Force over Distance: Chapter 8

Gloria again and again and again—the moment he cracked the code, on the bridge, in the control interface room, in the mess, in his quarters, in the infirmary—Gloria. Snippets of conversation. Of life. Of death. Of something after.




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

Text iteration: Midnight.

Additional notes: Rush quotes the real de Broglie relations in this chapter. The letter “p” represents momentum, because, in German, the word for momentum is “der Impulse,” and “i” and “m” were already taken. “k” represents the wave vector. 𝜔 represents angular frequency.


Chapter 8


Young stepped off the shuttle onto an alien world and was hit by a wall of heat and light. The sun hovered about twenty-five degrees above the horizon and tinted the landscape with a pale, red glare. To the south and west, the land rushed away in a vast, rocky plain as far as the eye could see. The rest of the vista was dominated by the obelisk, built near the edge of a plateau. It towered above them. Imposing. Massive. Etched with alien symbols.


He adjusted his borrowed sunglasses and wished he'd been able to find desert gear on short notice; more and more of their BDUs were in circulation. The black material of his own uniform would hold the heat. Already, the wind had coated his fatigues with a layer of fine red dust.


His wrists ached, right more than left.


//There must be extremely high levels of iron oxide in the soil here.// Rush’s attention was caught by the color of the landscape.


//And that's significant, how?// Young eyed the dark outline of the obelisk against the sun.


//Who said it was significant? It could be natural, or it could be a side effect of whatever technology was in use on this planet.// There was a troubling lack of bite in the scientist’s reply.


Young frowned. //Just making conversation?//


Rush didn’t respond.


//Hey,// Young sharpened his mental projection. //You okay?//


//As far as I can tell.// Rush’s projection wavered.


//That’s not a yes,// he shot back.


Young focused on the man and got a clear visual of the infirmary, where the scientist was half-reclined on one of the gurneys, his laptop open on his thighs. As soon as Young reduced the mental distance between them, Rush readjusted his position and resumed scanning the long-range sensor data Brody was remotely porting to his computer.


//Keep an eye on that,// Young growled. //We’re probably still being pursued.//


//No gate,// Rush replied, his thoughts an unfocused swirl.


“I don’t know,” Greer murmured. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”


Young shook himself and refocused on his team. They’d formed up outside the shuttle doors. Greer studied the obelisk, one hand lifted to shade his eyes. James tightened the straps on her pack. Evans checked the seal on the shuttle’s hatch. Thomas, the only one without sunglasses, squinted in the red light of the star.


“Ruins are always like that, sergeant.” Young lifted his pack. “Let's get going. Evans, take point. We're on the clock.”


They turned north, heading for the base of the obelisk. The loose, red soil flew up in silent, delicate clouds beneath their boots as they began to jog.


Every goddamned tactical manual that Young had ever or would ever read in his life would tell him to keep his focus on where he was and what he was doing. Especially in an alien environment.


But.


With a flare of mental effort, he pulled the infirmary back into focus.


He got an eyefull of blank wall.


Yup. Okay.


Destiny’s chief scientist was staring into space, his head cocked, listening for something no one could hear. His laptop was half off his lap.


//Rush. What the hell are you doing?// Young settled into the painful rhythm of a double-timed march.


//What?// Rush jerked in surprise, then righted his laptop, rebalancing it on his thighs.


//Monitor the long range sensors, damn it.//


//So glad that now y’can now give me orders in my head.// Rush shook himself, pressed a few keys, and switched displays.


//Maybe you’ll stop ignoring them.//


//I wouldn’t hold your breath.//


“Nick.” A woman's voice came from Rush's left, and, in the scientist’s peripheral vision, Young caught a flash of blonde hair and a silhouette that wasn’t TJ’s.


“One moment,” Rush murmured, his attention split three ways.


//What the hell?// Young projected.


Rush was focusing on sensors. Young wanted him to look at the woman. As they began yet another instinctive, mental struggle, images exploded across Rush's consciousness and bled into Young’s mind—brief and bright and powerful. Cityscapes. Oceanscapes. Glittering towers under geodesic energy fields. The images faded to pure strain as they pulled Rush's mind somewhere Young couldn't follow. Somewhere dark. Shadowed.


Fighting a rising ache in his head, Young pulled back.


“Sir?”


Young lost the rhythm of his steps as he dragged back against that vast and formless dark. He stopped running, braced his hands against his knees, and, with an almost superhuman effort, he snapped Rush back to full awareness. He coughed, sucking dust-laced air into his lungs.


//What the hell was that? Are you all right?//


//Fine.// Rush didn’t sound fine. He sounded dazed. //Something seems to be wrong with you, though.//


It took every last shred of self control Young had not to tear into him.


Sir.” Greer had a hand closed around his elbow. “You okay?”


“I'm good, sergeant,” Young kept his tone even. “My knee's acting up.”


//Rush. What the hell just happened?//


//Yes well, if you don’t know, I certainly don’t,// Rush replied. //You’re the one coughing up dust. Consider a fucking respirator.//


//To. You.// Young snarled. //What the hell just happened to you.//


“You need to go back to the ship, sir?” Greer still had an iron grip on Young’s arm.


“No. I'm fine, sergeant.”


//Ah. I think the ship was trying t’communicate with me.//


//Trying to ‘communicate’ with you? Hell, Rush, it was dragging you in. I had to yank you back.//


//Did you?// Rush asked vaguely.


//Yes. Stay out of there.//


Rush sent him a wave of something that, maybe, was supposed to be reassurance? The guy was distracted as hell, and his thoughts were more than half inaccessible to Young.


//This was a terrible idea,// Young projected as he resumed the quick step of the double-time march, Greer glued to his side.


//What was?// Rush stared at the nearest wall.


//Do me a favor and tell the ship to leave you alone.//


//We're fine.//


//Who is this 'we,' you're talking about? And you're clearly not fine.//


Rush didn’t answer.


As he ran, Young swept his gaze over the obelisk. On the shuttle ride in, they’d seen a collection of abandoned buildings, scattered far below the lone monument. They’d set down only half a klick away from the structure. As they approached, he could see the metal of the obelisk matched the hue of the landscape. The etched designs on its surface stretched all the way to the apex.


In short, the thing seemed like it might give them some tactical bang for their metaphorical buck, but, ideally, it wouldn’t come at the expense of Destiny’s chief scientist.


//Rush, you’ve got thirty seconds to convince me you’re okay, or I call off this mission.//


//Stop overreacting.// Rush's projection sharpened. //I’ve worked out how to monitor the sensors without a computer. Which was what you wanted in the first place.//


//You ‘worked it out?’ How? Rush, you were staring at a wall.//


//I got a suggestion from the ship.//


//Destiny talks to you?//


At Young's words, Rush's consciousness split into swirling, nonlinear streams. It’d happened before. But this time? Young felt a subtle jolt of intent that came with the fracture.


The man was shattering his own thoughts.


He was doing it purposefully. To keep them from Young.


God damn.


He watched, fascinated, as the scientist distorted the upper layers of his cognition into interlocking swirls of images that faded and formed and faded again. But Rush was far from the top of his game, and Young began to pick out patterns in the blur of math and memory.


Gloria.


Dr. Franklin.


Gloria.


The bridge of Destiny.


Gloria.


Dr. Jackson.


Gloria again and again and again—the moment he cracked the code, on the bridge, in the control interface room, in the mess, in his quarters, in the infirmary—Gloria. Snippets of conversation. Of life. Of death. Of something after.


Gloria.


Young had never known her name.


He knew it now.


Destiny had taken her form. The ship’d been using it to talk to Rush. For a long time.


The shock of the realization hit like a slap.


//It's gone beyond talking, at this point.// Rush said, capitulating to Young’s insight with unguarded agreement. //I’m fair fuckin’ sure I just got gifted a subconscious sensor protocol.//


Young, too shaken to reply, let the immediacy of the infirmary fade.


He wasn’t sure how this little revelation would’ve played out had he been in the room with the man when it happened, but, an atmosphere away, doing a forced double-time march on an alien world in the shadow of a monstrous, otherworldly artifact, Young felt a sweep of profound unease.


Rush wasn’t being pulled away because he was talking to Destiny. The man had been talking to Destiny for months, god damn it. In the form of his dead wife.


And now? The ship itself was, what, helpfully dumping sensor protocols into the guy’s brain while Young was planetside?


That didn’t seem good.


//So you’ve been fucking around with the AI for how long now?// Young snarled, as he snapped their minds together. //No mystery why you were the one it trapped.//


He got nothing back from the scientist.


Young gritted his teeth, viciously hauled on Rush’s consciousness for all he was worth, and succeeded in ripping him free of the long range sensors.


In the infirmary, Rush shook himself. He flexed his hands, which sent a flare of pain through both wrists. His laptop screen was dark. He frowned at it and hit a key. //Were we—// The scientist broke off. //Did you ask me something? I was monitoring the sensors.//


//Yeah. I noticed. Stay out of the ship,// Young growled.


//Will y’calm down?// Rush made no effort to conceal his irritation. //You can reestablish your cognitive chokehold when you're done down there.//


//This was a bad idea. I don’t think you’re okay. Unfortunately, I also don’t think you can tell if you’re okay. The distance is weakening our connection.//


//What a fuckin’ tragedy,// Rush hissed. He pulled away.


Unbelievable.


This had been a mistake. As soon as Young had something, anything, to make the mission worthwhile, he’d cut his losses and go.


He slowed his pace as his team reached the base of the giant metal structure. They clustered close to one another, staring up at the spire, dark against the red light of the star.


“Fan out,” Young ordered. “Look sharp. Evans, James, get as much kino footage as you can of these inscriptions.”


He wished Eli were here and not back on Earth reporting to McKay. As soon as the thought occurred, he buried it.


“Greer and Thomas, you're with me. Let's take a look around.” Young glanced back at Evans, who was pulling a kino out of her pack. “Whatever you do, don't touch that thing.”


Evans nodded. James fired off a crisp, “Yes sir.”


“It’s too quiet.” Greer’s eyes scanned the horizon.


“I noticed,” Young said. “No animals. Hardly any plant life.”


“What the hell happened here?” Greer asked.


“Nothing good.” Young’s eyes roved restlessly over the obelisk.


Greer and Thomas fell in behind Young. As they headed toward the cliff’s edge, their footsteps were muffled by the thick layer of red dust that coated the landscape. The dropoff overlooked a scattering of ruins. The bones of small shelters, constructed of a dull gray material, impervious to rust and time, huddled a stone’s throw from the base of the cliff.


There was something familiar about them, but Young couldn't place what it was.


“Looks more like a base camp than a settlement,” Greer observed. “Constructed out of wreckage, maybe?” He glanced at Young.


“It would’ve been a pretty big ship,” Young said. “Lotta of metal down there.” The buildings were small and low to the ground, with hardly any space between them. “Thomas, can you send a kino down this rock face?”


The young man pulled a sphere from his pack, then sent it over the edge at their feet.


//Any thoughts, genius?// Young growled.


Rush was slow to respond, and Young felt him tense as he separated himself from the ship. //They look familiar.//


//Great. Thanks for that. Can you stay with me, please?//


He got an unconvincing wave of assent from the scientist.


Young and Greer peered over Thomas's shoulder. As they watched, the kino soared over red stone until it reached a massive metal object, mostly buried in the cliff.


“Well shit,” Greer said, as Thomas backed off for a better view. “That could definitely be a ship. But—” he left the thought unfinished as they studied the image on the kino remote.


Young shivered, despite the heat. “The question is: how did a ship that massive drive itself so far into a solid wall of rock?”


//Rush.// He yanked the scientist’s thoughts out of the sensor array. Again. //C’mon. You were the one who wanted to come down here. Pay attention. I need your take on this.//


Rush clenched both hands, using his own pain against the ship. Young augmented his efforts, dragging the other man free as best he could over the immense distance separating them. Finally, finally, Young could sense Rush looking critically at the kino footage with more than ten percent of his attention.


//This is disturbing,// Rush agreed, turning the problem through the full-force fire of his intellect. //That’s certainly a ship. But it didn't crash here.//


//What about the wreckage?// Young asked.


//Removed later, I suspect,// Rush said, //from inside. Direct the camera toward the base of the cliff.//


“Thomas.” Young motioned for the remote and sent the kino toward the abandoned settlement and the detritus that surrounded it. As he inspected the material, a loose organization emerged. Sheets of metal were grouped together, as were what looked like a foreign equivalent of electronic circuitry.


//They were sorting it, maybe?// Young murmured.


//Yes.// The whole of Rush’s attention focused on the footage. Young panned slowly across different piles, identifying beamwork, bulkheads, and semi-transparent surfaces coated with dust.


In the back of his mind, Rush's hands clenched painfully on his bedsheets. A surge of adrenaline made Young’s heart race. //What's wrong?//


//Keep panning,// Rush said tightly.


Young didn't question him.


//There. Stop.//


Young examined the pile of material in the center of the screen. It was hard to identify its components. Some of it looked like power cells? Part of a bulkhead, maybe? He didn’t get much further before a wordless flood of alarm from Rush, coupled with a surge of tailored information, derailed his thoughts.


The metal alloy of the beamwork, the cut of the viewscreens, the design of the visible circuitry—it’d all combined into the forming suspicion they were looking at a ship of Ancient design. But now? Rush had positively ID’d part of the ship's FTL drive.


There was no question. The ship was Ancient.


//A seed ship?// Young asked.


//The seed ships weren't manned. Or they weren't supposed to be.//


//So someone else took it apart?//


//Possibly, but whoever dismantled the thing knew what they were about.//


Young's feeling of unease intensified, but he didn't understand what had Rush so worked up. //Something else is bothering you.//


//As usual,// Rush shot at him, anxiety coloring his mental projection, //you fail to identify the most critical question. The state of the wreckage below indicates the ship didn’t crash into that cliff. The material displacement of such a massive vessel would’ve shattered the structural integrity of the rock face. It’s what made you uneasy as soon as you saw it.//


Young grimaced.


//The viewscreens at the base of the cliff aren't so much as cracked. Everything’s in perfect condition. I'm sure y’also failed to notice there aren’t any components of the ship's power supply or shields in an’ amongst that material.//


//Calm down.// Young’s own heart raced with the scientist’s spiraling anxiety.


//“Don’ tell me to fuckin’ ‘calm down’.”// Rush spoke aloud as well as projecting. //“That ship is embedded so far into the cliff we weren't even able to identify its design until we examined the removed material. There's only one way for it to’ve gotten there, colonel.”// Rush gave his title a venomous twist.


//And what’s that?// Young asked, with as much patience as he could muster.


//“A phase-based technology.”//


//?// Young sent him a wordless wave of inquiry.


Rush looked up as TJ poked her head around the corner that led to her office.


//I have no sympathy,// Young shot at him. //Calm the hell down.//


“Hi,” TJ said uncertainly.


“Hello,” Rush rubbed the space between his eyebrows with his index and middle fingers.


“You okay?”


“Yes yes. Sorry.”


“Talking to the colonel?”


“What gave it away?” Rush sighed. “Ideally, it wouldn’t've been out loud.”


“Well,” she said quietly, “it’ll come with practice.”


“Stop being so nice,” Rush said, without any of his usual snap.


“Why?”


“It shows a lack of discernment. And it’s irritating.”


TJ rolled her eyes, but Young could tell she was fighting a smile as she ducked back around the doorframe.


//Phase technology?// Young asked, dryly.


//p=*(k) and E=*(𝜔), yes? So, if y’shift a matter wave by ninety degrees relative to its surroundings, y’lose the normal electrostatic repulsion that keeps physical objects from occupying the same spaces.// With this, Rush sent him several graphs of what looked like sinusoidal waves sliding past one another.


//?// Young asked incredulously.


//If I can pick up on Tamara's body language, a completely useless skill by the way, is it too much to hope y’might pick up some physics? is the notation for Dirac's constant and the equations are de Broglie relations. All matter can be rendered as waves. Those waves can interfere or not.//


//Stop wasting time.//


//Yes, you're right. Explaining this to you is certainly a waste of time.//


//What are we talking about, Rush?// Young growled. //Invisible enemies? Like what happened at Stargate Command with the Reetou, something like five years back? How does that relate to the ship in the cliff?//


//Terribly sorry, you must’ve missed my point because it’s not something at which you can aim a gun,// Rush snarled.


//Use small words,// Young suggested.


//Phase shifting is almost certainly how the ship got embedded in the cliff. Something either sent the ship out of phase and pulled it back into phase once it was inside the cliff or, more likely, the cliff, maybe even the entire planet passed out of phase relative to the ship. The ship flew through it, or was pulled in, and then was trapped when the planet went back in phase.//


//So we're on a phase shifting planet?//


//Correct.//


//That seems bad.//


//Congratulations on your discernment, colonel. Yes. In fact, I’d go so far as to say: this is bad. So get James and Evans to take the shuttle and pick up those FTL parts while the three of you assess the interior of the ship as expeditiously as possible. Then? Get the fuck out of there.//


//Last I checked, I was in command around here. Not you.//


//Now who's wasting time?//


//The obelisk is the priority.//


//Is it? Is it really?// Rush’s mental voice was scathing. //Has it occurred to you it’s conceivably integrated with whatever technology makes phase shifting possible? You’d better pray you haven’t already triggered the thing.//


“James.” Young spoke quietly into his radio. “Evans. Pack it up and head over to our position.”


“Understood,” came James's crisp reply.


“What are you thinking, sir?” Greer asked.


Young scanned the surface of the cliff. “Sit tight, sergeant.”


Young dropped his pack and tried to estimate how much rope they had between them. The upper portion of the exposed ship was maybe fifty to seventy-five feet below their position at the cliff top. The best entry point was maybe twenty-five feet below that. It was a long way down a more or less vertical cliff face.


When James and Evans reached their position, Young motioned for them to gather around the viewer.


“Okay people,” he said, “we're positioned atop wreckage from a crashed vessel.”


//Inaccurate,// Rush snapped from the back of his mind. //Ah. And I see you’ll not be telling them about the risk of a phase shift? Bit hypocritical, don’t you think?//


//Sorry, but I’m not gonna take criticism from the guy who lied about finding another Icarus planet.//


//Hate to break it to you, colonel, but it seems you’ll be doing nothing but taking my criticism for the rest of your natural life.//


//Glad to see you’re interested enough to string a sentence together.//


//Fuck off and mislead your team,// Rush snapped.


Young cleared his throat. “Most likely, it’s the wreckage from an Ancient seed ship.” From behind his shoulder, Greer gave a low whistle. James’s eyes widened.


“How do you know, sir?” Evans asked.


Young zoomed in on the metal below. “That's part of an FTL drive. This is our number one priority. We need those parts. Take the shuttle to this site, and salvage as much of the drive equipment as you can. Grab anything that looks useful; we'll sort it out later.”


They nodded at him.


“Greer and I will be rappelling down the cliff. I want to get a look at the interior of the ship.”


“How did it get stuck there?” James asked, a note of unease in her voice.


“That's a question for Rush and Eli to answer later,” Young replied. “Let's go, people.”


//Speaking of,// Rush said, //why didn’t you bring Eli on this little escapade in the first place?//


//Can we focus, please?// Young growled, watching James, Thomas, and Evans start back toward the shuttle, their footsteps muffled by the dust.


“Got much climbing experience, sir?” Greer asked.


“Oh yeah. Tons,” Young said dryly. “Yourself?”


“Basic training. Little bit of a rockslide on P3X-whateverthehell.”


“Great.” Young dug through his pack.


//You're planning to have Greer belay you from the top?// Rush commented, doing a solid job of keeping his mind separate from the ship. //Good luck with that.//


//Thanks.// Young rolled his eyes. //I’m impressed you know the word ‘belay.’ Got any better ideas?//


//This isn't my forte, though principles of mechanics would apply, I suppose. Maximize the surface area over which force is distributed.//


//Wear a harness?//


//How atypically well-reasoned. D’you think intellect might be transferrable?//


Young rolled his eyes. //Any other ideas? Or is that all you got?//


//Use two lines if you can—one anchored somewhere and one Greer belays with.// Rush projected an imagined schematic over their link. //Maybe you’ll acquire some of my skill sets after all.//


//That's not a skill set, it’s common sense. Not your territory.//


Rush replied with a wordless wave of irritation.


“Got a knife with you?” Young asked. “We should make harnesses.”


Greer unsheathed a knife, flipped it expertly, and passed it to Young, handle first. They made quick work of assembling two rudimentary harnesses out of the rope and carabineers they were carrying with them.


“Mind if I hang on to this?” Young held up the knife. “Might come in handy down there.”


“No problem.” Greer tossed him the sheath and Young clipped it to his belt.


When they’d tested the harnesses and established their lines, Young stood with his back to the edge of the cliff. He faced Greer, who’d dug a shallow trench into the dust-covered ground to brace his heels. They anchored one of the lines to a rocky projection not far from the cliff's edge. Greer clipped his harness to the anchor, and took hold of the second line. Both lines were attached to Young's harness.


The dust-laced wind hissed melodically against and around the contours of the obelisk.


“Ready?” Young asked.


“As I'm gonna be,” Greer replied.


Young looked over his shoulder, down at the base of the cliff. Far below, he could see the shuttle had landed. James, Evans, and Thomas were wasting no time loading it up.


It was a long way down.


//Pull your sleeves over your hands.// Rush clamped his fingers around the bedsheets beneath him.


//Don't distract me.// Young yanked his jacket sleeves over the palms of his hands. Greer copied his motion.


//Who am I? You?// Rush snapped.


Young looked at Greer. The other man nodded.


He took a breath and stepped over the edge.


Young descended slowly, playing out the line between his hands. He could feel small shifts in pressure translate through the rope as Greer did the same. He focused on the red stone against his boots, rather than the dizzying drop below.


The going was much easier than it should’ve been. His senses were honed. His attention to detail on the rock face was unusually sharp. His knee was nothing more than a distant ache. He wasn’t tiring.


God damn could Rush concentrate.


The guy needed to bottle this stuff. Young was making amazing time, moving with a quick confidence. Was the man a climber? It felt like he knew what he was doing—


Miles beyond the upper atmosphere of the planet, Destiny shuddered.


Rush’s focus shattered. The infirmary lights flickered and the hum of the engines increased in pitch.


A bolt of pain sliced through Young’s temples and he slid several feet before Greer caught him on the belay line.


//Rush?//


No answer.


“Damn it.” The burn of fatigue in his shoulders and arms roared up out of nowhere. He paused, breathing fast and hard.


Beneath his boots, he felt a subtle vibration, deep in the rock.


His radio crackled. “Something's happening,” James said. “Don't think you can see this, colonel, but the base of the obelisk just lit up.”


“Damn it,” he muttered, through gritted teeth.


A swirl of clouds condensed directly above him. Lightning flared in bursts and fans.


//Hey,// Young projected, trying to get Rush’s attention.


He got a wave of distracted dismissal from the scientist.


“Well fuck you too,” Young snarled. He gave the man a mental shove. //If I die here, you live about three days, genius. Try to prioritize.//


Rush ignored him.


Young’s boot encountered a smooth patch of rock and he slipped.


Greer caught him on the belay line with a bone-jarring save.


Young paused, breathing hard. He wasn’t far from the upper edge of the buried ship.


A towering column of white light shot out the top of the obelisk. It stayed tight and narrow all the way through the atmosphere, like a laser with a monstrous diameter. It was noiseless. Young stared at it, his heart pounding in his chest.


Rush’s full attention hit like a wave in running surf.


//Cut the belay line and tell Greer to run.//


//Why?// Young tightened his grip on the anchor line and pulled out his knife.


//DO IT.//


The tension in the line made it easy to slice through. Young sheathed the knife and grabbed his radio. Above him, Greer moved to the edge of the cliff and looked down.


“Run,” Young shouted, over the rising wind.


“I'm not leaving you here, sir.”


“You get the hell away from that thing. That’s an order, sergeant!”


//Go,// Rush said.


Young went.


Rush grabbed his crutches and vaulted off his gurney. Their combined adrenaline was enough to brush aside the crushing pain of the scientist's feet hitting the floor.


Young slid another five feet. Another ten. The friction of the rope heated his jacket cuffs.


“Hey, wait a minute!” TJ called as Rush cleared the infirmary doors. They shut and locked behind him.


//Shift your position,// Rush warned.


Young slowed his descent, righting himself, reaching for the rock, trying to establish a hold.


The cliff face shuddered. And then, with a sickening sensation, Young felt the tension on the line go slack.


He fell.


From far away, he heard a woman scream.


The rope, still attached to his harness, trailed through the air like a long ribbon.


Rush tore into his mind. Young let him in.


They twisted, pressing into the cliff face. His hands tore at the rocks, grinding at ledges, pulling on small plants. Feet, knees, chest, they all pressed in, slowing his descent. One hand finally caught a tiny ledge. Then the other.


The rope sailed past him, swinging wildly from the back of his harness.


They looked for purchase against the rock, finding one foothold, then another.


Their descent stopped.


They were together. So close they didn't have to talk. Rush could feel the abraded skin on Young’s hands and cheek. Young knew, without asking, that, above him, the ground had shifted out of phase. Knew that phase shift was what had severed the line. Knew that the affected field would advance until it had covered the planet.


They breathed raggedly, consolidating their hold on the rock.


The radio crackled, loud in the quiet air. “Hang on, sir, we're coming for you now.” It was James.


Young felt a surge of relief that was immediately killed by Rush. From their current position, it would be a physical impossibility to get into the shuttle. They’d have to climb down the last fifteen feet to stand on the upper edge of the trapped ship.


They looked to their left and saw a promising line of descent along a crack in the rock face. They lunged for it. After a heart-stopping moment in free space, they slammed back into the rock, wedging their left hand into a crevice. Right hand joined left, and, again, feet found purchase.


They looked up. Above them, a line of distortion moved slowly down the face of the cliff.


This time the right hand was first, then left leg. They descended two feet, then an easy four more. They kept going, knowing it would be hard to keep ahead of the wave. Behind them, they could hear the hum of the approaching shuttle.


Six feet above the exposed hull of the ship, the rock face turned smooth, as though the surface had liquefied where the ship had entered. With no alternative, they dropped straight down.


The shock of hitting the metal plating was too much for Young's knees and they buckled, pain shooting from his injury up his spine. Shakily, they pulled hands underneath them, then feet. Young noticed blood oozing from beneath his fingernails. Rush pulled their gaze up.


The shuttle hovered in front of them.


“Sir!” James shouted over the dull roar of the shuttle's engines, her eyes wide, her face pale. “Sir, now!”


They looked back to see the edge of the visual distortion caused by the phase shift advancing toward their position. They gathered their strength, and, together, they surged forward, taking two strides to the edge of projecting metal before launching into free space.


They crashed into James and landed in a tangle of limbs. Thomas dragged them back from the opening in the rear of the shuttle as Evans accelerated away from the cliff face.


Rush pulled back, leaving Young standing firm in a receding cognitive tide.


On Destiny, Young felt the scientist open his eyes. The man was on the floor, hands and feet awash with pain. He was alone, in a corridor near the FTL drive.


//Why are you on the floor?//


//An’ why fuckin’ not?// Rush shot back, swiping his crutches off the deck plating.


“Greer?” Young shouted to be heard above the wind, rushing in and around the open shuttle hatch.


“Heading his way now, sir," Evans called back.


James unclipped the length of rope attached to Young's harness. She pushed herself to her feet and snapped the carabineer onto the doorframe of the shuttle. She began winding the slack in the line around her arm.


“I've got a visual on him,” Evans shouted. “It’ll be close.” Young stepped up behind her shoulder and looked out the forward view. On the planet below, Greer sprinted flat out, staying maybe fifty feet ahead of the slowly advancing wave.


“Ready?” Evans shouted.


“Ready.” James tied off a knot, putting a loop in the end of the rope. She lowered it out of the shuttle’s rear hatch.


Evans slowed to match Greer's speed, staying just ahead of him.


James anchored a hand and leaned out of the shuttle. “Slow down!” she shouted, her eyes on Greer. “He’s almost got it.”


Young grabbed the slack of the line, piled on the floor behind James, then motioned for Thomas to do the same.


“Now!” James shouted.


The line went tight. Young and Thomas hauled the sergeant up as Evans slowly increased in speed and altitude. James dropped to her knees, one arm anchored around a cargo strap, the other reaching out.


Greer's hand came into view, closed solidly around James’s forearm. With a strong pull from the lieutenant, he cleared the edge of the shuttle.


Young activated the controls for the hatch and it closed, blocking out the sight of the advancing phase wave.


Greer looked up at him from the floor, breathing hard. “How the hell did you know that was coming, sir?”


“Tell you later,” Young said.


Greer shot Young a look of wry comprehension. “Never mind,” the sergeant said. “I got it.”


Young nodded at him. “Strap in.”


Young dropped into the copilot's station, next to Evans. She pushed the thrusters to their max as the atmosphere gave way to stars. Young flipped on the communications system.


“Destiny, this is Young. We’re on our way back. What's your status?”


“Not so good, colonel,” Scott responded. “Destiny's caught in some kind of tractor beam or—electromagnetic field, I guess. It's pulling us toward the planet. We've got engines running at full power, but we're still losing ground.”


“Is Eli back yet?” Young asked.


“Yup,” Scott confirmed. “He swapped in about five minutes ago. He tells me we're in a decaying orbit?”


//What's going on?// Young asked Rush.


//That beam of light generated by the obelisk is a visual side effect of the creation of a massive electromagnetic field gradient, which is, unfortunately, attracting the ship.// Rush rounded a corner and entered a room full of monitors Young was sure he’d never seen before. //I’m attempting to do something about that.//


Young picked up a vague sense of Rush's plan, which seemed to involve the FTL drive. Beyond that he was getting nothing.


//Tell Eli what you're doing,// Young ordered.


//Oh certainly,// Rush said, his projection awash in acid irritation. //I can’t imagine a better use of my time.//


Young frowned.


“Rush to Eli,” Rush said into the radio, with exaggerated politeness.


Rush. We've been trying to reach you for the past five minutes. Where are you?” Eli sounded harassed.


“I'm about to enter the FTL drive.”


“What? Why? What do you mean 'enter' it?”


“Don't override anything. Rush out.”


//Very informative,// Young growled.


Rush dropped his crutches and knelt, pain searing through his feet and reverberating through their open connection. The scientist shut his eyes, fighting through the worst of it as he placed his hands over a panel beneath one of the monitors. His fingers grazed its edges.


“Would y’mind terribly, just—” Rush whispered absently, and then made a directed mental request. Not at Young, but at an inanimate piece of metal.


And, incredibly, the panel fell into Rush’s waiting hands.


//What the hell was that?// Young asked.


Rush ignored him, hissing at the pain in his wrists as he lowered the panel to the floor. A blue-white light spilled into the dimly lit room. Rush crawled through the opening he’d created and started to drag himself along a narrow access tunnel.


The space was too confined for him to crawl.


Young wouldn't characterize himself as claustrophobic, but he felt sick looking at it.


//You’ll need to boost your power to make it back to Destiny in time,// Rush directed at him.


“Is there any way we can boost our speed?” Young asked Evans.


//Like she's going to know.//


“I’ve already rerouted power from secondary systems,” Evans said, “but I could start pulling from primary—weapons, shields, life support.”


//Life support?// Young shot at Rush.


//Do it,// Rush snapped.


“Give us everything you can,” Young said. “Pull from everywhere.” As Evans rerouted systems, Young could feel the change in their velocity push him back against his seat.


//Ask Eli or Chloe if you can make back before the orbit decays past the point of no return. I've got too much going on to figure it out for you.//


“Scott, put Eli on,” Young said, broadcasting over the shuttle com system.


“Hey,” Eli said breathlessly. “Do you know what Rush is doing, because—”


“Eli,” Young said, interrupting. “I need you or Chloe to tell me if, at our current shuttle speed, we’ll make it back to Destiny before her orbit decays to the point we can't escape the planet's gravity.” 


“Umm, okay,” Eli said.


“What the hell is happening?” he heard James whisper to Greer in the aft compartment.


“You'll make it back,” Chloe's voice crackled over the radio. “Ninety seconds to spare.”


//Perfect,// Rush commented.


//I don’t think you know what “perfect” means. That’s not a wide window.//


//Maybe not for you,// Rush replied.


Destiny loomed large in their forward view. Young focused on Rush and found the scientist on his back, dragging himself by his hands into an increasingly narrow space in the heart of the FTL drive.  


Young felt sick with anxiety. //Rush. What are you doing?//


//Amusing myself,// the scientist snarled.


//RUSH.// The man’s name had the force of a shove, powered as it was with all of Young’s adrenaline and anxiety.


//Oh for fuck’s sake. I’m using the FTL drive to generate an opposing EM field gradient that will, ideally, neutralize the obelisk.//


//You think you can pull that off?//


//Permit, if you will, an argument by analogy,// Rush shot back testily. He stopped dragging himself forward. //Did I distract you when you were climbing down a fucking cliff?// The scientist reached up and carefully removed a small panel directly above his face. //Did I ask you if you could ‘pull the thing off’? Did I remind you of the odds of falling to your death?//


//No,// Young admitted.


//And they were fucking astronomical,// Rush hissed. //Given you’re incapable of rendering help here, just—leave me alone, please. And come get me when it’s over.//


//Come get you?// Young echoed.


//What. Did. I. Just. Say.// Rush fired a wave of pure rage in his direction that rocked Young in his copilot’s seat.


“You okay, sir?” Evans looked over at him.


“Yeah,” Young said, his voice hoarse. “How long until we dock?”


“Three minutes, twenty-five seconds.”


As they approached the ship, they saw the glow of the sublight engines, straining against the invisible field. Beyond Destiny, a piercing line of light shot through space. Silent. Bright. Unending.


“That thing is trying to pull Destiny into the planet?” Thomas asked quietly from the rear cabin.


“Looks that way,” Greer answered.


“Why aren’t we affected?” James asked.


“We are,” Evans said. “The engine’s requiring more power than usual for the speed we’re clocking.”


With as much care as possible, Young eased back into a cautious apposition with Rush’s thoughts. The scientist’s eyes were half-open. His fingertips were positioned delicately against an array of faintly glowing crystals. Distantly, Young could hear the echo of shifting harmonies as Rush altered the pressure in his hands. Inside the tiny crawlspace, the ambient light was turning brighter. Even the walls themselves seemed to glow.


Eli’s voice came over the shuttle’s com system. “Eli to Young. The FTL drive is powering up, but we can’t raise Rush. To be clear, this isn’t good. If we jump while we're in this tractor beam, it'll tear the ship apart.”


“Don't override,” Young replied.


“Yeah, that's the word on the street,” Eli said in irritation.


Again, Young brushed against Rush’s mind. The crawlspace was so bright the features of the walls were blurring. Rush closed his eyes, but it didn’t seem to matter. The light was in his mind as well as in the walls.


Through the forward view of the shuttle, Young could see the brilliant glare of the FTL drive activate beneath the hull of the ship.


Rush was smack in the middle of it.


Young rubbed his jaw. As the drive powered up, the light increased in intensity. He could feel Rush losing his hold on his physical body.


“This was a bad idea,” Young whispered, staring at the drive. It was painful to look at.


“We're coming in hot,” Evans yelled into the communication system as she spun the shuttle around, firing thrusters to match Destiny's increasing speed.


The crash as they hit was deafening. Young pitched forward, his restraints cutting into his shoulders, his eyes on the scanners, looking for—there they were.


“Docking clamps engaged.” Young shouted to be heard over the screech of stressed metal. He released his restraints and followed Greer, James, and Thomas out of the rear of the shuttle.


“Eli, talk to me,” Young said into his radio.


“The drive's up but we're not jumping, can’t tell you more than that,” Eli replied shortly.


“Where to?” Greer asked, as they cleared the doors to the shuttle bay.


“Bridge,” Young said, picking up the pace to a jog, and then, as his knee tolerated, pushing harder, into a run, his team keeping pace behind him.


When the bridge was in sight, Greer put on an extra burst of speed and darted ahead to hit the door controls. Young slowed as he entered the space. Scott and Chloe huddled with Eli over the main console, while Volker and Park manned the short-range sensors and weapons stations.


“Oh thank god,” Eli said. “Good timing. In fifteen seconds we figure out whether or not we’re gonna die.”


“That's when we hit the point of no return?” Young was breathing hard.


“Yeah, pretty much. I don't know what Rush is doing with the drive, but he's channeling more power through it than it uses when we're actually at FTL.”


“Is it working?”


“No, it's not, unless he hasn't done it yet. Whatever he's doing.”


Young took a breath. Then, //Rush,// he projected delicately into the glowing heart of the FTL drive.


“Eight seconds,” Chloe said.


“Oh god, please no countdowns,” Eli replied.


“Five,” Chloe whispered.


The clock hit zero.


In the back of Young’s mind, Rush, who had been hanging onto his awareness by the slenderest of threads, made a final change to the crystal harmonics under his fingers. The light around him intensified, whiting out Rush’s vision, even behind closed eyelids. A harmonized blend of tones flooded from nowhere, and—


He was gone from Young’s mind.


All around the bridge, the viewscreens exploded with light.


Everyone flinched back, dark silhouettes against the glare. Young, his heart pounding, pulled out his borrowed sunglasses and thrust them at Eli, who was trying to get a look at the monitors. The ship lurched, unbalancing everyone. Young caught Chloe's arm as she fell and hauled her back to her feet.


“Holy crap. It’s working,” Eli shouted. “We're pulling away!”


They could feel the strain of the sublight engines pulsing beneath the deck plating as Destiny struggled.


Young, squinting against the glare, got a flash of the AI. Emily stood next to the command chair. She was dressed in the same crisp, white shirt she’d worn when Young had first met her. But—she wore square-framed glasses. Jeans. She was looking at her own hand, holding it up to the light, examining it, as if it didn’t belong to her. Her expression was troubled. She flexed her fingers. Examined her fingernails. Then, she flickered out of existence.


“Em?” Young whispered.


She did not reappear.


“God damn it,” Young murmured.


“Sir?” Greer asked, the light reflecting irregularly off his dust-covered sunglasses. “This is good news, isn’t it?”


“Yeah, sergeant. Just, uh, thinking of something else.”


The progress of the ship became quicker, smoother. Over the span of minutes, they cleared the pull of the planet’s magnetic field. As they reentered normal space, the light from the consoles faded and the FTL drive shut down, leaving them all trying to rub blind spots out of their vision.


“New rule,” Eli said into the ensuing silence. “No more planets without gates.”


“Agreed,” Greer seconded.


“Good work,” Young said. “Debriefing in the mess at—” he looked at his watch. “Seventeen hundred hours.”


“Seems a little optimistic,” Eli replied. “We’ve gotta get back to FTL. Whatever Rush did to the drive’ll have to be reversed.”


“Uh, yeah,” Young said, a sinking feeling in his chest. “No one fires up that drive until we hear from Rush. I’m sure he’s,” Young cleared his throat. “I’m sure he’s working on it.” He turned to Scott, who was standing next to Eli’s station, his eyes still on the monitors. “Lieutenant, can you keep an eye on things here? I've gotta take care of something.”


“Sure thing,” his second replied.


As Young’s team headed back to the shuttle bay to start unloading their salvage, Eli followed Young off the bridge and out into the corridor. “Hey,” Eli said. “So, uh, where is he, really?”


“He’s in the FTL drive.” Young leaned against the wall, trying to ease up on his knee.


“Yeah, I know that’s what he said,” Eli’s voice was flat. “But he’s not actually in there.”


“Yeah, Eli,” Young said wearily. “He is.”


“Oh, okay, so he’s dead then?” Eli snapped.


“He’s not dead,” Young growled. “Cool it.”


“Don’t tell me to cool it. I’m NOT COOL. This day has been extremely stressful for me. We need to talk about what I learned from McKay. Spoiler alert: it isn’t great.”


Young felt a headache throbbing behind his eyes, and wondered how long it had been there. It felt like all his life. “Eli, I really can't talk right now. This’ll have to wait. I’ve gotta pull Rush out of the drive.”


Eli snorted. “Okay. Yeah. Sure. Whatever. Go pull him ‘out of the drive’.”


Young gave Eli a steady gaze from beneath his eyebrows.


“Shut up,” Eli whispered, the color leaving his face. “He was not in that drive.”


“I’ll radio when he’s out,” Young said.


Eli nodded, then turned straight around, hit the door controls, and shouted, “No one TOUCHES the FTL drive!!”


Young did his best to hide a smile. The kid had sounded a little like Dr. McKay.


He retraced Rush’s earlier steps, first to the control substation for the FTL drive that, of course, no one had yet mapped or secured. He knelt in front of the still-open access panel and grimaced at it. God, it was tight in there. And he was gonna do what? Crawl in? Drag Rush out? Try to peel the guy’s brain away from Destiny in the process?


Young was pretty sure that if their situations were reversed, and he woke up wedged into a wall with Rush dragging him somewhere—nothing on god’s green earth would forestall a complete, mind-rending panic attack.


He leaned his forehead against the paneling. His face hurt. His entire body hurt.


“Everett.” It was Emily, leaning against the doorframe. She was dressed in that crisp white shirt. She looked like herself. No glasses. No jeans. No confusion.


Young took a deep breath, and tried to calm the racing of his heart. “Hey,” he said. “You okay?”


This seemed to confuse it. “Me?” The thing literally looked around, like it was trying to figure out who Young might be addressing.


“You seem like you’re having an off day,” Young said.


“Why do you say that?” Its tone was cool.


“You looked a little confused back there.”


“Back where?” The AI asked evenly.


“On the bridge,” Young said. “Just as we were escaping the planet.”


Emily’s expression froze. The AI stared at him with an eerie neutrality. “Specify exactly when this occurred.”


“Right as Rush did—well, whatever it was he did.”


The AI seemed to relax a little at this. “I have a gap in my logs at the time you reference. No longer than three seconds. I attribute it to induced current generated by Nick’s polarity maneuver.”


“Yeah, okay. And speaking of ‘Nick’,” Young said, “seems like you and he go way back.”


“I don’t understand your meaning,” the AI said.


“He’s the one who unlocked you, I assume,” Young growled.


Emily’s expression was unnervingly blank.


Young sighed. “Forget it. Not like it’s the worst thing the guy’s ever done.” He sighed, exhausted, and wondered if the pain in his hands was his own or Rush’s. “Is there an easier way to get him out of the damn drive than crawling through the whole thing?”


“Yes,” it replied. “Though you must use this route if you plan on restoring the polarity as you extract him.”


“You think I’m gonna do that?” Young growled. “I just want to get him out.”


“This way.” The AI turned and left the room. He followed it into the dimly lit corridor. About fifty feet down the hallway it stopped. “Here.” It pointed at a section of the wall.


“What am I supposed to be looking for?” he asked.


“A hidden access panel.” The AI lifted one of Emily’s perfectly sculpted brows. The disdain in its voice was unmistakable.


“Do you have to do that?” he snapped at it. “Why impersonate my ex-wife? Why her?”


Its expression returned to unsettling neutrality. “I don't choose this form, Everett. You do.”


And with that, it was gone.


“Some instructions would have been nice,” Young growled. He dropped into a crouch and ran his fingers over the borders of the panel. After several passes, he found the hidden switch that popped the panel open. When it came loose, he recognized the bright blue-white space Rush had been crawling through. He leaned inside.


The bottoms of Rush’s boots were only a few feet away.


He sighed. //Rush?//


Nothing.


Young ducked halfway inside the crawlspace, reached forward, and wrapped his fingers around the scientist’s ankles. Slowly, carefully, mindful of everything he couldn’t see, he started to drag Rush out.


The man wasn’t moving under his own power. At all.


When Rush was most of the way out of the wall, Young shifted his grip to the scientist’s jacket, and managed to get a hand beneath his shoulders and neck before easing him down to the floor of the corridor.


It wasn’t a big drop, but the last thing Young needed was fifty percent of a concussion.


//Rush,// he projected, into the distant swirl of the scientist’s thoughts.


In return, he got a wave of confused acknowledgment. The man was so disconnected from his physical body that he couldn’t move so much as his little finger.


“You idiot,” Young whispered.


Young started pulling him free of the ship, and, as he did so, Rush shifted weakly against the deck plating, trying to come up on one elbow, his eyelids fluttering. Young backed off, giving the guy some space.


Not the right move.


Rush’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed back against the floor.


“Damn it, Rush,” Young whispered, shaken. Hastily, he cupped a hand around the back of the scientist’s neck and dragged the man’s mind away from Destiny, peeling every bright edge of him back from the darkness of the ship.


Rush opened his eyes and looked directly at Young.


“Hey,” Young said. “You with me?”


“I—I think so, yes.” Rush’s mind was full of unease.


“Can you move?” Young asked.


In response, Rush tried to lever himself up on one elbow, his movements a damn sight weaker than they ought to have been. The scientist flexed his fingers, using the ache in his wrist to sharpen himself further.


“You can give it a minute before you tear yourself apart walking it off,” Young growled. “It’s not like there’s anywhere you need to be.”


Rush watched him with a closed expression, but he stopped trying to sit.


“We’re not doing that again,” Young said.


“Which part?” Rush asked dryly.


As they looked at one another, Young couldn't help but remember the first time Destiny had flown through a star. He and Rush had worked so well together under the threat of imminent death but, afterward—


It had ended so badly.


“You're a god damned pain in the ass.” Young gently pressed his thumb into the sore muscles at the base of Rush's neck. “But—you have your moments.”


“So do you, I suppose.” Rush relaxed incrementally beneath Young’s hands.

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