Force over Distance: Chapter 3
“Huh. I mean, you leave a guy for dead one time—” Telford shrugged. “You’d think he’d be a little more professional about it.”
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Midnight.
Audio status: Locked.
Additional notes: None.
Rush tore himself from Young's grip with an affronted hiss. “You realize it's a chair for god's sake?” he snapped at Greer, who was sighting down the barrel of his rifle. “It's bolted to the floor. Exactly what do you think it's going to do?”
“Tell that to Franklin,” Greer murmured. He didn’t lower his weapon.
“This is ridiculous.” Rush glared at Young, and Young wasn't sure if the scientist was seeking agreement or leveling a jab at him. Whatever he was looking for, he didn't find it on Young's face. Rush moved forward, heading to the console where Eli stood.
Young let him go.
“You realize how creepy that was, right?” Eli asked. “I mean, even you have to admit that was, like, maybe a nine on the creepiness scale.”
“What? That freaked you out. I know it did.”
Young looked skeptically at Rush. The man was loading a program onto the laptop interfaced with the main console. He looked distinctly un-freaked out.
“I’d rank it more like an eight point five,” Volker said.
“I give it a seven.” Brody added. “Tops.”
“No way,” Eli said. “A seven? Get out of here.”
“Why are the lights off?” Park asked.
“Ambiance?” Volker suggested.
The banter between the Science Team relaxed Greer. After a nod from Young, he backed away from the chair and lowered his weapon. They stood shoulder to shoulder in the doorway.
“I really hate that thing.” Greer’s eyes were on the neural interface.
“Join the club, sergeant.”
Young and Greer kept watch as the slow progress of the Science Team unfolded. Other than the initial activation of the chair after Rush had entered the room, nothing out of the ordinary occurred. After half an hour, just as the team achieved a successful interface with the core systems of the chair, Young was distracted by Lieutenant Scott, approaching at a fast clip down a long stretch of corridor.
“What’s going on, lieutenant?” Young asked.
“It's Wray, sir.” Scott was winded. “She was due to use the communication stones this morning. She’s back.” Scott paused to take a few breaths. “Colonel Telford’s on the other end, waiting to switch with someone. He’s got a message from Homeworld Command.”
Young grimaced and glanced at the Science Team, conferencing around the main console. Hard to say how long it would be before they were ready to start redirecting systems. He caught Greer’s eye. “You radio if there’s trouble.”
The sergeant nodded.
Young followed Scott down the long hallways to the otherwise bare room containing the Ancient Communications Array. He arrived to find Wray pacing the small space, one arm wrapped around her ribcage.
“Camile,” he said. “What's going on?”
“I’m not sure.” Her voice was controlled, but, over the years, Young had learned to pick out the hope she couldn’t quite hide. “It could be anything. We know the trouble with the Lucian Alliance is escalating, but, if we’re lucky, it will be something to do with resupply. I think Homeworld Command is close to attempting a dial-in to Destiny using an alternative power source.”
Young raised his eyebrows. “Since when are we lucky?”
She gave him a rueful smile.
“Let's see what they have to say.” Young turned to Scott. “Lieutenant, you want to do the honors?”
Scott nodded and sat down at the table. He picked up a stone and placed it on the glowing interface. Young watched a wave of disorientation pass over the lieutenant’s features as Colonel Telford's consciousness entered his body.
“David,” Young said, as Telford stood.
Telford gave him a brief nod. “We need to talk.” He looked at Wray, waiting for her to take the hint.
She raised an unimpressed eyebrow, but left without comment.
“Take a seat, David.” Young dropped into a chair. He couldn’t hide his grimace at the change in position.
“You're injured?” Telford looked more offended than sympathetic. “Again? How?”
“We had an incursion a few days back. I took some fire.”
“Damn it, Everett. You need to report these things as they happen. We've had no contact with Destiny for days until this morning—”
Young held up a hand. “We cut off our use of the communication stones until we put enough distance between us and the craft that launched the attack. I was concerned about our people ending up on their ship. As far as we know, they still have possession of the stone they took from Rush.”
“What's your status?”
“We've almost completed repairs. We're still working on getting the main weapon online, but shields and the defensive arrays are up and running. Homeworld Command will have my full report within twenty-four hours.”
“We'll be needing more than that.” Telford leaned forward. “There are preparations underway to dial Destiny—this time from the Alpha Site.”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“Colonel Carter and Dr. McKay are running the operation,” Telford continued. “They’ve figured out a way to power the gate using ZPMs in series.”
“Is that safe?”
“They aren't sure. They need to talk to Rush.”
Young laughed shortly.
“We need him to use the stones.”
“Good luck. He hasn’t used the communication device for—what, a year now?”
“I wonder why,” Telford asked dryly.
Young kept his expression neutral. “You’ll never get him to agree to go back.”
“Maybe not voluntarily.”
Young’s eyes snapped to the other man’s face. “What are you saying, David?”
“You know as well as I do that if Carter and McKay come here to assess feasibility, he's going to run them around in circles. He knows these systems better than anyone. He snowed the first science team we sent, and that was after he'd only been here a few weeks. We still don't know what he did or how he did it. And he's more experienced now.”
“You think so?” Young couldn’t hide his skepticism. “Carter and McKay are—”
“Excellent scientists, I know. But politically? They're no match for Rush. He'll outmaneuver them.”
“He needs to be on Earth, Everett. Where he’ll have no opportunity to manipulate systems, no way to undermine—”
“Rush wants a supply line as much as anyone,” Young pointed out. “I doubt that he would sabotage any effort that could provide us with materials to fix the ship.”
“Even if he's replaced as head of the Science Team the second additional personnel come through that gate? Because that's what's going to happen.” Telford brought his hand down on the metal surface of the table.
“That's not your call to make, David.” Young said quietly. “Unless I'm being replaced as well.”
Telford gazed at him steadily. “That decision hasn’t yet been made.”
“Get Rush to use the stones, colonel.”
Young decided to draw a line in the sand. ”I'm not going to force anyone to switch consciousnesses with another person.”
“Seems a little high-handed, coming from you.” Telford leaned back, his expression unconcerned. Almost—satisfied? “But, fine.”
“Fine?” Young echoed.
“We asked, you answered.” Telford’s voice was dark. “Your stance has been noted and will be communicated to Homeworld Command, the IOA, and the Congressional Oversight Committee.”
Young tried to keep his unease off his face. “Thanks.”
“But, fair warning, we’ve been studying the Ancient Communications Array. If an individual has used the stones, even once, there’s a way of replacing that person without activating a terminal on this end.”
Young’s hand curled into a fist. “That,” he said, leaning forward, “is a can of worms you do not want to open, David.”
“You give me too much credit,” Telford said, fake nonchalance draped over an iron core. “It’ll be the Congressional Oversight Committee that makes the final call. Though, I understand Senator Armstrong’s widow is quite eager for a firsthand account of her husband’s death from the chief scientist on the Icarus Project.”
“What are you saying?” Young growled. “You're going to yank Rush back, with no warning, against his will, if I don't get him to cooperate?”
“That's the plan,” Telford said.
“That's a terrible plan.”
“The man is obstructionist at best. At worst he's actively sabotaging your attempts to get home. He's a master manipulator and a danger to this entire mission. I don't see why you, of all people, are defending him.”
Young rubbed his jaw. “The man is a lot of work. I'm the first to admit that.” He eyed Telford speculatively. “And I’m not saying I disagree with your assessment. But—” he paused, crossing his arms over his chest, “I have to admit, I looked into his background, last time I used the stones.”
“Did you.” Telford looked away, studying the communications terminal.
“Do you know what Rush did before he was recruited to Stargate Command?” Young asked.
“The same thing that any of them do.” Telford’s expression was guarded. If he was surprised by Young’s non sequitur, he didn't show it.
“He was a college professor.”
“What's your point?”
“He taught math,” Young said mildly. “At UC Berkeley.”
“I’m just wondering where he learned it all.”
“Learned what? Math?” Telford’s tone was dismissive, but—and there was no question about it—the man was actively avoiding Young’s gaze.
“Learned to read people—to manipulate them like he does. I wonder why he feels it’s necessary.”
“Huh. I mean, you leave a guy for dead one time—” Telford shrugged. “You’d think he’d be a little more professional about it.”
“I know why he doesn’t trust me.” Young refused to let Telford get a rise out of him. “Not so sure why you think he wouldn’t trust Carter. Or McKay.”
“He doesn’t trust anyone.”
“You interact with him much on the Icarus base?” Young asked mildly.
Telford shifted in his chair. “Not any more than I interacted with any other scientist.”
“See,” Young leaned forward. “I find that interesting. Because, as the lead scientist on the Icarus Project, I'm sure he was a high profile Lucian Alliance target. And you would’ve been under their influence at that time.”
“What are you implying?” Telford snapped.
A frozen silence descended between them. Young let it stretch, uncomfortable and long.
“Nothing,” he said, finally, his tone neutral. “Just making an observation.”
“I have to get back,” Telford said shortly. “We'll be expecting that report within the next twenty-four hours. When you deliver it, you can let us know when Rush will be using the stones.”
Telford didn't wait for his reply. He reached over to disconnect the stone he had placed on the interface, and Young found himself looking into the face of Lieutenant Scott.
“That was quick,” Scott observed. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah.” Young shoved down his misgivings. “There's a plan to dial Destiny in the works.”
“So what else is new?” Scott asked wryly.
Young’s radio crackled. “Colonel Young, come in.” It was Greer.
“Sir, we have something of a situation in the chair room. I think you might want to get down here.”
“Damn it,” Young whispered. He closed his eyes against a wave of dread.
“Sir?” Scott murmured. When Young opened his eyes again it was to Scott's outstretched hand. He took it and hauled himself to his feet.
“Let's go, lieutenant.”
When they reentered the room, Young couldn’t see anything obviously wrong. Greer prowled the edges of the monitor banks in an uneasy perimeter. The Science Team manned their stations. Rush stood near the chair, a pair of pliers in one hand, worked up about something. He was glaring at Eli.
The whole thing looked like a regular day on the ranch to Young.
“Hey,” Eli said, responding to Rush, “I can't, okay? It's not a static system. It's in some kind of dynamic equilibrium and if I upset that—” Eli paused and locked eyes with the chief scientist.
“Yes yes.” Rush shot an irritated look at the empty air. “I’m aware.”
“What the hell is going on?” Young demanded.
Rush sighed and hooked a hand over one shoulder.
It was Eli who answered Young’s question. “We had to interrupt the power supply running from the chair to the main weapons array, but there was no way to circumvent the adaptive algorithms protecting the chair's central programming.”
“And?” Young asked.
“We had to sever the connection manually.”
“And?” Young caught Greer’s eye. The sergeant gave him an unhappy shake of the head.
“Well, someone had to open the panel,” Eli said defensively.
“And?” Young prompted, losing patience.
“And so when Rush approached the chair to open the panel, he kind of—got trapped behind a force field?”
“What?” Young roared.
Eli and Park flinched.
“I told them it was a bad idea,” Greer said from the periphery of the room.
“Rush,” Young growled, advancing toward the scientist.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Rush said lightly.
Rush extended his pliers. Maybe a handspan from where Young had stopped, a transparent golden field came into view as the pliers grazed its border, then vanished again as Rush withdrew them.
“Hurts like hell when you touch it,” Rush admitted.
“Damn it, Rush.”
“How long until you guys can bring this thing down?” Young turned toward Eli.
No one spoke.
“Unfortunately,” Rush said quietly, “the field derives its power directly from the chair, which is, in turn, powered by the central core. Dismantling the field will be difficult. In the extreme.”
“But not impossible.” It was a statement, not a question.
“No,” Rush said, glaring at nothing Young could see. “Not impossible.”
Eli and Park exchanged relieved glances. The tension went out of Volker’s shoulders. Brody looked back down at his data readouts. But Young couldn’t shake his dread. He’d existed in an uneasy equilibrium with Rush for months now—always on the verge of tipping into violence—but he’d managed to keep the peace by learning the man’s quirks. And the more Rush thought he understood a problem? The calmer he was.
And the guy looked pretty damn calm at the moment.
Young didn’t like it. He’d developed a proprietary interest in keeping the guy alive, partly out of necessity, partly out of a sense of responsibility, as though looking out for Rush might atone for—
Well, for something that defied atonement.
“Who do you need?” Young asked Rush quietly. “Carter and McKay are on Earth right now. We can get one or both of them on the stones if you think it would be helpful.”
“What’s McKay doing on Earth?” Rush asked coolly.
“Above my pay grade,” Young growled.
“Hmm. Most things would be, I suppose.” Rush smirked at him. He spun his pliers through his fingers in a single, adroit pass. “McKay might be of help.”
“Done.” Young nodded to Scott and the lieutenant ducked out of the room. “What else?”
“We could try to reduce ship-wide power levels.” Park looked up from her console. “Fire the weapons, turn systems on. It might cut the power to the field.”
Rush shot Park an unimpressed look. “We're being pursued by a hostile force. We're likely to drop out of FTL long before enough power is drained to make any kind of impact on this field.” He swiped the border of the field again with his pliers. “I’m guessing it’ll be quite high in the power priority queue.” He shot a wry glance at no one.
“You’re right about that,” Eli said absently. “I just checked. We lose life support before we lose this field. Which is—weird.”
Rush rolled his eyes.
“Fine, we'll hold on that for now,” Young said.
“Oh, very well reasoned,” Rush said, with faux appreciation. “What would we do without you, colonel?”
“Give it a rest. Can you do anything from in there?”
Rush shook his head and held up the pliers. When he was sure he had Young's attention, he tossed the pliers at the control panel at the back of the chair. They were deflected by the same golden energy field.
“Too bad,” Young said.
“You're telling me.”
“Hey!” They were both distracted by Eli's shout. “I think I've got something. The power flow is changing at least—”
Young strode over to stand next to Eli's shoulder. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make much sense of what he was seeing. Colored lines shifted into different patterns. Unreadable Ancient text scrolled by. Great.
“Changing how?” Rush snapped.
“The field harmonics are fluctuating,” Brody answered.
“Which means what?” Young asked, his frustration mounting.
“Not sure,” Brody responded.
“I'd clear this room of nonessential personnel.” Rush was staring into midair again, like he was reading an invisible display.
“Park, Volker—out.” Young caught Rush's eye, glanced at Brody, and, at a subtle nod from the scientist, he added, “Brody, you too.”
“Gee. Thanks,” Brody said as he stood.
Young's eyes followed them out. The door swished shut behind them. Uneasy, he started for the door controls, only to be distracted as the field surrounding the chair flared to life, glowing in the dim light.
“Oh crap,” Eli whispered.
“Why is it visible?” Greer asked, suspiciously.
“Emission in the visible range implies either a power surge or—” there was a flash of light, and Rush was knocked back as the field collapsed inward by several feet. He hit the ground hard, head impacting the deck plating with an audible crack.
“Rush.” Young was forward as far as he could go without touching the field.
“Damn it, Eli,” Young spun to face him. “Did you trigger that?”
“No! No, I really don't think so.” Eli grabbed his laptop from the top of the console as he approached the edge of the field. “Is he okay?”
“Does he look okay?” Young growled, sweeping a hand toward his chief scientist, who was now sprawled on the floor behind a visible energy field.
“This is so not good,” Eli said. He angled his laptop screen to give Young a clear view. “See this? This power fluctuation was designed to partially collapse the field. It came from Destiny's mainframe.”
“So it's what—herding him?”
“Yeah.” Eli said, rattled. “Pretty much.”
“That's great.” Young dug his fingers into his temples. “That’s just great.”
“Rush,” Eli said. “Rush. Come on, man. I need your help. God, I hope he's not dead. Is he even breathing?”
Young rounded perimeter of the now marginally visible field, trying for a better angle. He knelt on his good knee, putting himself close to the scientist, who was lying at the base of the chair. “He's breathing,” Young reassured Eli.
“Should we call TJ?” Eli asked, his eyes flicking constantly between his computer and Rush.
“Not yet,” Young murmured. “What's she gonna do?”
“Yeah, good point.”
“Rush,” Young said, low and urgent. “Rush, come on. Wake up.”
The scientist's eyelids flickered.
“Rush.” Eli joined him. “Come on, man.”
Rush's hands came to his head. He turned away from them and pushed himself into a seated position with his back supported against the base of the chair. Young looked away, giving the man time to gather himself. If their positions had been reversed, he wouldn't want to show any weakness in front of the scientist.
“Are you all right?” Young asked.
“Fine,” Rush said. “How long—?” He made a circular hand gesture.
“Less than five minutes,” Young replied.
Rush looked up, his expression darkening as he took in the field, which glimmered a faint yellow under the dim lights. It created a dome approximately ten feet in diameter.
“It’s visible.” Rush sighed. “Perfect.”
“What difference does that make?” Young asked.
Rush dropped his head into his hand and pressed his fingertips into his temple. He looked at Eli.
“It's not good,” Eli said, as he dropped into a cross-legged position next to them. “The field has stabilized over a smaller area, but it’s drawing the same amount of energy from the core, so—”
“It's stronger,” Young finished.
“Yeah.” Eli compressed his lips.
“Why is this happening?” Young asked. “Why you. Why now?”
Rush looked at him, his expression closed. “Apparently I’ve made myself available.”
Young glared at him. “Not helpful,” he said.
“It’s as helpful as anything’s likely to be.” Rush pulled one knee into his chest and looked up at the chair. His expression was complicated as hell—a mix of defeat and hard-edged speculation. The guy was down but not out.
“You are not thinking what I think you’re thinking,” Eli said.
Rush raised his eyebrows, shot Eli a significant look, and then returned to contemplating the chair.
“Ummmmm,” Eli said, drawing out the word, “are you crazy?”
“Don't answer that,” Eli said.
“No one is sitting in that chair.” Young shifted out of his kneeling position to sit on the floor a few feet from Rush. He straightened his bad leg. “That's an order.”
“Yes yes.” Rush said, tiredly. “Why don't you just order the field to drop while you're at it, then?”
“Don't be a smartass,” Young replied, without any real venom.
Behind them, the door hissed open.
“Given up already? That was quick.” They turned to see Volker standing on the threshold of the room.
“Volker?” Young said. “I thought I told you—”
“Definitely not Volker.” The scientist strode toward the main console.
“Rodney,” Rush said in greeting.
“Like I said,” McKay replied. “Definitely not Volker.” He looked at Rush. “You look terrible, Nick. Will no one lend you a razor?”
“I have more significant problems at the moment, I’m afraid.”
“I know, just an observation.” McKay snapped his fingers at Eli. “Hey, mathboy. Laptop please. Let's get going. I hear we don’t have all day.”
Eli scrambled to his feet and turned his laptop over to McKay, who snatched it out of his hands.
“You know what your problem is, colonel?” McKay asked, as he snapped adaptors into Eli's laptop.
“I’m sure you're about to tell me,” Young said from the floor next to the force field.
“Yes. Your Science Team is being run by two mathematicians. There's a reason it's not called a math team.”
“Hey,” Eli said indignantly. “I was an engineering major.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” McKay said. “Did you graduate? Because normally the use of the word ‘major’ implies that you have a degree of some kind.”
Eli rolled his eyes.
“Watch and learn, mathboy.” McKay tore over the text on the monitors. “So happy I was around to step in and save the day. This really worked out for you guys.”
Young looked at Rush. The scientist had his gaze fixed on a point in empty space.
Young cleared his throat. “I think I might like you better than him.”
Rush smiled faintly. “That would be a first.”
“I know,” Young replied. “That’s why I mention it.”
“So, tell me about this power fluctuation,” McKay said to Eli. “What did you do?”
“Nothing,” Eli shot back. “It just happened.”
“Yeah, okay,” McKay said, condescendingly. “Next.”
“Nick, that means you,” McKay snapped.
“We seem to have triggered an unknown subroutine,” Rush offered.
McKay looked up. “I can’t believe you guys are still alive. Pro tip: nothing ‘just happens’ in systems like these.”
“Destiny initiated a command to collapse the field by twenty percent,” Eli snapped. “It came from the mainframe. I’ll show you.”
“No no no no no. See—” A warning trill from Eli's laptop cut McKay off.
The field glowed a brighter gold. Rush and Young shot to their feet. Rush edged as far back toward the chair as he could get without sitting in it.
“Crap.” McKay looked up at Rush.
The field flared and collapsed inward by several more feet. Rush flinched back and overbalanced. He caught himself on the arm of the chair. Several loops of black organic material shot out from a concealed panel, closing over and around his left wrist. They began tightening down, forcing the scientist’s forearm towards the open restraint.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Rush hissed.
“What the hell is that?” Young shouted.
Rush stepped off the base of the chair and angled himself away from it, twisting his arm and shoulder to try and keep the wrist restraint from closing. “Thank you, Rodney,” he said over his shoulder. “You've been tremendously helpful.”
“Come on, come on!” McKay whispered under his breath as he tried to cut power to the chair. “Sorry,” he called in response to Rush's comment.
“This is messed up.” Eli stood shoulder to shoulder with McKay, watching the monitors.
Rush braced one foot against the base of the chair and twisted his body around his left shoulder, bringing right hand to left elbow in order to exert the maximum leverage possible. Another loop of material shot out of the arm of the chair, further securing his wrist.
Young could see it was a losing battle.
Rush came to the same conclusion and stopped struggling. He cast around the space near the chair until he spotted the pliers he had discarded earlier. He went for them with his right foot and dragged them within reach.
“McKay,” Young snapped, “now would be a good time.”
Pliers in hand, Rush examined the arm of the chair by pivoting around his left shoulder. Young watched, surprised that the scientist ignored the obvious and didn't go for the straps directly, but instead attempted to remove the panel from which the material had emerged. His features were set in concentration.
Young paced back and forth at the edge of the field, not wanting to distract either Rush or McKay.
The panel Rush had been working on clattered to the deck plating.
“Power levels are spiking,” Eli snapped.
As though he’d expected Eli's pronouncement, Rush stepped onto the base of the chair, most of his weight coming down on his pinned forearm.
The open left wrist restraint slammed shut.
“Oh you have got to be kidding me,” McKay shouted at the chair.
Rush grimaced. His body was bent in a painful arc, right arm drawn in against his chest, trying to avoid touching the chair.
“Aren't you supposed to be cutting power?” Young growled at McKay.
“Not helpful, colonel,” McKay snapped back. He glanced at Rush. “Does he do this to you?”
“Constantly,” Rush replied, though clenched teeth.
Young turned back to Rush just in time to see another strap shoot out of the base of the chair. “Left ankle,” he shouted.
Rush slid his boot forward just in time to avoid being caught.
Young moved as close to Rush as he could. “The next time the shield collapses,” he said, “you're gonna have to stay absolutely still.”
“Obviously,” Rush said.
“Give McKay a chance.” Young’s voice was quiet.
“How atypically charitable of you,” Rush hissed.
Before Young could retort, the energy field flared again and restabilized itself a few inches from the base of the chair. Rush held steady.
“Hang in there,” Young said. He turned back to McKay and Eli. McKay's mouth was set in a grim line. He looked up as Young approached.
“The ship is fighting me,” McKay said. “This isn't a protective network of interlocking algorithms preventing manipulation of the chair. It traces back to the most basic functions of the ship. I’m pretty sure this is a full-blown AI embedded within Destiny's CPU. Even if I could dismantle it, which I doubt, I can't predict what the consequences of that would be for the ship as a whole.”
“We always suspected the AI was integrated with the heart of the mainframe,” Eli said, equally quietly.
“So you can't get him out,” Young said.
“No,” McKay whispered. “Not a chance.”
Young looked at Eli, who shook his head.
“But,” McKay said, “he may be able to get himself out, once he actually sits. If it—” the scientist paused, waving a hand, “—y’know. Doesn't kill him.”
“Okay.” Young forced a strength into his voice that he didn't feel. “Keep learning what you can.” He turned back to the chair and approached the forcefield.
Rush, his whole frame still arced painfully, turned his head to look at Young.
Young wasn't sure what to say. He swallowed.
Rush gave him that superior smile—the one Young had always hated. “I'm never going to let you live this down, Rodney,” Rush called, before dropping purposefully into the chair.
The remaining restraints closed with an ominous clang.
The neural interface bolts did not engage.
Young glanced over his shoulder. Eli gave him an anxious shrug before looking back at the readouts in front of him.
“This is new,” Rush murmured, watching as a panel emerged from the side of the chair near his left shoulder and projected a grid of blue-white light over his neck and the side of his head. “Eli?” Only a slight twitch in the scientist’s cheek betrayed any anxiety.
“It's scanning you,” Eli responded. “It just ID'd you as not Ancient. Hopefully it’s not pissed about that. We're getting your vitals. We’re also getting something that looks—huh. Maybe some kind of biochemical analysis?”
“Biochemical? That can't be right,” McKay said.
Rush's eyes flicked to Young, then back toward the device that was scanning him. Young had to admit that, although the military personnel often accused the scientist of cowardly self-interest, the man could keep his cool under pressure.
“Eli?” Rush prompted.
“Um, so, actually? I think it's less a biochemical ‘analysis’ and more an organic synthesis.”
“I do not like the sound of that,” Young growled.
“For what purpose?” Rush’s question drove like a blade. His glare was fiery, but fixed on empty space.
“Not sure, but I bet we're gonna find out any minute here.” McKay glanced up at Young, his expression grim.
With a hiss, a panel near Rush's shoulder opened and a hydraulically powered projectile launched itself at the side of the scientist's neck, embedding itself just above his clavicle, carrying thin tubing behind it. Rush flinched. He didn’t make a sound.
“Rush?” Eli asked uncertainly.
“Yes yes.” Rush squeezed his eyes shut. “I'm fine.”
“You're getting some kind of salt solution right now,” Eli said.
“Normal saline, actually,” McKay corrected. “Hopefully it’s not a million years old and contaminated with Ancient bacteria.”
“Ugh,” Eli said.
The scientist shifted in the chair, then made a single, powerful attempt to wrench himself free. It was no good. The restraints held. With a visible effort, he forced himself to relax.
“Rush,” Young said quietly. “We'll get you out of there.”
Rush met Young’s eyes. “I find your platitudes infinitely reassuring. By all means, continue.”
“I'm serious,” Young said.
“I’m aware.” Rush sighed.
As Young watched, the fluid in the tubing transitioned from clear to a pale, phosphorescent green.
“Rush?” Young asked.
“What.” The scientist leveled a glare at him, but, almost immediately, the intensity was stripped straight out of it. Rush blinked, and shook his head.
“Damn it,” Young murmured. “I think you’re getting—well. Whatever it’s giving.”
“Yup,” Eli rounded the monitor bank to stand next to Young. “You’re getting the synthesized compound. How do you feel?”
“This isnae what I expected.” No question about it, the guy was slurring his words. “S’very polite.”
“Polite?” Eli echoed.
“What did you expect?” Young growled.
“Fuck off.” Rush’s eyelids fluttered.
“Hey,” Eli snapped, his voice sharp. “Stay awake.”
With an effort, Rush dragged his eyes open.
“What did you expect?” Young repeated his question.
“Are you okay?” Eli asked.
“Nick, describe what’s happening,” McKay’s voice, like a lathe, cut over Young and Eli. “Quick as you can.”
“Safe mode,” Rush breathed, his eyes rolling back as he fought against the synthesized compound.
“Safe mode?” Eli and McKay repeated in alarm.
“What the hell is ‘safe mode’,” Young growled.
“We’re gonna fix this, Nick,” McKay shouted.
“Unlikely.” Rush’s eyes slid shut.
“What’s ‘safe mode’?” Young repeated.
“It’s a computing term,” Eli said. “It’s a diagnostic mode that allows the modification of an operating system.” The kid moved as close to the field as he could get. “Rush. You need to stay awake. Rush. Rush!”
No response. At all.
“Don’t bother,” McKay said, defeated. “I’m reading delta waves on the monitors. He's out cold.”
The neural interface bolts engaged with a crack.
Young jumped. Beside him, Eli jerked back, and Young reached out to steady him, a hand on his shoulder. Eli nodded, then moved to join McKay behind the monitor bank.
“Safe mode?” Young growled.
“He’s a computational complexity theorist, who was losing consciousness.” McKay expression was tight. He didn’t look at Young. “I’m hoping ‘safe mode’ is just a fancy way to think about sedation.”
“Can we figure out what it’s doing?” Young asked.
Eli pressed a series of buttons and projected a display into midair.
McKay looked up. “Vitals,” McKay said, pointing at glowing columns, moving from left to right. “This is the Ancient-flavored EEG, showing delta waves. This one seems to be sympathetic activation, which I'm assuming translates to a rough gauge of pain and or panic. He just dropped to nothing, thanks to whatever he was injected with.”
Young grabbed his radio. “TJ, this is Young. Can you get up to the chair room?”
“Be right there,” she replied.
“Bring your kit,” he added.
Young rubbed his jaw and looked up at the displays. “Do we know why it drugged him before engaging the neural interface?”
“Not yet,” McKay murmured. He and Eli glanced at one another. “Ah. Another readout popped up. Let's see—”
Young peered over McKay's shoulder.
“I think,” McKay said, studying the window, “that this might be a representation of the Ancient genetic code.” He pointed to a progressing list of characters running across the top of the display. “And this is Rush’s.” He pointed to a second series, progressing across the bottom.
“It's comparing them,” Eli said quietly. “Maybe it's trying to learn about us?”
“Maybe.” McKay sounded skeptical.
As Young watched, the blurring sequences began, in small patches, to flash gold.
“Uh oh,” McKay whispered.
Atop the streaming genetic code, a new window popped up. It was uncomplicated. It displayed a single progress bar.
“What does that say?” Young asked, pointing to the only words on the screen.
Eli stared at the Ancient script. He didn’t answer.
“Percent complete.” McKay’s voice was flat. “I think it's planning to modify him. On a genetic level.”