Force over Distance: Promise
“Fulmen micat,” Chloe whispers in the darkness.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Midnight. Hover-to-discover is intact.
Additional notes: None.
When the lights dial themselves down, Chloe does a few yoga poses. Subtle ones. A balance. A sustained stretch. Her thighs ache. She holds her tension there. She slips off her shoes, she climbs onto her gurney, and she huddles beneath the thin blanket.
She adjusts the volume on her radio, flips away from the science team channel, back to it, and says, “Chloe to Eli.”
“Hey Chloe,” Eli says, like he says every night. “You doin’ okay?”
“Yeah,” she murmurs. “Just a volume check.”
“Okay,” Eli says. “Personal request while I’ve got you on the line: don’t have the plague, please.”
“I’ll do my best,” Chloe replies. “Good night, Eli.”
“G’night; Eli out.”
Chloe closes her eyes, curls around her radio and thinks of Matt. He’s corridors away. He’s on the other end of the radio in her hand. He’s on the safe side of the isolation field over the door.
She thinks of Eli, his brow furrowed, fingers flying over consoles, trying to understand what Dr. Rush was doing with the FTL drive, trying to implement his own solutions at the same time. He has a confidence that’ll never come for her. She knows it won’t. It almost—can’t.
She was unmade.
Her genome was unzipped and rezipped—almost the same, forever different. She knows things she shouldn’t. What it is to rip thoughts from minds like flesh from bones.
It has to be.
She works with it.
But what had she done today, really? While Eli and Matt had been trying to figure out how to save the ship from an EM field, she’d calculated a ballistic trajectory for the colonel. Quick and easy. Nothing to be proud of. A high school student with a calculator and a solid grasp of Newtonian mechanics would’ve done just as well.
Chloe opens her eyes and looks at her quarantine buddy.
“I could have helped,” she says. “More than I did.”
Dr. Rush looks up at her, but he doesn’t say anything. He just seems confused. This makes Chloe feel even worse. Like he can’t even understand the idea that she might have been good for something other than a ballistic trajectory calculation.
“Never mind,” she says. “Just thinking out loud.”
“Helped with what?” he asks.
“Everything,” Chloe says. “On the bridge. They were trying to create a charge distribution over the hull that would offset the EM field. Well, Eli was trying to, anyway.”
Rush looks back at his laptop and makes a face like he thinks the Science Team manipulating charge density is really cute, but doesn’t want anyone to know he thinks that. “An’ how was he going about it?”
“He was trying to change the ionic output of the thrusters along an imaginary plane perpendicular to the vector between Destiny’s center of mass and a point source on the planetary surface where the field originated.”
“Hmm,” Rush says. “And what did you think about that?”
“I told him I thought we should rotate the ship to maximize planar surface area, to which he said ‘duh.’ But really I didn’t think the discrete nature of the thrusters would give us fine enough control to modulate the field. I also wasn’t sure we could approximate the origin of the field as a point source.”
Rush’s brow furrows, and he stares into space, considering. “I think it could be done,” he says. Then he smirks. “It’d take about three days of manual thruster refits to effectively execute.” He looks over at her. “What would you have done?”
“I think I might’ve tried a variation on what you did,” Chloe says. “The FTL drive is a de Broglie Engine.”
Rush stares at her.
“I know that’s not really a thing,” Chloe says. “But if it did exist, that’s what the drive would be. It renders us as a matter wave when we move at FTL. My plan was less to use it the way you did, as a very this-phase, physical counter to a field gradient permeating our space? But more to have it match our phase to the planetary phase. Like, yeah, we’d have gotten pulled in, but we might have also been able to just—I don’t know. Hang out? Like colocalizing with the planet? And then when the planet shifts back, we shift to match, so we’re still colocalizing with it. We’re there, but we’re not stuck, y’know? And then you figure at some point the gradient has to shut off, right? Like, it would eventually run out of power. So then we just fly away, and once we’re clear, we revert to our original phase.”
There’s a long silence.
“Sorry,” Chloe says. “That was probably totally wrong.”
Rush quirks an eyebrow at her. “I’m stuck on the first part. Did y’just—coin the term ‘de Broglie Engine?’ On a fuckin’ Wednesday night?”
“Is it Wednesday?” Chloe tries not to smile.
Her idea has to be a good one, doesn’t it? Dr. Rush looks surprised. And impressed, even, a little bit. She presses her radio against her sternum and waits.
“I don’t keep track,” Rush confesses.
“I think it’s Monday,” Chloe says.
“How would you have matched the matter wave generated by the drive to the shift of the planet?”
“This is cheating a little bit, because I saw what you did, but I would have spun it up, not jumped, graphed a three-dimensional representation of the phase shifting based on readings from our hull as well as material from the solar system, then created an adaptive program to extrapolate gradient shifts and feed them into the FTL drive.”
“How far ahead would you be extrapolating?”
“Hmm,” Rush stares into space. “That might’ve worked. On the other hand, phase-shifting ourselves might've had unforeseen consequences. And then there was the away team on the planet. Hard to account for them.” He glances at her. “Why didn’t you present it as an option?”
“Well, you weren’t around, Colonel Young was on the planet, and the rest of the Science Team was all-in on Eli’s thruster idea.”
Rush quirks an eyebrow at her. “Excuses.”
“The bridge is fast-paced. I’m not good under pressure. I don’t like it.”
“Who cares?” Rush asks.
“That’s not very sensitive,” Chloe tells him, feeling a little disappointed. She threads her thumbs through the little thumb-holes in her track jacket.
“No, sorry, I mean who cares about your bridge performance?”
“Well, I care.”
“Right. My point is, we’re doing your key insight a massive disservice here. Conceptualizing the FTL drive as a de Broglie Engine opens a range of applications well beyond the escape of one obelisk planet one time. I’m already over it. Y’realize, if you’re right, we can phase shift? Y’realize, if you’re right, the drive is likely connected to Destiny’s fundamental purpose. Y’realize, if you’re right—” he breaks off, staring into empty air.
“Dr. Rush?” Chloe asks, hesitantly.
His eyes snap back to her, like he’s just remembered she exists. “Chloe.”
“This is perfect for you. Y’have an emerging flair for quantum applications of pure math. That’s what the drive is. That’s its nature. It’s a real-world correlate of a quantum application of a pure math principle.”
She feels a gush of hope right under the place where her radio presses to her chest. The FTL drive is for her. Perfect for her. He’d said it. And she’s always loved the drive. Even before they took her. Even before derivatives and integrals had been a part of her vocabulary—she’d loved the look of the drive. Of the shield emissions. The way they blurred for a passing matter wave, even if she hadn’t understood what it meant.
“I’ll work on it more,” Chloe says, hearing the excitement in her own voice. “I’ve just scratched the surface of what’s in the database.”
“Start making notes,” Rush says. “We can turn it, at a minimum, into a descriptive review. It can’t be published externally of course, but Colonel Carter will see it. Dr. McKay.
“Just me?” Chloe asks. “I’m the only one working on it? Not anyone else?”
“Just you,” Rush smiles faintly. “Well. Maybe we’ll have Volker read it for typos.”
“I bet he’s really good at finding typos,” Chloe whispers, trying not to smile.
“Undoubtedly. More to the point, this’d be what you’d do in graduate school, y’know. Find a problem. Work on it with guidance. The only difference is that real graduate school would be much easier, and without the constant—” he waves a hand to encompass the isolation field over the door.
She knows that in the real world, she’d have no chance of making into a graduate program in mathematics. But, maybe, this is better. She’ll learn more here. She’ll see applications of math and physics no “real” graduate student would dream of. Maybe she won’t have the security of credentials, of a “real” PhD, but even if she had those things, it wouldn’t magically fix her confidence.
That’s shattered. Maybe forever.
But the math doesn’t care whether she believes in herself or not. It’s there. It just is. That’s what makes it math. It’s woven into the fabric of all things. The more she learns, the more she can help. She wants to help. She wants to be good at something. Really good. She wants to take some of the burden that the Science Team shoulders. She wants to make their lives easier. Safer. Better.
She hopes she’ll get the chance to see it through.
“Do you think we have a plague?” Chloe whispers.
“No,” Rush says dryly. “You can go to sleep. No need to stay up documenting your FTL insights for posterity.”
“I wasn’t thinking that,” Chloe says, even though she was.
“Mmm hmm.” Rush gives her a sidelong look. “You have my personal guarantee that you’ll survive until morning.”
Chloe whispers a goodnight to Matt. The infirmary lights dim without anyone touching them; probably they’re on some kind of automated timer. She shuts her eyes, pulls the blanket over her shoulder, and focuses.
Every night, as she falls asleep, she tries to hold something positive in her mind. Tonight will be easy.
The FTL drive is perfect for her.
The FTL drive is perfect.
Perfect for her.
She floats in a glass cage. Her hair fans above and around her. Her eyes are closed. The space beneath her eyelids where the tears well up is the only place she feels warm.
They’ve torn information out of her mind, unfolding the excesses and the vanities of her species from memories of Harvard, the halls of the US Senate, in low heels, in high heels, at her father’s side, at college parties, surrounded by alcohol and sweat and the press of other people. They’ve unpacked all she knows of political theory and math and science. Over and over they’ve studied the stillness of her mind at the peak of the parabola she’d made when she’d jumped from the safety of a swing into crisp September sun that time when she was seven; they’ve let her fall and snap her arm and weep. From that they’ve taken the context of tears.
Something cracks against the glass. Her hands come up. Her eyes snap open. It’s hard to see through the water, the glass, and into the air beyond, but—there’s a dead man on the opposite side of the barrier. The energy of his movement and the set of his shoulders is vivid. Unmistakable.
Dr. Rush drives the metal he holds into the glass again and again until it shatters and she’s falling, flowing down and out with the saline into a soaking mess on the floor.
He kneels over her, snaps the transmitter off her temple, and pulls the breathing apparatus off her face.
They stare at each other. They’re soaking wet. Their feet are bare. Both of them shake with cold. He touches her face. She grabs his forearms.
“It’s okay.” He says it over and over again.
She says nothing.
He pulls her to her feet.
She can feel them, the others, in a disfigured corner of her mind.
The deck plating rocks with a familiar energy blast hitting a foreign shield. “Oh god,” Chloe whispers. “Where are we going?”
“This way.” Rush leads her out of the room with the shattered tank and into the nearest hall.
“I can’t go back.” Her voice is barely audible. “I shouldn’t. They did something to me.”
He makes a distressed sound in the back of his throat and shakes her once, his fingers closing around her upper arms. “I won’t leave you here.” Every word is snapped in half with the cold. He pulls her forward, fingers closed around her wrist. That’s the end of their argument.
Another blast knocks them off their feet. Chloe comes to her knees on the deck plating and looks over at Rush. His eyes are shut. His lips and nail beds are blue with the cold. His expression is tight with pain. He has a hand over his chest, right over his heart. She wonders how he got here, what they’ve done to him, and, god, god, they left him on that planet almost a week ago.
In here, on this ship, that’s an eternity.
“Promise me something,” she says, but no sound passes her lips.
Chloe wakes with a gasp, her breath sobbing in her throat. She doesn’t know where she is. Her heart pounds. Her hands, clutching a thin blanket, are pressed to her chest. It’s dark. It’s not her quarters. It’s not her bedroom. It’s not—
“Chloe,” Dr. Rush says, very close to her.
She turns her head and sees him, sitting cross-legged on an adjacent gurney, icepacks taped to his feet, his computer open in front of him, the screen glowing softly.
She’s in the infirmary.
She tries to slow her breathing.
A pale blue forcefield stretches across the door to the room.
Right. She remembers now. She takes a shuddering breath. Then another. Then another.
She’s here because she might have a plague. She probably doesn’t. But she might. That’s what’s happening. Slowly she scrapes the pieces of her day back into her mind. The phase wave, Eli’s thruster idea, the quarantine, and—
The FTL drive. And how it’s for her.
“Sorry.” she curls again around her radio, wishing for Matt, who holds her now, when this happens. “Sorry.” She can’t look at him. Her vision blurs with tears.
She tries to focus on the good part of the dream. Not what had happened—the terror and the torture and the pain. Not what'd come after—the change and the fear and the way she’d almost died; the way Dr. Rush had almost died. Just the part of the dream where he breaks the glass. Only that part. The fragile chance of meeting him on the deck of an alien ship when she’d been missing and he’d been dead.
“Since you’re awake anyway,” Rush murmurs, “y’may as well take a look at this.”
Chloe wipes her eyes on her sleeve. She slips off her gurney and wraps her blanket around her shoulders. She crosses the short distance and climbs up next to him. He shifts to make room for her. “We haven’t done Night Math in a while,” she whispers. Her voice is wet and raw.
“Speak for yourself,” Rush says dryly. “I do ‘Night Math’ every night. You’re the one who’s been spending her free time with Lieutenant Scott.”
“Yeah,” Chloe agrees, wishing for Kleenex. She wipes her nose on her sleeve. “We kinda moved in together. It’s weird if I leave for math at 3 AM. Hard to explain.”
“Your loss,” Rush smirks.
It is, a little bit. Chloe looks over his shoulder. He’s been reading through the Ancient database and he has an entry open that’s full of graphical representations of wave equations, evolving in real time. “Oh wow,” she whispers. “Where’d you find this?”
“I indexed by entries containing the term ‘onda materiae’,” Rush says absently. “I got more than I bargained for.”
“De nexum inter CQL et ascensum?” Chloe reads. “What’s CQL?”
“Citius quam lux,” Rush says.
Chloe looks at him, frowning. “They called it CQL?”
“Why d’you think we call it FTL?”
“The military loves acronyms?” Chloe shrugs.
Rush smirks. “That they do.”
“What’s with the accent?”
“What accent?” Rush asks.
“You speak Ancient with what I’m guessing is a native accent now,” Chloe says, feeling a little swoop of unease. She sniffs, and wipes her nose again on her sleeve. “Didn’t you know? It sounds, uh, really legit, compared to two-weeks-ago you.”
Rush looks back at the screen.
“Is that from the chair?” Chloe whispers.
“I expect so.” Rush’s eyes are on the shifting wave functions.
“Why would that happen?”
Rush looks at her.
The infirmary is very quiet.
“There are things they would say,” he whispers, finally.
“Who?” Chloe whispers back.
“The Ancients,” Rush replies. “Dr. Jackson told me that. Years ago. Certain phrases. Before ascension. While attempting it. Specific words.”
“Fulmen micat,” Chloe whispers in the darkness.
Rush shivers. “Scintillae cadunt ut stillae.”
“They’re everywhere,” Chloe says. “All over the database.”
“Embossed on the walls of this ship,” Rush murmurs.
Chloe pulls her blanket tight around her shoulders, and inches closer to Rush. “What else did Dr. Jackson say?”
“He said that, while there was, certainly, a mystical, spiritual component to the process, at its heart, it remained troublingly physical. A physiological spectrum. Matter becomes energy. Energy travels as—” he looks at her, waiting for her to finish.
“Waves,” she whispers.
“Waves,” he agrees.
Chloe turns this over in her mind. “If the process is inherently physical, do you think their language itself is a part of it? The literal sound of it? The way it carries over the air? The way it’s rendered, electrochemically, in the mind?”
“Almost certainly.” Rush says softly. “Sound. The flow of charge—”
“Waves,” Chloe says.
They look at one another. Then Rush shakes himself and looks back at his laptop. He scrolls down through the entry, past the model of the evolving state function, through FTL drive schematics, until he reaches a set of short, paired equations. “You’re right about the nature of CQL. You can see here—when we drop out? This is a depiction of the collapse of a transit wave.”
“Can’t wait to rub Eli’s face in it.” Chloe pulls her feet beneath her and leans against Rush’s shoulder.
“Be merciless,” Rush advises, and she can hear the smile in his voice.
“Oh don’t you worry,” Chloe says.
They sit in silence. Chloe’s eyes are on the blue glow of the field over the door. Rush shivers again, and Chloe frees up half her blanket. She drapes it over his shoulders.
“Thanks,” Rush says, without sound.
“You seem worried,” Chloe whispers.
“No more than usual.” Rush’s tone is smooth.
Chloe is pretty convinced that for all the guy’s crazy Machiavellian rep, he’s one of the worst liars she’s ever met. “Should we tell the colonel about the matter wave thing?”
“We could do, yeah,” Rush says, his delivery dry. “Tell me, d’you enjoy being baselessly accused of treasonous plots involving the interconversion of matter and energy?”
“Hmm,” Chloe smiles. “Estne tempus ad aliam seditionem?”
This surprises a short laugh out of Rush. “I’d back you,” he says. “What do you propose?”
Chloe elbows him. “I’m kidding. I think he’s warming up to you.”
“You’re wrong,” Rush’s voice is flat. “The man’s the human equivalent of a brick wall. Obstructionist at best. Liable to be lethal if approached with sufficient velocity.”
Chloe sighs. “Brick walls can be nice sometimes. Have you ever been to New England? Carve out a window, paint some cute trim—”
“Chloe,” Rush says darkly.
“Okay okay. I know. But I have to say, today he did seem a little less brick-like than usual. I’m pretty sure he was trying to help you towards the end there.”
Rush sighs. “Maybe.”
“Which is why I had to save you,” Chloe whispers. “Because I know for a fact that nothing pisses you off more than people trying to help you. It’s the real reason you hate Volker so much.”
Rush makes an inarticulate noise of wounded disgust. “There’s no call for that.”
“Sorry.” Chloe tries to keep the smile out of her voice. “Low blow, I know.”
“Go back to bed,” Rush whispers.
“How about you tell me some more quantum mechanics.”
“Tell you quantum mechanics,” Rush echoes dryly.
“Yeah, don’t give me any more triple integrals, just, y’know, tell it to me.”
“I’m busy,” Rush says. “I’m not going to ‘tell you quantum mechanics’.”
“You’re not busy,” Chloe whispers. “You’re sitting by yourself in the dark thinking disturbing thoughts about matter waves. Here. I’ll start. Once upon a time, there was a particle in a box. The particle was an electron and the box had walls of infinite potential energy. Now you go.”
“At all points inside the box, the potential energy was equal to zero,” Rush continues. “The particle—”
“It’s an electron,” Chloe reminds him.
Rush rolls his eyes. “The electron’s position is described by a wave function 𝜳, satisfying the following primary conditions: one, 𝜳(x) is a continuous function; two, 𝜳(x) equals zero in a region where—” Rush pauses.
“Where it’s physically impossible for the particle to be,” Chloe whispers.
“Good. Three, 𝜳(x) approaches zero as x approaches positive and negative infinity, and, four, 𝜳(x) is a normalized function. Your turn.”
“If you want to interpret the absolute value of 𝜳(x) squared as a probability density, we must insist that 𝜳(x) allows this to happen. Acceptable solutions exist only for discrete energies. Quantization is built in.”
Rush sighs. “Not bad, Ms. Armstrong. This’d go better with some kind of formal curriculum. A textbook or two. Y’really should not be relying on the likes of me for quantum mechanics.”
“Why not?” Chloe asks.
“Well, for one, my field is computational complexity theory,” Rush says. “Don’t tell anyone this, but the person most qualified by training to run the Science Team would be,” he pauses dramatically and shifts so they can look at one another. “Dr. Dale Volker,” he confesses.
Chloe laughs in pure delight.
Rush smirks and looks away, into the darkness of the room.
“Oh I’m definitely telling him. Tomorrow morning. First thing.”
“See if he can speak reasonably about quantum mechanics while you’re at it. Maybe he’ll write you a textbook in his free time. He certainly has enough of it.”
“I bet he’d be a good lecturer,” Chloe murmurs. “Notes. Nerdy examples. Maybe a demo that goes wrong.”
“If he’s running a demo, it’ll certainly be going wrong,” Rush’s tone is dry, but there’s a hint of wistfulness beneath it.
“You, on the other hand, were probably terrifying. I’ll bet no one learned anything.”
“I’m kidding,” she says quickly. “So what’s computational complexity theory all about?”
“Determining what computers can and cannot do,” Rush says quietly, staring into empty space. “Assessing whether classes of problems are solvable or not, and with what resources.”
“You don’t talk about it much,” Chloe says.
“Other problems have been more pressing.” Rush’s gaze is fixed on the darkness, as though he’s watching something specific within it. “Most of them have involved life and death on compressed timescales. It’s been quite some time since I gave real consideration as to whether a large, intractable problem was solvable.”
“Why do I think you’ve got one in mind?” Chloe asks.
Rush’s expression softens. “Focus on the FTL drive, please.”
She nods, her cheek pressed against his shoulder. If she tries, she can feel the pure potential of her own position—a shifting wave in shifting spacetime, traveling faster than light itself—and it’s no wonder that the drops from FTL feel like a sickening crash back into material existence and the jumps to FTL feel like the sustain at the peak of a ballistic trajectory. And—
“The feeling,” Chloe murmurs, chasing gossamer strands of thought, “The feeling of a drop is the collapse of a wave function. The feeling of a jump is the waveform rendering itself. And that—that’s why the stones lose their hold when we jump or drop. It’s because matter is changing form.”
Rush stares into the darkness. “I think you’re right,” he whispers.