Force over Distance: Chapter 31
“Who said you could call me Nick?” Rush asked.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Before sunrise.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
Young, on his back and half inside a bulkhead, wielded a portable welder Brody had liberated from the machine shop. The flame heated the enclosed space and carved out a small blind spot in his visual field. Sparks rained around him, impacting the deck plating and fading to nothing as he worked.
His radio crackled. “Colonel Young, this is Eli.”
He snapped off the welder and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Go ahead.”
“We’ll be emerging from the star in about ten minutes.”
“How’s our power level?”
“We’re at one hundred percent, backups fully charged. Hopefully we don’t have to use it all up in a firefight to get out of here.”
“Agreed,” Young muttered. “I’ll be right there,” he said into the radio. He hauled himself out of the wall and scanned the corridor, looking for someone to take over the welding job.
Brody came around a corner, his expression harassed, a dark strip of grease over one cheekbone. “I heard.” He indicated Young’s radio with his eyes and jogged the last few steps to take the welder. “I got it.”
Young clapped him on the shoulder, then headed to the bridge. When he arrived, he found Wray in his usual spot. At his approach, she slid gracefully out of the command chair.
“You can sit, you know.” He raised his eyebrows.
“That’s okay,” she replied. “Not my style.”
“All this?” Young waved a hand to take in the bridge, glowing red-gold in the light of the star. “It’s just ‘organizing,’ y’know.” He dropped into the command chair.
She gave him a small smile.
“Think about it,” he said mildly.
“Maybe I will,” Wray replied.
“How long?” Young asked the room at large.
“Six minutes until we emerge.” Chloe looked back over her shoulder. “Hi colonel.”
Young nodded at her.
Wray positioned herself at his elbow. “There’s a rumor,” she said, “that Rush is in the neural interface right now. Is that true?”
“Yup,” Young replied. “He’s been there for the past five hours.”
“Five hours?” Wray echoed, dismayed. “That’s an awfully long time.”
“We may need him when we come out of the star,” Young growled. “There’ll be a window while the drive powers up when we’ll be vulnerable to attack.” He paused, then added, “I’m not happy about it.”
Arches and columns of pure plasma shifted in the forward view as Chloe navigated vast solar architectures.
“It wasn’t my intent to sound so—accusatory,” Wray said softly.
“I didn’t mean to sound so—defensive.”
“I’m sure you’re doing your best. I’m sure you both are.”
“I really don’t want him in there,” Young admitted, quiet enough for only Wray to hear.
“His interface with the ship is, well, it’s a very difficult idea to get used to,” Wray murmured. “And you have a front row seat to everything it entails.”
“Yeah,” Young whispered.
As Wray watched the plasma vortices through the forward view, the glow from the sun put a gold cast on her dark hair. “Did you ever find out what happened between him and Colonel Telford?”
Wray said nothing.
Young said nothing.
“That bad?” she asked.
She nodded. “Any chance you might consider telling me the specifics of what happened? I heard at the last IOA meeting that Telford’s on the list of people they’ll send if they ever figure out how to dial in. The more I know, the better my odds are of getting him knocked off that list.”
“Camile.” Young’s throat closed. “I wish you could. But I don’t think anything in this universe is gonna be enough to stop Telford if the Resupply Mission gets off the ground.”
She studied him in the bronze light. “You need someone to talk to,” she said quietly.
Young watched the last of the giant plasma arches pass overhead as they approached the star’s corona. “I have plenty of people to talk to.”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
“I can talk to TJ.”
“No, you can’t. Not really.” She brushed her hair back over her shoulders.
He didn’t reply.
“Maybe we start up our weekly meetings again.” Wray gave him a wry smile. “Maybe we call them ‘coffee’?”
“Three minutes,” Chloe called back.
“Maybe.” Young tried to keep his tone light, but his thoughts strayed to Rush, to their damaged link that was, probably, about half an hour away from reasserting itself with a vengeance. “Thanks.”
Swirls of plasma snaked over the hull as they hurtled through the outer portion of the solar corona.
“We have sensors back yet?” Young directed the question at Eli.
“They should be coming online any second. Yup. Okay. We’ve got ‘em. And crap—I’m picking up two, nope, make that three—Nakai ships. They’re about 600 kilometers to port and, uh, kind of under us? I don’t know. Chloe, I’m sending you the raw data if you want to throw up probability versus location. Estimates aren’t gonna sharpen until we get out of the corona. And, yeah, we also have drones, but they’re where we would have exited had we kept our original trajectory—so, humans one, cylons zero.”
Overhead, Chloe projected a three-dimensional map. The star glowed a pale orange. Destiny was rendered in green. The probability clouds for the positions of drone ships and Nakai vessels glowed an amorphous blue. “We’ve got a debris radius,” Chloe said, as it appeared in red relief above them. “I’m not picking up the signal from the shuttle. They must’ve triggered it.”
“Did we take out one of their ships?” Young asked.
“We did,” Chloe confirmed.
“RIP, little shuttle,” Eli murmured. “You did good.”
“I’m getting real vectors; the Nakai are moving to intercept.” Volker raised his voice to be heard over the trill of a proximity alert. Overhead, Chloe’s clouds of blue began resolving into discrete ships.
“What’s the status of our FTL drive?” Young called back to Park.
“We can’t power it up until we’re out of the coronasphere,” she replied. “Two minutes.”
“Don’t think they can catch us in two minutes,” Eli said.
“You don’t think so?” Young growled.
“The ships themselves can’t, but if they launch fighters—”
“Aaaand,” Volker interjected, “that’s what they just did. We’ve got incoming. Twenty, maybe thirty ships? They just showed up on short-range.”
“What’s the power expenditure for firing versus relying on shields?” Young asked the room at large.
“Shields are better,” Eli said, his voice rising warningly.
“Shields,” Chloe snapped.
“Yeah,” Park agreed. “Engaging the primary array will cost us a chunk of power. Up to five percent of our current total, for an average firing time of twenty seconds.”
“If we want to try and cut down their numbers, this seems like a good time,” Wray said softly. “They’ve got to be as far from home as we are if they’ve been following this ship for, what, millennia?”
“Bold move,” Young said quietly. “But we’re not in the best shape ourselves at the moment. We’ve got two hull breaches and a guy in a chair.”
“Fair enough,” Wray replied.
“Are we at maximum sublight?” Young asked the room.
“We’re pushing it as much as we can,” Eli replied. “We’ve even got thrusters firing along our calculated trajectory.”
“One minute until we clear the corona,” Chloe called out.
In the forward view, irregular curls of plasma gave way to the dark of interstellar space.
“The leading edge is within firing range,” Volker shouted, over a cascade of alarms.
The shields flared as the bombardment commenced. Explosions of blue and green, rose and lavender, white and gold, flowered against the port-side shielding.
“It’s beautiful, in a way,” Wray whispered.
Against the firegarden of enemy energy, adjacent to Chloe’s station, Young saw a familiar silhouette. As he watched the assault on the shields, Rush stood like Jackson—both arms wrapped around his chest, his shoulders hunched, his head bowed, his gaze angled up. Young couldn’t make out his expression. In the next instant, he was gone.
“In a way,” Young echoed, rubbing his jaw.
“FTL is spooling up,” Park said.
Young felt a subtle vibration, deep in the deck plating. The transition to FTL was particularly spectacular as the swirl of stars distorted the rain of enemy fire. As the starscape stabilized, and they left the battle behind, the bridge breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“Good work, people.” Young looked over at Wray. “You wanna hold the fort?”
“Me?” Wray lifted her eyebrows.
“Just don’t ‘organize’ anything too exciting.” Young got to his feet. “Scott’ll be here in ninety minutes or so. I’ve got a few things to take care of.”
“I imagine you do.” She knelt and retrieved Rush’s jacket from the floor. Her hands smoothed away creases in the material. She gave it a single expert fold, and, wordlessly, offered it to him.
“Thanks,” Young said.
“Wray has the bridge,” Young called over his shoulder.
“Captain Camile,” he heard Eli say, as the doors swished shut behind him. “It’s got a nice ring.”
As he walked the halls, Young saw signs of restored power everywhere. The lighting was bright. The corridors were warm. On his way to the chair room, Young checked in with Brody to find out if there were any catastrophes waiting in the wings.
The answer to that question seemed to be no.
All in all, it seemed like a great time to kickstart what was guaranteed to be a goddamned terrible night.
Based on what Young’d seen earlier in the day, his chief scientist had done a real number on himself. Physical injury, sleep deprivation, and link damage were all in the mix, for sure. And, because it was Rush, there’d probably be a few gut-wrenching surprises before the night was out.
It’d be fine. Young would handle it. Pull the guy back from whatever brink he’d stepped up to.
It would, probably, take days to sort out everything the man’d done to himself. And it would be miserable. Physically miserable. Mentally miserable. Socially miserable. Tactically miserable. For both of them.
But that was fine. Young had worlds of experience with being miserable.
When he entered the neural interface room, he found the lights low, despite restored ship-wide power.
Greer, posted next to the door, snapped to attention as Young walked in. He was missing his jacket.
Young eyed the sergeant’s T-shirt.
“Jacket’s on loan.” Greer’s gaze flicked to the center of the room.
Steeling himself, fighting a bone-deep aversion, Young looked to the chair.
Where, yeah, UC Berkeley’s most widely travelled math professor was locked to a piece of alien tech. Blue-lit bolts at his temples shone through the fringe of his hair. Greer’s military-issue jacket was spread over his shoulders.
Young had the overwhelming urge to deck someone.
“Not sure how helpful it was,” Greer said, “but it was cold as hell when we got here.”
“What?” Young said.
“The jacket,” Greer explained. “I was talking about the jacket, sir?”
“Right,” Young said. “Sorry. Speaking, of, hang onto his for a few minutes, will you?” He handed Rush’s jacket to Greer.
Greer took it, then slung it over one shoulder. “You gonna pull him out?”
“You want TJ here?”
“No,” Young said, “it went fine last time.”
“Did it?” Greer asked, an edge to his tone. “I seem to recall you out cold on the floor, sir.”
Young looked over at the man, and gave him the hint of a smile. “Y’know, sergeant, lately I’ve noticed an uptick in insubordinate remarks. Not your usual style.”
“No sir.” Greer’s pose crisped up.
“At ease,” Young said.
“Sir,” Greer said, “with respect? When this mission started, I was in the brig for decking a superior officer.”
Young snorted. “Okay. Point taken.”
“Oh I’ll follow people right to the edge of the damn universe, if they’re worth following,” Greer said quietly.
“Doesn’t count if they drag you there,” Young growled, looking at Rush.
“I was talking about you, sir,” Greer said pointedly.
“Terrible plan, sergeant.” Young clapped the man on the shoulder, closed his fingers, and gave him a gentle shake. Then he turned and headed straight for the waiting obsidian panel.
As soon as he pressed his palm down, the room was torn away in a flood of limitless dark. In this space that wasn’t a space, Young shone like a torchlight, bright and whole and tied to a network of light-limned edges. It was Rush’s mind that gave this place texture. It was Rush’s mind that gave this place depth. It was Rush’s mind that brought the spark-wind current that lit the dark. The shadow/shine blend of the network was beautiful. Complex. Evolving. And, alien.
He didn’t like it.
He began pulling it apart. Light from dark, edge from shadow.
It resisted with a variation on a Nick Rush firewall. Young’s efforts to pry the scientist free triggered a multihued flare of pure defensive energy. Distributed. Adaptive. Firing through the whole spectrum of the visible.
Young paused, watching light, tracking movement.
The scientist’s mind was dispersed, but there was, still, a familiar spiral to it. There was a concentration of light, even within a network this vast. He traced gradients, he traced movement, looking for the right place to drop a block that would kill that firewall.
Finally, he found it. A bright flow of energy, welling from pure shadow.
Young slid a block straight along the three-dimensional representation of that dark/light fountain.
Again, he attempted to separate Rush from the ship.
This time, it was easy. There was no resistance, just the echo of a sharp, clean pain. There and gone. Rush and the ship split apart along predetermined lines, the way fruit might, if it were ripe enough.
The chair room cracked into sharp focus as the neural interface bolts disengaged.
Rush’s mind and perceptions and psychic agony slammed into Young’s awareness. Whether the overwhelm came from the sheer number of hours that the scientist had spent in the neural interface or something else—Young couldn’t say. There was no structure to what he was being hit with—alien images and language, memories of Gloria on Destiny and off, memories of Jackson on Destiny and off, crystals like choirs, code like chimes.
“Oh god.” Young staggered against the chair.
“Sir?” Greer was right with him, holding him upright. “You all right? That—that took some time.”
Young nodded wordlessly. He leaned into Greer. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath.
He pulled back from Rush, trying to create some psychic space, trying to get the man’s headache to recede. He reached around to close his hand on the scientist’s shoulder. That seemed to reduce the pain, much like it had in the earliest days of their broken link.
Young was struggling to breathe. His chest was tight, his heart was pounding. He wasn’t sure what the hell was happening. He wasn’t sure if it was him, or it was Rush or—
“Doc,” Greer hissed, still supporting Young. “You wanna snap out of it and help?”
Rush blinked up at them, then began pulling back from places Young hadn’t known he was—those subterranean roads lined with his particular fractal lace, his particular mental ache. As it happened, Young felt strangely incomplete, even within their open link. Rush’s thoughts revolved in a slow, incomprehensible spiral. Glassy. Brittle. Telegraphing nothing but pain and disorganized, immersive snippets of memory.
Young slowed his breathing, got his feet beneath him, and pulled away from Greer. “I’m okay, sergeant.”
Greer shot him a wary look, but let him go.
Young stepped around the front of the chair to put himself in front of Rush. He kept his hand on the scientist’s shoulder. “Hey,” he said softly. “What the hell did you just do?”
“When?” Rush blinked at him.
Rush pushed his eyebrows together and gave Young a pained look. “I don’ think ‘now’ exists.”
“Oh yeah?” Young asked gently. “Well, I didn’t think you could duck my questions any harder, but here we are.”
Rush blinked at him, unimpressed.
“Why’d you ask ‘when’ if you don’t think there’s a ‘now’?” Young asked.
He brushed Rush’s hair out of his eyes. “Genius. You did something that helped me. Maybe thirty seconds ago. You’re still doing it. That’s what I’m asking you about.”
“But I wasn’t helping you.” Rush looked at Young like he was making an honest-to-god effort to clarify something. “I stopped not helping you.”
“Okay, uh, thanks. But you can stop stopping not helping.”
Rush stared at Young, eyebrows pushed together, then he looked at Greer. For advice.
“Y’got me, doc,” Greer said. “Sir, you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” Young growled.
“Doc, would he know if he’s fine?” Greer asked Rush, glancing uneasily at Young.
“No.” The word came slow, and almost wistful. “I really don’t think so.”
“Yes, I would know.” Young put some steel into his tone as he looked at Greer. “I’m fine, sergeant.” He switched his gaze to Rush. “You’re doing something. You are pulled back, genius. I don’t have a good sense of your mind right now. It’s not a firewall. It’s something else.”
“I’m interfering,” Rush said. “With my own signal.”
“Well, cut it out,” Young growled.
“Why not?” Young said, through clenched teeth.
“You can’t tolerate the raw EM input,” Rush said vaguely, his focus out beyond Young’s shoulder.
Young fought a forest-fire blaze of pure frustration. “Hey,” he snapped, leaning in. “Eyes right here. Look at me. You need to stop interfering, genius. Right now. I’m fine. I can take it.”
“I don’t think so,” Rush whispered.
And Young knew that goddamned tone.
Young bit back on the growl of pure frustration that tried to get past his clenched teeth. He’d known it was going to be hard to get the scientist to cooperate. He tried to get some of his tactical patience to kick in. He’d damn well be getting his way. It was just gonna take some time. And some finesse. The guy was a civilian. He was a math professor. He, probably, wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Young could get this done.
“Okay.” He took a breath and tried again, and his tone turned a little more patient. “Okay, fine. But you gotta give me something, genius. If only so I can plan my night.”
Rush looked up at him through the fringe of his hair.
“How about you focus on me. Block the room.”
The schematic of their link fired up with a disorienting speed and intensity.
Uh, okay then.
He felt a strange echo of his own surprise reverberate across their link and fade to nothing. Rush’s mind was still distant, full of interference. The network was glassy, brittle, underpowered, and full of resistance. Nothing was traversable. No loops were possible. The man’s mind was all counterbalanced agonies. Even the hyperfocus required to visualize the link itself was painful.
This was gonna be absolute hell to work with.
Young let the schematic go, and, with a painful mental effort and a focus on his own physical body, he pulled the world back in.
The scientist shivered and took a breath. His thoughts, artificially distant, resumed their slow and glassy swirl. The man looked at him with equal parts suspicion and confusion, like he wasn’t sure what Young had just done, even though he was the one who’d fired up the schematic.
“Hey,” Young said gently, sweeping the scientist’s hair out of his eyes. “You okay?”
“Yes,” Rush whispered, pressing fingertips to his temples, as though he could use the pressure of his hands to order his mind. “I think so.”
“Let’s get you out of here,” Young said, reaching down to grab the scientist’s forearms. Very slowly, he pulled Rush to his feet and stabilized him against a wave of vertigo. “Give him a minute,” Young said, as Greer shook out the scientist’s jacket.
Slowly, Greer began helping the scientist into his jacket. “You’re pretty quiet, doc,” the sergeant said. “Say something science-y.”
“Fuck off,” Rush replied.
“Sure,” Greer gave the front of Rush’s jacket a quick tug to straighten it. “But, question for ya. Fuck off in respect to what frame of reference?”
Rush smiled faintly, but didn’t answer.
“Okay,” Young drew the scientist’s arm over his shoulder. “Let’s get you some dinner.” Young helped him off the chair platform.
“Don’t forget the Fakeorade,” Greer muttered, on Rush’s opposite side.
“This—doesn’t seem right to me.” Rush’s gaze swept the walls, the floors, the dim lights of the neural interface room.
“Dial back that interference, maybe,” Young said mildly.
“You did something.”
“You’re exhausted. You need to sleep for about a week.”
“Exhausted?” he repeated, “are you sure?” he looked at Young. “I don’ think that happens to me.”
“Everyone gets tired, doc.” Greer hit the door controls. “Even you.”
They stepped into the hall, and the corridor lights dimmed of their own volition.
“Why does it look like this?” The scientist asked, studying the hallway with what looked like intense confusion, mixed with vague disapproval.
Young frowned and moved in, hard, on Rush’s thoughts, trying to match the guy’s perception and figure out what the scientist was seeing. But it was a no go. Way too much interference to get anything except—
UC Berkeley, the math building, lines and angles in a sea of fog, and Gloria, dressed in a pale blue coat, her hair long, curling in the damp. I love a city on the sea.
A long hallway, full of light and lined with sonic crystal where Samantha Carter stands, wearing clothes of Ancient cut, her eyes the shimmer blue of water. A forever ship, she says, flinging yet another gift into the universal dark.
Young fought down a surge of profound unease. “Genius,” he said, bracing himself. “What’s the last thing you remember? Before you sat in the chair?”
“The last? Temporal sequencing is hard for me, you know that,” Rush replied.
“Give it a shot, doc.” Greer met Young’s eyes. “Last thing you remember.”
“Those unaffected by the virus sealed themselves in the heart of Atlantis and left. There was no consensus reached regarding the correct course of action and so,” the scientist paused wistfully, and, even through the network of interference, Young saw a city with a star drive, floating on a moonlit sea. “We let them go.”
“What,” Greer said.
“Yeah,” Young said gently. “Okay.”
He should’ve expected this. He should’ve god damned realized right away that sitting in the chair for five hours was only going to make matters worse, a lot worse, when he finally cut Rush off from the energy the man had been relying on for days now.
“That wasn’t correct?” the scientist asked. “If it doesn’t involve Nicholas Rush directly, then it should be algorithmically excluded?” The guy looked like he was really interested in Young’s answer. His eyes were glassy. There was a sheen of sweat on his forehead. His breathing was fast and shallow. And—he was warm. Too warm.
“Yeah.” Young shifted his weight and pulled the scientist in. “That’s probably a safe bet.”
“He looks bad,” Greer said tightly.
“Yup.” Young backed Rush against the wall of the corridor. “Hey, genius, let’s sit down for a minute.”
The scientist looked at him skeptically, brows furrowed.
“C’mon.” Young put pressure on the man’s shoulders, hoping he’d get the idea. “We’re sitting down. Right now.”
“Why?” Rush asked.
“We just are.” Young stepped in hooked a leg behind Rush, grabbed a handful of the man’s jacket, knocked him off balance, and carefully controlled his slide down the wall.
“I need a minute with him,” Young murmured to Greer. “Go get TJ. Tell her to bring her bag.”
The sergeant nodded and took off down the hall.
Young knelt next to the scientist. “Rush.” The man didn’t look at him. His gaze was on the empty air. The god damned AI was probably in the mix. Great. Young snapped his fingers. “Rush. Come on. Eyes right here. What happened?”
“That’s a poorly formulated question,” Rush said, with exhausted disdain.
“Shit.” Young smoothed the man’s hair back. “I think I did this.”
“Yes,” Rush breathed, “everything was fine before you.”
“Come on,” Young said quietly. “You’ve gotta sharpen up here, genius. I need answers from you. Do you know your name?”
There was an uncomfortably long pause before Rush said, “Nick.”
“Okay, good. Do you know where you are?”
“What year is it?”
“What calendar are you using?”
“The normal one. The Earth one.”
“Mmm—th’first or second decade of the second millennium? Third millennium? Second. Common era.”
“Uh, okay. Not your best work, but I’ll take it. Do you know who I am?”
“Good,” Young said quietly. “You were getting energy from Destiny, you remember that?”
“I think something’s wrong with me?”
“Yeah, I told you. You’re really fucking tired.” Young tried to keep his frustration under control.
“Sorry, I didn’t think tha’ could be it,” Rush slurred.
“Ugh, genius you are killing me,” Young whispered. He ran a hand through the man’s bangs. A thin sheen of sweat had already started to dampen his hair. “You are really out of it.”
Rush’s gaze had drifted to the left. Probably, he was looking at the AI again. Young wondered what the hell it was saying. Nothing good.
He wrapped his hand around the back of Rush’s neck and subtly angled the scientist’s face towards him. “Nick,” he growled, and Rush’s eyes snapped back to him. “Focus up. Come on. When you were getting energy from Destiny, what were you using it for?”
“Improving our radius,” Rush said.
“Okay, good. What else?”
“Yeah.” Young rolled his eyes. “That, I knew. What else?”
“What kind of things?”
“Like—every broken thing,” Rush said earnestly.
“How many of those broken things were in your own brain?”
“Some,” Rush murmured. His focus was, again, out in the empty air over Young’s left shoulder.
“Hey.” Young shook him, once. “Look at me.”
“Hi,” Rush said, taken aback.
“Genius, are you out of it because you have a fever, or because your brain is falling apart?”
“I have a fever?”
“Yeah,” Young murmured. “I think it’s pretty high. Were you firewalling on that, too? Along with your pain control, were you doing some kind of viral control?”
“Ah, yes. I think so. Except the reverse.”
“The reverse?” Young growled.
“Well, I wasn’t controlling the virus,” Rush said, with a crushing mix of disdain, confusion and exhaustion. “How would that work?”
“So—what?” Young growled “You were undercutting your own immune system?”
Rush looked at him, confused. “Y’knew that. Y’said it. The energy from the ship was facilitating the changes? How th’fuck did y’think it worked?”
Young tried to shove down his frustration and his anxiety and his building anger—the situation had spun out of control sometime last week and he hadn’t noticed. Or, rather, he’d noticed, but he hadn’t realized what the hell he was looking at.
“When you were fixing things—Rush, what were you fixing.”
“What do you mean ‘when’?”
“I fix a lot of things,” Rush said, annoyed.
“Yeah. Okay. We are talking about the energy you were getting from Destiny. Were you using it to hold any mental structures in place?”
“Yeah. I built scaffolding. Cognitive scaffolds.” Rush gestured earnestly, his fingers forming a lattice.
“Rush, come on. I don’t know what that means.”
“Yes well. Obviously you wouldn’t, would you? You can’t see. Also? Scaffolding isn’t meant to be permanent. That’s not it’s nature.” Rush’s tone had turned condescending. “Y’can’t build something from nothing, can you?”
“No?” Young had no idea what he was talking about.
“Exactly. It’ll be fine. I made sure of that.”
“Ugh. What else were you using the energy for?” Young asked.
“Yeah we talked about that one. What else.”
“Not—shit. Why? Do I have to watch you all the god damned time?”
“You’d do the same thing if you could. Those rations are intolerable.”
“Okay, fair point, or, rather it would be a fair point if they weren’t the only things standing between us and starvation. You’re such an idiot.”
“Well, you know what they say about people who live in glass houses.” Rush narrowed his eyes at Young.
“All right,” Young said quietly. “You’ve got to help me out here. You’re one hell of a mess right now. Way more of a mess than I was expecting. So, which is better for you, to get energy from Destiny or not?”
“Try anyway,” Young said through clenched teeth.
“It’s a—ah, it’s a tradeoff. Y’pay in suffering what you gain in time.”
“No need to be so fuckin’ scandalized,” Rush sighed. “It works that way everywhere.”
“So if you take energy from the ship, you feel fine until—”
“Yes. Until. And that ‘until’ is short.”
“And the alternative is that you feel like shit, but you live longer.”
“Option one is preferable,” Rush murmured, his eyes half-lidded. “Except—”
“Except what?” Young asked.
Rush’s gaze was on the empty air.
Young wrapped his hand firmly around the back of the scientist’s neck. “Hey,” he said. “Look at me.” He traced small circles with his thumb behind the scientist’s ear, keeping him as present as possible. “Except what?” he repeated.
“Genius,” Young said, his voice cracking, “is your working memory is shot to hell?”
“I don’t think I’d know.” Rush said, sympathetically.
“All right. The deal is that you take energy from the ship. You feel great, but it kills you quickly. You, unbelievably, seem to be fine with that,” Young growled, “except for—something. Except for what?”
“Ah,” Rush said. “One thing, really.” He reached up, ran his thumb slowly along Young’s aching temple, then spread his fingers through Young’s tangled hair. “I damaged your mind. So. The longer I stay with you, the more I can fix. Given enough time, I may be able to fix it all. You could go back with the rest of them. I’d prefer that. I think—I think it might even be necessary.”
“Necessary for what?” His voice cracked on the word.
Rush wrapped his hand around the back of Young’s neck, mirroring their poses. He shook his head.
“We’re going back together,” Young whispered.
“Very sorry, Everett, but we’re not.” Rush’s voice was barely audible. “We’re just not.
“We are,” Young said. “I won’t accept any other alternative.”
“I don’t wanna hear it,” Young ground out, his voice strained. He dug his fingers into the nape of Rush’s neck.
“Okay.” Rush’s voice was quiet, sympathetic even. Humoring him.
As if the man had the nerve to sit there and feel sorry for Young.
Of course he did.
Dread pulled all the power out of his reflexive surge of anger. This goddamned college professor was nothing but nerve and style, held together with sarcasm and shoe string.
Rush leaned in and slow-poured his attention straight into Young’s head.
Young was convinced that there was nothing and no one, in the whole universe, who could sit there and take it. He lost his grip on his building anger, he lost his frustration, he lost every framework of every building strategy. Rush’s interference pattern was doing a slow reversal, he could see and feel the chaotic, fractal glow of Rush’s disorganized thoughts.
“You’re gonna be the death of me,” Young whispered.
“Yes,” Rush breathed. “I worry about that as well.”
They were inches apart.
Whole architectures within the scientist’s mind began to change. His mental interference changed, thinned down. The scientist’s thoughts turned immediate, turned pained; they were full of echo, full of a building loop that Young didn’t understand.
They were too close.
With a surge of panic, Young shoved Rush away, back into the bulkhead. Blindly, he got to his feet. He backed into the open corridor behind him. He turned, walked the width of the hall, and leaned into the opposite wall.
He took a deep breath. Then another.
What the hell was he doing?
He had no idea.
He had almost—
Yeah. He had almost.
What the hell had just happened? Where the hell had that come from? Okay, yeah, he knew exactly where it had come from, but how had he let the scientist half pull him into it? The guy was half out of his mind; it had taken him a good fifteen seconds to come up with his own name. And still, somehow, the man had a hold on him to end all holds.
His head ached. God but he was cold.
Not even fifteen minutes back Young had been sure he’d be able to handle this situation. And now? What? He’d—he’d just—
Shit. He’d shoved a half-delirious math professor into a bulkhead and walked away.
Young whirled to see the scientist had relocated to the floor of the corridor. He’d curled in on himself, one hand hand over his face.
“How am I so bad at this?” Young breathed, covering the span of the corridor in two strides and dropping down into a crouch next to Rush. “Nick,” he said urgently. “Come on. You’re okay. Are you okay? Say something.”
“Y’can get the fuck away from me, how’s that?”
“Look, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, all right?”
“What the hell are you sorry for?”
“I don’t know,” Young said. “For doing such a shit job? At everything?” He pried the man off the deck plating and pulled him up so Rush was leaning against him instead of the wall.
“You’re fair fuckin’ confusing,” Rush said unhappily, his head heavy on Young’s shoulder, heat radiating off him.
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” Young murmured into his hair. “You confuse me all the time.”
Rush didn’t reply aloud, but Young felt a miserable wave of acknowledgement aimed in his direction. Along with a ten-out-ten headache, a cold, sickening ache in his bones. Rush’s interference had dropped. His mind felt raw and immediate. Young could feel Destiny against his thoughts, less a pull than a pressure, looking for gaps in a firewall that wasn’t there.
He pulled Rush in, trying to maximize contact to ease the stress on their still-damaged link. “Just relax. As much as you can,” he murmured. Very carefully, he pressed against the scientist’s thoughts and found his whole mind a mass of fevered images, sharp-edged and immersive and only half his.
“Ugh, genius,” he whispered. “What happened?”
“They didn’t know what to do,” Rush said in a cracked whisper. “The city had a star drive. They made the geodesics of the shield the quarantine line.”
“Oh god,” Young murmured into his hair. “Try not to think about that, genius. Please.”
“Y’asked me what happened.”
“Yeah, I know I did, but those aren’t your memories. You’ve never been to Atlantis.” Young did his best to pull Rush up and out of the chaos of his own struggling thoughts. “You lived in California. You worked at UC Berkeley.”
“A city on a sea,” Rush said, shivering.
“I guess.” Gently, Young ran a hand up and down Rush’s upper arm, and pressed, very gently, against the slow flow of Rush’s thoughts. He sensed the underlying structure of REM, but it, like everything else, was disorganized. Slow to assemble. Working against itself.
TJ and Greer emerged from a cross corridor. TJ slowed as she saw them. Her eyes swept the pair of them, then she sped up, closing the last of the distance at a quick clip.
“TJ’s here,” Young said quietly.
Rush didn’t answer. His eyes were closed. Across their link Young could see a city street. The towering arc of a pastel energy field, cutting across an open air bridge. The way home was blocked.
“Hi.” TJ knelt next to Rush and unclipped her favorite Ancient device from her belt. As soon as she touched it, it glowed a brilliant blue. She studied it, then unzipped her bag. She pulled out an aural thermometer and fit a disposable earpiece into place. “He’s unconscious?”
“Actually,” Young said softly, “I think he might be asleep. It’s hard to tell. His mind is a mess.”
“Okay,” TJ whispered uncertainly, the thermometer in her hand. “Do you want to wake him up? Or—”
Experimentally, Young shifted, getting a firm grip on the scientist. Rush didn’t react, his mind full soaring towers under an impenetrable shield. “Give it a shot,” Young said, projecting calm at the man as he dragged subtly against the memory of Atlantis.
“Hold his head, just in case,” TJ murmured. “He wakes up hard.”
Deftly, she braced the edge of her hand against the scientist’s temple, inserted the probe and pressed a button.
The tone of the device shattered the Lantean nightscape of Rush’s thoughts. The man jerked, going from zero to fighting Young’s grip for all he was worth, his thoughts snapping through terrifying memories, trying to place what was happening, tangled in medical nightmares.
“Hey.” Young had about ten times the leverage Rush did, and he tightened his hold. “It’s me. You’re okay. You’re fine.”
Rush stopped fighting. He relaxed into Young’s grip, shivering, breathing hard. His mind was a brittle web of disorientation and fragmented REM sleep that was still trying to fire up.
“Good job,” Young said quietly. “It’s just us. You feel like shit because you’re sick as hell right now.”
Rush nodded, the swirl of his thoughts restructuring itself as he turned more alert.
“Sorry,” TJ murmured. “Hi.”
“Tamara,” Rush said, exhaustedly.
Greer leaned against the wall, arms crossed, watching them.
She pulled out a penlight. “Sorry,” she murmured, before flashing it each of Rush’s eyes. Instinctively, Young jerked his head away as the bolt of photosensitivity translated hitself across their link. TJ glanced sharply at Young. “Worst part, I know.” She unpacked a blood pressure cuff, took a reading, then used her stethoscope to listen to the scientist’s chest.
“What do you think?” Young asked.
“We’re gonna try this one again,” she said, returning to her thermometer. “Hold still.” She held the scientist’s jaw, gently immobilizing his head as she took the reading.
This time she flipped the device around to show Young. 102.5.
“That’s a pretty solid fever you’ve got there,” she said to Rush.
The scientist nodded.
“So, what’s the plan?” Young asked quietly.
“I’d like to do some bloodwork, but, at first glance I’d say we’re probably looking at a viral flare. If that’s the case, then without antivirals, there’s not much I can do other than provide supportive care.”
“Which means what?” Young asked.
“Rest, hydration, eating, that’s about it.”
At this, Rush’s thoughts took on more momentum and a restive edge. “This is a waste of time,” he hissed, then tried to pull out of Young’s grip.
Young yanked him back in.
“How is hydration a waste of time?” Greer asked dryly.
“Any chance of this happening in my quarters?” Young asked TJ, projecting calm at Rush for all he was worth. “We’re, uh, tired of sleeping in the infirmary.”
TJ compressed her lips, considering. “We can try it,” she said. “You’ll need to check in with me every few hours or so.”
“Let’s get out of the hallway,” TJ murmured.
Young shifted and nodded to Greer.
“Don’ even fuckin’ think it.” Rush pulled away from Young with a surge of energy and made it, unsteadily, to his feet. They were both hit by a wave of vertigo. Rush staggered and would have fallen if Greer hadn’t stepped in to steady him.
“You are the most ridiculous person I have ever met,” Young snarled, one hand pressed to his temple.
“Excuse me,” Rush said, his tone icy, irritation honing the disorganized swirl of his thoughts, “but let’s not forget that I’m going along with this as a favor. To you.” He pointed at Young with two fingers and stepped forward, dragging Greer with him until the sergeant planted his feet. “So maybe you should just let it go and be grateful that—”
“Grateful?” Young echoed, looking up at him. “You spend a week grinding yourself to dust for no reason other than that you like pure efficiency and you expect me to be grateful?” He forced himself to his feet, fighting the agony behind his eyes.
“Guys,” TJ said. “Everyone’s tired here—”
“If you need to lie to yourself,” Young growled, advancing on Rush with narrowed eyes, “and tell yourself you’re gonna grant me the ‘favor’ of watching you reap exactly what you’ve sown—if that gives you the illusion of control that you need, then fine. Be my guest. But we both know it’s bullshit. You’re out of options.” TJ’s hand was on his shoulder, her arm across his chest, holding him back.
“Is that what you think?” Rush snarled. “You think I couldn’t circumvent your pathetic barrier? I create workarounds all fucking day, every day. It’s what I do best—in any arena you might care to consider. I don’t need you. I don’t need any of you.” He made an unsuccessful attempt to wrest out of Greer’s grip, his mind a barely organized shrieking mess of a language, of images, that weren’t his—that never had been, and that never would be.
“Shut up, doc,” Greer wrapped an arm across his shoulders, holding him back.
“Keep telling yourself that,” Young roared, “but if you could create a workaround you’d have done it by now. You can’t do a god damned thing about that block and you know it.”
“Stop it,” TJ said quietly.
“Go to hell,” Rush snapped back at him, but Greer ruined his delivery by yanking him down the hallway, away from Young.
“Come on, doc,” he sergeant muttered. “You can be a real pain in the ass, you know that?”
“Fuck.” Young barely recognized his own voice as he squeezed his eyes shut and drove the heel of his hand into his eye-socket, trying to relieve some of the pain that had settled there. “Fuck.”
TJ stepped in, enveloping him in a hug, coming up on to her toes, opening her arms, and pulling him forward. One of her hands came around the back of his head and tangled in his hair. He froze, then gathered her in, the pose achingly familiar.
“It’s okay. You’re doing a good job,” she murmured, her voice tight and high. “You are.”
He didn’t reply. His throat hurt. It was hard to swallow, let alone speak, let alone say what had been in his mind for weeks now. You’d have done better, he wanted to say. You. With your grace and your grit and your hair like Gloria’s. You might have stood a real chance.
“He does,” TJ whispered. “He does need you. He needs all of us. And he knows it.”
Young didn’t answer right away. Finally, when he was able to speak, he said, “Yeah. He’s just—”
“A lot of work,” he could feel the smile in her voice.
“No,” he said. “I mean, yeah, he is, but—I upset him.”
“Easy to do.” She let him go and looked up at him. The whites of her eyes were laced with red. “You want to talk about it?
“Not really,” he said.
“Should you talk about it?” she asked.
“Well,” she murmured. “You let me know when you figure it out.”
“God.” His mind ached with the despair, with dread, with the distance Rush was putting between them. He hooked a hand over his shoulder and rubbed absently at the base of his neck. “I need a cigarette.”
TJ’s neutral expression cracked. “You don’t smoke,” she whispered.
“Yeah.” Young reached up, touched her face, wiped away a tear. “C’mon, lieutenant. Don’t cry.”
“Sorry sir,” she whispered.
He nodded, then let her go.
They started after Greer and Rush. Young estimated the other two were maybe thirty feet ahead of them, maybe, when the tension on the link became truly unbearable. Rush slowed, lost his footing, and was steadied by Greer. Young sped up, and the vertigo eased before it could really sink its teeth in.
“Doc, you do that one more time and I take matters into my own hands,” Greer said mildly.
“Tell me one thing.” Young distracted himself by focusing on TJ. “And then I won’t bother you about it. Just—tell me that Varro knows how lucky he is?”
“I—I think so,” she said, a faint hint of color coming to her cheeks.
“All right then.” He tried to keep everything he was feeling out of his voice. “You ever need anyone to kick his ass—” he trailed off, shrugging.
She smiled at him, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Thanks. But, uh, I’ve had a lot of offers in that department. You might need to get in line.”
He snorted. “Greer, I assume?”
“Actually,” TJ whispered, “pretty much everyone except Greer. James followed the guy around with a knife on her off hours for about a week. Even Volker gave him a talking-to.”
“Volker?” Young said, wincing at a spike in his headache. “Seriously? Volker?”
“Yeah,” TJ murmured, with a small, real smile. “He had lunch with him. Explained Earth, uh, dating? I guess? It’s different in the Lucian Alliance. They have a whole culture.”
Young grimaced. “I know.”
TJ looked at him, her eyes red and wet. “I know you know.”
Young nodded. “So this has been in the works for a while, then?”
“A few months now, anyway.”
“You like him?”
“I like him.”
TJ smiled, a real smile this time.
“What?” Young asked.
“Nothing—that was just very ‘you’.”
Young nodded, gave her a faint smile in return, and let the conversation go. There were more questions he had, more he could’ve said, but it wasn’t his place anymore. It had, maybe, never been his place at all.
Ahead of them, Rush was leaning against Greer again, rather than trying to fight him off.
Young sent a wordless wave of inquiry toward him.
He got back an equally wordless wave of irritated reassurance, an intensification of his headache, and the sense that projecting even that much was a strain for the scientist.
When they reached Young’s quarters, Greer made the excellent tactical call of heading straight for the bed. The sergeant helped Rush sit, then parked himself straight next to the man.
Young took up a position against the wall, arms crossed.
TJ knelt at Rush’s feet, and unzipped her medical bag. First thing she came up with was a power bar bar. “Eat,” she said, thrusting it up at Rush as as she dug through her bag one handed.
“No thank you,” Rush said.
“Yes.” TJ stopped what she was doing and fixed him with a stern look. “You eat this. Right now. You’re lucky I’m not making you consume your weight in protein mix.”
Greer grabbed the power bar and opened it, pealed the wrapper back, and passed it to Rush. “Come on, doc,” he said. “Man up.”
With a pained expression, Rush took a bite of the power bar and swallowed with difficulty.
TJ pulled supplies out of her bag and piled them on the edge of the bed. Plastic tubes. A needle. Gauze, then she stood and slipped past Young, into the bathroom. “Just washing my hands,” she said, quietly.
“You got any Fakeorade in that bag of yours?” Greer called to TJ.
“Yeah,” TJ said, over the sound of running water. “Back edge. You’ll have to dig for it. Get him out of his jacket, will you?”
“Does she think I can’t hear her?” Rush asked with a withering expression at the open bathroom door.
“Well,” Greer said philosophically, “your hearing is well known to be very—selective.”
“If you can hear me,” TJ said, appearing in the doorway, “why aren’t you out of your jacket?”
“She’s got you there,” Young said mildly.
“I don’t—” Rush began, but Greer reached over, yanked his zipper down, and pulled his jacket off one shoulder. The scientist leveled a glare at him.
“What?” Greer asked. “You hate efficiency all of a sudden?”
Rush didn’t seem to have a retort for that. His thoughts were a painful swirl of fiery, overstimulated agony.
Young did his best to scrape together as much calm as he could. Subtly, he started projecting it at the other man. //I know you feel like shit. But this is gonna help.//
“I fail to see how any of this is going to help,” Rush hissed. “The fuck are you going to do with a blood sample?”
“Quantify viral titers.” TJ unwrapped an alcohol swab and sterilized the crook of Rush’s elbow. “Keep eating,” she said sternly. “Don’t watch.”
Rush rolled his eyes. He took another bite of his power bar and looked away as she inserted the needle beneath his skin, filled four tubes in quick succession, and then taped a neat square of gauze in place.
Greer dug around in TJ’s bag, found plastic bottle of budget Gatorade, cracked it open, and passed it to Rush.
“You need to drink that entire thing,” TJ informed the scientist.
Rush nodded, but he seemed distracted. His eyes flicked back and forth between TJ and the empty air to her left, before settling on the empty air.
The AI was talking to him.
Young was certain of it.
Steeling himself against the unbearable headache, he moved in on Rush’s mind, close enough to get in on the man’s direct perception. And, sure enough, he saw Daniel Jackson standing next to TJ, his hands in his pockets, his head cocked.
“—and you wouldn’t be having this problem right now if you spent time building in order from the bottom up, rather than trying to impose it, top-down, into all your running processes.” Jackson’s tone was mild. “Or, if you’d put any effort at all into metaphysical discipline. I don’t understand you, Nick. I really don’t.”
//No one’s happy with you today,// Young growled.
The scientist flinched hard, startled by the immediacy of Young’s presence, intensely anxious. TJ and Greer steadied him.
“Whoa,” TJ said, her voice a smooth slide. “What was that?”
“Get out of here,” Young said aloud.
The AI snapped its head around to look at Young. Jackson’s blue gaze was full of fire. Its eyes narrowed.
“Leave him alone,” Young growled.
“What?” TJ asked, bewildered.
“Not you,” Young said, not breaking his stare-down with the AI.
The thing held Jackson’s expression at stone-cold neutral. Its gaze was unblinking. Finally, it vanished.
“Oh god,” Rush breathed. The scientist leaned forward, one hand braced against his knee. “It’s not a good idea to piss it off, you know that, right? Please tell me y’fucking know.”
“You let me worry about that,” Young growled, still eyeing the empty air where the thing had been.
“Oh yes. Right. Sure.” Rush said faintly. “Sounds a fantastic plan t’me.”
“Can someone please explain to me what the hell is going on?” Greer asked.
“Colonel Young’s in the process of pickin’ a fight with a sentient starship,” Rush said, and took another bite of his power bar.
TJ and Greer both turned to give him nearly identical incredulous stares. He shrugged at them. “I’d say it was picking a fight with me, actually.”
“Either way,” TJ said softly, looking up at him, her eyes wide, “it seems like a terrible idea.”
Young tried to ignore the swoop of unease her statement produced. “Yeah, well, what’s it gonna do? Slam doors in my face?” Deliberately, he kept his tone light. “I get that already.”
“You know very well it’s capable of a good deal more than that,” Rush snarled. “And so does everyone else here. So stop patronizing—”
“Doc.” Greer gently elbowed the scientist in a friendly manner. “You are burnin’ energy you don’t have, man.”
Amazingly, Young felt Rush make an effort to rein himself in. He took a deep breath, reasserting a wavering control over his own mind, which sent a spike of agony along their link.
“Yup,” Greer said. “That’s how it’s done.”
“No need to write a fuckin’ novel about it, I know, all right?” Rush glared at Greer and took another bite of his power bar.
Young and TJ exchanged a surprised look.
It took Rush half an hour to force down the power bar and a liter of TJ’s budget Gatorade. TJ insisted on staying to watch it happen. Young would have dismissed Greer, but Rush seemed to like having him around, so Young and Greer shot the shit for thirty minutes, talking about nothing in particular—guns and Colorado Springs and basic training.
Finally, after Rush had managed to consume the entire power bar and TJ had rebandaged his feet, she and Greer made their exit.
The room was uncomfortably quiet.
Rush sat on the edge of the bed, his head angled down and away.
Young stayed where he was, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest. He tried not to think about whatever the hell had gone down between them in the hallway. Bottom line? No matter Young’s feelings, no matter what confusing-as-hell bullshit was echoing around within their link? Nothing was happening between him and Rush. Nothing was gonna happen. Not now. Not ever.
Probably not ever.
He, personally, had screwed up enough between them to last a solid two decades.
His only priority was to figure out how to be consistently nice to the guy.
Stop shoving him into bulkheads for no reason. That’d be a good start.
//So,// he said, projecting casual intent along with his words. //Sure seems like you and Greer are getting along these days.//
Rush nodded. “He’s your best, you know.”
//You’ll get no argument from me there.// Young projected calm at the scientist, hoping it might help him order his thoughts.
“You should promote him.” Rush threaded a hand through his hair, closed his fingers into a fist, and pressed his knuckles against his temple. “Make him your second.”
//That’s not how the military works, genius. Scott’s doing a perfectly fine job.//
“Who cares?” Rush asked.
//I care. Besides, I promote Greer and next time you try to take the ship, your odds look a hell of a lot better.//
A smile flickered across Rush’s features. “I doubt it.”
“Why aren’t you projecting?” Young asked. “You’ve been avoiding it all night.”
Rush sighed. “If I do it, you’re going to feel like pure shite.”
“I already feel like shit,” Young said.
“No you don’t,” Rush let up on the pressure he’d been putting on his temple, and swept his hand through his hair. “Plus, it’s harder for me than it is for you. I’m fuckin’ tired.”
“Did you just admit to being tired?” Young asked. “That’s a first.”
“A moment of weakness.”
“I wasn’t aware you ever had those,” Young replied.
“It’s been known to happen,” Rush said. “On occasion.”
“On occasion,” Young echoed. “That’s allowed, I guess.”
“Generous of you,” Rush muttered.
Young pushed away from the wall and closed the distance between them. He felt the other man’s forehead with the back of his hand. It was alarmingly warm. “So,” he said quietly, “are you going to get better?”
“In the short term,” Rush murmured, “yes. I think so.”
“In the long term?”
“It depends on how you define ‘better’.”
“You’re a lot of work,” Young sat down next to Rush.
“Yes well,” Rush said, his eyes closed. “Think about how I feel. I have to deal with myself all the time.”
That surprised a short laugh out of Young.
They sat in silence.
“You seem a little sharper than when you came out of the chair,” Young said quietly.
“You, on the other hand, have been making increasingly shite choices,” Rush replied, with the exhausted specter of his poisoned-honey tone.
“I’m tired of this,” Young murmured.
“Yes, well,” Rush whispered. “I’m not insensitive to that.”
“I need your help.”
“That much has always been clear to me,” Rush said, flat and exhausted.
“I need you to throw in with me,” Young said.
“An’ what the fuck does it look like I’ve been doin’ for weeks now?” Rush asked, an edge of testiness coming into his tone. “I don’t know what y’fuckin’ want.”
Young steeled himself. “I need you to side with me. Against the AI.”
The scientist opened his eyes and looked warily over at Young. “Meaning what?” he asked, his tone guarded.
“I need you to gate the crew back to Earth.”
“I’m working on that,” Rush said, “but so is the AI.”
“I don’t want you to complete Destiny’s mission.”
“Don’t say that.” Rush dug the heel of his hand into his eye and spoke through clenched teeth. “Please don’t say that. It attracts attention.”
“I don’t want you to change, or ascend, or whatever it is that you’re supposed to do. I want you to stay with us. Tell the AI it can go to hell. Renegotiate terms. Whatever you damn well need to do.”
“You’re making a spectacularly terrible choice right now,” Rush hissed. “Please drop it.”
“Genius, I can’t. This is killing you. You need to go back to the table and tell the AI to get back in its lane. You’re a human member of this crew. You need to focus on gating us back, not completing the mission. Or doing whatever the hell that thing wants you to do.”
“These—these two things that you want—they’re not independent—” Rush broke off, trying to order his thoughts. “They’re not independent of one another.”
“What do you mean?” Young frowned at the difficulty Rush seemed to be having.
“I can’t—” the scientist broke off, motioning vaguely. “You—you’re putting me in a position—that—” Rush broke off with a quiet, frustrated sound in the back of his throat.
Young grabbed his shoulder, alarmed as he realized that in addition to a problem with articulation, the swirl of Rush thoughts was grinding to what looked like an artificial halt. Somebody was putting on the brakes—but it wasn’t Young.
“I, quite literally, can’t,” Rush said faintly.
“Can’t what?” Young growled. “You can’t what, Rush?”
“I—specta cogitationes meas.”
“English,” Young snapped. “English.”
Rush shot him a livid glare. “You—” was all the scientist was able to get out, but he made a gesture between his temple and Young’s with two fingers.
Young moved in on his mind and, once he adjusted to the intensification of his headache, he was struck by an appalling sense of strain. Of Rush struggling not just to keep himself together, but to escape an outside influence that was destroying the trajectory of his thoughts, preventing him from explaining; exerting a terrible pressure, grinding the flow of his thoughts to a halt. It didn’t take much imagination to figure out what was going on.
“Stop,” he said, giving Rush’s shoulders a shake. “Stop trying to tell me.”
But Rush was still trying to work around the damn thing.
“Rush,” Young said urgently. “For once in your life just give it up. I get it. The AI won’t let you.”
Rush dropped whatever he was trying to do, and the pressure on his mind faded. The scientist slumped forward in his grip, as if he had finally, finally run out of energy. Young eased him back against the pillows, swept his feet onto the bed and sat next to him, his heart beating hard and wild in his chest.
“You with me, genius?” Young asked, shakily.
Rush nodded slowly, eyes half open. “They didn’t die of the plague,” the scientist murmured, as his thoughts flashed back to what Young assumed was Atlantis. “But they died all the same.”
“Great,” Young said, patting him on the shoulder. “Yeah. You just—stay positive over there.”
“You shouldn’t set yourself against her,” Rush said, only half-conscious. “Not directly. It makes it difficult for me.”
“Yeah. I can see that.” Young pushed his hair back.
“You’re bad at taking theory to praxis,” Rush murmured, in what was probably supposed to be a comforting manner.
“Okay. Well, uh, probably. Yeah. Sorry about that.”
Rush nodded weakly.
“Get some sleep, Nick,” Young whispered. “You’re a mess.”
“Who said you could call me Nick?” Rush asked, cracking his eyelids.
“If Colonel Carter, and the AI, and Telford for god’s sake, get to call you Nick, then I definitely do.”
“No,” Rush said.
“Yes,” Young said insistently. “You finally called me Everett. We’re making real progress.”
“Go t’hell,” Rush said, smiling faintly. “I don’t even like ya.”
“Yes you do. You absolutely do.”
“Unlikely,” Rush replied. “Statistically speaking.”
“Yeah yeah,” Young murmured, reaching over to smooth Rush’s hair back from where it was clinging to his forehead in damp tendrils. “Go to sleep already.”
Rush shook his head weakly.
“Or,” Young said, “just lie there and think of nothing.”
“Fuck off,” Rush whispered.
“Don’t talk.” Young ran his fingers through Rush’s hair. “Don’t think. Just close your eyes and stay out of trouble.” Gently, he pressed himself against the slow spiral of the scientist’s thoughts, dropping him straight down through REM as soon as it emerged.
He sat there, watching the scientist sleep, putting off the moment when he’d need to look up and confront the figure he knew was standing next to the bed.
It hovered in his peripheral vision like a specter from a childhood story.
It had probably been there all along.
“Everett.” Jackson’s voice was full of quiet warning. “We need to talk.”