a plan?” Eli asked, his usual sarcasm absent.
“It’s not conceptually difficult.” Rush pushed his hair out of his eyes. “Chloe finds a group of these things. We shoot most of them. We disable one. We drag it to the nearest lab, we scan it for EM interference, modify our detectors appropriately, then eliminate all of them.”
They all stared at him.
“Why does it have to be alive?” Chloe asked. “You know what they’re like.”
Rush looked back at her steadily. “They have the capacity for telepathic communication so they’re capable of generating EM fields at baseline. This may be an inherently biologic phenomenon and if that’s the case, I don’t want to have to do this twice.”
“What?” Young asked.
“They may be generating the interference patterns with their brains, so we can’t scan them if they’re dead,” Eli translated.
“And you couldn’t just say that?” Young growled at Rush.
“I believe I just did,” Rush replied coolly.
Young motioned for Eli’s lifesigns detector. “Let’s head toward this group,” he murmured, pointing out four glowing dots on the display. “A bit more human firepower wouldn’t hurt—but if we meet up with some of these things on the way, then so be it.”
They left the armory in the same formation they had entered, with Chloe in the lead, and Eli on their six. Rush continued to pour what seemed like endless energy through their link. More than that—the pain in the man’s feet was fading.
//Genius, don’t take this the wrong way,// Young began uneasily.
//Never an auspicious start,// Rush sent back smoothly, doing the mental equivalent of his poisoned silk tone.
//Because you’re doing a great job,// Young continued, undeterred. //But your feet should be killing you. Instead, you’re barely limping.//
//You’re quite hung up on the way things ‘should’ go,// Rush replied. //Try bein’ fuckin’ grateful.//
Before Young could respond, a surge of anxiety swirled through the energy he was getting from Rush.
Chloe stopped them with an upraised hand.
Young’s skin prickled with cold and adrenaline.
Chloe made a vague hand gesture that seemed to indicate there was a group of aliens around the next corner.
Rush nodded at her. He gave Young a gentle shove in the direction of the nearest wall, then caught Eli’s eye and pointed at Young. Eli took up a position in front of him. Young shook his head vehemently. He pointed Eli in the direction of Chloe and Rush.
Rush emphatically shoved Eli straight back at Young.
//Don’t be stupid,// Rush hissed. //If Chloe and I fail, you and Eli can make a second attempt. On your own, you’ll be next to useless.//
“I hate you guys so much,” Eli mouthed without sound.
“Eli,” Chloe mouthed. “Stay.”
Rush and Chloe nodded at one another.
Carefully, silently, Rush laid his metal crutch on the ground near the wall. He unslung his assault rifle, and then opened his link with Young as far as it would go. Young snapped them together as tight as was possible without full synchronization. Rush let him in.
The scientist’s energy blazed like a star. Hot and bright and boundless.
They stepped forward to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Chloe. She nodded at them. They nodded at her.
Together, they stepped gracefully around the corner, sweeping the rifle up.
A group of six aliens approached in a small cluster, their movements insect-like. Familiar.
They opened fire.
Four went down in the first sweep. It was Young who, still seated against the corridor wall, took Rush through a fluid, left-handed re-sling of the rifle, a fast draw of his sidearm, a two-handed power stance. His own motions were an abbreviated, shadowed version of what Rush was doing three meters away, rotated ninety degrees.
He had to imagine the responses of his own right arm to get it done.
Chloe took out the fifth hostile.
They sighted down the weapon, exhaled, and fired one shot, straight into the narrow blue shoulder of the remaining target. As the alien went down, it’s plasma weapon discharged. A single shot impacted the deck plating above and was dissipated along the ceiling.
It was intensely satisfying to use Rush’s body. His reflexes were sharp. He was every bit as fast as Young had known he would be.
They stepped forward, shoulder-to-shoulder with Chloe, to inspect the downed alien. It struggled to rise, hissing, writhing.
“I will shoot you,” Chloe said, her voice low and strong and as dangerous as they had ever heard it.
The alien froze.
They reached for the small metal device on its temple. As their fingertips brushed the gel that coated the creature’s skin, it tore into their minds.
Through their link.
It shredded thought as it sought information about Destiny. Rush stayed ahead of it, throwing irrelevant memories into its path, ones full of pain, of distraction, of emotional devastation. Emily, standing in darkness, staring into the illuminated screen of Young’s phone, her face a mask of hurt. Gloria, sitting the wrong way round on a piano bench, trying not to cry. It was a spectacular, fractal network of their worst, amalgamated memories.
Rush tried to pull back, but icy blue fingers closed around his wrist.
Their network was shredding. Breaking down. The alien presence grew stronger; there were multiple minds on the other side of the escalating agony. That gel will have excellent conductance properties. It had called for reinforcements. Reinforcements had answered. The cognitive pressure changed from information seeking to an attempt to shatter through the resistance in the network. Pure agony poured through their link, distributing itself through Rush’s mind, through Young’s, and through another network. Darker. Larger. I know why you’re doing this, Chloe said, out of time and memory.
Dimly, they were aware of Chloe kneeling next to them.
The pain vanished, leaving a signal void in its wake.
In the room, there was a scraping sound. Chloe dragged a metal blade over the metal deck plating, a small metal transmitter hooked around its tip.
They stared at it, absorbed.
Chloe pulled the sidearm from their nerveless fingers. She held it to the alien’s head. And she hissed.
The psychic sustain they’d been caught in ended.
They pitched forward.
Young threw his left arm up, in front of his face. They were still synced enough that Rush’s managed to avoid a face-plant into the deck. They knelt, braced against the deck plating, gasping for air. They were shaking.
Young pulled back enough to project, but with even that much separation—
A darkness pressed against Rush’s mind. Urgent. Seeking. Relentless. In no time at all, it halfway had him. Echoing dimly through their link Young could feel a vast, endless anxiety. A terrible loneliness. The ache of an almost eternal longing.
It wanted Rush back.
It needed him back.
And Young could feel Rush’s profound sympathy for it.
Chloe continued her sibilant, threatening litany.
This was it.
Young braced himself against Destiny. Digging in with whatever he had left, which was almost nothing. Rush clenched his hands. He leaned forward into a sprinter’s crouch, flexing his foot. They re-synched themselves.
They could barely feel a thing.
“Nick.” The word came from very far away.
“Nick.” Jackson crouched next to them, balanced on the balls of his feet and his fingertips. “Focus outward,” the AI said. “Destiny is trying to help you. Tell it how.”
With a fierce shift in focus, Rush shut his eyes and twisted his attention toward the lab, projecting a rough idea of their goals toward Destiny. Immediately, some of the terrible pressure eased.
“More,” Jackson said gently.
All over the ship, bulkhead doors slammed shut, trapping intruders behind them. Force fields sparked to life. The equipment in the nearest lab turned on.
“Good,” Jackson murmured. “Even more.”
The lights brightened in the halls and in the mess. The two-part harmony of the shields subtly began to separate itself in preparation for undocking. Beneath Rush’s hands and beneath Young’s back, the deck plating warmed.
Destiny backed off.
They took a shuddering breath, and looked at the AI.
“Adequate,” the AI said, but Jackson’s expression was warm. His eyes flicked in Chloe’s direction. “You’d better stop her.” His brow drew together. “She’s in control right now, but that connection she’s making goes both ways.”
With that, Jackson vanished.
By mutual consent, Young loosened his connection with Rush, letting his own surroundings fade back in.
Eli had him by both biceps. The kid’s terrified face was about six inches from his. “Colonel?”
“I’m fine, Eli.”
“Nope,” Eli said grimly. “Sorry. Not buying it. You just had some kind of seizure. You were making some involuntary movements, and you weren’t responding to me, and then you just kind of froze up. And now you look really, REALLY bad. I’m pretty sure that dart was poisoned. I—”
Young tried to stand.
“No,” Eli said. “No way. Did you hear me?”
“Help me up,” he said.
“What part of ‘no way’ sounded like ‘sure,’ to you?”
“Eli,” Young growled, “poisoned or not, I can’t sit in this hallway. We’ve gotta get this show on the road.”
Eli made an aggrieved sound, but, grudgingly, pulled Young up. They rounded the corner to see Rush stagger to his own feet, looking none too steady. He landed a hand on Chloe’s shoulder, who was still hissing at the blue thing on the floor.
“Chloe,” Rush leaned into her, and Young couldn’t tell if it was out of necessity or for emphasis. “Stop. Stop. We’re scanning it, not engaging it in conversation.”
Slowly, her eyes focused on Rush. Her sidearm wavered, then snapped back into position. Her expression was horrified.
Eli helped Young forward. He did a passable job sweeping the darkened corridor ahead and behind them. “I just want you guys to know that this is making my top ten list of worst days ever,” the kid hissed. “How the hell are we supposed to get this thing to the lab? It’s still conscious.”
Rush waved Eli back a pace, pulled Young’s sidearm like he owned the damn thing, removed the safety, chambered a round, and eyed the alien over the barrel. “Vos mos vado qua inquam.”
It hissed at him, writhing on the floor.
Rush raised his eyebrows and shot it an unimpressed look. “Did it understand that?” he murmured to Chloe.
“Yes.” Her voice was barely audible.
“Very good. Vos sto sursum, then,” Rush said, with faux politeness. He tightened his grip on the sidearm.
Slowly, very slowly, the alien got to its feet.
“Chloe,” Rush said, tilting his head toward Young. With no other prompting, she slid into place at Young’s side, pulling one of his arms over her shoulders.
“Hoc scite. Vos necabo sine remora,” Rush said, like cyanide spiked syrup.
“What the hell are you telling it?” Young asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Rush said evenly, not taking his eyes off the thing.
“Know this,” Chloe murmured. “I will kill you without hesitation.”
Young gave her a sharp look.
“That’s what he said,” Chloe whispered.
“Got it,” Young replied. “Thanks.”
Once they’d made it to the lab, Rush backed the alien against a wall, onto a low platform made out of some kind of light metallic alloy. Eli sealed the door behind them as Chloe and Young fanned out alongside Rush.
Chloe handed Young the sidearm she’d pried out of Rush’s grip, then pulled her own.
“Eli,” Rush snapped. “Start looking for that signal.”
“Already cycling,” Eli snapped back. “Don’t bother helping. It’s fine. I’ll do it myself. You three just stand there.”
“You complain more than a graduate student,” Rush said, but he took a step back from their three-person formation. He moved to a nearby console, keeping Young’s sidearm unholstered, and within easy reach.
“Next time I use the stones I’m going to look up all your former grad students and buy each of them a fruit basket,” Eli muttered.
//Can we question it, while we have it here?// Young grimaced as the thing hissed aggressively at Chloe.
Chloe hissed something back.
“Chloe,” Rush snapped. “English, please.”
//The only way we can understand its answers is by either using Chloe, or the transmitter it was wearing. I’m not sure either is a good idea. We have the upper hand at the moment, but it’s a near thing.//
//Yeah, fine. Makes sense. You okay? You took one hell of a hit from that thing’s mind.//
//That hit was evenly distributed,// Rush replied, his projection full of disapproval. //Stop perseverating on my status. I’ll show you what’s left of my feet when this is over so you can continue to believe in whatever just-world hypothesis you’ve constructed, all right?//
//I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean.//
//Then fucking keep. Fucking quiet?//
The alien stopped hissing. Its restless movements stilled. It seemed to more or less give up, curling itself around its gunshot wound.
“How close are you guys?” Young could hear the exhaustion in his own voice. “I think this thing is dying.”
“We’re close,” Eli said. “Very very close. But, uh, it really needs to not die yet.”
“Not sure what you want us to do about that.” Young glanced over at Chloe.
Her face was still. Blank. Tear tracks glittered in the dim lighting, but her gun was steady.
Young looked back at the alien. It was staring fixedly at her.
//Genius, not sure, but I think we might have a problem.// He shot Rush a visual.
The scientist’s hands froze over his console.
When Chloe spoke, it was like they’d both been waiting for it.
Her voice was flat. “Let us go.”
Young felt like someone had dumped ice water down the back of his fatigues. He tightened his grip on his sidearm and glanced at Rush.
The scientist closed his eyes, his expression pained.
“Um, Chloe?” Eli asked, anxiously.
“Let. Us. Go.”
“Who are you?” Young took a step forward, sighting straight down the barrel of his gun. “What do you want with us?”
“We are Nakai.” Chloe gave the word an edge of menace. “We want what we have always wanted. To discover all that is. To continue without end. To read the pattern beneath existence. To, one day, write it. Let us go.”
“You release Chloe, and we’ll talk about it.”
“This one is valueless.”
Young really wished Chloe wasn’t holding a sidearm.
“Yeah, well, she’s important to us,” Young growled.
“You are all valueless,” Chloe continued. “Unworthy of this vessel. We seek to liberate it. You will be torn from this plane of existence and cast into nothingness.”
“I’m not interested in your opinions,” Young snarled. “You want to be released, then you leave her alone.”
“You will freeze in the vacuum of space,” Chloe said, her voice rising. “You will cease to exist.”
“Eli,” Young called quietly over his shoulder.
“Almost got it,” the young man responded through clenched teeth. “Ninety seconds for the FFT to deconvolute, and then the confirmation.” He looked desperately at Rush.
The scientist stepped from behind his console, leaving his sidearm behind. “You will never return to your people,” he said, his voice low and silk smooth. “I’ll see to that. Do you understand what I mean?” He stepped forward, his body language open, even casual, both hands in his pockets.
//Genius what are you doing?//
“At the moment of your death,” Rush continued, with that honeysilk tone of his, “yours, you will fail to find your way back to them. Your knowledge, your singular knowledge, will be lost. Your very particular consciousness will be unmoored. Alone.”
It hissed angrily at him.
“Unless—” Rush pulled a hand out his pocket and came up with the transmitter they’d pried from the thing’s temple. He laid it on the floor, then lifted the heel of his boot over it in a threatening manner. “Unless you let her go. Immediately.”
“We remember you.” Chloe’s voice was slow and cold.
“Oh, I’ll bet you do.”
“You are unlike the others,” Chloe’s gun was still fixed on the alien, but her gaze and the gaze of the Nakai had both shifted to Rush.
Rush wasn’t looking back at her. He was staring down the alien, the transmitter under the threatening heel of his boot.
Young kept his eyes on all of them.
“You will unlock this ship for us,” Chloe said, her voice a command.
Her hands, which had remained so steady, began to shake.
“Unlikely,” Rush said, the word one long, smooth pour of pure provocation. “Let her go.”
It hissed at him.
Young’s eyes flicked back and forth between Chloe and the Nakai. At his side, in his peripheral vision, a familiar outline appeared.
Kill it,” Emily said. “Kill it now.”
Young’s finger tightened on the trigger.
With an explosive grace that suggested nothing so much as foreign pressure breaking through a mental dam, Chloe swung her weapon in a wide arc. There was no question as to who she was aiming at.
Young fired, putting a bullet straight through the head of their prisoner.
Eli came from behind, tackling Chloe, but not in time to keep her from getting off a shot.
Rush took the round straight to the chest, overbalancing both of them, and sending them to the floor.
The crack of metal on metal sounded as Eli knocked the sidearm out of Chloe’s unresisting grip.
Young’s right arm was on fire. He forced himself up, fighting the deadweight hanging off his shoulder, and tried to reverse their positions as best he could. He tore Rush’s jacket open.
“I’m fine,” Rush said breathlessly, one hand pressed to his chest.
“Lie still, you idiot,” Young growled. “She hit you, I know she did.”
Rush made a distressed sound in the back of his throat as Young pulled his hand away from his chest. “I’m wearing a vest,” he said. “You’re bleeding more than I am at the moment. Get off me, for fuck’s sake.”
Young examined the round, flattened and half embedded in the Kevlar. “That’s gonna hurt tomorrow.”
“If I’m lucky it will hurt tomorrow,” Rush hissed. “That outcome is predicated on both of us surviving today. So let’s get back to it, shall we?”
Young backed off, his vision dimming at its edges.
Rush sat, one hand pressed flat against his chest, and drew in a shallow breath. Energy started pouring out of the scientist’s end of the link.
Young felt a little less cold. His vision crisped up.
A few feet away, Chloe sobbed into Eli’s shoulder, her arms locked around his neck.
“You’re okay.” Eli’s expression was pained as he wrapped his arms around Chloe. He fixed his gaze on the ceiling. “You’re okay,” he murmured. “Rush is okay. Rush is fine. Everyone is okay. I finished the transform. I isolated the signal. Our stupidly risky plan actually worked. No one died.”
//Do you want to handle this one?// Young projected at Rush.
//No. Not particularly,// Rush replied, but he got painfully to his feet and walked over to stand over Eli and Chloe, who were still huddled on the floor.
“Eli,” Rush said shortly. “Did you deconvolute the interference pattern?”
“Uh, yeah,” Eli replied.
“Well, start modifying the sensors. We haven’t got all day.”
“Kind of busy right now,” Eli snapped.
“Go,” Rush said shortly. “And you,” Rush reached down to pull Chloe up and away from Eli. “Stop crying.” She got to her feet, her face hidden behind the curtain of her hair.
“Don’t listen to him, Chloe,” Eli said, glaring daggers at Rush.
“Go,” Rush pointed imperiously at one of the consoles.
//Terrible job,// Young said. //Literally, you’re doing the worst possible job I could imagine.//
Rush had Chloe by one arm. Her face was hidden under a curtain of her hair, but she didn’t pull away.
Rush didn’t say anything.
“I am so sorry,” Chloe whispered, her voice barely audible.
“An’ what are you sorry for, then?” Rush asked her, his tone deliberately light. “You’re by far the nicest person who’s ever attempted to kill me, an’ it wasn’t even your fault. I’m not inclined to hold it against you.”
She brought a hand up to her face, stifling a sob.
Rush sighed, and shifted his grip from her upper arm to her shoulder. “Chloe,” was all he got out, before she wrapped her arms around him.
“Sorry I cried,” she whispered into his shoulder.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Rush said gently. “Now you’re just compounding the problem.”
She laughed, once, tightened her grip, and let him go. She swept her hair out of her face. “I’d better help Eli,” she whispered.
“Off with you, then.” Rush waved a hand in the direction of the monitors.
//So, you turned that one around,// Young projected, as Rush started readjusting the belt and shirt that made up the bandage around his upper arm. //I’ll give you that.//
//Generous of you.// Rush glared at him. //This is bleeding again.//
//It never really stopped. Shouldn’t you be the one modifying the sensors?//
//In combination, they’re faster than I would be. At least via the conventional way. Normal interfaces are beginning to feel somewhat foreign to me.//
//Maybe I should replace you with Eli,// Young said dryly.
//It’s a thought,// Rush’s projection was wistful.
//Rush. I wasn’t serious.//
//Yeah I can see that. Feel that. Whatever. Ugh, why are we talking about this right now? You’re it, okay? You’re my choice—for a lot of different reasons. You always will be.//
Rush shrugged, practically dripping nonchalance as he repositioned his belt around Young’s upper arm. Though their link, however, came the relief that Rush couldn’t conceal, and—something else.
Something much harder to read.
“Okay guys,” Eli called. “Modifications are done. We’re pushing them out now.”
Chloe retrieved the lifesigns detector, and the four of them huddled around it on the floor.
“There!” Eli pointed as red dots began to appear on the screen. “Oh. Ew. No. I don’t like this. That’s a lot. That’s too many.”
Young did a quick count and came up with eighteen. He glanced at Rush. “Fewer than I thought there’d be,” he murmured to Rush.
“Yes well. It’s enough. And they’re on the bridge. We’ll have to retake it to undock.”
“For that,” Young said quietly, “we’ll need more people. Time to regroup with Greer and Scott. Let’s move out.”
Eli and Chloe gathered their weapons. Rush brought Young to his feet in one long, slow pull. He stepped in to steady Young as the room spun. Young did his best to breathe through the vertigo. They waited it out. The energy Rush was pouring into keeping him on his feet was just as intense as it had been an hour ago, but the flow wasn’t as steady.
They just needed to retake the bridge. They were more than halfway there.
“Chloe,” Young said quietly. “Leave your weapons here.”
Chloe, who’d been midway through slipping the strap of her rifle over her head, froze.
//Don’t,// Rush said. //We need her.//
//We need you more. She nearly killed you.//
//That was an unusual circumstance. Unlikely to occur again.//
//Are you sure?//
Rush sighed, looking away.
“Chloe,” Young said. She looked up at him. “This isn’t a punishment. You’ve done a fantastic job today. Better than anyone could have ever asked for. Better than a lot of the trained military personnel on this ship.”
“It’s all right,” she said quietly. “I understand. Maybe—” she paused, and her eyes flicked to Rush. “Maybe you should lock me up somewhere until this is over. It might be safer.”
Young considered it.
“Right, so,” Rush said, his eyes shut, his head tipped back. “There’s only so much stupidity I can tolerate in a given day and I’ve about reached my limit.” The scientist opened his eyes, zeroed in on Chloe, and snapped, “Help the colonel.”
Chloe nodded and slipped in beside Young, pulling his good arm over her narrow shoulders.
“Question for you,” Young murmured to Chloe, trying to cheer her up a little as Rush geared up. “Has he always been this much of a drama queen? Or is this new?”
“Oh, it’s not new,” Chloe said, smiling at him. “You’ve just missed out because you’re not on the Science Team. He keeps it under wraps pretty well outside the NHB.”
“The nineteen hundred briefing. That’s what Volker calls it. He likes it because NHB can also stand for No Holds Barred.”
They moved out again, with Chloe holding the lifesigns detector and Rush on point. Young gritted his teeth against the near-constant dizziness.
He suspected that it was getting harder to stay on his feet because Rush was starting to tire.
The constant flow of energy he had been getting from the other man was wavering. The burning pain in his arm was slowly ramping up. Young wasn’t sure what the hell was going on with Rush’s wrists, or feet, or with the round he’d taken to the chest. The guy was powering through like he was feeling no pain. There was nothing coming through their link.
Whatever it was spelled trouble, Young was pretty sure.
From ahead of them, and maybe a corridor over, came a burst of gunfire. Chloe held out the lifesigns detector and he saw the nearest group of four on the screen was flanked on both sides by red dots.
Young motioned Eli forward. The young man joined up with Rush, leaving Young and Chloe as rearguards.
//Don’t fire until you’ve got a clear line,// he projected at Rush. //No need to give away our position unnecessarily.//
//And don’t shoot any of our people.//
//I’ll try to remember that one, thanks.//
Young rolled his eyes.
“You keep an eye on our six,” Young murmured into Chloe’s ear as he pulled his sidearm. She nodded.
His heart was pounding in his ears. The gunfire was becoming louder. Ahead of them, arrayed across the corridor, they could see five of the Nakai.
//Now,// Young prompted Rush.
The scientist opened fire, and Eli followed suit immediately.
Young fired single shots, left-handed, from his sidearm. Three of the Nakai went down, but two turned, and immediately fired bursts from their plasma weapons. Young tackled Chloe to the deck plating, knocking her out of the way of one of the blasts. He lifted his head and saw that Eli and Rush were pressed against the corridor wall, untouched. They opened fire again and took out the last two.
As the last of the Nakai fell, Rush staggered sideways, his outflung hand coming into contact with the metal of the corridor wall. The energy Young had been getting from the scientist wavered. Eli stepped in to grab his upper arm, steadying him. Rush dug in again, and the energy stream opened back up and stabilized.
//Genius, what is that? Where the hell are you pulling this stuff from?//
//I’ll give you one guess,// Rush said dryly.
Greer, James, Barnes, and Thomas came around the corner.
“Sweet Jesus, but it’s good to see you people,” Greer whispered, clapping Rush on the back before he knelt down next to Young and Chloe. “What the hell is this?” he asked, as he took in Young’s blood soaked uniform.
“Looks worse than it is,” Young said.
“Yeah, or not,” Eli added.
“Report, sergeant,” Young said, pushing himself up with Chloe’s help.
“The civilians are secure in the mess,” Greer murmured. “Radio’s still down, but I’m sure you knew that. We’ve been taking back strategic locations all over the ship since we got back on board. We weren’t sure where to head when suddenly these guys started showing up on our detectors.”
“Yeah,” Young said. “That was us.”
“I figured,” Greer said. “A sudden, unexplained tactical advantage? Classic Rush.”
Young raised his eyebrows, suppressing a smile.
They studied the lifesigns detector, and saw a group of eight move on the bridge. “Scott, you think?” Greer asked, looking up at Young.
“Most likely.” Young watched another set of red dots vanish. “That’ll make six of these things left.”
“Sir,” Greer said, “my team can mop up the rest, if you four want to head to the bridge.”
“You need a hand? We could spare Barnes or Thomas,” Greer offered.
“We’re fine,” Young said, not wanting to draw any additional firepower away from the cleanup efforts. “The bridge isn’t far.”
“Watch yourself, sergeant,” Young said.
“You too, sir.”
When they arrived on the bridge they found Scott’s team already there. Volker, Brody, and Park were manning their usual stations. Chloe helped Young sit in the central chair before ducking away to throw her arms around Scott on the way to her station.
The lieutenant caught Young’s eye, his expression uncertain as he approached the command chair.
“At ease,” Young said quietly. “And nice work.”
“Thank you sir,” Scott replied. “Glad to see your team all in one piece. Permission to rejoin the teams sweeping the ship? Looks like the aliens are pinned down pretty good, but I might as well see if I can lend a hand.”
Young nodded, then eyed Volker, Brody, and Park. “Report,” he said.
“Um, so, we got here about three minutes ago,” Volker replied.
“That’s three minutes more than I’ve been here,” Young growled, “report.”
Rush turned toward the forward view, but Young could feel his smirk. He shifted on the balls of his feet, then closed his hands around the forward rail.
“Okay, well, nothing on short range,” Volker said.
“Hull’s intact,” Brody said. “No breaches. Internal sensors have been calibrated to pick up alien signatures. I’m—not sure how that happened. But, yeah. We have four remaining on board. Radio communications are starting to come back up in patches. Not sure what that’s about.”
“All weapons arrays are operational,” Park said.
“We’re still docked with the seed ship. I recommend undocking ASAP,” Eli called.
“Are we sure everyone’s off the seed ship?” Young asked.
“Yes,” Rush said.
“I can confirm that,” Brody said. “I’m picking up our full crew complement.”
“Okay,” Young said, blinking against a sudden wave of vertigo. Across the room, Rush swayed as well, fingers gripping the forward rail, before he dug in and pulled energy straight from his bottomless supply. “Let’s undock.”
//Sit the hell down,// Young suggested.
//No thank you,// Rush replied evenly.
“Initiating the undocking protocol.” Eli’s fingers flew over his console. “Chloe, you want thruster control? Kinda got a lot going on over here.”
“I’ll take it,” Chloe said.
“Okay, ported to you,” Eli said. “Can you give me three percent starboard, three percent port? Any time now.”
“Starting the burn,” Chloe called back.
Slowly, ponderously, Destiny began to move away from the seed ship.
“Rush, do you need to deconvolute our shield harmonics?” Eli asked, not looking up.
“Spatial displacement will take care of that,” Rush replied.
“Eli,” Young said, trying to ignore the burn in his arm. “What’s the status of the FTL drive?”
“We’re good to go as soon as our shields decouple.”
Alarms began to sound.
“Ah fuck,” Rush hissed, his hands tightening on the forward rail.
“Four enemy ships just dropped out.” Volker threw the short range sensor display up into midair where it was easily visible. “And uh—”
A blast rocked the ship down to the deck plating.
“They’re firing,” Volker said belatedly.
“Shield status,” Young demanded.
“Oh god. It’s forty percent,” Park said.
“Rush,” Young growled.
“Our shields are still merged with those of the seed ship—same energy distributed across a greater surface area translates to reduced field strength.”
“Eli, we need to undock faster,” Young shouted over the trill of layered alarms.
The kid glanced at Young. “We’re mechanically clear. Chloe, crank those thrusters to fifteen percent both sides, then throw control back to me.”
Another blast rocked the bridge.
“Okay, now we’ve got a hull breach,” Brody said. “Lucky shot. Through a weak point in the shielding. It’s in an uninhabited portion of the ship. Already behind airlocks.”
//Maybe now would be a good time for you to join up with Destiny,// Young projected at Rush.
//That won’t end well,// Rush warned.
//Neither will this,// Young growled.
Another wave of vertigo hit, and Young dropped his forehead into his hand to try and prevent the spinning of the room. When he looked back up, Emily stood next to the command chair.
“Don’t push him, Everett,” she said quietly.
“Shields are at twenty-four percent and dropping,” Eli called. “Four minutes to shield deconvolution.”
“Are we going to make it?” Young asked.
“Keep asking pointless questions,” Rush snapped. “That will certainly help.”
“Shields at fifteen percent,” Eli said. “We’re definitely not going to make it if someone doesn’t do something borderline magical. Ship whisperer, I’m looking at you.”
Rush flexed his fingers, pushed back from the rail. He swept his hair back, and strode over to Park’s station. She was up and out of her seat like a shot. He sat down, opened a window, and began to type.
“Ummm,” Park said.
//Genius, what are you doing?//
//Don’t talk to me.//
“Rush,” Eli snapped, “are you coding? There’s no time for this!”
Rush, his mind on the shields, began the skeleton of a short program.
“He’s lost it,” Volker said quietly. “He’s completely lost it, and we’re all gonna die.”
Rush got through something like fifteen lines of code when the shield harmonics changed. He initiated the program and sent his consciousness after it, like a spear. He projected his intent at the ship.
“Well,” Daniel Jackson said, arms crossed, shoulders hunched, fighting a smile, “that’s one way to get it done.”
Finishing the program had never been the scientist’s intention.
Rush had created a new kind of buffer between his mind and Destiny, but, on the edges of the man’s consciousness, Young could feel the dark press of the ship becoming more insistent. He anchored Rush as much as he could, but he had almost nothing to work with.
“He’s modeled the dual-shielding as a wave function and he’s forcing collapse,” Park shouted, looking over Rush’s shoulder at her own console.
“How the HELL do you DO this stuff?” Eli shouted at Rush as their speed increased. They felt every impact from the barrage of the enemy ships. “Shields to eight percent. Two percent. Zero percent. Thirty-seven percent. Ninety-five percent.” Eli laughed. “Go to FTL. Chloe, spin it up!”
“Already spinning,” Chloe called, her voice full of joy. “Jumping in three, two—”
“You don’t look so good.” Jackson had both arms wrapped around himself. He eyed Young from beneath his eyebrows, then looked back toward Park’s station. “Hey, Nick? I think you’d better—”
The stars blurred.
The bridge blurred.