Force over Distance: Chapter 9
“Are you refusing a direct order?” Young asked quietly.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. This one gets very rough. There’s spite. Hostile psychological brinksmanship. Unusual interpersonal violence. Weaponized loss of autonomy.
Text iteration: Your P-Chem final is behind you, and we approach midnight.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: In this chapter, Rush and Chloe begin exploring the concept that Destiny travels as a macro-scale quantum wave (while at FTL). Chloe tips Rush off to the idea by quoting an equation describing a de Broglie wavelength (𝛌=ℎ/mv). Later in the chapter, they discuss whether a simplified model of the ship’s wave function might satisfy required boundary conditions.
Young leaned against the wall of the gate room, watching the better part of the Science Team work with James, Evans, Thomas, and Greer to sort through the supplies and FTL parts salvaged from the obelisk planet.
His hands burned from his semi-controlled slide down a rock face. His joints ached. His knee hurt like hell. And then there was the maddening, unavoidable, and ever-increasing pain in his wrists and feet from the goddamned menace across the room. Who would not. Stop. Walking. Around.
Young gritted his teeth as the scientist knelt, shredding the hell out of his feet. The guy came up with a small, spherical object. It wasn't large, but it was heavy. Pain lanced down Young’s arm from wrist to elbow. He began massaging his forearm, for all the goddamned good it’d do.
“What. Is this.” The ice in Rush’s tone was cold enough to frost the room.
He really wished Rush would sit down. The man had spent fifteen minutes on the floor outside the FTL drive, barely able to move. And now? It sure as hell seemed like he was grinding himself to dust just to prove it was possible.
Young could feel the drag of the ship on the scientist’s mind.
“Who brought this on board?” Rush turned to regard Evans, James, Thomas, and Greer, who’d been loading pieces of the FTL drive onto a kino sled before they’d frozen under Rush’s gaze. “Which one of you?”
//Will you stop terrorizing people?// Young growled.
//I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.// Rush pinned the team from the planet with the full force of his personal magnetism.
“I did.” James swallowed.
//I’d appreciate it if you’d stop taking a sledgehammer to morale.//
//Leave me for dead if you don’t like it.//
//Will you tone yourself down?// Young tried to keep his spike of guilt from reaching Rush. //Take a nap. Eat a snack.//
//I’d like nothing more. Want me to block and see what happens?//
“Um, even for you, this is a really long dramatic pause.” Eli sat cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by disassembled circuitry. His gaze flicked from Rush to Young and back.
//Nice going,// Young said.
Rush didn’t take his eyes from James. “Where’d you find it?”
“Inside one of the structures,” James said. “It looked like it could be important.”
“Yes yes, but what specifically made y’think that?”
“It looked like a kino,” James replied.
“It looked like a kino,” Rush echoed, loud enough for the room to hear. “Well, lieutenant. Tell someone you should be promoted.” He glared at Young.
Young rolled his eyes.
“Um?” James said.
“Eli.” Rush held up the recovered kino. “Take this.”
“Uh, take it where?” Eli scrambled to his feet, reluctantly accepted the device Rush shoved at him, then followed the scientist toward the door.
Young braced himself against the growing agony in his hands and feet. //You’re on point today. You practice this kind of thing? Or does it come naturally?//
//It's a fuckin’ gift.//
“Hang on,” he overheard Greer say to James. “Did Rush just say something nice to you? Was that what that was?”
“Maybe?” James whispered.
“Good work, lieutenant.” Young peeled himself away from the wall.
“Thank you, sir,” James said.
In the corridor, he caught up to Rush and Eli. “Rush,” Young growled. “I thought you were supposed to be fixing the FTL drive.” He hated moving at sublight. He associated it with battles.
"I am fixing it. Brody and Volker are just doing it for me, at the moment."
//Would you please slow down?// Young clenched his teeth against the agonizing pain in Rush's feet and wrists, the fierce ache of his own knee.
//If you’re tired,// Rush replied, with poisonous solicitousness, //consider a nap.//
//Pretty sure I’m not the one who needs a nap,// Young shot back. //I pulled your paralyzed body out of the damn wall not an hour ago.//
//An’ what d’you want, a medal?// Rush snapped.
//We need to talk.//
//About why we dropped out of FTL at that planet. About what the purpose of that planet might be. About the fact that you burned out the FTL drive. About Ancients having manned at least some of the seed ships. About what the hell happened when you joined fully with Destiny.//
//One—no idea. Two—no idea. Three—I'm fixing the drive; my affinity for sublight matches your own. Four—James's discovery may shed some light on that.// Rush paused.
//And number five?//
//Your guess is as good as mine.//
//Somehow I doubt that.//
“So, you guys?" Eli said. “It's actually super obvious that you're arguing with each other in your heads.”
They glanced at Eli, then back at one another.
"Really?" Rush asked.
“Yeah,” Eli said shortly. “Especially you. You need to work on your poker face. And you,” Eli turned to Young, “need to stop staring at him like you want to strangle him.”
Young's lips twitched.
“That differs from the status quo, how?” Rush asked dryly.
“It's just a little more intense now,” Eli said. “And, by the way,” he added, looking at Young, “I totally get it.” He turned back to Rush. "I don't take orders from you.”
“Yes you do,” Rush replied.
“I take suggestions.” Eli hit the door controls for the CI room.
“Then I suggest you interface that device with the computer system,” Rush said.
//And I suggest you sit the hell down.//
//Noted,// Rush replied dryly.
As they approached the monitor banks, the screens flared to life.
Eli studied the glowing displays, then glanced at Rush. “Show off.”
Rush’s eyebrows lifted, and Young got a faint echo of surprise from their link. “Efficiency.” The scientist shrugged. “Hook it up.” He absently drummed his fingers on the console adjacent to Eli, sending little shocks of pain from his wrist to his elbow. His brows drew together as he looked at the waiting displays.
Young clenched his jaw and rubbed his right forearm.
Rush shifted his weight.
Young crossed his arms and tried to ignore the tearing sensation echoing in his own feet.
Rush braced a hand against the monitor as Eli interfaced the kino.
Young looked up at the ceiling and tried to breathe through irritation so intense it almost whited out the pain in his wrist and forearm. Almost.
Rush looked back at him, in what appeared to be genuine curiosity. “Th’fuck is wrong with you, then?”
Young. Could not. Take it.
"Do me a favor," he snarled. He grabbed Rush by both biceps, spun him ninety degrees, and forced him into the chair next to Eli. “Sit. And stay sitting. For the love of god.”
“Don't touch me.” Rush snapped himself out of Young’s grip.
Eli regarded them steadily. “So,” he said, “this mind-melding stuff is going really well for you, I see.” He returned to prying open the alien device.
//Block, if bothers you so much,// Rush shot at him waspishly.
//Yeah. That sounds like a great idea. And when you're catatonic on the floor, who’s gonna repair the FTL drive? I can still feel the damn ship pulling on your mind.//
//I’m certain I can prevent any such outcome.//
//Why do I not believe you?//
“Oh, hello flawlessly intact video feed,” Eli said, cutting off their argument. They turned to look at him. “I'm pulling it up now, feel free to compliment me at your leisure.”
“Nice work,” Young said.
“Acceptable,” Rush said.
“Ooooh, ‘acceptable.’ Nice!” Eli glanced around the room and spotted a kino hovering in a corner. “Do you think you could maybe say that a little louder, so I can document it for posterity?”
“No,” Rush replied.
“What if I—”
“Eli,” Young said.
“Yeah yeah.” Eli started the video.
On the screen, a man's face appeared. Dried blood stiffened the hair on one side of his head. He began speaking. In Ancient.
“Um?” Eli paused the video. “Okay. We left Avalon as a wave via the costal road as others had done in their own time—”
Rush shook his head. “Stop. Atrocious. Restart the thing, will you? And keep quiet.”
Eli complied. This time, Rush took up the translation.
“The second wave left the Milky Way via the gate system. As we’ve had no contact with the first wave, we assume they were unsuccessful. This recording is for the third wave, so they should not repeat our mistakes if, by some small chance, they both find this and escape our fate.”
“Rather than gating directly to—” Rush paused the recording, hesitated, backed up, and restarted. “Rather than gating directly to Destiny, we took an indirect route along the seeded gate network. With a large number of shorter trips, we hoped to avoid the expenditure of power and resources required for such an ambitious undertaking. ZPMs are in short supply.” The Ancient traveler gingerly touched his head wound. “At present we are besieged. On all sides.”
"The journey was difficult. We encountered hostile alien races previously unknown to us. Unfortunately, at least one of those races—an insectoid species with a unique language structure—has mounted an organized pursuit. We’ve been unable to deter them with weapons. Our attempts at communication have been profoundly traumatic. Their understanding of genetics perhaps exceeds our own. They—” he broke off, looking down. “They modified one of our party. In so doing, we believe they gained a great deal of information about us.” The nameless captain paused, his gaze searching. “They range widely. They, like us, have learned to travel between galaxies.”
Young and Eli exchanged significant glances. Rush's eyes remained fixed on the screen.
“Using spatial cartography to compensate for intergalactic stellar drift and supercharged crystal arrays for galactic jumps, we finally arrived aboard a seed ship. We’d manned it for a little over three days when it dropped out of FTL to investigate a planet as a potential site for a gate. We noted the age of the planet and its parent star did not match, but we were eager to attempt the placement and activation of a gate, as this might facilitate our attempt to reach—” Rush paused. “To reach Destiny.”
“Even now, we don’t know what triggered the activation of the obelisk and the phase shift of the planet, but we believe these worlds may be designed to prevent ships—”
Rush’s translation slowed. His gaze flicked into empty air.
Young narrowed his eyes at the nothingness Rush had glanced at.
“To prevent ships from reaching the energy breakwater at the edge of the universe.” Rush sped up again. “If that was their goal, they’ve been successful. Though we were able to modify our shield frequencies to prevent the full absorption of the ship, we cannot now break away, in either the ship or its shuttles. No gate has been set. We will attempt the ring and the mount, but—I’m not hopeful. I fear our time is limited. Three of our party, including myself, have begun to show signs, despite extensive testing before departure.”
“Signs?” Eli whispered. “Signs of what?”
“For now, I’ve given orders for the creation of temporary shelters,” Rush continued. “For sorting and for salvage. But this is for the sake of morale. Soon now, I’ll order my crew to walk the road of light as best they may.” Rush paused. “Sorry.” He shook his head. “That’d be—I’ll order the crew to meditate and attempt ascension.”
Young felt a spike of empathy for this nameless, Ancient captain.
Rush glanced sharply at him, but said nothing.
The figure on the screen reached for the camera, as if to turn the recording off, but paused, one hand resting at the edge of the frame. “For myself,” he added, “I have no real hope. I believe we will vanish from this universe, leaving only what we’ve built, and little of who we were.”
The screen went dark.
No one spoke.
“Okay, so that was ten out of ten depressing,” Eli said.
“What did he mean by ‘show signs’?” Young rubbed his jaw uneasily.
“He expected us to know,” Rush murmured. “It must have been a common experience for any—” he broke off as ideas locked into a coherent picture and translated themselves across their link with a near-physical snap. “The plague,” he said. “The one that wiped out the Ancients. It has to be.”
“Plague?” Eli echoed.
Young pulled in a deep breath.
“Like, a plague plague?” Eli continued.
“So you mean to tell me,” Young growled, “we just encountered planet where a bunch of Ancients died of some contagious disease that almost wiped them out as a species, and not only did we go down there but we brought some of their stuff back here?”
“Yes,” Rush said evenly.
“Great. That makes my day.” Young pulled out his radio. “TJ, we've got a potential quarantine situation developing. Have you talked to anyone who went to the planet or interacted with any of the material they brought back?”
“James and Thomas just dropped off a new viewscreen in the infirmary.” Her voice was grim.
“Understood,” Young said. “Do you think there's any portion of the ship or its population that's unaffected?”
“It's been, what, two hours since you got back?” TJ estimated. “And how many people involved in sorting the supplies and distributing them around the ship?”
//Twelve.// Rush’s projection had an exasperated, semi-soothing quality. //Volker and Brody are installing that converter. You’re overreacting, you realize.//
“Twelve,” Young amended. He narrowed his eyes at Rush.
“I'll give it a shot,” TJ said, “but there may be no one left to quarantine.”
“If they reached this planet at the height of the plague, that’d put their arrival something just shy of a million years ago?” Rush’s voice and mind were irritatingly calm. “I sincerely doubt any pathogen could survive such a span of time.”
“We can’t afford to take that chance,” Young growled. “You two report to the infirmary. I’ll head back to the gate room and round up the rest of the team.”
Eli sighed and shut his laptop.
“This is a terrible plan.” Rush hadn't moved. His thoughts shattered in so many directions that Young didn’t have a prayer of following them. “We're only several hundred thousand kilometers away from the planet; we need to finish our repairs on the drive. Until such a point, we're easy targets.”
Young looked down at him. “Containing a possible plague is the priority. You're going to the infirmary.”
“No.” Rush got to his feet. “The risk of discovery while we take hours, if not days, to configure and run decontamination protocols is much greater than the possibility of a virus lasting for millennia on exposed equipment.”
“It wasn't all exposed," Eli said quietly. “Some of it was in the shelters. Also, does this kinda look like dried blood to you?” He pointed at the kino.
Young didn't bother to inspect the device. “Infirmary. Both of you. Now.”
“Going.” Eli tucked his laptop under one arm. He took a few steps toward the door, but paused when he realized Rush hadn't followed him.
Young glared at his chief scientist.
“No,” Rush said.
“Are you refusing a direct order?” Young asked.
“Looks that way.” Rush replied, casual insouciance draped over a live wire.
Young smiled, brief and humorless.
Rush smiled back, a quick and feral flash of teeth.
God but this was gonna get ugly.
“Guys,” Eli whispered. “Rush. Come on, man. We can work the software side from the infirmary. If Volker and Brody have finished installing the new part we can get it operational remotely.”
“You should listen to him,” Young said.
“Eli.” Rush’s gaze was locked on Young. “Go. We’ll meet you there.”
“Um, no offense, but terrible plan. Really really bad. I’m thinking we all just go together.” Eli stood very still, one hand resting on the monitor bank.
“Out,” Young growled.
“Go,” Rush said. “Now.”
“If one of you gets murdered, I’m going on strike.” Eli crossed the room, hit the door controls, locked them in an open configuration, then threw a pointed glare over his shoulder as he left.
As soon as he was gone, Young rounded on Rush. //We deal with this contagion now.// He stepped into the scientist’s personal space. //Before this gets out of hand. What the hell do you think you’re playing at?//
Rush held his ground. //What's necessary.// The scientist’s projection was cold. //The drive needs to be fixed. The risk of contagion is negligible. The risk of attack is considerable.//
//The risk of both is considerable. This isn’t your call.//
//You think you can stop me?//
//Go ahead and test me, Rush. Go right ahead.//
Rush's thoughts, which had been shattered into obfuscation, now slid, scalpel-like, into Young’s mind. //You’ve neither the means nor the will to prevent me from fixing that drive.//
//You don’t think so? I left you to die, Rush. Or have you forgotten?// They were inches apart.
The corner of Rush's mouth twitched. //Oh, I remember it quite clearly.//
They locked eyes. Their thoughts resonated with the two-part harmony of a struggle amidst the rock and dust of a barren world.
//You will respect the chain of command.// Young’s projection was a mental snarl.
//I’ll do no such thing. I will, instead, walk out of this room.// Rush’s eyes glittered. //And you?// The scientist shifted his stance with a blaze of pain in both feet. //You’ll watch me do it.//
And this, Young realized, was how things were gonna go.
Rush would hold Young's own sense of duty, his own sense of honor against him, and bet that no matter what he tried to pull, Young wouldn't stop protecting his mind against Destiny. If Young gave in now, it’d be Rush who was in control. Rush. Despite all Young's advantages over the man—physically, psychically, hierarchically—it’d be Rush who would come out on top.
It was absurd.
Who held themselves hostage?
What the hell kind of strategy was that?
It was a bluff.
It had to be.
//I'll block.// Young shot back. //I’ll block completely. And you’ll be shit outta luck, with a thousand-yard stare. If you can keep your goddamned eyes open.//
//You won't,// Rush hissed. //You don’t have the fuckin’ nerve to make good on a threat of that magnitude. And so. You’ll let me walk out of here, right now, and repair that drive. Not because it's the right thing to do, which it is, but because you won’t stop me.//
They stared at one another, breathing hard.
“Don’t test me,” Young said, low and quiet. “Not with this.”
The corner of Rush’s mouth quirked. Like the guy was goddamned amused. Without another word, the scientist whirled and headed for the door.
Young clenched his jaw. He crossed his arms. He stared at the base of the nearest console. And then, with a lack of warning that felt vicious, that felt unfair, he slammed his block into place. Quickly and completely.
The agony in his hands and feet vanished like he’d flipped a damn switch.
Rush went down fluidly, without a fight. As though his strings had been cut.
Young approached, his jaw clenched tight enough to crack his teeth. He dropped into a crouch next to the other man. Carefully, with as little contact as possible, he untangled the scientist from his crutches, then grabbed Rush’s jacket. “You son of a bitch.” He flipped the man onto his back. “You’re a real piece of work.”
Young braced his fingertips against the floor and forced himself to look at what he’d just done.
Rush’s eyes were half-open. They flicked back and forth between Young and the empty air. His gaze was unfocused. He couldn’t summon a shred of muscle tension anywhere. His breathing was slow.
Young broke out in a cold sweat.
He pulled out his radio. “TJ.” His vocal cords spasmed. He cleared his throat and tried again. “TJ, what’s the status on the quarantine?”
Rush twitched. Weakly, he arched his back. He tried to lift his head. Just when it looked like he might get some traction, he went slack against the deck plating.
TJ’s voice crackled from the radio. “Out of the original group, I've rounded up everyone except for Thomas, Brody, Volker, and Rush. We're tracing secondary contacts. The list of exposed crew members is gonna be long.”
Rush made a quiet, distressed sound in the back of his throat. His brow furrowed as he levered himself up on one elbow.
Young backed off and let him try.
The guy made it about two inches off the floor before he collapsed back. His breathing evened out.
Young swallowed. “Lieutenant Thomas, this is Colonel Young, respond please.”
In a semi-coordinated lunge, Rush made it halfway onto his side before Young grabbed a handful of his jacket to keep him on his back.
“Stop,” Young whispered. He let go quickly, trying to minimize contact.
Rush’s gaze fixed on him, a flash of pure fire, then slid away as he lost his grip on himself. Again, he relaxed against the deck plating.
Young’s radio crackled. “Thomas here, I was just on my way to the infirmary.”
"Swing by the control interface room on your way.”
“Yes sir. Thomas out.”
Young knelt, balanced on the balls of his feet and his fingertips. He did his best to keep his expression neutral, but he wasn’t sure it mattered; Rush was ignoring him. The scientist’s gaze was fixed on something else—above, and to his left.
Young looked uneasily at the empty air.
Rush kicked out in his most coordinated effort yet, toppling a chair. It tipped into an adjacent chair; both hit the floor with a metallic clang.
"Yeah, that'll get you far.” Young growled. Sweat ran down his spine. “Give it up, Rush. You go to the infirmary, cool down, and I’ll let you help Eli fix the FTL drive. From quarantine.”
The scientist shot him a murderous glare and kicked out again, this time connecting with the metal base of the nearest console.
“Rush,” Young hissed, instinctively braced against the shock of pain that didn’t come. “You’re done.”
Rush kicked the console again, same foot, much harder.
The man was using pain to ground himself against the pull of the ship.
“God damn it.” Young grabbed the material at each shoulder of Rush's jacket and dragged him away from the console, toward the middle of the room.
“Fuck. You.” The words were slurred, but mostly intelligible. Rush slammed the same foot into the floor.
“Stop,” Young said.
Rush did it again.
“Stop,” Young said.
Rush did it again.
Young winced, imagining broken edges of bone grinding against each other, and the feeling of unhealed muscle and tendons tearing open. Sweat poured off his forehead. He had no idea how to back out of this confrontation. He wanted to grab the man’s foot, but he was pretty damn sure that wouldn’t end well. The scientist’s strength and coordination weren’t under his control. They weren’t predictable. A physical fight was a terrible idea.
“Stop,” Young said quietly. “You have to stop this.”
Rush levered himself up on one elbow.
“Rush,” Young whispered.
In a savage, poorly coordinated movement, Rush flipped himself over. He clawed at the floor and dragged his left foot beneath him, driving it down into the deck plating.
Young didn't even want to think about what that felt like.
Rush lifted his head. His eyes were livid. He grinned at Young, his expression was full of spite and wildfire. He surged to his feet, crutches in hand, just as Thomas rounded the open door frame.
“Sir?” The lieutenant asked, confused at finding Young on the floor at Rush’s feet. “Everything okay?”
“Ah,” Rush said, recovering his breath, “Lieutenant Thomas. Impeccable timing. Colonel Young,” Rush gave his name a venomous twist, “would like you to escort Volker and Brody back to the infirmary while I finish repairs on the FTL drive.”
Thomas shifted uneasily.
“Wasn’t that right?” Rush glared down at him. “Colonel.”
The only way Young was gonna win this one was at gunpoint.
“Yeah,” Young ground out. He glanced at Thomas, then returned his gaze to Rush. “You get yourself stuck in a wall and no one’s gonna be there to pull you out,” he growled. “Understood?”
“Perfectly,” Rush replied silkily. He crossed the room and rounded the open doorframe without so much as a backward glance.
Young sat on the floor, blindsided by what had just happened.
“You, um, you okay, sir?” Thomas asked, his eyes flicking uneasily to the corridor, where, no doubt, Rush was making his way down the hall. Straight-shouldered. Faster than he had any right to be.
“Yeah,” Young whispered. He got painfully to his feet, fighting his own confusion, fighting his own despair, fighting a sense of admiration at his chief scientist’s pure goddamned grit.
As usual, Young had laid down his cards, and Rush had called with everything he’d had. There was no question about it; Young’d lost that round. Like he'd lost most of them.
Once Young was on his feet, Thomas headed for the FTL drive. Young made for the infirmary. When he arrived, be wove through clusters of quarantined personnel perched casually on gurneys or leaning against the wall. Becker, James, and Evans had started a card game on an open patch of floor.
Young headed for TJ’s office. “What's our status?” he asked, as he rounded the doorframe.
TJ looked up from a datapad she’d been studying. “So, there's good news and bad news.”
“I’ll take the bad first.”
"I scanned a random sample of Destiny's air filters, and we definitely have a new pathogen on board. A virus. At first glance—it matches the parameters of the Ancient plague,” she said, dropping her voice so it wouldn’t carry beyond her open office door.
“Yeah.” Young made no effort to conceal his bone-deep exhaustion. “Of course it does.” He looked over his shoulder and spotted Eli across the room, sitting on a gurney with Barnes. He motioned the kid over.
"When it rains, it pours.” TJ rubbed her shadowed eyes. “What tipped you off about a possible contagion?”
“Some video footage from the planet.”
“I’ll take a look," she said. “See if there's anything medically useful.”
“Knock yourself out. You said there was good news?”
“We've got the list of affected personnel.” She showed him her datapad.
“This is the good news? There must be thirty names on here.”
“I told you it’d be long,” she replied.
“You did.” He scanned the list. “Get Camile and Chloe to help round up the civilians on here before they join us.”
“Already done,” she replied. “Where's Rush?”
“He’s, uh, he’s repairing the FTL drive.”
“Oh really?” Eli said archly, from behind Young’s shoulder. “Interesting.”
Young shot the kid a sharp look, then shifted to make way in the doorframe. Eli slipped past him, a laptop tucked beneath his arm.
“Rush needs to be back here before we start up Destiny's decontamination protocol,” TJ said. “I've given instructions for all unaffected personnel to stay in their quarters with their doors shut.”
“We have decon protocols now?” Eli asked. “Sweet.”
“What kind of protocol are we talking, here?” Young asked.
“From the description in the database, it sounds like a powerful, prolonged pulse of UV radiation. It should sterilize everything except the occupied crew quarters and the infirmary. We can run a separate decon protocol on those once we've started clearing people who aren't infected. The main downside is we’ll lose the hydroponics lab. Again.”
Young rubbed his jaw. “That’s not gonna be popular.”
“Neither are Ancient plagues,” TJ replied. “Park has a backup seed bank in her quarters, so we won’t have to start from scratch.”
“Keep working on a way to test the crew for this bug.” Young said. “We can't sustain thirty people in here for long.”
“I know.” She shot him a significant look.
“TJ, can we use your office for a few minutes?” Young asked.
She nodded, then headed out to the main floorspace of the infirmary. Young hit the door controls and they slid shut behind her.
“Let's have that talk.” Young parked himself on the edge of TJ’s desk.
“So you were right?” Eli dropped into TJ’s chair. “There is a plague? Why can’t we ever go to a planet and find like—oh, I don’t know, a bunch of super-portable delicious food? Or crates of Ancient romance novels? Or maybe just a nice beach?”
“Eli,” Young said.
“In other news, you being totally right about this will really piss Rush off, so there’s that.”
“I don’t think I need to be looking for ways to piss Rush off right now,” Young said, rubbing his sore knee.
“Yeah, good point,” Eli said.
“How’d your talk with McKay go?”
“Which do you want first, the bad news, the terrible news, or the silver lining?”
“Whatever,” Young said tiredly.
“Okay. We'll go with the bad news, which is: they’ve figured out how the stones work. It involves quantum entanglement. Are you familiar with that at all?”
Young shook his head.
“It’s a way to transfer information instantaneously over large distances. The details aren't important. The key thing here is that when you exchange consciousness—es, or whatever, that interaction leaves a quantum ‘imprint’ on you.” Eli paused, to make sure Young was following him. “They've created a workaround that allows someone on Earth, using the Earth-based terminal, to recapture an interaction with a person they've previously switched with.”
“Okay,” Young said slowly, “how is that terrible news?”
“Actually, that's the bad news, but I haven't even told you the bad part yet, which is that our terminal? It doesn't even have to be on or even in existence for this to work. As long as they’ve got the pattern they want, they initiate on their end, and it's over. Swapped.”
“How do they target a particular person, though?”
Eli nodded. “The device stores the imprints of people's consciousness, and they have access to, say, Telford, so they can map his pattern. After that, it's just a matter of looking for his pattern at the times that he was known to have switched with Rush, separating the two with a little Fourier Transform, and then—bang. They have the imprinted signature.”
Young rubbed his jaw. “Okay, so what's the terrible news?”
“The terrible news,” Eli said grimly, “is that not only do they have Rush’s signature? They’ve been ready to go for a while now. Carter and McKay have thrown up what roadblocks they can, but there's a lot of pressure. A lot. Especially from the senate subcommittee and the IOA.”
Young looked at the ceiling.
“Yeah,” Eli said. “I know. Chloe's mom, actually, is one of the main forces behind this push."
“You said there was a silver lining?”
“McKay rigged up a safeguard into the device itself. Ideally, it’ll shut the device down if data flow is above a certain threshold. At the very least, it’ll prevent Rush from dragging Destiny into someone’s Milky Way brain if they kidnap his consciousness. It might prevent them from locking onto him entirely. It’s something, at least.”
“Not good enough,” Young growled. “We need a better option.”
“You want something definitive.” Eli looked at him steadily. “Something that would definitely, for sure, prevent non-consensual swaps?”
“Well, there’s only one option I can think of. And it won’t be easy.”
“We destroy their terminal,” Young murmured.
“Yeah. That would cut off all communication. For good."
“What would happen to the person who switches to do that?”
“Not sure. They might switch back when the connection is severed. Or, they might not. Even if someone volunteered—” Eli trailed off.
“There’s someone on the other side who didn’t,” Young sighed. “I know.” He crossed his arms and stared at the floor. “Think we could convince McKay to do it?”
“Treason is kinda a lot to ask of a guy who’s done nothing but help us. I think you should tell them,” Eli whispered. “Tell them why they can’t pull him back. Go in there, confront them about their garbage plan, and tie the entire thing up in as much red tape as you can.”
“Eli,” Young whispered, “I’m pretty sure Rush being linked to the ship’ll be an additional incentive for them to do this, given how much of a shit-show the relationship is between our Science Team and Homeworld Command. As for confronting this head on—I can’t go. Not even to deliver a report.”
The situation would’ve been simpler if Rush hadn't been linked to the ship. The only thing at stake would have been the personal agency of his chief scientist.
Not the entire crew of Destiny.
“We need more time,” Young whispered.
“Have you considered sending Chloe?” Eli asked. “She could work her mom, and maybe she could even team up with McKay—he’d help us if we come up with a plan that won’t send him to jail for treason. I’m sure he would—” he trailed off as their radios crackled.
“Thought you might like to know,” Rush said, broadcasting on all channels, “that we’re registering multiple contacts on long-range sensors. Someone not currently under quarantine may wish to proceed to the bridge and—”
The deck plating trembled, followed by the unmistakable sound of weapons fire impacting the shields.
“Can you interface with sensors from here?” Young asked, pushing Eli ahead of him out of TJ's office.
“Never tried it, but, probably.” Eli took TJ’s place at the wall-mounted terminal.
Although the infirmary was full of people, it was nearly silent.
Eli made a few quick passes through menus on the console before he had long-range sensors pulled up. “That’s a command ship,” he said tightly, pointing to the screen, “and we’ve got incoming drones.”
“Rush,” Young said into his radio. “How are you coming with that drive?”
“Suddenly interested, are we?”
“Rush,” Young growled.
The other man didn't reply, but Eli waved a hand as he scrolled through submenus on TJ’s console, letting out a shuddery breath. “He's doing fine. He’s doing amazing, actually. He’s already got it online and half spun up. Hang on, I’ll check the timing—”
With a familiar, gut-wrenching jolt, the ship jumped to FTL.
“Never mind,” Eli said dryly. “We’re fine.”
The personnel in the infirmary let out a collective breath.
“As I stated,” Rush's clipped voice came from Young's radio, projecting across the crowded room. “It wouldn’t take long, and it would be worth it.”
There were a few sporadic cheers, some uncommitted hand clapping, and a smattering of eye rolls from around the room.
“Just get down here,” Young said, mindful of the fact that he was in front of a room full of people. “We're waiting on you to run the decon protocol.”
“You're not planning to use this opportunity to irradiate me? How thoughtful.”
“Not today,” he said shortly. “Young out.”
It took the scientist thirty-five minutes to make it from the FTL drive to the infirmary
Way the hell too long.
Young posted himself next to the infirmary doors, leaning against a wall, his arms crossed. He’d just about decided to break his own quarantine order to go look for the scientist when Rush finally entered the room.
The man looked awful.
He was visibly exhausted. His hair clung to his forehead in damp tendrils. His breath came fast and shallow. His expression was locked into an icy neutrality. He scanned the room and immediately pinned Young with a challenging glare as the infirmary doors swished shut behind him.
Young caught TJ’s eye. “Run it,” he said.
Her gaze flicked pointedly to Rush, then back to Young.
TJ turned back to her console.
Young pushed away from the wall and approached Rush. "Nice work," he offered, when he was within arms length of the scientist.
"Thank you.” Rush’s tone was cool.
They looked at each other in silence. Young watched Rush’s eyes lose focus, then snap back.
“You want me to lower my block?” he asked quietly.
Rush shot Young a venomous glare. “Unnecessary.”
“There was a virus, you know,” Young growled.
“Never said there wasn’t.” Rush glared at the empty air. “My entire argument was based on relative risk. I see your plan is proceeding more effectively than I had anticipated.”
“Uh, thanks.” There was an awkward pause between them. “You look like you need to sit down.”
Young glanced at the nearest gurney, about to relocate Park, Volker, and Greer, but before he could say anything, Rush stepped laterally and backed himself against the wall near the door. He slid down it slowly, favoring his left foot. Young stepped in to help.
Even though the block was still in place, the relief on Rush's face when Young closed a hand on his arm was painful to witness. The scientist leaned into Young’s grip, then, with what looked like an agonizing effort, ripped himself free. He staggered back a few paces along the wall.
“Don't touch me,” Rush hissed, backing away.
Young held both hands up, palms out.
They stared at one another, breathing hard, until—
“Hi.” Chloe slipped between them. “Can I steal you?” She looked hopefully at Rush. “I have, I don’t know, at least five problems, and they all start with q and end with ‘uantum mechanics.’ The Ancient database describes FTL travel as a matter wave. Eli doesn’t believe me, but I think when we travel like this,” Chloe glanced at Young, “we might have a little bit of a 𝛌=ℎ/mv situation happening?”
Rush tried and failed to fight down a small smile.
“Can I show you?” Chloe asked.
“This way,” Chloe took one of Rush’s crutches, and pulled his free arm over her shoulder. “I’m set up in the back.” She glanced at Young. “Sorry, colonel.”
Young waved them on.
Hours passed. The decon wave ran its course, and TJ, using the information in Destiny's database, was able to start testing crew members. Young was one of the first to be cleared. He joined the rest of the unaffected crew in providing dinner to those still trapped in the infirmary. At 2200, he held his planned 1700 briefing with his senior staff, minus TJ, Rush, and Chloe.
It was nearly midnight by the time he circled back to the infirmary to check on TJ's progress. He stopped outside the closed doors and pulled out his radio.
“TJ, how's it going in there?”
“Not bad.” She sounded exhausted. “I was just about to open the doors.” The paneled metal slid aside. She stood in the opening, backlight leaking through strands of her hair.
“Hi,” Young whispered.
“Hey,” she said, her voice a waterfall of sympathy. “I finished the decon of the main infirmary. It's just the isolation room that's left. You can come in.”
“What's the damage?” Young asked.
“All in all,” she said, “we were lucky. Chloe and Rush are still in isolation. I’m waiting on their test results. So far, no one's come up positive, which is surprising, considering the level of airborne particles we detected. It may be that humans have some kind of inherent immunity.”
“It's about time we got a break,” Young said.
“Can't lose them all.” TJ’s smile was exhausted.
“So, Chloe and Rush?”
“The diagnostics for them aren't as clear. It took me some time to design a test, and even now I can't guarantee you it'll be accurate. Even though Chloe was changed back by the aliens who took her, she still has some significant genetic ‘leftovers.’ And, well, you know the story with Rush.”
“Yup," Young looked away. “If he's sixty percent Ancient, will he be more susceptible?”
“Possibly,” TJ said quietly. “It's hard to say. Sometimes immunity to a pathogen comes down to a single genetic variant. But—it’s likely.”
“When will you know?”
“Probably not until tomorrow morning.”
Young nodded. “Keep me posted.”
“They're back there, if you want to say hi.” TJ motioned to the room at the rear of the infirmary. “Don’t pass the doorway, or you’ll disrupt the isolation field.”
“I’ll be in my office, if you need anything.”
Young wound his way through the deserted infirmary, tracing an indirect path between empty gurneys to approach the isolation suite obliquely. He did his best to shove his dread down into the basement of his brain. It didn’t go easily.
A pale blue field flickered across the threshold of the room. Beyond it, he could hear Chloe, quiet and skeptical. “This is really complicated.”
“And you expected something simple from a macro-scale quantum matter wave harboring a self-contained region of discontinuous spacetime, did you?” Rush was more amused than irritated. “You’ve got an approximation of the driver wave, created by the shields. Start with that. The square of the wave function has a probabilistic interpretation and therefore must meet certain physical requirements.”
“Meaning, if you’re correct, when y’integrate over all space the total probability should equal one. Demonstrating as much would be a reasonable first step.”
“Integrate over all space?” Chloe echoed. “You integrate over ‘all space,’ how about? I'll sit on the floor drinking fake coffee, pretending my pen is a cigarette, and backseat math-drive. With my feet up.”
Young raised his eyebrows and leaned a shoulder into the wall.
“Multiply 𝜳 by its complex conjugate, and integrate for all values of x, please,” Rush said, with amused patience.
“That’d be a single dimension.”
“Noticed that, did you? I’m feeling particularly magnanimous right now, but if you want to tackle a triple integral I won’t stop you.”
“Ugh. Can you just show me?”
“No. I can’t stand, and I'm shit when it comes to arithmetic.” The scientist paused. “Don’t tell Eli I said that.”
“You're not 'shit' at it,” and Young could almost hear her making scare quotes with her fingers. “So, for 𝜳(x) to be a physically acceptable wave function it needs to be—um, you said single-valued and finite?”
“The state function needs to be single-valued, continuous, and finite,” Chloe whispered to herself. “Okay.”
“Its first derivative also needs to fulfill those criteria,” Rush added. “If it does, it’s considered well-behaved.”
“That is the technical term.”
“Okay well, chances that our collective matter wave is ‘well-behaved’ just went to zero,” Chloe said.
“Oh very clever,” Rush replied.
“I thought so,” Chloe said airily.
“If you’re done amusing yourself, you can integrate 𝜳(x) multiplied by its complex conjugate with respect to x over all space in three dimensions. That’ll give you the probability density map.”
“Yeah yeah,” Chloe muttered. “Zero to a, zero to b, zero to c? This is pretty tame compared to what it would look like if we were accounting for the spacetime bubble, but I guess we gotta start somewhere.”
“Dr. Rush?” Chloe sounded alarmed.
Young started forward, but then—
“Chloe,” Rush’s usual snap was totally lacking in energy.
“Oh my god, what was that?” Chloe whispered. “Are you okay? You looked like you were about to pass out.”
“I’m fine,” Rush replied.
“That won’t work on me. Sorry. We’ve been friends for a while now, and—”
“We're not friends," Rush said dryly.
“I hate to break it to you, but yes we are. This?” She paused for emphasis. “This is what friends do. They sit around and they drink fake coffee and they talk about their problems, okay? The only difference is that our problems involve alien takeovers and quantum oscillators rather than boys, or makeup, or whatever.”
“What?” Rush sounded like he’d choked on his water, or whatever was passing for pretend coffee these days.
Young really wished he could see the other man's face.
“You heard me,” Chloe said sternly.
“Fine,” Rush coughed.
“As I was saying,” Chloe continued, “We’ve been friends for a while now. So don’t give me the same crap you give Eli. The chair did something to you. It changed you, like they changed me. I can tell.”
Young leaned against the wall and stared at the faintly glowing isolation field across the door, his eyebrows lifted.
“Does Colonel Young know?” Chloe asked.
“Yes, he most definitely knows.” Rush sounded exhausted.
“Come on,” Chloe said. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“I'm more interested in how you figured it out,” Rush said.
“There's something about the way you look,” Chloe murmured. “As if you're listening to something we can't hear.”
Rush said nothing.
“What is it?” Chloe asked.
“Crystal harmonics,” Rush confessed.
“Are they pretty?” Chloe asked.
“Are they fuckin’ ‘pretty’?” Rush sounded like he was on the verge of laughter. “Did you seriously just ask me that?”
“Well, are they?” Chloe shot back.
“Of course they are,” Rush replied.
“I figured,” Chloe said, after a short pause.
Young leaned against the infirmary wall, just outside the isolation room and looked up at the ceiling, his expression locked.
“They’ve got quite a hold over me,” Rush confessed.
“I can tell,” Chloe whispered. “I know something about that kind of hold.”
“I expect y’would,” Rush said gently. “Any advice?”
“Not really,” Chloe said. “I’m just glad they’re beautiful.”
Young shut his eyes. Then he turned and walked out of the infirmary.