Force over Distance: Chapter 35
“Doc, stop crash-testing the colonel,” Greer said. “He’s had a hard week.”
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Midnight.
Audio status: Locked.
Additional notes: None.
Hail falls from the Wyoming sky. Lightning flashes. Thunder rolls and breaks like surf. Young follows Jackson, who runs a rain-soaked cliff-edge like he can’t see the drop inches from his boots. Behind them, TJ’s voice carries on the wind. Young turns to see her skid on hail-covered rock. She falls and doesn’t rise. He goes back for her, kneels next to her, and tries to pull her up. She stops him, one hand on his arm. “Colonel,” she says. “I can’t walk.” Her blue eyes reflect the cloud-bound lightning above.
Young looks back the way they’d come. Toward the top of the mountain, where the wind is laced with rain and ice. Where pure charge flows from cloud to cloud and cloud to ground in a web of shifting voltage. Rush is there. He can feel it. He calls for the scientist across their open link.
The hail decelerates. The thunder deepens. The lightning shows its forks. TJ’s hair, torn free, rides a slowing wind. The landscape flickers. “Where is he?” TJ whispers, into the rising silence.
“Right here, I’m afraid,” the scientist said delicately. His fingers threaded through Young’s wild curls to press against his temple. “Good morning.”
Young sat. His heart hammered in his chest. He caught his breath, forced it to slow.
He was in bed.
Rush was next to him.
He watched the blurring stars beyond the window and did his best to gather himself.
Everything was fine, not going to shit on the Paintbrush Divide. TJ could still walk. Jackson was doing whatever Jackson-y things he did, a universe away. Rush was fine. Rush was right here. In fact, Rush had just—
“You, uh, you saw that, I guess?” Young asked.
“A directed request is a bit hard to miss.” The scientist didn’t look up from his laptop. He was closing out a piece of quiet keyboard artistry, hand and mind a perfect blend. There was a sheen of glass on his thoughts and a not-so-distant crystal chorus in his head. His new haircut fell into his eyes just as much as the old one had. His jacket was open. His feet, atop the coverlet, were bare, aside from TJ’s bandaging. Absently, he flexed his toes.
Humanity’s most valuable piece in a transdimensional chess match could compose computational symphonies in Young’s bed.
Why not? That was fine.
“You’re something else, you know that?” Young’s voice was raw with all the shouting he hadn’t really done, under a Wyoming sky.
Rush’s fingers hovered above the keyboard. “If you’d rather I didn’t interfere with your dreamscapes I suppose I could oblige; but, ah, you’re becoming a bit difficult to ignore.”
At least some problems were mutual.
“Please tell me that’s not a regular thing?” Young asked weakly.
Rush sighed. “In your nightmares—you’re often looking for me.”
“Sounds about right.”
“Let’s not read into it,” Rush dropped his gaze to the screen in front of him.
“I said let’s not read into it?”
Young stared at the nearest bulkhead, lit with a day-spectrum glow. “Are you okay? After whatever the hell we did to you last night?” He paused. “You can, uh, spell your name? Tie your shoes? Remember your college friends?”
“Yes.” There was a gloss of annoyance on the word. “Can’t say I’ve formally attempted any of those things, but I’m reasonably confident as to the outcome.”
“Okay then.” Young scrubbed his hands over his face.
“You’re sitting in my bed, without shoes. You really don’t have to use my rank.”
Rush chased a subtle eye roll with a less subtle glare. “I’m quite all right. More than that, I—I recognize the difficulty of your position. You’re taking a principled stance for the good of the crew. I don’t fault you for it.”
There was a long silence.
“So, for the record,” Young said, “you and the AI—you guys definitely aren’t gonna kill everyone?”
Rush’s newly-sculpted hair fell into his eyes. He shook it back. “Of course not.”
“Okay then,” Young said, running the words through the grate of his throat. “Guess I’ll get dressed.”
As he forced himself through his morning routine, he fought against the despair threading from the previous night, though his dreams, into the present. He ran wet hands through his hair, then braced himself against the sink. He tried not to think about how long his chief scientist had been up, working, with a fever, after whatever the hell Young and the AI had put him through.
God, what did a cognitive hold that tight feel like? Was perception even possible? Any sense of time? How long it had gone on, how long it might last?
He stared at his reflection in the mirror.
He wished he could promise himself it would never happen again.
He wiped his eyes. He was a complete wreck.
Young steeled himself and stepped into the bedroom. He put his back to the bulkhead, crossed his arms, and looked at Rush, coding in bed. “I gotta confess something to you.”
The scientist didn’t look up from his computer. “Mmm. Yes well, thanks so much for your interest, but I’ll not be taking confessions today,” he said. “However, if y’find yourself in the market for an inadvisable choice, Tamara brought breakfast.” He glanced at the bedside table. “Yours has hardened to the point where we’ll need to find you a chisel, I’m afraid. Didn’t realize that could happen.”
“I’m skipping breakfast.”
“Unfortunately, you’ll find Lieutenant Johansen classifies that a medical emergency. I recommend you report yourself to her immediately. Over the priority channel.”
“So, this is my confession,” Young said.
Rush shot him a sharp look, wearing a don’t-do-it expression. The light from FTL glinted off his glasses.
“After everything that happened last night,” Young said, “hell, after everything that’s happened over the last few days, I don’t think I can spend the day watching you grind yourself to dust. I know it’s your favorite hobby. But it’s not gonna end well. For either of us. Today.’”
Rush tipped his head back and ran a hand through his hair. Relief echoed through their link. “It’s like y’think we’ve never met before.” There was a hint of a smile in the guy’s features. “I fuckin’ know, don’t I?”
“Yeah. Doesn’t mean you’ll capitulate to expedience,” Young said.
“I’m considering an exception.”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“Right, so it’s not exactly news to me that you’re not at your best when faced with uncontrolled circumstances?” Rush said delicately. “Last night’d certainly count as such.”
“Yeah. So. How long have you been up?”
“You’re operating under quite a bit of strain. I’m not insensitive to that.” Rush ignored the question, his tone maddeningly reasonable.
“Did you keep me asleep?” Young growled, less and less in the mood for the scientist’s bullshit by the second.
“Yes, and I knew you’d be annoyed about that, but I—”
“Annoyed? Rush this thing is actively killing you,” Young snarled. “I’m supposed to make sure you survive it, but you and the goddamned AI are making that damn well impossible. Do not send me to sleep after I nearly kill you.”
“Y’didn’t ‘nearly kill’ me. Moreover, I think—”
“THAT IS NOT HOW THIS WORKS,” Young was, somehow, full-volume shouting at the guy. “YOU THROW IN AGAINST ME AND YOU’RE NOT GONNA MAKE IT.”
Rush lifted a hand away from his keyboard, looked directly at Young, and projected an edgy wave of calm through their link. It was probably the best the guy could scrape together while getting shouted at by the jackass who’d nearly shredded his mind the previous day.
With a herculean effort, Young managed to get himself back under control. He slid down the wall to sit on the floor of his quarters. He took a few measured breaths. “Sorry.”
“Right, an’ so you’ve beautifully illustrated my point,” Rush said dryly. “Well done.”
“Yeah,” Young ground out. “Nobody gets me going quite like you, genius.”
“Yes well.” Rush swept his hair out of his eyes. His thoughts were a chaotic swirl, shot through with transient, jewel-toned patterns. “Y’need some kind of structure, obviously, so I’ll give you a loose directive.”
“A loose directive?”
“Implement it however you like. I have total confidence in your ability to instantly convert it to a schedule.” He raised a brow and shot a wry look at Young.
“Okay. What’s the directive.”
Rush made a motion between his temple and Young. “You spend today focused on the problem of fixing our link.”
“Yes yes,” Rush said gently. “But, in exchange, I’ll put myself completely at your disposal.”
“To rephrase in a more familiar vernacular—I believe, in the interest of fixing our link, you’ll find me willing to ‘follow your orders’?”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“For a day,” Rush amended.
“Trying to take my edge off?” Young asked dryly.
“Think it’ll work?”
“Maybe,” Young whispered. “If you can actually do it, and not turn the whole thing into a near-lethal metaphysical disaster?”
Rush looked at his hands and tried not to smile, a double-edge to his expression that was both mischievous and sad, and Young was done, he was just done, completely lost, totally gone on this absolute idiot math professor. Game over.
Young tipped his head back. Straight into the wall. Hard.
“So,” Rush began, “supposing one wanted to make a start—”
“If,” Young said, hopelessly, “if it were possible for you to follow orders, the first thing I’d recommend would be optimizing your physical state, which would mean talking to TJ and telling her something other than that you feel ‘fine’.”
“Right then.” Rush closed his laptop.
As they crossed the threshold of the infirmary doors, TJ stepped out of her office like she’d sensed their coming. Her Ancient device glowed aquamarine in her hand. She clipped it to her belt, then zeroed in on Rush. “Missed me, huh?”
“Oh, terribly,” Rush said.
“We’re here for a meeting.” Young cleared his throat, trying to get rid of the raw note in his voice. “You free?”
“A meeting?” TJ’s face softened as she looked at him. “That’s a nice change. About the resupply?”
“No,” Young said.
Rush took his weight off his left foot, leaned into the frame of the infirmary doors, and said nothing.
TJ looked at them searchingly.
Beneath Young’s boots, he could feel the subtle vibration of a drive faster than light, older than human civilization.
“You got any of that aspirin tea lying around?” He asked, after an uncomfortably long pause.
“Yeah, come on back,” TJ said softly, and led the way.
When they reached the rear room, Rush boosted himself onto his usual gurney with no prompting. Young dropped into a nearby chair. TJ pulled a bottle of green liquid, full of leaves, out of a cabinet, scanned it with the Ancient device she kept clipped to her hip, then poured two cups of the stuff through a strainer.
“I’m good, TJ.” Young’s voice was full of gravel. “I don’t need anything.”
“Humor me.” TJ shot him a glance of piercing blue, then placed the cups into a small recess in the wall. After a few elegant swipes on her favorite hand-held device, she clipped it back to her hip, and approached, a steaming cup of tea in each hand.
“Tamara,” Rush said, as she handed him a cup, “that was marvelous.”
She tried to hide a smile. “I know.”
“Heating tea?” Young asked, accepting his own cup. It was warm, and the tea smelled like fresh cut grass. Even holding the thing, already, he felt a little better.
“She used her medical scanner to communicate on her behalf with an EM-competent alcove to produce a novel behavior,” Rush said.
Young tried to ignore a wave of instinctive dread. “Great. But, uh, don’t go getting too friendly with this stuff, TJ.”
“No sir.” She dropped into a chair, her eyes watchful.
Delicately, Rush took a sip of tea.
“How’s it taste?” Young asked.
“Hmm. Citrus-adjacent.” Rush paused, considering. “Maybe a hint of ginger in the mid-palate? Bitter finish.”
“Seriously?” Young asked.
“No.” Rush smirked at him. “It tastes like grass. Because that’s what it is.”
Young took a sip. The warmth alone was a novelty. And, yeah, Rush was right. It tasted exactly like grass. Sharp and fresh; herbal and faintly bitter. It was nice.
“Who cut your hair?” TJ asked Rush. “It looks good.”
“Wray,” he said.
Rush sipped his tea.
Young sipped his tea.
“So.” TJ crossed her legs, interlaced her fingers, and looked dead at Rush. “What did you do?”
The scientist gave her an affronted look and delicately touched his fingertips to his own chest.
“The colonel’s upset,” TJ said flatly.
“TJ,” Young said. “I’m fine. I’m not upset.” He tried to put some real backbone into his voice. “Can you maybe just—check him over? With your fancy scanners?”
“What. Happened.” TJ didn’t budge.
“Personally, I don’t think it merits discussion,” Rush said smoothly.
TJ’s jawline took on that stubborn little set it had. The infirmary lights blazed off her hair. She looked steadily at Rush, got no traction, then switched to Young. “If I’m scanning, I need to know what I’m looking for.”
“The AI and I had a disagreement last night,” Young said.
TJ’s face lost its stubborn cast. “What kind of disagreement?”
“Can’t really give you any details about it, because I don’t want to trigger a repeat performance. But, um.” Young paused. “It was pretty hard on him, TJ. Mentally and physically. He seems okay, but I’d like to be sure.”
“No problem,” TJ said softly.
Young watched, sipping hot-grass tea, while TJ took Rush’s vitals, scanned him with a variety of devices, took a tube of blood, and, after about twenty minutes, told them that nothing had meaningfully changed, other than his viral titer was down when compared to three days prior, likely due to his ongoing immune response.
Rush shot Young an I-told-you-so look, crossed his feet at the ankles, and returned to his tea.
“TJ,” Young said. “Based on all the scans you just did—is there anything we can do to optimize him a little better? Cut down on the vertigo and headaches? The joint pain? The way he pretty reliably passes out when he stands too fast?”
TJ’s gaze flicked back and forth between Young and Rush. “To some degree, yes,” she said. “But real optimization requires admitting there’s a problem. Experimenting with options. He’s—not a complainer. I had to practically beg him to take painkillers after heart surgery.”
Young hesitated. “Not sure he needs to be a complainer for this, lieutenant. I’ve got a direct line on how he’s feeling, and, uh, I’m willing to follow directions on his behalf.”
They both looked edgily at Rush.
The scientist looked straight back at them, owning the hell out of himself and the moment and the gurney and the tea and his haircut. His mind was in high analytical gear, and most of his emerging crystal lattice structure seemed to be centered on Young himself.
Young did his best to sit there and take it.
“I could put a few things together,” TJ said cautiously.
“That’d be good.” Young nodded.
“Give me a few minutes.” She left the room.
“So,” Rush said, into the quiet. “I can’t say I recommend this.”
“What,” Young growled.
“Whatever it is you think you’re trying to do,” the scientist said evenly.
“You’re a lotta work.” Young looked away and tried, like hell, to keep a lid on his rising distress. “And whatever you have to say about it? I don’t wanna hear. So save it, Rush.”
Rush ground the heel of a hand into his eye socket. “You’re making this more difficult. Not less.”
“Yeah,” Young said. “You’re damn right I am. In fact, I’m doing it on purpose.” He stopped himself before he could go too far, say anything about the AI.
Rush sighed. “If I might make a suggestion—”
“No, actually. No suggestions. Because your ‘suggestion’ is gonna be guaranteed bullshit, and I’m having a difficult enough time keeping my cool as it is. You want me to—what. Just let all of this go? Let a starship drive you into your grave on my personal watch? No. No way. Not happening. Not a chance in hell.”
“This is why the AI won’t tell you anything,” Rush hissed. “Exactly this, right here.”
“Yeah. And it’s smart as hell,” Young said shortly. “Now drop it.”
“I am trying to cooperate with you,” Rush said, “so that you return to the realm of rational thought.”
“Oh yeah? Great plan. So far, I’ve gotten about twenty minutes of smart-mouth compromise stacked against two years and some change of nonstop bullshit, so unfortunately, if that’s your plan, you’re gonna need to hang on a little longer.”
“Why are you so upset about this?” Rush asked. “You don’t even like me.”
“Okay, one, fuck you. I went on the record as liking you at least a week ago. Keep up. Two, you’re my responsibility. In terms of this command, in terms of your personal agency, and, apparently, in terms of your physical and mental well-being. If I do a shit job? You lose the ability to move. It’s a lot, okay? It’s a lot.” He paused, breathing hard, staring at the wall.
Rush pressed two fingers to his temple and said nothing.
“Sorry,” Young said. “But don’t give me some bullshit about calming down about all this. Because it is fucked up beyond all recognition, and I am not. Calm.”
“May I,” Rush said softly, “look at your mental architecture?”
“No,” Young said flatly. “You can drink headache tea, eat three meals, stay hydrated, and try your best not to kill yourself for a day.”
“All right,” Rush said. “All right.”
Young left the infirmary with a bag of supplies from TJ, which included assorted teas with written descriptions of their likely effects on a physiology that was somewhere between human and Ancient, a thermos to make the tea, small packets of protein supplementation, and daily hydration goals. Her methodical, intricate, thoughtful approach to the whole problem helped to soothe Young’s frayed nerves. At least there was something to do for the guy, before the resupply came through.
They arrived at the mess halfway through the last lunch shift, picked up their bowls, and found an empty table. The conversation in the room took a hit as Young grabbed an extra chair, dragged it next to Rush, and growled, “Get your left foot off the floor.”
Rush looked him dead in the eyes, and, without a word of argument, propped his foot on the chair.
“Thank you,” Young said.
“You’re fucking welcome,” Rush replied evenly.
Young reached over, grabbed the rim of Rush’s bowl, and dragged it across the table. He slipped a hand into his jacket pocket, pulled out one of TJ’s packets of protein powder, dumped it into Rush’s paste, and started mixing.
//Not that I’m one to talk,// Rush said cautiously, //but you’re making something of a spectacle of this.//
//Yeah. I know.// Young stared at the paste he was stirring. //I’ve pretty much given up.//
//On?// Rush asked.
Young slid his bowl back across the table.
//On?// Rush prompted again, his projection turning edgier.
“I don’t know, genius. Appearances, I guess?” He took a half-hearted bite of his own tasteless paste.
“Yes well, you’re having something of a day,” Rush said delicately. “Don’t, ah, make any decisions you’ll later regret?”
“Pretty sure getting you to put your foot up in public is gonna rank at the goddamn bottom of the list,” Young said quietly, trying to bury multiple alternative candidates before they could come up through the link.
“You don’t need to do that,” Rush said.
“Your shite brick job. I know you’re fuckin’ miserable. It’s not a secret. And for all the effort you’re putting into it—you’re not even effectively bricking it back.”
Young froze, a spoonful of paste halfway to his mouth. “What?”
“You’re so off balance that half of it’s coming through anyway,” Rush sighed. “Your whole cognition is disjoint to itself. I’m getting a representative sampling. Pieces of your conversation with Wray. Your anxiety about what happened last night. Your responses to certain behavioral quirks of mine. Y’can stop trying so fuckin’ hard, you know?”
“Uh, which conversation with Wray?” Young tried and failed to repress a multi-pronged avalanche of anxiety.
“This is exactly what I mean,” Rush said. “Y’think I’m completely oblivious to everything happening?”
“Sometimes,” Young admitted, still not sure where the scientist was going with any of this.
“You’re a bloody sieve at the moment. I know you’re ready to go to war with the AI. I know Wray’s suggestion that we don’t hide our link is profoundly disconcerting. I can feel the degree to which you want me to fall in line. And I fuckin’ am, all right? I’m falling in line.”
Young put a hand to his face and tried to hold himself together. “And you just—you’re just gonna—you’re bringing this up at lunch. In the middle of the mess?”
“Well I don’t want to have an eight-hour conversation about it, do I?” Rush hissed. “All I want is for you to loosen your stranglehold on yourself to the point that your own thoughts can resettle themselves.”
“Okay,” Young said, swallowing convulsively.
“I’m actively attempting to reduce your stress levels,” Rush said. “But it’s not working. At all. In fact they’re fucking skyrocketing.”
Yup. That was true. Young tried not to think about anything other than getting through his bowl of protein. “Well, you’re really bad at reducing my stress,” Young ground out. “Literally the worst person I’ve ever met in that category.”
“Right then,” Rush said. “New approach. You’ve not been listening. Let me be painfully explicit. I am doing. What you want. Do y’fuckin’ understand that? Quite literally, this has never purposefully happened before.”
“Genius, this is not helping,” Young whispered.
Rush sighed, took a bite of paste, absently spun his spoon through his fingers, pointed it at Young, and, with mindblowing poise, said, “Did y’know that my entire body of academic work is probably the most hierarchically destabilizing idea to emerge since Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species?”
“No?” Young ground the word through a dry throat.
“Point being, even I can imagine how satisfying it is to order me around? Y’don’t have to gut yourself trying to hold it back. I’m purposefully doing this to try and get you to relax. Lean into it a bit. I can fuckin’ take it.”
Young took a sip of his water, more flustered than he’d ever been in his adult life.
This asshole math professor had been built, from the ground up, specifically to drive him out of his god damned mind. He was sure of it. He’d been sure of it since day one. It only got more and more true as time went on.
Rush dug his spoon into his paste, raised his eyebrows, and looked at Young in evident expectation.
Nothing was forthcoming.
Rush took a bite, licked his spoon, and—
“Doc,” Greer slammed his bowl down next to Rush, startling the hell out of both of them.
Young jumped, his heart pounding painfully in his chest.
“Fuck you, sergeant,” Rush breathed, glaring at Greer, one hand over his heart.
“Hi.” Greer said. “I’ve never seen you eat paste like that. Someone got some flavoring.”
Immediately behind Young’s shoulder, someone cleared their throat.
Again, he jumped. Jesus Christ.
“Hi colonel,” James said.
“Lieutenant.” Young tried to even out his breathing. “Take a seat.”
James dropped into place next to him.
Greer dug his spoon into Rush’s bowl and sampled a mouthful of his paste. “Yeagh,” the sergeant said, making a face. “What is that? Bitter nutmeg?”
“It’s ground up alien flaxseed with high protein content,” Rush shot him an unimpressed look. “Tastes atrocious.”
“Then why the hell were you sellin’ it so hard?” Greer asked.
“In service of a rhetorical point.” Rush quirked a brow at Young. “Don’t think it had the intended effect.”
Young smiled perfunctorily at James and did his best to settle down. God, how did Rush get to him like this? Did the guy have any idea what kind of effect he was having? He almost had to, with his goddamned spoon flip and his goddamned show about being willing to follow goddamned orders, but at the same time, if he actually knew that Young was attracted to him he’d probably either be using it with lethal precision or trying to kill the vibe. Was it possible the guy was picking up on it, but not recognizing it for what it was? Was it possible he was picking up on it, but had decided to ignore the whole thing? Was it possible—
“You okay, sir?” Greer asked.
“Sergeant.” Young swallowed. “I’m fine. Stressful morning.”
“Sounds right.” Greer’s eyes flicked to Rush, then settled back on Young. “Sir, the LT found something I think you two oughta hear about.”
“Scott?” Young asked.
“Nope,” Greer said, pointing at James. “This LT.”
Young had almost forgotten she was there. He turned to her, eyebrows up.
“Yes sir,” James said, game face in place. “On the far side of the FTL drive. Starboard-side walkway. If you follow it all the way across, it dead-ends in a sealed door. The corridor beyond is open to vacuum. But, uh, the maintenance panel adjacent to the door? That opens. It’s pressurized. Visually, it extends a long way. Maybe longer than the starboard hull breach that keeps us out of the corridor.”
“How far?” Rush asked.
“Hard to tell,” James replied. “The lights go out after maybe fifty meters? But it goes farther than that.” She paused. “Should we check it out, sir?”
“No,” Young said reflexively. “Those crawlspaces are too small for suits. You crack a panel on a room open to vacuum, and the depressurization would be lethal to whoever’s in there.”
“There might be some parties who could safely manage it,” Rush said delicately.
“Yeah and maybe, maybe, when those parties are back on the active duty roster they can get the entire Science Team involved in a feasibility assessment,” Young growled.
“I’d do it,” James offered.
Rush raised his eyebrows at her.
“No one’s just doing it, lieutenant,” Young said sharply. “We clear on that?”
“Show it to Brody,” Rush said, looking at James.
“Emphasis on show,” Young said.
Was it too much to ask that, just for half a day, nothing happened? He had a bone deep urge to clamp down on everyone. On everything. To send a shipwide order for confinement to quarters, no interaction with Ancient technology, no medics messing around with genetically keyed devices, no lieutenants opening wall panels, no scientists opening a single box or door or program that did anything. Anything at all.
“Lieutenant, I’m curious, how did you—” Rush broke off, turned his head, and stared into empty space.
And, yeah. Great. The AI was now in the mix. Giving the guy an earful about whatever James had stumbled upon. Young didn’t need this shit from anyone. But he especially didn’t need it from James. James was competent. She did her job. She was not supposed to pull shit like this. She—
She was currently staring dead at the same spot Rush was staring at. Her expression was neutral, other than a slight furrow between her brows.
“Lieutenant,” Young said through clenched teeth. “What the hell are you looking at?”
She snapped her gaze to him, eyes wide. “Nothing, sir.”
Rush’s focus on empty space broke, and he shifted his eyes to James.
The lieutenant looked straight at him, then dropped her gaze back to her bowl. Her expression never so much as flickered.
“Doc,” Greer said. “You okay?”
“Fuck off, sergeant,” Rush said, with no hostility, running a hand through his hair with affected nonchalance.
“Lieutenant.” Young forced an iron control into his tone, ignoring the ice in his chest. He fixed his eyes on James. “Anything you want to tell me?”
“No sir.” James had gone stone-cold neutral. “Just about the passage. That was all.”
//The fuck are you on about?// Rush projected cautiously.
“You,” Young growled at the scientist, “were about to ask the lieutenant something before you were interrupted by—whatever the hell that was. You wanna follow-through on your question, maybe?”
Rush eyed him warily. “Apologies lieutenant. I’m curious, how did you and Brody make out with the starboard edge of the habitable zone?”
“Two consecutive segments reclaimed,” James said.
“Nicely done,” Rush scraped the bottom of his bowl of paste.
Young wasn’t finished. Not by a long shot. “Lieutenant,” he said again. “Did Rush pull you into anything?”
//Oh god,// Rush said. //Will you stop.//
//You were trading sleep for her and Greer,// Young snapped back.
“Welding,” James said, her eyes clear and direct. “But you knew that, sir.”
//Exactly. To fuckin’ weld. With Brody. Because she’s competent. We weren’t exactly having heart-to-heart chats.//
“Anything other than welding?” Young growled.
“Absolutely not, sir,” James said, her tone crisp, her expression straightforward.
Young was pretty damn sure she wasn’t lying.
“And this panel,” Young said sharply, realizing he’d started dressing her down in the middle of lunch, but unable to stop himself. “You just—thought it was a reasonable idea to open it?”
James said nothing.
“Oh relax about it,” Rush said. “She can fuckin’ tell.”
James’s eyes flicked to Rush in what looked like surprise. And, maybe, gratitude.
Young didn’t like it. “Oh yeah? How can she tell.”
“The same way Greer can open a door,” Rush said, his voice dripping with disdain. “I showed her?”
Young looked at James. She nodded once, her jaw set. And yeah. THAT was bullshit.
“You take orders from me, lieutenant,” Young growled.
“I am very clear on the chain of command, sir.” James said crisply.
“God, y’really know your way around ruining an already shite meal, don’t you?” Rush’s tone dumped itself straight down Young’s spine. He shifted his gaze to Greer. “Sergeant, when I eat with any group of people in the mess, which, I admit, is exceedingly rare, d’you know how often I get tacitly or overtly accused of something?” Rush asked.
“One hundred percent?” Greer hazarded.
Rush looked Young dead in the eyes and dragged a fluid checkmark through the air with one finger.
Young was having none of it. //She clocked the AI. Now either the two of you tell me what the hell is happening here, or I will drag it out of both of you.//
//Oh for FUCK’S SAKE.// Rush’s projection had enough power to shatter Young’s thoughts like an electric shock. He turned straight to James. “Lieutenant, can you see Destiny’s AI?”
James stared at him and said nothing.
“You people are the absolute fucking worst,” Rush snapped. He turned the to empty air. “Can she fuckin’ see you?” His voice was loud enough to carry, and the few crew members still in the room turned to look askance at them.
Young leaned an elbow on the table and dropped his forehead into his hand.
“Right,” Rush said, turning back to James after a short pause. “Lieutenant, congratulations, you’ve got a unique splice variant in your LTA gene that sensitizes you to EM fields of a particular frequency often found in Lantean tech. I’m presuming you’ve been seeing energy fields since day one and made the excellent decision of telling no one in your command hierarchy due to its pure, unadulterated idiocy,” Rush hissed, his eyes boring into Young. “I, on the other hand, have noticed your surprising competence with the hardware of this ship, your ability to survive a lighting strike, and your particular talent for recovering useful technology. You are not losing touch with reality, in case you’ve wondered. You have an untapped skill set; report to the control interface room at nineteen hundred hours every single day, unless it conflicts with a previously assigned duty shift. Please.”
The mess was utterly silent.
Young didn’t look up.
“Doc, stop crash-testing the colonel,” Greer said softly. “He’s had a hard week.”
No one said anything else.
For a long time.
Except for Rush, who said, “Get out,” and then, quieter, “no, not you,” in an annoyed tone.
James and Greer stayed put as the room cleared.
Young needed to pull himself together. Right now. This wasn’t acceptable. If he wasn’t careful, Telford would have grounds to replace him. He just—damn it—
//I admit that wasn’t my best work,// Rush projected, along with a spectacular wave of apology, shot through with sympathy, with understanding, with traces of amusement. //But it wasn’t my worst, either.//
Young replied with a wordless wave of misery.
//If it makes y’feel any better—she can’t actually see the AI itself. She can see flickers of its EM field. It hasn’t been talking to her. It’s not launching a fuckin’ coup, all right? It’s just doing its best.//
//It’s best, huh?// Young echoed dully.
“Sorry lieutenant,” Young ground out. “Nice find.” He lifted his head. “Nice work, generally. You want to be the military liaison to the Science Team?”
“I—” James sounded stunned. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“That thing actually appears to you,” Young said, “and you let me know.”
“Yes sir,” James said again.
“Dismissed,” Young said. “Both of you.”
Rush watched them leave the mess, then shifted his eyes back to Young. “I’ve been trying to back-engineer what that must’ve looked like,” he murmured. “I confess I’ve got no idea.”
Young sighed. “Which part? The part where I get you to put your feet up and doctor your lunch? The part where you provocatively eat paste? The part where I dress down James in public and you yell at me for it? The part where you steal her for the Science Team and I let you do it? Maybe the part where I can’t hold my shit together? Or the part where you have conversations with something no one else can see? Or the part where Sergeant Greer tries, like hell, to normalize some of it for us?”
“Um, yes,” Rush said delicately. “Any and all of those parts.”
“We’ve had better days,” Young said.
“We were always going to have better days than this,” Rush murmured.
“Yeah,” Young said.
There was a soft knock at the door of the mess. Young looked up to see Wray, standing in the frame, her expression uncertain, her eyes full of sympathy. “Hey,” she said quietly. “How’s it going?”
“Ugh. Who called you,” Rush sighed, exasperated.
“I happened to overhear some interesting hallway conversation just now,” Wray said, walking forward, her pumps echoing. She slid into Greer’s seat without being invited. “How’re you feeling, Nick?”
Young felt something unknot in his chest. Wray—Wray knew. Wray had seen. Wray understood the situation in a way no one else did. Not even Rush himself. God, why had he not told her about all of this immediately?
“Not stellar, actually,” Rush said. “Having a 9-volt day, I’m afraid.”
“Don’t compare yourself to batteries,” Young said, his voice cracking. “I can’t take it.” He looked at Wray. “What hallway conversation?”
“Rush had a meltdown, started talking to invisible people, and reassigned Lieutenant James to the Science Team?” She shrugged in the scientist’s direction. “Sorry Nick.”
“Yes well,” Rush sighed. “I’m not denying it.”
“Believe it or not, I had the meltdown,” Young said.
“I have no problem believing that,” Wray replied flatly. “But no one said anything about you, other than that you looked to be at about the end of your rope. Guys, my point is, this is salvageable, but do everyone a favor, cut your losses, and lie down? Maybe take a few days off? Scott, TJ, Eli, and I can handle things. Including the resupply drafting. And bringing you meals. In your quarters.”
“He’s against that,” Rush murmured, eyeing Young with an exhausted resignation.
“I’m not against it,” Young said. “I was against it, before you started—”
“Ah.” Wray held up a hand. “Stop. This is no one’s fault. The pair of you have been put in an impossible situation, and you’re making the best of it. In fact, that goes for pretty much every single person on this ship. The past few days have been too much. Colonel, you’ve been pushed beyond your limits. Nick, I don’t even understand what you’re dealing with. It’s beyond my comprehension. So. Go back to your quarters and lie down.”
They stared at her.
“Right now,” Wray said.
In his quarters, Young mined his reserves, beat back his anxiety, and did his damnedest to pull the teeth out of his reactions to his chief scientist, who was, beneath his attitude and his exasperation and his concern, starting to flag. His fever was up. His thoughts had slowed. And, when the guy finally harassed Young into an evaluation of their link schematic, his mind was laced with glassy, aching interference.
Young broke the schematic overlay by triangulating on the edged press of the coffee table against his thighs, the glare of the lights, and the weight of Rush’s foot in his lap. When the room had foregrounded itself, he ran a hand over the denim of the scientist’s jeans, just above the top of his boot. “Hey.”
“Don’t say it.” Rush leaned back against the couch, crossed his arms, and glared.
“You need a nap?” Young asked.
“I don’t ‘nap,’ all right? It’s not a thing I ever do.”
Young put the man’s boot in a sleeper hold and started unknotting Rush’s topological lace-artistry with his free hand. “I’d reconsider that one.”
“Don’t unlace that,” Rush said, cool and imperious.
Young looked up at him. “What happened to taking my orders?”
“What happened to my directive?”
“Genius, we’re not fixing this thing today. I’m way the hell too wrung out. Your brain is all—glassed up.”
“Yes well, y’can at least make some attempt to map the cognitive terrain?”
“Have you ever,” Young said, keeping his desperation out of his voice, “at any point in your life, just taken a break? Are you familiar with the concept? All you have to do is sit there. Nothing else. Just sit there. Not forever. Just a while. Read a book. Think thoughts. You play chess, right? We could play chess.”
“Try anything.” The scientist’s voice cracked. “Literally anything; I don’t care.”
Young opened his mouth, gearing up to explain, for maybe the twentieth time, that he was not gonna take a baseball bat to the cracked windshield of the scientist’s brain. Not for the sake of expediency. Not for the sake of experimentation. Unfortunately, given Rush’s personal preferences regarding expedience and experimentation, not taking a metaphorical bat to the guy’s brain would land them in an endless, unwinnable argument. Which, itself, would do its own kind of damage.
Young shut his mouth. He let Rush’s boot out of the chokehold he’d put it in. “Okay,” he said.
“An’ so help me god, if you fuckin’ thought-friction me down, the next time you go to sleep’ll be your last,” Rush muttered.
Young sighed. “Let me think for a minute.”
“Don’t strain yourself.”
“You’re a hell of a lot of work.” Young did his best to strip the warmth from his voice.
Rush shot him a dark look.
“I’ll try for a while-loop,” Young decided.
“I think a sync with an integrated hairpin—”
“Don’t push your luck.” He lifted the man’s foot off his lap. “Get this outta here. Your lace job is a disgrace.”
Rush smirked, pulled his foot back, and sat forward, interested.
Young squared himself up with the man. He held his right hand out, palm open, arm angled at the elbow. An arm-wrestlers hold. “Take my hand.” When Rush grasped his right hand, Young offered his left. “Same thing, other side. Crossed forearms. There you go.”
The scientist had a great grip. Powerful. Dexterous. Sure of itself, after years of music and coding and precision knife-work in a kitchen full of light.
“Okay. Good. Now try and drag me off this coffee table,” Young said.
“Pull against me,” Young said. “Hard as you can.”
“Why?” Rush asked.
“It’ll work better if you don’t know.”
Rush made a what-the-hell face and started pulling.
Young matched him, then, very slowly, overmatched him. “You’re gonna need to do better than that.” He drew the scientist up, pulled him off his center of gravity, and balanced against him. “Don’t use your left foot, though.”
Rush leaned back, reversed the trajectory, and dragged Young forward.
“You’re pretty strong,” Young admitted.
“Oh fuck off.” Rush flashed him a quick grin.
“Bet you tire quickly,” Young said.
Rush shot him an unimpressed look. “I’ll never win a static contest like this.”
“Against me?” Young asked amenably, as Rush pulled him away from his own center of gravity. “No. Doesn’t matter, though. Keep going. Put your back into it.”
“Why should I?” Rush’s whole body tensed, shaking subtly with fatigue.
“Because I told you to.” Young cracked a smile. “Come on. Work harder.”
“Are you trying to shatter your own spine?” Rush asked conversationally. “I can’t keep this up forever, and physics is going to send you straight into the coffee table when I let go.”
“Don’t let go then,” Young said.
“Bad strategic choice on your part.”
“Technically, genius, it’s a tactical choice, and I lifted it directly from you,” Young shot back.
Rush made an inarticulate sound of frustration.
Young forced the scientist to hold the static muscle contraction for about thirty seconds longer than was remotely reasonable. Right at the point when Rush was about to fold, Young started easing up on the guy.
“Okay,” Young murmured. “Dial it back. Nice and slow.” He let Rush drag him forward as he sank to the couch. As the scientist sat, Young grounded the guy. Hard. And into that shifting array of physical and cognitive pressures, he projected a river of calm. It hit the glowing wind of Rush’s thoughts and pulled the local flow into a current, timed, precisely, to the man’s slowly unfolding physical relaxation. As the scientist completed his movement and sat back against the couch, a while-loop of artificial calm established itself, running from Young’s mind, through Rush’s cognition, into his physical body, and back.
It cost almost nothing to maintain.
“That,” Rush murmured, looking up at Young with a glazed expression, over their clasped, crossed hands, “was extremely clever.”
“Thanks,” Young said gently. He knelt over the scientist, one knee braced on the couch. “That’s a pretty strong loop. You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Rush breathed. Fine tremors wracked his muscles, and Young wasn’t sure if it was the fever or the physical exertion or a reaction to what was happening in his head.
Young shifted the emotional tone of what he was projecting, threading a broad swath of reassurance, and approval through the calm running in Rush’s head. “Relax more,” he said. “You’re shaking.”
Rush made an inarticulate sound, and his grip on Young’s hands tightened.
“You want out?” Young asked, already pulling power from the loop.
“No,” Rush whispered. “Keep going. I’ll stop fighting it. Tell me what happens.” And then, with a rapidity that was terrifying, the scientist went liquid beneath him. His head fell back. His grip went slack. His whole cognition was swept into a feedback loop as he physically and mentally relaxed.
Beneath the glowing, misted wave of the while loop, deep in the scientist’s mind, Young could see—something else. A bright, familiar network, glowing through the center of the running loop. Barely visible, impossible to map.
“Okay,” Young said, breaking the loop. “That’s about enough of that.”
The scientist blinked his eyes open. His thoughts were quiet, spiraling slowly, and he looked at Young with a hazy, unfocused expression. The guy was in a boneless sprawl, half off the couch, but didn’t seem to be bothered by it. He made no effort to move.
“As loops go, this one might be useful.” Young disentangled his hands from Rush’s, and manhandled the guy into lying on the couch.
“Hmm?” Rush said faintly.
“Give it a minute.” Young projected a wave of reassurance. “You were pretty deep.”
“I know,” Rush breathed. “What happened.”
“Well, you bottomed out in the loop, and I saw some structure below that chaos kaleidoscope you usually have going. Not sure what it was, but it looked complicated as hell. Maybe our link is anchored down there.”
“Brilliant,” Rush murmured, lifting his head an inch or two off the couch, then dropping back. “Knew you’d come up with something.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” Young said dryly. “Reliably brilliant.”
Rush rolled his eyes. “Right.” He shifted, trying to push himself up, but got nowhere
“What the hell are you doing, anyway?” Young murmured. “Trying to get up and start this bullshit all over again? You can’t buy this kind of relaxation. I’d just go with it. You earned it.”
Rush sighed, relaxed back against the couch, and looked at Young through half-lidded eyes.
“If you want to know my real plan for fixing our link, I’ll tell you.” Young settled himself on the floor and leaned into the couch. He captured one of the scientist’s hands and interlaced their fingers.
“I’m not going to like it, am I?” Rush whispered.
“Probably not, no.” Young admitted. “Because, pretty much, it’s this right here. No fancy saves. No cognitive hairpins. Your brain has been through enough, I think. So it’s just gonna be this. Every day. And, over time, it gets better.”
“That’s something of a disappointment,” Rush said.
“Not sure if you’ve noticed, genius,” Young said, “but that’s kinda my specialty.”