Force over Distance: Chapter 25
“Have I, um, ever told you about my mom?” Eli didn’t look at him.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Dawn.
Additional notes: None.
Young woke in Destiny’s infirmary, flat on his back, with his injured arm slung across his chest in a makeshift sling. The first thing he did was try and move his fingers.
Not much, but it happened.
That was something.
The terrible fire in his bicep had faded to a dull ache. His whole body was sore. Every muscle burned with acid overuse. His head throbbed.
He felt like hammered shit.
The guy on the adjacent bed? He was a different story.
Nick Rush sat on a gurney, bent over his laptop. His glasses were half designer. His outfit was half military. His thoughts were half music. But the kaleidoscopic flow of his code and the rhythm of his fingers over the keys had Young’s whole attention in a goddamned shoulder lock without breaking a sweat.
Young was gonna land in real trouble if he wasn’t careful.
He’d hated the scientist for years. Years.
And there were reasons for that.
He levered himself up on one elbow.
“Stop that,” Rush said absently, without breaking his flow. “You're not supposed to be sitting.”
The echoes of a radiant choir, the cascading gemstone intricacies of whatever program Rush was designing—it was too much. It would be too much for anyone, but it was especially too much for him. And so, before Young could say or do anything that would snap them into a new and terrifying pattern—he shoved Rush straight out of his melodic equilibrium and sat up.
“Ugh.” Rush was more perplexed than angry. “The fuck d’you want, then? Breakfast in bed?”
“I’ll take it if you’re offering,” Young growled, “but I was more in the mood for a status update?”
“Oh. Right.” The scientist reseated his glasses, trying to regain his mental footing after being shoved out of whatever glorious coding vibe he’d enmeshed himself in. “We remain at FTL. All of the Nakai were eliminated. We suffered no loss of personnel.”
Young felt almost sick with relief.
“The only significant injury, aside from yourself, was Sergeant Greer, who, in typical fashion, offered to donate blood to you, and then, like an idiot, didn't know when to stop.” Rush glared at a point beyond Young's shoulder.
Young followed the scientist's gaze to see Greer in a gurney on his opposite side.
“Hey sir.” Greer gave him a halfhearted wave.
“Sergeant,” Young replied.
“Don't mind Rush,” Greer said. “He’s just pissed because he was worried.” Greer raised his voice, deliberately needling the scientist.
“I was not, in any way, ‘worried’.” Rush’s voice was cool.
“Oh yes he was,” Greer shot back.
Rush looked up at the ceiling, as if praying for patience, then returned his focus to his laptop.
“Thanks, sergeant.” Young looked Greer over. The man looked like he’d recovered pretty well after giving away too much blood.
“Don't mention it,” the sergeant said.
Rush was, again, firing up his cognitive light show. And, again, it was way the hell too much. Young couldn’t damn well leave, but he couldn’t sit here and watch the man spin up audiovisual masterpieces as a byproduct of whatever pure genius was coming out of his brain and through his fingertips.
For the second time, Young shoved the man straight out of his flow.
“Rush,” he growled. “What are you doing?”
This time, he caught an edge.
“Designing a program,” Rush replied, rose petals over razorblades.
“What kind of program?”
“One that will allow for the detection of any systems modifications our recent guests might have made?”
Young nodded. “Seems reasonable.”
“So glad I have your approval,” the scientist purred, his thoughts starbursting in clusters of untrackable radiance.
//Will you damn well tell me what happened while I was out? How’d you avoid getting pulled into the ship?//
//Pure. Dead. Skill.// Rush drove the words straight into Young’s mind. //What the fuck is wrong with you?//
Young sent the scientist a wave of uneasy frustration. //Stop composing computational symphonies and tell me what happened.//
For some reason, this caused the scientist’s mind to snap a track.
Rush focused, full force, on Young, which created a whole different problem. Ten times worse and twice as dangerous. As the scientist watched him, the swirl of his thoughts turned intricate and bright; they lent the guy’s intellectual smolder a brilliant metaphysical background.
He was impossible to look at.
Young dropped his eyes, took a breath, and tried to get a damn grip.
//Are you all right?// Rush asked, his tone softening.
Young swallowed. //Yeah.//
//Yeah, well, neurotoxins’ll do that.//
//Yes. I’m sure. You were unconscious for a bit over sixteen hours. The rest of us have been working on damage control. Cleanup. Literal and computational.//
//Okay. Great. What happened to you while I was out?//
//Nothing happened to me. I sat here and combed though critical systems while you nearly died from blood loss and some unknown alien toxin.// He gave Young a wry look, but it was laced through with concern. //Maybe I should take a look at your cognitive circuitry.//
//Nope,// Young said hastily. //My mind’s fine. You just, uh, stay in your lane.//
//I think you underestimate the extent of your own injuries. Physical and psychic.//
//You were worried about me.//
//Not even remotely.//
//You absolutely were.//
//Don't flatter yourself.//
//Yeah yeah.// Young tried to keep his thoughts under control. He tried not to think of things Rush couldn’t remember. His California kitchen, with date palms beyond the windows. A shuttle, full of light, Mozart in the com system. //Genius, how’d you keep yourself out of the ship?//
//Found a bit of a workaround for that, actually.//
Greer cleared his throat. “Soooo. I’m thinking maybe I’ll see if I can spring myself,” the sergeant slid off his gurney. “Sure seems like you two have a lot to catch up on—”
Immediately, Young broke eye contact with Rush. He ducked his head, swiped a hand through his hair, and tried to pull himself together.
“Ah fuck,” Rush hissed, glaring past Young at Greer. “You can shut it, sergeant.”
“I didn’t say anything, doc.”
Young scrambled for something that would hold his focus and keep it tethered. Something that had nothing to do with Rush, or the architecture of the man’s mind, or how he carried himself, or whatever the hell he was unscrewing in Young’s brain that made a military jacket and military boots mesh so goddamned well with jeans and a T-shirt and his solder-job glasses and his Butch Cassidy belt and—
“Are you thinking about westerns?” Rush asked, perplexed. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
Before Young could scrape together a response to that, TJ’s laughter, echoing around the corner, startled all of them.
God, but she had a great laugh. Musical. Infectious. The kind of laugh that could set anyone off. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard it. Certainly not since Carmen—
Well. It’d been a long time.
TJ wasn’t alone. He could hear someone else, laughing with her, trying to speak through it.
It took him a few seconds to place the other person.
It was goddamned Varro.
Rush glanced at him. //Careful,// he sent, his projection subdued.
//Mind your own business,// Young shot back at him.
Greer was perched on the edge of his gurney, his arms crossed, his face neutral.
God, they were still going at it out there. What the hell could Varro possibly have said to make TJ laugh like that? He’d opened his mouth to call her into the room, when Rush stopped him.
//Don’t,// the scientist said simply, then returned to his typing.
//Do I have to be accountable for every god damned thought I have?// Young growled. //Stay out of it.//
He wasn’t sure why it happened. Maybe because he was angry. Maybe because he was exhausted. Maybe because he’d been struggling since he regained consciousness to handle his own reaction to Rush—but Young, acting on pure instinct, threw up a partial block.
The effect on the other man was immediate. The scientist stopped coding. His eyes lost focus. He swayed sideways, catching himself just in time to avoid pitching off the gurney.
Dimly, through a half-intact barrier, Young saw the scientist’s mind blaze, etched with energy. The man dug into something Young couldn’t see, could barely sense.
“Doc?” Greer said quietly.
Rush regained his equilibrium. With a cool grace that shouldn’t have been possible for someone who’d cracked bones in both feet, the scientist slid off his gurney, retrieved his boots, and began putting them on.
//What the hell are you doing?// Young snarled.
//I don’t have time for this.//
//What’s that supposed to mean?//
//If you want to go in there, and fight for her, sweep her off her feet, that’d be one thing. But you’re not going to do that. For a lot of reasons. Some good, some fucking stupid.//
//She’s happy,// Rush projected. //Don’t ruin this for her for no goddamned reason at all.//
//Oh this is good. You’re dispensing relationship advice now? I can’t think of anyone who’s completely and utterly screwed up more of them than you have.//
//You know I’m right about this,// Rush said, lacing up his boots. //That’s why you’re upset. Let her be happy. Her time is limited, as you’re well aware.//
In that moment, Young wanted Rush out of his head more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life.
//As if you give a damn about that,// Young snarled. //As far as I can tell? You care about one thing. Fulfilling this ship’s goddamned mission. And who the hell knows what that’s going to entail—we’ll be lucky if you don’t end up killing the entire crew in some half-cocked, megalomaniacal attempt to unravel the mysteries of the god damned universe.//
//You’ve no idea what you’re talking about. You couldn’t logically reason your way out of a paper bag let alone put together—//
//That’s right,// Young broke in. //I’m an idiot. But at least I’m not a manipulative, heartless, lying son of a bitch who’s so goddamn unstable that he can’t even tolerate being so much as questioned about what the fuck is going on at any given time. When have you ever given me a straight answer about anything?//
Rush finished lacing his boots. He snapped his laptop shut. His thoughts had devolved into a jewel-toned whirlwind of Ancient. The only thing that Young could get was that the scientist wanted out. Just as much as Young did. Maybe more.
//And where the hell do you think you’re going to go?// Young asked.
//Away.// Ancient echoed over the English that he was projecting at Young. //Only block me if you fancy going into cardiac arrest.//
//You. Can’t. Leave,// Young hissed at him.
“Oh no?” Rush asked, the words a slow-pour of pure poison. He swiped his laptop off the gurney and grabbed his crutch, heading toward the door.
“Doc?” Greer said in confusion.
Rush rounded the doorframe. “The colonel’s awake,” he snapped as he passed TJ’s office. Then he headed straight for the infirmary doors.
“Rush,” TJ called, appearing in the doorway. “Where are you going? I didn’t clear you for—”
“What’s there to clear?” he threw back over his shoulder. As he passed through the infirmary doors, they shut and sealed behind him.
“Damn it,” TJ breathed, turning back toward Young and Greer as Varro appeared in the doorway of her office. “I hate it when he locks me in here.”
“He locks you in?” Varro headed for the exit. Young and Greer watched, unimpressed, as he put his full energy into pulling the doors apart.
He didn’t get very far.
“Don’t bother,” TJ sighed. “He’ll release them. Eventually.”
Young’s full attention was with Rush. He tore his partial block down, already bracing himself for the nausea, for the headache, for the vertigo that would be coming whenever the man reached the edge of the radius that their slowly-healing link would allow.
Rush passed what had to be the fifty yard mark.
Then the one hundred yard mark.
Then the one hundred and fifty yard mark.
No difficulty. For either of them.
The scientist continued walking, leaning on his crutch but feeling very little pain, moving with grace. He passed the mess. He passed the control interface room. He passed Eli, who tried to flag him down.
//What happened to our radius?//
//Don’t talk to me.//
//Damn it, Rush,// Young growled. //Knock off your prima donna bullshit and answer my goddamned question.//
The scientist stopped in the middle of the corridor, his thoughts violently incoherent, his heart beating wildly in his chest, his breathing coming in panicked, shallow gasps. His urge to get away from Young, to be alone with his own thoughts escalated to barely endurable levels. He was, Young realized belatedly, on the razor’s edge. The man was contemplating purposefully joining with Destiny to escape Young’s hold on him.
Anything that Young said could push him over that edge.
Young shut his eyes.
He tried to calm himself down.
With his own anger and frustration and hurt churning in his mind and Rush’s hysterical despair tearing through their link—
It was impossible.
It was also imperative.
Rush was physically shaking with the need to pull away. Any second now, he was going to make the attempt. Young braced himself.
Rush whirled and found himself face-to-face with the AI.
“Nick.” It repeated his name slowly and evenly, holding out its hands, palms forward, in a perfect impersonation of Daniel Jackson. “Nick, come on. We talked about this. Not a good idea.”
Rush took a breath, beginning his own effort to calm down.
“Come on,” Jackson said gently. “You’ve got things to do.”
Rush began walking. The AI fell into step beside him. “Leave me alone,” the scientist hissed.
Destiny-as-Daniel had its hands in its pockets, its head down. “Sure,” it said affably. “In a minute.”
The molten energy of Rush’s thoughts began to cool. Young let his own surroundings fade back in around him, trying to give the other man as much space as he could.
He opened his eyes to see Varro, still giving the infirmary doors hell.
Young released a shuddery breath.
“Maybe I go over there,” Greer said slowly, his eyes on Varro, “and show him how it’s done.” His eyes flicked to Young. “What do you think, sir?”
“Sure,” Young ground out.
Greer stood. He gave Young a nod, then strolled across the infirmary floor space. He posted up at the wall, next to Varro. Almost casually, using a single finger, the sergeant popped a panel off the wall and caught it in his opposite hand, before it fell. He worked a finger under a wire, pulled a crystal, flipped the thing, and used it, very carefully, to bridge a circuit.
The door opened.
Adeptly, Greer reseated the crystal, caught the wire between two fingers, threaded it back into place, then replaced the panel. “Lieutenant,” he said, saluting TJ, “your doors.”
“Thank you, sergeant,” TJ replied, her smile coming easy and warm. “And for that, I’ll let you leave, if you promise not to put yourself right back in the duty roster.”
“Done,” Greer said.
Varro murmured something to TJ, touched her shoulder, then followed Greer into the corridor.
Her smile lingered as she watched him go.
God damn it.
What the hell was he doing?
He and TJ weren’t happening. They hadn’t been happening. For years. He’d chosen Emily. Emily had chosen Telford. Telford seemed to be trying like hell to choose Destiny.
If TJ wanted to be with a Lucian Alliance foot soldier, that was her business.
But still. Her business.
What the hell was wrong with him?
Rush. Rush was definitely what was wrong with him.
The guy was knocking Young off his game in a way he hadn’t done in years. It had started with the FTL drive, with that unbelievable save from a phase shifting obelisk planet and the whole thing had done nothing but escalate through the repair of the drive, the bullshit quarantine, the disaster with the communications stones, and whatever the hell had happened in that cognitive construct of a kitchen. Who the hell spun up oranges out of nothing in the middle of their own goddamned—hell, there wasn’t even a word for whatever had dragged the scientist to the neural interface chair. Who did that? And then. God, whatever the hell had happened on the shuttle. Gold light. Piano. Math professor vibes? In the middle of a desperate foothold situation? Forget it. Forget it.
At some point, Young had started to—
He’d started to.
He couldn’t even think it.
He needed to dial everything back.
Into reasonable territory.
It was reasonable to be civil to the man. Have conversations. Find him a usable set of clothes. Talk about books. Make sure he ate dinner. Experience his memories from his perspective. Have silent conversations with him in public. Use his crisp reflexes to gun down alien hostiles. Help him sleep. Oh god.
Young brought his good hand to his face. “Okay.” He tried to bootstrap himself back into control.
He could deal with this. He could.
He flinched, startled, as TJ dropped into the chair next to his bed.
“Sorry.” She smiled at him. A real smile. “How are you?”
“Terrible.” He tried to smile back at her; it didn’t feel like it was going all that well.
“I’ll bet,” she murmured. “Hang on.” She got up, opened a cabinet, and pulled out some budget gatorade. “There was a nasty anti-coagulant in those darts, not to mention a local neurotoxin. It took you hours to metabolize.” She shook the bottle, cracked it open, and handed it to Young.
“I’m still having trouble moving my arm.” He looked up at her. “I’m hoping that won’t be permanent?”
“It won’t be,” she confirmed, her voice gentle. “Drink. It’ll help.”
Young downed a few mouthfuls. “I hear I have Greer to thank for a blood donation?”
TJ nodded. “You were in bad shape.” She dropped back into the chair next to his bedside.
In the back of his mind, Rush re-struck a cognitive match and his radiant thought patterns reestablished themselves over and through a muted, crystal choir. The guy was coding. Again. In light and song.
That was just great.
He studied the flow or Rush’s thoughts. Had his thoughts always looked like this? Young was pretty sure the answer to that one was no. What the hell had happened? Had the guy leveled up? Was Young paying more attention? When Rush had fixed the link had he given Young some other ability? Some deeper insight?
It was possible.
It was also possible that Nick Rush, under emergency lights, wearing Kevlar and chambering a round in a sidearm, had flipped a circuit breaker in Young’s mind.
The man was a work of art in a ferocious, breakable frame.
“Hey,” TJ said, her hand on his shoulder, her blue eyes full of concern. “Colonel. Are you with me?”
“What?” His voice cracked. “Yeah. I’m with you. Sorry.”
“You zoned out there for a minute.” TJ looked at him searchingly.
“Sorry,” Young whispered. “Long day.”
“I know,” TJ murmured.
“How’s Rush?” Young asked. “Is he okay?”
TJ compressed her lips, dropped her eyes, then snapped her gaze right back to his face.
Young frowned. “TJ. What is it.”
“You’re a terrible liar, lieutenant. Worst I’ve ever seen.”
“That’s just because you know me.” TJ dropped her eyes again. “He’s okay, I think. His vitals are fine; that’s a low bar. His feet look terrible, but better than they should after the day he had. While you were out he was struggling to speak English. That seemed to get better with time.”
“And—I guess your link is repaired now?” TJ asked.
“News to me,” Young said grudgingly, “but yeah. Looks like it. I managed to piss him off within five minutes of regaining consciousness, so he’s not feeling talkative.”
TJ gave him a sympathetic smile. “He was pretty worried about you. I don’t think he slept all night.”
Young sighed, then refocused. “Do we need to talk about this virus in our ventilation systems? I was in the middle of your report when we dropped out of FTL.”
“We can talk about that later,” TJ said. “It’s not urgent.”
“Humor me, lieutenant,” Young growled.
“I don’t think it poses a danger to anyone,” she murmured, “at least, not at the moment.”
“At the moment?” he echoed. He didn’t like the sound of that.
“It’s not contagious,” she said, “and, I—I know where it came from. I used some of my new tech to confirm it.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“TJ,” Young said evenly.
“It came from the chair.”
The words hung in the air between them.
“From the chair.” Young kept his tone neutral.
“At the time we imposed our ship-wide quarantine, the virus detected aboard the ship was same viral vector used to modify Rush on a genetic level. We’re going to keep picking it up, because it’s still present in his system.”
“TJ,” Young growled. “I thought you cleared him.”
“I let him out of quarantine because I couldn’t detect the virus in his blood or saliva and because it was designed, specifically, to target him. It won’t infect anyone else. It can’t. He’s no danger to anyone, but I never said he was clear.”
“Lieutenant, you can’t bury stuff like this in a report that I might not get to for days—”
“The safety of the crew wasn’t in danger.” Her expression was forbidding. “This affects only him, and he asked me not to tell you.”
“He was within his rights to do so.”
“The hell he was. Damn it, TJ. What were you thinking? You—”
“What.” Her voice was cool, professional. “I what? Protected the privacy of a man who has none left to speak of? This was my call, colonel. It falls well within my latitude as chief medical officer on this ship. The balance of safety versus privacy is mine to weigh.”
It was at that, he supposed.
“Fine,” he said, defeated. “Sure. I mean, I’m in total mental continuity with the guy twenty-four seven, why would I need to know? I’ll just piece it together on my own. Weeks later. From your goddamned report.”
She compressed her lips and looked down.
Young sighed. “I’m sorry, lieutenant. I don’t mean to put this on you.”
“There’s more to it,” she whispered.
Isn’t there always, Young wanted to growl. He bit the words back.
“The viral vector is still doing its work,” TJ continued quietly. “It didn’t change him all at once. It couldn’t. It’s an unfolding process. And, as it goes on, as he continues to change—” she broke off and fixed him with her serious, quiet gaze. “He’ll start to get sick.”
Young dropped back against the gurney. “How sick?”
“It’s hard to say.”
“Any chance this virus kills him?”
“If we can’t figure out how to arrest the changes, yes. I’d say that’s a possibility.”
“Does he know?” Young asked.
“He knows. I showed him the data last night.”
Young looked at her, trying to keep everything he was feeling off his face. “How’d he take it?”
“Like a champ,” TJ whispered. “He didn’t seem surprised.”
Young covered his eyes with his good hand and tried to rally. It wasn’t happening.
“You need to get some rest,” TJ said finally. “You’ve got a ways to go before you’re medically cleared.” She stood, one hand squeezing his shoulder on her way out. “Drink your electrolytes.”
Young shut his eyes against his headache. Against the glare of the too-bright lights. Against everything.
He couldn’t handle this right now. Any of it.
His wife had left him for David Telford. He’d lost TJ. He’d lost his daughter. He’d done nothing but grind on the problem of getting his people back home as they fought to survive, traveling through the void at the edge of the universe, constantly under siege, constantly challenged, constantly running out of resources and goodwill and morale, barely surviving one crisis to make it to the next.
To say nothing of Rush.
He could feel it in his bones—the man was gonna be the defining relationship of his life. Hell, he already was. He’d vied with the guy in every way it was possible to damn well vie. He’d saved his life. He’d left him for dead. He’d spied on him. He’d gotten drunk with him. He’d used the man’s body in a firefight. He tracked the scientist’s thought patterns like the weather, he had conversations that didn’t make it into memory, and he defended the man’s very humanity against a starship that had hand-picked him for the job.
He was closer to Rush than he was to anyone else—living or dead, on Destiny or off.
Too bad that, on most days, Rush could barely stand the sight of him. Too bad, most days, the strain of being mentally linked to Young was nearly enough to drive the other man to throw his lot in with a mentally voracious hunk of metal; risking death, risking insanity, risking who the hell knew what, in order to get away from him for even a few minutes. Too bad that Rush was so god damned mercurial and traumatized that any kind of relationship with him, personal or professional or psychic, was like walking on eggshells concealing hot coals. Too bad that Rush was the kind of guy who obviously, obviously was going to burn out like a sodium flare, bright and hot and painful to look at.
Very goddamned soon.
In fact, it was probably already happening.
Despite the depressing trajectory of his thoughts, Young had spent down enough of his energy that it didn’t take long to fall asleep.
When he woke, he was alone in the infirmary.
The light in TJ’s office was on. A yellow glow spilled from the open door frame. He wasn’t sure of the time, but the dimness of the overhead lights told him that it was past twenty-two hundred hours.
He was alone.
In the back of his mind, Rush paced the floor of the control interface room, leaning on a crutch, asking the science team rhetorical questions about the partition functions used to model the plasma flow in the FTL drive.
He seemed to be on a little bit of a tear.
Young pulled back without disrupting the flow of his thoughts.
On the bedside table, he found one of TJ’s chocolate-covered power bars with a note that said, Eat this when you wake up, in her delicate, loopy hand. He sat and started in on the thing.
He tried to enjoy the taste.
It wasn’t happening.
He was going to have to figure out what the hell to do about Rush. On about ten different levels. He couldn’t even lay out the problem for himself, other than: do a better job. A way better job. Stop having feelings for him. Start having feelings for him? Literally everything seemed like a terrible idea. And—
Unless something changed? Drastically? They’d lose the man.
Not acceptable. Just—not happening. Period.
Young looked up, startled, to see Eli standing in the doorframe, his laptop under one arm.
“Hey Eli. Come on in.”
“How’s the arm? And the toxins and stuff? Are you better?”
“Yeah,” Young said with a sigh. “Mostly.”
“Good.” Eli stood awkwardly next to the bed. “That’s good.”
“Take a seat,” Young glanced at the chair TJ had used earlier. “What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing, really. I’m hiding. Rush is terrorizing the Science Team,” he said with a wry smile.
“You guys still in the NHB?”
“Oooooh look who’s learning our lingo! But, yeah. Nineteen Hundred Briefing still going strong at 2232. I really miss the way you started dragging him out at 2100. Everyone does. All night we’ve been looking for you in the doorway.”
Young smiled faintly. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“We miss you, man. I only just escaped, because he sent me to run a diagnostic on, I don’t know, some system that serves as a backup for overpressurized molten plasma? Sounds like a thing you definitely want to check at 2300 hours, right? Not in the morning. After you’ve slept.”
Young took another bite of his power bar and washed it down with budget Gatorade.
“Anyway, Chloe secretly agreed to start talking him down at 2300 if he hasn’t gotten it out of his system by then.”
“Eli. That’d be a four hour briefing.”
“I know. He is riled. It’s so over the top that everyone’s kind of enjoying it a little. Even Volker, I think. We’ve got the metaphorical popcorn out. Full disclosure, collectively, the Science Team is trying to capture some of his, um, Agent-of-Chaos style on kino. We’ve been working on it for a while now. It started as an informal Science Team drinking game, then morphed to Destiny Bingo, but once I figured out he’s solving NP-complete problems on the DL? Well, we launched a side project where we try to reverse engineer his insane saves.”
“Back up,” Young said. “Did you just say Destiny Bingo?”
“Um, hmm. Nope. Don’t think so. So, anyway, moving on, I see your link situation? That must be fixed? Since you guys can separate now?”
“Yeah,” Young said, “guess so.”
“Did he fix it?” Eli asked quietly.
“He must have,” Young replied. “Some kind of NP-complete save, probably. But he’s not really in a talkative mood at the moment, so I’ve got no details for you.”
“An ‘NP-complete save?’ I kinda love that. It’s witty. Did you just come up with it? Can I steal it? I’ll credit you.”
The kid hugged his laptop to his chest. His eyes wandered the walls, like he was trying to work himself up to something.
“Eli,” Young said. “Out with it. Whatever it is.”
Eli gave him a quick, miserable smile.
It occurred to Young they were teetering on the brink of a serious conversation—something he generally tried to avoid with people under his command—and that, to his knowledge, Eli avoided at all costs.
He owed the kid a lot. He knew that. But he wasn’t at his best. Tonight hadn’t gone well; it still wasn’t going well. Young’s eyes raked the room, searching for some way to divert the conversation.
But it was just an empty room.
“Have I, um, ever told you about my mom?” Eli didn’t look at him.
Young knew about the situation with Eli’s mother. Wray had filled him in several months ago when she’d obtained special permission for Mrs. Wallace to use the communication stones to come aboard Destiny. But Eli had never said anything to Young about it. Not directly.
“No,” Young said quietly. “You haven’t.”
“Yeah, you know the big stuff, I’m sure, what with the HIV and the spousal abandonment and the depression and all that. I’m sure Wray told you.”
Young nodded. “Sounded pretty rough.”
“No. Well, yeah, I mean, duh. Of course it was. But that’s not why I’m bringing it up. I can deal with it. I have. I don’t need a pep talk about it, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
That had been what Young was thinking. He cleared his throat. “Okay.”
“Wait, were you—oh my god. You were actually going to give me a pep talk. Oh man. Now I have regrets. Can you just, maybe paraphrase what you would have said?”
“Life’s hard. Try anyway.” Young held the kid’s gaze.
“That’s pretty solid,” Eli looked impressed. “Especially for, like, immediately post-poisoning at eleven PM. Full disclosure, I—I actually came in here to give you a pep talk.”
Something tied tight together in Young’s chest unknotted. Just a little. He cleared his throat. “Oh yeah?”
“Well, I could use one.”
“Good. Uh, little nervous about it. I have not, historically, been a guy with a lot of pep? Pretty sure I’ve never given a pep talk before. Unless you count cheering Chloe up. I think that’s just friendship though.”
“We gonna do this thing, or what?” Young asked.
“Um, yeah. Okay. So, the reason I bring up my mom, is that she never really talked to me about any of what she was going through. She shut me out. Kept me on the outside. Made me cookies. Did my laundry. Cleaned my room for me. Vanished into mom-ness, a little bit.”
“You were pretty young when all of it happened, right?”
“Yeah. I was a kid. I get it. How could I have really understood? I couldn’t have. Not at eleven. Later, maybe. But ‘later’ was somehow too late. And I never—before Destiny left, I never tried. I knew I should try. But I didn’t. I was always going to, but, before all of this, before Rush literally pulled me out of my bedroom in my PJs, I was forever going to be ‘going to be’, you know?”
“So. When I go back now, on the stones, I try to get in there with my mom. Really find out how she is. What she needs. It’s hard, though. She doesn’t even understand what I’m trying to do when I do it, because it’s been so long. She gets upset sometimes.”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“Okay, that face tells me you see the parallel I’m trying to draw, right? You see it?”
“I see it,” Young admitted, grudgingly.
“It’s hard to be the one on the outside, looking in at this secret, horrible thing that you don’t understand, and that you don’t really want to understand. It sucks. It really really sucks. And I get that.” Eli stopped talking, his eyes fixed on the line in the darkness where the wall met the ceiling. “But if you don’t get in there—you won’t be in there.”
“Say what you mean, Eli.”
“He needs more help,” Eli said, still staring at the wall. “More than he’s getting. There’s something going on with him. He looks too good. The Science Team has understood from, oh, day five, that he deficit spends against his own energy. Volker actually keeps a running tally. In, like, Mental Joules. Anyway. He’s deep in the red. He’s gotta be. I don’t know what it means to deficit spend in the context of his new situation. I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to figure it out before it’s too late. But you might be able to.”
“Don’t sigh,” Eli snapped. “Don’t sigh like that. Like he’s already beaten you. He’s an idiot, okay? In a common-sense fight you can take him every day of the week and twice on Sunday because he has none of it. No common sense. Zero. But someone has to get in there with him and actually help. Help him, help us, help everything. Everyone. It turns out you’re our best option.”
“You done?” Young growled.
“No. I’m not done. I haven’t done the pep part. You can turn this around. You already are. You already have. Keep going. Don’t—do whatever you did to piss him off tonight. Do the opposite of that. Last week was better.”
“Eli, I’m trying.” Young took a breath and kept his frustration under wraps, where it wouldn’t catch the scientist’s attention. “That man can’t be forced into anything he doesn’t want to do.”
“Uh, duh,” Eli replied, his voice rising, “what I’m saying, on behalf of myself and literally everyone I know, is that you should take, maybe, ten percent of the insane eye chemistry you have going with ‘that man’ AND TURN IT INTO FRIENDSHIP SO WE DON’T ALL DIE.”
Eli stared at Young, breathing hard, looking quietly terrified.
Young was torn between total despair and hysterical laughter. He was pretty sure it showed on his face.
“Yeah,” Eli said. “So, as I think I might have mentioned, this is my first pep talk.”
“Eli, I’ve worked on the guy for two years. Never gotten much of anywhere.”
“Life’s hard,” Eli whispered. “Try anyway. We’ll help.”
“So,” Eli said with false bravado, “that’s pretty much all I wanted to say.”
“Thanks,” Young replied.
“Actually, I lied. There’s one more thing. Destiny’s Official Social Committee (aka Chloe and Matt and Greer and Lisa and Becker and Dunning and James and I?) had an idea. We were thinking that tomorrow, after you get released from the infirmary, maybe the entire crew could have a ‘gathering’.” He paused for emphasis, making scare quotes with his fingers. “Because a party would be very inappropriate in miserable times like these what with the aliens and the chasing and the injuries and the lack of food. But. Everyone’s alive! And the first of the seeds from the seed bank just sprouted in the Hydroponics Lab Part Deux. Plus Brody was just downstairs, and he was like, ‘Hmm, what should I do with all this alcohol that I have?’ because apparently there hasn’t been that much social drinking going on. Well, okay. There’s a lot. But he’s well ahead of it. Plus, we have a few people who are very close to winning Destiny Bingo—”
“Don’t get hung up on that part. Just a little minor side thing we have going. Aaaaanyways, what do you think?”
“That sounds fine,” Young said cautiously, “as long as we don’t use any extra rations.”
“Food would just dilute the effect of the alcohol anyway.”
“Um, yeah,” Young smiled faintly. “I suppose so.”
“Awesome. And you’re definitely coming, right? Because you kind of have to? For morale and all.”
“Yeah, I’ll be there.”
“Excellent. Chloe’s plan is to snare Rush by telling him there’s a math-related emergency in the mess. I say he’s going to see right through that one. He’s so suspicious. An instrumentation overload? That he might believe, but what the heck kind of instruments are in the mess? None really. Yet. We’re working on it.”
“Don’t actually create an overload.” Young shot him a meaningful look.
“Duh, obviously.” Was it his imagination, or did Eli look slightly guilty?
“Even if you get him there, you’ll never convince him to stay.” Young raised his eyebrows.
“One step at a time,” Eli said airily as he got to his feet. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
After the kid left, the room felt terribly empty.
Young leaned forward, braced good elbow against his knees, and dropped his head into his hand. He wanted to call Rush. He wanted to project to the guy. But he had no idea what he was going to say. Apologize? For his own thoughts? For what had happened with TJ? For shoving the guy out of whatever unendurably spectacular thing he’d been doing with his brain?
The NHB was over.
At the back of his mind, Rush, still in the CI room, kicked off his kaleidoscopic flow of code. If anything, it was more spectacular than it had been earlier. Slower. More intricate. Braiding itself into depths and distances that faded from Young’s sight.
The man was becoming an intractable mass of interrelated problems.
Young sat forward, and swiped his radio off the bedside table. His hand closed around its comforting weight. He laid back against the pillows. He pressed the radio gently against his bad shoulder.
He couldn’t think of a damn thing to say.
When he woke the next day, Young felt better. Using her Ancient devices, TJ confirmed he’d metabolized the last traces of the toxin that had been present in the dart. She released him in the early afternoon.
He went to find Rush immediately.
A brief brush against the scientist’s thoughts confirmed the man was in the control interface room. Again. Or, maybe, still. Young made the walk slowly, still not sure what the hell he was going to do when he got there.
He tried to brace himself against the way the scientist was going to look, backed by the psychic halo of his own running thoughts.
He was gonna go in there with no plan and aim for friendly. He wasn’t gonna think about Rush’s goddamned outfit. He wasn’t gonna think about anything that had happened during the foothold situation, especially not the very particular verve with which the scientist could chamber a round. He wasn’t gonna think about whether he’d always had a thing for math professors. He would just—wing it.
He found Rush with both feet propped on the chair next to him. His eyes scanned between his laptop and one of the monitors. He didn’t look up, not even when Young sealed the doors and leaned back against the bulkhead, just inside the room.
They were alone.
“Hi,” Young said.
“Hello.” Rush didn’t look up.
Already this was going much better than Young had expected. He decided on a strong opener.
“I’m a jackass.”
“Yes well, if you’re looking for argument on that one, you’ve come to the wrong place,” Rush replied.
That one was hard to interpret. Was it a ‘yes, I’m sorry too,’ or a ‘yes, you should be sorry?’ Very difficult to tell by tone alone. The man had probably left it ambiguous on purpose.
“Are you okay?” Young asked.
“You should be exhausted.”
“An’ I expect you should still be classified as ‘half-dead’.” Delicately, Rush executed a keyboard command like he was coaxing music from his laptop.
“Did you fix our link?” Young asked him.
Finally, Rush looked up. He pulled his feet off the chair and straightened.
Young crossed the room and dropped into the empty seat.
“I don’t think I fixed it,” Rush admitted. He hooked a hand over one shoulder and went to work on the muscles at the base of his neck.
“I don’t know, genius, it sure seems fixed.”
“It’s a workaround,” Rush said.
“Okay,” Young said mildly. “How does the workaround work?”
He could feel the scientist searching for an appropriate analogy. “Energy and penetrating power are related,” Rush said. “You fire a projectile at a wall, and the more kinetic energy it has, the further it embeds itself, yes?”
“I’m with ya,” Young said.
“So.” Rush separated his hands in midair, demonstrating. “As the distance between us increases, more energy is required for our signals to reach one another. Vary the energy, tie it inversely to displacement, and one can, effectively, mimic a distance reduction.”
“So the further we are, the harder you’re working to power this thing?” Young asked, following his argument with a rare level of clarity.
“I don’t like it,” Young said mildly.
“Really? Hmm. You’re usually so well-disposed toward my ideas.” Rush dug his fingers into his shoulder, balanced between amusement and exasperation. “Can’t imagine why you don’t like this one. Fortunately, in this case, your participation isn’t required.”
“I still think we should try to fix the link,” Young said.
Rush looked at him evenly. “I agree. But you’re in no shape to make the attempt at present.”
“I don’t like the idea of using you like a battery.”
“A capacitor, I think, would be a better analogy.”
Young did his best to hang onto his patience. “Okay. I don’t like the idea of using you like a ‘capacitor,’ then.”
“As soon as we have a choice about it, I’ll slot you into my schedule for a three hour circular discussion about it,” Rush said, dark and smooth, “but until such a time, I recommend you drop it.” He returned his attention to his laptop.
Young studied him, trying to discern any sign of illness. Any sign of infection with an Ancient virus. The man looked fine. Well-rested. His thoughts were diamond-edged. Sharp enough to cut. He’d cleaned himself up. Showered. Shaved. Washed the dust and alien viscera off his pants. There was a crisp precision in his typing that hadn’t been there for weeks, blunted by the pain in his wrists. The way he pressed his fingertips against the keys suggested nothing so much as a virtuosic—
“Can I help you?” Rush asked, with radioactive politeness.
It occurred to Young that he’d been staring. He mentally backtracked, then cleared his throat. “I talked to TJ,” he said. “About the virus you’re still infected with.”
“Ah.” Rush completed a ring-finger to index finger keyboard command, then lifted his hands. “I was going to tell you. Eventually.”
“She said you weren’t surprised.”
Rush shook his head. “It’s how the plague began, you know. They were trying to effect the genetic changes required for ascension and created a virus that destroyed them, even as it facilitated the willful transition of matter to pure energy.”
“Great,” Young whispered.
“There were many who could not ascend,” Rush murmured. His thoughts were full of people in clothes of foreign cut, of spoken Ancient inside elegant, alien architecture. “Many who wished for a different path.”
“What happened to them?” Young asked.
“They died,” Rush said.
Young said nothing.
Rush looked at him.
“Those aren’t your memories, genius. Tell me you know that.”
“I know.” The scientist’s thoughts shattered apart, like stained glass taking a rock under sunshine. “Of course I know. How’s your arm? Tamara said you’d get full function back eventually.”
“I can move my fingers,” Young said softly. “More and more all the time.”
“Genius, how long has it been since you slept?”
“Do you know how many times I get asked that in a given day? As if chronic sleep deprivation explains everything about me.”
“It’d explain a lot,” Young said dryly. “You’re avoiding the question.”
“We’re unusually perspicacious today,” Rush said, his thoughts colored with amused overtones. “What’s the occasion?”
“Stop being so difficult.”
“That’ll never happen. Drop it.”
Young got to his feet. “Later,” he said, giving Rush a pointed look, “you’re gonna have two options. Option one: sleep. Option two: a discussion about sleep that will, probably, last hours.”
Rush knitted his brows. “What?”
“Yup. It’ll be round after round of me explaining that basic human biology still applies to you, a human, until you get bored and give up.”
“What?” Rush said, again.
“You want the Cliffs Notes? It’s this: you need sleep to live. That pretty much covers it; more details to come at, uh, let’s say 2200 hours?”
“Fuck off,” Rush said amicably.
“You know what you are, right?” Young asked. He shoved his good hand in his pocket and headed for the doors.
“A lot of work?” Rush hazarded.
“Yeah, but I like you anyway.” And, with that, Young left the room.