Force over Distance: Chapter 37
“Stop fighting inevitabilities; it’s your least useful quality.”
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: Hi kids. I’m not native to this realm, but herein lies my current best.
Young watched Rush drag a light-pen over an invisible board. The glowing lines he etched in nothingness were broad, confident. They outlined a spectral network, abstracted for Eli. It hung in midair like magical chalk.
They were three hours deep into the NHB.
Eli and Rush were going at it.
Young leaned into the back wall of the CI room and took advantage of his chief scientist’s distraction to think through a few things.
The first problem with Nick Rush was that he just had a damn way about him. A condescending, sonofabitch, snappy, analytical fire that burned off everything he said and did with a cool superiority that made him completely insufferable except for the way he’d occasionally shed the whole thing like the diamond-hard plate armor it was.
And, beneath it, the guy was exhausted. Like he was working a deadline from hell. Every day. Snips of memory came of other times he’d worked like this—cracking cyphers on the walls of a spartan Colorado Springs apartment; mapping the limitations of Cobham-Edmonds through a San Francisco winter, his notes spilling over and off a beaten-to-hell printout of Paths, Trees, and Flowers.
Young shouldn’t be able to appreciate that.
But he did.
The second problem with Nick Rush was that information had to be dragged out of him in a grinding, ridiculous, protracted conversational excavation that yielded only the bones of what was asked and never the complete picture because he’d locked himself down so hard that even he couldn’t cypher himself open.
But, in his dreams, the man stood barefoot in his kitchen, drinking wine and cooking, as a radio transduced Mozart out of the air. He’d wait for Gloria, sometimes for hours, creating elaborate meals, unfolding them slowly, while, downtown, she performed with the San Francisco Symphony. Or, she’d sit on their kitchen island, drinking her own wine and chatting, rapier-sharp, drafting castles in the air.
Young shouldn’t remember her so well.
But he did.
The third problem with Nick Rush was, armored or not, conscious or not, the he was nineteen parts fight to one part fold. Young was acquiring a real taste for watching the guy create and burn an endless array of personal engines, but, even better, was helping him break the sound barrier into quiet on the other side.
Wray had been right. Young hadn’t seen it until he’d started looking, but Rush had stopped tensing up, snapping away, stepping back whenever Young invaded his personal space. And Young invaded his personal space a lot. More than was necessary. That had been part of the problem between them from day one.
Young probably shouldn’t keep doing it.
But he did.
And then there were the thousand smaller problems. The way the man held crystals in his teeth when working a wall circuit. The way he’d find creatively lazy ways to avoid a full lace of his boots. The tone of his voice when REM sleep was firing up—skeptical and slow. The way he’d relax under Young’s hands, the way he’d fall asleep with his head on Young’s shoulder—
“NO,” Eli said, breaking Young’s train of thought with volume alone. “I don’t care how it’s supposed to go. I care how it actually goes, Rush. Admit it. When we gated in, there were immediate life support failures.”
Rush rolled his eyes and blew through his glowing circuit diagram with a swipe of his hand.
“Those CO2 scrubbers were full of million-year sludge,” Brody said flatly.
Young was pretty sure Brody, also, had a bit of a thing for Nick Rush.
“Okay, maybe,” Eli shot back, “but I’ve been reading the unlocked database, and a cross-universe connection wasn’t meant to be made more than a few times. It’s why there are seed ships? Why there are gates? A dial-in like this is hard on the ship.” Eli paused, scanning the room. “Please tell me someone gets me. Anyone. ANYONE. Bueller?”
Young eyed the room. The kid’s impassioned monologue had gotten Volker and Park to stop passing notes on Brody’s latest attempt at paper. Chloe closed out of the FTL schematics she’d sneakily been studying. James watched Rush, game face on.
Young’s chief scientist swept a hand through his spectacular hair, pressed two fingers to the space between his brows, and sighed. His jacket was half-unzipped, his right hip was pressed against his console, and there was a literal stardust glow in the air behind him where he’d destroyed the latest schematic he’d detailed with his light-pen.
“You get me,” Eli said darkly, looking at Rush. “I can tell. Don’t evade. The gate is deep in the network. It’s not like they slapped a stargate on this thing at the end of construction and said ‘good to go, let’s launch.’ The gate is fundamental to the infrastructure of the ship. It’s tangled into life support, the CPU, internal communications, and shields.”
“Oh shit,” Volker said, mild and surprised.
“Yeah! Oh shit! Finally someone sees where I’m going with this. Guys. Team. Look alive.” Eli snapped his fingers. “Most of those systems I just named are tied directly to our fearless leader’s brain.”
“What,” Young growled.
“Yeah.” Eli threw a significant look in Young’s direction. “Let’s take stock. His shield skills are insane, he’s gone down with life support, and I think everyone remembers what he did with the sound system? The only wild card in the mix is the CPU.”
That wasn’t exactly a wild card. Young tipped his head back into the wall. //Genius,// he sighed.
//Yes?// Rush’s projection was a gloss of politeness atop a wave of irritation. “Don’t worry about it, Eli,” he said shortly.
“Next time I organize Destiny Bingo ‘DWAIE’ is definitely gonna be of the squares,” Eli muttered, then raised his voice in aggravation, “though I already have enough of it for an AMAZING MONTAGE.”
//Why didn’t you mention this?// Young asked.
//Because it’ll be perfectly fine. All the power comes from their end. Dialing out is a different story. We’re simply accepting a connection. If you’ll recall, I went over this with Carter? She’s outstandingly competent. Furthermore, she knows my consciousness is linked to the ship?//
This did make Young feel slightly better. Slightly. //So why is Eli so upset?//
//Eli doesn’t particularly care t’be in a position of authority. Such as, for example, becoming de facto head of the Science Team when I’m incapacitated?//
//Yeah, because he’s a kid with no training.//
//He’s intensely capable and old enough to be in graduate school.//
//All the more reason for you to take him seriously here. He’s got good instincts when it comes this stuff,// Young growled.
//False. His instincts regarding Ancient technology are terrible. You know why? Because they trace back to a computer game only loosely based on real systems. He has, on multiple occasions, believed I was about to destroy the ship when nothing was further from the truth. He lost himself in alien ruins looking for a kino. Whenever he’s forced into a guess he’ll reliably pick the wrong option. His raw intellectual power and his inventiveness more than make up for any lack.//
//Bullshit. The kid jumped a bricked starship with a laptop. Like he was starting a damn car. Pretty sure that not two days ago he gave the AI a pep talk about hacking its own constraints so it didn’t yoke you to the chair. You just tend to be out of commission for his best moments.//
“Please tell me you’re staring him into submission.” Eli turned back to look at Young, an aggrieved expression on his face.
“Does it look like it’s working?” Rush asked, with poisonous solicitude, from the front of the room.
“Okay,” Volker said, cutting through tension with a hot knife of mild affability. “Thought experiment. We pretend Eli’s right.”
“Eli’s not right,” Rush said.
“Yeah, probably not.” Volker set his forearms against his workstation and leaned into them. “Heck, I’ve seen you create a force field to contain an exploding Delorian. I’ve seen you do ungodly things to shield harmonics without an interface. I get that, if you’re around, we won’t be in this situation. Everybody gets that. What Eli’s really asking about is a scenario where they dial in, and, for some reason, a bunch of stuff goes wrong, starting with you, passing out in the gate room.”
“Also known as a normal Tuesday,” Eli muttered.
Volker shot Eli a you’re-not-helping look, then turned back to Rush. “Let’s say you go out of commission. And then, we’ve suddenly got systems overloading, current live in corridors, no CPU, life support’s down, our shields crash to nothing, and internal sensors go offline.”
“We’ll drop out of FTL,” Chloe said. “That’ll be the first thing. Immediate. Our shields cantant the matter wave.”
Young frowned, pretty sure she’d thrown an Ancient word into the middle of her sentence.
“They cantant?” Volker repeated, very quietly, like Chloe’d landed some kind of blow.
“Yeah,” Chloe said softly, her cheeks turning pink. “Sorry. It’s the word the database uses.”
“What does it mean?” Young asked.
“In this context, it means propagate,” Rush said coolly. “No need to get fuckin’ sentimental about it.”
“You’re the worst,” Volker said, dry and mild. “Fine. So we drop out of FTL. Add that to the mix. That’s the scenario: you unconscious, Destiny in sitting-duck mode, everyone else asking why. Sound familiar?”
Young could feel, from the tenor of Rush’s mind and the diamond edge crystalizing in his thoughts, that he was about to lay into Volker like there was no tomorrow. Before it happened, Young cleared his throat. “Yeah,” he said. “Sounds familiar.”
Again, the room turned to look at him.
“I’d like to hear you guys talk it through.” He looked at Rush. “If you don’t mind.”
Rush shot Young a low wattage glare, ran a hand through his hair, paced a few steps away from his console, then turned back. Absently, he tapped his light-pen against his open palm.
“Oh my god, is he gonna actually do it?” Eli whispered.
“Maybe,” Brody said.
“Shh.” Chloe did an impressive impersonation of a school librarian.
“Say one of the ZPMs in Carter’s series,” Rush began, a fractal lattice slow-branching through his thoughts, “knows our gate. Quantum mechanically. There’s a recognition event via entanglement.”
“That,” Brody said, shifting in his seat, “that, uh, sounds plausible. And our ship sucks down power.”
“Plausible, but exceedingly unlikely.” Rush glanced at Brody. “In a worst-case, we drain the ZPM within seconds, destabilizing the event horizon and leaving me with a ZPM’s worth of power to shunt while we’re at FTL.”
“That’s a lot of power,” Park said softly.
“And there’s not a lot of places to put it,” Eli said. “You’ve only got direct hardware connections to life support, shields, the CPU, or internal communications.”
“Internal communications,” Rush murmured, quirking a brow at the ceiling. “Bit of an outlier.”
“What about the solar collectors?” Park asked. “Could you sink it there? Or the banked capacitors that power the weapon?”
“Not a bad idea,” Rush said. “The problem would be routing it there without fusing circuits.” He looked again at the ceiling. “Internal communications,” he muttered to himself. “Internal communications.” His thoughts were flaring in a sea-toned, sunrise palate, his head was tipped back, his expression was thoughtful, and the way his jeans played into the military-academic vibe he had going was doing things for Young best left unexplored.
Young pulled himself together. He was having an off day. He was off, full stop. He was gonna get someone killed operating like this, and the most likely candidate was the guy across the room. Young shoved his distraction as far down as it would go, and refocused.
“Is,” James said hesitantly, into the silence.
Everyone looked at her.
She’d been to three or four NHBs, and, so far, hadn’t said a single word.
She cleared her throat. She glanced at Young.
He gave her a short nod.
“Is there any chance,” James said, “that internal communications is—different than we think it is.”
“What does that even mean.” Brody’s tone was completely flat.
“Probably,” Volker offered.
“Different how?” Park asked, encouragingly.
Rush, who’d been lost in thought, dragged himself back into the room. He furrowed his brow, looked at James over his glasses, and twirled his light-pen through his fingers. Absently. Once. He leaned into his console, taking the weight off his left foot.
James glanced again at Young.
“Maybe explain what you’re asking a little more,” Eli said.
James took a breath, but before she could say anything—
“Lieutenant.” Rush leaned into every syllable of her title with all the tyranny and terror of a galactic-class math professor at the top of his game. “What you just posed is what we call a ‘poorly formulated question’.”
Everyone in the room froze.
Eli unthawed almost immediately with a, “Um, hi. Can we not?”
//Back off a little,// Young advised. //She’s not that confident.//
//Don’t ruin this for me, please. This is the most delighted I’ve been since Chloe showed an aptitude for prime factorization.//
Young raised his eyebrows.
Rush spun his light-pen through his fingers and shot him a scorcher of a glance. Then he turned his attention back to James. “Ask it again. Differently. Better.”
“Could the,” James said slowly, “internal communications system be for something more than communications?”
“Not a complete failure,” Rush said, “but it still leaves quite a bit to be desired, I’m afraid. Again.”
“Sorry sir.” James tripled down on that poker face of hers.
“Okay, wow, so he really does not deserve the ‘sir’,” Volker whispered.
//You’ve almost completely ruined her potential,// Rush projected waspishly. To James, he said, “Don’t call me ‘sir’.”
“Okay,” James replied. “Sorry. Right. Habit.”
//She’s done just fine,// Young projected, trying to strip the defensiveness out of his projection.
//Exactly,// Rush said. //That’s the entire problem. Did you know she was the one who cared for Franklin? Wouldn’t stop talking to me about the man. D’you realize how little she’s told you?//
//How little of what?// Young growled.
//Let’s find out, shall we?// The honeyed blade of his projection slid deep into Young’s head.
“Lieutenant,” Rush said, his tone turning polite, turning respectful, turning casual, turning as lethal as it got. “I’ve noticed you seem to be ‘on shift’ quite a lot.”
“Okay, switching from Failing to Explain Yourself to Let’s Haze James isn’t gonna work out for you,” Eli said sharply. “Get back to the power grid issue.”
“Quiet,” Rush hissed. “Answer the question, lieutenant.”
James kept her eyes locked on Rush. “I’m on shift the same amount as everyone else.”
“This is just a rite of passage,” Park whispered. “Welcome to the Science Team!”
“You’re on shift the same amount as everyone else,” Rush said lightly, ignoring Park. “Yes. You are. That’s true. I know, because I’ve checked. However, in making something of a study of it, I’ve found you regularly claim to be on shift when you are, in fact, off shift.”
James said nothing.
Young raised his eyebrows. //Are you serious?//
//Between you and me, I’m guessing as to the regularity,// Rush said. //But I can confirm it’s happened once. She pulled the thing off adroitly enough to suggest it’s a habit.//
“No wonder you poached her,” Eli grumbled.
“Thought no one would notice?” Rush asked delicately, the full weight of his attention fixed on James. “Well, you were almost right. No one did notice. Not for years. Not until you went to an alien world and pulled a needle out of a dust bowl.” He spun his light-pen expertly through his fingers and stopped it sharply, its tip pointing straight at the lieutenant. “Can’t do that and expect no consequences,” he said softly.
The room had gone dead silent.
James said nothing.
“What d’you do,” Rush continued, “when you’re pretending to be on shift?”
“Nothing,” James said, reflexively.
“Try again,” Rush replied.
“I—” James looked edgily at Young.
“Answer his question, lieutenant,” Young said mildly.
“I make the rounds. Talk to people. Look for things, sometimes,” James said.
Rush cracked a quick, terrifying smile. “What things?”
James swallowed. “Lately—lately I’ve been looking for speakers.”
This threw Rush off his game. The tightening spiral of his thoughts lost its organization in pure surprise. His poise cracked. His brow furrowed. He reseated his glasses. “Excuse me, but speakers?” he asked, defaulting to politeness, the way he often did when he was thrown for a hell of loop. “As in—electroacoustic transducers?”
“Um,” James glanced at Eli.
“Loudspeakers?” Eli asked, puzzled. “Like, for audio?”
“Yup,” James replied. “Audio speakers.”
“Why?” Rush shot her a completely mystified look.
“I’ve been wondering where the music came from. About six weeks back?”
“What?” Rush asked, more thrown by the second.
“Actually” Volker said, “truth be told, I’ve also spent a little time looking for speakers. Ever since the surprise Mozart. Never found any though.”
“What?” Rush repeated, and Young could hear strain starting to creep into his tone, see tension writing itself into his body.
//Hey.// Young projected a wave of calm at the man. //You’re running this show.//
“The little concert you gave when you sat in the chair?” Volker asked.
Rush said nothing, his thoughts an increasingly anxious, restive swirl.
“Is that what it was?” James said quietly. She looked at Rush. “It was nice.”
“Are you fucking serious?” Rush snarled, as low and dangerous as Young had ever heard him.
“Um, about what?” Volker asked, his affability flattening.
//What’s wrong?// Young asked.
In response, he got—not words, but a complex wave of anxiety, anger, grief. The whole thing tied to Gloria, and, somehow, also to the Nakai. He could feel Rush, over and over, trying to lock it down—and, somehow, losing track of what was real. There was structure coming up out of his mind, one hell of a flashback. A distortion of Gloria on the air side of an air/water interface—
Young dug in, already subconsciously matching; pulling from his own memory the look of clouded light, coming through the underside of river ice.
“Chloe,” Rush said, tight and strained.
“It was short,” Chloe said, her voice dead and flat and powerful, cutting straight through Rush’s threatening flashback. “It was nothing. When you sat in the chair and the database unlocked itself, sound came from the walls. Mostly static. Some piano. That’s all.”
The room was silent.
Everyone, now, was looking at Chloe.
Chloe softened, and, into the quiet, she said, in a normal voice, “People say it was Mozart.”
“That’s because it was,” Volker replied, an unbearable note of kindness in his voice. “It was Mozart.”
Rush took a breath, ran a hand through his hair, and kick-started the chaos kaleidoscope of his thoughts. Young brought them as close as possible, and, with brief and targeted drag, shattered the structure that had been organizing itself in Rush’s mind.
“Everybody okay?” Volker asked, his eyes flicking between Chloe and Rush.
Rush glared at Volker, shot Young a wordless wave of gratitude, spun the light-pen rapidly through his fingers, and rounded on Eli. “You’ve interfaced various devices with this ‘sound system’.”
“Um, seriously though. Are you okay?” Eli asked, his voice small, his eyes flicking to Chloe. “Because that was weird.”
“What kind of devices?” Rush drove forward, ignoring the question.
Young projected a wave of calm across their link.
“For Destiny Bingo? iPods. Laptops. We’ve got adaptor construction down to a science, and it’s no more difficult to tap into internal communications than it is to run a thruster diagnostic. So, yeah. I figured out how to play sound in the mess. It wasn’t hard.”
“How did you control volume?” Rush snapped.
“Okay. You know what?” Eli said, losing his patience. “There’s a reason why we’re in hour three of this briefing, and, somehow, solving the mystery of where Destiny’s speakers are located and how to turn them up and down was never an item on the agenda, so, and I never thought I’d say this, but can we focus. Please.”
//Hey,// Young projected gently.
Rush shot him a wave of preoccupied dismissal. “So you’ve never seen speakers,” he said, looking at Eli.
“Uh, no,” Eli replied. “You know what else I’ve never seen with my real human eyes? Thrusters. Doesn’t stop me from firing them all the time.”
“But you’ve never looked for speakers?” Rush asked.
“No, Rush. I’ve never bothered to look. You know why? Because I’ve been too busy doing the ninety tasks that my completely insane boss assigns me? On a daily basis?”
Rush turned to James. “But you’ve looked. You’ve been looking for weeks. Did you ever find them?”
“No,” James said, riding neutral.
“So there aren’t any,” Rush murmured, his brow furrowed.
“Ohhhmygod,” Eli said. “Okay. That’s a little bit of a leap, right? Just because New Girl never found any, they don’t exist? No offense, James.”
James shot a low-level glare at Eli.
//Genius,// Young projected, watching the swirl of his thoughts. //You’re going a little glassy. You sure you want to be in the weeds over James’s opinions on Destiny’s speaker system?//
//I’m perfectly fine. The chief medical officer of the entire SGC cleared me yesterday.//
//She said your viral flare was over. She didn’t advise working yourself into the ground.//
“I think we should call this, guys,” Eli said. “Who votes for just—calling this.”
The room looked at Young.
Young looked at Rush.
Rush looked at Volker.
Volker looked shocked.
“Um,” Volker said, slowly, his eyes flicking between James and Rush, “Caltech rules actually say no. Not while it’s interesting.”
“What kind of place is Caltech anyway,” Eli muttered.
“It’s just,” James said, into the quiet. “If there are no speakers, where does the sound come from? That’s why I asked about internal communications.”
“And, all of a sudden, we’re bringing it back home,” Volker murmured.
“So—what?” Eli looked at Rush. “The walls are vibrating or something?”
Rush tapped his light-pen against his hand and paced to the nearest wall. Delicately, he placed his thumb, index, and middle fingers against the paneling that lined the room.
“We know the bulkheads make choices,” Volker said. “So do the floors. I mean, the deck plating locally heats itself for its favorite people. The walls are thick as heck. Every panel packed with crystals and circuitry, full of crawlspaces for access.”
Rush pulled his fingertips back from the nearest bulkhead, and rubbed them together speculatively. “I think the walls may be capable of absorbing a profound amount of power.”
“That’s—that’s actually pretty cool,” Eli said grudgingly. “Enough to work as a sink for a homesick ZPM? Because I’ll be real. Tonight? That’s what I care about.”
“It’s very likely,” Rush murmured, still staring at his own hand.
“James,” Chloe said tentatively. “Could I reformulate your question?”
“Sure,” James said, her voice flat. “Why not.”
“Are the walls ‘off’?” Chloe asked, looking at Rush. “Locked down? Like the database? Like the bridge?”
“Yes,” Rush whispered, staring into empty air. “Yes, they’re off.”
An uncomfortable silence weighed down the room.
For the first time, Young could feel a complex push/pull of interlocking forces beating against the barrier he maintained between Rush and the ship. Coming from both sides. They were trying to break through to one another. He clenched his jaw, dug in, and brutally grounded the scientist in his own body. Hard enough to create a sync loop. This time, Young was ready for it, and broke it as it formed.
Rush shook himself. He shot Young an annoyed look.
Young returned it. With interest.
“Um, walls aside, we’re now feeling better about the dial-in?” Park asked. “If the gate pulls a profound amount of power, Rush can route it to, um, the whole physical structure of Destiny?”
“Oh god,” Eli whispered, looking at Park. “When you put it like that—all of a sudden it starts to sound like a feature, not a bug.”
And Rush, back on point like he’d never left it, gave Eli the hint of a smile. “Doesn’t it just?”
Four days after Dr. Carolyn Lam finished her classified, unreported analysis of the virus that had infected Young’s chief scientist, three days after Eli was satisfied with power overflow protocols, two days after Wray finished the last of her memorization, and one day after the crew cleared enough storage bays for the the new supplies, Homeworld Command successfully dialed Destiny.
Though nearly all of Young’s people had made low-key or high-key personal appeals to be stationed in the gate room during the resupply, Young kept the Welcome Team small. Partially because of predicted transit velocities, but also in case anything went wrong. There were just enough people to shunt incoming supplies via kino sled, and greet the five scientists coming aboard.
The five scientists and Colonel Telford.
Homeworld Command’s dialing program executed without a hitch.
As supplies came through, Young stood next to Rush, who was perched behind the monitor bank in the gate room. They listened to the team excitedly call back and forth, clearly in excellent spirits as the food, the ammunition, the medical equipment, and the personal items started coming through in padded gray crates at alarming speed.
Young couldn’t bring himself to feel even remotely happy, even though it meant he’d finally be able to issue himself some real soap.
Rush, also, was subdued, his thoughts a cautious swirl of contained power.
After a short exchange between Rush and Carter, then between Young and O’Neill, the personnel came through from the alpha site, one at a time. James drew the scientists aside as the gate spat them out. Most of them lost their footing.
Colonel Telford was the last of them.
He came through quickly, jogging a few steps to compensate for his increased momentum, casting a dark silhouette against the event horizon until it shut off behind him. He found his footing, steadied himself, then zeroed in on Young.
Young didn’t move.
Greer left the group loading the last kino sled, crossed the room, and flanked Rush.
Over the days Young had spent trying to steel himself against all the Rush-centered bullshit Telford would drag onto his ship—he had forgotten that Greer and Telford also had one hell of a history.
If this wasn’t a powder keg, Young had never seen one.
“Colonel Young,” Telford said, as he approached. His eyes flicked over Greer. “Dr. Rush.”
“Colonel Telford,” Rush replied, neutral and polite. “Welcome aboard.”
“Brought you something.” Telford reached into the pocket of his fatigues. He tossed a small object at Rush, in a sharp, predictable arc. “For old times sake.”
The scientist caught it left-handed.
An ache echoed along Young’s forearm, wrist to elbow, at the impact.
Rush looked down at the pack of cigarettes he held. He raised an eyebrow at Telford.
“They’re your brand, I believe,” Telford said mildly.
“They are,” Rush replied, “but I’ve quit.”
“It won’t take.” Telford smirked at him.
“Probably not,” Rush admitted, and slid the cigarettes into the inner pocket of his jacket.
Young violently suppressed a surge of irritation. “Welcome to Destiny,” he said, interrupting their exchange by launching into an address directed at Telford’s entire team. “Lieutenant James will be showing you to your new quarters. There’ll be a procedural briefing at seventeen thirty hours run by Lieutenant Scott. The purpose of that briefing will be to orient you to this ship. Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact me directly. Dismissed.”
“Nice speech,” Telford said. “Very inspiring.”
“I’m sure they got an earful from you on the other side, David.”
“I don’t make a habit of treating civilian scientists like soldiers.” Telford said, his tone mild, his eyes hard.
Young stared him down.
//Don’t murder him in the gate room,// Rush advised. //Wait until y’can make it look like an accident.//
Young felt his expression shift, damn it.
“Something funny?” Telford asked.
“You could say that.” Young tried to pick up the pieces of his ruined stare-down and ignore the echo of vindictive amusement he was getting from his chief scientist.
“Okay,” James said, addressing the huddle of scientists a few yards away. “Let’s move out.”
“Lieutenant.” Telford shifted his gaze to James. “Drop my bags in my quarters on your way. I need a word with Colonel Young.”
James’s gaze flicked to Young. He gave her a subtle nod.
“Yes sir,” she said, friendly and professional. “No problem.”
Telford turned to Young. “You and I need to talk. In private.”
//Any ideas, genius?// Young asked. //Not sure how that’s gonna go with our current radius.//
“In private?” Rush repeated, his voice low and dark like polished ice. “I’m afraid there’ll be no escaping me. Might as well have it out here and be done with it.”
Young, Greer, and Telford all stared at Rush.
//Right then. Overdid it a bit, I take it?//
Rush’s eyes flicked to Young.
//Don’t look at me,// Young projected, exasperated.
Rush snapped his gaze back to Telford, who’d been watching him, very carefully, the entire time.
“Okay,” Telford said mildly. “You’re the boss, Nick.”
“I—what?” Rush asked, completely thrown.
“Got a research team for ya,” Telford said. “All of them civilian scientists. At your disposal.”
//Genius do not fall for this.// Young growled.
//It’s like you think I don’t know the man,// Rush replied. “David, an’ I mean this in the most respectful way possible: thanks for the toothpaste refill but aside from that y’can go fuck yourself.”
Greer, god damn it, audibly laughed. He put a lid on it quick, but the damage was done.
“You’re out of line,” Telford snapped, eyes boring into Greer. “You’ve always been out of line.”
“No sir,” Greer said, his most uncrackable fuck-you professionalism back in place.
Young caught the sergeant’s eye and gave him one hell of a knock-it-off glare.
“You’re gonna let that stand?” Telford asked, looking at Young.
“Let what stand?” Young replied.
“Interesting way to run a ship,” Telford said softly.
“Sergeant,” Young looked at Greer. “Find Wray, will you?”
“Yes sir.” Greer turned on his heel.
Telford watched him go with narrowed eyes, then shifted his gaze back to Young.
“What did you want to discuss, David?” Young asked.
“I’d like Dr. Rush assigned to my science team.”
Young took a breath, steadied himself, and said, “The Destiny Science Team is defined as Rush, Eli, Chloe, Park, Volker, Brody, and no one else. They have a military liaison, Vanessa James. That team is solely responsible for the maintenance and function of this ship. Your team,” he said, pausing for emphasis, “is the Research Team, and your needs will be subordinate to those of the Science Team. We clear on that?”
Telford was silent.
//You’re laying it on a bit thick,// Rush said.
//Either throw in or stay out, genius.//
“Is that really how you want to play this, Everett?” Telford murmured.
“I said, are we clear on that?”
“As for your request for a member of Destiny’s Science Team to be assigned to your Research Team, I will consider it.”
“Thought you might go down this road.” Telford reached into his jacket and pulled out a letter. “I have direct authorization from the IOA to chose a liaison from your crew, regardless of your opinion on the matter. I’m taking Rush.”
“Let me see that.” Young grabbed the letter out of Telford’s hand. He started scanning. “This means jack shit here, David.” He had the overwhelming urge to rip the paper in half.
//Don’t tear tear the thing up,// Rush projected, picking up on Young’s thoughts. //I’d really rather light it on fire.//
//I don’t need the backseat stand-up routine,// Young growled.
//Sorry, very difficult to refrain,// Rush poured his projection into Young’s thoughts like molten plasma. //You people’d be fuckin’ hilarious if you didn’t carry guns.//
“Thinking about disregarding the chain of command?” Telford asked mildly.
Behind him, Young heard the unmistakable sound of Wray’s heels echo against the deck plating. He turned to see her part ways with Greer in the doorway to the gate room.
“Colonel Telford,” Wray said, smiling as she came forward. “It’s so nice to see you again.”
The tone of her voice, the rhythm of her steps, and the cool, collected professionalism of her whole bearing helped take the edge off Young’s building frustration.
“Likewise, Camile,” Telford said smoothly. “I was just informing Colonel Young that the IOA has granted me the authority to pick the members of my team.”
“Of course,” Wray said, as she drew even with Young. “I remember. I helped draft this, actually. May I?”
“Be my guest,” Young said, handing her the letter.
“You helped draft it?” Telford asked neutrally.
“Oh yes.” Wray scanned the document. “Yes, this does give you the authority to pull any member of the Science Team to liaise with your team. Resources are limited here; you understand, I’m sure. And, for that reason, the head of the Science Team would be excluded from the pool you can pull from. So you’re welcome to choose anyone you like. Other than Dr. Rush, of course.” Wray smiled at Telford. She didn’t return the letter.
//That’s fairly thin,// Rush projected.
“There’s no exclusion,” Telford said, his voice flat.
“But Dr. Rush isn’t on the Science Team,” Wray said, equally flat. “He heads the Science Team. Technically, he’s an administrator.”
“He’s an administrator?” Telford asked, his voice dangerous.
“Yes,” Wray said coolly. “Civilian consultants who head institutional teams have been reclassified as of the last IOA meeting.”
Telford smiled, thin and humorless. “Who pushed that through?”
“Dr. Jackson,” Wray said, with a small, equally icy smile. “He’s been working on it for weeks now.”
//Looking a lot less thin, all of a sudden,// Young projected. “There you go,” he said pleasantly. “The communications stones are always available to you, if you’d like to debate Dr. Jackson in a public forum using someone else’s body.”
Telford gave Young and Wray a hard stare, then turned to fix his gaze on Rush.
“Nick,” Telford said quietly. “You can’t tell me you’re not interested in pursuing this project. You can’t tell me you have no use for five trained specialists in Ancient tech.”
Unbelievably, Rush looked away, both his body language and the tone of his thoughts betraying indecision. He ran a hand through his hair, as if that could somehow mask the obvious temptation he was feeling. He avoided looking at Telford.
Wray and Young locked eyes.
//Don’t even fucking think it.// Young fought down a wave of unreasonably intense anger, but he knew it was threaded through his projection, which seared its way into the unbalanced swirl of Rush’s running thoughts, penetrating way too deep.
Involuntarily, Rush’s eyes flicked to Young.
“Someone,” Telford said, leaning in, fingertips braced against the console that separated him from Rush, “has got you on a pretty tight leash.”
And that—that hit one hell of a nerve.
The fire and wind swirl of Rush’s thoughts made itself over, cracking into a new/old pattern, drawing in on itself. His expression darkened and the lights in the gate room flared, dimmed, and normalized. Against the rung of his chair, the guy flexed his left foot. Out of what seemed like pure distress.
The ship wasn’t pulling on him.
The ship was backed the hell off. Instinctively, Young followed its example.
Rush’s gaze locked, hot and fierce, on nothing. At all. That anyone could damn well see.
Young very teeth ached to know what the stolen, warped spirit of Daniel Goddamned Jackson was saying to the guy. But if he pulled their thoughts together, he had no idea how the scientist would react.
He put a damn lid on himself, and, with extreme effort, held his ground.
“What the hell?” Telford whispered, looking at Young.
“So, you’ll find this happens.” Young ground the words out.
“Nick,” Telford said, very gently.
And the sound of his name, coming like that, from David Telford, cracked Rush’s focus on the AI straight down to the bedrock of his mind. As it happened, their link bleached itself out with a wave of pure adrenaline and Rush jerked, so startled he grabbed the console in front of him like he was drowning.
“Don’t,” Young said, in his most dangerous tone, looking Telford dead in the eyes.
“It’s fine,” Rush breathed. “Fuck you,” he said, without direction. “Fuck all of you. Except Camile.”
“Thanks,” Wray said softly. “Why don’t we continue this conversation tomorrow. After we welcome our new crewmates and distribute supplies?”
Telford took a breath. “Fine. But first, there’s something I need to say,” he swept his eyes over the three of them, then looked at Rush. “Nick. This project goes nowhere without you. We’ve had our differences in the past. And that was my fault. I’m not sure how much you understand about this, I don’t know how much anyone ever told you—but, the whole time we knew each other, the whole time, I was under the influence of the Lucian Alliance. That’s over now. It’s done. You were the one who broke me out of it.”
//Don’t fall for this,// Young projected uneasily.
Rush didn’t answer.
“I’m not asking for much. My team’ll keep to itself, if that’s what you want. We’ll do our database work. We’ll study the chair. Hell, we’ll report to you. But you’ve gotta understand. There’s a war going on in the Milky Way. And—we’re losing. That’s what we’re here for. To learn and to report back. We won’t get in your way. If you’re using the chair, think about letting us know, we’ll take passive readings. That’s it. Nothing more. Unless there’s anything we can help you with. We’d be happy to do it.”
“Yes well.” Rush ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sure we can work something out.”
Young looked to Wray and found her already looking back at him. Her professional veneer had thinned enough that he could see real fear in her eyes.
“Thanks,” Telford said, low and sincere. He swept his eyes over Young, then settled on Wray. “That’s it. That’s all I wanted to say.”
Wray looked at him stonily. “And you’ve said it.”
Telford straightened, nodded at them, then made for the exit. When he reached it, he turned, one hand casually resting on the frame of the door. “Oh, and for my Science Team Liaison? I’ll be taking Eli. Tell him we’ll hold daily briefings at 0700 in the neural interface room. I’ll expect him tomorrow morning. Bright and early.”
Young couldn’t speak. His thoughts were a towering mass of pure potential energy that needed, like hell, to ground itself somewhere. He nodded shortly, then dropped his gaze to Rush.
The scientist was staring, again, at empty air.
Wray looked at Young, her expression full of despair, a hand pressed to her forehead.
Young couldn’t damn well take it.
“You are,” Young growled, his voice low and menacing as he moved between Rush and where the AI was likely to be, “so fucking stupid, Rush. What the hell was that? You told him you would work with him and he gets Eli? What more could he want?”
“Fuck off.” Rush’s disorganized thoughts condensed. He started to push himself up.
“Fuck off? That’d be fuck off, colonel.” Young shoved him back. “I’ve done nothing but help you and fucking cater to your particular brand of legitimate, clinical insanity despite being told nothing about your agenda. If anyone’s on a short leash, it’s not you, you idiot. Don’t let him get to you like that.”
“This?” Rush hissed, gesturing with two fingers toward his temple. “This isn’t a leash. Between you and Destiny? It’s a goddamned chokehold. Colonel.”
“Calm down, both of you.” Wray stepped up, one hand on Young’s bicep, the other on Rush’s shoulder.
“I’m perfectly fucking calm.” Rush got to his feet, twisting away from Wray.
This time, Young let him up. They were going to have to move this conversation out of the gate room, away from the eyes of the crew who were still transporting supplies.
Rush swept up his crutch, glared at them, and made for the door.
Young started after him, but Wray stopped him, her hand on his arm.
“Remember—” she trailed off. The skin around her eyes tightened. “Ugh. Never mind. Give ‘im hell.” Despite the words, her tone was gentle.
Young nodded shortly and strode out of the room. Rush was ahead of him, moving down the hall like he wasn’t about to crash right into the radius that defined their link. Young sped up and closed the distance between them.
The scientist didn’t turn at his approach.
“I need to talk to you,” Young snarled. He caught Rush’s arm, dragged him around, and flung the man in the direction of the nearest cross corridor.
Rush ripped his arm free of Young’s grip, staggered, and steadied himself. He shook his hair back. “Fuckin’ control yourself.” His tone was pure ice.
The effort it was costing Young to suppress his frustration, his anxiety, his anger, his fear, was astronomical. His thoughts were a dull roar beneath the brittle vise of self-control he’d barely managed to apply. He shoved the scientist back against the nearest bulkhead.
Rush lost his grip on his crutch. It clattered to the deck plating. “What the fuck is your problem?”
“You. You are my fucking problem.”
“I’m aware y’don’t like Telford, but—”
“I don’t like Telford? You think that’s what’s bothering me? I despise the man, Rush,” he ground out, turning the scientist’s name into an insult, “but my problem is you.”
“Yes, thanks, I’ve been clear on that since we met. Care to elaborate?”
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I don’t fucking know,” Rush hissed. “Why don’t you enlighten me?”
“You’re driving me insane. You’re supposed to be smarter than this. Don’t fall for his bullshit. Don’t let him jerk you around. He doesn’t want to give you a supplemental science team. He wants to study your brain and push you into ascension. You’ve already got a foot and a half on that pathway, and I don’t like it.” Young shoved him back and pinned both his arms with an iron grip, just below his elbows.
“Really?” Rush said, satin-smooth and lethally polite. “So glad you’re clarifying that for me. Let me return the favor and clarify something for you. Telford, and his team, may turn out to be profoundly useful.”
“Yeah. For whatever nightmare you and the AI are cooking up. I trust the Science Team to stop you before you draft them into an attempt to fry your own brain. I do not trust. Telford’s team. Stay away from him. Stay away from them. Stop treating yourself like some god-damned hackable device that you can fuck with and see what happens because it might be god damned informative.” Young pulled him away from the wall and pushed him straight back into it, in pure, blind frustration.
Rush made an aggravated sound from between clenched teeth and tried to jerk free. “Yes well, terribly sorry to disappoint? But I am a hackable device.”
“No. You’re. Not.”
“Y’wont find anything on this ship more open to interference than me.” Rush snarled. “You know it. I certainly fuckin’ know it. Telford’ll figure it out in something like three hours flat the way things go around here; I might as well get something useful out of it. And that team—”
“You,” Young said, shoving him back against the bulkhead, more gently this time, “are not hackable.”
“On the contrary. I’m intensely fuckin’ hackable,” Rush said.
“Forget hacking.” Young made a real effort to loosen his grip on the man. He took a breath and scraped together a handful of calm. “If Telford so much as looks at you the wrong way, he and his team will be confined to quarters for the duration of this mission. If you asked me to do it right now I would. You got that?”
“You’re terrified of him,” Rush hissed, staring directly into Young’s eyes. “Of what he and I, together, would be capable of. Of what he would do in your shoes. Which he would love to fill, by the way.”
“Rush,” Young growled.
“Well you can relax about it,” Rush said, without breaking his mesmerizing eye contact. “He abducted me from the bedside of my dying wife to ruin my mind. Regardless of motive, brainwashed or no, it’s not a thing y’fuckin’ forget, all right? Even for the sake of expedience. So get ahold of yourself, please. You’re intolerable like this.”
“I know,” Young ground out, through clenched teeth.
“I can handle Telford,” Rush said. And the scientist had the nerve to start projecting calm beneath his words.
“Oh yeah. Your track record really speaks for itself.”
“My track record is excellent.”
“Your track record is shit. Stay away from him, he wants to wreck your brain. More. Again.” Young shut his eyes, took another breath, and dialed back the grip he had on the man. “Rush, you’re just—you can’t handle him. I know you don’t wanna hear this, but you’re not a match for him like this, genius, you’re just not. Probably you were, before the damn ship made you over, but you’re not now. You’re—” Young rasped into nothing.
“Hackable?” Rush said dryly.
“No, damn it,” Young whispered. “I’ve tried to explain this to you and you just don’t get it genius; you turn it around every time. Try to understand—you have vulnerabilities you can’t see.”
“I turn it around every time because you’re in the same situation.” Rush looked straight at him, clear-eyed and concerned. “Tell me you’re cognizant of that.”
Young sighed through a jaw that had wired itself shut.
“It’s like talkin’ to a fuckin’ wall sometimes, honestly,” the scientist murmured.
“Yeah? Well the feeling’s mutual,” Young said, through still-clenched teeth. He took a breath, steadied himself, and tried again. “I hate the term ‘hack,’ because you’re not a damn device, but fine. If you’re gonna to use it, then just—I’m trying to prevent the hacking, okay? Across the board. I’m against it. Very.”
“Right.” For some reason, Rush sounded dry. Almost amused.
“You,” Young whispered, “are a person.”
Rush sighed. “Much as I’d love to see how long you’d drag this out and exactly what nonsense you’d come up with, I can’t take it. Get off your high horse; this is ridiculous. You hack me.”
“What?” Young said, taken aback.
“Moreover,” Rush said, all set-theory sugar and open-bracket poison, “you enjoy it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I doubt your mind would survive the full explanation,” Rush said, “I wouldn’t ask for it.”
“Try me,” Young growled.
Beneath their feet, at Rush’s back, the FTL drive vibrated, deep in the metal.
“Try you,” Rush repeated.
Young had wondered, periodically, if the man knew what kind of magnetic effect he was capable of producing in Young’s brain and whether he was turning it on purposefully. Both questions were now in their grave.
The guy could turn it on. But he never had. Not until now.
Because this was it.
The man wasn’t even moving. He wasn’t saying a damn thing. But his thoughts had turned fluid, running white-gold and deliberately smooth, and, even though Young still had a grip on both his arms, Rush managed to shift his weight, lean into the wall, and turn himself into the kind of flame that convinced all kinds of moths to burn themselves to ash. He looked up at Young, his gaze molten, and held back a wicked smile.
Young didn’t have it in him to back down.
He cleared his throat, and, when he spoke, he could hear the shift in his own tone. “Explain what you mean,” He broke and resettled his hold, fanning his fingers over Rush’s biceps in a grip with no pressure behind it.
“You,” Rush said, pouring the words into the narrowing space between them, “enjoy the hacking. And I, for you, am an intensely satisfying hack. The anchoring. The loops. The synchronization. The perpetually open ports. The fuckin’ drag. You.” Rush pressed the fingertips of one hand against Young’s chest, as though on the verge of opening a sonata. “Like it.”
“Maybe,” Young admitted. He shifted a hand to Rush’s hip, spread his fingers, and traced the line of the man’s belt with his thumb. “But none of that is hacking.”
“All of it is.” Rush’s thoughts were bright and warm and heavy against Young’s mind.
“It’s not hacking,” Young insisted.
“Stop fighting inevitabilities; it’s your least useful quality,” Rush breathed.
“Fine,” Young said, and kissed him.
The corridor lights flared. Rush tensed, his thoughts shattering into fractal pathways.
Young kept it slow, waiting out his iterative processes.
With a familiar clean-sweep of his own resistance, Rush threaded his free hand around the back of Young’s neck, and drew him in.
Young let it happen, catching the tactile pour of Rush’s thoughts. He held the sciencist, very carefully, and did his best to restrain himself as Rush started pressing into his mind with an imperious, challenging charm. Young wasn’t sure what the man was doing, but was content to let him have his way until—
A wave of pure desire, intricate and overpowering, echoed across their link.
“Ah,” Rush said unsteadily, leaning into him, “I think I have some cross-modality instincts.”
“You try to hack me, genius?” Young said. “You’re gonna get hacked right back.”
Young deepened the kiss, asking the man to open to him, body and mind.
And Rush did. He drained his own fight. He dissolved his own resistance. When Young pulled him forward he came, leaning into Young instead of the wall, his mouth opening, his mind opening, turning transparent and bright and wholly present and—
The glowing opacity of Rush’s running thoughts clarified to reveal the structure beneath. Vast and elaborate, cracked open, bleeding light and image.
All of it hit him at once.
A swath of repetitive, profound, terrible shatter, memories confused, destroyed, lying in layers that shouldn’t exist, collapsing into one another. The day of the gel. The day he’d found the AI. The day Young had stood with him as he cut out his own subcutaneous transmitter. The way Gloria must have died. Alone and waiting, in a room at UCSF, full of light.
He could see glassy, ice-lined strain that traced every contour of his intellect, every path through his memory, the places the Nakai had tried to pull him apart, the deep-edged weaknesses that endless mental torture had etched into his mind.
Young could see the raw, still-fractured place where his own consciousness had broken away from Rush’s. It had been a single connection. Wide. Braided. But now—each strand of it had buried itself in an open wound, full of ache, bleeding light.
Throughout the man’s entire mind he could see signs of the strain that came from balancing Young and Destiny. They ran like welded cracks through his damaged, fragile architecture.
And, in that moment, he understood. It had never been their link that was broken.
It had been Rush.
The pain, the nausea, the vertigo, the terrible sensation of being torn apart—none of that had come from Young. It had all been translated across their link. If Young had ever completely blocked, he would have realized it immediately.
It’s the nature of psychic injury to have no insight into itself.
He should have checked.
He should have known.
He could fix this. He had to fix this. He would fix this. Right now.
“I need you to do something for me,” Young breathed, half desperate, He pressed the scientist against the bulkhead and leaned into him. He wedged a knee between Rush’s thighs and wordlessly asked for access to everything he had. Everything he was.
“Okay.” And Rush came open. Like a keyed lock.
Young pinned his mind, reached in, and pulled power from a bright, infinite reserve. He poured it straight back into the raw, injured place—the one he could fix with borrowed energy and his own pure presence. He used his intact pattern to reorder what had been disrupted, seal what had been torn apart.
The scientist made a sound deep in the back of his throat. All the tension went out of him. Young could feel the trapped flutter of his partial awareness. He came out of the man’s mind slowly, pulling back, easing up, letting go, until the pour of Rush’s native power faded to a wash of gentle affection and they were, again, simply kissing in a cross-corridor.
They’d never truly stopped, but it was different now.
Never in his life had he held anyone so carefully.
It wasn’t at all what he’d imagined, not the cracked-shell pathways of Rush’s mind, not the sensation of pouring power through vulnerable circuits, not the way the man had, for some terrifying reason, let Young do anything, everything he’d wanted, turning sweet and warm and malleable enough that Young had put him through a profound hairpin without splitting open his mind.
Young had just healed their link. He was sure of it.
The near-constant mental ache that’d been a part of his perception of Rush for weeks now was gone. The scientist was leaning into him, one arm draped over Young’s shoulder, his thoughts running smooth and slow and nearly clear.
The man’s defenselessness cracked restraint right out of Young’s bones.
He brought a hand to Rush’s jaw, tipped his chin up and ended the kiss.
They looked at one another for several endless, mindless seconds while the glowing wind of Rush’s thoughts reestablished itself.
“So,” Young whispered, as he helped the scientist get his feet under him, “I did not mean to take it that far, genius.”
Rush looked down and away, hiding a smile that almost, almost came off as shy before he brought it under control and shook his hair out of his eyes. The man’s mental armor reestablished itself. He gathered his poise around him like a cloak.
Young stepped back.
“Y’realize,” Rush said, as he knelt to pick up his crutch, “his confirms something I’ve long suspected.”
“And what’s that?” Young asked, with more than a little trepidation.
“You’re an awful lot of work, colonel.”
Young swallowed. “Seriously, Rush—I just—I think I—”
Rush cut him off with raised hand and a shake of the head. His eyes fixed on Young, he reached into his jacket and pulled out the unopened carton of cigarettes from Telford. He held them out in a wordless offering.
Young drew the cigarettes from Rush’s unresisting grip with a graze of fingertips.
“Rush—” he tried again, but it was no good.
The scientist shot him a wry look, stepped around him, and headed for the main corridor. He paused when he reached it, and turned back to quirk a brow at Young. “Are you coming? I don’t have all day, y’know. I have things to do.”
“Yeah,” Young said weakly. “I’m coming.”