Force over Distance: Chapter 30
They needed a star.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Midmorning.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
Young crossed his arms, trying to hang onto a little heat as he walked the long corridor between the bridge and the control interface room. It was the middle of the day, but almost no one was out and about.
Maybe it was the cold.
Maybe it was the dark.
Probably it was both.
They were running out of energy.
The power sources that’d activated when Rush had interfaced his consciousness with the ship had all but run down. Unused sections of Destiny sealed themselves off, lights dimmed, heat dissipated. The ambient temperature dropped by almost ten degrees. At night, and in unpopulated areas, it got even colder. Morale was draining away.
They needed a star.
Young rubbed his healing right arm to ease away some of the ache brought on by the cold. A week and some change of downtime had restored his strength and sensation. He’d ditched the sling days back, but still his shoulder ached, especially at these temperatures.
Overhead, the corridor lights dimmed another fraction.
Before this problem with the power, things had finally been going well. Or, at least, not badly.
They had a plan to dump the dead Nakai that might just take out a few of their pursuers. Homeworld Command’s Resupply Mission was on hold, thanks to fabricated concerns about overloading Destiny’s internal power grid. They hadn’t been attacked. There’d been no plagues. No infestations. No food shortages. No water shortages. No one had been trapped in the chair. No one had been marooned on a planet.
Young’d been grateful for the temporary reprieve, and had, more or less, spent a week on his new hobby: doing his damnedest to create a real working relationship with his chief scientist.
After two years of nothing but dysfunction, it was turning out to be pretty difficult.
The guy was driving him crazy, for one.
The man’s personal style was distracting, his refusal to sleep was maddening, his brain was troublingly nice to look at, and his way of interacting with the ship was intensely anxiety provoking.
And, there were more problems.
First of all, who the hell made themselves a workaround for sleep? Sleep was nice. And, even if, for some reason, Rush deeply hated it (which seemed to be the case), it was necessary to live. Young’d tried reasoning with him. He’d tried making logical appeals. He’d tried emotional appeals. He’d tried cognitive combat. The only thing that reliably worked was straight negotiation, where he traded military manpower, in the form of Greer or James, on an hour-per-hour exchange. Rush slept six hours? Fine. He could pull one of Young’s officers to the Science Team for an equivalent length of time and assign them as he saw fit.
It was goddamned ridiculous. The scientist was walking all over him. Effectively, the guy was negotiating by holding himself at slow-motion gunpoint.
Second of all, what the hell was he supposed to do about the AI? Despite the helpful, touchy-feely, and frankly likable Dr. Jacksonesque approach the thing had recently adopted, despite the creepily thoughtful behavior the ship seemed to display toward Rush, Young never forgot what Destiny had done to the scientist, even if Rush himself did. Or seemed to. It was impossible to tell.
Fortunately, at least for now, there was real overlap between Young’s goals and the goals of the AI. For Young, protecting the crew came first. As long as they were dependent on Destiny for their survival, along with protection of the crew came protecting the integrity of the ship itself. Rush overlapped both categories: ship and crew. That was fine. Everyone was in agreement.
Beyond that, however, Young’s goals and the goals of the AI diverged. Following their immediate survival, Young’s second priority was gating the crew home. The AI’s priority was probably to complete Destiny’s original mission—a point on which Young found he’d like some additional clarity.
Rush was playing the middle. He had, on multiple occasions, directly asked Young not to question the AI about its goals. Whenever Young brought up anything touching Destiny’s mission, Rush killed the conversation and banished the AI, which would’ve looked like a pro-AI position, if it hadn’t been for the few occasions when he’d actively warned Young about disclosing information to it. Once while drinking in Brody’s makeshift bar. Once when Jackson had tried to use the communication stones.
He was pretty sure Rush hadn’t fully thrown in with whatever the AI’s goals were.
Young wasn’t clear on whether Rush could fully throw in—either with him or with the ship. He was tied to both ends of the field. That was the whole nature of the damn interface.
The other thing he wasn’t clear on was whether the AI understood how much damage the ship had done and was doing to the guy. Young had tried to bring this up with the thing, but Rush, again, reliably deflected this line of discussion.
Whether the thing understood what it was doing or not, Young needed some kind of real opposition strategy designed to prevent the further integration of Rush and the ship. To keep the scientist as human as possible for as long as possible.
He wasn’t gonna lose the guy. He just wasn’t.
Young’s thoughts were interrupted by Eli. The kid stepped out of the CI room, his gray sweatshirt zipped to his neck, his hood pulled over his curls, and his bedsheet scarf wrapped around his shoulders. He was hugging his laptop to his chest, as though he might absorb some of its heat.
“Yeah,” Eli said, gesturing at his own ensemble. “I know it’s not exactly fashion-forward, but what can you do?”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“Never mind. We need to talk, yet again, about your better half in there.” He glowered over his shoulder at the CI room.
“Wait. What am I saying? Clearly you are the better half.”
“The search for candidate stars isn’t going well, I take it?” Young asked.
“No, it’s going fine. It’s going awesome. We’ve got a really good prospect at the right distance, and options are getting fancy in terms of handling the inevitable appearance of enemy ships. I think we’ll be ready for a tactical briefing in maybe half a day? Or less? I don’t know. Check with Captain Insanity.”
“Eli,” Young said reproachfully. “He’s no captain.”
That surprised a short laugh out of Eli. “Okay, fair point. Look, he thinks I’m completing some astrometrics calculations right now, so let’s get out of the hallway. I’ve gotta show you something.”
//I knew he’d go straight to you,// Rush commented dryly at the back of his mind.
//Why’d you let him leave, then?//
//One can always hope.//
“Aw crap,” Eli whispered. “You’ve got that look on your face.”
“What look?” Young asked.
“That look like you’re talking to him. Did you just give me away?” Eli asked, scandalized.
“Um,” Young said. He was saved by the pneumatic hiss of the door to the CI room. Slowly, Park, Brody, and Volker filed out.
“He says you might as well come back in?” Volker had a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. “He also said you’re taking my night shift?”
“Oh for the love—” Eli snarled. He ducked back into the CI room. Young followed closely on his heels.
Rush was sitting in his usual pose, feet propped on an adjacent chair. As he watched shifting readouts on multiple screens, he spun a pen through his fingers. The soft light from the monitors put highlights in his hair, lit up the frames of his glasses, and gave him an otherworldly glow in the dark room.
Young really wanted the guy to take a nap.
“I’m not pulling another night shift,” Eli snapped at the scientist. “Do you know how many I’ve done over the past week?”
“Oh spare us,” Rush said, without looking up. “You get more sleep than a graduate student.” He spun his pen in a fast, complicated spiral and caught it again.
“I think that’s impossible,” Eli said.
//Is there a reason you’re working him up like this?// Young projected mildly. //He makes an effort to be nice to you.//
//I get tired of people talking about me.//
//That’s all we do, y’know. When you’re not around—//
“I’m sure,” Rush said coolly, looking at neither of them, but managing to respond to both of them with one statement.
“Go ahead, Eli,” Young said, into the quiet.
Eli opened his laptop on a nearby stack of crates. “Seeing as the ship drops down to freaking fifty degrees at night—”
“Centigrade,” Rush said. “How many times do I have remind you people? Can we please standardize to using the metric system? Volker gets confused enough as it is without adding more than one set of units to the picture.”
“First of all, you are an asshole. Second of all, Volker is not that bad. Third of all, we all know what you’re doing so just stop.” Eli glared at Rush.
“By all means, continue to fascinate us.”
“As I was saying, seeing as the ship has been getting down to freaking fifty degrees Fahrenheit at night, or worse, and since someone keeps assigning me night shifts out of spite—I started to notice that Rush,” Eli said, glaring at the scientist, “never seems to get cold. I mean, look at the guy. He weighs, like, ninety pounds. It doesn’t make any sense. He should have pneumonia by now or something.”
“You should be so lucky,” Rush hissed. “Perhaps we should have a discussion about professionalism.”
“Funny. You’re hilarious,” Eli snapped.
//I can’t believe those words just came out of your mouth,// Young said.
//I lack a sense of humor, not a sense of irony.//
//Pretty sure you the only sense you lack is the common kind, genius.//
Rush shot him a wry look.
“Let’s move this along,” Young said to Eli.
“Okay, so I did some checking into his cold-resistance because the night shift is boring. At first I thought it was because of the genetic changes. Maybe he’s cold-adapted or something? But no, that wasn’t it. In fact, Ancients prefer a warmer ambient temperature than humans. Then I had the idea that maybe Destiny was heating up his local environment.”
“Yup,” Young said shortly. “It’s been doing that for a while. That’s not new.”
“Nope,” Eli said, raising his hands. “That’s not the new thing. Now we have a whole different level of weirdness, and I can’t even tell you how long he’s been doing it, because it would’ve been impossible to detect at our baseline power levels.”
Rush stared at the wall, one hand hooked over his shoulder. His cognitive light-show had, impossibly, ramped up in energy, losing none of its structure. Through their open link, Young picked up a building unease.
“He’s pulling energy straight from the ship.” Eli crossed his arms. “All the time. Twenty-four seven.”
No one said anything.
The unease in Rush’s spectacular firewalling turned to a broad swath of dread. He was staring at the readouts on the screen in front of him.
Eli had something real.
Young rubbed his jaw.
“Um?” Eli opened his hands and looked at Young, expecting a bigger response. “Hello? He’s pulling energy from the ship? And using it? Like, to be a human or, you know, whatever it is that he is?”
“Not strictly true,” Rush said. “As I explained.”
“Oh yes. ‘Explained.’ And to you, ‘explaining’ apparently means ‘Don’t worry about it, Eli’.”
“God, you’re so—”
“Settle down.” Young looked at Eli from under his eyebrows. “Pretty sure I’ve been watching this happen for ten days or so now,” he said cautiously.
“What?” Eli breathed. “Why didn’t you do anything?”
Rush stared at the nearest bulkhead. He spun his pen, once, in a graceful arc.
Young was missing something. Something big.
Eli was getting more worked up by the second. The kid’s face was pale, his eyes livid. “You knew? You knew this whole time and you, what? You don’t care? The Science Team has been trying to figure it out for days—”
“Eli,” Rush said quietly, still not looking at either of them.
“Oh god,” Eli whispered, looking at Rush. “He doesn’t get it, does he?”
“Get what?” Young growled.
“What he’s doing.”
“Eli,” Rush said, his voice low. “Please just leave it alone.”
“Somebody better explain it to me right the hell now,” Young said conversationally.
“How could he possibly pull energy from the ship?” Eli asked, his eyes boring into Young.
“He’s always been able to do that,” Young growled. “This isn’t new.”
“Yes. It is. There is a big difference between REDIRECTING energy via, I don’t know, cognitive code, to, say, make a forcefield versus USING ENERGY TO LIVE. He’s not cold. He’s not tired. How? He’s harnessing the energy of EM fields. Of voltage differentials. Over the air. Which means that he can interconvert between forms of energy. Maybe also matter.”
Rush was still staring at his goddamned readouts.
“So?” Eli stepped forward and slammed Rush’s laptop shut.
Rush opened his hands, as if to ask what Eli wanted from him.
“Can. You. Do it.” Eli spit the words out, as angry as Young had ever seen him. “Can you already do it?”
Rush glanced at Young and then away again.
“Do what?” Young snarled.
“Ascend,” Eli snapped. “Can you ascend?”
No one spoke.
“No,” Rush said finally. “Interconversion of matter and energy is a step along the path, not the destination.”
Young propped an elbow on the monitor he was leaning against and dropped his forehead into his hand. He dug his fingers into his aching temples.
“Don’t give me that crap,” Eli hissed. “I can see where this is going and I don’t like it. I watched those stupid tapes that Dr. Jackson made, okay? And one thing came through very loud and fucking clear. Nothing having to do with ascension ever ended well for anyone involved. It’s not for us, okay? Humans and higher planes of existence do not mix well.”
“Eli.” Rush sounded tired for the first time in days. “I know.”
“Shut it off then.” Eli pleaded. “Stop doing this stuff. It’s bad for you. It has to be. Don’t take the energy. Don’t talk to the ship. Go back to using computers like a normal person. Be cold. Be tired. Colonel Young can keep you here if you just let him do his job. Why do you have to be like this?”
“Why? I already did all of this without you, all right? And I didn’t like it. We need you here. No one tells you that because you’re such an asshole all the freaking time, but we do, okay? It’s why I locked Ginn away. To get you back. You owe me. You owe her. You owe all of us.”
“I know that,” Rush said quietly.
“Yeah, you know. Sure you do.” Eli picked up his laptop. “I might as well be talking to the bulkhead for all the good this is doing me. I’ll see you at the briefing.” He left the room, and neither Rush nor Young stopped him.
Young rubbed his jaw.
Rush looked away, the skin around his eyes tightening.
“You’re a lotta work,” Young whispered. “You turned your description of everything that went down with Telford into a whole damn show. You told me about the project. You told me about your recruitment. You laid it all out. Except for two things. The situation with the Ori, and what the hell this damn ship wants with you.”
“You were the one who made a fucking event of it,” Rush hissed. “If you’d just leave well enough alone you’d get everything you want.”
“And what is it you think I want?” Young asked.
“Gating the crew home,” Rush shot back. “It’s what you’ve always wanted. It’s not impossible. I’m working on it.”
“What about you?” Young asked.
“What about me?” Rush shot back. “If you’ve, somehow, convinced yourself you care—well, don’t, all right?”
“Too late,” Young said
“Don’t say that.” The scientist’s thoughts were a glorious smear of flowing fractals.
“Okay,” Young said, clamping down hard on a surge of anxiety and anger and frustration and resentment. “Fine. Why don’t you try this on for size. You shut down your goddamned firewall or I’ll shut it down for you.”
“Now isn’t a convenient time for me,” the scientist replied coolly.
“I don’t care.” Young’s tone was even. Utterly implacable.
“Just because we’re mentally linked doesn’t mean you get a free pass to interfere in my personal decisions.”
“Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it means.”
“You cut off that energy stream. Right now. Or I’ll do it for you.”
“Not t’disempower you here, colonel, but you’re not capable of that.” Rush’s tone was a cascade of false sympathy.
Young crossed his arms and studied the magnificent, intricate web of the scientist’s porous firewall. Dark threads belonging to Destiny wove in and out of a maze of openings.
The question was—could he drop a block in a location other than between his mind and Rush’s?
He was pretty damn sure the answer was yes.
“Hate to break it to you,” he said, “but yeah. I am capable. This isn’t right. It’s not supposed to be this way and you know it. I’ve been asking you to cut it out for ten days, Rush. You stop it, or I will.”
Rush shook his hair back, radiating pure disdain. “Go ahead,” the scientist replied. “Fuckin’ astound me.”
It was terrible, how easy it was, to drop a block straight through the man’s firewall. It took seconds. Almost no effort. The block came down and the firewall cracked into fragments of broken light.
That wasn’t all that happened.
The structural collapse of the firewall continued, sweeping through Rush’s entire mind. His thoughts turned pale and glassy. His internal monologue caved from English to Ancient. Flashes of memories that weren’t his own, that didn’t come from any human timeline, were intermingled with the gray rain of Glasgow, with chalk to chalkboards, with hyperdrives and gravel roads and mercilessly beautiful sunlight streaming through the windows of church services with Gloria and neither of them, neither of them feeling any kind of peace—and—
A headache exploded behind Rush’s eyes and propagated through their link, along with a sickening cold that radiated unendurably from his bones. The scientist swayed and gripped the edge of the table to prevent himself from pitching out of his chair. Bolts of pain shot through his wrists. His feet ached. His chest ached. His neck and back were a mass of knotted tension. His headache throbbed through Young’s temples.
Young braced a hand on the nearest console and landed the other on Rush’s shoulder to keep him in place and to ease the strain on their unrepaired link.
After a few ragged breaths, the AI manifested.
It appeared as Emily, with Jackson’s hair. With Jackson’s glasses, in Jackson’s clothes. It leaned in, its expression a terrifying mix of Jackson’s steely fire and Emily’s explosive rage. And when it spoke—
“Take it down, Everett,” the voice was a hiss, a bizarre combination of male and female overtones.
Young’s hands went cold. His heart beat hard in his chest. To hold his ground, he had to remind himself that this strange, horrible mix of two people was something artificial—the real Jackson and the real Emily were a universe away. Unhurt. Uncombined. Living lives on paths that wouldn’t cross.
“This is what he feels like.” Young held his ground. “This is how he should feel after a week without sleep.” His eyes watered with the pain of his headache
“How are you doing this?” The glasses vanished. The masculine clothing altered along feminine lines. “This doesn’t fall within the scope of your abilities.” The voice had turned cool, cutting, and all Emily’s.
“The hell it doesn’t,” Young came right back at it, despite the agony in his head. “Destiny’s not giving him this energy for his benefit, that’s for damn sure. So tell me—what do you get out of it? Because I’m sure you get something.”
“Stop.” Rush made an abortive hand gesture, his eyes shut.
“Your role is well defined,” it snarled. “You keep his mind out of the ship so he stays alive. That’s all. Otherwise you do not interfere.”
“The hell I don’t,” Young roared, leaning into its personal space, his palm coming down against the metal tabletop. “That energy isn’t just keeping him on his feet, is it? It’s changing him. That’s why his cognitive architecture looks so damn spectacular. That’s why he he can interconvert energy. That’s why neither of you give a damn about his physical body.”
“It’s facilitating certain modifications, yes,” it admitted, “but it allows him to maintain his current level of functioning. You want him to feel like this? You want him to experience pain?”
“Yes, I fucking do,” Young snarled. “He’s not a machine, he’s a person and he’s staying that way.”
“Gloria,” Rush whispered.
Young and the AI froze.
“Go,” Rush said, shivering, his eyes still shut. “I’ll talk to him.”
“Nick.” The AI snapped straight back to Dr. Jackson. It stepped forward, hands out, as if it could touch him.
Maybe it could.
The AI tried again, its voice tentative. “Nick, do you understand—”
“Yes. Go,” Rush murmured, eyes flickering open. “It’s all right.”
“Rush?” Young asked uncertainly.
“You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?” He dug the heel of his hand into his eye and forced a rigid, algorithmic order into his falling-apart thoughts. “You’ll have to take down that block.”
“Sorry genius,” Young said quietly. “No dice. Your firewall is killing you.”
Rush looked up at Young, squinting through his headache. “We’ll drop out within the day. We’re likely t’find ourselves in a firefight. Neither of us can afford to be compromised. In any way.”
“We can do it without you.”
Rush smiled. It was weak, and full of despair. “No, y’can’t.”
“Brody handles the shuttle launch. Chloe and Eli plot and pilot the course through the star.” Young kept his voice even, fighting the agony in his head. “You sit this one out.”
Rush’s dug into the dregs of his own tapped-out energy with every ounce of raw determination he had. “There’ll be a battle. They’ll need both of us. Unimpaired.”
They stared one another down.
“You must see it,” Rush said quietly.
“This is killing you.”
“Which will not matter if we all die in four hours. Lift your block.”
“We can’t separate if y’don’t lift it.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
Rush propped an elbow against the console and pressed his fingers to his forehead. “It’s still hours until we drop out, then five hours, roughly, inside the star. Realistically, I’m unlikely to—I’m not sure how long I can hold this.” He gestured at his own temple and shored up the rigid order that was organizing his mind, disrupting a more natural flow, preventing him from losing consciousness—
A wave of agony propagated along the link so intense it was barely localizable as a headache. Young clenched his jaw, tried to control his breathing, dug his fingers into Rush’s shoulder and said, “You’re gonna need to loosen up on whatever that is.”
“The order of time,” Rush murmured, his eyes shut. “All the English. Causality. Locked-on awareness. That’s what it is.”
Young said nothing. The pain in his head stabilized to a more endurable pattern.
“I know how many hours I’d need to hold it for—somewhere between seven and nine? But, ah, subjectively I’m not sure how long hours are, right now.”
“Oh god,” Young whispered. “Are you serious?”
Rush nodded. “How many hours would you say it’s been since you cut me off?”
“Genius,” Young said, fighting a wave of despair. “It’s been about three minutes. About five percent of an hour.”
“Yes well, that’s not very promising,” Rush whispered. He dropped his hand, looked up at Young, and dug into his reserves anew. “I can’t hold this structure across that kind of interval. And even if I’m replaceable, which might be true, your ability to tactically coordinate a space battle’ll be absolutely fuckin’ required.”
Young looked away.
Rush pressed his advantage. “Neither of us can afford to be compromised.”
“You can make that argument practically every hour on this ship with the rate that we run into trouble. The line has to be drawn somewhere.”
“Right. Well, y’ve handily demonstrated you can draw it wherever and whenever you’d like.” Young felt Rush make a concerted mental effort to keep his thoughts focused and his tone under control. “So I’m asking you not to do this now.” Rush took a deep breath. “Please.”
Jesus Christ. As though he’d say no to that.
Slowly, Young dialed back the block he’d placed straight in the midst of the energy-stream, thinning it down to nothing. As it went, his headache drained away. His bones thawed. The pain in his hands and feet receded. And Rush’s glorious firewall sparked back up, his thoughts turning intricate and ordered and full of a bright, borrowed energy.
The scientist looked up at Young though the fringe of his hair, his expression guarded.
Very carefully, Young smoothed his hair back.
Rush shot him a warning look. “This goes much better if we make at least some effort to preserve our historical hostility? You’re doing a terrible job.”
“I know.” Young tightened his hand on Rush’s shoulder.
He considered telling the scientist that the microsecond the space battle was over he was gonna find himself cut off from the ship. He considered hammering home the idea that the man was in for a world of trouble over the next few weeks. He considered an almost endless list of Things Rush Was Damn Well Gonna Be Clear On—but they were all variations on an ultimatum that he’d already given and Rush had tacitly accepted.
He discarded them all. Instead, he stepped back a pace, and gave the scientist the ghost of a smile.
“What d’you say we go fly through a goddamned star?” Young formally offered the man a hand up.
“Thought you’d never ask.” With delicate deliberation, Rush took Young’s hand, and pulled himself to his feet.
The tactical briefing was short, if one didn’t count the week’s worth of NHBs that’d gone into it. Brody presented the main points to the bridge staff in typical laconic fashion. They’d be employing three strategies to minimize contact with alien ships.
The first component of the plan was to minimize time spent outside the star. As neither the Nakai nor the drone ships had the capacity to withstand the heat and pressure involved in flying through a solar body, Volker and Chloe had calculated the minimum distance from the star Destiny could drop out and still have time to power down the FTL drive and adequately prepare the hull for entry. This turned out to be pretty damn close. Right on the border of the solar corona.
Second, they’d attempt to evade ambush at their exit point by changing course while inside the star, which would require overriding navigational safeguards. It was risky, but Rush and Chloe were confident it could be done.
Third, after dropping out of FTL, they’d launch the shuttle they’d appropriated from the seed ship, piled high with dead Nakai, and set on autopilot. It’d be broadcasting on Nakai frequencies and programmed with Nakai shield harmonics. At worst, it’d probably draw off at least some of the drone ships. At best, if the Nakai took it on board, a sleeper program Eli and Rush had designed would cause the thrusters to overload upon receipt of the appropriate signal.
Young spent the last half-hour before the drop out of FTL personally verifying everything was in place.
When he circled back to the bridge, Rush was already there, standing at Chloe’s shoulder.
“Can you not hover?” she said, as Young walked through the doors. “You’re making me nervous. Go harass Eli.”
“I’ve harassed Eli enough for today.”
Eli gave Rush a dark look which was wasted on the back of the scientist’s head.
“Rush.” Young dropped into the central command chair. “We good to go?”
The scientist nodded. His eyes flicked up toward the ceiling. “We’re about to drop out.”
“Okay team,” Young said. “Look sharp.”
The FTL drive spun down. Across their open link, Young felt Rush deliberately shut his eyes.
An instant later, he wished he’d done the same.
Rush was the only person who didn’t flinch at the searing light coming through the forward view. Young threw up a hand. After an initial painful flash, the glare muted to a reddish-gold with the automatic tinting of the glass. The star colored everything—the monitors, the crew, the metal deck plating—with a surreal bronze cast.
Rush opened his eyes.
//You could’ve warned me.// Young tried to blink away the sun-sized blindspot that obscured most of his vision. “Report,” he said aloud.
//Do I have to spell everything out for you? We dropped out next to a sun.//
“I’m reading enemy contacts,” Eli replied. “It looks like a command ship and associated drones. They’re scrambling to intercept.”
“Will they make it?” Young asked.
“Yup,” Eli said grimly.
Young pulled out his radio. “This is Young to port shuttle bay. Launch when ready.”
//Bring the main weapon online or stick with shields?// Young asked Rush.
Rush looked up at the glowing display above Eli’s station, showing the projected flight paths of the drones. Already, they were between Destiny and the star. //We have to break through,// Rush said. //Go with the weapon.//
“Bring the main weapon online,” Young called over to Park.
“Got it,” Park replied.
“Shuttle is away,” Brody’s voice came through over the radio. “Repeat, the shuttle is away.”
The first salvo of enemy fire impacted their shields. Proximity detectors trilled.
“Shields just dropped ten percent,” Eli shouted.
Near the forward rail, his features lit by the copper light that suffused the bridge, Rush blinked. He closed a hand around the rail; the other came up to press against his chest. His mouth had gone dry. His muscles shook.
Permeating his mind, and Young’s, was the overwhelming desire to sit in the chair.
Young was so goddamned tired of this.
Unable to hold out, Rush peeled himself from Chloe’s station and walked toward the exit. Behind him, Young heard the pneumatic hiss of the bridge doors.
Young pulled out his radio. “Greer, drop whatever you’re doing and report to the chair room immediately.”
He waited, his posture relaxed, his mind quiet. When Rush was within arm’s reach, Young shot to his feet, grabbed a handful of the scientist’s jacket, and spun the other man around, unbalancing him enough to force him into the command chair. He tightened his hold on Rush’s mind as much as possible. The man’s firewall, intricate and vast, was already threaded through with darkness. Young started dragging on everything he could get.
“Nope,” he said softly, “not happening.” He pressed down against the scientist’s shoulder, preventing him from rising.
Rush didn’t reply. He sat motionless, his mind perfectly balanced between the opposing intentions of Young and Destiny.
A second salvo of enemy fire impacted their shields.
“Fire the main weapon,” Young snapped at Park. “Clear our path.”
Park fired two shots straight along their planned trajectory.
Again, Rush tried to get to his feet. The pull of the chair escalated to unbearable levels.
Young ramped up his own resistance. He held the scientist down with a constant pressure on his shoulders and his mind.
“Our shields just dropped by twenty-five percent.” Eli did a double-take as he looked toward the command chair.
“Twenty-five percent?” Young repeated.
“The weapon takes a lot of energy.” Eli’s eyes lingered on Rush.
A blast rocked the bridge as the first of the enemy fire truly penetrated their shielding. Young recognized the trill of the alarm that indicated a hull breach immediately before Volker confirmed it.
“Reroute power to forward shields,” Young snapped.
For no reason Young could determine, Rush threw in with Destiny and surged to his feet. Young was dragged forward for half a step before Rush deftly turned, escaping his hold by sliding out of his open jacket. He was across the bridge and out the door in seconds.
No one had noticed their brief, silent confrontation.
Another blast nearly knocked Young off his feet. He dropped Rush’s jacket and pulled out his radio. “Young to Greer,” he said, trying to keep his voice from carrying. “Rush is headed toward the chair room. You’re authorized to use any means short of lethal force to keep him from sitting in that thing.”
“Understood,” Greer replied.
“How much longer until we reach the star?” Young asked Chloe.
“Three minutes,” she replied.
At the back of his mind, he could feel Rush increase his speed until he was flat-out sprinting—feeling no pain—cold air raking though his hair, corridor lights flaring subtly for him as he passed through near darkness.
God, he was fast. But of course he would be, with that build, that drive. Of course.
“What’s our status?” Young snapped, the golden light on the bridge contrasting with the dim blue of Destiny’s interior at the back of his mind. The scientist had nearly reached the chair room, and the part of Young that could feel the anxious press of Destiny ached for Rush to make it.
“Shields are down to thirty percent ship-wide with focal weakening.” Eli’s eyes flew over his monitors. “They’ll keep getting through.”
Rush snapped to forefront of Young’s mind with a bolt of surprise. The other man hadn’t seen Greer coming until the sergeant had tackled him. They hit the deck plating hard. Greer had the scientist half-pinned before Rush sorted out what was happening. But as soon as he did—lightning quick, and halfway into a shoulder-lock—Rush went straight for Greer’s sidearm.
“They just changed their strategy,” Volker yelled, his hair a flaming red-gold in the light from the star.
“In what way?” Young growled, trying to ignore Rush.
“They’ve started kamikaze-style runs,” Volker shouted over the rising chorus of alarms.
Rush was pinned to the freezing deck plating, but he had Greer’s sidearm. “Back off,” the scientist said icily. He cocked the weapon inches from the sergeant’s face.
“You’re not gonna shoot me, doc,” Greer said softly. He hadn’t moved. The darkness pressed in around them.
“What kind of numbers are we talking about?” Young struggled to stay present in the red-gold light of the bridge.
“I will,” Rush’s hand and voice were steady despite the unendurable pull of the ship. “I’m more than prepared to sacrifice you for the persistence of this ship and crew. I don’t have time to explain this to you, so decide right now if you’re going to blindly follow Colonel Young’s orders or if you’re going to trust me on this one.”
“We just had two impacts off the forward bow,” Volker said. “They’re coming in waves of six.”
In the dim blue light, Greer reluctantly pulled back. He extended a hand to help the scientist to his feet.
“Damn it,” Young hissed under his breath.
“We can’t tolerate any more hull breaches,” Eli snapped. The red light glinted off his curls. “Our shielding is so low that we won’t be able to survive the passage through the star.”
“Do we have enough energy to jump back into FTL?” Young asked.
“No,” Eli said, and, even though it was quiet, it cut across the bridge.
Deep in his mind, the chair shone blue in the darkness.
“Stay on course,” Young said, and the activity of the bridge resumed. “How long?” he asked Chloe.
Another drone made it through a weak point in their shields and impacted the hull near the bridge. Chloe was flung out of her seat. Young had to grab the arm of the command chair to prevent ending up on the floor himself.
“Ten,” Chloe called out as she pulled herself up.
“We have another breach,” Eli said grimly.
There was nothing more Young could do.
Greer and Rush were at the chair room. Rush began to merge with the ship, even before sitting. Young got intermittent flashes of his approach to the chair, like a slow strobe.
His hand on the armrest.
The sound of charging capacitors.
“Five seconds,” Chloe whispered. She looked at Eli.
Eli shook his head.
Chloe turned back to face the sun. “Matt,” she whispered into her radio, her voice pained.
They plunged into the solar corona.
“Internal temperatures are increasing,” Eli said, his voice calm. “Shear forces have further damaged the hull.”
“Come on, Rush,” Young said, under his breath.
Vortices of plasma streamed past the forward view.
“Eli,” Volker said. “Can you confirm this for me? I’m reading that all incoming solar energy is being routed directly to shields. Are you—”
“That’s not me.” Eli ducked around Volker’s station to look at his display. “But—yeah. That’s what’s happening. Shields are back to thirty-seven percent and rising.”
“Are we okay?” Chloe asked into the ensuing silence.
Park moved to Brody’s usual station. “Internal temperatures seem to be holding.”
“Um, don’t quote me on this, but, yeah. I think we’ll be okay,” Eli said quietly.
The bridge breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“There must be a protocol for—” Eli broke off. His eyes flicked to Young, then raked the bridge, coming to rest finally on the floor near Young’s feet, where Rush’s jacket lay. “Yeah. There must be a protocol.”
“Lay in the new course,” Young said.
“Five hours until we emerge.” Chloe looked back at Young. “That ought to be more than enough time to fully recharge as long as Eli and I can stay ahead of any areas of turbulence.”
“Great,” Young replied, trying to sound even remotely enthusiastic. “I’m gonna find Brody and take a look at some of these hull breaches, see if there’s anything we can do about them right now. Eli, you let me know if you need me back here.”
“Sure,” Eli replied.
Young waited until after he’d left the bridge to pull out his radio. “Young to Greer,” he said quietly.
“Go ahead, sir,” Greer replied.
“Stay with him.”
There was a short pause.
Half an hour later found Young helping Scott and James reroute critical wiring away from the damaged areas of Destiny’s hull, under Brody’s direction. The four of them spread along the corridor that ran the starboard side of the ship, right beneath Destiny’s hull.
For the first time in a long time, Young was, mostly, alone. Rush’s consciousness was a muted, labyrinthine darkness, edged with a mother-of-pearl fire along its borders. Even mostly obscured, it was, still, spectacular to look at.
As he he stripped damaged wiring, Young felt the internal temperature of the ship returning to normal levels. The deck plating was no longer icy to the touch. After so many days of darkness and cold, it was a welcome change.
He tried to focus on the task at hand and not on the terrible gnaw of the second guess.
He should’ve let Rush go.
They almost hadn’t made it.
He’d known the firefight would be bad. The entire Science Team had known. Rush had known; Rush had been telling him for days. And still. Still Young’d made a shit call. Why? Because of the damn chair. He hated that thing.
It was a bad setup. For him specifically.
Every performance eval he’d ever had coming up through the SGC—every commanding officer he’d ever served under—they’d all said the same thing: when it doubt, Everett Young was a consolidator.
He didn’t get flanked in battle drills. He didn’t get drawn into dangerous terrain. He didn’t order costly frontal assaults. He’d never have sent the Athenian fleet to Sicily and he’d never have invaded Russia in the middle of winter.
He didn’t sacrifice essential tactical assets.
And he most certainly did not send those assets straight into dangerous computational networks of alien tech.
No. Those assets had to damn well escape and tear through the dark by themselves. Get tackled by a marine, who had, thank god, been smart enough to know when to fall in with a better plan.
He paused in his work, and leaned his forehead against the cool metal of the bulkhead.
He had regrets.
A lot of them.
“Everett,” a familiar voice said. “You’re makin’ a right mess o’that.”
Young jumped, dropping his pliers. “No,” he snarled, turning around to face the AI, one finger raised. “Just—no. Absolutely not. You don’t get to take on his appearance because that is way the hell too confusing for everyone.”
Rush raised his eyebrows, startled by Young’s vehement response.
The scientist was leaning against a wall, his arms crossed, his shirt crisp and white, his hair short, his glasses intact, his shoes designer, his thoughts a spectacular dark/light blend. He was standing without pain, as though he didn’t even remember what pain was.
Young felt an overwhelming surge of envy that it was only with the ship that Rush carried himself in this way. With this kind of ease and poise and whatever the hell it was that rolled off the guy in goddamned waves.
“An’ why would you assume I’m the AI? Have we or have we not encountered one another this way before?” He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket.
“The ‘Everett’ thing threw me,” Young said, his eyes narrowed.
Rush sighed. “Is it too much to ask t’just, I don’ fuckin’ know, get a ‘hello’?” He pulled a silver lighter out of his pocket, flicked it open, and lit the cigarette.
“Hi,” Young growled.
“Thank you,” Rush replied archly
“If you’re not the AI, then why the hell can’t I sense your mind?”
“Still solidly locked to the ship, I’m afraid. Nevertheless, I’m experimenting. This,” he gestured vaguely at himself, “is a projection. It is, t’some degree, akin to the interface I made on the shuttle, but instead of pulling you in, which was a colossally terrible idea, I’m sendin’ myself out.”
Young eyed him skeptically. “If that’s true, you won’t mind firing up that diagnostic algorithm, so I can take a look at our link architecture,” Young said.
“Hmm,” Rush replied. “Doubt y’can pull a hairpin turn on a starship.” His thoughts drew away from Young’s, turning more obscure. “Then again, one never knows. But I think we’ll skip that today if you don’t mind.” He took a long draw of his cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” Young growled.
“Mmm, envious? Sorry I can’t offer you a cigarette. They’re not ‘real’ in the classical sense of the word.” He cocked his head, considering. “I suppose neither am I. In any case, outside the neural interface, I’d have to do a bit of a number on your perceptual circuitry to give you one of these things.” He considered the cigarette speculatively.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Good for you. It’s a terrible habit.” Rush flashed him a smile that was quick, even, and overtly charming.
“Are you here for a reason, or just to harass me?”
“The Nakai just dropped out,” Rush said, with a one-shouldered shrug and an offhand tone. “Took them long enough. Not sure what they’ve been up to. Thought you might like to know.”
“Shit,” Young said.
“Y’can relax about it.” Rush leaned against the wall and took another draw from his cigarette. “They’re tracking the shuttle. I infer from past experience and from studying their behavior that they can, to some degree, also track Destiny’s course through the star, though it’s likely they won’t be able to determine our position accurately enough to create an effective ambush at the point we emerge. Everything should turn out all right, I think.”
“Sorry I tried to stop you,” Young murmured.
“Regret is,” Rush murmured, “almost universally, a waste of energy,” his voice was quiet, almost subdued.
“Oh yeah?” Young cleared his throat. “You got a bridge in Brooklyn you want to sell me? I got money to burn.”
“Very happy to light it on fire for you,” Rush whispered.
“You seem different,” Young said quietly. “When you’re like this.”
Rush nodded. “Better.”
“No,” Young said evenly. He shook his head once. “Less pained, maybe.”
“Less of a pain in the ass, you mean.” Rush’s tone was wistful. “This is better.”
“Why?” Young demanded. “What’s so great about being with this hunk of metal? You’re a person. You belong with people.”
“There’s a part of me that does,” Rush agreed cautiously, “but that part is—fading.”
“Why won’t you fight this?” Young asked him. “I don’t understand. You’re part of this crew. Part of this family. We need you. Don’t you give a damn about that?”
“Of course I do.”
“Well then fight the goddamn ship, Rush. Help me get the crew off Destiny. Come back with us.”
“That’s not an option for me, Everett.”
“Yes, it fucking well is.”
“Why, because you say so?” There was no bitterness in Rush’s tone, just a rueful amusement as his eyes flicked up to meet Young’s.
Young looked away. He leaned into the bulkhead, collected all the molten, frustrated rage that the scientist’s question and demeanor had produced and poured it into a mold of pure determination. He took a slow breath.
“So—tell me something,” Young said, mild as a Wyoming dawn.
Rush took a draw of his cigarette. “Ask nicely and y’might get lucky.”
“You didn’t remember the conversation we had in neural interface or the conversation in the shuttle because you had those conversations when you were fully integrated with Destiny, right?”
“Correct,” Rush said guardedly. “A human mind isn’t built to contain starship memories.”
“So you’re not gonna remember this either,” Young said softly.
“I doubt very much that I will.”
Young pushed away from the bulkhead and stepped in, narrowing the distance between them to inches. “Well then fucking know this, you son of a bitch,” he growled. “I am going to do everything in my power to get you off this goddamn ship. I’m going to do everything I can to stop the slow destruction of Nicholas Rush, your fatalistic, new-age, cigarette-smoking, bullshit be damned.”
“I—” Rush breathed. But, before he could finish, James came around the corner and he vanished.
“I mean it,” Young hissed under his breath, into the empty air.