Force over Distance: Chapter 39

“What kind of life have you had,” Rush rasped, “that you’re so bloody taken with some Universal Rule Book?”

Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.

Text Iteration: Witching hour.

Audio status: Proofing.

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 39

They skipped dinner.

More accurately—since Rush was never skipping another meal as long as Young was alive—they skipped dinner in the mess.

Young needed to conserve his slowly unraveling sanity.

The RSM Dinner was an Event. MREs were on the menu. The entire crew had been talking about it for days. He’d promised a slew of people he’d be there. But. Young just. Did not have it in him to go. 

More accurately—he didn’t have it in him to make Rush go.

More accurately still—he didn’t have it in him to go without Rush, since that would require an actual conversation between them, in which Young admitted that, in addition to pinning the guy against a bulkhead and kissing him while engaging in risky, seat-of-his-pants cognitive exploration—he’d also (surprise!) healed their link.

He needed about two weeks off. To sort things out. Away from Rush. With Jackson. The real Jackson.  The Hallway Situation had been either really bad or really good. Shit, that was a false dichotomy, wasn’t it. No reason it couldn’t be both really bad AND really good. Fuck if Young knew. Not only did he not know, he wasn’t sure if he could know.

He didn’t know if he could know.

God damn.

Rush, on the other hand, was handling the hell out of situation.

The guy looked goddamned great.

It wasn’t helping.

At all.

The scientist was currently sitting on Young’s couch, bare feet propped on the coffee table, paging inexplicably through an enormous textbook Wray had handed him like he was outlining the damn thing? He was making notes? Just—scrawling confident quantum mechanical bullshit with a new pencil he was already periodically chewing? The guy really seemed more like a pen-and-ink person than a graphite person. He’d had a desk drawer full of fancy pens in California? In his dream interface? NOTHING ABOUT THE MAN MADE ANY GOD DAMNED SENSE.

And yeah. Young’s intense preoccupation with why the hell Nick Rush used pencils was a perfect example of why their incredibly invasive “professional” relationship involving mental continuity and consciousness-altering shoulder rubs should probably have never progressed any further.

That, and, uh, the two years of violent confrontation.

Forget two weeks off with Jackson. He needed a bottle of grain alcohol, Cam Mitchell on the stones, and three days with no thinking. Not a single thought. The whole time. Zero. Thoughts. Not one.

He tried to bleach his brain clean of everything happening inside it.

“The fuck are you doing t’yourself?” Rush muttered absently, without looking up.

Young cleared his throat, leaned into the opposite end of the couch, and looked down at his computer. The thing was in screen-saver mode. “Sorry.” 

Forget helping Rush through this godawful mess. He, himself, wasn’t gonna make it.

One—even though they’d jettisoned their dead Nakai, even though they’d cured Chloe of her genetic changes (mostly, probably), even though they’d cut a transmitter out of Rush’s heart, the Nakai were still, somehow, tracking them. They’d dropped out at the most recent obelisk planet. They had to have some kind of direct line on Destiny.

Two—the drones were still in the picture. And would be. Probably as long as they stayed in this galaxy.

Three—some unknown, ultra-advanced alien race had started pulling them out of FTL and trying to trap them in phase shifted planets. This one had started keeping him up at night. What the hell were they going to do when Rush’s inventiveness couldn’t keep pace?

Four—the AI had an unknown agenda, which it sure as hell wasn’t sharing. No. It was just gonna drive Young’s chief scientist into agonized dust while it shredded his mind. That seemed to be its plan. It was going to show up in the middle of high stakes conversations and forcibly insert its two cents directly into the guy’s consciousness. In front of everyone. And it was going to do that without manifesting. To anyone but Rush.

Four point five—yeah and not only was this just fine with Rush, but the guy was helping it.

Five—Telford also had an unknown agenda, which probably involved pushing Rush into ascension. Looked like it was off to a great start.

Five point five—to what extent Rush understood and/or maybe even supported Telford’s plans was unclear.

Six—Young was in an open conflict with both the AI and Telford, which was, strategically, a terrible position, because it gave them the opportunity to ally with one another.

Six point five—he wasn’t sure how Rush would feel about an AI/Telford alliance, but there was the possibility that he might view it as useful, which would be a catastrophe. How bad would it be, really, if Young just handcuffed the guy to a bed? Not for the rest of his life. Just a few weeks. Until the dust settled.

Seven—Rush was a mess, and they needed him to keep the ship fully powered and everyone alive.

Eight—damn it. It’d been a really bad idea to do what he had done. Hadn’t it? It wasn’t clear-cut.

He’d made worse Rush-centered choices, but that wasn’t saying much. The list of Shit Decisions Made By Everett Young In Response To Nick Rush was long. Very long.

He wasn’t going to kiss the man. Ever again. Easy. Done. Their link was fixed. That was great. End of story. It’d been nice, sure, it had been indescribably better than any sexual experience he’d ever had in his life, but, again, fine, he could appreciate the guy on an aesthetic level without it. He didn’t need to complicate their working relationship.

More. He didn’t need to complicate it more.

“Hey,” Young said.

Rush looked up. “What.”

“You’re—you’re okay, right?”

Rush smirked, rolled his eyes, pointedly said, “I’m fine; how are you?” and went back to flipping pages.

And the thing was? The guy was fine. He was damn fine. He was better than fine. In fact, he was sitting there, calmly concentrating on shit. And doing a good job of it, too. Young could tell. His brain looked great. It looked spectacular, actually, running braided and laminar and intricately organized. It looked as good as it had ever looked. He wasn’t firewalling, but he had whole cathedrals of fluid form building themselves around the flow of gemstone neural winds.

“Any interest in testing our radius?” Young asked casually.

“Why?” Rush had his pencil trapped delicately between his teeth like a cigarette. His brow was furrowed. His hair was in his eyes. He wasn’t looking at Young. He wasn’t thinking about Young. He was thinking about the utility of rate laws in chemical kinetics.

It was like the guy couldn’t care less about a mindblowing, mid-afternoon Hallway Situation that’d been profound enough to compromise his consciousness level. And somehow, somehow, the man’s supernatural nonchalance was part of the damn appeal. He was a fight and a half to ground. On every level.

“Can we talk?” Young asked.

Rush said nothing.

Not a strong start.

“I shouldn’t have—” Young began.

Rush cut him off with a dramatic sigh. “Right so can we skip the hand-wringing and detail work? You want to make a speech about how it’ll never happen again? Fine. Consider it made. I’m in agreement. Terrible idea. You want to do it again immediately? I’m busy, not diametrically opposed, check back later. ”

“I find you really attractive,” Young ground out, because it was the only thought in his head.

“I know,” Rush replied sympathetically.

“You know?” Young growled.

“Well it was rather hard to miss?” Rush said, with high-brow perplexity. “The feeling’s confusedly mutual, if that’s what you’re after. Can we have this conversation later? Much later? As later approaches infinity, I’m thinking.”

“So—never,” Young said dryly.

“Yes thanks; sounds perfect.” Rush smiled down at his quantum mechanics.

“After the NHB,” Young growled, “we’re gonna to have an actual talk. But, right now, you can get your boots on. It’s 1855.”

“Ah fuck.” Rush closed his book and shoved it in Young’s direction before digging his hand into a web of open laces and pulling a boot off the floor. “Carry that for me, will you? I need it.”

“Sure, genius.” He grabbed the thing by its cover of woven, red canvas. “I’ll carry your books.”

Rush did a half-lace on each boot, fast and complicated. “Thanks,” he said absently. “Also the computer.”

“Yup.” Young stood, crossed to the bed, and retrieved the man’s laptop. “I figured.”

“Have you seen my adaptor?”

“In my pocket,” Young said.

As he followed his chief scientist to the control interface room, the sheer choice to stick with the man hit as profound. Strange. He hadn’t made a decision about where he’d been for weeks now. 

They passed through the doorframe of the CI room and Rush slipped his textbook from Young’s grip just in time to arc it gracefully through the air and slam it atop the console where Chloe and Eli sat, eating store-bought chocolate and comparing their new music collections.

They both jumped as the book came down between them.

“New sweatshirt?” Young said, as he passed Chloe. “Good choice.” He set up Rush’s laptop at his usual console.

“Thanks, colonel,” Chloe said.

“Physical Chemistry: A Molecular Approach?” Eli dubiously read the title of the book through Rush’s still-spread fingers. “Congratulations! You’re in the running for Most Boring Personal Item Award. Also? How’d you swing this? It’s gotta be more than five pounds.”

“It’s twelve pounds, actually.” Rush ignored Eli’s aggrieved look and shook his hair back. “I’ve good news and bad news. Which would y’prefer first?”

//Admit it,// Young said. //You’re enjoying the hell out of this.//

//Guilty,// Rush replied, sleekly sliding the word deep into Young’s head.

“We’ll take the good news, thanks,” Eli said, still aggrieved.

“The good news is that your horrendous deficiencies in quantum mechanics are about to be remedied. Neither of you has any kind of formal background in the field, and it’s essential. For everything. So. Chapter One and Mathchapter A. Complete every problem in both problem sets. I’ll give you a week. If y’get stuck, go to Volker, I’ll be busy.”

They stared at him.

“Somehow,” Volker said, “I feel like I, too, just got a bunch of quantum mechanics homework.”

“Wait. The ‘good news’ is that you’re giving us homework? On top of everything else? That’s the good news?” Eli looked insulted. “And why did you have to bring this thing through? Couldn’t some overworked little SGC intern scan it for you? Or, I don’t know, couldn’t you have found a textbook on a CD?”

Chloe opened the book and studied the inside cover.

“It’s hardly the same,” Rush said disdainfully.

“This is yours?” Chloe looked up at him.

“Well I certainly don’t need it?” The scientist quirked a brow at her.

“Thanks,” she said quietly.

“Yes well.” Rush looked away.

Young snapped Rush’s adaptor into place.

“You’re getting good at that,” Brody said, looking at Young.

“Don’t see he has much of a choice about it,” Volker muttered.

Young shrugged, finished the setup and rejoined Rush.

“Thankfully the bad news,” the scientist said archly, sweeping a hand through his hair, “applies only to Eli.”

“Oh yes,” Eli said darkly. “Thankfully.”

“You’ve been assigned as the liaison to Telford’s Research Team,” Young cut in, before Rush could torture the kid too much.

“Yay.” Eli mimicked the waving of a tiny flag. “It’s so nice to be wanted.”

“This doesn’t relieve you of any of your normal responsibilities,” Rush said.

“Are you kidding me. I’m supposed to do all the stuff I normally do, plus help Telford, plus teach myself quantum mechanics?”

Rush shrugged, unimpressed and god damned glorious.

“There’s a briefing at 0700 tomorrow morning, in the control interface room,” Young said, a note of sympathy in his voice. “Telford expects you to be there.”

“0700? Sorry, but I don’t start before 0900. This is a central tenet of the Church of Wallace, okay? I’m gonna have to take this to Wray.”

“I think it could be very useful for you to attend this briefing.” Young shot Eli a significant look from beneath a lowered brow.

Eli sighed. “Right.”

Rush rolled his eyes. “Yes yes, very subtle, both of you.” he said dismissively. Then he looked at Eli. “Attend or don’t attend, I honestly don’t care.”

“I care,” Young growled. “Attend.”

“Yeah yeah,” Eli sighed. “I’ll attend.”

Rush gave Young a sidelong look. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“What?” Eli said. “No. Stay here. We need him.”

“We don’t ‘need him’.” Rush scowled.

“We need him a little,” Chloe said, in a conciliatory manner.

Everyone shot her unimpressed looks.

“Sorry,” Chloe whispered. “It sounded better in my head.”

“I’ll be back,” Young growled. “Senior military staff meeting next door. I can guarantee you it’ll be shorter than this one.” He gave Rush a forbidding look. //Stay out of trouble.//

//Yes yes.//

On his way out the door, Young intercepted James. “Lieutenant, you’re with me.”

“Yes sir.” She fell in behind him and followed him all of ten feet down the hall to a small conference room.

They found TJ, Greer, and Scott already waiting for them. Young motioned James into the last empty seat at the table. He posted up at the wall, putting his back to the bulkhead.

“Where’s Rush?” TJ asked, the finest of edges in her voice, half the light in the room tangled in her hair.

“Next door, lieutenant,” Young said quietly.

TJ nodded.

“Thanks for coming.” Young eyed all four of them. “This meeting,” he said, “is meant to be informal, and its subject is Colonel Telford.”

“That guy is a real piece of—” Greer began.

Young raised his eyebrows. “Not that informal, sergeant.”

“Sorry sir,” Greer said. “But, for the record? I was gonna say ‘shit’.”

TJ snorted into her hand, then looked guiltily at Young.

“Thanks for clarifying,” Young said mildly, “but insubordination isn’t gonna help us here. The chain of command is tenuous enough as it is. Let’s not give the man any grounds for a bureaucratic coup?”

“No sir,” Greer said, turning serious. “But uh, you know who’s great when a bureaucratic coup steps in the ring?”

Young nodded. “Point taken, sergeant.” He pulled out his radio and switched to the general channel. “Camile, this is Young. Do you copy?”

“Colonel,” Wray sounded surprised. “What can I do for you?”

“Scott and I are having some trouble logging inventory. Can you come answer a paperwork question? We’re in the conference room next to the CI room.”

“I’m on my way,” Camile said.

“I hate cloak and dagger,” TJ said into the quiet that followed. She locked eyes with Young. “I really hate it.”

“I know, TJ,” Young said quietly. Then he shifted his gaze to Scott. “Let’s go over a few chain of command issues while we wait for Camile.”

“Telford’ll be your second in command now, I take it?” Scott asked.

Young sighed. “Technically, Telford’s in command of a visiting team. But I think we all know he’ll be inserting himself into our hierarchy and testing the system by throwing his weight around every chance he gets. It’s his style. So, functionally, yeah, he ends up second in command in a crisis. But it’s not gonna change how you and I run the day-to-day.”

Scott nodded. They went through a few additional operations questions before they heard a soft knock on the door. It swished open, and Wray slipped inside.

“Hi Camile,” Young said.

“Hi,” Wray replied, slightly out of breath.

“You got here quick.”

“Oh, you know me and forms,” Wray smiled. “They’re what I live for.”

“We were just getting started,” Young said. He hesitated. “I was about to ask for a little informal help.”

“And that would be what I actually live for,” Wray said, with a small smile.

Young leaned into the wall. He crossed his arms. He crossed his feet at the ankles. He bent his head, and tried to figure out what the hell he was gonna say.

“And that’d be a Nick Rush look right there,” Greer drawled softly.

Young nodded.

He wanted to tell them everything. All of it. Start to finish. But it was impossible. It was too much. It was too strange. It was too goddamned painful.

“We’ve had more than a few close calls lately,” Young said softly. “And, with Rush linked to the ship now, I think we need an additional, informal crisis protocol.”

James and Scott looked puzzled. TJ and Greer looked wary. Wray watched him with neutral sympathy, her burgundy sweater sleeves rolled up.

“If something happens to me,” Young continued, “if I’m taken out, if I’m killed in action, gravely injured—Rush’ll end up in trouble. Not sure how quick it will happen. Not sure exactly what it’ll look like.”

“Not where I thought this was going,” Greer said softly.

“If that happens, and if there’s no chance of getting me back, you need to put him in the chair, and someone else needs to pull him out. Whoever does that, is gonna end up psychically linked to the guy. Just like I am. Right now.”

“Psychically linked?” Scott repeated. He looked at TJ, who nodded.

James nodded stoically, shelving her questions.

“I think the best choice would be TJ,” Young said, “but any one of you could do it. Whoever does it—might not be going back to Earth.”

The room was silent.

“The point is—it’s not Telford,” Young said. “It can’t be Telford. It can’t be anyone on his team. Not under any circumstances. Not any.”

The room was dead quiet.

“Tell us why.” Against the back wall, Wray mirrored his pose.

Young held her gaze.

“If you’re asking what I think you’re asking,” she said, soft and solemn, “you’ll need to tell us why.”

Young nodded. He brushed against the intricate weave of Rush’s thoughts, running smooth and fast and focused. The guy was concentrating in parallel, half his mind on Eli, half his mind visualizing circuits. Bright in concept, full of crystal. 

“There’s a war in the Milky Way.” Young’s voice had turned hoarse, for some reason. “Humans versus Ori. We don’t think about it much out here, but it’s not going all that well back home. When you fight an enemy from a higher plane—research into ascension gets put on the front burner. It’s not common knowledge, but the nine chevron address has something to do with ascension. Or, that was the thought, when Icarus was founded.”

They were silent, watching him.

“It happens on a spectrum,” Young said, his voice still rough as hell. “Ascension, I mean. And there was no point coming here, apparently, unless someone had a foot in the door. Nobody did. Not even Jackson, who’s ascended before. So the SGC found a guy. Someone with a bunch of natural Ancient genes. Turned out he was a math professor, with an academic interest in cyphers. No kids. Dying wife. He couldn’t have been more perfect. They hired him to unlock the gate. Then they asked him to volunteer his brain for modification, and he said sure.”

“My god,” TJ said, appalled.

“This explains a lot.” Greer crossed his arms.

“Yeah,” Young said softly.

“How was it done?” Wray asked.

“They used a lab designed by Anubis. It—it had a mix of Goa’uld and Ancient tech. Telford and Rush were there alone. The walls were capacitors. He stood in some kind of gel. No shoes. Telford threw a switch, and it messed with him. With his brain—EM fields and chemistry, probably. It temporarily paralyzed him.”

Young stopped there.

The room was silent.

“And that’s all of it?” Wray asked.

“No,” Young said. “There’s more.” He took a breath, rescanned Rush’s mind, steadied himself, and tried to describe what had happened without reliving it. “Once you’re paralyzed, the gel level rises. It simulates drowning. Or,” he rasped, “maybe, you do drown.”

“And Telford watched this happen?” Wray asked, stone-cold neutral. “He was in the room, and he let it complete.”

“Yeah, so for some reason,” Young said, fighting like hell not to the let the memory rise, “even though Rush was paralyzed, Telford held him under.”

No one said anything.

Except for Greer, who, very quietly, said, “Okay then.”

TJ looked sharply at Greer. “He didn’t actually die though.”

“I mean, do we know that?” Greer asked.

“Don’t go after Telford,” TJ said.

“What makes you think I’d go after Telford, lieutenant?” Greer said mildly.

“Sergeant,” Young growled. “You’re no good to anyone confined to quarters.”

“Yes sir,” Greer said, grudgingly.

“It must’ve worked,” James said quietly. “The changes they made? Because—look at everything he can do now.”

Young nodded at her.

“But why didn’t he just sit in the chair when we found it?” James asked. “Why’d he let Franklin do it, if he was the one who was supposed to unlock it from the beginning?”

“Yeah,” Young said. “He tried like hell to avoid the chair, and I still don’t understand why. Every time he interfaced with the thing he built a software buffer to isolate his mind.”

“Until the Nakai boarded the ship, and he didn’t have the time,” TJ said.

Young nodded. “He woke Destiny up. The lights got friendly. Doors came open. And then? It really went for him. Trapped him behind a forcefield, dragged him in, drugged him, genetically made him over, and psychically yoked him straight to the damn circuitry.”

“Wait what,” James said flatly.

“Yeah,” Young looked at her and Scott. “It used a virus to make the genetic changes. Non-infectious to anyone else—but. It’s killing Rush.”

There was silence in the room.

“It’s killing Rush,” Young said, his voice stronger. “And, as it kills him, I’m pretty damn sure he’s being pushed down the ascension path. Which is what Telford started him on in the first place. And now? Telford’s here. Trying to drive the same damn process to completion.”

At the back of his mind he could feel Rush’s intricate, almost dream-like focus, running in parallel. The faint ache in his wrists came through. He had his chin propped in his hand. He was staring at Volker without really seeing him.

“So,” Wray said, leaning against the back wall. “Telford never pulls him out of the chair. Rush is never alone with Telford’s team. We can make that happen. What else?”

“I think that pretty well covers it,” Young said.

Wray gave him a disappointed look, her arms crossed. “You haven’t talked about Rush at all,” she said.

“What?” Young replied. “This entire meeting has been about him.”

“It’s been about Telford,” Wray said flatly. “What he’s done. What he’ll do. About the ship. What it’s done. What it’ll do. But what about Rush? He’s not exactly a wallflower. What are his feelings about all of this? Does he want to ascend? Is he trying to help the AI? Is he likely to ally himself with Colonel Telford?”

“He’s helping the AI, yeah,” Young said quietly. “But he hasn’t fully thrown in with it. Not sure he can, while I’m in the mix. He doesn’t like Telford, but that doesn’t mean he won’t work with him, if Telford has something he wants.”

“So, bottom line, Rush is Rush,” Greer said dryly.

“Yeah,” Young said grudgingly.

“We can work with that,” TJ said.

Young looked at her, eyebrows up.

“Well, we have, right?” TJ gave him a small smile.

“We have,” Wray said quietly. 

“Sir,” James said. “One of Telford’s scientists talked to me, when I was showing him to his quarters? A Dr. Lee? He said he was the odd man out, on Telford’s team.”

“Wait,” Wray said, her voice sharp. “Dr. Lee? I vetted everyone who came through; there was no Dr. Lee on Telford’s list.”

“What else did he say?” Young asked.

“He said he knows Dr. Jackson,” James said. “He was really excited about the shields. And, uh, he did ask for a one-on-one meeting with Rush.”

“Well that’s not gonna happen,” Young growled.

“What’s his first name?” Wray asked.

“Bill,” Vanessa said.

“Bill Lee,” Wray said, her expression neutral. “Bill Lee? Older guy? About my height?”

“Yes ma’am,” James nodded.

Wray looked at Young, a smile trying to break through her neutral expression. “Somehow, Daniel Jackson sent you Bill Lee?”

Young shrugged. “Never heard of the guy.”

“He’s a career SGC-scientist,” Wray said. “He and Dr. Jackson go back a long way. All the way to the beginning.”

Young looked at James. “How’d he strike you, lieutenant?”

“Smart,” James said. “Friendly. Nice.”

“Let’s set up a meeting,” Young said. “Him and me. Tomorrow. Camile, you want in?”

She nodded. “I’ll be there.”

“Sergeant,” Young said, turning toward Greer and James, “lieutenant. I need a word with you in private?”

Scott and TJ got to their feet. TJ caught Young’s eye and said, “bring him by later tonight. We’ll start the antivirals.”  

Young nodded. He watched her follow Wray and Scott out of the room.

“We on Rush detail?” Greer asked, one the door had shut again.

“No,” Young said, despite the fact that the answer to that one was definitely a ‘yes.’ He moved to the table and dropped into a seat. “But he does like the two of you.”

Greer shrugged. James had her game face on, but, even so, he caught a flicker of surprise.

“If anything takes me out,” Young said, “even temporarily, he’s gonna need more help. A lot more. So, if I’m in trouble—ideally the pair of you will stick with him. And if Telford makes that hard—well, do it anyway. Involve Wray. Involve TJ. Invoke Jackson. If I live through whatever it is, I’ll back you. If the situation escalates here and outside help is needed, use the stones. Go to Jackson.”

“He was okay when you were down after the seed ship mission,” Greer pointed out. “Had a rough few hours when he couldn’t speak English, but other than that he did just fine.”

“Yeah,” Young said, absently eyeing the rock solid block he’d had in place for weeks between Rush and the ship. It wasn’t costing detectable energy to maintain. He wasn’t sure it would vanish if he was out of commission. “I don’t think he’ll power through like that again.”

“Sir,” James said. “The doc’s got a bit of a following.”

Young shot Greer a knowing look. “Does he.”

“Yes sir,” James said. “Picked up steam right around the time he saved Park from getting blown to bits.”

“Seriously?” Young asked.

“Well—Lisa’s really popular, on the military side.”

“Oh yeah?” Young said, with a small smile.

“Yeah. She helps Scott run his bootcamp. She comes to all our parties. Plays cards. Dates Ron. Plus, she works the guns on this ship.” James stopped and looked at Greer.

“She told him to run.” Greer’s voice was quiet. No more than a whisper. “Told him it was okay. But he stayed. And he did it with his glasses.”

“I remember,” Young replied.

“Anyway,” James said. “It’s simmered along for a while now. But ah, all of a sudden, after a day most of us don’t remember, Greer starts talking him up. Hard.”

Young snorted. “I had a feeling.”

“I realize,” Greer said, arms crossed, his tone defensive, “he does his level best to impersonate a miserable asshole, but at a certain point it turns goddamned ridiculous and I’m not good at sidelining myself when there’s a flaming train wreck right in front of me. Never been good at that. Sir.”

“Really?” Young asked mildly. “Never would have guessed that about you.”

“My point, sir,” James continued, “is that if you let Greer and I spread the word a little—you’ll have a lot more eyes.”

“Wouldn’t take much,” Greer said. “No one likes Telford. We don’t even have to really say anything. Just that he’s gunning for Rush. Wants to study him. Everyone knows that anyway. We just give it a little spin, little word of mouth, and, all of a sudden, everyone’s looking out for the guy.”

“Do it,” Young said.

“And put me on the Science Team, maybe,” Greer said mildly.

“Not a chance, sergeant,” Young replied, just as mild.

When Young and James reentered the control interface room, Volker was in the midst of a presentation. James dropped into her usual spot. Young posted himself up against the back wall of the room.

Rush didn’t notice their arrival.

Rush also didn’t seem to be noticing the briefing.

“In all the raw sensor data we combed through,” Volker said, “from every time we’ve dropped out near an Obelisk World (and yeah, that’s the technical term now) there haven’t been any timed correlates. Meaning we don’t yet understand what triggers the drop.”

Eli, very ostentatiously, slow-ripped a piece of paper out of his new notebook.

Volker stopped talking and frowned at the kid.

Rush kept staring at nothing.

Loudly, Eli crumpled the paper into a ball.

Volker raised his eyebrows.

Eli fired the paper at Rush. Fast and hard and accurate.

Rush’s left hand snapped up. He caught the paper, and, without pausing, without even looking, he chucked it back at Eli. Just as fast. Just as hard. Just as accurate.

Young bit down on a smile.

“Holy crap,” Volker said softly.

Slowly, with the timing of a 1950s horror movie, Rush turned to look at Eli, leveling a glare at him that could liquefy lead. “Unacceptable.”

“Not sure if you were listening,” Eli said softly. “This is important.” He inclined his head in Volker’s direction. “He found something in the CBR.”

Rush turned to Volker. “Continue.”

“We didn’t find a correlate to the drop, but there was something that correlated to the light emission. Down to the nanosecond. A pattern in the CBR.”

//CBR?// Young projected at Rush.

//Cosmic Background Radiation. Keep up.//

Volker clicked a button. Projected in glowing relief above them was a pattern—bright, disc-shaped, and familiar.

Young’s recognition caught Rush’s attention and the scientist turned, an eyebrow quirked. “You’ve seen this before?” he asked.

The entire Science Team looked askance at him.

The man could not keep a low profile to save his life.

Before Young could reply, Park slammed her laptop shut and got to her feet. “You guys. I can’t take this anymore. Sorry.” Her gaze flicked back and forth between Rush and Young. Then she steeled herself, screwed up her courage and asked, “Are you talking to each other in your heads?”

The room was silent for a moment.

“Obviously,” Rush said.

“Oh,” Park said weakly.

“Continue.” Rush looked at Volker.

Volker stared at him. “Continue?” he echoed. “What the heck is going on with you, Rush?”

//I think you’d better explain,// Young shot at him. //I just brought Scott and James up to speed.//

Rush sighed. He brought two fingers to his temple and motioned back and forth between himself and Young. “Me, the colonel.” He switched directions, motioning between his temple and the empty air. “Me, the ship. Both linked. It’s a dynamic equilibrium. Are you people satisfied?”

//That was probably the least informative explanation I’ve ever heard you give.//

//Then your memory is defective.//

“No,” Brody said flatly.

//They deserve more from you.//

//Yes well, they can get in line.// Rush squared his shoulders, scraped up a maddening amount of nonchalance, and said, “If you’d like to find out more, join Colonel Telford’s research team. He’ll be studying the thing.”

“Please don’t do that, actually,” Young said exhaustedly. They turned to look at him as he pushed away from the wall and walked forward, into their midst. “Telford knows about the connection between Rush and the ship because he’s been briefed by Carter and O’Neill, but he doesn’t know about the connection between Rush and myself. I’d rather it stayed that way.”

“Good luck with that,” Volker said dubiously. “The entire crew has figured out that something’s up with you two. Telford’s a pretty sharp guy. You’ll have to keep a much lower profile.”

“We’re working on it,” Young said.

“I think you’re doing fine,” Volker said mildly.

Rush narrowed his eyes. “Continue. Eli can fill you in on the rest later. Continue.”

No one moved. No one spoke.

“Continue.” The word cracked under its own strain.

“Okay,” Volker said after a short hesitation. “Sure.” He looked up at the pattern that hovered above them. “What you can see here is temperature modulation in the CBR. This appears whenever Obelisk Worlds turn on their beacons. Let’s take a look in 3D.” He hit a button, and the pattern deepened, shifting along its z-axis. Ghostly outlines of the planet, the obelisk, and Destiny faded in.

“Dang,” Eli said. “You rendered all of this?”

“Yeah, thanks for noticing,” Volker said smiling. “This is kinda my whole deal. I studied this stuff. With radio telescopes. Back on Earth. Before Colonel Telford came knocking with one-way Space Cruise tickets.”

“Not gonna be one way,” Young growled.

“Right,” Volker said. “Aaaanyway, this is an animated time lapse of the readings we took.” He hit another key, and a beam of white light shot from the tip of the obelisk. The transparent outline of Destiny started to sink toward the planet.

“The planet phases,” Volker continued, “and I’m rendering this as a fade because, if it progressed enough, the planet would disappear from our detectable EM spectrum. But don’t watch the fade. Watch the CBR.”

The portion of the planet nearest the obelisk turned transparent, creating an expanding crater of phase-shifted matter. Young saw the uniform, yellow glow of the CBR penetrate the space being liberated. As it did so, the glow of the CBR shifted from yellow to red.

“That color change is a temperature shift,” Volker said. “The CBR is heating in the vicinity of the planet, forming a catenary surface of increased temperature as it advances, which, when you render it two dimensionally, looks like a disc.”

“Wow,” Eli said.

“Excellent work,” Rush said absently. His thoughts were full firewind, shot through with fractal structure.

Volker stared at Rush in shock.

“Dang it,” Eli said. “Where’s a kino when you need one?”

“Spacetime phases,” Park said softly, “and the CBR heats. By how much?”

“About four tenths of a degree Kevin,” Volker said.

“What happens to the flow of time, in a field like this?” Brody asked.

“Yeah,” Volker said darkly, “exactly. But—no idea.”

“Time will phase,” Rush said mildly.

“Yeah, I think it’d have to, but what the heck does that mean?” Volker asks.

“Haven’t the fuckin’ faintest,” Rush replied, with a hint of a smile.

“Guys,” Young said, from his position on the back wall. “Can you bottom line this for me?”

Volker looked at Rush.

Rush pressed two fingers to the space between his eyes, smiled faintly, and said nothing.

“Um,” Volker said, his hands on his hips, his eyebrows pushed together. He looked up at his light-etched rendering. “Ummmm, no,” he decided.

Rush made an amused-sounding exhale.

“Okay.” Young tried again. “Does this have any relationship to the mysterious pattern in the CBR that’s somehow related to Destiny’s mission?” 

Possibly,” Eli said. “It’s similar.” The kid paused, looking at Rush. “If I’m following the astrophysics correctly, it’s kind of like, um, what you might predict to see when D-branes of the multiverse collide?”

Rush shot Eli a sharp look but said nothing.

“Yeah,” Volker said, his hands still on his hips, squinting up at the light. “I mean, maybe. It could be a thousand other things, but, sure, it could also be that. That’s like, the sexiest, most rockstar thing it could possibly be. So—I’m guessing it’s probably not that.”

“D-branes of the multiverse?” Young said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Yeah, you’re so right about that,” Eli said. “We meant E-branes.”

Young stared at him.

“That was a joke?” Eli said. “Y’know? Like a different—okay. Never mind. Sorry. D-branes are a way to describe the idea that the four dimensional universe—you know, the three spatial dimensions plus time, exists on a membrane-type thing that itself exists in multidimensional space called ‘the bulk’.”

Rush and Volker both watched Eli, smiling faintly.

“So according to M-theory, D-branes exist side by side with each other, each comprising an observable 4D universe, plus or minus small spatial dimensions rolled up inside. The thing is, if this is true, we, by our nature, can’t make it off our brane. So we can never see the universe in its true, multidimensional form. For a long time, this has been untestable. But…people have predicted what the energy signature of a brane collision would look like if we ever got lucky enough to observe it. And it’s supposed to look an awful lot like this.”

“Damn,” Brody said quietly.

“So, I get all that, Eli,” Volker said, still skeptically looking up. “A lot of it even tracks. But—I mean, most of what you just went through is Earth science? But we live in a universe where, uh, I guess time loops happen? And subspace is real? And, even though physics says its impossible, we’re traveling faster than light, probably via a propagating matter wave, if Chloe’s correct? My point is, this could be a heck of a lot of things.”

“It could,” Eli said, strangely neutral. “It totally could. And, uh, maybe? We should all read in the database about it.”

“Not sure how useful that’ll be,” Rush said smoothly, “I think Volker’s right. The possibilities are endless and mostly pedestrian.”

Eli shut his eyes.

“Uh oh,” Volker said, looking at Rush.

“Let’s say,” Young growled, hearing the grind in his own voice, “that we did read about it in the database.” He looked dead at Eli. “What do you think we’d find?”

“I think we’d find that the Ancients have terms for the bulk,” Eli said softly, “and for D-branes. I think we’d find that the term for the bulk is ‘mare.’ And the term for a brane is ‘linea salis’. I’d think we’d find a lot of nautical, transit metaphors that start to fit together.”

“Well crap,” Volker said softly. 

Park had a hand over her mouth.

Chloe shivered, pulling a new sweatshirt closer around her.

“They’re the Builders of Roads,” Brody said. “It’s what they called themselves.”

“Somebody say it,” Young growled. “Whatever it is. Out loud.”

“The implication is the obelisks bridge parallel universes,” Chloe said into the ensuing quiet. “Transit may be possible.”

The silence in the room was deafening.

“And yet,” Rush said, with a jarringly casual tone, “personally? I still think Volker’s right.”

“Shut up,” Volker said, rolling his eyes.

//Cut the bullshit,// he projected at Rush.

Rush shot back a wave of pure irritation, edged with warning.

“So Destiny’s mission has something to do with the multiverse?” Young asked.

“Well,” Volker said, “I’ll tell ya this much: the whole idea of traveling to the literal edge of the universe has never sat all that well with me. From an astrophysics perspective, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. I mean, space is infinite. That’s pretty well established.”

Rush’s gaze flicked to the empty air.

“So, given this new information, if you were going to guess what Destiny’s mission was,” Young said grimly, knowing he was treading increasingly dangerous ground, “what would you say?”

//What are you doing?// All Rush’s attention snapped to Young.

//What does it look like? I’m having a discussion with the Science Team. If you and the AI don’t like it, you can get out.//

“We pretty much know what Destiny’s mission is, right?” Park said uncertainly. “It’s to travel toward and find this mysterious pattern in the CBR. To study it. The mission is study.”

“Who built these planets?” Brody asked. “The Ancients? I mean—they built the gate network. Is it possible that they also built these things?”

“Well,” Volker said slowly, “if you’re traversing the multiverse—these planets would have to exist across all branes. They’d be, effectively, superpositioned. The question of who built them then turns really complicated to answer. Because it may not be anyone from this brane, at all. And there’s all kinds of quantum causality problems that shake out.”

Young felt a wave of surprised interest translate itself across the link. Rush looked at Volker, his eyebrows up.

“It’s likely these things are for transit,” Brody said. “The Ancients were trying to reach this ship as they were being wiped out. They launched the ship when the plague started. They tried to get here as the plague was ending. They didn’t make it. What if they were trying for a brane-jump?”

“A lot of energy would be liberated during collision of adjacent branes,” Volker added. “A lot. And, uh, this ship is built to handle that.”

At the back of his mind, Young could feel Rush’s heart rate increase.

“What would happen if we waited for the collision to complete and then purposefully flew into the advancing phase wave, do you think?” Chloe asked.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Brody said darkly. “That seed ship we found got trapped in a planet.”

“Maybe they didn’t know what they were doing,” Chloe said. “Maybe they didn’t know what the transit points looked like. What they were. We didn’t, until Volker mapped what was going on beneath the beacon lights.”

Eli hadn’t said anything. For a long time.

“Eli,” Young growled. “What do you think.”

“Maybe,” Eli said, looking at Rush. “To all of this—I mean. Yeah. Maybe.”

“Rush,” Young growled. “You don’t wanna weigh in?”

“Pass,” Rush said lightly.

“Pass?” Young repeated, his voice dangerous. “You don’t get to pass. Not on this one. Answer Chloe’s question. What happens, hypothetically, if one were to fly into the advancing phase wave?”

Across their link, the AI began to tighten down.

Young had no choice but to match it, even if just to preserve what he could of the guy’s mind. That, and—

This was the closest he’d been to any kind of answer. He wasn’t about to let it go.

He couldn’t, in good conscience, let it go.

Rush’s breathing turned uneven. “Can y’please not—

“What happens in that phase wave?” Young stepped up to Rush, and dropped a hand onto the scientist’s shoulder.

“Um,” Volker said softly, his eyes flicking between Young, Rush, and Eli.

“What are you doing?” Eli asked, an edge of warning in his tone.

“What. Happens.”

Rush made a frustrated sound, clenched both hands hard, released them, and managed to come up with, “Plures res es validus evulsum.” He clamped both hands down on the edge of his console. 

“Good,” Young said, holding his position, half his attention on the room, half his attention on the dark wall of the AI, occupying, maybe forty percent of the man’s consciousness. “Take a minute.” Subtly, he ran his thumb over the rock hard tension at the base of the scientist’s neck. Rush didn’t relax, but he also didn’t seem distressed. What little movement there was in his thoughts was running in an intricate pattern. “What did he just say?”

“You can strongly tear a lot of things,” Park said in a strained whisper.

“You can tear into a multitude,” Chloe said flatly. “You are able to tear many things. You can tear into many things. You can rip out sets? The idea of ripping is there. Ripping out. Maybe ripping through? The idea of a set is there. The idea of layers. Maybe of layers of layers. Of pluralities. Of tremendous force. Of power. Of tearing something, maybe sets of things, out of or through other sets of things.”

“Great job,” Young said quietly, his hand still on Rush’s shoulder. “But it’s not enough. Try again.”

Rush stared intently at his own hands.

“Alternative plan, he doesn’t try again,” Eli said, his voice hard. “What the hell is this?”

“Dr. Rush, quid agis?” Chloe asked, her voice high and tight. “Potesne dicere?”

“I can’t—” Rush breathed, his gaze blank, focused on nothing.

“Yes you can,” Young said, his fingers closed on Rush’s shoulder.

“Can he?” Eli stalked forward. “Or are you the one ripping sets. Right now.”

And, at that, the whole room was on its feet, a terrible charge in the air. James and Eli were closing in on his position, Volker was already in his space, and—yeah. Young could admit, this looked bad. Mostly because it was bad.

“The crew will be fine,” Rush managed. He put up a hand to stop Volker. “In a phase wave. The entire crew. Will be fine.”

Eli slowed. James slowed. Volker looked at Young uncertainly.

“Good,” Young said softly, projecting reassurance to every part of the scientist’s mind he could reach.“Really good job, genius.” He pressed his thumb into the rock hard muscle at the base of the man’s neck. “So that’s the plan?” He asked gently. “Fly into one of these things?”

He felt the AI ratchet its control up a notch, and—

Rush froze. Straight to a dead frame. Everything ground to halt.

“Oh my god,” Park said, in a small voice.  

Young felt a hand fall on his shoulder.

“Hey,” Volker said. “Colonel. Let it go. Just—let it go. We’ll figure it out for you. Maybe not as fast, but—”

Young clenched his jaw, and looked at Rush’s blank, glassy expression.

He released the scientist. The AI mirrored him. Almost perfectly.

Rush relaxed, tensed, overcorrected, and nearly pitched out of his chair, his mind a whiteout of panicked disorientation. Young was ready for it, and he caught the man, projecting a wave of reassurance so strong it nearly trapped Rush in a while loop before Young toned it down.

“You’re okay,” Young said, steadying the man as he sat forward. “That was good, actually. That was—” his voice cracked. “You did great. Take it easy.”

Rush took a deep breath, and Young felt a headache slam into place behind the scientist’s eyes. The scientist tipped his head back subtly, swallowing blood.

Chloe slipped in between the rest of the science team and pulled a tissue from her pocket. How she knew that he needed it, Young wasn’t sure.

Wordlessly, Rush took it from her.

“What he hell was that.” Eli’s voice was flat.

“Don’t worry about it, Eli,” Rush said exhaustedly.

“This one,” Eli said, his eyes fixed on Young, “I am going to worry about. I want to know exactly what you just did to him. Because I read everything in the Ancient database pertaining to the chair in my freaking free time, such as it is, and it didn’t say a damn thing about anything even remotely like what we just saw. So yeah. You can just explain it to us. To all of us. Right now. Because it looked pretty messed up.”

//Fuck you, anyway,//  Rush projected at him unsteadily. //You deserve this. You couldn’t have waited until later to fight with the AI? You have to do it in front of the entire Science Team?//

//I don’t want to fight with it at all,// Young said, feeling sick. He shifted his gaze to Eli. “The AI,” he said, “is preventing Rush from telling me what the nature of Destiny’s mission is.”

“Well maybe you shouldn’t ask him about it,” Eli said darkly, “if its only way to deal with you is by messing him up so much that he can’t even move.”

“Eli,” Rush said. “Stop. It’s fine.”

“Yup, you’re fine. You’re obviously so, so fine. I’m convinced. How about you guys?” he turned to the rest of the Science Team, who all had the same locked expressions, the same tightness around the eyes.

“Yes well,” Rush said. He crumpled up Chloe’s tissue and tilted his head forward. “I’m sure, the colonel is, as usual, doing his best, which, as usual, leaves quite a bit to be desired. As for the ethics of the thing—it’s the same problem it’s always been. How to balance the desire for progress with the desire to return home. No one trusts me, and rightly so I suppose, as I’ve made some—shall we say questionable decisions in that regard? But I’m not asking for trust. What I am asking,” Rush said, getting to his feet, “is for a briefing tomorrow, at the usual time.” He looked over at Eli as he picked up his crutch. “You’re not excused, no matter what Telford says.”  

“Rush—” Eli began, “do not make a dramatic exit. We need to TALK ABOUT THIS.” He started shouting as Rush made for the door. 

Rush didn’t look back.

Young was left with the entire Science Team staring at him. “I’m gonna—” He trailed off. Then, he turned on his heel and left them standing in a silent, huddled mass as he went after Rush.

//So, that did not go well,// Young projected as he reached over to steady Rush as they walked.

//Noticed that, did you?// Rush said acidly. //Well done.//

//You okay?//

//Is it too much to ask that, if you feel the urge to rip information out of my mind while simultaneously battling the AI, you at least wait until we are in private?//

//There’ll literally never be a time I purposefully invite that thing to battle it out in your head.// Young growled. //I couldn’t wait, genius; it was happening at that moment. I realize it’s hard on you—//

//It’s hard on me?// Rush repeated. //It’s fucking ‘hard’ on me? D’you have any idea of what you’re doing? Any at all?//

“No,” Young said aloud, deeply shaken.

Rush, too, switched to speaking. “The AI starts annexing what it thinks you’re going to try to access, and blocks both of us out of huge networks of information by taking up that space itself. In my fucking brain. You instinctively then do the same bloody thing, which leaves me with nothing to work with when I try to talk to you. As the whole thing escalates, I don’t even have a fucking clue who you are anymore, and then, only then, do I stop forming memories. That’s the last thing to fucking go. God. I wish it was first.”

Young rubbed a hand over his jaw. He didn’t say anything. He opened their link, wide as it would go, and let it ride. The whole conflicted, guilt-ridden, miserable mess of his entire mind.

“Interesting,” Rush murmured.

“Yeah?” Young asked, the word coming rough.

“Yes,” Rush said, with an almost clinical disinterest. “It’s not as bad as you’re imagining. The primary experience is one of profound frustration. Not fear.”

“Genius,” Young said, and his voice cracked. “You come out of it in a full-blown panic.”

“Right, on either end,” Rush said. “It’s—it is unsettling to be, ah, monopolized? But in the middle of the thing—” he shook his head. “The AI is quite good at recognizing fear. My fear. Other than the relevant datasets, that the first thing it shuts down. The last thing it lets go.”

“Your fear?” Young whispered, horrified.

Rush shot him an unimpressed look. “Well at least one of us appreciates it?” he asked dryly. “Why are you so fucking scandalized? At least give it credit for manners.”

Manners? If you’re not scared of it, you won’t fight it, genius.”

Rush rolled his eyes. “I suppose, but I’m not exactly fightin’ it anyway, am I? The primary reason bein’ it’s impossible? Stop looking for reasons to turn the thing into your arch fuckin’ nemesis.”

“It did that itself,” Young growled.

“Oh god. Well, pick your battles, please? I’d like to finish out with at least some of my cognitive capacity intact.”

Finish out?” Young stopped dead in the middle of the hall.

They stared at one another. Young tried and failed to hold back his dismay. Rush tried and failed to hold back something that felt a hell of a lot like sympathy.

Young dug in, pulled himself together, and got his head in the game.

Because this wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

“Genius, we need to talk. Right now. About all of this. About what happened earlier. In the hallway. Before something else happens?”

“Can we skip the endless back and forth on the ramifications of a thing people literally do all the fuckin’ time?” Rush hissed. “You kissed me. I kissed you back. Relative to the rest of it? It’s profoundly normal. It changes nothing.”

Holy shit.

That? That was his reaction?

If so, there was no possible way the guy was aware of what Young had done. Because—

Rush was wrong.

It didn’t change nothing.

It changed everything. 

“Rush,” he said slowly, pulling his thoughts away from the scientist as much as he could without impacting either of them.  

Something in his voice or his mind put Rush on edge.  

“If you think,” Rush hissed at him, “that what happened earlier was somehow more significant than merging consciousnesses, or sharing thoughts, or having you rip my mind out of the ship, or fucking surrendering almost all of my cognitive capacity so that y’can have a showdown with the goddamned AI whenever you feel like it, then you are mistaken.”

Young said nothing.

“You think you fucking feel something for me? I should very much expect that you do, as we’ve been sharing thoughts not to mention your literal bed for the past six weeks or so. But this is an artificial system. It’s not sustainable. So I suggest you try to ignore whatever it is that you think you’re feeling so y’can do your bloody job.”

“God, you’re a lot of work,” Young said through clenched teeth.

“You’re needlessly complicating things for yourself. And for me.”

“Bullshit,” Young whispered.  

“It’s not. It’s responsible,” Rush said coldly. “We don’t need another connection. We have enough.”

“We do. We need it. We need it if I’m going to win out against the AI.”

“You,” Rush said mercilessly, “are never going to ‘win out’ against the AI. It’s a statistical impossibility. It’ll never happen.”

“You don’t know that. In fact, you can’t.”

“All you’re going to accomplish is tearing yourself apart against it as you destroy my mind. So just stop. This is difficult enough for me as it is.” Rush looked away, his expression pained.  

“Genius. You can’t know you’re right,” Young whispered.

“I’ll tell you what I do know,” Rush said. “I trust the AI. Instinctively. Totally. Comprehensively.”

“Yeah,” Young said, his voice cracking. “You see the problem there, right?”

“Yes,” Rush admitted. “Theoretically, I understand that I can’t objectively judge how honorable its intentions are because, fundamentally, I’m not separate from it. Not anymore. Do you understand what that means?”

Young was clenching his jaw so hard that he thought his teeth might crack.

“It means,” Rush said, with a gentle relentlessness, “that you’re the last line of defense for this crew, and the possibility exists that you won’t just have to leave me behind. The possibility exists that you may have to kill me get to protect them. And, even now, I don’t know if you could do it.”

“No way the AI lets that happen.”

“I told you what to do,” Rush said softly. “You shut us both down. It’ll allow it. It cannot act to stop its own shutdown by a member of the crew.”

This was not the conversation he’d wanted to have.

“You’re not even trying to survive this,” Young whispered.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Rush hissed. “Why d’you think I’m fucking taking the fucking antivirals? Why do you think I walk around feeling pure wrecked when I could be getting energy from the ship?”

“I honestly think,” Young said, his voice strained, “that you might be doing it for me.”

“Unlikely.” Rush looked away.

“Genius, whether you’re doing it because you give a damn or whether you’re doing it because you have to on whatever level—I don’t care. I’ll take it. You keep trying to write me off, but that’s not how this is supposed to work.”

“What kind of life have you had,” Rush rasped, “that you’re so bloody taken with some Universal Rule Book?”

“I’m more of a player here than you think. I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you all night—but I fixed our link. I’m sure I did.”

“What?” Rush looked at him in abject astonishment. “When?”

“In the hallway. When I kissed you. Somehow, we ended up in a hairpin. I pulled your power and used it. On you.”

“Y’didn’t. I would know.”

I’ve told you all along there’s a physical component to this. Now I’m sure I’m right.”

“I don’t believe it,” Rush murmured.

“Walk down the hall,” Young said, sweeping a hand along the line of the corridor. “Go as far as you want.”

Rush’s eyes flicked out into the empty air and he stepped back from Young.

“Telford,” the scientist murmured quietly.

They resumed walking toward the infirmary. Slower now. Across their link, Rush’s thoughts were unbalanced, glassy, and full of uncertainty.

Ahead, Telford rounded a corner. He slowed when he saw them, eyebrows coming up.

Had the AI warned Rush that he was coming? If it had—what the hell would that mean?

“Hey Nick,” Telford said, coming to a stop. “I was just looking for you.”

“Colonel Telford,” Rush said coolly. “How can I help you?”

“Need a little clarification on something,” Telford said. “Wanna take a walk?”

“Unfortunately, now’s not a convenient time for me,” Rush said, and god, he sounded tired.

“Why?” Telford said bluntly. “What are you doing?”

“I have another meeting.”

“At 2200?” Telford shot back skeptically. “I’ll walk with you.”

“No,” Young said. “You won’t.”

Telford shot Young a guarded look. “Whole new dynamic around here.”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Young said, friendly and mild.

“Y’know you two can—” Rush cut himself off. His mind burst into multi-tiered complexity, shedding images like leaves—the molten blue of heated naquada, the sound of a sea bell echoing over uneven streets, the shimmering blue of an event horizon, the unflowering of Earth’s trinium iris. The scientist turned, reversing direction.

His limp was barely noticeable. Their link was full of adrenaline.

Young and Telford locked eyes, then wordlessly fell in behind him.

//What’s going on?// Young shot at Rush.

Rush didn’t answer, but, he didn’t have to, because as they burst through the door to the gate room, Young could see for himself. The gate was lit up. As they watched, it began to rotate.

“What the hell?” Telford said. “We’re at FTL.”

“Someone’s dialing in,” Rush said darkly, “with a massive amount of power.”

“From a naquadria planet?” Telford breathed. “A third?”

“Seems vanishingly unlikely,” Rush said tightly.

“Shut it down,” Young growled.

“I’m going to let it connect.” Rush stared at the gate, his left foot already flexed, his fingers flexed—like he was about to rip something straight out of the air.

No,” Telford and Young snapped, hard and tight, and perfectly in sync.

“Two tenths of a second,” Rush said, bracing himself, staring at the gate. “That’s all I need for a quantum vector and a power magnitude measurement. Anything that can dial in at FTL comes with astronomical power and presents a profound problem. Call Eli.”

“Science Team,” Young growled into his radio, broadcasting on the emergency channel. “Report to the gate room. Now. Eli, you run.”

“Check the soles of your boots for exposed metal,” Rush said tightly, as the sixth symbol locked. “Don’t touch any surface with your bare skin and, for the love of god, don’t touch me. I’ll try an’ keep it contained.”

“Shit,” Telford hissed, checking his boots.

“David, into the hall,” Young growled.

“Too late,” Rush said flatly. He braced himself, flexed his left foot, raised both hands, and—

The gate connected.

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