Force over Distance: Chapter 26

“What the hell is ‘Destiny Bingo’?” Young asked. 

Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.

Text iteration: Midnight.

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 26

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 of grain alcohol under his fingertips. He sat with Scott, Eli, Park, and Greer. Someone, probably Eli, had rigged up an interface between an 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 nodded reluctantly.

“It’ll be years before we have enough lettuce for salads,” Park said consolingly.

Rush looked like all of Young’s problems and at least two of his looming existential crises wrapped in pure attitude. The spectacular running light of the scientist’s thoughts carried overtones of confusion and suspicion with diamond-edged disdain spiking the mix.

“Hey guys.” Chloe slid into the open seat next to Scott. “Dr. Rush agreed 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 dragged 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,” Young said, in response to the scientist’s sidelong look.

“Why are there so many kinos in here?” Rush raised his voice to be heard over whatever was coming out of the jury-rigged sound system.

“We’re recording this for posterity,” Eli said.

“And this requires over twenty kinos?” Rush narrowed his eyes.

“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 returned to the table, 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.

Near the front of the mess, Brody and Wray were setting up an Ancient view screen. The thing was huge. Easily five feet along its diagonal.

“What the hell are they doing with that?” Young asked Greer.

The sergeant’s expression was pointedly neutral. “You could order us to tell you, sir. But short o’that—” Greer shrugged.

“That’s how you wanna play this, sergeant?”

Greer looked at Scott. Scott clamped down on a smile. “How about this sound system?” The lieutenant asked. “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.

Wray climbed atop a table, 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 tried to get to his feet, but Chloe pulled him back down.

“As you all know,” Wray began, “three teams claim to have won ‘Destiny Bingo’.”

“What the hell is ‘Destiny Bingo’?” Young asked.

Greer reached into his jacket and pulled out a small, handmade card, arranged in a five-by-five grid. He passed it 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 a guilty look as he headed to the front of the room. “Hey everyone,” the kid said, clambering up on the table next to Wray. “First off, 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 an awesome commanding officer—” he gave a sloppy salute in Young’s 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 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 was already half out of his seat.

//Don’t you dare.// Young clamped a hand around Rush’s forearm. //Do not leave me alone, genius. If I have to sit through this, 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 go.

“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 Greer had given him.

Young tells Rush he’s A.L.O.W.

Rush says something nice about Volker.

Oh god.

Young slid the card over to Rush, who took one look at it, flipped it over, slid it straight back at him, and made another attempt to get up from the table. Young and Chloe dragged him down.

“Yup.” Eli caught Young’s eye and pointed 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. “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’s surprised to learn, is Brody and Volker.”

Eli fired up his computer.

Young braced himself.

“Please let me form no memories of this,” Rush murmured.

//Whatever it is,// Young said, //we’re gonna sit here. And take it.//


//Because we owe Eli. Big time. He’s cashing in his chips. After this? You wanna 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.”

A video of Rush began to play, taken from a kino parked beneath a monitor bank. The scientist sat 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. 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 over an eruption of laughter.

Rush dug the heel of a 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 we will be awarding style points for editing and cinematography. Next up, square D2: Colonel Young uses an assault rifle for something other than its intended purpose.” He hit a key on his laptop.

The screen was black. Over the sound system, a 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 repurposed rifle wedged into a gap between the infirmary doors. A slow stream of military personnel filed past, relocating medical supplies, threading themselves, with difficulty, through Young’s jury-rigged doorstop. Rush passed in front of the kino, speeding through the frame like he had somewhere to be. After a few seconds, the scientist returned. Slowly, pointedly, he pried the door panel free, yanked a wire, flipped a crystal, bridged a gap, and the doors opened. He stepped laterally to catch Young’s rifle before it fell, thrust the weapon 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.

A new scene 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 rifle, braced against his couch.

“Oh no,” Scott said, laughing. “Laundry?”

The scene switched to Chloe and TJ, working in the infirmary. Chloe stood on stacked crates, reaching overhead for the power supply on a wall-mounted diagnostic unit. TJ, below her, kept steadying hands on Chloe’s hips. If I could 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 applying themselves on screen.

“Y’know,” Rush’s hand landed on Young’s shoulder. He pulled Young in to murmur in his ear, “This does capture something about you.”

Young shivered.

Rush smirked at him.

As the music drew to a close, a series of rapid cuts began to flash on the screen. Volker, frowning up at a kino that’d wedged itself overhead between two monitors. James, trying to keep a door open that kept closing. Park, sitting cross-legged on the floor, delicately picking the lock on a military-issue crate. And each time, from off camera, Young could be heard saying some variant of, 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. Square D3. Young baits Rush.”

Onscreen, Young and Brody, approached the CI room, a kino hovering behind them. As they entered the room, the little device came to hover near Eli and Volker, sharing a station near the wall. Oh boy, Volker muttered under his breath, as Young appeared in the doorway. Rush, Onscreen-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. Young watched himself pace forward, arms crossed. Is that supposed to impress me? Onscreen-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. D’you think I’m doing this for my own amusement? Onscreen-Young leaned 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?

The room decided to confusedly cheer for that moment; probably because the tension was thick enough to cut with a knife.

Onscreen-Young didn’t help the situation. He dropped his voice and said, That’d be fuck off, colonel. Behind the camera, Volker whispered to Eli, Sometimes I think this whole dynamic has a real quick fix. The camera rotated to take in Eli, standing at his computer. Don’t tell me. We lock ‘em in a room and let them Pon Farr it out. Volker snorted. Eli looked up, and his gaze flicking to the kino. 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 colored the back of his neck.

“Wait—on what grounds?” Volker shouted.

“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’?”

“No idea,” Rush said, artlessly artless, bullshitting 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, frowning.

“Some kinda nerd thing,” Greer said lazily. “Vulcan death match.”

Scott shrugged.

“I’ll explain it to you later,” Lisa hissed at Chloe.

“Okay!” Eli spoke 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? Worst team name ever. I expect better from you. Okay, square A1, Rush says something nice about Volker.”

The scene opened on Chloe and Rush, sitting opposite one another in the CI room. Volker did these calculations, Chloe said. The scientist glanced up at her, then returned to his work. He’s really very nice, Chloe continued, his hair always looks great, very professional. Rush looked up again, his expression perplexed.

“Thanks Chloe,” Volker called 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. During her speech, Rush’s focus had slowly shifted from his work to Chloe’s face. He looked at her, perplexed. 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 onscreen-Rush. What? Oh. OH. No, 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 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! Aaah! Why would you—like, I couldn’t imagine—you and Volker would NOT be a good match. I’m just saying it’d be nice 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 at the kino.

“Awww yeah,” Volker shouted. “Who do you think inked 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 ordeal 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 beautiful piece of classical music.

As soon as the show was over, Rush made for the exit.

Young let him go.

There was only so much goodwill the scientist could handle.

And there’d been a lot of goodwill.

Eli’d been careful to keep the bingo squares from devolving into anything mean-spirited or too revealing. Whether or not it'd been Eli’s intention, the project had been a successful exercise in misdirection—a distraction and reframing of the more concerning gossip that’d been making rounds through the crew. The footage had, somehow, worked to soften them both. 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 version of John Sheppard and Rodney McKay, but everything that truly defined them was on the cutting room floor.

Young stuck it out for a few hours, posting himself 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 turn 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 on the edge of the crowd. She was beautiful. No doubt about it. The light on the ship loved her more than anyone else.

Not far from where Young sat, Eli leaned against the wall, drink in hand, watching Chloe dance with a wistful expression.

Young beckoned him over.

“Hey.” Eli dropped into a seat.


“Ummmm,” Eli began, “sorry about all this. I started it before the stuff with the chair. It seemed way too suspicious to call it off. I looked at everything beforehand, other than that Pon Farr thing Volker and Brody swapped in at literally the last minute; they’re sneaky when they wanna be.”

“I thought it was great,” Young said.

“Nah. Really? Uh, in that case, can you protect me from Rush? Pretty sure he was not kidding about ‘night shifts for a week’.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“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 already 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 something else, you know that?”

“Um? Thanks?” Eli lifted his drink, and they touched cups.

In the back of Young’s mind, Rush sparked up his incredible, cut-crystal flow of thought and code. “So.” Young cleared his throat. “Pon Farr is what, exactly?”

“Ritual, uh, death match thing.” Eli coughed. “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. Most 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. Back on Earth. Don’t ask Volker about it. Sleeper sense of humor on that guy. Can’t believe a word 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. Emily stood near the door, the lights shining off her face and off her hair. She wore the little black dress she’d favored for parties. Its hemline was asymmetrical. A tiny line of crystal was sewn along one shoulder. It clung to her body in all the right places. It was dead on. Except, here, the dress was white instead of black.

Young gathered himself. He walked to the wall, put his back to the bulkhead, 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 wistful simplicity.

“All of them?” Young asked.

“I think so.” The AI’s gaze lingered on Eli.

“What brings you here?” Young asked.

“Would you come with me?” The light reflected off its upswept hair.

He nodded, then followed it into the dark, quiet corridor. “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 so long?”

“This has been difficult for both of you,” it replied. “I’m capable of understanding that.”

Young raised his eyebrows. “Yeah?”

It looked at him solemnly. An upswept piece of Emily’s hair came free.

Young resisted the urge to smooth the lock of hair into place. “You mind switching to Jackson?”

“This is the form your subconscious chooses for me.” Its footfalls were eerily noiseless on the metal deck plating.

“If that’s really true,” he said, marshaling his patience, “why are you manifesting as Jackson to Rush? You can’t expect me to believe his subconscious latched onto an SGC archeologist?”

“No, but—” it paused.

“But?” Young prompted.

“I became concerned. On several occasions when I’ve appeared to him as Gloria—” Maddeningly, it stopped there.

“What?” Young prompted, hearing the edge in his voice.

“There were indications he was having difficulty separating me from the real Gloria. This seemed—not ideal.”

Not ideal?” Young grabbed for the thing’s arm, intending to spin it to face him, but met only empty air. “You need to knock it off. Right now. His wife is dead. Do you understand that? Does that compute for you? You need. To stop. Fucking with him.”

“He belongs to this ship,” the AI said coolly.

“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.”

They stared at one another, standing toe-to-toe in the hallway.

“Switch to Jackson.” Young pushed his luck.


“Because I don’t like talking to you as Emily.”


“It causes me psychological distress to interact with a woman 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 repeated, its expression softening. “You miss her?”

Young nodded.

Emily’s expression cracked from uncertainty to devastation.

“You understand loneliness?” Young asked.

“Yes,” Emily breathed. Her features blurred. Her face morphed into the face of Daniel Jackson. Her white dress changed to khaki pants and a white cable-knit sweater. “Yes,” Jackson said. “I understand loneliness. Very well, actually.”

“Thanks,” Young said.

They took a lift down to ship’s lowest accessible level, putting them 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, motionless, over the keys. On his laptop, a slow shift of glowing ribbon waved its way over the screen, caught by an invisible wind. Rush wasn’t tracking it. He wasn’t tracking anything.

“God damn it,” Young murmured, studying the way the scientist’s thoughts braided themselves into Destiny’s darkness. “How’d I miss this this?”

“He’s turned inventive,” Jackson murmured.

“What happened?” Young asked. “Can you tell?”

“In his current state, he’s vulnerable to failures in focus. He was referencing circuit architecture while coding, and the power relays 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.

“I know.”

“What did you mean by his ‘current state’?” Young asked.

“Surely you’ve noticed.” Jackson pushed his glasses up his face with a bemused expression. “He’s been protecting you from the strain Destiny exerts by selectively letting the ship in. He ports it through a firewall of the self and turns it outward. He’s gotten 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.” The AI wrapped itself in Jackson’s arms. “And not only 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.”

Young sighed. “You can’t just shove him out of your circuitry?”

“I can’t. 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’d been, then looked at Rush. “And you hang out with that thing?” he whispered.

Rush didn’t move. The intricate patterns of his thoughts, threaded through invisible firewalls, ran in endless spirals.

Young crossed the room, his boots scraping over fine-grained dust on the floor. He pulled up a chair and dropped into it, putting himself directly opposite the scientist.

Rush’s laptop was between them. Young dragged it from under his fingers. Friction carried Rush’s hands along with the keyboard as Young lifted the machine away.

Compared to the party he’d just left, the room was crushingly quiet.

He fingered his sling absently as he looked at Rush.

“Every time I think I’ve seen the worst you can dish out,” Young murmured, “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 good 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 said, “all the goddamned time.”

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.

Easy to get lost in a weave of fire like this one.

Experimentally, he set up some drag against the parts of the scientist’s mind that were accessible.

Rush tensed. His hands clenched. He shifted his weight. Slowly, he dragged 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 into the running light show of the man’s mind.

He got a vague sense of distress in return—disorganized and far away.

//You’re okay.// He projected as much reassurance as he could though their link. //Try to relax, genius.//

Rush’s hands 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 indignation-laced frustration, carrying the mental flavor of, What d’ya fuckin’ want, without any of the words.

Young unstacked their hands. He took the scientist’s right hand, turned it over, and pressed his thumb into the man’s palm. One long, slow swipe.

Rush blinked. His brow furrowed. The hypnotic weave of his thoughts turned brighter. But he wasn’t well-seated in his body. Not quite.

“Come on.” Young worked his hand, turning less predictable, scraping a nail across the delicate skin at the scientist’s wrist.

Rush shivered, but he couldn’t break free.

“Genius. Hey. Get back here.”

Rush stared at their hands, as though they contained the mysteries of the universe. Young waited, massaging the man’s palm all the while.

It was the last yard out of fifty. But the scientist couldn’t close the gap.

Young reached across the table, hooked his fingers beneath Rush’s jaw, and, very gently, tipped the scientist’s chin up. //“Genius,”// he said, //“block the room.”//

The schematic of their link blazed to life, humming with reactive energy. Young struggled to keep track of his own body. The amount of information coming in was astounding. The link was bigger than he’d thought. 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 that sparked up and faded into the depthless dark beyond.

Rush was running at capacity. At more than capacity. He’d pulled himself out of the ship, back into the link, and Young felt the wordless, powerful, hypnotic flow of his running thoughts. Focused on him. But still caught in streaming, balanced loops.

Young pulled him in and tipped them into the gravity-well of their link, where they crashed into synchronized physicality.

The room was back.

Their poses were perfectly mirrored.

They looked directly into one another’s eyes, leaning forward, left hands extended. He felt Rush’s cool fingers hooked beneath his jaw, tipping his chin up.

“Hi,” Young said, breaking the loop.

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