Force over Distance: Chapter 26
“What the hell is ‘Destiny Bingo’?” Young asked the table at large.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Morning tea.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
Eli’s “gathering” had been in full swing for an hour when Chloe finally got Rush to make an appearance.
Young was sitting at a table near the back, a beaten metal cup full of grain alcohol in front of him. He sat with Scott, Eli, Park, and Greer. Someone, probably Eli, had rigged up an interface between someone’s iPod and Destiny’s sound system.
When Chloe showed up with Rush in tow, a look of flushed triumph on her face, Greer leaned over to Scott. “You owe me,” the sergeant said, “your second lettuce ration.”
Scott, watching Rush and Chloe, nodded reluctantly.
“It’ll be years before we have enough lettuce for salads,” Park said consolingly to Scott.
Rush looked like all of Young’s problems and at least two of his looming existential crises wrapped in pure attitude. What kind of attitude? That was hard to say. The spectacular running light of the scientist’s thoughts carried overtones of confusion and suspicion. There was some diamond-edged disdain spiking the mix.
“Hey guys,” Chloe said, taking the seat next to Scott. “Dr. Rush was just going to settle a little debate between me and Eli.”
“Actually.” Rush hesitated, eyed the exit, and leaned into his crutch. “Whatever the issue at hand—I’m sure Chloe’s right.”
“Hey!” Eli glared at the scientist.
“Now. If you’ll all excuse me, I have to—”
“C’mere,” Young said gruffly. He snagged Rush’s jacket sleeve and pulled the man into a seat. Rush, grudgingly, allowed it to happen with an irascible, jewel-toned swirl of thought that began without direction, pulled in threads of Eli, and crystalized around Young’s own cognitive borders. “Yeah yeah,” he said, in response to Rush’s sidelong look.
“Why are there so many kinos in here?” Rush asked, raising his voice to be heard over whatever it was that was coming out of the jury-rigged sound system. He gave Eli a pointed look.
“We’re recording this for posterity,” Eli said.
“And this requires over twenty kinos?” Rush’s eyes had narrowed.
“Yes. Yes it does. You know what? You need a drink. I’ll be back.”
Young took a sip of his first and ideally only drink of the evening. “You should take it easy,” he murmured to Rush.
“Yes, thanks, I remember last time.”
Eli dropped back into his chair, slid a drink over to Rush, then he and Chloe launched into their point of contention. They were attempting to prove that for any compact simple gauge group G, a non-trivial quantum Yang-Mills theory existed on R to the fourth—
And, Young stopped listening. On principle.
At the front of the mess, Brody and Wray were setting up an Ancient viewscreen. The thing was huge. Easily five feet along its diagonal.
“What the hell are they doing with that?” Young asked Greer.
The sergeant looked over at him, his expression pointedly neutral. “You could order us to tell you, sir. But short o’that—” Greer shrugged.
“That’s how you wanna play this, sergeant? Really?”
Greer looked at Scott. Scott clamped down on a smile and offered Young an apologetic expression. “How about this sound system. Not bad, huh? Close your eyes, imagine a steak, and we could be at O’Malley’s.”
Young, Scott, and Greer spent a solid twenty minutes reminiscing about the O’Malley’s menu, while Rush, Chloe, Eli, and Park got neck deep into covariant fields and the vacuum energy state, until—
A shrill whistle cut through the dull roar of conversation.
Young looked up to see Wray climbing atop one of the tables, balancing carefully in her practical black pumps.
“You gonna finally take off that suit jacket, HR Lady?” Greer shouted, his hands cupped around his mouth. Park slapped him on the shoulder with the back of her hand.
“I’m citing you for that, sergeant,” Wray called back, grinning at him.
“Right, so, I just remembered I—” Rush began to get to his feet, but Chloe pulled him back down.
“So, as you all know,” Wray began, “we’ve recently had three teams claim to have won ‘Destiny Bingo’.”
“What the hell is ‘Destiny Bingo’?” Young asked the table at large.
Greer reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small, handmade card, arranged in a five-by-five grid. He passed it over to Young. Tiny, neatly scripted text filled each box.
“Now, there are two members of the crew who haven’t been introduced to Destiny Bingo, because they feature prominently in the game itself. So.” Wray shot an apologetic look in Young’s direction. “Here to explain it to them is the game’s creator. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Eli Wallace.”
“Night shifts for a week,” Rush hissed at Eli, “and I don’t even know what it is you’ve done yet.”
“I second that,” Young called after him.
Eli shot them both a guilty look as he headed toward the front of the room.
“Hey guys,” Eli said, climbing up on the table next to Wray. “So um, first of all, special thanks to Camile, for throwing me straight under the bus.”
“Hey,” Wray said, “I’m crediting you.”
“Classic HR!” Greer shouted.
“Okay. Yeah. So, um, as you all know, we have a really awesome commanding officer—” he gave a sloppy salute in Young’s general direction, then broke off to let the whistles and table banging subside, “and a chief scientist that we all kinda love to hate on, but he pulls us out of the fire regularly, so—” and again the room was filled with an eruption of noise. “Anyway. The idea for this came out of the fact that neither Colonel Young nor Dr. Rush ever want to put anything down for the record on the kino footage that I’m assembling to document our progress. And our mission.”
“Get to the good part!” Greer yelled.
//Right then. I’ll just be going.// Rush tensed, already half out of his seat.
//Don’t you dare.// Young clamped his hand around Rush’s nearest forearm. //Do not leave me alone with this, genius. If I have to sit through this then so do you.//
Rush glanced laterally at Young and sent a wave of surprised assent through their link.
Young eased up on the pressure he was putting on the man’s arm, but didn’t let him go entirely.
“So, Chloe and I made up these cards.” Eli held up an example, “with different events on them that people had to capture on kino footage involving Rush or Young or both. You have to get five squares in a row to win.”
Young looked more closely at the card that Greer had given him.
Young tells Rush he’s A.L.O.W.
Rush says something nice about Volker.
Young slid the card over to Rush, who took one look at it, flipped it over, pushed it straight back at him, and made another attempt to get up from the table. Young and Chloe dragged him down.
“Yup,” Eli said, catching Young’s eye, and pointing at him over the heads of everyone in the mess. “Good job. Keep him here.” He looked at Rush. “This is called karma.”
“It won’t be that bad,” Chloe shouted, over the explosion of cheering that filled the room, giving Rush and imploring expression. “I promise.”
Rush stopped trying to get up.
“So,” Eli continued, “since we have three teams claiming victory, we’ll be voting on the best overall compilation. First up is Team Future—which, I’m sure no one is surprised to learn, is Brody and Volker.”
Eli leaned over to fire up his computer.
Young tried to brace himself.
“Please let me form no memories of this,” Rush murmured.
//Whatever it is,// Young said. //We’re just gonna to sit here. And take it.//
//Because both of us owe Eli. Big time. He’s cashing in his chips. After this? You want to put him on nights for the rest of his natural life? Fine by me.//
//I’d never survive the complaining. A week should do it. Maybe two.//
//I’m thinking two.//
“Square D1,” Eli began, reading off the card Brody handed him. “Rush fails to answer his radio.” He pressed a button on his laptop, and a video of Rush began to play, taken from a kino parked beneath a nearby monitor bank.
The scientist was sitting in the control interface room, his feet propped on a locked console, a pen held between his teeth like a cigarette. His laptop was balanced on his thighs. He typed fluidly, his brows faintly furrowed.
Rush’s radio went off. Volker to Rush. The scientist paused, looked at it, and resumed typing. Volker to Rush. This time, the scientist didn’t even look up. Volker to Rush. I know you’re there. Pick up the radio. Rush didn’t pick up the radio. Volker to Rush. Yet again. What if this were an emergency? I could be dying right now. Twenty percent of the Science Team down the drain. Rush rolled his eyes. Sixteen point six seven percent of the Science Team, he muttered, glaring at the radio. He returned to typing. The radio went off again. Young to Rush. Rush snatched the radio off the console, depressed the button, and snarled WHAT, straight into the thing. There was a long pause. Volker says you’re not answering your radio. The scientist spoke with venomous patience, Clearly untrue, Rush out.
Young lost his battle with his straight face.
“You bastard,” Volker shouted from the back of the room over an eruption of laughter.
Rush dug the heel of one hand into his eye socket.
Young clapped him on the shoulder.
“Okay,” Eli said, over the general merriment. “That was a very solid opener from Team Future. And yeah. We will be awarding style points for editing and cinematography. Okay. Next up, square D2. Colonel Young uses an assault rifle for something other than its intended purpose.” Eli hit a key on his laptop.
The screen was black. Over the sound system, some kind of pop song with strummed guitar and, maybe, accordion began to play? Slowly, an image faded in. It was Young, using the body of an unloaded assault rifle as a crutch. He saw himself limping through corridors, Scott at his side.
God their hair had been short, their uniforms crisp.
The scene changed. Young saw himself, seated on a crate, his crutch wedged into a gap, between the infirmary doors. It was still early days. Young leaned against the wall, watching a slow stream of military personnel relocating crates of medical supplies, threading themselves, with difficulty, through the gap in the doors. Rush passed in front of the kino, walking at a fast clip, like he had somewhere to be. A few seconds passed. The scientist walked back into frame and straight to the door control panel. He pried the panel free, yanked a wire, flipped a crystal, bridged a gap, and the doors opened. Stepping laterally, he wordlessly caught Young’s assault rifle before it fell, thrust it at him, and walked out of the frame, shaking his head.
A wave of laughter and a few scattered cheers came from the crowd in the mess.
“That’s how it’s done,” Greer shouted.
The scene changed again. This time, it opened on a conversation between Young and Wray. Young stood in his doorframe, exhausted, one arm braced against the bulkhead. The kino zoomed in on his quarters. Through the open doorway, Young’s recently washed jacket could be seen hanging on the frame of of his repurposed assault rifle, which he’d braced against his couch.
“Oh no,” Scott said, laughing. “Laundry?”
The scene changed to Chloe and TJ, working in the infirmary. Chloe stood on stacked crates. TJ was beneath her, her hands on Chloe’s hips, steadying her. Chloe reached overhead for the power supply on one of the wall-mounted diagnostic units. If I could just pull the cable down, Chloe said, under the music, I could splice in. Is there anything we could use to reach it? TJ’s eyes swept the room. From off camera, Young heard his own voice. Sit tight. I’ve got just the thing.
The room exploded with laughter.
Rush pointed two fingers at the screen, glared at Chloe, and said, “No.”
“I know, I know,” Chloe whispered, grinning.
The scene changed to Becker, his shoulder wedged against one of the huge vats in the kitchen behind the mess. Young, again off camera, said, Looks like you could use a lever, airman.
The music was barely audible over the laughter in the room. Young covered his face with his good hand as he and Becker started really applying themselves on screen.
“Y’know,” Rush’s hand landed on Young’s shoulder. He pulled Young in to murmur in his ear, “This really does capture something about you.”
Rush smirked at him.
Onscreen, as the music drew to a close, a series of rapid cuts began to flash up. Volker, frowning up at a kino that had wedged itself overhead between two monitors. James, trying to keep a door open that kept closing, over and over again. Park, sitting cross-legged on the floor, trying to pick the lock on a military-issue crate. And each time, in overlay, from offscreen, Young’s voice could be heard, speaking some variant on the words, Sit tight.
The song ended and the room erupted in applause.
“Okay,” Eli said. “Really strong. Great choice of song, Team Future. That’s been noted for the record. Okay. Square D3. Young baits Rush.”
A kino moved through the halls, hovering just behind Young and Brody, who were approaching the CI room. As they entered, the little device came to hover near Eli and Volker, who were sharing a station near the wall. Oh boy, Volker muttered under his breath, as Young appeared in the doorway. Rush, Young growled. Why is this taking so long? Rush, sitting at his favorite station, didn’t look up. I’m testing the integrity of every component of a mixed-signal circuit.
Onscreen, Young watched himself pace forward, arms crossed. Is that supposed to impress me? Rush still didn’t look up. Seems vanishingly unlikely, the scientist muttered. Young leaned against the man’s console. What’s taking so long? Rush glared up at him. Do you think I’m doing this for my own amusement?
Young winced as he watched himself lean straight into the scientist’s personal space. Maybe. Rush shot Young a cool look, shook his hair back, and went all in on a fiery glare. He dropped his voice, and spoke some particularly spectacular sugar-coated venom. Well you’ll never know, will you? So would y’kindly fuck off?
For some reason, the room decided to confusedly cheer for that moment. Maybe because the onscreen tension was thick enough to cut with a knife.
Onscreen-Young didn’t help the situation. He dropped his own voice and said, That’d be fuck off, colonel. Behind the camera, Volker whispered to Eli, You know, sometimes I think this whole dynamic has a real quick fix. The camera rotated to take in Eli, standing at his computer. Yup. We just lock ‘em in a room and let them Pon Farr it out. Volker snorted. Eli looked up, his gaze flicking to the kino, then back to Volker. You did NOT just film me saying that. Delete that. Right now! If this appears in Destiny Bingo you are immediately disqualified.
“Aaaaaaaannd yeah, you’re totally disqualified for that,” Eli said good-naturedly, yelling over the whistles and general disruptiveness of the room. A faint blush was coloring the back of his neck.
“Wait—on what grounds?” Volker yelled from the back of the room.
“Humiliating the game’s inventor will get you disqualified. It’s in the fine print. Goodbye Team Future. We hardly knew ye.”
Young looked at Rush, “What’s ‘Pon Farr’?” he asked.
“No idea,” Rush said, artlessly artless, bullshitting straight through his teeth.
“Did you just say ‘what’s Pon Farr’?” Park asked, looking at Young.
“No, seriously guys, what is Pon Farr?” Chloe echoed, her brow furrowed.
“Some kind of nerd thing,” Greer said lazily. “Vulcan death match.”
“I’ll explain it to you later,” Lisa whispered to Chloe.
“Okay,” Eli said, speaking over the muttering crowd, who mostly seemed to be arguing about what Pon Farr was. “Moving on. Next up is Team Chloe and Matt. Ugh. You guys. Seriously? Team Chloe and Matt? That’s the worst team name ever. I expect better from you next time. Okay, square A1, Rush says something nice about Volker.”
The screen opened on Chloe and Rush, sitting opposite one another in the control interface room. Volker did these calculations, Chloe said, looking at Rush. The scientist glanced up at her, but said nothing. He’s really very nice, Chloe continued, his hair always looks great, very professional. Rush looked up again, his expression perplexed.
“Thanks Chloe,” Volker shouted from the back of the room. “You’re my favorite.”
Onscreen-Chloe pressed her case. I heard he was a national ping-pong champion. Did you know that? Rush frowned. I’m sure that’s untrue, he said. Oh I don’t know, Chloe replied. He’s got quick reflexes. Too bad we don’t have any ping-pong balls. Also, he’s got a great sense of humor. Rush’s eyebrows drew together. Are you—no longer involved with Lieutenant Scott?
The room erupted in laughter. Chloe turned bright red. Both hands were over her mouth.
“Marry me, Chloe!” Volker shouted.
Onscreen-Chloe stared at Rush. What? Oh. OH. No. I just. I’m not, I mean. Matt and I are great. Matt is great. Matt is, like, one hundred percent the best. Rush narrowed his eyes at her. I just think Volker’s underestimated. That’s my point. He has a lot of really great qualities. Don’t you think? Haven’t you, um, noticed any of them? Onscreen-Rush narrowed his eyes further. Are you trying to set me up with Volker?
Next to Rush, Chloe put her head down on the table and buried her face in her arms as the room, again, erupted into laughter.
“Would you consider it though?” Volker shouted. “Sure seems like you would.”
Rush propped an elbow on the table and shielded his eyes with his hand. Young clapped him on the shoulder.
Onscreen, Chloe backpedaled rapidly. No! I just—no, I mean, why would you even—like, I couldn’t imagine—you and Volker would NOT be a good match. I’m just saying that it would be really great for the science team if the two of you got along a little bit better. Rush looked down at his laptop. I see. Several seconds passed in silence. I suppose he does have excellent penmanship, Rush offered. Chloe winked straight at the kino.
“Awww yeah,” Volker shouted, “and who do you think inked out these bingo cards?”
“Okay,” Eli said, grinning. “Chloe and Matt coming in strong out of the gate. Moving on to square B1. Young tells Rush he’s ALOW. I see this is a montage of twenty-seven different clips. Let’s fire it up.”
//Do you think this is going to be over any time in the foreseeable future?// Rush projected weakly.
//I hope so,// Young replied, as the montage began with, DAMN he’s a lot of work.
The entire thing dragged on for an embarrassing, interminable twenty-five minutes.
In the end, it was Her Ladyship, a team comprised of Park, TJ, and Wray who won the enviable prize of: Lifelong Respect and a Mention in the Credits of Eli’s Documentary. They clinched it for an artistically arranged answer to squares C3 (Rush rolls his eyes at Young) and C4 (Young rolls his eyes at Rush). They’d created a montage of interleaved expressions of incredulous disgust, backed by a ridiculously beautiful piece of classical music.
To his credit, Rush stayed for the whole thing. But, as soon as the show was over and the music had been dialed back up, the scientist made straight for the exit.
Young let him go.
It had been, uh, kind of a lot.
There was really only so much general goodwill that Rush could handle and retain his mental equilibrium.
And there had been a lot of goodwill.
Eli’d been careful to keep any of the categories from devolving into anything mean-spirited or too revealing. Whether or not it had been Eli’s original intention—the project had been a successful exercise in misdirection—a distraction and reframing of some of the more concerning gossip that had likely been making rounds through the crew. The footage had, somehow, worked to soften them both. Not only in relation to one another, but also in relation to the crew. Their differences had been cast as quirky. Stubborn. Harmless.
If only they really were those people on the kino footage.
They’d looked like a far-flung variant of John Sheppard and Rodney McKay. Everything that really defined them had ended up on the cutting room floor.
Young stuck it out for several hours, posting himself up at a table in the back, talking with a rotating mix of the crew. He didn’t drink. He didn’t didn’t dance. He watched the night evolve into something wild, soaked with alcohol, drowning in music. Chloe was in her element here. So was Greer. So was Park. He let his eyes pass over TJ, teaching Varro to dance, and felt more than a twinge of regret. She was beautiful. No doubt about it. The light on the ship seemed to love her more than almost anyone else.
Eli, too, had been watching the party. He leaned against the wall, a drink in hand, watching Chloe dance with a wistful expression on his face. As though he could feel Young’s gaze, the kid looked over at him.
“Hey,” Eli said, dropping into a seat next to Young.
“Hey,” Young said.
“Um,” Eli winced. “Sorry about all this. I started it before the stuff with the chair and all, but it seemed way too suspicious to suddenly call it off. I looked at everything beforehand, other than that Pon Farr thing that Volker and Brody swapped in at, like, literally the last minute; they’re sneaky when he wants to be.”
“I thought it was great,” Young said.
“Nah. Really? Um, in that case, do you think you can you protect me from Rush? I’m pretty sure he was not kidding about night shifts for a week. That’s probably the least of my worries.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Young replied mildly.
“Good. He listens to you.”
Young shot him a skeptical look.
“Okay, he listens to you about fifteen percent of the time, and only if he happens to already have decided that he agrees with you, but that’s better than my track record.”
“Don’t sell yourself short.”
“Yeah,” Eli said with a sigh. “Sure.”
Young crossed his arms. “You’re really something else, you know that?”
“Um? Thanks?” Eli lifted his drink, and they touched glasses.
In the back of his mind, he felt Rush spark up his incredible, cut-crystal code flow.
Young took a small sip of the dregs of his single drink. “So,” he cleared his throat. “Pon Farr is—what, exactly?”
“Ritual, uh, death match thing,” Eli said, coughing on his alcohol. “For Vulcans. In Star Trek. I—barely remember it. It’s uh—very elaborate. Lots of rules. Fighting. Fighting’s involved with it, a lot of the time. It can go other ways, depending on circumstances, but really, yeah. Don’t. Don’t ask anyone about it. Just, like, wait until you have time to do a deep dive into Vulcan culture. That’s how to do it. Don’t ask Volker about it. Sleeper sense of humor on that guy. Have you noticed this? Can’t believe anything he says.”
“Eli!” Chloe called from across the room. “Eli!”
“Duty calls, byeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.” Eli disappeared into the crowd.
In Young’s peripheral vision, he caught a familiar silhouette, leaning against the back wall of the room. Emily stood near the door, the lights shining off her face and off her hair. She wore the little black dress that she’d favored for parties. It clung to her body in all the right places, followed her curves. Its hemline was asymmetrical. A tiny line of crystal was sewn along one shoulder. It was dead on. Except, here, it was white instead of black. She wasn’t looking at him. She was watching the dancers with a wistful expression on her face.
Young shut his eyes and gathered himself. He walked to the wall, put his back to it, and stood with the AI, shoulder-to-shoulder.
It was a good long while before it spoke.
“I like them,” it murmured, with Emily’s friendly simplicity.
“All of them?” Young asked.
“I think so,” Emily whispered, her gaze tracking Eli. The light reflected off her upswept hair.
“What brings you here?” Young asked.
“Would you come with me?” it asked, glancing over at him.
He nodded and ducked out of the room to follow it into the dark, quiet corridor. Its footfalls were eerily noiseless on the metal deck plating.
“So,” Young said, once they were out of earshot of the mess. “I’ve been expecting you to show up and read me the riot act for a day and a half now. What’s taken you so long?”
“This has been difficult for both of you,” it replied quietly. “I’m capable of understanding that.”
Young raised his eyebrows. “Yeah?”
Emily looked back at him. A piece of her hair had come free from its arrangement. Young resisted the urge to smooth it into place. “Any chance you might consider switching over to Dr. Jackson?” he asked.
“This is the form your subconscious chooses for me.”
“If that’s really true,” he said, trying to hold onto his patience, “why are you manifesting as Jackson to Rush? You can’t expect me to believe that his subconscious latched onto an SGC archeologist somewhere along the way.”
“No, but—” it paused. Emily’s expression was hesitant.
“But?” Young prompted.
“I became concerned,” it said. Emily’s eyes were dark and wide and wrenchingly uncertain. “There have been several occasions, after his most recent use of the neural interface chair, when I appeared to him as Gloria. It’s much easier. But—” maddeningly, it hesitated, looking at him anxiously.
“But?” Young prompted, again, hearing the edge in his voice.
“He seemed to have difficulty separating me from the real Gloria. This seemed—not ideal.”
“Not ideal?” Young stopped dead in the hallway. He grabbed her arm to spin her around, but met only empty air. “You need to stop that. Right now. You should never have done it in the first place. His wife is dead. Do you understand that? Does that compute for you? I don’t know what the hell you were trying to achieve in the neural interface device, I don’t know what the hell you were trying to achieve forcing him into the chair in the first place. No one seems to want to tell me, and pretty soon I’m going to get tired of waiting for one or both of you to spit it out. But as of right now? Bottom line? You need. To stop. Fucking with him.”
“He belongs to this ship,” the AI said, its voice cold.
“He does not belong to this ship,” Young growled. “My whole purpose, within this shit system, is to remind you of that.”
This seemed to set the thing back. “True,” it admitted.
They stared at one another, standing toe to toe in the hallway.
“Switch to Jackson,” Young said, pushing his luck.
“Because I don’t like talking to you as Emily.”
“Please explain,” it said coolly.
“It causes me psychological distress to interact with a woman that I loved, but then lost. You want things to go better for you? Use Jackson.”
It looked at him, Emily’s expression eerily blank. “You are—lonely?”
“What?” Young rasped, caught off guard.
“You are lonely for Emily?” The AI whispered, its expression softening. “You—miss her?”
Emily’s expression cracked, from uncertainty into pure devastation.
“You understand loneliness?” Young asked.
“Yes,” Emily breathed. Her features blurred, morphing into those of Daniel Jackson. Her white dress changed to khaki pants and a crisp, pressed shirt. “Yes,” Jackson said. “I understand loneliness. Very well, actually.” He looked away, down the hallway.
“Thanks,” Young said quietly.
Jackson nodded, then led the way into one of the unexplored areas of the ship. They took a lift down to the lowest accessible level, putting them somewhere beneath the gate room, near the observation platform over the FTL drive. Midway down a long, straight stretch of corridor, a door opened, spilling golden light into the hall. Young followed the AI inside.
Rush was seated at a console, his laptop open in front of him, snapped into one of the instrumentation panels with a homemade adaptor. The scientist’s hands rested over the keys, but he wasn’t typing. His eyes were open, but unfocused.
On his laptop, a slow shift of glowing ribbon waved its way over the screen, caught by an invisible wind.
“God damn it,” Young murmured, looking at the flow of Rush’s thoughts, more than half braided into darkness. “How’d I miss this this?”
“He’s turned very inventive,” Jackson murmured.
“What happened?” Young asked quietly. “Can you tell?”
“In his current state, he becomes vulnerable to failures in focus,” Jackson said. “He was referencing circuit architecture while coding, and the power relays themselves pulled him into their network. Partially.” Jackson frowned. “It’s not supposed to work like this.”
“He’s not all that interested in how things are ‘supposed’ to work,” Young growled.
The AI nodded.
“What did you mean by his ‘current state’?” Young asked.
“Surely you’ve noticed,” Jackson pushed his glasses up his face, giving Young an almost bemused expression. “He’s been protecting you from the strain that Destiny is exerting by reflecting the pull. Instead of trying to stay out of the ship, he’s been selectively letting it in. Porting it through a firewall of the self and turning it back outward. He’s gotten very good at it. It’s beautiful to watch.”
“Yeah,” Young sighed. “But why the hell is he still doing it?”
“You needed time to recover.” Jackson wrapped his arms around himself. “And not just from the physical injuries. When he pulled Destiny into your mind on the shuttle—he very nearly killed you.”
Young shook his head. “Not possible. I barely felt anything.”
“Such injuries don’t hurt, Everett.”
“And you can’t just shove him out of your circuitry?” Young asked.
“I can’t,” the AI confirmed. “I’m incapable of separating him from the space he occupies within Destiny’s systems. Only you can do that. And, after the week you’ve had? I recommend the use of the neural interface chair.”
“No,” Young said flatly. “No way.”
“If you try to drag him out by brute force, it’ll kill you.” The AI’s tone was just as flat.
“I’m not using the chair,” Young growled.
“Fine.” Jackson’s voice was cold. “I look forward to working with Tamara. When you’re dead.” It shot him a baleful glare, and vanished.
Young stared at the place where it had been, then looked back at Rush. “And you hang out with that thing?” he whispered.
Rush didn’t move. The dim, intricate patterns of his thought through elaborate, invisible firewalls, continued to run.
Young crossed the room, his boots scraping over fine-grained dust on the floor. He pulled up a chair and dropped into it, directly across from the scientist. Rush’s laptop was between them, resting against a locked screen.
Young dragged it out from under his fingers. Friction carried Rush’s hands along with the keyboard, extending them along the table until Young lifted the machine away.
Compared to the party he’d just left, the room was crushingly quiet.
He set the laptop out of the way.
He fingered his sling absently as he looked at Rush.
“Every time,” Young murmured, “that I think I’ve seen the worst you can dish out, you find a way to up the stakes. I’m tired of it. I don’t care what the AI says. This day doesn’t end with you in the chair. It ends with you asleep. You got that?”
Young swept the scientist’s hands together, then wrapped his hand over the man’s stacked palms.
Rush stared, unseeing, at their entwined fingers. The fringe of his hair brushed the rims of his glasses.
The scientist’s hands were cold.
“You’re a mess, genius,” Young murmured. “All the goddamned time.”
Carefully, he followed his link with the other man down into the scientist’s mind, not attempting to pull him out, just—for the moment—being there. Experimentally, he set up some drag against the parts of the scientist’s mind that were still accessible to him.
Rush tensed. His hands clenched. He shifted his weight forward. Slowly, he began to drag his left foot beneath him. Before he could get too far, Young swept his boot beneath the console, catching Rush’s foot behind his ankle and pulling it forward, preventing the scientist’s attempt to tear it open.
//No.// He projected the word and the idea of negation as forcefully as he could.
He got a vague sense of distress in return—disorganized and from very far away.
//You’re okay.// He projected as much reassurance as he could though their link. //Try to relax, genius.//
Rush’s hands slowly began to unclench.
“You’re not totally gone,” Young murmured. “If you got yanked out through your firewall, I’m guessing you can get back in the same way. You just need to localize.”
Again, Rush tried to flex his foot.
Again, Young prevented it.
He got a wave of frustration from the scientist, more nuanced this time. It was laced with indignation. It carried the mental flavor of, What do you fuckin’ want, without any of the words.
Young unstacked their hands. He took the scientist’s right hand and turned it over, then pressed his thumb into the man’s palm. One long, slow swipe. Then another. Then another.
Rush blinked, his eyes snapped back into focus. His brow furrowed. But he wasn’t well-seated in his body. Not quite. the hypnotic weave of his thoughts was turning brighter, more absorbing.
“Come on,” Young said, still working on his hand, turning less predictable, scraping a nail across the delicate skin at Rush’s wrist.
Rush shivered, but he couldn’t break free.
“Genius. Hey. Get back here.”
Rush continued to stare at their hands, as though they contained the mysteries of the universe. Young waited, working on the man’s palm all the while, but it was no good. It was the last yard out of fifty. But the scientist just couldn’t seem to close the gap.
Young reached across the table, hooked his fingers beneath Rush’s jaw, and, very gently brought the scientist’s chin up. //“Genius,”// he said, simultaneously speaking and projecting. //“Block the room.”//
Immediately, Young’s visual field faded, to be replaced by the schematic of their link, ablaze with light, humming with reactive energy. Young struggled to keep track of his own body. The amount of information he was getting was astounding. The link was bigger than he’d thought. Vast. There was more to it now. Much more. Or—no. That wasn’t it. Previously, there hadn’t been enough light running through the network to illuminate all of it. The new swaths were at the edges; crackling, intermittently visible webs sparked up and faded.
Rush was running at capacity. At more than capacity. He’d pulled himself out of the ship, back into the link, and Young could now feel the wordless, powerful, hypnotic flow of his running thoughts. Focused on him, but unable to snap free of streaming, balanced loops.
Young pulled him in, and tipped them both into the gravity-well of their link. They crashed straight down into synchronized physicality.
Their poses were perfectly mirrored. They were looking directly into one another’s eyes, leaning forward, left hands extended. He could feel Rush’s cool fingers hooked beneath his jaw, tipping his chin up.
“Hi,” Young said quietly, breaking the loop.