Force over Distance: Chapter 4
It would be him, or it would be TJ.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Midnight.
Audio status: Locked.
Additional notes: None.
Young perched on a stool in the neural interface room, his good leg hooked around one of its metal rungs. TJ stood next to him, her eyes on glowing, midair displays. Eli and McKay-as-Volker bent over a laptop as they scanned through a newly unlocked portion of the central mainframe. Greer was posted just inside the sealed door, his rifle held loosely in his hands, his eyes rarely leaving the chair. The five of them had been there for just over six hours.
“Colonel,” TJ said, “his vitals are stable—permission to grab some dinner for everyone from the mess?”
“Hang on, TJ.” Young caught Greer’s eye. He motioned for the sergeant to join them, then approached Eli and McKay. “How's it looking?”
“Genetic modification is eighty-five percent complete.” McKay straightened at Young’s approach. “We've got about an hour left before it's done with—well, whatever it's doing.”
“Okay. Here’s what’s gonna happen.” Young's voice was clipped. He caught TJ’s startled glance from the corner of his eye as he crossed his arms.
“Oh good,” McKay gave Young a withering look. “I’ve been hoping someone would tell me.”
“By now,” Young continued, ignoring McKay, “the entire ship knows Rush is back in the chair. They do not, however, know about this.” He pointed at the progress bar that was tracking the extent of the genetic changes. “I want it to stay that way. At least for now.”
Greer and TJ responded with quick nods.
“More secrets,” Eli said wearily. “Good times.”
McKay focused on the console in front of him and said nothing.
“McKay,” Young growled.
“Look.” The scientist’s shoulders were hunched. “This isn't something I can easily leave out of a report. I mean, what with the, umm, shall we say ‘aggressive’ technology? The dubiously safe genetic transformation of a human into an Ancient? A ‘partial-Ancient’ I grant you and, true, they're physiologically similar to us but still—” McKay broke off as Young cleared his throat.
“I know John Sheppard,” Young said quietly, “and from what he's told me, you're a man of your word, who’s been known, on occasion, to circumvent the chain of command.”
“I'm sure that's not all he's told you,” McKay said darkly. “Let's cut to the chase, shall we? I'm going to need a damn good reason to keep this out of my report, and you know it.”
“On a mission like this one, undermining confidence in the chief scientist could lead to a significant loss of morale and potentially cost lives.”
“Nice delivery on a weak argument. Points for that.” McKay got to his feet. “But I destroy people's credibility all the time. Call it a personal hobby.” He crossed his arms, looking stubbornly at Young out of Dale Volker’s face.
“The recent attack on command headquarters by the Lucian Alliance confirms intelligence leaks within the command hierarchy,” Young argued.
“Intelligence leaks. That’s its nature.” McKay took a breath. “Nick Rush is an arrogant asshole. I don't really like him that much. I'm the first to admit it. But, in the interest of arrogant assholes everywhere, I’m not going to stand by and let you use this as an excuse to get rid of him, or whatever euphemism you want to use, because he happened to be unlucky enough to be both irritating and modified to interface with this ship.”
“What?” Young growled.
“Oh. Did you not realize that?” McKay rolled his eyes. “No wonder Nick is so cranky all the time. Newsflash: Ancient genes are helpful for running Ancient tech. And our unconscious friend over there is getting a code-level makeover. Doesn’t take a genius IQ to form a working model as to why.”
Young looked at Eli, who shrugged, with an apologetic expression.
McKay glared at Young. “And don’t think that entire mess where he got swapped with Telford and then almost murdered went unnoticed, even if it did happen billions of lightyears from anyone who gives a damn. My point is? No one would ask any questions if he happened to be killed using the chair, but telling everyone he's been somehow ‘modified’ and then barring him from access to critical systems, which he'll always find a way to circumvent because he's a brat and a half when it comes to workarounds, and then? Ultimately executing him as a security risk? Well. It’s all just so much more messy than killing him now. Which I’m betting you realize. So all of this,” McKay’s eyes swept over everyone in the room, “all of this is going into my report. It’s going to be dealt with in a civilized way. Not—however you people are doing things out here these days.”
“You done?” Young growled.
“I'm not going to kill him.”
“Do I look reassured?” McKay lifted his eyebrows.
“I take your points.” Young gestured at Rush without looking at him. “That whole mess is going to cause ethical concerns, which should be discussed by the IOA,” Young began. “It’s gonna cause tactical concerns if he’s interfaced with the ship. I get all that. But there’s a third problem.”
“Hate third problems,” McKay muttered. “Why is it always the third problem.”
Young swept his gaze over all of them, then focused on McKay. “I was informed earlier today by Colonel Telford that Homeworld Command is working on a way to replace people on Destiny using the communications stones, but without using the terminal on this end. Meaning that they’d be able to replace people against their will.”
“What?” TJ gasped.
“That project was cancelled.” McKay shook his head. “Carter pulled the plug on it as soon as she was placed in command of the RSM. Resupply Mission.”
“According to Telford,” Young said, “it’s continued. Not only that, but they're days away from piloting it. On Rush.”
McKay rolled his eyes.
“Does he know?” Eli asked.
Young shook his head. “If they learn that this is going on,” he motioned over his shoulder toward the chair at the center of the room, “I’m guessing they’ll move up that timetable and extend the duration they keep him. If they’re planning on letting him come back at all.”
“Those stones have been nothing but trouble,” McKay muttered. “God, I bet this is the project Bill Lee has been complaining about. But if Carter doesn’t know about this—who could they possibly swap him with?”
“I'll give you one guess,” Young said wryly.
“Telford?” McKay said. “There's something wrong with that guy. But—he’s not a scientist. He couldn’t sub in for Rush long term.”
Young stared at McKay. “Nope,” he said quietly.
“You don’t mean—” McKay trailed off, and, hesitantly, pointed at himself.
“I hear the Math Team needs a Real Science Captain,” Eli said solemnly.
McKay made a distressed sound in the back of his throat, and glanced over at the neural interface device, where Rush still sat, immobilized. “Fine. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, I agree to to keep this out of my report, at least for the time being. Once I’m back on Earth, I'm going to need some kind of evidence I did the right thing.”
“Such as?” Young asked.
“Such as Boy Wonder over here letting me know that Nick is still alive for one,” McKay shot Young a dark look.
Young wasn't sure he could blame him.
“I'll look into this from my end,” McKay continued. “If I find any evidence that your theory about the stones is correct, I'll do what I can. If I don’t,” McKay paused to give Young a hard look, “I'll reassess withholding information about the genetic changes.”
“Fair enough,” Young said. “I'll send Eli through on the stones to report to you in three or four days.”
“Make it three.”
Young nodded. “Get back to the SGC. There's nothing more you can do here.”
“Says the colonel to the astrophysicist?”
“What I mean is,” an edge crept into Young’s tone, “you're just gonna have to further redact your report. Eli can handle things from here on out, unless you think there’s any chance of coming up with a way to reverse—” he waved a hand in the direction of the monitors, “—whatever bullshit is happening here.”
“Fine,” McKay said. He turned to Eli, who had dropped onto a nearby stool. “What a delightful workplace environment you have here. Love the decor, love the ambiance, love the invasive biochemistry, love the culture of respect between the Math Team and the military. Are you going to be able to bring them up to speed?”
“Um,” Eli said.
“Or do I need to stay and yell at people for you?” McKay asked.
“I got this,” Eli said dryly.
“Sergeant, escort Dr. McKay back to the communication stones,” Young growled, catching Greer’s eye. “Then, if you don’t mind, swing by the mess to grab some dinner for the four of us and report back.”
Greer nodded. He and McKay left the room. When they were out of earshot, Young turned to Eli. “You still figure we have an hour before anything happens?”
“Yeah,” Eli nodded. “The rate of modification hasn't changed so, barring any weirdness, that should be about right.”
Young turned to TJ. “Take a break. Be back here in fifteen.”
TJ nodded. Her hair caught the corridor light as she passed through the doors.
Young and Eli sat in silence.
Eli cracked first. “I can't figure out is why this didn't happen to Dr. Franklin, when he sat in the chair.”
“Maybe it did.” Young’s gut twisted at the mention of the other man.
“No.” Eli was emphatic. “No way. I'm not sure if McKay and I made this clear, but the neural interface isn’t active right now. At least—not in the way we’ve seen it active before. It's not dumping any information into his brain. At all.”
“What do you think that means?” Young asked.
Eli shrugged and gave Young a wan smile. “I don’t know. But, if I had to guess, I’d say it’s waiting. Until, y’know. He changes.”
“How extensive are these changes likely to be?”
“Very extensive. He’ll be over sixty percent Ancient.”
“How does that compare to the gene therapy they’re doing on Atlantis?”
“That’s one gene,” Eli said. “Here? It’s more like tens of thousands of genes.”
Young tried to get a handle on the implications of the situation. “So—are we talking about something like what happened with Chloe?” Young asked. “The person we know slowly disappears?”
“There's no way to tell what it’ll be like,” Eli said, his eyes fixed on Rush. “Personally, I'm hoping he gets nicer.”
Young snorted. “You are not.”
“I admit nothing,” Eli said.
The door swished open to reveal Greer, with four bowls stacked on a tray. TJ was behind him with water.
“Take a break, Eli,” Young said. “Fifteen minutes.”
“Eh, I'm good.” Eli grabbed a bowl. “Thanks though.”
Young nodded. “Want to let us in on what you and McKay uncovered?”
“So,” Eli said, downing a spoonful of protein mixture, “a new part of the database opened up when Rush sat in the chair this time. Or I guess, when he was, like, assaulted by the chair. Trapped. Kidnapped. Chairnapped. Whatever. We got access to some info describing Destiny’s CPU, which has been very protected from our inquisitive little programs and attempts at influencing systems. Destiny’s always been locked down in tiers. When we came, we had access to nothing. When Rush cracked the code and found the bridge, we got more. This time, we got details about the computational structure of the ship. We’ve suspected that Destiny had some kind of AI buried in its inner workings, but now we can confirm that for sure. The adaptive algorithms that were locking Rush out of fixing the main weapon are part of a totally legit, computationally expensive artificial intelligence.”
Young tried not to let Eli’s explanation destroy what was left of his nonexistent appetite. “Why embed an AI into a starship?”
“I’m guessing it’s designed to protect the ship in the event of some kind of incursion.” Eli shrugged. “I find it a little weird that we never triggered any kind of defensive measures from the AI, but, then again, collectively, we probably have a handful of Ancient genes in our gene pool.”
Young forced down a bite of protein mix.
“Anyway,” Eli continued, “I’m pretty sure it’s the AI that sets the countdown clock and generally plots our course. This explains why it’s always been such a pain to mess with a freaking timer that has an annoying and terrifying habit of stranding people on planets, not that I know that from personal experience or anything.”
“Okay,” Young said, “but why didn’t it respond when Rush cracked the code and took control of the ship? You’d think that’d get its attention, especially since he’s not an Ancient,” Young said.
“I'm not sure.” Eli swallowed another spoonful of protein mix. “But uh—I think that maybe we should consider the possibility that it did respond, and he just didn't mention it.”
“There’s a shocker,” Greer muttered.
“Yeah,” Eli said, “but, to be fair, I'm not sure that revealing computer programs are talking to you is a smart plan, especially if you’re already a little bit on the eccentric side.”
“Keep going,” Young said, gesturing with his spoon.
“Okay, so only by having an Ancient sit in the chair can you access every system on the ship and unlock Destiny’s full capabilities. There aren’t any Ancients around, sooooo, maybe Destiny decided to make one.”
“Why is this happening now?” TJ asked. “The ship could have done this at any time. To anyone who sat in the chair. To Franklin. To Chloe. To Rush himself for that matter, last week.”
Eli shrugged. “I can't say for sure. It's possible that it tried with Franklin and realized it was unsuccessful. Or partially successful. It may have taken the ship some time to figure out that we're not actually Ancients.”
“So—when it's done with the modifications, you think it might try an information dump?” Young asked.
“I don't know.” Eli looked down at his protein mixture. “Maybe. It seems likely.”
“What if it doesn’t let him out?” TJ asked quietly. “It might be able to sustain him for quite some time.”
Young hadn't even considered that possibility.
“It's going to let him out. It's a very invasive—” Eli waved his spoon in a circle, searching for the right word, “—scary technological interface, but it's designed to work with a humanoid species, and that makes me think there are limits to how far it’ll push. Plus, it doesn't make any sense to invest so much effort to change him if it's just going to kill him via dehydration or—whatever.”
“So you think the chair is being careful,” Young stated.
“I think it's being very careful,” Eli replied.
“That is creepy as hell,” Greer added.
“Yeah,” TJ agreed.
Young took another bite of his protein mix, turning everything over in his mind. He agreed with Eli's assessment that the chair was unlikely to end up physically killing Rush. He was less clear on whether the person who came out of the chair would be the same person who’d gone in.
They finished their meal in silence. When they were done, Greer resumed his post near the door. Eli returned to reading the newly unlocked database, while TJ kept a watchful eye on Rush's unchanging vitals. Young absently rubbed his injured knee, his eyes scanning back and forth between the other three, avoiding the chair.
“Three minutes,” Eli said quietly.
Young pushed himself off his stool. Greer straightened at his post near the door. Young moved to stand next to TJ. “Any change?”
“Not yet,” TJ murmured.
“Okay,” Eli said. “It's done.”
The midair displays began to change. Every monitored parameter showed variations in frequency and amplitude.
“His heart rate is rising,” TJ said quietly. “His pressure is falling.”
“Doesn’t sound good,” Young said.
TJ glanced at him. “No,” she confirmed. “It’s not.”
“The neural interface is charging up,” Eli said, over the device’s ascending, mechanical hum.
“The EEG is showing mixed frequencies with sawtooth bursts,” TJ said, loud enough for Eli to hear. “It's like he's in REM sleep.”
“This is crazy.” Eli watched the fluxing readouts.
“What's going on?” Young asked, limping over to stand at the kid’s shoulder.
“So, it's not doing an information dump.” Eli looked up. “The transfer is going the other way. It's learning about him by inducing some kind of dream state. It’s hard to tell from this—but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s looking at his memories.”
“Hopefully it’s just looking,” Young added darkly, “and not taking.” The last thing they needed was a chief scientist with amnesia.
“Whatever it's doing, it's stressing him considerably.” TJ frowned at the midair readouts. “He can't handle this for long.”
“How long are we talking about?” Young asked.
TJ crossed her arms. “His vitals are deteriorating. No more than five minutes.”
Young felt the abrupt, sickening sensation that came with dropping out of FTL. The lights dimmed to almost nothing. The vibration of the deck plating under their feet ceased.
“Aw crap,” Eli said, rapidly switching displays on his laptop. “We just lost power ship-wide. Or—huh. Mostly. We're okay in here, actually.”
Young's radio crackled. “Colonel Young, this is Brody.”
“We've got massive power failures all over Destiny: life support, weapons, shields, sensors, sublight engines. You name it, it's down.”
“Damn it,” Young growled. He looked at Eli. “Do you think Rush is doing this?”
“Pretty sure he's not doing it on purpose, but there’s no way it’s not related.”
“We need sensors and weapons back, Eli,” Young growled.
“Oh really?” Eli rounded on him. “Well, we also need life support back. I can't fix anything if there's no power. I’m not—”
The lights flared to full brightness, and Young flinched, his hand coming to his eyes. He felt the reassuring buzz of the sublight engines engage beneath the deck plating. A mechanical shriek echoed through the ship, tearing through a speaker system that Young hadn’t known existed.
“What the hell is that?” Greer had to shout to be heard.
“No idea,” Eli yelled back. “Some kind of sound system? It's news to me, whatever it is.”
Young's radio crackled. Brody's voice was barely audible over the noise. “We've got systems activating all over the ship. Everything is back. More than everything. I don't even know what most of this stuff is.”
TJ had her hands over her ears. Young followed suit. As he listened through the barrier of his palms, the sound changed. Voices and musical phrases faded in and out through the static. Slowly the sound resolved into something recognizable. Young dropped his hands.
“What is that?” Eli asked.
No one answered. Above and around them, echoing through Destiny’s corridors and deck plating, came the clear sound of a solitary piano.
“That's Rush.” Greer spoke quietly. His thumbs were hooked over his rifle strap as he looked at the ceiling. “Doing his thing.”
Young shot the sergeant a skeptical look.
“Look at this,” Eli pointed at his laptop. “We've got internal sensors, we've got an intercom system, we've got research labs, plus the entire ship database and mainframe are unlocked. Shields and weapons are at one hundred percent, the main weapon is up, and we've got reserve power generators coming online all over the place. And that's just the obvious stuff.”
“So you're telling me that this is a good thing?” Young eyed the walls.
“Are you kidding? This is awesome.” Eli’s gaze tore over the monitors.
Young's radio crackled to life again. “Uh, Volker to anybody—what’s with the Mozart?”
“Eli to Volker, working on it,” Eli responded.
“Hey guys, this is Lisa. We may have a problem.”
“Go ahead, Dr. Park,” Young said, before radio etiquette deteriorated any further.
“It's the FTL drive. It just started powering up.”
“What about the four hour window?” Young asked.
“It's a conceptual limit, not a hardwired restriction. Plus, the cold restart may have upset Destiny's internal clock. If that drive powers up fully after being off for only a few minutes—well, best case scenario, we blow the drive. Worst case, we blow the ship.”
Young looked at Eli, who shook his head. “Have you tried to manually override?”
“Yes. No effect. Any chance of getting Rush to help us out with this one? Is he in the chair?” Park asked hopefully.
“He is. We can't communicate with him though.” Young turned to Eli. “How long do we have, can you tell?”
Eli grimaced. “No.” He grabbed his radio. “Lisa, are you seeing what I'm seeing? This isn’t the normal startup sequence.”
“Yeah, I can confirm that.”
Eli turned to Young. “I think this is Rush.” He turned to his laptop. “I hope it's Rush. Otherwise we're in trouble.”
“How long until we jump?” Young asked.
“Um, twenty seconds?”
The overhead piano shut off, leaving a deafening quiet in its wake.
“Eli,” Young growled.
“I don't know. I don’t know.”
The ship shuddered, and Young felt the sickening drop in his stomach that came with an FTL jump. He looked around to see Greer and TJ hunched uncomfortably, waiting for gravitational shear forces to rip through the ship's hull.
“Are we good?” Young asked Eli, after a few long seconds ticked by.
“Yeah, I think we're good.”
“Well shit,” Greer added.
They breathed a collective sigh of relief. Young caught TJ's eye, and closed a hand over her shoulder. She gave him a wan smile in return.
“How we doing here?” Young asked, looking up at the displays monitoring Rush.
“His vitals have stabilized,” TJ murmured, “and his EEG is registering almost no activity. He's got extremely low amplitude waves. I'm not sure what that means.”
“It doesn't sound good though,” Young said.
“Not the best, no,” TJ agreed.
They all looked up as the diffuse, golden force field surrounding the chair flickered and dropped.
“Oh hey,” Eli said, “this seems promising.”
Young watched as the midair displays turned from golden-orange to blue. A panel opened, and a touchscreen interface slid out of the back of the chair near Rush's shoulder. Eli launched himself out of his seat and made a beeline for the panel. As he passed, Young grabbed the back of his shirt.
“Not so fast.” Young yanked him back.
“Yeah yeah.” Eli pulled away from him. “Point taken. But I don't think he’ll be able to get out of the chair on his own. Not this time. There wouldn't be an interface if we weren't supposed to use it.”
“Okay,” Young said. “We're gonna look.” He gave Eli's shoulder a gentle shake. “Look but not touch.”
As they approached the interface, Young kept himself positioned in front of Eli, but nothing out of the ordinary happened. They studied the open panel, lined top and bottom with Ancient text.
“Are you getting anything out of this?” Young asked.
“Ummmmmmm.” Eli grimaced.
“What?” Young asked.
“I think we’ve got a little bit of a good news/bad news situation,” Eli said. “Good news: it’s an interface. And probably one we can use to get him out of the chair.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“I think it’s a Rush Interface.”
“Meaning only Rush can use it? How does that make sense?”
“Er, no. Sorry. A ‘Rush Interface’ meaning that it’s gonna let someone interface with Rush. Directly connect with him.”
“Connect as in—”
“As in mentally. Like a my-mind-to-your-mind kind of thing.”
“Ah.” Young fought for his neutral expression.
“Yeah. Good times.” Eli glanced at Young. “I’m sure his brain is totally normal.”
Young sighed. “Any clue how it works?”
“Not really. I can check the newly accessible portions of the database.”
“Yup. Do that.” Young steered Eli away from the chair. He looked over at TJ. “His vitals are stable for now, right?”
She nodded. “For now,” she echoed. “We should try to get him out in the next few hours.”
Young caught Eli’s eye. “Give it an hour, learn what you can.” He turned back to TJ. “I’m gonna take twenty. Call me if anything changes.”
Young limped into the corridor, favoring his injured leg. He was on his way to the bridge when the sound of his own name stopped him.
The voice was familiar. It was cutting. It was tonally flawless and contextually impossible.
He turned slowly and came face to face with something that looked out at him from behind the hazel eyes of his ex-wife. Its hair shone under the fluorescent lights. Its mouth was tight and unhappy. It watched him from beneath lowered brows.
A part of him had been expecting this. For a while now.
“Emily.” He scanned the corridor. “Although—I doubt that's who you really are.”
It leaned against one of the bulkheads. The clean lines of its crisp, white shirt glared under the lights. “Perceptive,” it admitted. “Though it's not exactly rocket science.”
Young crossed his arms and tried to keep his unease off his face. He wished the ship had chosen someone else to impersonate so perfectly. Anyone else.
“What, no appreciation for my adoption of human colloquialisms?” It quirked Emily’s mouth, stealing her self-deprecating smile, stealing her body language, stealing her conversational style. Because—even though the words weren’t something Emily ever would have said—that guarded intensity, that defensive twist to her tone, that desire to be noticed—were pulled straight from the end of their marriage.
He didn’t like it. At all.
“You must be Destiny.” Young kept his voice perfectly even.
“Your approximation is barely adequate,” it said. “I'm the AI at the center of Destiny's mainframe.”
Young tried to relax. He forced himself into a casual parade rest. “Nice to meet you.”
It huffed and looked away, doing such a dead-on impression of Emily that Young’s skin prickled with it.
“So are you going to tell me something useful?” Young growled. “Such as how to get my chief scientist out of your god damned chair?”
It raised an eyebrow. “You already know how to get him out. Eli told you.”
“On a first name basis with the crew, are you?”
It didn’t answer.
“Why are you here?” Young growled.
“Because, Everett,” it said, spitting out his name like only Emily knew how, “you’re asking the wrong question.”
He looked at her steadily.
“The question you should be asking,” Destiny-as-Emily said, “is not how to pull him out, but who’s going to do it.”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes.” It swept Emily’s shoulder-length hair out of its face. “It matters very much.”
Young fought down his mounting irritation. “Stop being so damn cryptic.”
It looked away. “Whoever pulls him from the neural interface needs to be a match for him in terms of force of will.”
“Force of will?” Young repeated skeptically.
“A handful of people on this ship are capable of separating his mind from Destiny,” it said, “but only two people on this ship are capable of keeping them separate.”
“So—this is gonna be a longterm thing?” Young asked.
“Don’t assume that we share a common concept of time, Everett. We share very little.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I get that. You seem more interested in taking than sharing.”
When it spoke, its voice was flat. “He belongs to Destiny now.”
“Congratulations. What happens to the person who pulls him out of the chair?”
It swept Emily’s hair out of Emily’s eyes and said nothing.
“Fine,” he growled. “I'll play along. Who are the two?”
“Lieutenant Johansen and yourself.”
“Yes. She would be my choice.”
“And why is that?” Young growled.
“Many reasons, not the least of which is that she hasn't tried to kill the man in question,” it snapped.
Young considered the thing’s suggestion, assessing TJ as a counterpoint to Rush. She was kind where he was calculating. She was straightforward where he was manipulative. She was an excellent soldier, whereas Rush was probably the most difficult individual he'd ever had under his command.
TJ wouldn't hesitate if he asked her to do this.
“What about Camile Wray?” he asked. “Or even Eli?”
“Neither would succeed in grounding him against the pull of the ship. You’d lose them both.”
Young looked away from the AI, down the long corridor that spread out in front of him. When he turned back, a forming question in his thoughts—it was gone.
“That's it?” He glared at the spot Emily had occupied. “That's all I get?”
He stood in the deserted corridor and stared at the floor. Dread had settled around his chest like a band. He believed without a doubt that the ship, or the AI, or whatever he’d just spoken with was correct in its assessment. He couldn't picture any member of Destiny's crew standing up to Rush on a regular basis except for himself or TJ. Rush would walk all over Eli—hell, he already did that on a regular basis. He'd talk Camile Wray around, leveraging their similarities against her weak points. Rush and Greer were about as compatible as nitroglycerin and a hammer—Rush liable to go off at any second, and Greer endlessly pounding away.
The AI was right.
It would be him, or it would be TJ. Which wasn't really a choice at all.
Except he knew which one of them Rush would choose.
It didn’t matter. This wasn't Rush's choice to make. It was his.
He turned back the way he’d come and unclipped his radio from his belt. “Brody.” His voice betrayed none of the turmoil he felt. “What's our status?”
“The FTL drive looks fine despite the abnormal startup,” Brody responded. “We've got lights coming on all over the ship. We’re showing sealed areas with mild power drains. My guess is that we’ll find some interesting stuff behind closed doors.”
“Let's keep that on hold for now.” Young hoped that Park and Volker hadn't gone exploring already.
“Understood,” Brody replied.
“Brody,” Young said, after a short pause. “I may be—unavailable for the next few hours. Should any emergencies arise, contact Lieutenant Scott.”
Young retraced his steps. His sore knee throbbed as he reentered the chair room. Nothing had changed since he’d left. Eli, TJ, and Greer were sitting together: Eli reading through the database, TJ scanning midair displays, and Greer watching Rush. The chief scientist was still motionless, eyes closed. The rise and fall of his chest barely detectable. There was nothing of the demonic energy that made him so formidable whenever he and Young clashed.
Young was going to save his life. Again. And Rush would almost certainly hate him for it.
Young turned to face Eli. “So, what have you found?”
“Um, I thought I had an hour?”
“What can I say? Things change.”
“Meaning?” Eli asked, eyebrows lifted.
“Meaning I want to know what you’ve found,” Young said.
“In fifteen minutes? More than I expected,” Eli admitted. “But that’s what you get when everything’s accessible.”
“Good,” Young said. “Let’s have it.”
“Like I said before, the ship was designed to be handled this way. Someone sits in the chair, and it sounds like a permanent cognitive connection is created between this person and the ship. The problem is that, within this connection, the ship is more powerful than the individual it's linked to. The Ancients called this person—well, I guess something like ‘sentinel’ or ‘watcher’ would be the closest translation, but that sounds a little too 1990s TV, don't you think?”
“Okay, for our purposes, we'll just call this person ‘Rush.’ Presumably, Rush is now linked to the ship, and Destiny is ‘pulling’ on his mind. I'm not too clear on why that’s the case. Maybe it’s lonely? Maybe it gravitates toward increasing its own processing power? The point is, it needs him to function optimally. So. To counterbalance the pull of the ship, he has to have someone else pulling back, keeping him in his physical body. Or else he dies.”
“Excuse me?" TJ cut in. “He dies?”
“Well, not right away. But people aren't starships, obviously. They have to eat and sleep and stuff.” Eli shrugged apologetically.
“So whoever volunteers for this job ends up mentally linked to Rush?” Greer asked. “Permanently?”
“I think so,” Eli replied.
Greer gave a low whistle. “Not gonna be a lot of takers on that one.”
The four of them were silent.
“It's okay.” Eli straightened his shoulders. “I'll do it.”
"Are you nuts?" Greer asked.
Young shook his head. “No. No way.”
“Someone has to, right? I mean, we aren't just going to let him die.” Eli looked at Young, and his gaze was piercing. “Are we.” It wasn’t a question.
“No,” Young said shortly. “I'm gonna do it.”
They stared at him, eyes wide, mouths slightly open. No one spoke for a good ten seconds.
“Oh hells no,” Greer said, when he’d recovered himself. “Sir.”
“You?” Eli asked. “No offense, but that seems like probably the worst idea in the history of ideas.”
“He's going to hate it,” TJ murmured.
“He'll hate it no matter who does it,” Young replied. “And as for why—has it occurred to any of you that, even if we successfully manage to dial Earth, Rush is likely to be unable to leave this ship? I'm sure whoever pulls him out of that chair runs the same risk. I can't ask that kind of sacrifice from anyone but myself. And I won’t.”
Eli looked away, uncomfortable. Greer and TJ watched him impassively.
“Let's do this,” Young said to the three of them. “No point in waiting.”
Eli cleared his throat. “Presuming you're successful, are we telling the rest of the crew about—” he waved his hand in the direction of the chair. “The mind-melding thing?”
Young shook his head. “Not yet. Let's give it a few days. See how things play out.”
They nodded at him.
Young turned to Eli, trying to quell his own anxiety. “Tell me what to do.”
Eli shrugged. “I’m pretty sure you just walk over there and stick your hand on the panel.”
“I was hoping for something a little more informative.”
“Yeah, well weren't we all?” Eli shrugged. “It's not supposed to be difficult.”
“If anything happens to me,” Young said, looking at TJ and Greer, “you're to follow the orders of Lieutenant Scott.”
They nodded at him. TJ took a breath, on the verge of saying something. Young held her gaze, but she didn’t speak. He turned to face the chair.
Cautiously, he stepped up to the interface and studied the open panel. It had the color and sheen of obsidian. It was perfectly sized for a human hand. Or the hand of an Ancient.
For the last six hours, he’d avoided considering this entire mess from Rush’s perspective. Even now, faced with the prospect of a direct interface with the man’s mind, he couldn’t quite bring himself to look his chief scientist in the face. Instead, he reached out to lay a hand on the man’s shoulder.
It was warm under his fingers. But then, of course it would be.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about this,” he whispered.
Young positioned himself directly in front of the panel and pressed his hand down. He listened to the sound of his breathing. He looked at his own closed eyelids.
He was ripped into an indefinable darkness, caught up by forces beyond his control that drew him into a psychic vastness without end. His own bright thoughts raced through their own bright network, separate from the textured shadow that must be the software and the hardware of Destiny. He could recognize his weak reflection, hosted by something vast and alien; dark and obscure.
It was easy to find Rush, semi-dispersed through the shadow of the ship; the bright borders of his mind were the only edges definable in this expansive dark. The only boundaries that existed.
Young waited. He assessed. And when he could stand the obscurity no longer, he pried at those borders until—
His eyes snapped open to the sound of releasing restraints. He staggered. His fingers closed on the frame of the chair.
“Are you all right?” TJ steadied him, her hands on his shoulders, a solid presence at his back, there and gone. She stepped laterally to kneel in front of him.
To kneel in front of Rush.
There was a strange ache in Young’s wrists that was difficult to ignore. He pulled his hands away from the chair, struck by a sudden wave of revulsion.
“Dr. Rush?” TJ said quietly. “Dr. Rush, can you hear me?”
“TJ,” Young said, mangling her name. “Move.”
Young leaned forward, grabbed Rush's arm, and dragged it over his shoulders. He had no idea if the man was conscious. He had no idea whether the scientist was stable. All he knew was that he had to get the man out of that damned chair.
“Sir,” Greer began. “Hold up. I can—” But Young had already lifted Rush straight out of the interface. The man was nothing but deadweight and loose limbs. The pain that shot up Young's wounded leg was both immediate and removed. “Slow down,” Greer said. “Sir. Let me help you.”
“Stop.” TJ's voice cut through Young’s increasing disorientation. “Stop. Put him down. He's bleeding.”
With Greer’s help, Young lowered Rush to the floor. TJ dropped into a crouch next to them, tearing the worn fabric of Rush's shirt up to the elbow on both sides.
“Well shit,” Greer said.
A metal bolt had passed through each of Rush's forearms beneath the restraints, cutting though at least muscle and soft tissue, if not bone, several inches above the wrists.
“How was that necessary?” Eli asked the air above them.
TJ unzipped her medical bag. She began disinfecting and bandaging Rush’s injuries. Young watched her, fighting a growing disorientation. The ghostlike echo of her fingers over his own forearms threatened his sense of self.
Young tried to pull back and create some kind of mental space between himself and Rush. He got a spike of pain to his temples for the effort and Rush twitched faintly beneath TJ’s hands.
The other man was barely conscious but the force of his mind was already drawing Young in.
“Doctor Rush?” TJ rubbed the scientist's sternum with her knuckles, watching for a reaction. Rush’s eyelids flickered. Young could feel the man try to focus on TJ, but it was like thinking through glue.
“I think he's still drugged,” Young managed, fighting to track warring sensations. The pain in his knee and ribs. Rush’s pain in his forearms? Rush’s disorientation. His own disorientation? His feet ached. He wasn’t sure why.
“Doctor Rush, can you answer me?” TJ flashed her penlight in Rush's eyes.
“Doctor Rush, I need you to talk to me if you can,” TJ said.
Young wanted to talk to TJ—or—Rush wanted to? And then—with a mental crack that resembled nothing so much as a breaking dam, Rush began to speak. The guy was, at best, semiconscious, but what was coming out of his mouth—
As soon as he heard it, Young realized that the other man was thinking it as well. “Oh hell,” he whispered, trying to shut out alien images flickering over his waking vision like a transparent series of still frames.
“Uh oh,” Greer murmured.
“Eli,” Young ground out, "are you getting any of this?”
“My spoken Ancient isn’t that great,” Eli said anxiously, “and he’s either slurring like crazy or speaking in dialect. He's not making much sense, as far as I can tell.”
“Humor us.” Young caught Rush's wrist and gently pinned it to the deck as the scientist made an attempt to pull away from TJ. “And you can cut it out,” he snapped at the scientist as another bright, disordered streak of images that didn’t belong to him flashed across his consciousness.
TJ shot him a veiled look that clarified into something concerned. “Are you all right?”
“Here goes nothing.” Eli knelt next to Young. “Okay. He’s saying something about taking the first road or ship, or possibly a costal road, or possibly the first edge, or maybe arriving at an edge via a road?”
“Can you,” Young said, making an effort to pitch his voice normally, “streamline this, Eli?” His feet hurt, his ankles ached, his forearms burned, his knee was on fire, and he could barely hang on to his own thoughts. He glanced at TJ. “Check his feet, will you?”
“And when suffering arose from a changeable sea of their own making? They split against two edges? The first was a breaker of surf and the means by which time and its working might be defeated by, uh, infiltration? The second was to find a road that is of its own making.” Eli looked up nervously. “It’s official. He’s not making any sense. Or this is a dialect.”
They all looked over at a distressed hiss from TJ, who had pulled off one of Rush’s shoes.
“This is bad.” TJ locked eyes with Young.
“Yeah,” Young said. He didn’t have to look. He could feel it. “More bolts.”
“Yup,” she answered grimly. “Both feet. This’ll be a nightmare.”
Eli quietly asked Rush a question in Ancient, and to Young's surprise, he felt the scientist grasp the meaning of the question and respond.
“I asked him if he felt any pain,” Eli said, before Young could ask. “He said his knee hurts. But I'm guessing,” Eli looked sideways at Young's cramped position, “that it's actually your knee that's hurting.”
No one said anything, except for Rush, who continued his litany.