Force over Distance: Chapter 27

“Genius,” Young said. “Personal question.”


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

Text iteration: Midnight. Hover-to-discover in place.

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 27

They pulled their hands back.

Rush looked away. He tucked a piece of hair behind his ear, in what was probably the only self-conscious gesture Young had ever seen him make.

“That was new,” the scientist said softly.

“New as I could make it. What’d you think?”

“As a technique, it’s not very time efficient.”

Young gave him the ghost of a smile. “Tough crowd.”

He was pretty sure he’d just been made.

But what did it matter, really, if Rush could see or tell or read or guess that Young gave a damn about him in a new and, uh, comprehensive way? The guy was smart as hell and twice as practical. He’d probably be god damned delighted to have something new to torque to his advantage.

Rush leaned forward. “I think I’d better—”

With fast reflexes and a light touch, Young stopped him. His fingers closed around the scientist’s forearm, suspending it in midair.

There was no sound in the room, other than the subtle hum of the FTL drive directly beneath them.

“Genius.” Young kept his voice low. “I’d prefer you stay outta there until I work through a few things.”

The scientist’s brows drew together. He was poised like he was about to make a real break for Young’s temple, but, with the slow drag of a military jacket under Young’s fingertips, the scientist pulled his arm back.

Young swallowed.

The form-and-function blend of the man’s magnetic physical presence and fired-crystal cognition was unendurable.

“Colonel,” Rush began delicately.

“Everett,” Young said.

“What?” Rush breathed.

Ohmygod,” Young muttered, looking down. He brought his good hand to his face. He took a breath, tried to rally.

Yeah. So, it was also possible he hadn’t been made. That Rush had no idea Young’s feelings had, uh, done whatever they’d done.

“Right.” Rush reorganized with a flare and shift of jewel-toned momentum. “I’m quite concerned, more concerned by the minute, in fact, that you’re experiencing lingering damage from what happened on the shuttle. I’d like to take a closer look at your neural architecture.”

That sounded right, actually. The guy probably could sense his feelings—

And was attributing them to brain damage.

“Request denied.”

“I can tell you’re upset.” Rush tried a different angle. “I’m not sure why, but I—”

“You’re not sure why?” Young said mildly. “I find you in an unsecured area of the ship, farming out your cognition to computer programs you don’t even know? And you’re ‘not sure’ why I’m upset?”

The corner of Rush’s mouth quirked.

“I mean the FTL drive is one thing, I guess. But this?” Young swept his hand in an understated circle, encompassing the room of mostly-dead monitors. “Do you even know these guys?”

Rush quirked an eyebrow, clamped down on a wicked smile, and said nothing.

“Can you cut it out with this shit? Do some maintenance on your own machinery, instead?”

Rush’s expression lost its amused cast. “I’m not the one who needs ‘maintenance.’ If you’d just let me—”

“Rush,” Young growled.

Rush made a back-and-forth gesture between his temple and Young. “Since you regained consciousness, I’ve picked up anxiety. Disequilibrium. Disorganized thought structures. Increasing fatigue. Right now I’m getting something akin to—mild euphoria? And far more disinhibition than I’d expect from a single shot of alcohol. It’s concerning. Extremely. I’d like to examine your neural architecture.”

“I’m having an off night,” Young said, “no doubt.”

“An’ that’d be precisely my point,” Rush replied, with an astonishing level of patience. The fingers of his right hand spanned over his console like he was about to launch into a piece of keyboard glory. Musical or computational—Young wasn’t sure there was a difference anymore.


“Genius.” Young braced himself. “C’mon. You can’t tell me you don’t have any idea what this is about.”

The scientist quirked an eyebrow. “Your thought content,” he said delicately, “is interlocked and opaque. I do, admittedly, occasionally pick up something disjoint to your cognition as a whole. But, in order to tell what you’re thinking, I’d have to pry apart thought structures. I’ve done it before. Once. You didn’t seem to appreciate it.”

“Your little rolodex moment in the infirmary, right after you woke up with your new brain?” Young asked.

The scientist nodded. “I should have a look at your cognitive architecture. Your thought content’ll stay opaque; I can run under it.” Rush leaned forward, moving with more intent this time. “Won’t take a minute—”

Young trapped his wrist. Gently. A cage of a grip, with no real pressure.

“If there are problems,” Rush said, not pulling away, “I can fix them.” He pressed into Young’s hold.

Young increased his own resistance proportionally, mindful of the scientist’s injuries. “I know exactly what the problem is,” he murmured. “It’s not something you can fix.”

“Given a chance, you’ll find I can fix most things,” Rush countered.

Young swallowed. “I just need a little time, with no disasters, to get my head on straight. That’s all.”

“No guarantees there.” Rush’s voice was low and serious. The whole of his spectacular focus pressed at the edges of Young’s mind.

The man was too much. He was too much for Young on his best day, let alone now.

“Genius.” Young’s voice cracked on the nickname. He tried again. “It’s something like two in the morning. I just pulled you out of the ship. I spent yesterday unconscious. Can we just go to sleep?”

Rush tipped his chin down, locked eyes with Young, took a breath—and stopped. He stopped pressing at the borders of Young’s mind. He stopped going for Young’s temple. His whole demeanor softened. “All right.” He leaned back in his chair.

“Seriously?” Young asked, off balance.

“You, I think, need rest,” Rush said. “Badly,”

“So do you. How long have you been awake now?”

“Get over it. I’m perfectly functional.”

“Perfectly functional. Sure. Other than going unresponsive while you were alone in an unexplored part of the ship, you’re fine. Yup, that sounds totally reasonable to me.”

“There’s been a bit of an upswing in your employment of sarcasm. Do y’think I’m rubbing off on you?” Though it was delivered lightly, Young picked up an undercurrent of unease in the question.

“It’s not you. It’s Eli. Don’t change the subject. How long?”

“Eli? Have you been assigning him extracurricular tasks again?”

“How long?” Young said evenly.

“What does it matter?” Rush gestured at his own temple. “Have a look at this. It’s fuckin’ phenomenal.”

“How. Long.”

Rush sighed. “As of right now? Sixty-seven hours.”

“That’s a problem.”

“Maybe for you,” Rush shot back.

“Okay, accidentally getting pulled out of your body aside, you realize you’re sick, right?” Young growled. “You realize you have some kind of alien virus and working to the point of collapse is stupid?

Rush steepled his fingers, crossed his left ankle over his right knee, and looked at Young with breathtaking poise. “You understand you can sleep, correct? Whenever you’d like? Because we can separate? We can, finally, return to something like our status quo? We don’t have to drag one another around the ship?”

“Yes, Rush,” Young said. “I’m getting you. You’re not getting me. I want to sleep, yes. But, more than that? I,” Young pointed at himself, “want you,” he pointed at Rush, “to sleep.”

I,” Rush said, breaking his finger-steepling to point at himself with both hands, “do not need to sleep. You,” he pointed at Young, “do.”



This was gonna be the start of their hours-long fight about sleep.

Might as well have the thing as close to a bed as possible. Young stood, walked around the console, and extended a hand. “Can you finish this tomorrow?”

Rush looked up at him through the fringe of his hair.

“C’mon, genius. Please.”

Rush sighed.

Young waited him out.

Rush clasped Young’s forearm.

Young got a good grip, stepped in, and hauled the guy to his feet. He didn’t think about it. It was a solid pull, the kind of arm-up he’d have given Scott or Greer.

For his trouble, he got a wave of vertigo and an armful of disoriented scientist. Rush’s vision grayed to nothing. Young wrapped his good arm around the man and found his own center of gravity before they both ended up on the floor.

“Easy,” Young murmured.

With a flood of adrenaline, Rush snapped himself free of Young’s grip before he was ready, stepped back, and tripped over his chair. He caught himself on the edge of the console. Barely.

“You’re such an idiot,” Young growled through clenched teeth. “Why do you do this?”

“This has nothing to do with sleep and everything to do with hydraulics.” Rush leaned into the console at his hip.

“Bullshit,” Young growled.

“Oh give over.” Rush finally lost his temper. “Yes, I’ve stayed awake, for days, balancing my cognition against the running processes of a starship. An’ I will continue t’stay awake, for as long as is required, for the express and singular purpose of preventing the ship from pulling on your mind while y’recover from nearly dying, all right?”

They stared at one another, breathing hard.

Young picked up Rush’s laptop. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“You’re fucking welcome,” Rush snarled. He swiped his crutch from where it leaned against the console. “Can’t believe you made me say it,” he muttered.

Young tried, like hell, not to smile at the guy.

“Oh shut it,” Rush said, reacting to whatever he saw in Young’s face. “It’s not like it was remotely difficult.”

“You want your adaptor?” Young asked, fingering the connection between Rush’s laptop and the console.

“I always want the adaptor.” Rush shook his hair back and started for the door.

Young snapped it free and pocketed it.

They left the room. Along the abandoned corridor, the lights flared.

Young shivered.

Levels above, hallways to starboard, new music played on Ancient speakers. He thought of Emily’s face, watching the crew dance. Her dark dress, turned white.

It’d bothered him from day one, this connection between a person and a starship. At first, his unease had been instinctive, rooted in his gut and having little to do with Destiny or Rush specifically. But now?

Things had turned personal.

He didn’t like the behavior of the lights. He didn’t like the behavior of the doors. He didn’t like the behavior of the AI, with its stolen face, its stolen hair, its stolen clothes.

The thing was a thief of memory. And, maybe, more than that.

Because, for all the patience Rush displayed with his impossibly demanding connection with the ship, in the beginning, the man had not wanted to sit in the chair. He’d avoided it for years. When the ship had trapped him, he’d fought like hell to get free. He’d been prying panels. And, in the end, physically resisting. The thing had forced him in. Tied him down. Made him over.

And now? It seemed like the scientist didn’t resent any of it. He was acting like none of it bothered him.

It was more than acting. It didn’t bother him. Young could feel the truth of that.

It hit as bizarre. And—

This was something he should’ve noticed. From the beginning.

But maybe it was supposed to be this way? Maybe he was supposed to feel like this—to distrust the ship? To distrust the motives of the AI?

Had it really been true that Young was the only person who could pull the scientist out of the ship, keep them separate? Was it possible the AI had picked him not because he’d been the best for the job, but because he’d been the worst possible choice?

The thing had set the whole scenario up as a choice between him and TJ. If it’d watched them, at all, and it had, it would have known that TJ was the one person that Young would never—


Had it goaded him into this?

It had.

He was pretty damn sure.

Some of the things it’d said were true. There were people on the crew who’d have been terrible choices, but what about someone like Scott? Steady, good-hearted, and able to stand firm against all kinds of bullshit? What about James? Smart, dedicated, fair-minded? Even Volker? Who’d taken shit from Rush for years, without losing his sense of humor?

But no. The AI had chosen him.

Young felt a wave of overwhelming dread.

Rush side-eyed him, hard, but didn’t say anything.

The AI had chosen Young for a reason. And not a simple one. Because if it’d wanted nothing other than to upload Rush’s consciousness—it could’ve done that. It wanted Rush alive. Doing his thing. The AI had even helped Young when he’d been doing a spectacularly shit job at keeping the guy in his body and out of the infirmary. But, in choosing Rush’s least favorite person on the ship, it’d created an immediate, tight alliance between itself and the scientist.

Holy shit the thing was smart.

And it wanted something. Something specific.

Prior to now, Young hadn’t much cared what it wanted. His primary goal had been, and was still, gating the crew home. The whole crew.

Including Rush.

Rush did not belong to the ship.

Rush belonged to the crew.

Young needed to get his head on straight and make that a reality because there was a serious danger of things going the other way.

He’d been doing a shit job across the board. He’d lost weeks of time. The scientist had taken a huge amount of damage already—

“Are y’fucking castigating yourself over there?” Rush side-eyed him again.

“Little bit, yeah,” Young admitted.


“The ship just stole half your brain on my watch,” Young said.

Rush rolled his eyes. “Your watch? Oh god.”

“Doesn’t it bother you?” Young asked, uneasily. “That the ship can pull you out of your body like that?”

“Not particularly,” Rush said. “It’s inconvenient. It’s dangerous for you, but you’ve developed something of a knack for—” the intricate swirl of the scientist’s thoughts froze, shattered, and restarted. He broke off, his brows drawn together.


“Nothing,” Rush said, with a lateral flick of his gaze. “I just—I realized something.”


“You’ve developed something of a flair for workarounds.” The scientist’s tone was guarded.

“That was almost a compliment,” Young said.

“I know. Why d’you think I’m so unnerved?” Rush asked smoothly.

As they approached the lift, the doors opened. The lights came on. Behind them, a wave of darkness propagated down the empty hall. Before it reached them, Young pressed the button that’d return them to crew quarters. The lift doors shut.

“So,” Young said. “Does it look like the Nakai were able to make any modifications to the ship’s systems?”

The scientist leaned into his crutch and raised an eyebrow. “Don’t y’think I’d’ve told y’by now if that were the case?”

“I’d hope so.” Young tried to project amusement rather than irritation at the other man, though he was feeling both. “You wanna stop ducking my questions?” The lift doors opened, and he waved Rush forward.

“Mmm,” Rush said, with a faint smile. “You’re getting better at this.”

“Thanks for noticing, but flattery gets you nowhere. Your next sentence better start with ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”


“Yes or no, genius.”

“Yes and no, I’m afraid. They made no successful modifications, though they did embed an executable program in Destiny’s mainframe which would’ve allowed remote deactivation of our shields.”

“You got rid of it?”

“Of course.” Rush shook his hair out of his eyes. “They aren’t as computationally sophisticated as one might expect, but that may be a function of their limited experience with Ancient systems.” He frowned. “In fact, I’m certain that’s true. In some ways, the entire field of genetics could be cast as biological computation, carried out in a medium of aperiodic crystal—”

“Oh yeah?” Young asked, subtly herding the scientist into the turn that would take them to his own quarters. Rush’s thoughts were elsewhere, a troubled, unreadable swirl that centered on the Nakai. “Sounds like they’ve been tracking Destiny for a while.”

“True. My impression is that they’re persistent and long-lived. Unclear how adaptable they are. It’s difficult to parse. They don’t seem to innovate much, technologically. A good deal of their expertise is taken from elsewhere. They certainly have a cultural propensity towards scavenging, and, in that capacity, they’re quite inventive.”

“Yeah. I’ll say, seeing as they managed to ‘scavenge’ two of our crew,” Young growled.

“Right and not just physically,” Rush continued, “but mentally. They have the technology to snap up our very thoughts.”

“Keep going,” Young said. “As tactical analysis goes, this isn’t half bad.”

Rush rolled his eyes. “Well maybe if you’d ever showed any interest—”

“Don’t get sidetracked,” Young growled.

“Fine. Most salient point: we have what they want, and they know we’re not any more entitled to it than they are.”


“Meaning they know we didn’t build this ship. Meaning they know we ended up here out of a spirit of exploration. That, they understand. We share an appetite for discovery, which, let’s face it, isn’t terribly surprising t’find amongst a space-faring people. Other than our genetic link to the Ancients, which they envy, we strike them as bizarre little creatures. Ephemeral. Delicate. Easily manipulated. Unworthy of that which we—”

Across their link, out of the shining chaos of Rush’s thoughts, Young felt rigid structure emerge.

He got a wave of cold. The ghost of Rush’s hand, pressed against a window. No, not a window. He was surrounded by water. There was a world of air beyond the glass—

It was a flashback. A bad one.

Without thinking, Young snapped the man’s thoughts aside and pulled the scientist into the closest equivalent memory he possessed.

He’s skating fast. The winter air whips at his jacket and tears through the branches of barren trees. The ice is rough beneath his skates. He catches an edge. He loses his stride. He hears a snap and feels a small shift translate through the blade of a skate. He slows. He stops. He waits, his senses tingling. Tiny snaps lattice through the frozen river. With a crack that echoes across the landscape, the ice gives way. He drops through into the dark and the cold. He gasps, drawing water into his lungs, already fighting his way back toward the surface, toward the sky.

“An’ what the fuck was that?” Rush breathed, wrenching them back to the present.

They’d come to a stop in the middle of the corridor.

Young was breathing hard. The memory had been so real. He’d had plenty of flashbacks in his life, but never one like that. His hands were cold. His heart pounded wildly in his chest.

What the hell?

Rush looked at him, his eyes narrowed. His thoughts, prism-sharp, split themselves into spectacular parallel paths, running jewel-toned and far too fast to follow. But, for all that, for all his power and clarity and energy and focus—

The scientist had no insight into what Young had just done.

None at all.

“Are you all right?” Rush asked.

And this was it. Right here. This was the problem. If Young could flip a track in the guy’s mind? The ship could too. It could do it more. It was, in fact, doing it all the damn time. What was the “pull” of the ship, if not exactly that? A drag on the guy’s attention toward what it wanted, away from what it didn’t? And it could get selective. He’d seen that. The way it’d drawn Rush to sit in the chair? That’d been nothing but straight compulsion. Young had understood it. Greer. TJ. But the scientist himself? Totally blind to it.

Young felt a wave of reflexive horror.

“Right, so, terribly sorry about this,” Rush said. In one smooth motion, the man dropped his crutch, stepped in, pressed Young against the nearest bulkhead, and brought his fingertips to Young’s temple. As soon as he made contact—

There was nothing but light.

Nothing but the melody of the shields, singing through the void of space.

Nothing but Rush, settling whatever ground Young’s mind was built on.

Slowly, the corridor came back into focus.

Rush was pinning him to the wall. And, yeah. The guy was surprisingly strong for his build. Had a great instinct for leverage. It wouldn’t take much training to make him a hell of a fighter.

“Are you all right?” The scientist asked, his eyes dark and concerned.

Probably not, no.

Young got his feet beneath him, steadied himself, and scraped together a glare. “What did you just do?”

“I shored up some repair work,” Rush whispered. “You—that flashback. It was my fault. I’m certain of it. Or, rather—ah fuck. I’m concerned I—your gift for work-arounds. Your emotional reactivity. Your—”The scientist’s thoughts went fractal in distress, splitting out of their running patterns.

“Hey,” Young said, readjusting the grip he had on Rush’s laptop, “cool it, genius. It’s fine. I’m fine. I was upset. That’s all.”

“I know y’were upset. I think you should let me look at that memory.” Rush’s expression was tight and concerned.

“The skating?” Young asked. “When I fell through the ice? Nothing special about it. I got into all kinds of trouble as a kid. It’s a miracle I survived my early teens.”

“That memory,” Rush said, low and serious, “was linked to a very deep, very abstract terror that shouldn’t have a place in your head. Mine? Maybe. But yours?” The scientist looked at him searchingly.

“Yeah, don’t forget about the Kafka though,” Young said, smiling at him faintly.

“Pay attention,” Rush hissed. He lifted a hand and pressed his fingertips against Young’s temple like he was about to open a sonata. “And show me that memory. I don’t want to fuckin’ dig for it.”

Young let images and ideas spread over his deeper thoughts like a camouflage tarp. The hallway didn’t fade. Rush stared into his eyes, his expression intent. The touch of his thoughts was powerful. Precise. Selective.

“You were ten,” Rush said slowly, “and skating, with your older brothers.”

A month ago, he’d have laid it all out for the scientist. Everything he knew. Everything he suspected. The real cause of the terror Rush had picked up from his mind.

“Not just skating,” Rush said, slowly. “They wanted to play hockey. It was Boxing Day.”

Young would’ve have sat the guy down and not let him up until Rush understood all the shit he couldn’t see.

“Your brothers didn’t want you along.”

But what was the scientist supposed to do with that information?

“You were trying to catch them up.”

He couldn’t keep Destiny out of his head.

“And so, instead of following them across the field, you put on your skates.”

Hell, he couldn’t keep Young out either.

“And you took a shortcut.”

There was nothing the scientist could do to fix the problem.

“Across the stream that fed into the lake.”

He was tired of fighting Rush.

“You knew the ice was thin.”

He was tired of watching Rush fight everything.

“But you went anyway.”

And, in the end, this wasn’t Rush’s fight at all.

“The ice cracked.”

It was his.

“Too early in the season, to be skating on a river.”

It was his fight. Young’s own. It always had been. The connection he had with Rush wasn’t something to tolerate, it wasn’t something to work around, it was a battle. For his chief scientist. And Young was losing. He was losing badly.

“An’ y’fell through.”

“Oh god,” Young whispered. “Yeah.”

Rush, his hand still pressed against Young’s temple, played back the memory once more, as though certain there’d been something he’d missed in the story, some hidden meaning in falling through the ice on a gray winter’s day, the sudden shock of it erasing the anger and resentment he’d felt toward his brothers and replacing it with a fight for survival against debilitating cold. But—

There was no mystery there. It was just something that’d happened to him, long ago.

“Hey.” Young reached up, tangled his fingers with Rush’s, and pulled the man’s hand away from his head. “Genius. No need to write a dissertation about it. I’m just tired.”

They resumed walking.

“So.” Rush’s tone turned smooth. It had that same polished cadence he’d used at the Icarus Base. “Three older brothers. How’d that work out for you, then?”

“You making conversation?”

“I fuckin’ know how, all right?” The scientist glared at him, and, beneath the man’s flame and facet thoughts, Young felt a current of anxiety.

The scientist was worried. Worried about him.

It was almost too much to take.


Even if the misplaced concern hit as painful, there was something in the scientist’s attitude that encouraged him.

“Three older brothers’ll toughen a guy up,” Young replied.

“Undoubtedly. So tell me, are they all as—” Rush swept his hand to take in Young’s entire physique, “as you are?”

“Um,” Young said. “Not sure what that’s supposed to mean, but yeah. Probably. We all went the armed forces route, except for the oldest, who’s in law enforcement. I’m the only one who ever made it out of Earth atmosphere.”

“Ah,” Rush said.

“What about you?” Young asked. “Any siblings?”

Rush raised his eyebrows. “I certainly wasn’t so unlucky as to have three older brothers.”

“If you don’t want to tell me, genius, you can just say so.”

Rush looked away. The trajectory of his thoughts annihilated in a practiced blaze of willpower with none of the labyrinthine quality of his usual evasiveness.

“Got it,” Young said quietly.

Rush said nothing, but there was no mistaking the relieved character of his thoughts.

As they approached his quarters, Young started prepping for what was, very likely, gonna be an hours long argument, in the damn hall, over the importance of sleep.


Rush walked straight through the doors to his quarters?

Maybe he hadn’t been steering the scientist, after all. Wordlessly, the man slipped his laptop out of Young’s grip and set it on the table. “Sit.” He pointed at the couch with two fingers.

“Okay,” Young said mildly. He perched on the edge of the couch, his elbows on his knees. “You wanna mess around in here a little more I take it?” He gestured at his own temple.

Rush slid onto the coffee table opposite him. “Yes. I need t’reseat some repair work.”

Young rubbed his jaw. “What ‘repair work’?” He tried to sound non-accusatory.

“When I moved in on your mind in the shuttle, I nearly destroyed your cognitive architecture.” Rush flexed his right hand, absently working out the ache in his wrist.

“But you didn’t.”

“No,” Rush said, “but, my repair work is a bit of an ongoing job, it seems.”

“Rush. Seriously. I feel fine. And, even if I didn’t, you made a tactical decision in a high stress situation. If you hadn’t moved in on my mind, you wouldn’t have been able to separate from Destiny, and we needed you in that situation. It was a good call. Stop worrying about it.”

“I’m concerned about long-term effects.”

“There aren’t even any short-term effects,” Young said.

“If something should happen to me—”

“Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

There was a long pause. Rush looked away.

“Rush. Nothing is going to happen to you.”

Rush looked at him with enough electromagnetism to steer a damn starship.

Slowly, carefully, the scientist moved in on Young’s consciousness.

Young let him in.

Rush passed through his mind like water through a sieve, leaving no trace of his passage. Young’s awareness wasn’t disrupted, the flow of his own thoughts continued—but the scientist’s eyes lost focus and the running light-show of his mind turned hard to trace, like shine through wafer-thin crystal.

When he was done, he left nothing but calm in his wake.

Rush blinked slowly, re-centering.

“What was that?” Young asked.

“It’s the nature of psychic injury to have no insight into itself,” Rush said gently.

“Do you have to be so cryptic? You sound like the AI.”

Rush looked away, his expression pained.

“You okay, genius?” Young murmured. “I mean, really?”

Rush swept his hair out of his his eyes. “I know it’s difficult,” the scientist said, his tone almost wistful, “but do try t’remember y’left me for dead? Show a little respect for your past self, if y’can?”

“You’re a lotta—”

“Don’t say it.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“I’ve heard it. Twenty-seven times this very night, in fact.”


The overhead lights dimmed. The track lights at the perimeter of the room came up with a warm, atmospheric glow.

“You should sleep,” Rush said quietly.

“I’m not the one who’s been up for sixty-seven hours,” Young replied.

“This isn’t even a strain.”

“C’mon. It is. It has to be. Even if you don’t feel it that way. Shut down your fancy firewalling and sleep. I’m fine.”

“You’re not,” Rush murmured. “Of course you’re not.”

“Genius. Get this through your head. You’re sleeping. End of story. You’re sick. You lost focus and got dragged into the ship. You pass out when you stand up too fast.”

“You lie down,” Rush said, the words a polite glide, “and we’ll talk about it.”

“Okay,” Young said mildly.

With Rush’s help, Young extricated himself from TJ’s sling. He made short work of his nightly routine. When he emerged from the bathroom, he was surprised see the scientist sitting on the floor, his back against the bed, his laptop open on his thighs. He’d taken his boots off.

Young didn’t comment.

He shucked off his jacket and pants, then stripped down to his cotton undershirt and boxers before climbing into bed.

The warm track lights dimmed further.

Young sat cross-legged on the bed and looked down at Rush, who was still determinedly typing away.

“You need sleep to live,” Young said.

“Actually, I don’t,” Rush replied coolly.

“Even if you don’t,” Young growled, “you do.”

“God y’ve really summed yourself up perfectly.” Rush smirked at his laptop. “I’m feeling pretty good about that cognitive repair job, I must say.”

Young wanted the other man to stay human, to fight whatever changes were happening to him, whatever was allowing him to avoid rest, to heal minds, to interface with technology, to code with an economic elegance that was as unnatural as it was glorious to watch.

He shifted on the bed, putting himself directly behind Rush.

His chief scientist twisted to look up at him. “If you want to strangle me, y’can just start now. No need to go through all this theatre.”

Young snorted. “Can we have a fight?”

“Fair fuckin’ sure we’ve done that every day of our mutual acquaintance,” Rush muttered, turning back to his laptop. “Y’want me to issue engraved invitations now?”

“I want you to sleep,” Young said.

“Yes,” Rush replied. “So you’ve said. Many times. It’s a terrible idea. Give it up. Try your luck again in forty-eight hours.”

Forty-eight hours? You’ve got to be kidding me. My mind is fine.”

This is what you want to fight about? Your mind’s not fine, you just had a flashback in the middle of the corridor, case closed, fight over, I win, you lose, lie down.”

“This isn’t the fight I want to have,” Young said.

“Well what fight do y’want to have? Let’s get on with it. I’m busy.”

“If my mind is really such a mess, and yours is really so fine, then you shouldn’t object to battling a little thought friction, right? If you’re right, I’ll lose. You’ll plow through. Eventually, I’ll give up. You code all night. It’s your easiest path to an efficient win.”

“As an effort at interpersonal manipulation, that was pathetic.” Rush returned to typing. “Completely transparent. I’m not remotely tempted. My easiest path to an efficient win is ignoring you, which I’ll begin doing immediately. Good night.”

“Hmm.” Young shifted on the bed. Experimentally, he flexed his bad hand. His dexterity was coming back pretty well. “All of that might be true. But if that’s your plan, you’ve made a pretty severe tactical error.”

“Oh yes?” Rush asked absently.

“One of the classics,” Young whispered. With a slow, deliberate movement, he placed both hands on the scientist’s shoulders, and pressed his thumbs against the knotted muscles at the base of the guy’s neck. “Location.”

Rush made a small, distressed sound in the back of his throat.

“Yeah,” Young agreed, pressing both thumbs into tense, contracted muscle. “You’re in trouble now.”

“Ugh. Apparently.” Rush tipped his head forward to give Young better access. “Is this actually fuckin’ happening? Stop bein’ nice to me.”

“I’m not being nice to you, I’m fighting with you. About sleep. And I’m winning.”

“You’re not fucking winning,” Rush said, “because it’s not happening.”

“Okay. So you know you’ll lose. Interesting.”

“I won’t lose. I don’t want you to attempt it.”

“Unfortunately, for you,” Young murmured, “I’ll have to keep at this until you change your mind.” He began to search out the edges of the decades-old knot in the man’s neck.

“Ah yes, what a hardship.”

“Pretty distracting though,” Young said, running his thumbs along Rush’s spine from the level of his shoulder blades up to the base of his skull. The scientist, very subtly, arched his back. “Fifteen minutes,” Young said. “Come on. You versus me. If you win, I’ll give up.”

Through their link, he felt Rush’s indecision.

“You’ve gotta be a little curious,” Young said, starting in on the guy’s neck in earnest, pressing into corded muscle, getting it to give. “Can you hold out? You never have. But you’ve also never tried. And, I admit, your mental architecture is pretty damn spectacular right now. You’ve got a real shot at beating me.”

Rush sighed and pulled out his phone. “If I’m still awake after fifteen minutes, you’ll give up, correct?”

“Correct,” Young said, watching the guy set the numbers.

“Go,” Rush said, his voice dry.

Young pressed against the intricate architecture of Rush’s thoughts. He felt the man dig in, powering harder to compensate, mapping resistances and adjusting energetic flows to match every move Young made. The scientist was running a tight defense with no offense. Composed of colored light, carrying strange charm.

“Damn it,” he muttered.

Rush delicately pulled up his sleeves and made a show of resuming his typing.

“Genius,” Young said. “Personal question.”

“Personal question? No. Absolutely not. That wasn’t part of the deal.”

“What the hell did your neck ever do to you?”

“The fuck has it done for me lately,” Rush muttered, “that’s what I’d like to know.”

Young held his mental resistance pattern and regrouped.

He was gonna lose, unless he switched up his strategy.

His main problem, he was pretty sure, was that for all Rush’s show of typing, he was paying a lot of attention to what Young was doing. That had to change.

Young hooked the fingers of his good hand over Rush’s shoulder for some real leverage, and began working a point of tension at the border of the man’s shoulder blade. He started a very predictable rhythm, coupling the pressure in his hands with the pressure against Rush’s thoughts.

He focused on keeping it exactly the same. Over and over again. He watched the revolving patterns of Rush’s consciousness, and, as soon as the man’s focus returned to the program he was writing—Young switched up his pattern. He ran both hands over the scientist’s back in a calming sweep, then picked a new spot, a little lower, and set up another predictable rhythm, coupling thought pressure and physical pressure.

Rush’s typing slowed. The tension was coming out of his shoulder.

The next time Young did a sweep up his back, he reached around the front of Rush’s jacket, dragged the zipper down, and yanked the collar wide. He slid his hands inside and pressed his fingers against slowly warming skin.

“You’re really fuckin’ goin’ for it, aren’t you?” Rush breathed.

“You’re damn right.” Young held pressure against the man’s thoughts and the muscle of his neck. He focused on Rush’s physical sensations and used the man’s own perception to guide the amount of force he applied.

Rush’s typing became more sporadic. He checked his phone. Seven minutes left on clock. “Don’t think you’ll make it,” the scientist whispered.

“See, a guy like you,” Young said, working a new point of tension, “needs counter-pressure to relax. It’s why thought friction works on you. It’s why this works on you.” Beneath his thumb, he felt the knot give with a deep, satisfying ache.

Rush made an inarticulate sound through clenched teeth.

“There ya go,” Young murmured. He eased up, running his thumbs in predictable, firm swipes up the other man’s neck. He pressed against the man’s thoughts with the same slow rhythm.

Rush tipped his head forward.

Young focused on his own exhaustion. Subtly, he directed it toward the other man, lacing it through running thought friction in broad swaths.

“Throw in with me, genius,” Young murmured, his fingers curled over the scientist’s collar bones, his thumbs sliding along  the muscles on either side of Rush’s spine, trying to soothe them into unknotting.

“Hmm?” Rush said.

“Come on.” Young ramped up the pressure. “You can do it.”

Rush’s typing stopped.

Young ran his thumbs in slow, even circles over the base of Rush’s neck, increasing the pressure against the man’s thoughts, watching the structure of REM sleep emerge out of the slowing spiral.

Destiny, as though waiting in the wings, reasserted itself with a familiar pull.

“Relax,” Young murmured.

The radiant, balanced architectures Rush’d been running for days collapsed.

Before Young could prevent it, the scientist’s head fell forward, and he jerked into semi-consciousness.

//Easy.// Young rubbed the man’s neck. //You fell asleep.//

//?// The scientist was barely awake enough to project in his direction.

“Don’t wake up,” Young murmured soothingly, keeping a predictable pressure against Rush’s thoughts. “Just get up.”

He pulled Rush’s computer off his lap, wrapped his good arm around the scientist, and—got an unexpected spike of pain.

“Ugh, and that’ll be the round you took to the chest,” Young murmured. “Told you it would hurt.”

“What?” Rush breathed. He pressed a hand flat against his breastbone. His thoughts fired in disorganized bursts. His ribs ached, his wrists ached, his right foot ached, his left foot was on fire.

“Somebody built some pain control into his firewalling.” Young got a foot on the floor. “Y’know, this is how you should feel after the set of days you had. It’s also why you need to sleep.”

Rush’s phone began to buzz. “Oh look,” the scientist said faintly. “You lose.”

“I don’t lose.” Young silenced the man’s phone. “Get your feet under you. C’mon.”

Young worked out a better grip, hauled the man up, and pulled him into the bed. His good arm came around the scientist’s shoulders.

Hoc erat nova,” Rush breathed, curling into him.

“Sure.” Young shifted, resettling the scientist’s head against his shoulder. “Hope you’re not pissed in the morning.”

Without Rush’s cognitive balancing act as a buffer, the pull of Destiny against the scientist’s mind felt raw and heavy. Even so, it didn’t take Young long to fall asleep.

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