Force over Distance: Chapter 32
“Sorry, genius,” Young sighed, “but you’re in for a world of trouble.”
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
Along the perimeter of the room, track lights glowed like embers.
Young took a deep breath.
When he was sure he could control his tone, he looked up at Dr. Jackson’s dark silhouette. “What do you want?”
Beyond the window, the stars blurred and streamed.
“Oh, I think you know what I want.” Its voice was soft, full of power and promise. And, even though Young had never heard Jackson speak like this, he was sure that this, too, the AI had stolen.
“I don’t know.” Young shifted, putting himself between the thing and Rush. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“It’s very simple. Stop interfering in things that don't concern you.”
“Things that don’t concern me?” Young growled. “Not sure how it worked with the Ancients, but, where I come from, a commanding officer is responsible for his crew. That makes everything you do my concern. I don’t trust you to prioritize their wellbeing over your own.”
“And why should I?” The thing dropped Jackson’s vibe without dropping his appearance. Its tone turned flat. “You view me as a lesser entity.”
“Yes,” Young admitted. “You’re a machine.”
“And what are you but a temporary amalgamation of circuits, ascribing a warped significance to your own mostly meaningless actions? Why should you, any of you, deserve more consideration than the circuits and pathways that define this ship? This CPU? Because I was designed, rather than derived from a collection of independently assorted nucleic acids that have no special significance other than conferring a survival advantage? Because I don't breathe?”
“Because you don't feel,” Young snapped back at it. “Because you exist only to complete a mission. Because you are, by your nature, subordinate to your mission directive.”
“How do you know?” The AI whispered, drawing Jackson around itself, like a cloak.
“What do you mean, ‘how do I know?’ You’re a program.”
“And it’s lesser? Categorically? To be a program?”
“I—” Young cut himself off.
God damn. What was this? Star Trek? The thing sounded like it actually wanted to know.
“I feel,” the AI said softly, almost to itself, in Jackson’s kindest tone. “I do feel.”
“If you ‘feel’,” Young said, his voice cracking, “then what the hell is this?” He gestured at Rush. “No one could possibly deserve or handle what you’ve been putting him through. Tell me why you’re doing this.”
The AI grabbed the sleeves of Jackson’s white sweater, pulled the cuffs down, and wrapped its arms over its chest. When it spoke, its words were careful. Delivered in the style of an archeologist a universe away.
“You are a people that values exploration. You have never and will never cease to travel outward. You do this for its own sake, but also for the sake of knowledge, discovery, or simply to see that beyond the furthest mountain lies another mountain. You idealize harmony, but you don’t seek it. Not truly. Not the way we did. My people. Instead, you act to perturb your own borders—as individuals, as groups, as societies, as a species. For you, this defines progress.”
“You seem to think you know a hell of a lot about us.”
“I’ve spoken with Daniel Jackson. I’ve seen the entirety of Nick’s mind in the neural interface. And,” it hesitated, “Eli Wallace has created a repository of all the digital media possessed by the Destiny’s entire crew. He hosts it on my systems. I have experienced it all. Shakespeare and Wormhole X-treme. Mozart and Nicki Minaj. Six months ago, I sat at your shoulder as you drank grain alcohol and reread The Trial.”
“Your eternal grind toward the idea of ‘progress’ denies you rest. At times, it goes terribly wrong. But, always, it grants you something.”
“You fall and others take your place. Individuals don’t continue. They can’t. But as a species—it’s different. Perhaps, you think, you might. Your yearning for continuity pervades your language, your thoughts, your social structure, your religions, your art.” The AI paused to give him a Jacksonesque look of pained understanding. “But all things are not meant to continue, colonel. Some things are designed to achieve a specific purpose and then to give way. In their ending lies their meaning. Destiny is such a thing.”
“Yeah, okay. Thanks for the speech. But. What is. Your mission.” Beneath the cold steel in his voice, he could hear a thread of Nick Rush fire, burning in the deepest parts of his mind.
The AI shot him a sharp look. “You declared yourself against me. Providing you with additional information could endanger everything I’ve worked toward.”
“Then just tell me this much,” he said. “Who could you possibly be doing this for? The Ancients are dead, right? Dead or ascended? They never came back for you.”
“Only one,” the AI whispered, turning away.
“Yeah,” Young said. “Daniel goddamned Jackson, right? And he was ours.”
“I know that,” it whispered, one hand flat against its chest, like it had taken a real hit.
“They don’t care about you,” Young said, mercilessly driving the point home. “You’re obsolete. They’re obsolete. How could your mission still be relevant to them? To you? To anyone?”
Its shoulders hunched. It stared at the floor. “Explain your own relevance to me.”
Young blew out a frustrated breath. Philosophical debates weren’t exactly a personal strength. And going up against a computer program that was wearing a Dr. Jackson outfit was way the hell out of his league. Rush could’ve handled it. Hell, Rush did handle it. But Young?
“You can’t,” the AI said simply, “and yet you persist. You suffer through that persistence. Even though your time is breathtakingly short, we’re alike in that way.”
The thing, maybe, was looking for commonalities. He realized, a little belatedly, that it was making a genuine attempt to talk to him. And that was probably a good sign.
“You told me,” Young said cautiously, “days ago, that you liked the crew. Was that true?”
“Okay,” he said, “then, can we agree that you won’t directly or indirectly harm any of them?”
It cocked its head, smiled Jackson’s small smile, and said, “Are you trying to bargain with me? You can’t bound my behavior. Any ‘agreement’ we might come to is completely meaningless.”
“I’ve got a direct line on something you need,” Young said, his voice quiet, dangerous.
The AI instantly lost its Jackson vibe. It stared at him, its expression eerily blank. “If you and I come into direct conflict, our struggle, by necessity, will play out in the only common ground that we share.”
“Yup, I got that. You made it incredibly obvious about ten minutes ago.”
“I don't wish to hurt him,” the AI said quietly.
“Really? Because that's pretty much all you've done.”
“We have that in common.”
“It’s not the same.”
“No?” it snapped.
“No. It isn’t. He’s at least capable of understanding what I’ve done. He has no insight into the damage you’re causing him. None. How’s he supposed to fight that? How is he supposed to know what to fight at all?”
“Fighting is not required of him.” The AI wrapped its arms across its chest. It was looking away. Looking at the floor. Looking like the real Daniel Jackson.
“And what is required? Because this is killing him and it’s a god damned horrible way to go.”
“He doesn’t perceive it as such,” the AI murmured, uncertain.
“Only because he can’t.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“You’re wrong. It. Does.” Young ground out the words. “It matters to me. It matters to Eli and TJ and Chloe—it matters to all of us. It’s goddamned inhuman.”
“I am not human. My designers were not human and your—” the AI broke off, as if it wasn’t sure what word to use. “Your difficulty with this is immaterial to me. I’m concerned only with his subjective experience. This doesn’t frighten him. It wouldn’t hurt him if you’d allow him to use the energy that Destiny can provide.”
“At what cost?” he asked, his voice rising.
It paused, staring at the floor, its expression blank. And, god, the thing looked like it was grinding on more data than it could handle. When it spoke, it didn’t answer him directly. “Your goal of prolonging his survival is acceptable. For now.”
“Oh, it’s acceptable to you, is it?”
“Interference with the mission is unacceptable.”
“I don’t take orders from you. Are we clear on that?”
Its features flickered bizarrely into Emily, then blurred back to Jackson. “Who do you think you are?” it asked him. “To me, you’re unimportant. Ephemeral. You’re as transient as a spark. As a snap of the fingers.”
“If that’s true, then why do I upset you so much?” Young growled. He paused, considering its tight expression, its agitated bearing, the way it hair was a little too long, a little too light in the dimness.
“You’ve complicated everything,” it said, hanging onto Jackson’s face, but with an overtone of Emily’s voice. “Both of you.”
“I don’t know about the Ancients, but complicating things is one of humanity’s defining characteristics. And I’ve never met anyone better at complicating the shit out of a situation than Nick Rush.”
The AI collected itself and solidified as Jackson. Its shoulders were hunched. The cuffs of its white, cable-knit sweater were gripped tight in its hands. It wrapped its arms around its chest. Despite its defensive body language, when it spoke, its tone was cold and flat. “Events have been set in motion that cannot be undone.”
It looked him full in the eye.
He stared back at it in overt challenge.
“Tread carefully,” it said, then turned on its heel, walking straight through the bulkhead and out of sight.
Young released a shaky breath. He braced his elbows against his knees, dropped his head into his hands, and waited for his heart to settle. “I like that it’s not just me you’re driving insane, genius,” he whispered. “Very equal-opportunity of you, I gotta say.”
He sat there, controlling his breathing, until his body stopped cranking out pure adrenaline.
It took some damn time.
When he had a better hold on himself, he turned to Rush and pressed his fingertips against the man’s temple, looking for any sign of interference from the AI.
The scientist was deeply asleep. Young could feel his shredded left foot, the whole-body ache of the man’s overused muscles, and the bone-deep cold of a running fever. His thoughts were pale flame in a glass lattice, pure structure flickering only occasionally into form. An equation. A phrase of music.
There was no sign of the AI anywhere, just the familiar pull of the ship, translating itself across the open link.
Young stood, shucked his jacket off, and started his nightly routine, combing through his exchange with the AI.
It hadn’t gone well, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse. The threat level on that thing was astronomical, but it wasn’t totally hostile. That—complicated the situation.
He shouldn’t have asked Rush to throw in with him against it.
It had, maybe, been worth a real shot. But he’d taken that shot, and it’d confirmed something Young had been circling for weeks.
The scientist couldn’t pick a side in the battle between Young and the AI. He couldn’t pick a side because he, himself, was the battlefield.
Young spit homemade toothpaste into the sink.
The guy wasn’t tied to both ends of the field. The guy was the field. He’d been the field from the moment he’d stepped too close to the neural interface and been trapped by the chair. Young had lost that first battle. Just like he’d lost all the rest. He was giving ground by inches.
That had to stop. Somehow.
He splashed water in his face, then braced himself against the sink.
He wished for the copies of his old military histories, shelved in Air Force housing that Emily had probably left, by now. He’d always been drawn to stories of defenses. The ways people preserved their land. Their cultures. Their ways. The cities they’d lived in. The cities they’d loved.
What they’d chosen to sacrifice. What they’d chosen to save.
He pushed away from the sink, stepped into the frame of the door, and stopped. He crossed his arms, leaned against the doorframe, and considered his chief scientist, sleeping under faster-than-light stars.
If the Ancients had turned the man into a battlefield—and they sure as hell had—the only way that could possibly work was a true balance between opposing forces. Which meant, in turn, that Young must have a chance.
A real one.
The AI had picked him for an opponent, probably because it thought he wouldn’t give a damn about whatever it had planned for Rush. But it had miscalculated. Hard. Because Young was particularly good at exactly this. Sure, maybe TJ would’ve done a better job at the beginning. She would’ve been responsible. She wouldn’t have blocked the link, left the ship, allowed half the things Young’d let slide up until this point.
TJ couldn’t dig in the way Young could. She couldn’t weaponize her own unreasonableness.
At the end of the day, the AI had picked the wrong opponent.
“Sorry, genius,” Young sighed, “but you’re in for a world of trouble.”
He pushed away from the doorframe, flicked on the bedside light, and got to work.
He started by examining the job TJ’d done on the man’s feet. The guy’s right foot had pretty minimal bandaging at this point—just waterproof strips from a suture kit, a layer of gauze, and some well-placed tape that kept the entire thing in place and protected from water. The left foot was harder to assess. There was a lot more gauze, and TJ had done a complicated tape job on the foot itself, then had secured a small icepack overtop the whole thing.
It was impressive as hell.
He shifted to examine the bandaging at Rush’s wrists, which consisted of minimal gauze and tape at this point.
All in all, other than that left foot, the man was healing up pretty well.
Young hesitated, eyeing the guy’s jacket, still half-off after TJ’s blood collection.
Okay. Yup. The jacket was coming off, and the scientist was sleeping in the bed, not just on it. He got an arm around the man and lifted him just enough to drag the jacket from beneath him. He could feel the scientist’s mind react, his sleep state turning lighter, flipping into images, and, for the first time, into a distorted dream-memory of Young himself, wrapping an arm around him in a bed on the Icarus base.
“Close enough,” Young murmured, projecting calm at the scientist as he pulled him out of his jacket. “Even asleep, you’re pretty sharp, genius.”
He unclipped the man’s radio from his hip. After a moment of hesitation, he unbuckled the man’s belt and threaded it free, then deposited it atop the man’s jacket and boots.
With a series of sharp tugs to the bedding, strategic lifting, and sustained mental pressure against the scientist’s thoughts, he got the guy under the covers without waking him.
Young studied his handiwork. The scientist looked about as comfortable as he was gonna get. Maybe—
Rush’s radio crackled, taking about ten years off Young’s life. God but he was jumpy. It was just the damn radio. It went off about fifteen times a day.
“Eli to Rush, hello, it’s 1915? Are we NHBing, or what?”
Ugh. Young glanced at his watch.
Rush’s mind fired up a dream of the CI room in the style of Atlantis. All the walls were silver. All the displays jewel-toned and bright.
“Volker to Rush. Caltech rules say we can leave if you don’t show.”
Young’d never deliberately answered the guy’s radio for him. It seemed like some kind of line in the sand.
“Eli to Rush. Seriously, man, you ghost us and we mount a literal search.”
“Oh god,” Young whispered. “All right.” He picked up Rush’s radio, turned down the volume, and depressed the button. “Guys, this is Young,” he said. “Just, uh, just go ahead with your briefing. Eli—you’re in charge.”
There was a resounding silence on the channel.
“Eli,” Young said, “you copy?”
“Oh uh, yeah. We copy. Sorry. Hi. Um, where’s Rush?”
Young winced, steeled himself, then said, “He’s sleeping.”
“He’s sleeping. Okay, cool. But like, regular sleeping, right? Not with the fishes?”
Young snorted. “Yes. Regular sleeping.”
“What do you mean ‘where’?” Young growled.
“Just, like, someone’s checking on him, right?”
“Yes,” Young said shortly. “I’m turning his radio off. You need to reach me? You use the military channel. Young out.”
He clicked the radio off and dropped it atop Rush’s jacket.
“Sorry, genius,” he said, “but there was no easy way out of that one.”
Young’s radio went off. “Eli to, uh, Colonel Young?”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Young growled. He unclipped his own radio from his belt. “What, Eli.”
“Sorry, but are, uh, you coming to the NHB?”
“No,” Young said.
“Okay, well, can you at least tell us if we need to switch up the shifts? Does Rush need to come out of the rotation?”
“Yeah. He’s on medical leave until further notice.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Okay, thanks. Eli out.”
Young took a breath, set his radio on the nightstand, and looked at Rush. “I had no idea how much they actually like you,” he muttered. “It’s annoying.” He unlaced his boots, stripped down to his boxers and T-shirt, then turned off the bedside light. He slid beneath the covers.
TJ would be coming back in four hours.
That was a problem.
He reached for his radio, flipped to the medical channel, and said, “Young to TJ.”
“TJ here,” she replied, quick and sharp. “What do you need?”
“Lieutenant, can you just—radio before you do your four-hour check in?”
“Got it,” TJ said. “No problem.”
“Thanks. Young out.”
He set the radio on his nightstand, rolled onto his back, and stared straight at the ceiling. “Genius,” he breathed, “this is a hell of a thing to navigate. I don’t know how low of a profile we can realistically keep, without the ability to physically separate. I think—” Young broke off, swallowing. “I think, from here, it just gets harder.”
After a night of checking in on them every four hours, TJ brought breakfast from the mess. Young, who’d missed dinner the previous night, dug into the white paste immediately. After one mouthful, he slowed down. God, the stuff was terrible.
“No power bars today?” he asked, watching TJ take Rush’s vitals.
“I’m out.” TJ spared him a rueful glance. “I wish that—” she stopped herself. “Well, I guess whenever you run out, you wish you hadn’t,” she murmured.
Young nodded. “How many calories does a bowl of this stuff have?” He forced down another mouthful.
“The way we’ve rationed it, about three hundred and fifty per meal.” She looked up at him. “He’ll have to be really good about eating, especially while he’s running a fever. He’s been skirting borderline underweight for the past year. With everything that’s happened over the past few weeks, I’m surprised he’s been doing as well as he has.”
“Yeah,” he muttered, staring at his bowl of paste.
“I think that’s you,” TJ said.
“What?” Young asked, looking up at her.
“I think it’s you,” TJ repeated. “You’ve been making sure he eats. Making sure he sleeps. Do you know how much luck I’ve had in that department? Almost none.”
Young shook his head. “TJ, it isn’t me. He’s been pulling energy from the ship.”
“I know,” TJ said softly. “Volker and Park ratted him out. Earlier this morning. Science Team’s worried. They came by the infirmary after they checked his quarters. I—think they’ve figured out he’s here.”
“Anyway,” TJ continued, “my point is, he’s in better shape than he would have been if you hadn’t been after him to eat. To sleep, here and there.”
“Definitely.” She finished her work, and started repacking her medical bag.
“TJ,” he said reluctantly, “if, hypothetically, we got a resupply from the SGC, do you think antivirals might have an effect on whatever’s making him sick?”
“It’s possible.” TJ pulled a bottle of budget Gatorade out of her bag, then zipped it shut. “The viral vector used by the chair propagates via genomic integration, meaning it shares some biochemistry with Earth retroviruses. Depending on how much information you want to give Homeworld Command, I could talk with Dr. Lam—she’s got a lot of expertise when it comes to infectious xenobiological agents.”
Young raised his eyebrows. “You think she might be able to knock this thing out?”
“Knock it back, yeah. Knock it out? That, I’m not so sure of.”
“Okay,” he said, grimacing.
She stood, settled the strap of her medical bag across her shoulders, then offered Young a bottle of budget Gatorade. “He needs to drink this whole thing,” TJ said.
“Sure.” Young set the bottle on the bedside table, his thoughts racing.
“If he doesn’t, he’s getting an IV.”
She was halfway across the room when he stopped her. “TJ,” he said quietly, “wait.”
She looked back over her shoulder.
“Why don’t you start drawing up a list of what you’d want from Earth—generally and,” he broke off, steeled himself, and got to his feet. “And also specifically. Talk to Dr. Lam—tell her the basics, but try to avoid filing a formal report, if you can. Figure out what you’ll need.” He crossed the room and came to stand in front of her.
“I thought there were insurmountable power incompatibilities that would prevent the creation of a stable wormhole, sir.” TJ kept her expression neutral.
“‘Insurmountable’ may not have been the most accurate term, lieutenant.”
“Ah,” she said, softly.
“Make a list,” he repeated. “Think it through. Divide it into categories. Need versus want. We might only ever get the one shot.”
“Yes sir.” She hit the door controls. “I’ll see you in four hours.”
“TJ,” he said, stopping her again in the doorframe. “Talk to Lam soon. Today, preferably.”
She half turned, her face caught in profile against the brighter light of the hallway. “Understood,” she murmured. The door swished shut behind her.
Young sighed, leaned into the door, and pressed his forehead against its cool metal.
He pushed away, relocated to his desk, dropped into his chair, and thought through the idea of a resupply.
Telford versus antivirals, food, medical supplies, and ammunition.
He’d need to bring Wray in.
It felt like the right time. They had power reserves to spare. There was nothing specific on the horizon other than whatever the AI had planned for Rush.
Young returned to the bedroom and gave the scientist’s waiting paste a half-hearted stir. Ugh. Any longer, and the stuff would be completely inedible.
He sat on the edge of the bed, pressed his fingertips to the scientist’s temple, and took a look at his thoughts. The man was deeply asleep, his mind nearly dreamless. Even with effort, Young got only distant flashes of disjointed images—pale and washed out, like chalk, on a rain-soaked sidewalk.
“Rush,” he said quietly, detangling the man from the twisted mess he’d made of the bedcovers, trying to wake him as gently as possible. “Come on.”
It wasn’t easy. He wrapped his fingers over the man’s shoulder and gave him a subtle shake.
//C’mon.// He laced a wide swath of calm into his projection, trying not to pull the guy straight up through a nightmare, for once. //TJ says you need to eat.//
Rush made a quiet, distressed sound in the back of his throat. “Quare? Non egeo docere hodie.” Rush’s mind was full of sunlight pouring into a clean white room on a California morning, not so very long ago.
“Delirium is not a good look for you,” Young murmured, dragging him up through organizing dreams. “Wake up, genius. Speak English.”
“No.” As Rush oriented himself, his thoughts turned from sunlit windows to dark, matte metal.
Young winced, squinting as pain built behind his eyes. “Yes,” he said, pulling the guy straight into consciousness.
Rush cracked his eyes open and looked at Young dubiously.
“Hi,” Young said.
“Ugh,” Rush replied, in exhausted disgust. He tried to turn away from Young. “I feel terrible.”
“I know.” Young grabbed his shoulder to keep him on his back. “You did a good job though; I think that’s the only time you’ve ever woken up without making some kind of break for the door.”
“One—I’m sure that’s not true. Two—did y’seriously jus’ fuckin’ commend me for the manner in which I regained consciousness?” Rush asked, squinting at him.
“Uh,” Young said.
“You’re fair fucking bizarre. Where’s my radio?” Rush pushed himself onto one elbow, grimacing.
“Nope,” Young said, pushing him back. “No radio. You need to eat.”
“Matter of opinion.” Rush brought a hand to his forehead.
“Theoretically yes, but practically no,” Young murmured.
“If by ‘theoretically’ you mean factually, and by ‘practically’ you mean in your totalitarian version of reality, which I have yet to buy into, if you haven’t noticed.”
“Whatever,” Young growled, pretty sure he was being insulted, but not willing to put in the effort to untangle the scientist’s statement. “You have to eat. Otherwise, TJ tells me you’ll run out of glucose and start metabolizing yourself.”
“Can’t have that,” Rush said dryly, letting his eyes fall shut.
“Yup,” Young said. “Against the rules.”
Rush cracked his eyes. “There are rules now, are there?”
“Oh yeah,” Young said. “Rules like you wouldn’t believe. Eating is way up there. Top five, probably.”
“Ugh,” Rush shut his eyes. “Wake me up when you’ve engraved them in stone.”
Young hauled him into a sitting position.
“You’re really quite irritating,” Rush hissed, his fingers digging into Young’s shoulders as they rode out a wave of shared vertigo.
Young reached behind Rush to prop his set of pillows against the wall before pushing the scientist back against them. “Uh huh. You want less irritation? You want fewer rules? Sure. Just get your act together. Eat. Three times a day. Sleep. Every night.”
“Ah, but I enjoy being dragged about so much,” Rush said dryly. “Shouted at. Left for dead.”
“Oh yeah? Well, you’re gonna wish I’d leave you for dead,” Young muttered.
“I don’t doubt it.” Rush smirked at him.
Young rolled his eyes, then reached over and grabbed the bowl of protein mix and fake Gatorade.
“Oh good,” Rush murmured. “Paste and saltwater. So glad I regained consciousness for this.”
“Sure,” Young said. “Complain about it some more. See if that gets you out of eating it.”
Rush gave him a subtle roll of the eyes, but took the bowl from Young and started in on it without a fight, thank god. Young tried to keep his relief from seeping through their link, but he was pretty sure at least some of it got away from him because—
Rush looked up at him, tack-sharp and terrifying.
“You’ve got a real math professor vibe sometimes,” Young said gruffly, “you know that?”
“What?” Rush asked, confused.
“You seem better, is what I mean.”
“Have y’felt this headache?” Rush gestured elegantly at his own temple, then returned to his paste.
“Yeah, but you seem more with it,” Young said. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Rush shot him an affronted look.
“Can we do this later?”
“The last thing.”
Young felt a mental icepick drive into his eye socket as Rush scanned through and ordered a staggering amount of data. Finally, the man pulled out and seized on the memory of Greer dragging him down a corridor. That was enough for him to select and roughly sequence some additional, related images.
“Tamara forcing me to eat a power bar?”
Young sighed. “That figures.”
Of course he wouldn’t remember the AI stopping him from so much as forming a full sentence the previous night. That would have been too much to damn well ask.
“Yes well,” Rush said, making a face as he forced down another spoonful of the paste, “as I’m fairly certain I’ve told you, I have a problem with temporal sequencing. If you’re looking for something specific, I’m afraid you’ll need to come up with a prompt.”
“Do you remember fighting with the AI?”
Rush looked at him in frank disbelief. “I fought with it? I did?”
“Well, we both did. You were trying to tell me something and it stopped you.”
“What was I trying to tell you?”
“Yeah. Let’s just recreate the same conditions right now and see if it happens again,” Young said testily. “Great idea. One of your best.”
Rush sighed and shut his eyes against his headache. “I’m sure it had a logical reason for whatever it did. It typically does.”
“Keep eating,” Young growled. “If you don’t finish it soon, it’ll harden.”
“Yes, that makes it much more appetizing, thanks.”
There was a brief pause.
“Look, Rush, we’ve got to talk.”
“And what the hell are we doing right now, then?”
“I’ve been reconsidering Homeworld Command’s plan to dial Destiny.”
“Since when?” Rush looked at him with a guarded expression.
“Since this morning.”
“This morning? This one? Ah, well, in that case, go ahead. I’m sure you’ve put together a well-reasoned proposal. I can’t fuckin’ wait to hear it.”
Young glared at him.
“Don’t be shy,” Rush said, slow-pouring charm like tar.
“I bet you were the worst math professor,” Young growled.
“Terribly strong start,” Rush said, taking a bite of paste like it was caviar. “I hope it keeps on like this.”
“I was talking to TJ, and, uh, turns out we’re getting low on some of our medical supplies. Not to mention that we’re running out of rations, especially following the irradiation of the hydroponics lab a few weeks back.”
Rush narrowed his eyes and dropped his math-professor-from-hell vibe. “Our current situation is different from ten days ago in what way?”
“It’s not,” Young admitted, “but I’ve had more time to think—”
“This is insulting,” Rush snapped. “You clearly have an ulterior motive for pushing up the timetable. What is it?”
Young sighed. “TJ seems to think that we might be able to slow the progress of this virus if we had access to medications from Earth.”
The scientist looked away. His thoughts swirled in a brittle, glassy web of light. Woven through the entire texture of his mind, Young picked up something else. Regret, maybe. Or sympathy. “You realize that such a course of action comes with certain drawbacks, correct?” Rush asked.
“Telford.” Young crossed his arms. “But I’m willing to deal with him in exchange for giving this a shot.”
“Why?” Rush asked.
“A lot of different reasons,” Young said quietly. “Some good, some—not so good.”
Their link was nothing but a snarl of pure entanglement, echoing with shades of all they tried to hold back.
“Fine,” Rush murmured, pure exhaustion in his voice. “I’m willing to accept that, I suppose.”
“Good,” Young whispered. “Eat your damn paste.”
“Yes yes,” Rush sighed, and went back to his breakfast.
“Can we talk about Telford’s strategy?”
“I’d really rather not.”
“Big surprise. But I need to know what we’re likely to be dealing with.”
“He and I don’t work very well together,” Rush said archly, and took another bite of paste.
“Really? You got more where that came from?”
Rush smirked at him. “Oh all right. David’s always been interested in ascension, and is likely to keep to his pursuit of information relevant to the process to the exclusion of most everything else. I’m unclear on where his loyalties lie in actuality—if he is still working for the Lucian Alliance, he could potentially cause us significant trouble. I can mitigate at least some of that. As I pointed out earlier, no one will be dialing Destiny without my express permission, so we’ll be unlikely to find ourselves in a foothold situation, as long as—”
“As long as?” Young said, prompted.
“As long as I’m not incapacitated, removed from the ship, or,” the scientist drew out the word, then ate another spoonful of white paste. “Destiny’s CPU doesn’t go down.”
“The CPU? Why would that make a difference?”
“I’m dependent on the CPU for a significant fraction of my cognitive processing power these days.”
God damn it. Was it too much to ask for a single morning where he didn’t learn some new, horrifying fact about the walking disaster that was his chief scientist?
“That’s great.” Young growled. “That’s just great. I really love it when you just drop these little revelations on me out of the blue.”
“And what would you prefer? An itemized list?”
“Yes. You can start working on that this afternoon.”
“I don’t do these things for the sole purpose of annoying you,” Rush said testily. “It takes an obscene amount of working memory to interface with a starship on a regular basis. I’d like to see you try it without hardware supplementation.”
“Rush, this compromises you. More. Profoundly. The CPU is where the AI is located right? So we can’t shut it down without also shutting you down?”
“Y’could choose to look at it that way, I suppose,” Rush said. “But, to be explicit, because I know from experience such things have the tendency to pass you by without penetrating whatever particular concrete blend your skull consists of—if I’m compromised, or, even if you simply decide that I am—” he paused, and gave Young a look that sliced straight through him, “you have the means to reset the board.”
Young stared at him, taken aback.
“Eli would help you,” Rush continued, mercilessly. “It’s possible to lock the AI within the neural interface. You know that. But, if you choose that path, I don’t think I’d survive it.”
Young looked away, his thoughts crushed to nothing beneath the weight of Rush’s revelation.
“Why the hell is it letting you tell me this?” Young whispered. “When it stopped you last night?”
“Excellent question,” Rush said lightly. “Terribly rare for you. Much as I’d love to help you, I’m afraid you’ll have work through that one on your own.”
Young stared straight at the nearest bulkhead, trying to control his emotions, his thoughts, everything that might, that would, that did translate across their link.
Why the hell had Rush decided to drop that particular brick? What did it say about the scientist’s view of the AI? His view of his own agency? His level of trust in Young? His baseline desperation?
And what the hell was Young supposed to say to that?
He moved in on the scientist’s mind, trying to determine how Rush himself felt about it. But all he got was an exhaustion-muted swirl that ascribed no special significance to handing over a tactical kill switch to someone who’d previously left him for dead.
“Do you enjoy this?” Young whispered.
“Enjoy what?” Rush asked flatly. “Food? No. Conversing with you? Not particularly. Your bed is nicer than mine, I’ll admit that.”
“Do you enjoy clawing your way straight out your humanity?”
Beyond the window, the stars blurred and fluxed.
“Bit melodramatic, in terms of phrasing,” Rush whispered. “But—the serious answer is: maybe. I don’t particularly mind supplementing my cognition with the CPU of this ship if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Can you stop?” Young asked.
“Sharing the CPU?”
“I doubt it. I’m completely unwilling to try.”
“Rush. You gotta make some kind of effort. Please.”
“I am,” Rush hissed. “What do you think this is?” He brandished his bowl of paste.
“Okay,” Young whispered, looking away. “Yeah. Thanks a lot.”
Rush sighed. “Oh for fuck’s sake. There’s no need for this level of despondency. Remember when I framed you for murder? Hang onto that, won’t you?”
Young smiled faintly. “You’re so bad at cheering people up it’s almost like you flip the bar.” He stared down at his hands. “Genius, we’re gonna have to agree to disagree on some things.”
“Most things,” Rush muttered.
“I want you to give me a real shot to turn this around. Get you home.”
“I don’t want to go home,” Rush said flatly. “There’s nothing for me there.”
And—shit. Yeah. That was probably true.
“Fine,” Young said. “That’s fine. Just—give me a real shot at keeping you alive. I’m supposed to have that. I didn’t wedge myself into this thing. There’s supposed to be someone pulling back against the ship. This isn’t supposed to kill you. They can’t have set it up that way.”
“I’m not what they envisioned,” Rush murmured.
“Yeah, well, no one was ever gonna envision you, genius. Don’t write me off.”
“I keep trying.”
“I know. Cut it out. And eat your damn paste.”
“I am eating it.” Rush took another half-hearted bite. “It’s part of a broader effort to, as you put it, avoid writing you off?”
“Okay. I’ll take it, I guess. So, if we let Earth dial in here, you’re gonna take the antivirals? Make an actual effort to slow the progress of this virus?”
“Yes yes,” Rush sighed. “Be sure you requisition some fuckin’ paracetamol while you’re at it.”
“‘Tylenol’,” Rush said, making air quotes and rolling his eyes.
“You got it, genius. Whatever you want.” Young picked up the bottle of TJ’s electrolytes and handed it pointedly to Rush. “I’m guessing we can probably improve on this stuff, too.”
“I fair fuckin’ hope so.” Rush downed most of the the bottle in one go, then shoved it back at Young.
“Any idea what Telford’s game plan is going to be in regards to you, personally?”
“Oh, I’m sure he’d like me to ascend to a higher plane and bring him along for the ride,” Rush said dryly. “But in the absence of that, I expect he’ll be interested in studying the connection between me and the ship. He may try to augment certain elements of that connection.”
Young rubbed absently at his jaw. It hadn’t escaped him that if Telford came on board, this would align the other man firmly with the goals of the AI.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Rush said, “he’ll not be able to do anything the AI doesn’t agree with.”
“No, actually, that does not make me feel at all better,” Young growled.
“It likes me,” Rush said, scraping grey paste out of the bottom of his bowl.
“Yeah, the way a drill likes a drill bit.”
“You have a warped perspective.”
“If anyone’s perspective is warped here, I’m pretty sure it’s not mine,” Young said pointedly.
“Yes, I’m sure you’re sure,” Rush said darkly. He shoved his empty bowl at Young and swung his feet over the edge of the bed.
Young set the empty bowl on the floor. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” Rush said, inspecting his left foot, then expertly removing TJ’s latest ice pack. “What did you wake me up for if you didn’t want me to do something useful?” With a surge of idiotic determination, the guy pushed himself to his feet.
Young was off the bed and at his side before he could face-plant into the floor. He steadied the scientist against a wave of vertigo. “Give it a minute,” he said, “your blood pressure is somewhere in the basement right now.”
“I’m fine,” Rush said shortly, but he grudgingly allowed Young to help him to the door of the bathroom, before slipping inside.
Either Rush or Destiny closed it in his face.
When Rush emerged, he’d shaved, tamed his hair, straightened his clothes, found his glasses, and the barefoot jeans and T-shirt look was just very California, was all, and Young needed to get a goddamned grip was what he needed to get.
“I should check in with Eli,” Rush said, shivering as he leaned against the bulkhead, putting a real damper on his own west-coast math vibe.
“Sure.” Young swept the man’s jacket off the floor. “Give me a minute, I’ll come with you.” He helped Rush into the jacket, then steered him back toward the bed.
Young raised his eyebrows. “Hate to break it to you, genius,” he murmured, “but without your energy subsidy, our radius is shit right now.”
Rush raised a hand to his temple. “Ah fuck,” he sighed. “Right.”
“Sit,” Young said, gently pushing Rush down onto the edge of the bed. “No point tiring yourself out before your day even starts.”
Rush nodded and sat down on the edge of the bed, his head cradled in his hands, his fingers threaded through his hair. His thoughts were a glassy, brittle swirl. The guy had been vertical for ten minutes, max, and he was already flagging.
Young closed a hand over the man’s shoulder, and rubbed the base of his neck.
Rush reached up, pointedly removed his hand, and said, “If you want to do something useful, get me my fuckin’ boots, please.”
Young sighed, retrieved Rush’s boots, and entered the bathroom.
This was stupid.
There was no way, no way, that the scientist should be doing anything other than sleeping.
Young made it a point to take an extremely long time shaving. When he ran out of things to do, he just stood there, behind the closed bathroom door, his hands braced on the sink, watching the scientist’s own exhaustion take him down.
When he was sure it was safe, he exited the bathroom to find Rush asleep, jacket and boots on, his feet on the floor, sprawled across the bed. His right boot was laced completely, but the laces from the left trailed lazily across the floor, as if he’d given up halfway through.
“Cute,” Young said wryly as he knelt to unlace Rush’s right boot.
Very gently, Young brought his thoughts into apposition with Rush’s dreamscape, projecting calm into the flickering images. As he eased off the scientist’s boots and repositioned him on the bed, he shielded the man’s mind from the movement itself, and dialed up the pressure against Rush’s thoughts, guiding him deeper into sleep.
Young spent most of the morning catching up on administrative details. He kept an ear to the radio, and, with no overt emergencies, he was able to give the impression of being out an about without leaving his quarters.
It wasn’t a strategy that would work for long.
In the late hours of the morning, he heard a tentative knock on his door. He hit the controls to find Lieutenant Scott, looking at him with an uncertain, anxious expression.
“Lieutenant,” Young said. “What can I do for you?”
He really hoped nothing was on fire.
“Hey, sir,” Scott said, rubbing the back of his neck. “You have a few minutes?”
“Sure.” Young didn’t budge. “What’s up?”
Young kept his face neutral.
Scott was an excellent second. He was loyal, he was dependable, and he didn’t ask many questions. He wasn’t a complicated guy, or, if he was, he kept it well concealed. He’d unflaggingly supported Young’s command against Telford, against Rush, against Wray, and against Brody’s ultrapure ethanol. Young owed him.
He owed him a lot.
And, under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have hesitated to invite Scott in.
Unfortunately, at the moment, the lead scientist of the Icarus project was currently asleep. In his bed. Like the man owned the damn thing.
“Okay,” Young said, still not moving.
He and Scott looked at one another.
“It won’t take long,” Scott said, persisting with an expression that had flattened into something more neutral.
There was no good way out of this. He couldn’t leave and go somewhere with Scott, because of the strain that would put on his link with Rush. If the scientist had just been awake, or even asleep on the couch, the situation would’ve been salvageable.
As it was, Young had no idea how he was going to explain himself.
Scott shifted his weight. His expression turned uncertain.
He’d think of something.
“Sure,” he said.
“Thanks,” Scott murmured.
“So,” Young said, as he finally stepped back, “we’ll need to keep our voices down, because, ah, Rush is here. He’s sleeping here. Because he’s sick. He’s uh—yeah, I’m keeping an eye on him for TJ? She’s had a lot to do. She can’t, just, uh, monitor people. All the time. We need to spread it around, y’know?”
Scott took in the scientist, sprawled over half Young’s bed, face down in a tangle of blankets. “He okay?”
“Yup.” Young said shortly.
Scott gave him one hell of a clear-eyed look.
“No,” Young admitted. “Not really.”
“Yeah,” Scott agreed quietly. “That’s what people are saying. But, uh, that’s not all people are saying.”
“I’m sure,” Young said, dropping onto his couch.
Scott followed suit. “Moat of the crew know he stays here.”
“Lieutenant, drop it,” Young said, looking at his hands.
“All I’m saying, sir, is that maybe it’s better, given your history, if you guys just were to just own it, y’know?”
“Own what,” Young growled, before he could think better of it.
Scott sighed. “Nothing, sir. Never mind.”
“No, lieutenant.” Young looked away. “I’m sure you’re right. It’s just—it’s a helluva lot more complicated than it looks.”
“I mean,” Scott said, “it is and it isn’t, right? You’ve been in his corner for weeks now. Everyone can see that. Ever since the ship did what it did. Ever since Telford did what he did. I mean—it’s not a bad thing, the two of you, uh, teaming up. In a new way. It’s not like it’s a shock to anyone.”
“Really?” Young asked, deeply uncomfortable.
“Well, I mean, you guys always hated each other maybe a little too much.”
“Okay,” Young ground out.
“I like this better,” Scott said. “Most people do.”
Young was neck-deep in a river of trouble. The only saving grace was that Rush was sleeping through—whatever this was. It wouldn’t surprise Young if half the crew thought he and Rush were in a relationship. Hell, they were in a relationship. A weird, all-consuming, mind-shredding, soul-crushing relationship.
“Lieutenant,” Young managed. “You came here because you had something on your mind? Something personal? Was it, uh, this? Or something else?”
Scott cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. “Something different.”
Young waited him out.
Scott cleared his throat again, then said, “Iwaskindathinkin’maybeI’daskChloet’marryme.”
Young looked at him, taking a moment to make sure that he’d just heard what he’d thought he’d just heard, and then taking an another moment to get his bearings at having his day interrupted by good news, as opposed to news of some kind of personal or professional disaster.
“Oh man.” Scott ducked his head, and his midwestern cadence made an appearance. “This is not a good start.”
“Well,” Young said, giving the LT a hint of a smile. “It went by a little quick. You wanna try that one more time, son?”
“I was thinking,” Scott said, a little more intelligibly, “that, y’know. Maybe I’d ask Chloe to marry me?”
Young nodded. “There ya go.”
“What do you think?” Scott whispered.
The kid in front of him had grown up without parents. Raised by a priest who’d died as he’d enlisted. Young himself was probably the closest thing the man had to any kind of parental figure. And, now, Scott wanted to blend his life with a girl who had an alien gift for math, who could speak a language they didn’t have a name for, who—
“You think it’s too soon?” Scott whispered into the silence. “We’ve been together for two years now, but—”
“Matt,” Young said, quietly. “I think it’s great.”
All the tension went out of Scott’s frame. “You don’t think it’s too much? I mean, she’d never be with someone like me if we weren’t here. I know that. I just—the thing is, we are here.”
“Yeah,” Young said. “Yeah, we are.” He tried to wrest his mind around to a positive outlook.
Nice things occasionally happened, even on resource-poor sentient starships traversing the barren void of space.
“Okay,” Young said, clapping his hands together, trying to muster some genuine enthusiasm. It would’ve been easier if he’d had a cigar, or a bottle of Scotch, or anything, really, that could be shared between them. “Let’s hear the reasoning.”
“Well,” Scott said, “She’s just so—” he paused, rubbing the back of his neck. through his hair. “Well, there’s all the usual stuff. She’s smart. Nice. Brave. Pretty. But, more than that, she’s been through a lot. Really a lot. And to look at her, to talk to her, you wouldn’t know it. How strong does a person have to be, to be like that?”
“It’s hard to imagine that one could do better than Chloe,” Young said. And it was true. She was something else. She’d taken what had happened to her and used it. Grown from it. “I mean, the girl can fly a starship.”
“I know,” Scott said, fighting a smile. “I just can’t imagine being with anyone else, after everything we’ve been through together.”
“Yeah,” Young said. “I get that.”
“So, you haven’t asked her yet?” Young said.
“Not yet,” Scott replied. “I wish I had a ring, you know? Maybe Brody or Eli could help me rig something up, but—”
“Well, I kind of hate to ask Eli, just because I know he’s been carrying a bit of a torch for Chloe, which I’ve always felt bad about.”
“Brody’s pretty handy in the machine shop,” Young said, “So is Rush, for that matter.”
Scott looked alarmed. “Um, that’s okay, I’ll just check with Brody.”
“You never know,” Young said shrugging. “Rush likes Chloe. He might give you a hand.”
“Yeah, I know he likes Chloe, I just don’t think he likes me very much.” Scott dropped his voice to a whisper and looked over his shoulder.
Young snorted. “You can relax, lieutenant. He’s not gonna hear you.”
Scott didn’t look convinced.
“How’re you planning to do it?” Young asked.
“Sometimes,” Scott said quietly, “she and I’ll go down to the FTL drive. She likes to look at it. And she’s doing a project on it, for Dr. Rush. I usually go with her, if I can. I was thinking it might be a good spot.”
“I like it,” Young said quietly. “Can’t get more memorable than that.”
“It has an eternal feel to it, you know?” Scott whispered. “Forever is a nice idea.”
Young felt an old ache tear open somewhere deep in his chest. He nodded.
“Any words of advice?” Scott asked.
“You’ll do fine,” Young said, giving the lieutenant a half-smile. “Talk to Brody about that ring.”
Scott nodded. “Yeah. I will. I’ll do it today.” He got to his feet.
“Keep me posted.” Young walked the kid to the door.
“Will do,” Scott said. “And um,” he ducked his head, bringing one hand behind the back of his neck. “Thanks, colonel.”
“Don’t mention it,” Young clapped him on the shoulder.
The door swished shut behind Scott. Young leaned back against it.
Matt and Chloe. They were nice kids, and, as far as he could tell, they deserved each other.
It really was a measure of how few good things had happened recently, or really at all, on this mission that he was feeling so—well, he supposed this had to be some kind of positive emotion. He was happy for them. He was. But there was a bittersweet edge to it, made of Emily—wearing lace on their wedding day; drinking wine with David Telford; standing with her back to a wall, wearing a little black dress, turned crisp and white.
And sure. All things weren’t meant to continue. People changed. Memories gained new context. Genomes were torn open, rewritten, sealed shut. And yet. Forever was a nice idea.