Force over Distance: Chapter 36
“Hi,” Eli said, looking up into empty air. “Hi, Mr. AI. Or Ms. AI. So, um, I’m Eli.”
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Winter sunrise.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
Young stood in front of the bulkhead next to the door to the mess and studied a handwritten notice that’d been taped to the wall. It read:
A ReSupply Mission is HAPPENING!!!! [Probably.] If you want more pitched through the gate than just MREs, initial below next to three items of your choice. Votes will be counted and presented to Captain Camile and Colonel Young. One can’t argue with cold, hard data, and we don’t know about you, but we’re dying for some freaking potato chips.
Cookies (specify type):
Diet coke: THE COLONEL SAYS NO
Coffee: THE COLONEL SAYS NO
Cigarettes: THE COLONEL SAYS NO
Tea: IT HAS TO BE HERBAL
Beef jerky: THAT’S AN MRE, ELI
Ice cream: NOT PRACTICAL. Yes it is…I found a refrigeration unit.
Goldfish crackers: THIS IS WEIRDLY SPECIFIC. Stop hating on this list!
Fruit (I mean I wouldn’t but ok fine Chloe):
Combinations of initials littered the page. Young rubbed his jaw, trying to suppress a smile as he lingered, reading the annotations.
//Arriving to breakfast forty seconds after I do deceives no one,// Rush snapped.
//Not trying to deceive anyone,// Young replied mildly, //just reading a sign, if that’s okay with you.//
The scientist had been in top form since something like 0430, when he’d ripped himself to consciousness out of a hair-curling nightmare involving the Nakai brand of mental torture combined with personal vivisection.
It turned out that after a few days of a slow-breaking fever and regular sleep, the man’s brain had a tendency to entertain itself with some real goddamned horror shows. Young was pretty sure the vivisection hadn’t been a direct memory? He hoped to god it hadn’t been a direct memory.
Young rounded the doorframe and saw the scientist standing in front of Becker, bolting down his protein mix as fast as humanly possible.
“Been a while since we’ve done this, doc,” Becker said to Rush. “You must be feeling better?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“I like the clean-cut look.”
“Thank you.” Rush narrowed his eyes, as though suspicious he was being insulted.
//Sit, genius, come on.// Young kept his eyes off the scientist as he approached Becker’s station.
//Why should I?// Rush turned to Young, as though they were speaking aloud.
The guy could not keep. A low profile. To save his goddamned life.
//For one,// Young replied, //I'm gonna sit down, and you can't leave without me. Two, maybe think about making an effort to normalize? Last time we were here wasn’t the smoothest. Just do a little regressing to the mean. That’s all.//
For some reason, this seemed to trigger a crystal-edged thought construct that cut painfully through the iridescent swirl of the man’s thoughts. Rush broke it apart as soon as it formed. //So, in your past there’s at least a course in statistics, if nothing else. I certainly have no plans to regress to any mean defined by you.//
//I know.// Young suppressed a sigh. //You're clearly a three-sigma kind of guy.//
//Are you flattering me or insulting me?//
//Depends on which side of the mean you're on.//
Again, something rigid forced itself through the scientist’s mind. //You're not normally one for mathematics-based witticisms.// Their link echoed with anxiety. Rush looked at Young with narrowed eyes.
//Genius, what the hell is going on in your head?//
//Nothing.// Rush shattered whatever had been driving through his thoughts.
“Hi sir,” Becker said. He handed Young a bowl of paste, and sent Rush a confused, sidelong look.
//Keep it together,// Young snapped. //Don’t stare at me without speaking, and don’t screw with your own brain in the middle of the mess.//
Rush immediately dropped his eyes to his bowl. Somehow, the obvious overcorrection only made the problem more noticeable.
Becker looked uncertainly at Young, then back at Rush.
“Rush,” Young growled, trying to course-correct a course-correct. “Sit.”
Rush took a breath, shot Young a livid glare, and was about to start verbally stripping paint off Young’s metaphorical fence, when Eli called across the room.
“Hey Rush.” The kid waved the scientist over to where he was sitting with Wray and Chloe. “C’mere. Question for you.”
Rush glowered at Young, grabbed his crutch from where it was leaning against Becker’s station, and limped over to their table. He tossed his mostly empty bowl onto the table and dropped into a seat next to Wray.
Young followed him and took the open chair across from the scientist, intensely grateful for Eli’s timing, until—
“Nice haircut,” Eli said, at normal volume. Then he dropped his voice to a hiss, leaned forward, and said, “It provides a very, very small buffer against the intense craziness vibes that you’re currently giving off. Here's a tip: don’t silently glare at Colonel Young when he's not talking to you out loud. It makes people nervous. You look like you're plotting something.”
Rather than the aggressive response they were all expecting, they got nothing.
Rush shut his eyes and turned his head away. He propped an elbow on the table. He dug the heel of his hand into his eye socket. He tried to contain an almost overwhelming distress.
There was a long, frozen, horrible silence.
God damn it.
With as much subtlety as Young had in him, he threaded a line of apology across their open link.
“Do you have any idea how much sensory and cognitive input I successfully ignore on a second-to-second basis?” Rush asked finally, his voice almost inaudible.
No one spoke.
“Yes well.” Rush ran his hand through his hair. “It’s a lot.”
“Yeah,” Eli whispered. “Yeah, I guess it must be.” There was another long pause. “Sorry.”
Young altered his wordless projection, beginning a slow turn from apology to reassurance. //You’re doing a hell of a job, genius,// he projected.
“Don’t worry about it,” Rush replied, still not looking at any of them.
“And yet,” Eli said weakly. “Here I am. Still worried. As usual. Really sorry, just trying to save you, sort of. By yelling at you. You know how it goes. You invented that technique, probably.”
“We get it.” Chloe leaned in. “We totally get it.”
“Or we get that we don’t get it,” Wray said.
“Okay, but some of us actually get it?” Chloe shot back, annoyed.
“Yes yes,” Rush said. “Enough.”
“I’d say the whole Science Team gets your vibe,” Eli said. “Except James, which is only temporary. In other news, I guess James is on the Science Team now? That’s fun. Can’t wait for you to come back to the NHB and explain why. Tonight, maybe?”
“She’s not on the Science Team,” Young said, still watching the restive swirl of Rush’s thoughts. “She’s the military liaison to the Science Team.”
“Oh yeah. Totally different,” Eli said. “So—what does that make you? Are you not coming to the NHB anymore?”
“We’ll see,” Young said.
“Yeah, we will see,” Eli said, his tone goodnatured, but his expression still pinched and concerned.
“Colonel,” Wray said, cool and smooth, doing her part to diffuse some of the awkwardness, “have you finalized your portions of the requisition draft yet? Memorizing a list that long will take me some time.”
“It's nearly done,” Young replied. “TJ and I just need to finalize her portion of it.”
“Can you imagine if you forgot something?” Eli asked, grinning at Wray.
“Yes, Eli,” Wray said flatly. “I can. That’s how I spend most of my—”
The pitch of the shields, which sang quietly, continuously, in the back of Rush’s mind ratcheted up to a strained, intolerable shriek—like the scream of distressed metal being rent apart. The sound was blood-curdling, all-encompassing, and bleeding through their link. Across the table, Rush was frozen, his hands at his temples.
“Dr. Rush?” Chloe’s voice was sharp.
“Oh god,” Young said thickly, his hands closing on the edge of the table.
“Something’s wrong,” Wray had both her hands on Rush’s shoulders. “Something’s happening.”
Rush forced the insistent, desperate presence of the ship out of his thoughts as much as he could. Young pulled him in and locked him down hard.
Information flooded through their link. The stress on the shields was something Destiny recognized.
They stood in tandem. Rush, unexpectedly caught in a sync loop, mirrored Young’s movement precisely, tearing himself from Wray’s grip so forcefully that his chair toppled over and skidded back along the floor behind him. He staggered, unbalanced, and dropped out of the physical sync. Peripherally, Young was aware of the low buzz of conversation in the room fading to silence. They ignored it, looking up at the ceiling as—
And there it was.
The drop out of FTL.
The lights dimmed at the increased power requirement from the shields.
There were a few startled gasps from around the mess.
“Chloe,” Rush snapped into the silence. “Go down to the FTL drive.”
“Um, okay,” Chloe said, her voice high and tight. “Which access point?”
“The maintenance tunnel that runs down the center of the drive elements.”
“I’ve never been in there before,” Chloe said, her voice small. “I—”
Rush stepped in, grabbed her shoulders, and looked her directly in the eyes. “I’ll walk you through it over the radio,” Rush waited for her nod, and then, “Run,” he said softly, “quick as y’can.”
Chloe darted away, her hair flying behind her.
“Eli,” Rush snapped, “with me,” and headed for the door.
Young followed, threading his way through the whispering breakfast crowd. He turned at the doorframe. “Everyone to your stations.” He raised his voice to be heard by the entire room. “Civilians to quarters. Camile, make sure it happens.” She nodded at him.
When he caught up with Rush, the scientist was already on the radio. “Yes,” he said. “I’m aware. Route all power to sublight.”
Young’s radio crackled. “Colonel Young, this is Volker. Just wanted to give you a heads up that we dropped out next to another obelisk planet.”
“Dropped out or were pulled out?” Young growled.
“To expect lexical accuracy from Volker is to continually be disappointed,” Rush commented.
“We were pulled,” Eli muttered. “Had to be a pull, right?”
“Um,” Volker said, “I’ll get back to you on that one.”
“Colonel,” Rush said, the skin around his eyes tightening from the strain his pace was putting on his injured feet. “You should remove your block. At least temporarily.”
The close apposition of their thoughts left no question as to what the man was referring to. He was asking to reestablish the transfer of energy between himself and Destiny.
“No chance in hell,” Young said, a soft delivery over pure iron intent. “Your fever finally broke yesterday, after what, four days? No. No way. We’ll generate another EM field with the FTL drive. It’ll be fine.”
“We’ll see,” Rush said. “You realize we can’t even separate unless you remove that barrier?”
“You guys are talking about the taking-energy-from-the-ship thing?” Eli asked. “Because, if I get a vote, I—”
“You don’t,” Young growled. “The only person who gets a vote is me.”
“What’s the point of even having votes, then?” Eli asked.
“Eli,” Young growled.
“It’ll be much easier to deal with this situation with the ability to separate,” Rush said tightly. “Especially if I’m ‘redirected’ to the chair?”
“It’s not happening. Deal with it.”
“Most likely? You’re going to be the one dealing with it.”
The rest of Young’s comment was cut off as a shift in Destiny’s velocity threw them all to the deck plating.
The obelisk had, presumably, fired itself up.
“Ow,” Eli got to his knees, rubbing an elbow. “Uh oh,” he said, looking at Rush.
“Fuck,” the scientist whispered, already in a crouch, leaning into his left foot for all he was worth as Destiny dragged on his mind in earnest. The chair shone bright in the dark gravity of the ship’s presence. “Fuck. Can’t you do something about this?”
“What the hell can I do?” Young asked, kneeling next to him, his hands on Rush’s shoulders, trying to keep him grounded. “Tell me and I’ll do it.”
“Not you,” Rush breathed, his eyelids fluttering. “Come on, sweetheart,” the scientist whispered, his gaze turning upward, “if you want to help me, you’ll have to circumvent a bit of programming.” The pressure on Rush’s mind ratcheted up, and he started to lose his hold on his body. He leaned into Young’s grip.
“Oh god,” Eli whispered, “is he talking to the AI?”
“Yeah,” Young said, getting a better hold on the scientist, trying to ground him against a mind-shredding drag toward the chair room.
“Hi,” Eli said, looking up into empty air. “Hi, Mr. AI. Or Ms. AI. So, um, I’m Eli.”
“Eli,” Young said through gritted teeth, as Rush sagged in his grip. “It knows who you are. It knows pretty much everything.”
“Uh, right,” Eli said. “Except, maybe, how to do a little hacking. Of itself. So, again, hi. I’m guessing you’ve seen our mutual friend here do a lot of circumventing in his day. Maybe you can steal one of his tricks, y’know? Tie a process up elsewhere, while you go for the thing you want? Shift some code around? Open a program over there that’s higher-weighted in the priority queue to lock down some resources? Borrow someone’s password. Force a command into a loop. Stall out a running process. Uh, is there a switch we can manually flip, maybe?”
And, suddenly, the pressure on Rush eased. The scientist tensed, took a shuddering breath, then looked at Young, clear-eyed and concerned. “We’ve got, roughly, ten minutes to fix this before I’m going to have to sit in the chair.”
Young grabbed his arm and pulled him up.
“Hi, did I just save you?” Eli asked.
“What?” Rush asked, as they resumed their walk to the bridge.
“Did I just. Save you?” Eli repeated.
“Not to my knowledge,” Rush shot him a dismissive, perplexed look and increased his pace.
“Dang it,” Eli sighed.
Young caught his elbow. “I’m gonna go with ‘maybe’ on that one,” he murmured.
“Maybe! I’ll take ‘maybe.’ You think the AI was listening to me?”
“Again, maybe.” Young said. “But it was a pretty good pep talk.”
The bridge wasn’t far.
They surged through the doors from the darkness of the corridor into a sea of light and activity. Volker, Brody and Park were there already, faces aglow in the pale yellow illumination. A planet loomed in Destiny’s forward view, blue and green and brown.
It looked like Earth.
Young’s chest ached at the sight.
A beam of light shot from the surface of the planet, extending in a silent, focused column that passed near their starboard side and continued on, out into the vacuum of space.
“We’re caught in an electromagnetic field and being pulled toward the planet.” Park, seated at Chloe’s station, looked back as they approached. “Our current velocity is only fifteen kilometers per second, but that’ll increase as the field strength does.”
“Brody,” Rush snapped as he strode across the room. “Up, please.”
“What?” Brody’s eyebrows drew together.
“Get up,” Rush said. “I need your station.”
Brody stood, at a loss for where to put himself. He moved to take Park’s usual spot.
“Where do you want me?” Eli asked.
“Long range and engines,” Rush said shortly.
Young dropped into the command chair.
“Chloe to Rush, I’m in position.” Chloe’s voice crackled over the science team’s open channel, coming from every radio in the room except Young’s. “I’m in the monitoring station with the central access tunnel.”
Absently, never taking his eyes off the monitors in front of him, Rush picked up his radio. “Chloe. Crawl into the drive to the point where the inductively-coupled conductors are located. It’ll be sixty meters or so.”
There was a long silence from the radio. “Sorry, um, Chloe to Rush, did you say ‘crawl?’ Just—not sure I’m looking at the right thing?”
“Crawl is, perhaps, aspirational. It’s a tight space. Head first, on your back, you’ll be fine. Once you’re in position, let me know.”
“Okay,” Chloe whispered.
The room was dead silent.
//You sure she can do this?//
//We’ll find out,// Rush said grimly. He set his radio down, his focus back on the hull plating.
“What’s the plan?” Young asked, as an alarm began to trill across the bridge.
“Three ships just dropped out on long range,” Eli called, before Rush could answer.
“Chloe to Rush, Chloe to Rush.” The radios went off again, and Chloe’s terrified voice cut through the atmosphere on the bridge like knife. “Check the long range.”
“Chloe,” Rush said patiently, “we’re aware. Focus on the drive, please.”
“How the heck did she know?” Volker asked.
“Their vessel specs match the Nakai,” Eli said grimly.
“You deal with that,” Rush snapped, glancing at Young. “I’ll deal with the planet.”
“Fair enough,” Young murmured and moved to stand with Eli and Volker.
“The Nakai just launched fighters,” Volker said. “Interception in less than one minute.”
“Oh good,” Park said. “Another space battle.”
“Park,” Rush’s fingers flew through submenus like the computational virtuoso he was. “Port navigation to Eli, switch stations with Brody, and take back weapons.”
“You got it, doc.” Park was already out of her chair.
“Brody, mirror my console at Chloe’s station, and pull up FTL controls. Do nothing until I tell you; do not so much as run a diagnostic.”
“Understood.” Brody dropped into Chloe’s usual seat.
“Chloe’s in the drive,” Eli said quietly, looking at Brody.
Brody’s hands froze above his console. Then he nodded shortly and ported the controls.
“Volker,” Young said, “what’s the status on those fighters? Shouldn’t they be feeling the pull of the planet just as much as we are?”
“Great question,” Eli said, drawing out the words, scanning though submenus.
“They are,” Volker replied. “The pull is altering flight paths for sure. The first wave flew directly into the, uh, field gradient at an unfortunate angle, so they’re now two and a half minutes out, maybe? The second wave is making a best guess at skirting it.”
“How are our shields looking?” Young asked the room.
“There was a transient energy drain as they saved us from smear when we dropped from FTL,” Park said. “But backup generators kicked in, and they’re back at one hundred percent.”
The entire room paused to look at Park.
“‘Smear?’” Volker said.
“Yeah I just made that up,” Park admitted. “But, like, the most likely outcome of an uncontrolled drop is a matter-wave smear across spacetime, so—” she shrugged.
“Focus up,” Young said, snapping at Eli and Volker.
“Smear,” Volker said under his breath. “That’s cool.”
“Chloe to Rush,” Chloe’s voice came over the radio. “I’m in position.”
“Well done,” Rush said smoothly, navigating one-handed through his console, sweat beading at his temples. “Open it up.”
“How?” Chloe asked, high and tight.
“Unfasten the clamps on either side, grasp it by the edges, and pull it toward you.”
“Okay,” Chloe said breathily after a short pause. “It’s out.”
“You’re going to alter the voltage that runs through the drive by changing the permutations of the crystals inside the transformer. Open it up and tell me what you see.”
“Thirty seconds and we’re in firing range,” Volker said.
“What happens if we fire our weapon into that energy field?” Young asked, looking at Park.
“There’ll be spatial distortion of its path,” Park replied. “Its—shoot. It’ll phase as it enters the field. Its power might be affected. Not actually sure how to think about this, hang on.”
“Chloe to Rush. I see a matrix of crystal slots. Four rows, three columns. Two crystals are in slots. There’s a pink one at row three, column two. There’s a green one at row three, column three.”
“Columns represent voltage permutations, rows alter current,” Rush replied, like the world’s most reasonable physics tutor. “The pink crystal goes left, and the green one goes straight up, to the top.” Rush lifted his hand off the radio button. “Someone get me a laptop and an adaptor right the fuck now,” he snarled, his tone changing entirely.
//Are you going to do what I think you’re going to do?// Young asked.
//Probably not,// Rush was was already writing one of his short, scalpel-like codes in his head.
“Who’s getting me that laptop?” Rush snapped. “Volker, go. No one cares about short range.”
“Nobody cares about short range?” Volker repeated incredulously. “We’re under attack.”
“I’ve got it,” Brody said mildly, dropping into a crouch to disconnect the adaptor and laptop that someone had left hooked up near Chloe’s station and setting it up next to Rush.
The first of the enemy weapons fire began to light up their shields.
“Park,” Young said, “how’s that thinking coming?”
“The trajectory of the weapon and its phase will both be altered by the field,” Park said. “Not sure we have enough data to model how. Working on it.” Her hands flew over her touchscreen like birds. “I don’t think we should fire until we know.”
“Chloe,” Rush said into his radio. “What’s your status?”
“The transformer’s back in. Now what?”
“Stay there right there. Close your eyes, cover them with both hands. Hold as still as possible.”
“Okay,” Chloe whispered.
“You’re going to power up the drive while she’s inside?” Eli shouted.
“You’ll be fine,” Rush said, into the radio.
“Nakai ships are caught in the field and accelerating toward the planet,” Volker called out. “The fighters are pulling back.”
“I don’t get it,” Brody said, as he slid back into his seat. “The first time we drop out, the obelisk planet does nothing. For weeks. The second time, it fires up its field after six hours. The third time, it pulls us out as we travel past and fires up its field immediately.”
“You think they’re learning?” Young asked quietly. “Whoever they are?”
“Yeah,” Brody remarked. “That’s what it seems like. And—the light. Like a narrowly directed beacon. I wonder if it’s pointed at something.”
“Record the trajectory,” Young said quietly. “We’ll work on that later.” He looked out the forward view at the silent, piercing column of white that burst from the planet. Like a line through space. When the obelisk shut off, it’d still travel forward. A laser burst, aimed at the finest of points.
Young shook himself and refocused.
//You ready?// he projected at Rush.
//Yes. I’ll be doing this the short way, unfortunately. If y’can’t keep me conscious, for fuck’s sake, let go, please? You can get me back with the chair easily enough.//
//I’m serious, colonel.//
With that, Rush launched his mind into the darkness of the ship.
Young dug in, anchoring Rush against the inexorable pull. The scientist was fighting as well, his foot flexed, trying to not to get pulled in too deep, too quickly, intending to use the science team to do as much as they could before he had to take over.
“Spin up the drive,” Rush said, his tone bizarrely flat, his accent shifting from Scottish toward Ancient. His eyes were unfocused.
The room went silent. The flurried movements of the science team stilled.
“Do it,” Young growled at Brody.
“FTL spinning up,” Brody said, his voice barely audible as he looked back at Rush.
The scientist sat immobile and expressionless. His hands were quiet, his fingertips resting against locked touchscreens, but his mind, his mind was a deluge of data and power flows and distribution systems as he channeled enormous amounts of current through the drive. Dimly, he could sense Chloe, at the heart of the quantum engine, perfectly still. Carefully, he routed light and power around her.
But as that power increased, so, too, did the requirements imposed on Rush’s mind.
Destiny drew him in.
Young’s heart rate doubled. His breathing turned labored. The untempered strength of the ship was nearly impossible to oppose.
The ship wanted Rush. It wanted him desperately. Across systems, over levels of software and hardware, the pull increased.
An explosion of blue-white light flooded in through the forward view, much as it had the last time Rush had executed this maneuver. Everyone shielded their eyes and threw up hands as they winced away from the glare.
Everyone except Rush, who continued to sit motionless, staring unblinkingly into the light.
“Our velocity,” Eli called, his voice strained as he peered through his fingers, “is still increasing. Toward the planet. It’s not working.”
“What do you mean it’s not working?” Volker shouted, one hand shading his eyes. “It’s an opposing field. It has to work.”
“Field dynamics are changing,” Eli called back. “It’s circumventing us. The gradient generated by our FTL drive is no longer in direct opposition to that field!”
Young could barely breathe as Rush’s consciousness fragmented, splitting into multiple parallel paths, but he was able to keep the scientist grounded enough that the other man could reach forward and initiate his short, scalpel-like program. As he did so, Rush mentally tapped into the long range sensors.
This was turning untenable.
With the room fading out around him into a blue-white haze, Young made his way unsteadily toward Rush’s station. He placed a hand on the scientist’s shoulder and felt some of the strain ease with the physical contact.
“The hull plating is polarizing,” Brody said, from a long way away. “It’s generating its own fluctuating EM field. Playing off the FTL drive.”
“Our forward velocity is slowing,” Eli said, encouraged.
“Put everything that you can find into sublight,” Brody called to the room at large. “I’m starting a pull from FTL.”
“But we need that field gradient!” Eli said.
“No we don’t,” Brody replied. “It’s the gradient in the hull plating doing the real work.”
The changing distribution of charge that ran through the hull of the ship flared in Rush’s mind, and Young could see, as through a veil, the pattern it made, the pattern the scientist was composing, equations reduced to harmony, to song. They ran through the other man’s consciousness like something native. Like breathing. Like the pulse of a heartbeat.
Young didn’t have much left.
“We’re pulling away,” Eli called triumphantly. “Let’s get more to sublight!”
“How far to escape the field?” Park asked.
“Three minutes at this pace, but we’ll pick up speed as we escape; hard to estimate kinetics on that.” Eli’s voice was very far away.
Just let go, Rush had said.
They weren’t supposed to do this—this halfway compromise between nothing and the terrible, invasive integration of the chair. Young’d never had trouble pulling Rush out of the chair. The interface was built to allow it. This was much more difficult.
More difficult for him. But, almost certainly, better for Rush.
His vision was a field of blue-white, with no real contrast.
“Almost there,” Eli called.
Young dug his fingers into Rush’s shoulder and tried, like hell, to hang on.
“Okay,” Eli said, “we’re outside the field radius.”
Rush let the energy flooding through the hull plating fade as he turned his focus toward withdrawing from Destiny.
Distantly, Young felt a surge of panic from the scientist, but wasn’t able to identify its cause. The strain had turned strange. Less physical, more abstract, as though his mind itself were coming apart.
It wasn’t painful. It was, almost, familiar.
The scientist, still half-buried in the ship, focused on Young. On reseating them both.
The strain on Young eased to the point that he reconnected with his body. His hammering heart. His overburdened lungs.
Maybe we send them out, Jackson said, like artwork under glass, preserved through time and war and change. The programs, the processes, the systems that try to help, but that don’t, that can’t. We send them out. And after.
After what? Rush whispered.
After anything. They know their way home.
With a gasping inhale, Young lurched forward. The ground came too hard against his feet, his head ached, his fingers were cold—
“You’re all right.” Rush came from nothing. He caught Young before he fell. The scientist’s thoughts flowed gently through Young’s mind, his presence and his sustained attention easing the last traces of strain. “You’re all right.”
Young leaned into him, nodding shakily.
“Talk to me,” Rush said, guiding Young into the seat he’d just vacated.
A compulsion unfolded through Young’s mind, slow and strong, with a sweet edge to the ache it laid down. “I’m fine. I’m okay, I—”
“Name, location, and date, I think it is?” Rush murmured, his hand at Young’s temple.
“Colonel Everett Young, Destiny. It’s February 6th. That’s a Sunday, I think. Superbowl’s probably happening, back on Earth, maybe—”
“All right,” Rush murmured, as the ache in Young’s thoughts faded to nothing. “That’s enough.”
Young nodded, confused, not sure why he was thinking of football at a time like like this?
The scientist’s head snapped up to take in rest of the science team, who were staring silently at them. “And what are you people looking at? We need to reconvert the drive for conventional FTL. Right now. What’s happening with those Nakai ships? And where the fuck is my radio?”
No one answered.
“Am I speaking English? You people are useless.”
“Volker?” Young prompted exhaustedly.
“One of the three Nakai ships is still caught in the field,” Volker said, eyeing Young warily. “The other two have escaped, but the arc-length of the trajectory that they’ll have to travel to reach our position while skirting the field gives us almost ten minutes.”
“That should be fine, if we don’t have to replace our transformer, which we shouldn’t if I calibrated things correctly this time,” Rush replied absently, as he came up with his radio from behind his own laptop. “Chloe,” he snapped. “Status?”
“Hi,” Chloe said breathily. “Can’t see that well. Otherwise okay, I think.”
“Can you tell if the transformer blew?”
“Um, I’m assuming if it had, the crystals would be dark?”
“Disconnect, replace the crystals in their original configuration, and reconnect. Can you get out of the drive on your own?”
“It’ll be slow,” Chloe said.
Rush’s eyes flicked absently over to Young, then into empty air.
Young pulled out his own radio. “This is Young. Lieutenant Scott, please respond.”
“Go ahead, sir,”
“Lieutenant, Chloe’s in the FTL drive. I need you to get down there and pull her out.”
“Pull her out?” Scott repeated, tensely.
“It’s a narrow space,” Young said. “Look, time is very much an issue here. We can’t fire up the drive until she’s out of there, and we’ve got Nakai ships closing on our position.”
“I’m on my way,” Scott said.
“You’ll need to direct him,” Rush said evenly, his eyes fixed on empty air.
Young fought down a reflexive surge of dread, glanced at the place where the AI would be, and then pulled out his radio. “You run, lieutenant. You run your ass off. When you get down to the level of the drive, someone’s gonna show you where to go.”
Rush’s gaze flicked to Young, but he said nothing.
Young tried to pull himself together during the tense minutes that followed, as they waited for the all clear from Chloe and Scott. He pushed himself to his feet, motioned Brody back to his usual station, made his way to the command chair, and dropped into it.
Rush kept trying to pace in that pained, aborted way that Young hated to watch.
//Sit down, genius,// Young directed at him.
Rush didn’t reply. Nor did he sit.
The scientist’s eyes flicked repeatedly out into the space near the forward view. Briefly, subtly, Young moved in on Rush’s mind, brought their thoughts together and got a brief glimpse of Dr. Jackson’s silhouette.
Behind Young, the doors to the bridge opened with a hiss, admitting Greer. The sergeant locked eyes with Park, then turned his attention to Young.
Young motioned him over with a tilt of his head.
“Sir,” Greer murmured, taking up a place next to the chair. “Heard from Scott that there was some shit going down up here?”
“We nearly got trapped in a phase-shifted planet,” Young said.
“Ah.” Greer replied. “That takes me back.”
Young smiled wryly, then shifted his attention back to Rush. The scientist had stopped pacing to stare at empty space.
“So,” Greer murmured, very quietly, “he’s not having a good day.”
“He’s doing his best,” Young said.
“I know,” Greer replied.
“Chloe,” Rush snapped into the radio. “Are you out yet?”
“Getting there,” Chloe replied, breathless. “Can’t talk now.”
Rush crossed his arms over his chest, angled his head down, then looked up at the glowing midair display. “Taking our current rate of acceleration into account, what’s the ETA of the lead Nakai ship?” he asked the room at large.
Absently, Young glanced up at the sensor data. “Probably something like five and a half minutes,” he replied.
Rush froze, body and mind, the spiral of his thoughts distorting and dissipating as an enormous structure of pure, crystalline order seared its way painfully through his thoughts. It forced something to completion with a crack of pure, blinding agony. Then it shattered itself.
Young, too, had frozen in his chair at whatever the hell that’d been.
“Rush,” he began, shakily.
But the scientist had already rounded on him, his expression terrible, his thoughts respinning into an aggressive, overwhelming firestorm. “What did you just say?” His voice was a snarl, his hands were slightly open, as if he were about to reach straight into midair circuits.
“Um,” Young swallowed, taken aback. “Five and a half minutes? I mean, roughly.”
“That’s correct,” Park said. “Just ran it. Five minutes, twenty-seven seconds.”
“Uh, nice one, colonel,” Volker said, uneasily.
Rush stood beneath the spectral glow of the sensor display, breathing hard. He closed his hands. He opened them again. Then he closed them, and spun on his heel, looking out the forward view, his thoughts a shrieking, disorganized mass of pure distress.
“So,” Eli said. “Um, that time estimate? It involved changing velocities of multiple objects in a three dimensional coordinate system.”
“Yes, Eli,” Rush hissed. “Everyone knows.”
“I’m just saying that’s pretty hard to estimate.”
“Yes. Eli.” Rush snarled. “Everyone. Knows that.”
The entire room was regarding both him and Rush watchfully. Young could almost feel them putting the pieces together.
“I’m gonna be real with you, sir,” Greer said quietly. “I did not know that? But I’m guessing it means Rush isn’t the only one having a bad day?”
Young didn’t reply.
“Chloe to Rush.” The crackling of the radio eased the unbearable tension in the room. “I’m out. I’m clear.”
“Spin it up,” Rush said.
Brody entered a series of commands. The deck plating purred beneath their feet. The planet in the forward view was replaced by the familiar swirl of blurring stars.
A collective sigh of relief passed around the bridge.
“I vote no on Proposition Obelisk Planets,” Volker said into the ensuing quiet.
“Seconded,” Brody replied, deadpan. He looked over at Rush. “Why generate a field with the FTL drive if you were also going to create a modulating field using the hull itself?”
“The drive was guide,” Rush said exhaustedly. “I needed something to harmonize against. Plus, it may have concealed the hull modulations to some degree. It was, quite literally, flash obfuscation. I’m not sure that we can expect to succeed with the same strategy twice with these people. Planets. Whatever.” Rush ran a distracted hand through his hair, and looked over at Young.
Young raised his eyebrows.
Rush dropped his eyes, hooked his hand over his shoulder, and stared at the floor. “Someone pull up all the sensor data obtained immediately prior to the drop out of FTL,” he said. “Right now. We have to determine how this happened so we can prevent it from occurring again.”
With that, the scientist clipped his radio to his belt, picked up his crutch, and limped past Young and Greer, straight out of the room.
“I, um, where’s he going? I thought he wanted it right now?” Park said, her voice small in the ensuing quiet.
“Just get started,” Young replied. “We’ll be back.”
//Don’t bring Greer,// Rush projected.
“Sergeant, do me a favor and keep an eye on things here, will you? Let me know if something explodes.” Young followed Rush out of the room.
The scientist pulled them off the main corridor into one of the small conference rooms that littered each level of the ship. The space was small and square, mostly empty but for a viewscreen along one wall and a table in the center.
“Sit,” Rush said shortly. He dropped his crutch on the floor with a dull clatter, and sank into a chair.
Young hesitated, alarmed at the distressed torque of the other man’s thoughts. “You um—doing okay over there?” he asked carefully. “Something happened to your brain, genius. Something was forcing itself through.”
“Yes. That was code. Sit.”
“That was code? What do you mean that was code?” Young growled. He dropped into a seat opposite the scientist.
“How much formal mathematical instruction have you had?” Rush ignored his question completely.
The non sequitur took Young by surprise. “What do you mean?”
“What d’you fuckin’ mean, ‘what do you mean?’ Answer the question. How far did you progress? Calculus? Multivariable calculus? Linear algebra? Differential equations?”
“Calculus. The regular kind. Can we talk about whatever the hell you just did to yourself back there?”
//“No.”// Rush said, and the word cut through Young’s mind like a scythe. “The ‘regular kind’ of calculus, then. Fine. And how long ago was that?”
“Twenty, twenty-five years?”
Rush pulled out the small notebook he carried in his back pocket, flipped to a blank page, wrote something on it with a bit more care than usual, and slid it over to Young along with a short stub of chewed-to-hell pencil.
Young looked down. An equation was written on the page.
“What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” Young asked.
“Show your work,” was all Rush said.
“I’m gonna humor you,” Young growled. “But you better be going somewhere with this.”
“Show. Your. Work.”
Young glared at the man, wrote a few lines, and slid the notebook back. Rush scanned it, drew a broad line beneath the problem, and wrote something else. He slid the notebook back to Young.
They continued in this manner, passing the book back and forth between them silently. The equations became more complex, functions and matrices filling up multiple small pages. Young continued to solve everything that Rush put in front of him.
Finally, Rush stopped passing him the notebook.
Neither of them spoke.
Rush shut his eyes, propped an elbow on the table, and drove the heel of one hand into his eye socket.
“Rush,” Young said. “Come on.”
The scientist didn’t look at him.
“So I’ve gained some math skills,” he said quietly. “That’s just a bonus, as far as I’m concerned. It’s fine. Nothing to be upset about. I like math, actually. A lot.”
“I think,” Rush said, looking down and away, “you like math—a bit too much. It’s—” his voice cracked on the word, dropped to a whisper. “It’s a deep, dynamic regard, tied into—to almost everything, now.”
“But genius,” Young said urgently, earnestly, “who wouldn’t love math, the way you do it?”
“Oh fuck,” Rush breathed. An acute wave of despair crashed through their link. “I did this. I’m certain I did.”
The room was silent.
“Did what?” Young said gently, projecting calm at the other man. “Left math in my brain? Come on. That’s nothing.”
For a long time, the scientist was quiet. He pressed his fingers into his temple and struggled to order his aching, intractable thoughts. Finally, he flipped a page in his notebook and began to draw, guiding the pencil across the paper with the familiar hiss of sliding graphite.
“You’ve got hardware,” he said dully, staring at the page he was working. “Literally, that’s the brain. Its salt currents. Its voltage differentials. You’ve got an operating system, which manages the hardware, compiles it, and interprets it for the overlying software, which is—personality, I suppose. Memory. Our ways of perceiving and reacting and interfacing with the world.”
“Okay,” Young said, trying to keep his tone and his thoughts neutral.
“To interface with Destiny the way I do, to interface with you the way I do, I was modified at all three levels.”
“Okay.” Young said, losing his neutral tone.
“When we were in that shuttle,” Rush said, “and I couldn’t break away from the ship, and you couldn’t pull me out—“ he paused to look at his drawing. He repositioned his pencil and started to shade. “I moved in on your mind, hairpinned your ability to ground, and shattered your operating system in the process. I destroyed your ability to link up your biological hardware with your software. It’s why you couldn’t speak. Why you couldn’t move.”
“What nearly happened, what did happen to you was the same thing that happened to Dr. Franklin.”
“Shit,” Young said, impressed. “And you fixed that?”
“I thought I had,” Rush spun his notebook to show Young what he had drawn.
It was a building. An angled, Lantean-style skyscraper. Part of its exterior had been stripped away to show the supporting beam work.
“Your foundation, the hardware, remains,” Rush said quietly. “The surface edifice, your software, also remains. My intent was simply to shore up the internal supports. I’m now concerned I did more than that.”
Something Rush had said, days before, half-delirious, clicked into place. “Scaffolding,” Young murmured.
“Yes.” Rush’s gaze was piercing. “It’s an apt metaphor for my intent, I suppose.”
“It’s your metaphor, genius,” Young said. “You mentioned it after you came out of the chair. When your fever first came on.”
“Bloody fantastic,” Rush whispered. “In any case, I’m now concerned it’s a fair bit more than that.”
“Less scaffolding, and more a real repair job?” Young asked.
“Reactivity, patterned after me? That I can write off. Flashbacks to skating accidents in vivid detail? That, too, I can write off. You’re sharper. Less methodical. You’re emotionally reactive. All of that—all of that, pure connectivity. Modeled on mine. Meant to fade, but, if it didn’t, it would make no real difference. But the math,” Rush whispered.
“What about the math?” Young asked.
“I rebuilt you,” Rush said, his voice low and intent, simultaneously coming out of and penetrating the marrow of Young’s bones.
“It’s the only explanation. You just pulled forward a block of information you shouldn’t have and y’worked with it. Actively. In the way that I would work, were I capable of it, and not overburdened by disruption from alien technology, increasing integration with a starship.”
“I still don’t see the problem.”
“I hold it back for you,” Rush murmured. “I hold that architecture back. That’s what the ‘scaffolding’ really fuckin’ is. That’s what it must be. It’s not shoring up damaged pathways, even though it looks that way to me. It’s keeping plastic, foreign neural elements in check. I’m—I can’t map my own borders; I’ve known that for—how long? I can’t see the link. I can see you, I can see Destiny, but I can’t map myself. I’m holding together more than I realized. I must be.” He stared, unseeing, at his drawing.
“Nick,” Young said, low and intent.
Rush looked up at him, startled.
“You didn’t have a choice about any of this.”
“I’ve had choice enough,” Rush whispered. “This complicates things. Immensely. Your ‘scaffolding’ will need to be reinforced. Maybe for the rest of your life.”
“I’m fine with that,” Young said.
“I’m not. If something happens to me, you—you won’t be able to live clear of this.”
“Anything that takes you down,” Young said, “up to and including you yourself, is gonna have to go through me. There’s no world where I live clear.”
“Yes well,” Rush rasped. “That may be true.”
Young stood, walked around the table, and pulled the man, very carefully, to his feet. “Come on.” He wrapped a hand over the scientist’s shoulder. “All kinds of workarounds out there, right? That’s your whole deal.”
“Don’t be nice to me,” Rush murmured.
“Don’t order me around,” Young said, giving him a small shake. “Not sure why I put up with you.”
“I haven’t the fuckin’ faintest,” Rush replied.
They left the room together.