Force over Distance: Chapter 33
“Okay, well, this has been a great talk.” Young hit the door controls. “Let’s never do it again.”
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Rehearsal.
Additional notes: None.
The morning went great. Scott was gonna marry Chloe, Rush stayed asleep, and Young plowed through his backlog of paperwork.
The afternoon went great. Rush ate lunch, then went back to sleep. Young drafted his portion of what’d be one hell of a massive requisition request for supplies from Homeworld Command. TJ checked in with Carolyn Lam, who’d be using the stones in a few days. On paper, Lam would be advising them on the resupply. But, while she was there, she’d be assessing Young’s chief scientist on the DL. How the hell TJ had managed that was something he’d need to look into.
The evening went great. Rush woke up for dinner, then, at Young’s request, started reviewing, in detail, a curated selection of the most boring portions of Young’s requisition list for Homeworld Command. The scientist didn’t last more than seven minutes up against homogeneous descriptions of ammunition, water purification tablets, filters, batteries, radios, and an endless array of backup parts. Young straightened up his quarters, went back and forth with TJ via radio about the duty roster, and restitched a hole in his sock.
The night, however—
“I’ve been asleep for almost twenty-four hours,” Rush snarled, halfway through lacing his boots.
“Yeah,” Young growled, his arms crossed, his back against the bulkhead. “That’s what happens when you don’t sleep for a week. And when you’re injured. And when you’re sick. Take your damn boots off and go back to bed.”
“No,” Rush said, shivering.
“Genius it’s 2200 hours. I’m tired. I haven’t been sleeping all day. I’m not following you around this damn ship just so I can drag you back here when you pass out, which you will, one hundred percent for sure, do.”
“If I leave here,” Rush said silkily, “you’ll have to follow.”
“You can shower,” Young said. “Then we’ll talk about the rest of it.”
“Don’t tell me I can shower,” Rush hissed, viciously tying off a boot. “You created this situation, globally and locally, so you can handle the fuckin’ fallout.”
“I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean.”
“You created it globally in that, had y’not cut me off from the ship, our radius would be perfectly adequate. Locally in that, had y’not spent the day ‘shoving my consciousness through the floor,’ I wouldn’t now be so colossally behind in creating safeguards for your fucking resupply.”
Young kept his tone reasonable. “Rush, no one dials in until you’re ready. Whenever that is. There’s no timetable. You’re not behind.”
“You’re a loose canon,” Rush muttered. “I’m just lucky you didn’t force Eli into a half-coked attempt of th’thing while I was taking a fuckin’ nap. An’ then I get radioed about the mainframe executing on data. An’ for what? All because you woke up one morning and decided it would be a good idea if we had ‘Tylenol’?” The scientist made a withering set of air quotes.
Young looked down at his boots and tried, like hell, not to smile.
“Oh shut up.” Rush fluidly tied off his laces.
“So do you just have this stuff on an endless sarcasm tap, or do you pay a monthly rate?”
Rush shot him a glare that was undercut by the smile he couldn’t quite force down.
“Do what you want, genius,” Young said resignedly. “I’ll follow you around.”
Rush nodded, and then, with a startling rapidity, lost so much of his physical and mental fight that Young felt a twinge of alarm. He pushed away from the wall, crossed the room, and pressed a hand to the scientist’s forehead. The guy was warm, his thoughts were glass-encased fire, and, even after a day of sleep, his entire body ached.
Rush furrowed his brow and looked up at Young. “God, you really have turned terribly fuckin’ solicitous. Don’t think I can be blamed for that. Can I?” His gaze turned searching. “I don’t know,” he murmured.
“Nescio,” he says, a Lantean wind in his hair, “amavi semper mare.”
“Whoa,” Young said. “Hey.” He cupped a hand beneath Rush’s jaw. “Not you, okay? Not you.”
“Who’s to say who we are?” Rush whispered, his thoughts full of alien seascapes.
“Me,” Young growled.
“Y’could found a civilization on that level of certainty,” Rush murmured, still giving him that same, searching look.
“Sure. My point is, you don’t stand around on balconies looking at the sea, okay? Not your style. Your style is dragging me around a dark ship in the middle of the night, ripping wall panels out of their housing to see what the local circuits are up to.”
“Sounds appealing,” Rush said, with the hint of a smile. “Y’never know about a wall circuit.”
“Your brain is a mess,” Young said, pushing the scientist’s hair out of his eyes. “Having your own flashbacks is one thing,” he growled, “but I draw the line at having someone else’s.”
“Yes, I confess I’m not entirely sure what to make of that,” Rush murmured, his eyebrows pushed together. “Something from the CPU, I suppose.”
“Oh,” Young said. “Great. Personally, I think it means you should go back to bed. Right now.”
“No chance,” Rush shot back.
“Fine, then you start with a shower. If you make it through that without passing out we’ll revisit your options.” Young held out a hand.
Rush scowled at him, but grudgingly let Young pull him to his feet. “I don’t care for your rhetoric,” the scientist said, leaning into him.
“Oh yeah? Well I don’t care for your rhetoric,” Young growled, exasperated. “If you want to take a shower, just tell me? You don’t have to dress it up as part of an incomprehensible to-do list.” He dragged the scientist’s arm over his shoulder.
“Oh give over,” Rush said, low and immediate and right in his ear. “You’re as bad as I am, if not worse.”
“I am not,” Young shot back.
“Mmm,” Rush replied. “Well, agree to disagree, there.”
When they got to the showers, they found Wray, standing in front of bank of mirrors. Her hair was wet and neatly parted. Her suit jacket and shoes were on the bench in the center of the room, and she stood barefoot on a towel, in dress pants and a tank-top. She was using a pair of small scissors to trim her hair. Each cut came slow and precise. “Colonel, Dr. Rush,” she said neutrally.
Rush pulled away from Young and brushed past Wray with a nod.
“Don’t—” Young instinctively made a grab for the man, then stopped himself. “Don’t pass out in there,” he called after Rush.
“I won’t,” Rush replied, in the tone he usually reserved for “fuck off.”
“That’s what he always says,” Young muttered to Wray.
Wray’s expression thawed into a small smile. She went back to her hair. “I haven’t seen you all day,” she said lightly.
In the adjoining space, Young heard Rush flip the water on. He moved in on the scientist’s mind in time to feel the man pull off his cotton T-shirt.
//Do you mind?// Rush hissed.
Young shifted his focus back to Wray. “I was planning on talking with you today,” he said. “It looks like we might have a go on Homeworld Command’s resupply mission.”
“Really.” Wray stopped cutting and turned to face him. “What about the power incompatibilities?”
“Rush has a workaround. It’s not ready yet, but it’s looking like a real possibility.”
“I see.” Wray let a little excitement leak around the edges of her cool professionalism.
“I was hoping you could help me put together a requisition for some of the supplies we might need. I’ve got the military side of things covered, TJ’s putting together the medical list, the Science Team will submit their ideas, but maybe you could liaise with the crew and determine if anyone has any special requests that should be honored?”
“Absolutely,” Wray said. “How many personal items should people be allowed to request?”
“Um,” Young considered saying “none,” but suspected that would be the wrong answer. “How about a weight restriction. One pound of personal items per person?”
“That’s hardly anything,” Wray said dismissively. “Five pounds per person would be better.”
“That’s a lot of weight when you do the math.”
//You should just give in,// Rush commented, halfheartedly working TJ’s homemade shampoo through his hair as he stood in the misting stream of aerosolized water. He leaned against the stall of the shower, cold metal warming beneath his skin. //She’ll wear you down eventually.//
Young tried to ignore the bizarre sensation of being wet and not wet at the same time.
//Are you talking to me because you’re about to pass out?//
//No, I’m talking to you because I don’t want a back seat to a three-day argument about one pound versus five pounds of personal items.//
“Two pounds of personal items with the option to increase it to five if they clear it with you.”
“We should really just say five.”
//Yes. Y’really really should,// Rush added.
“Camile. That’s enough to bring, I don’t know, a cat on board. Or something.”
“A very small cat,” she said dryly. “We’ll require people to submit their lists for inspection.”
Young sighed. “Let’s see what the rest of the req list looks like before we go promising five pounds of personal items to everyone?”
Rush shut his eyes, tipped his head back against the wall, and smirked at nothing.
“All right,” she acquiesced, turning back to finish up her hair. “Would you like to meet tomorrow to discuss in more detail?”
“Sure,” Young said. “I’ll be in radio contact.”
She nodded, making a few last cuts to even out her trimming job. “Shall I expect Dr. Rush as well?”
Young kept his expression neutral as he looked at her. From the other end of his open link, he got a quick flash of sympathy along with the sensation of soap gliding over sore muscles.
“Maybe,” Young said. “If he’s free.”
Wray shot him a wry look. Efficiently, she packed her hairbrush and scissors in a small shoulder bag, then bent down to fold the towel containing her hair clippings. “Whenever he sits in the chair, or, well, whenever anything happens, you have a tendency to stick to him like glue.” She gave him a small smile. “You've turned either very paranoid or very protective. I’m astonished he puts up with it.”
Young grimaced. “It’s actually—it’s neither of those things.”
“No?” Wray asked.
“Our link took a hit when I was swapped out on the communications stones. It’s damaged. And, uh, more often than not, it forces us into close proximity. He can work around that, under certain circumstances, but. I don’t think it’s good for him.”
Wray held herself completely still. Flickering expressions chased one another across her face. But, when she spoke, all she said was, “This must be terribly difficult. For both of you.”
“I try not to dwell on it,” Young replied.
“And how’s that going?” Wray asked.
“Not great,” Young admitted.
“I know,” Wray came to sit beside him on the bench.
“You know?” Young echoed.
“There was a time when I ‘organized’ around your moods,” Wray whispered, her eyes on the mirrors. The lights above them.
“Well, if you’re looking for another opportunity to mutiny, this’d be a great window,” Young muttered.
Wray gave him a small smile. “My schedule’s pretty tight right now. Check back in a few months.”
Wray looked toward the showers. “I can tell you’re trying, very hard, with him,” she said softly.
In the back of Young’s mind he could feel the heat and predictable pressure of the shower making some headway against the tension in Rush’s neck. The scientist was leaning against a wall to keep himself upright, thinking absently about twenty-six dimensional space, eleven dimensional space, and m-theory in an idle, languid sort of way. Like most math professors probably did, in the shower.
“He’s making it tough, I gather,” Wray said.
“No,” Young said. “Well, yeah, he is, because he always will, but none of this is his fault.”
Wray said nothing, just tilted her head and looked at him in open invitation.
There was no need to talk to her. No need to unsettle her with the details of an all-consuming psychic connection that was his chief scientist’s only lifeline. TJ knew what was happening, more or less. Greer knew pieces. Eli knew pieces. That was enough. If he needed to unburden himself, he could go to one of them.
“He’s not doing very well,” Young said, into the quiet.
“In what way?” Wray asked, low and sympathetic.
“In any way.” Young leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “He’s sick. He’s injured. He doesn’t understand things he should understand.”
Wray placed her small hand on his shoulder. “Like what?” she asked.
“That this ship is killing him. It’s killing him. And for no god damned reason that I can see.” Young took a deep breath. He tried to keep his thoughts under control, off Rush’s radar.
“Killing him?” Wray echoed softly.
“The strain of it is just—tearing his mind apart. He’s got memories that aren’t even his own—memories of Atlantis. Of plagues. Of the dissolution of social order. Of the abandonment of the dying. The horror of death and decay for a people who had all but eliminated disease.”
“What?” Wray breathed. “How?”
“He dreams it, Camile,” Young whispered hollowly. “Every damn night, now. Sometimes when he’s awake. It’s from the ship. It has to be. As though the ship itself somehow remembers. As though it was a person, living through those things.”
“Oh god,” Wray said.
“We have to constantly fight to keep Destiny from pulling him in, but it just keeps coming back, invading everywhere, dragging him to the damn chair whenever it feels like it. And maybe we could deal with that, maybe, but its just—eroding him physically. Fucking bolts through his hands and feet? Are you kidding me? It infected him with a virus—”
“A virus?” Wray interrupted sharply.
“It’s not contagious,” Young said. “It’s some kind of viral vector, designed by the chair, to turn him as Ancient as a human can get, I guess.”
“Why?” Wray asked.
“No idea,” Young admitted. “He can’t tell me. He’s tried. Destiny’s AI is behind it somehow. It wants something from him.”
“Colonel,” Wray had both hand on his shoulders. Her eyes were wide and serious. “This is something you should have shared with me. Weeks ago. This affects the entire crew. This—”
“Don’t,” Young whispered. “We don’t know that yet, Camile. And—you make an issue out of this, you force him to some kind of account—I don’t think he’ll survive it.”
“Well, we need—at a minimum, the three of us need to meet. You and me and him. TJ. We need to understand this better. We need—” she broke off, cocking her head, leaning forward. “Is he talking to himself?” she whispered.
“To himself?” Young growled, “I don’t think so.”
He was already up and halfway across the room before Wray caught him. She clamped both hands around his bicep in a vise-like grip and dragged back against him with everything she had, her bare feet skidding on the floor.
Startled, he stopped, trying not to step on her toes as their momentums changed.
“Colonel,” she whispered, the words almost soundless. “Everett. Whatever you’re about to do is poorly considered.” She gave his arm a subtle shake to drive her point home. “Who is he talking to? Destiny?”
“The AI that runs the show around here.”
“The same AI that’s preventing him from discussing what’s happening?”
“Same one.” He started forward again, but she yanked him back.
He couldn’t break her grip without hurting her.
“Why don’t you find out what he’s saying to it before you go charging in there?” She hissed, jerking his arm once.
Young took breath, and got his damn head on straight. He forced himself into an unnatural calm, he widened the mental distance between himself and Rush, then nodded at Wray.
Together, they crept forward to stand just inside the doorway.
Rush, still in the shower, leaned against the metal of the wall, his shoulders and head visible from behind the metal partition that defined each of the stalls. His head was tipped back, his eyes only half open.
They waited, but Rush said nothing.
Just as Young was about to risk moving in on his perception to get a line on the AI, the scientist straightened, ran a hand through his wet hair, and spoke.
“Right, well, it may end up being five,” Rush said, his cadence suggesting he was interrupting. “Why’re we discussing this? I agreed to your terms. But you agreed t’mine as well and, as you know, in this particular case, there are only two options I’ll accept with regards to outcome.”
Wray and Young locked eyes.
“An’ why not?” Rush snapped, irritated. He shut off the water and pulled his towel from where it hung over the metal partition. “If y’think it’ll work for Destiny, for patterns in hard storage, then why—” he broke off.
Rush was quiet as he toweled himself dry. He continued looking up intermittently but unerringly at a point near the left wall of the room.
“No,” the scientist said flatly. “I want the bloody details.” He tossed the towel back over the metal partition and grabbed his clothes.
He pulled his undershirt over his head, and ducked out of sight, stepping into his boxers and jeans. “I’ll grant you that in principle perhaps,” Rush brought a hand to his temple, then steadied himself on the wet metal before pushing his way out of the shower stall. “Yes yes. I’m fine. Look, in praxis, if—“
He stopped short as he saw Young and Wray standing in the doorway. “Ah fuck,” he said, bringing up his hand as if he could hold Young off. “Don’t—”
But it was too late.
Young had already moved in on his consciousness. He snapped their minds together with crack so hard they both physically froze.
They were battling it out.
Rush made no attempt to block.The scientist abandoned the physical and shattered his thoughts with a speed that was breathtaking, creating a fractal network that fractured along predetermined lines under Young’s methodical, grinding pressure.
Young broke through layer after layer of distracting images—California and Atlantis merging in sunlit oceanscapes, the dynamic slide of chalk over chalkboards, of markers over whiteboards, of calligraphy over glass, of lightpens in midair, auditoriums of students, seminar rooms at Berkeley in the spring, cities and labs and Destiny, powerpoints on M-theory, midair projections on the promise of Pegasus—every memory searingly physical, as if trying to distract Young with the sensory experience of doing math, writing math, thinking math, moving though math as an exercise in pure physical dynamism, pulling down a goddamn chalkboard, one-handed, as another rose in its place.
It wasn’t enough.
Young took it, annexed it, moved through all of it without giving it back, consolidating more and more territory, leaving Rush less and less to work with. Young homed in on the flowing source of the scientist’s fractal defense, until finally, beneath it all, at the point where Rush and the AI had merged, were merging, he saw it.
Something bright and disc-shaped.
A pattern in the cosmic background radiation, energy of an undetermined magnitude, of an undetermined character.
The AI made its move. It surged into Rush’s mind, a roaring darkness, a void in Young’s perception that swallowed information beneath a dark wall as it pressed forward to meet him, snapping up everything Young hadn’t already caught and held.
For a moment, they balanced there.
The AI didn’t try to force him out. It simply held its ground, a towering wall of pure void, just shy of the border that defined Young’s territory.
Young considered attempting an advance.
He might be able to force the thing out of the scientist’s mind entirely.
“Dr. Rush?” Wray said, from very far away.
It occurred to Young that he had, somehow, lost the room.
He’d snapped himself into a new and unknown mode. This wasn’t the schematic of their link, or, if it was, he was blind to its usual structure.
“Colonel?” Wray said, closer now, her voice low and urgent. He could feel her hand on his arm, and, somehow, that was enough to localize himself. He blinked, shook his head, and drew the room in.
The air was humid and warm and smelled like TJ’s herbal soap. Directly in front of him, his chief scientist stood with wet hair, water soaked the hems of his jeans. He had one hand still outstretched. His eyes were horrified. Unfocused.
It was almost enough to make Young let him go right there.
“I’m okay, Camile,” Young said.
She nodded at him shakily, let his arm go, then turned to Rush. “Nicholas,” Wray said calmly, hiding the confusion she must have been feeling. “Nick. Can you hear me?”
“Perhaps,” Jackson’s voice came from a point just behind Young’s shoulder, “you didn’t understand what I meant, earlier.” The AI stepped into Young’s peripheral vision.
Young turned to face it. “Let him go,” he growled.
Wray glanced back at him, her eyes scanning what must have, to her, appeared as empty air.
“You first.” The AI tightened its hold on Rush.
“I don’t think so,” Young growled, clamping down just as hard.
“Back off.” Jackson’s voice was low and menacing. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to work.”
“No kidding,” Young said, through clenched teeth.
“Nicholas,” Wray said, a hint of fear in the vowels and consonants of his name as, tentatively, she touched his shoulder.
And then, like someone had doused Jackson in a bucket of cold water, all the thing’s menace faded straight to nothing. It curled into itself, shoulders hunched, and strayed a few steps toward Rush.
As though Young didn’t exist at all.
He kept pace with it, stepping forward slowly, focusing on maintaining his own hold on the scientist, unsure what the thing was doing, but not giving so much of an inch for it to work with.
The AI stared intently at the Rush, frowning, one hand coming to rest over its chest, palm down.
Young glanced at Rush, but saw no obvious change. He was still immobile, one hand outstretched.
Wray, had one hand on his shoulder, one hand on his outstretched arm. The skin around her eyes was tight with concern.
“I can’t feel his mind,” Jackson turned to Young with an uneasy expression. “Can you?”
Young looked for any sign of life, for any feeling of struggle against his hold. Any indication that the swirl of the guy’s thoughts was trying to spark itself up. Anything. At all.
He got nothing.
“No,” he admitted.
Instantly, the AI withdrew.
Young loosened his own hold.
Rush’s body did its best to complete a fluid movement from a dead frame. His hand came up, he tangled himself with Wray, he flinched back, she tried to catch him, and the pair of them overbalanced and crashed straight to the deck plating.
“Shit.” Young darted forward, way too late to prevent any of it.
“Nicholas?” Wray said, speaking slowly, her voice uncertain as she tried to get her feet and hands beneath her.
“Yes,” Rush said faintly. “I’m all right. I—” the fact that he’d collapsed on top of her seemed to dawn on him, and he made an effort to move out of the way. “Sorry, I’m not entirely clear on—” he broke off. “Camile? What are we—doing here, exactly?”
“It’s okay,” Wray said, her voice shaking. “It’s okay.”
“Hey,” Young said, kneeling next to the pair of them.
Rush flinched, a surge of pure adrenaline whiting out their link.
“Easy,” Young said, projecting the little calm he was able to scrape together. “Easy.”
“I—” Rush breathed. “You—”
“Yeah,” Young said, one hand on Rush’s shoulder, one hand hauling Wray into a position with a little better leverage. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“He’s bleeding,” Wray said tightly as she finally managed to work herself into a crouch. Once she had her feet beneath her, she sprang up and darted into the adjacent room.
“Yeah,” Young murmured, mostly to himself, noting the trickle of blood at Rush’s nose. The scientist’s mind was blurred with anxiety and exhaustion and more adrenaline than anyone could be expected to handle. “You’re okay,” Young said quietly. “You’re fine.” He pulled the scientist, very slowly, into a seated position.
Wray returned, her bare feet noiseless over the deck plating. She dropped into a crouch, a handkerchief in her hand. “Here,” she whispered, offering it to Rush.
“Thank you,” Rush said numbly. He took it from her with a shaking hand and pressed it to his face.
Young shifted, planted himself immediately behind the scientist, and wrapped an arm around the man. He projected as much reassurance as he could muster into the glassy near-panic of Rush’s mind.
Slowly, the scientist relaxed against him. His thought patterns normalized. The nosebleed stopped. Wray retrieved Rush’s jacket, boots, and socks. They got the scientist into the rest of his clothes, then walked him out of the showers to sit on the bench in the outer room.
Young knelt at the man’s feet, looking up at him, one hand wrapped around Rush’s ankle. “You with us, genius?”
“Yes,” Rush murmured, looking down at him.
“You know who you are?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
As Young looked up at him, something of the anxiety and misery he was feeling must have broken through. Rush’s expression softened, and he reached down to close a hand over Young’s shoulder. “Dr. Nicholas Rush, Destiny, Second millennium, common era.”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“The answers to your next three questions,” the scientist said tiredly.
Young nodded. He leaned against the bench Rush was sitting on, shut his eyes, and tried, like hell, to keep it together.
He got an overwhelming wave of pure sympathy from Rush. The guy whose brain he’d just used as a staging ground for a pitched battle against an alien artificial intelligence.
It was too much.
“I need a minute,” he said to Wray. “Can you just—”
“I’ll stay with him,” she said quietly.
“Can you keep him talking?”
“Sure,” she replied.
“But don’t—don’t—” Young turned away, his voice shredding itself.
“It’s okay,” Wray said quietly. “Colonel. I understand. Take your minute.”
“Come get me if he stops responding to you,” Young ground out, staring fixedly at the opposite wall.
“Okay,” Wray murmured.
“Come get me if he seems like he’s gonna pass out.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Rush hissed, giving Young’s shoulder a gentle shove.
“Come get me if literally anything happens,” Young said, doing a better job controlling his voice.
“Okay,” Wray said again.
Young didn’t move. He just sat there, on the floor, leaning against the damn bench.
Rush tapped him on the shoulder.
Young looked up.
“Go cry in the shower,” the scientist said, quirking an eyebrow at him. “We all fuckin’ do it. You’re not special.”
“It’s true,” Wray added, soft and dry.
He flipped on the water and leaned exhaustedly against the wall, waiting for the AI to appear. When it didn’t, he stripped off his clothes, standing as Rush had, with his back against the cool metal, and tried to think of nothing.
It didn’t work. At all.
What the hell was he supposed to do?
Personally shred the mind of his chief scientist, trying to figure out what the hell the AI was up to?
Trust that the guy who’d put about a thousand and one things over on him wasn’t gonna do it again?
What would TJ do?
In this situation, he was pretty sure TJ would take a damned shower and cry.
When he had himself back under control and dressed, he walked back into the outer room and found—
Camile Wray giving Nick Rush a haircut.
“I’m really more partial to Satie than to Grieg,” Wray said, standing behind the scientist, her towel at her feet. “But Grieg only wrote the one piano concerto, so it’s difficult to judge.” She combed her fingers through Rush’s damp hair and made a few more precise cuts. “What are your thoughts?”
“Satie is a bit deconstructed for my taste,” Rush said,“and Grieg has a fair flair for rearrangements of Mozart.” The words were wistful, and, across their link, Young caught an indefinable echo of Gloria.
“Did he?” Wray asked softly. “You know a lot about classical music.”
Wray frowned. “I’m trying to even this out. Stop moving.”
“Sorry,” Rush rolled his eyes.
Young brushed carefully against the scientist’s thoughts, pulling out the politest mental hello he knew how to give the guy.
He got a delicate wave of acknowledgement in return.
“So I suppose Chopin would be much too conventional for you,” Wray said, re-parting his hair and making another careful cut.
“Hardly,” Rush said wryly. “If you’re going to be a classical pianist, an appreciation for Chopin is a requirement.”
“I played the oboe,” Wray offered.
“Of course y’did,” the scientist replied.
“Hey.” She swatted him lightly on the shoulder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Look, at least it’s not the clarinet.”
“I like the clarinet.”
“You’d better watch it, or I’ll leave this half done,” Wray said. “Then where will you be?”
“I’m sure Chloe’d come to my rescue. In fact, I think she’ll be rather put out that she didn’t get to cut it.”
That comment drew a smile out of Young in spite of himself. He came to straddle the end of the bench that Rush was sitting on.
“End of an era,” Young mildly.
“It won’t be that short,” Wray said, dismissively, her eyes on her work. “I cut hair. I don’t commit crimes.”
“Where’d you learn to cut hair so—professionally?” Young asked.
“Anyone can cut hair,” Wray said, with a collected hauteur. “The key is confidence.”
“Confidence?” Rush echoed, “That’s your primary qualification? Confidence?”
“It’ll look great,” Wray said.
No one mentioned the events of the past half hour. Instead, they kept the conversation light, and when Wray had put the finishing touches on Rush’s hair, she walked back with them to Young’s quarters.
At that point, the scientist’s adrenaline had faded to nothing, his fever was raging, and his thoughts were a glassy network of pure ache that kept trying to collapse into REM while the poor guy was on his feet.
Young and Wray practically poured him into bed.
Wray stayed to help Young strip the guy out of his still damp clothes, and make a judgment call on whether the seal had broken on TJ’s various bandaging jobs. When they were satisfied, Young walked Wray to the door.
They paused on the threshold.
Wray looked up at him, her expression cracked open, full of concern and fear and more things than Young could untangle. “Colonel,” she whispered.
“Sorry, Camile,” he said, hearing his own exhaustion in his voice.
“I—” she she shut her eyes against gathering tears.
“It’s not as bad as all that,” Young whispered.
“Do you think we’ll ever go home?” she breathed. “What he was saying in the showers—it didn’t sound like. I don’t know what it sounded like? But—it sounded like something. I—I have to.” She wiped away a tear. “If I don’t go home, I have to.” She took a breath. “Somehow, I have to help Sharon. She isn’t doing well. If there’s really no hope at all, if we’re going somewhere else, or if we’re all going to—” her voice finally cracked. “Could you just tell me. Please.”
“Camile,” Young said gently, trying to head her off.
“Please,” she whispered.
“Okay.” Young stepped back, ushering her through his open door. “Sit.”
Carefully, Wray dropped into a seat on the low couch. Young sat across from her. She swept her still damp hair over one shoulder and looked at him with only the thinnest glaze of her cool professionalism.
“I’ll tell you what I know,” Young said quietly. “Destiny’s AI trapped Rush in the chair. It did that, I’m pretty sure, because it wants something. I’m guessing what it wants is to fulfill its mission. What exactly that is—I don’t know. Rush is helping it. But I’m pretty sure he struck some kind of deal. He’s been striking deals the whole way, maybe. I’m assuming that’s what we overheard. Them, hashing out some kind of nuance in whatever they’re up to. But he’s told me, explicitly, that part of that deal includes gating the crew home.”
“And you believe him?” Wray whispered.
“I want to,” Young said, “but I’m doing everything in my power to get all the additional intel I can. Including the bullshit you just saw, in the showers.”
“That was you doing that?” Wray said, astonished. “I thought it was the AI. You were both frozen, at first—and, afterwards, you were so upset.”
“It was me and the AI,” Young said. “We were fighting over his mind. I was trying to get more information, it was stopping me.”
Wray braced her elbows against her knees, brought both hands to her mouth, and stared at Young without speaking.
“Yeah,” Young whispered.
Across the room, Rush’s mind fired up a dream of drowning, behind glass. Expertly, Young pressed him down and through, back into deeper sleep.
“I am not gonna stop trying to get this crew home,” Young whispered. “And if it comes down to a choice. Between him and the crew. I’m gonna choose the crew. Every time. He knows it. The AI knows it. That’s just—” Young’s voice cracked. “That’s just how it is.”
Wray nodded, and dropped her hands from her face. She stayed curled into herself, her eyes on his coffee table. “Do you really believe there’s a chance we’ll get home?” she asked, her voice small.
“Yeah, Camile. I really do. I always have.”
“What’s going on with Sharon?” he asked.
“She’s losing weight,” Wray whispered. “She’s drinking. She’s trying to hide it from me. Last time I was on Earth—her parents wrote me a letter. Sent it to the SGC. They think—they don’t have clearance. They think I’m posted abroad. They told me how lonely she is.” Wray paused to wipe away a tear. “They asked me to come home.” Her expression cracked. She turned away, one hand at her face.
Wray wiped her eyes, brushed her hair back, and gathered her professionalism like a cracked cloak. She tried for a smile. “I’m glad you haven’t given up,” she whispered.
“Not sure if you know this about me, but I’m pretty stubborn,” Young said mildly.
And, at this, Wray did smile. A real one. Quick and bright, her face still damp with tears. “I’m counting on it, I think.”
“You can probably set your watch by it, at this point,” Young growled.
Wray nodded, resettled herself on the couch, tipped her chin up, and said, “Tell me what you need.”
“Just that requisition list for the resupply,” Young said.
Wray gave him a disappointed look. “You need at least four things. One—someone in charge of the resupply logistics, who can memorize vast quantities of information for communication over the stones. That’ll be me, by the way. I’ll compile all the lists, review them, and start memorizing. It’ll take, at a minimum, the better part of a week to do all of that, and to cross-check it. We should say two weeks, actually, once the lists are finalized. Two—you need to tell me what you, personally, need. Socks. That’s all I’ve got. Three—you need to tell me what Rush, personally, needs. Because we both know he’s not gonna do it. Four—you need Telford off the resupply team. I meet with the IOA tomorrow. So give me everything you have.”
Young gave her a small smile. “I don’t need anything from Earth. I’ll get my share of the collective socks.”
“I don’t think I’ll be accepting ‘nothing’ as an answer. From anyone.” Wray arched a brow. “You have time. Get back to me.”
“Rush needs exactly five pounds worth of notebooks and pencils. Throw a pencil sharpener in there.”
“Colonel. You can do better than that.”
“I guarantee you that’s exactly what he’s gonna tell you if you can wrest anything out of him.”
Wray sighed. “What about point number four?”
“Yeah,” Young said. “I’m gettin’ there. The problem is, everything I have won’t help you, because it all occurred while Telford was brainwashed by the LA.”
“Tell me anyway,” Wray murmured.
“They were working on ascension. Experimenting with it. Experimenting with Rush as the test subject.”
“My god,” Wray said. “And something went wrong?”
“No, not really wrong, per se.” Young stared at his own coffee table. “Effectively, Telford tried to kill him. It was part of it, I guess. Part of helping him ‘let go.’ That’s what he says.” He glanced back at the dim interior of the room.
Wray’s expression had frozen into something stone-cold neutral. “Tell me how,” she whispered. “If you know.”
“You really want to hear that, Camile?” Young whispered.
“It’s the IOA who has the final say in whether Telford stays or goes. I—I’m willing to stand up there and force them to listen to a full account.”
“Don’t,” Young said. “This thing is classified to hell. You break protocol like that and you career will be over. And it won’t help. The whole rationale for what they did, for sending us to Destiny—it’s tangled up in the war with the Ori.”
“Oh god,” Wray whispered.
“Yeah,” Young said. “Whatever political capital you have, whatever sway—it’s best to use it to make sure the chain of command is clear. That I rank Telford. That he’s coming to head a research team. If we can bound his authority—that’ll help.”
“We might be able to build in some specific protections for our chief scientist,” Wray said.
“That’d be good,” Young said. “Maybe ask Jackson for advice.”
Wray nodded. “I will.”
“And, uh, if you see him, tell Jackson, thanks, will you? From me?”
Wray nodded, and got to her feet.
Again, Young walked her to the door.
“One more thing,” Wray said, before Young could hit the door controls. “You—” she hesitated.
“What?” Young asked.
“You and Rush aren’t keeping a very low profile in front of the crew.”
“Yeah,” Young said, exhaustedly. “It’s harder than it looks. He’s really bad at remembering people are in the room with him, and uh, because we’re linked, that tendency is a little bit, I don’t know, ‘catching’?”
“There’s a rumor the two of you are—well, that you’re a couple.”
“Not—uh, not totally wrong, from a certain standpoint,” Young admitted.
“Embrace it,” Wray said flatly. “That rumor is a godsend. If you don’t lean straight into it, you’ll have a huge crisis in public opinion right around the time Colonel Telford comes on board. The truth of what’s going on between you is profoundly unnerving. Even worse, Telford is smart. He’s observant. He knows both of you very well. He’s going to notice, and probably put the whole thing together about three times faster than you’d like. You need to consolidate your position before that happens. Easiest way to do that is to get the crew solidly behind a relationship between the two of you. Then, if Telford goes public with the link—it’ll carry much less weight.”
“Camile, there’s no way we pull that off.”
“Eli did more than half the heavy lifting for you, with Destiny Bingo,” Wray replied. “You were cute.”
Young shot her an incredulous look.
“You’re doing fine,” Wray said. “Just keep going.”
“He’s never gonna go along with this,” Young said weakly.
“He sells it already. He’s the most convincing part of the whole thing.”
“How?” Young asked, completely thrown.
“He lets you into his personal space,” Wray said simply. “Done.”
“Ugh, Scott said something along these lines,” Young admitted. “But, Camile, given my history with him, I don’t see how anyone could ever believe that he and I—” Young couldn’t even finish the sentence.
“It’s believable.” Wray shot him a wry look. “Yes, he constantly misleads people. Yes, he omits things. Fortunately, he’s also completely fantastic. He rescued Chloe from an alien ship where he was also a prisoner. He defused a bomb attached to Lisa. He turned Sergeant Greer around with that time loop situation. Literally the entire crew can see the appeal.”
“Oh god,” Young whispered.
“He doesn’t need to sell it. You need to sell it. And you’re doing fine. Just keep straightening his jacket in public and don’t deny anything.”
“I don’t straighten his jacket,” Young said.
“Stop clutching your pearls,” Wray said, with a small smile. “Not only do you straighten his clothes, but you carry his laptop, you fix his hair, you keep track of his glasses, you bring him dinner, you—”
“Okay,” Young brought a hand to his face. “Camile. Jesus. You’ve made your point.”
“Have I?” She gave him a small smile. “Colonel, I’m not advocating you do anything differently. What I am advocating is that you conceal less. Don’t hide what you do for him. Don’t hide how in tune you’ve become. Don’t hide that he sleeps here. The tighter the alliance between the two of you, the less space there is for Telford to drive a wedge. Any wedge.”
Young nodded. “I get you.”
“Just, out of curiosity,” Wray said, “when Scott talked to you about this—what’d he say?”
“He advised we, uh, ‘own it’.”
“Exactly,” Wray said. “Perfect advice. Own it.”
“Okay, well, this has been a great talk.” Young hit the door controls. “Let’s never do it again.”
“You’re on my schedule for tomorrow.” Wray stepped into the hall. “Feel free to bring your plus one.”
“Camile,” Young said darkly, “can we keep a low profile, please?”
“I work in HR,” she threw back over her shoulder, “our profiles are the lowest.”
As he methodically worked through his nighttime routine, he considered Wray’s arguments, Scott’s points. He wasn’t about to put on any kind of show. Whatever balance he and Rush had finally worked their way into was about tenuous as tenuous got. But—
Wray had something.
Telford leveraged secrets.
And the pair of them were doing a shit job keeping a low profile.
Young slid shut off the lights and slid into bed. As he did so, he could feel Rush’s sleep turn shallow. “I’d like to put in a request for nice dreams,” Young murmured. “You hear me? Nice ones. Math. Music. Cooking comes up here and there. That’s weird, but I’ll take it.”
“What?” Rush murmured, pressing himself into Young’s side.
“I don’t think you’re really awake,” Young whispered, wrapping an arm around the man. “Do you cook, genius?”
Rush didn’t answer, but his dreamscape was full of California produce and precision knife work.
“Huh. I think that’s gotta be a yes.” He ran a hand over Rush’s upper arm until the man stopped shivering. “You knew your way around your kitchen, that’s for damn sure. I wouldn’t have predicted that. Wouldn’t have predicted a lot of things.”
Young pulled the scientist solidly against him and let Rush’s dream draw him into sleep.