Force over Distance: Chapter 40
“Optimal outcomes are unlikely,” the AI whispered.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: Sorry, kids.
Their link detonated into light and structure. Power arced and fused through every line of their connection. Young couldn’t see the scientist; he couldn’t feel anything from him; he—
And then, as soon as it had started, it was over.
Rush reasserted himself, compressing the open-faucet flow of power into nothing, like folding a running waterfall into energetic origami with force of will alone.
With the rent-apart sound of a dead event horizon, the gate shut down.
Young drew in a shaky breath. //Genius? You okay? I can’t tell.//
He got a wave of reassurance through their link, laced with psychic ache and concerned apology. //I’m fine. You’re a bit flash-blind, I’d think.// Rush’s hands were still up, partially flexed, angled toward the gate. He straightened, shook out his wrists, and gave the dark arch across the room a perplexed quirk of the brow, like it had, somehow, disappointed him. “That was—easy.”
Young tried not to lose his mind.
Every two hours the man did something life-threateningly spectacular.
“I’m not complaining,” Telford said.
“Hey!” Young turned to see Eli and James, out of breath, in the doorway to the gateroom. “I ran,” the kid said, sucking down air. A pair of white headphones trailed out of one pocket. “The whole team is like. Right behind me. We were having a debriefing. You know. Of our briefing. As we do. What’s happening.”
“The gate just activated,” Telford said.
“At FTL?” Eli demanded. “What—did Homeworld Command forget to send the ice cream?” He took in another few breaths. “Doesn’t look active.”
At a nod from Young, James slipped past Eli, and posted herself at the wall near the door. Her eyes flicked between Telford and Rush.
“Rush shut it down,” Young said.
“Oh. Sure. Cool.” Eli straightened and walked to the command console at the back of the room. “Seriously though, what it if was Homeworld Command?”
“It wasn’t,” Rush said darkly.
Chloe and Park appeared in the doorway. Chloe had Eli’s computer and her own double-stacked in her arms. They slipped into the room. Volker and Brody weren’t far behind.
“What happened?” Volker asked.
“The gate just activated.” Eli was already scanning the data in front of him.
“At FTL?” Volker, Brody, and Park asked, simultaneously.
“I let it connect for vector and magnitude data,” Rush said, almost casually. “I can tell you the power magnitude exceeded that of Homeworld Command’s dial in earlier in the day, and the directional vector came from somewhere along our previous trajectory.”
“So it was local?” Brody asked. “This galaxy?”
“I think so,” Rush said. “Distance is harder to estimate than direction. Eli, can you tell?”
“On it,” Eli said, working the gateroom console while Chloe interfaced both their laptops. “Slightly distracted by the fact you just housed a crapton of power. Like—a nuclear blast’s worth over two tenths of a second.”
Telford looked at the scientist, his expression speculative. “Do that kind of thing all the time, do you?”
Rush gave him an unimpressed look and didn’t reply.
“Leave it alone, David,” Young growled.
Telford raised both hands.
“We’re lucky we’ve got our borderline magical guy.” Eli frowned as he sifted through the data. The whole Science Team clustered behind him, looking over his shoulder. “You can’t just shut off a dial-in like this with network protocols. How the heck was this powered? Volker, look at these readings.” Eli pointed to the screen. “Can this be right?”
The astrophysicist studied the numbers, one hand on the back of Eli’s chair. “Guys. Uh. This is a little worrying.”
“How so?” Young asked, watching his burnt-out perception of Rush begin to fade back in.
“With this power total, over two tenths of a second—” Volker trailed off. “I mean. I’m not saying this is the case, just—just ballparking this—that specific rate—and with the directional vector being what it was—” maddeningly, he trailed off.
The low hum of FTL was the only sound in the room.
“Anytime.” Rush poured the word into the waiting silence.
Volker looked up. “I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud, but—I’m worried this dial-in was powered by a D-brane collision.”
“Like in string theory?” Telford asked, perplexed and incredulous and the fastest hand in the quantum west.
“Um,” Volker said, looking at Telford in surprise. “Yeah.”
“Well it’s not exactly a leap, is it?” Rush asked, unimpressed. “A dial in with a huge power magnitude, vectored along our prior trajectory?”
“Chloe,” Volker said, “can you maybe dig through the directional data? See if this is coming from the Obelisk World we escaped a few days ago?”
“Already running it,” Chloe confirmed, her eyes on her laptop. “For what it’s worth, my personal estimate is that it’s looking likely.”
Volker grimaced and looked at Rush, who nodded at him.
“You think they’re—what—chasing us?” Park asked skeptically. “Firing up a collision event again, days later, to power a dial in? Presuming they, somehow, have our gate address, why not just wait for the next flyby, since they can—oh. Oh my god.”
“Yeah.” Volker looked at Park. “You get me.”
“She’s maybe the only one,” Eli snapped, without looking up from his laptop. “C’mon man.”
“Time,” Volker said. “Time also phases.” He looked straight at Rush as he said it.
“Now that,” Rush said softly, “that is a bit of a leap.” Along their link, beneath Rush’s surface appreciation of Volker’s insight, came a slow-building unease. Enough of Young’s mental flash-blinding had cleared that he could, again, sense the gold wind of Rush’s thoughts, shot through with fractal webs, reflecting whatever light Young could see them by. After his fight with the AI, after whatever the hell Rush had done with the gate—the scientist was glassed to hell. Structure that should be jewel-toned had turned pastel and brittle.
“Guys,” Young said. “It’s been a day. Any chance we can table this until tomorrow morning?”
“Really sorry, colonel,” Volker said. “I don’t think so. If I’m right—”
Across the room, the gate lit up.
Rush narrowed his eyes, stared it down, and drained the power in the local circuits. Young anchored him against the anxiety of the ship, which pressed on the scientist with a strange urgency. The gate had made no more than a quarter turn before the chevrons went dark and it stopped.
“I’m guessing that means you’re right about whatever you’re right about,” Young growled, looking at Volker. “Let’s have it. What’s going on?”
“Two things, Volker said. One—time phases in a D-brane collision. Meaning this dial in might be powered by the very same collision we escaped. There’s a temporal offset. Two—when a D-brane collision happens—it’s not just a single point in time. It evolves.” Volker looked at Rush. “‘Collision’ is a particle term. But this ‘collision,’ presuming that’s what it is, will follow wave rules. So it’s still evolving. It’s gonna evolve. Over hours. It’ll intensify, crest, and recede.”
Rush nodded, hooked a hand over the back of his neck, and said nothing.
“Someone start a clock,” Eli said dully.
“On it.” Telford pulled out his phone.
“That first interval couldn’t have been more than ten minutes,” Volker said.
“Eight,” Eli said. “It was about eight.”
“Kinetics on that look really bad,” Chloe said softly.
“And it won’t be linear,” Volker added.
Rush nodded exhaustedly. He looked at the gate. Waiting.
Young closed the distance between them, stepping up to the man’s shoulder. Jackson’s silhouette was in his peripheral vision, flanking Rush on his opposite side. It, too, stared at the gate, its expression troubled.
“I don’t like this,” the AI said softly. “At all.”
They watched the gate in silence.
Three minutes passed.
“Ah fuck,” Rush said softly, as, in front of them, the chevrons lit up again.
An hour later, Park and James were set up in the mess with Telford’s team, who’d begun combing the database for relevant information. Telford himself was still in the gateroom, overseeing preparations for a likely foothold situation. Wray came in and out, coordinating the slow evac of civilians from their quarters to the mess, reporting on progress. Volker and Brody had mapped a mechanical fix and were trying to cut gate power manually. Chloe and Eli worked to isolate the gate from the rest of Destiny’s systems. And Rush—
Rush was pulling power. Every two minutes now.
Young was supposed to be overseeing the whole damn picture. But, in actuality, he was doing nothing but grounding his chief scientist against the unbearable pull of the ship.
“Again,” Rush rasped. He clamped both hands on the edges of the monitor in front of him, shut his eyes, and flexed his foot against the rung of his chair.
“Oh god,” Chloe said tightly, behind the dark curtain of her hair. “We just broke the two minute barrier.”
Rush lost the room as he drained power to the gate. Destiny was a shrieking, anxious pull on his thoughts, dragging him out of his body and into the circuits he was trying to manipulate. The scientist did his best to fight it, but he’d been exhausted when the entire ordeal had started.
Young dug in against the pull of the ship, hauling back on the guy for all he was worth. His vision grayed at its edges. He started to lose the room. He braced himself on the console and switched from pulling to grounding. He snapped Rush into his body with a bone-jarring effort, then broke the subsequent sync-loop.
//Turning inventive I see,// Rush projected faintly.
Young took a breath and refocused on the room. Wray stood next to him, her hand on his arm, her fear blazing through the cracks in her professional armor. He nodded at her, then turned to Rush.
“You gotta stop trying to help me, genius,” Young said, soft enough that only Wray would hear. “You’re tiring too fast.”
“I think,” Rush whispered, staring unseeing at the monitor in front of him, “you should let me get pulled in.”
With a terrifying suddenness, the AI manifested in front of him as a bone-chilling amalgamation of Emily, Gloria, and Jackson. “Don’t,” it said, its voice in triple overtone and British.
Young and Rush both flinched.
“What the hell was that?” Young rasped.
“It’s upset,” Rush said, his voice cracking. “It’s very upset.”
“The AI?” Wray whispered.
Again, Young flinched. He was jumpy as hell. He nodded at her.
“I don't understand why I can't just cut power remotely,” Eli said, frustrated, from Rush’s opposite side.“The power grid in this area of the ship isn't responding to my commands.” He pulled his headphones out and turned to Rush. “You’re sure you can't cut it? Upstream?”
Rush shook his head and brought a hand to his temple. “Y’think I haven’t tried? I can redirect it, but the grid itself isn't responding to me either. And—it’s getting more difficult.”
“Why though?” Eli asked, his voice tight with tension.
Rush shook his head.
“Civilians all in the mess?” Young asked, looking at Wray.
Wray nodded. “With Park and Telford’s team. We’ve got a handful of military stationed with us. Varro’s in there too. He seems like he’d be handy in a firefight. The rest of the military personnel are clustered in strategic locations. Half here, half protecting the access points to the bridge, to the FTL drive, to the CI room.”
“Volker to Eli.” Volker’s voice crackled over all the Science Team radios in the room. Young tried to control the sinking feeling in his chest at the tone in the man’s voice. “There's visibly detectable current flowing through the relay we need to disconnect. We’re talking some serious voltage here.”
“Impossible,” Rush said, flat and impatient, into his radio.
“Um. Well, I don't know what to tell you,” Volker replied. “I’m not sure we can get in there with the tools we have.”
“Visibly detectable current? If that were true, I’d know,” Rush snarled. “I guarantee you that.”
“So, what, Brody and I are hallucinating?”
Rush sighed in disgust and slammed his radio down on the monitor bank. “Unbelievable. I’ll have to go down there.”
//No,// Young projected. //Not happening, genius.//
//Yes, it is.// Rush got to his feet and swiped an exhausted hand through his hair. “I think it has to.” He looked Young dead in the eyes. “I need to see it. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand any of it. I—”
The gate lit up.
This time, something cracked in the brittle, glassy swirl of Rush’s thoughts. Deep and painful—like a shockwave that didn’t originate with the scientist but that translated through him instead. The ship dragged harder than ever, terrified and strong. Young lost the room. He lost himself. He lost everything but the hold he had on Rush.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself hanging onto the edge of the console for dear life.
Rush was crouched on the floor, driving himself into his left foot, grasping at the distant, ghostly burn of cracked bone. His eyes were unfocused. His breathing came in short, shallow gasps. Wray was next to him, both hands on his upper arms.
“Nick,” she said, urgently. “Nick, you’re hurting yourself.”
Rush didn’t answer.
Wray looked up at Young. “This isn’t sustainable.”
“I know,” Young said, and it was more grind than words. He took a few breaths, forced the vertigo down, and bent to pull the scientist up.“C’mere,” he said gently, and helped him into his chair.
“TJ,” Wray said quietly into her radio, turning away as she stood, her voice strained. “You’re needed in the gate room.”
Chloe leaned forward, looking past Eli and Rush to catch Young’s eye. “That was one minute, forty seconds.”
He nodded at her, then unclipped his own radio from his belt. “Young to Brody and Volker. Guys. We need power cut right now. Do whatever you’ve gotta do.”
“Colonel.” It was Brody this time. “Even if we could reach in there and avoid electrocution, with this kind of current, the relays’ll be fused. We need to trace it back to its source and cut it off there.”
“How long will that take?” Young asked.
“Unknown,” Brody said.
“I don't believe it,” Rush murmured, subtly leaning into Young’s side, massaging his temples with his right hand. “I don't. Something else must be going on.”
Young shifted his position to support the guy a little better.
“Could the current they’re seeing be some kind illusion?” Wray asked.
“Caused by what?” Chloe asked. “Some external influence? Something we picked up on a planet somewhere? Something that came through from Earth? The AI?”
“It's not the AI,” Rush said, his eyes flicking into empty air. “The AI is very upset right now. It’s pulled back from most systems it usually integrates with.”
“Wait,” Eli said quietly. He stopped scanning lines of code. He stopped typing. He pulled out his headphones, his expression open and unsure. “When you say it’s upset—what does that mean?”
“It's running wasteful algorithms. It's not projecting consistently. It’s not holding its form. When it does project it’s—it’s very distressing. It’s making this more difficult, the whole thing is turning progressively difficult; I don’t know why.”
And, god, the guy sounded upset. He was upset, Young realized. Beneath the distracting strain and exhaustion—Young was getting waves of grief, of fear, of terrible, sanity-rending loneliness, of his hand against glass that wasn’t glass, a transparent barrier between an air/water interface except, this time, he was on the air side. He was looking at an ocean floor. Sunlight shone from the surface above. Someone was holding his hand. A little girl, pointing upward, insatiably curious—
//Not you, genius,// Young projected gently, drawing him back to the room.
“And the first time” Eli whispered, his eyes moving to fix on the dark ring of the gate, “the first time, you let the gate open?”
“For less than two tenths of a second.” Rush propped his elbows on the monitor bank and dropped his head into his hands. “Nothing came through. I’m certain nothing came through.”
“Nothing you could see,” Eli said. “Nothing material. But a very small piece of information could have been transmitted.”
Rush lifted his head to fix Eli with a horrified expression. His thoughts shattered apart, his mind full of a Lantean night, when he’d been on the wrong side of a quarantine line. Before Young could orient him, Destiny itself shattered the memory as it swept over the scientist, blowing out his entire consciousness in a terrified roar of alien choir and crystal overtone that swallowed everything but the mind-shredding desire to get to the chair.
“Hold him down,” Young rasped, talking to Wray, talking to Eli, already pinning the scientist with everything he had, dragging back against the terrified pull of the ship.
“Oh god,” Eli whispered, out of his chair. “I’m right. I have to be—”
And, suddenly, Young was getting help. From the most unexpected source imaginable. The AI, dark and unfamiliar, spread through Rush’s mind. But, this time, it wasn’t opposing Young. It was helping him. It was pushing along the same vector as Young’s psychic pull.
What the hell?
“Keep him out,” Emily whispered, right in front of them, her eyes full of tears. She flickered into Jackson. “We have to keep him out,” the archeologist said, speaking in a British accent, his hair about five shades too light.
Rush, back in control of his mind, took a shuddery breath.
“He’s okay,” Young ground out. “He’s okay. You can let go.”
Cautiously, Eli and Wray let up on the pressure.
“I’m right,” Eli whispered, looking at Rush. “Aren’t I?”
The gate lit up.
Rush, with a heroic burst of energy fueled by adrenaline and agony, pulled the power for what must have been the thirtieth time. Young lost the room, dragging him out of the ship. Again, the AI shoved along the direction of Young’s pull, but it was weaker, more erratic, as though its attention was being pulled away.
When the room faded back in, Young saw Wray and Eli literally holding Rush in his chair. Young pried his own fingers away from the edge of the monitor bank.
“Eli,” Young said, when he could speak. “What are we dealing with here?”
“I think it’s a computer virus,” Eli said. “A stealthy one.”
Rush nodded, the glassy, pained swirl of his thoughts felt strangely heavy against Young’s mind. There was a powerful sense of unreality in the man’s perception of the gate room. “It’ll be sooner than I thought.” His voice was vague, almost dreamlike. “I don’t know why it’s so clear to me now. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before; we’re minutes from a containment failure.”
“Wray,” Young said softly. “Chloe. Get to the mess.”
“But—” Chloe began.
“Go,” Young growled.
“Don’t wait too long,” Wray breathed, and headed for the door.
Chloe, very slowly, began to pack up her laptop.
“David,” Young rasped. Telford, in the middle of briefing the gateroom team, looked up. Young motioned him over. He cleared his throat. Forced some strength into his voice. “Greer,” Young said. The sergeant peeled himself away.
“Eli,” Rush said.
“Nope,” Eli said, inserting his headphones and glaring determinedly at his laptop screen. “No one talk to me.” His fingers flew over the keyboard.
Rush reached over and yanked the headphones out of Eli’s ears.
“Ow, damn it! What?”
“You’ll have to find it,” the scientist said faintly.
“Yeah. Duh. Give me your one-liner and let me at it, please??”
“Ask yourself what this thing is doing and then ask yourself what it must consist of to perform its function.”
“Got,” Eli said quietly. “Yeah, okay.”
Rush nodded. “I—”
Again, the gate lit up.
This time, the power redirect was agonizing. The scientist involved his entire body in the effort. Young lost the room to a wall of sound and light. He felt the AI provide a useless shunt that looped back directly to Rush. The pull of the chair distorted everything. The drag was terrifying. Full of intent. Full of fear.
As if Destiny understood what was happening.
As if it didn’t want to be alone.
“Chevrons are locking,” he heard Chloe whisper, her breath warm on someone’s ear. “You can do it.”
Rush found somewhere to dump the power. Then, it was Young’s turn. As he attempted to pull the scientist out of Destiny’s ever tightening hold, he could feel his heart slamming against his ribs, a headache boring its way out of his skull. Again, the AI lent its wavering, waning strength to his.
And they got it done.
He opened his eyes to find himself being supported, by Telford and Greer. Eli and Chloe were holding Rush in his chair. And, a few feet away, the AI stood, projecting irregularly as Emily. Its outline flickered in the dim light. “If the CPU is compromised,” it said quietly, “then so is he. We have to keep him out of the chair.”
“Everett?” David said quietly. “What the hell is happening?”
Young grimaced as he looked at Rush’s mind. The gold fire of the guy’s running thought wind was shattering into and through itself. The whole thing was tearing apart.
“Stay out of there,” Rush murmured, his eyes unfocused. “As much as you can, stay out.”
“He’s losing it,” Telford said quietly.
“Chloe,” Young ground out. “Go. Go now. Get to the mess.”
Chloe nodded, unsnapped her adaptor, and shut her laptop. Her eyes found Scott, halfway across the room, gearing up. The lieutenant looked back at her, and his gaze followed her as she made for the door. As Chloe left, she passed TJ, who threaded her way through the military personnel.
“Don’t make a stand in here,” Rush said, looking at Telford. “Anything could come through that gate, including raw power. Shift to the hall.”
Telford looked at Young.
“Form up in the hall,” Telford shouted. “Scott you’re with me.”
“Greer,” Young said, looking meaningfully at Telford. “You stick with Rush.”
“Yes sir,” Greer said.
“Hi,” TJ dropped her bag on the floor and walked forward into the little knot of people next to the console, her Ancient device glowing blue in her hand.
“Oh for god’s sake,” Rush said exhaustedly. “Who called you?”
“Camile,” she said.
“Get out of here,” Rush said flatly.
//Come on, genius,// Young said. //She may be able to help. She—//
“Don’t project,” Rush snarled at him. “Do I have to fucking spell this out for you? Pull away. As much as you possibly can.”
Telford stepped back, letting TJ take his place.
“Oh crap,” Eli breathed, looking at Rush. “When you said I have to find it—you—you mean—you’re gonna be affected by this thing?”
“In all likelihood, I already am.”
“Affected by what?” Telford asked. “The pair of you look like shit.” His eyes flicked back and forth between Rush and Young.
“Oh yes?” Rush muttered. “And what else is fucking new?”
“We think we might have a virus affecting Destiny’s CPU.” Young figured the benefit of holding back that piece of information was pretty limited. “Transmitted through the open gate. It’s why we can’t shut the damn thing off.”
“How long can you keep pulling power?” Telford asked, his voice tight with concern.
“Not long,” Rush said, glancing at Young.
“We need a time estimate,” Telford shot back.
“Could be as little as—” He broke off as the gate lit up.
This time, it was excruciating.
Rush could no more fight the shearing pressures on his mind than he could fight gravity. Young fought for him—his thoughts splitting under the combined strain. He could feel the AI helping him, a dark, opaque energy that leant its wavering strength to his own.
He refused to let go.
No matter the cost.
He could feel his heart flutter in his chest.
The AI, too, dug in. Just as deep. Just as hard. With a final flood of energy from them both, they ripped Rush free.
The room faded back in, sounds resolving distantly beneath the roaring of blood in his ears. He was on the floor, lying on top of TJ, who had tried to catch him when he fell. He could feel blood trickling down the back of his throat. He coughed weakly.
“Colonel,” TJ said, from very far away. “Colonel, can you hear me?”
“Clear the room,” he heard Telford yell. “Fall back to the corridor now!”
Rush was suddenly beside him, his balance wavering as he dropped into a crouch. “Get up,” the scientist breathed. “We’ve got to get out of here. That was the last time. I can’t do it again. You can’t do it again.”
Young tried to push himself up. His muscles were shaking.
“Eli,” Telford snapped. “Fall back to the control interface room. Now. Run. You run your ass off.”
Greer reached down, grabbed the scientist by the jacket, and hauled him to his feet.
“Scott, TJ, get him up,” Telford roared, bringing his assault rifle up as the gate lit up again.
TJ, not yet on her feet, dived for her bag, dragging it back along the floor.
Scott was beside him, detangling them both, hauling one of Young’s arms over his shoulder.
The gate began to spin.
“Faster,” Telford shouted, posting himself at the door of the clearing room. “Form up in the hall!”
TJ and Scott pulled him to his feet. They started in the direction of the door where Telford stood, already sighting down his rifle. Behind them, chevrons were locking. Chevrons had been locking—it had to be close.
Young’s knees buckled. He had nothing left.
The event horizon materialized and Rush’s mind flooded with light as he found stable sinks for the overwhelming pour of power.
Young lost the room.
He could barely breathe.
With the AI’s help, Rush stabilized the power flow into a sustainable pattern.
In the hallway, twenty-five feet away, in Young’s his mind, with no distance between them, he could feel Rush’s belated, already fracturing understanding of what was about to happen. The scientist dug his heels in, turned, and tried to start back for the gateroom.
Behind him, Young heard, the soft, liquid sound of rematerialization.
Ahead of him, he Telford hesitated, then opened fire, his expression uncertain.
Beside him, TJ’s breath caught in the back of her throat as she looked over her shoulder at the gate.
And then—the quiet, beating sounds of their movements over the floor, like a panicked flurry of wings.
He didn’t need to turn to know what had come through.
The Nakai began to fire, their darts taking flight with a hiss, landing with the clatter of metal on metal.
Scott grunted, powered forward, then went down. Dragging Young and TJ with him.
In the corridor, Rush was fighting Greer for all he was worth, trying to get back to the gate room, trying to go for the sergeant’s sidearm. “Doc,” Greer hissed, getting behind the man, pinning his arms, and hauling him back. “No, damn it.”
A dart buried itself in Young’s shoulder.
TJ shifted her grip and ripped it free. But it was too late. He could feel it was.
“TJ, go,” he growled as his knees buckled again. He used his last remaining strength to shove her in the direction of the door.
Her expression cracked cracked with despair as she pulled away.
As he collapsed to the floor he saw her sprinting for Telford for all she was worth. Her hair was coming free. There were darts buried in her med bag, slung across her back. She vanished around the doorframe.
In the hallway, Rush was trying to rip himself out of Greer’s grip.
Young and Telford locked eyes. Young gave him a short nod.
Telford hit the controls and disappeared behind the closing blast doors.
Rush’s consciousness dissolved into pure panic. The other man was screaming in Ancient, fighting Greer for all he was worth, trying to make it back to the gate room, forcing the sergeant to pay for every inch that separated them.
//Genius,// he projected, as numbness fanned over his back. //You’ll be okay.//
In return, he got a wordless wave of despair.
“Doc,” Greer said, his voice cracking as he bodily hauled Rush back, through the lines of military personnel on either side of the hallway. “Come on, man. Save it. Save it for when we go back for them. Which we are, definitely, gonna do.”
As vision went, as sensation went, Young projected a wave of reassurance at the scientist, manufactured from nothing but his faith in the crew.
The first thing to return was sound.
There was no talking, just the soft scrape of alien movement across a quiet room.
Floating in the darkness of near-complete sensory deprivation, the only thing Young could perceive was the bright, shattered swirl of Rush’s consciousness.
He eased himself into proximity, spiraling a broken-edged cyclone slicing itself into smaller and smaller pieces. Painful as it was, Young wove himself into that glowing vortex until his perception and Rush’s snapped together, like a pair of magnets.
The man was in the control interface room. He stood at Eli’s shoulder, scanning lines of code.
//Hey genius.// Young landed the projection as lightly as he could, but the words sliced straight through the broken twist of Rush’s thoughts anyway.
The scientist’s head jerked up. His focus splintered like ice under strain. He paced away from Eli, along the back wall of the control interface room. “Right an’ what the fuck is happening?” He ran a shaking hand through his hair. “Do you have any idea. Any idea at all how—” his voice broke.
“Jesus christ,” Telford murmured, looking away, a hand pressed to his mouth.
Eli looked at Rush, his face pale under the emergency lights.
“Doc?” Greer said, following a few steps. “You okay?”
//Hey,// Young said gently. //I’m okay. You’re okay.// He projected a wave of calm at the scientist and Rush swayed, one hand coming to the nearest bulkhead. Young dialed it back. //How long have I been out?//
“I don’t fucking know a fucking thing about the flow of time,” Rush said, in a cracked whisper.
“This is getting worse.” Telford looked at Eli. “Has it ever been this bad?”
//Okay,// Young said, trying to control his own anxiety. //That’s okay, genius. Just—tell me what’s happening. Try and project.//
“I’m not going to fuckin’ project,” Rush hissed. “We control the bridge. We control the neural interface room. The CI room. Obviously. The mess. Thus far, there’s been no coordinated assault. Thus far, all they’ve done is broken the seal on the gateroom.” The scientist dragged a hand along the wall as he paced.
“Nick,” Telford said, his voice pained. “Sit down. Sit down and look at the code.”
“Who you talking to, doc?” Greer asked.
Rush ignored both of them.
//Talk to your team, genius,// Young projected, along with as much calm as he could dredge up.
“Fuck you,” Rush breathed, on the edge of tears out of goddamned nowhere. “Don’t tell me what to do.” He looked up at Telford. “And you,” he snarled. “Don’t talk to me. Not unless you have something of substance to—” he broke off, struggling to control a burst of images that forcibly shredded through his mind. Atlantis, alight above him, the stars invisible beyond the colored tinge of geodesic shielding, there, but still traversable, still—
As gently as possible, Young pulled him away from the memory and back to Telford.
“Say,” Rush finished, his voice cracking.
//Nick,// Young projected gently.
The word was mentally echoed by hundreds of iterations of Gloria, tearing though Rush’s thoughts, that Young could do nothing to suppress. The scientist brought a hand to his forehead and rode it out. “This will pass,” he whispered, over the sound of his wife, in endless iteration, calling his name.
“Hey,” Greer said. “Rush.”
Using the over-the-air contrast between Greer and Gloria’s loop, Rush snapped himself free and moved closer to Young’s mind, his thoughts a panicked swirl.
//You’re okay,// Young could feel the strain in his own projection.
With a surge of formless anxiety, Rush pulled back. Incompletely. Sloppily. Dragging half Young’s thoughts with him.
Across the room, Telford leaned over Eli. He was speaking. Fast and low and intense.
Eli kept his eyes on his code.
“Doc,” Greer said. “Doc, why don’t you sit down? Just a few minutes. Little break.”
The overhead lights flickered.
“Interesting.” Rush looked up, one hand on the wall, Destiny pressing painfully against the broken-edged spiral of his thoughts. “How could y’possibly know?”
Before he could intervene, Young felt a dark tide rip the pressure away.
The AI was still in the mix.
//Rush,// Young said, fighting his rising dread. //Focus up.//
“You fucking focus,” Rush said, instantly upset, his voice cracking.
Young projected a wordless wave of reassurance and, with a terrifying rapidity, Rush’s distress faded, like it had never existed at all.
“Nick,” Telford said, a hard edge in his voice. “We need to discuss the possibility of shutting down Destiny’s mainframe. While we still have that option. Before this virus does whatever it’s supposed to do.”
Young’s wave of reassurance was obliterated by panic that rose like a wall out of the chaos in Rush’s mind.
“No.” The scientist’s voice cracked. “Absolutely not.” He pressed a hand over his chest, his breaths coming short and shallow. “I’ll not allow it.”
“Think about this logically,” Telford said, from between clenched teeth, “if you’re capable of that.”
Rush stepped back, edging along the bulkhead. Only Young’s extreme effort prevented another threatening burst of images from overwhelming his consciousness.
“I’m trying to help you.” Telford’s tone turned careful. “I’m also trying to save this damn ship.”
“The man said ‘no’.” Greer stared Telford down, his eyes menacing, his voice flat.
Eli hunched over the monitors, his expression pinched.
Telford stepped toward Rush, his left hand extended, palm open. “Nick,” he said. “Come on. Try to understand what’s happening. The Nakai used a phase wave to gate onto Destiny. A virus has control of the ship. Our best option is to shut down the mainframe while we eliminate them. It protects our systems. It protects the AI. It’ll probably protect you as well. We can’t let this progress.”
Young had to admit, the plan made sense.
Telford stepped closer.
Rush stood his ground, strangely attached to the particular piece of bulkhead paneling at his back.
Telford stepped closer.
“This thing is affecting you, Nick,” Telford said quietly. “Whether you realize it or not. Right now, you’re more of a security risk than an asset. You have to see that.”
The other man’s stance, plus the content of his statement caused a thrill of alarm to spread through Young’s mind and transmit itself to Rush.
Rush glued himself to the panel he was leaning against. He looked away from Telford, breathing hard.
Young dragged the scientist’s attention back, just in time to see Telford lunge forward, his concealed right hand coming from behind in a fast arc. Something glinted between his fingers. Rush threw up an arm, but he was too slow, Telford was going to connect—
Greer came from the side in a blur. He knocked Telford to the floor with the barrel of his assault rifle, then brought the weapon around and pointed it straight at the other man.
A syringe rolled across the floor and came to rest against the monitor bank where Eli was working.
Rush’s gaze tracked it without processing what it was. Beneath his back, there was a ghost of warmth in the bulkhead. He was cold. His bones ached. His thoughts were pure, useless, fractal edge, untethered from any intent, firing randomly into the dark. He didn’t know what to do. His chest was so tight, he could barely breathe.
Young couldn’t take this.
But he didn’t have a choice.
//I’m gonna help you, genius.// He tried to keep the heartsick ache out of his own projection. //Try to relax.// Gently, Young pulled his attention back to the confrontation between Telford and Greer.
“You piece of shit,” Greer hissed from between clenched teeth. “What the fuck were you gonna inject him with?”
Telford wiped a trickle of blood away from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. “It would’ve put him out,” he snarled from the floor at Greer’s feet. “Surely even you can see he needs it. Look at him.”
Greer didn’t turn. “He powers through just fine.”
“Does he look like he’s ‘powering through’ to you?” Telford asked, raising his voice. “I’ve been here less than twenty-four hours and I can already see the depth of the connection between him and the ship. Systems are failing. Maybe, maybe we can repair the damage this virus is doing to the CPU. But can we repair his goddamned mind if this completely fucks him up? We need him, sergeant.”
Eli stopped typing. He leaned down and picked up the syringe.
Young fought down a surge of adrenaline, but he couldn’t keep it out of his link.
Rush pressed himself back against the bulkhead. His heart rate skyrocketed. The edges of the room began to gray. All conscious thought had been blown out by pure panic. The guy had no idea what was happening. He was distressed way beyond his ability to cope.
Desperately, Young tried to calm himself down. But his mouth was dry. His heart raced.
“Eli,” Greer snapped, looking over his shoulder. “Eli. What are you doing?”
Eli stopped a good five feet from where Rush had plastered himself against the bulkhead.
“Hey,” Eli said quietly. “It’s okay. I just—” the kid’s expression broke. “How about you and me talk for a minute? That’s all.”
“Eli,” Greer said, his tone flat, his gun still aimed at Telford. “You’re gonna back up. Right now.”
Eli looked at Greer and took a small step back. “Hey,” he said, looking at Rush.
“Hey.” Rush gasped. He couldn’t get enough air.
Young forced himself toward a calm he didn’t, couldn’t truly feel.
“So, um, for what it’s worth,” Eli whispered. “I do think Telford might be right about this. And—” he paused, his throat convulsing as he looked away. “And I think it’s possible—“ he broke off again. “I think it’s possible that you might not really understand what’s happening right now. Not to you, and maybe—” Eli swallowed. “Maybe not at all.”
Rush stared, unseeing, at deck plating.
Very gently, Young threaded as much calm into the man’s mind as his shattered thought-structure could accommodate. It was almost nothing.
“That’s okay,” Eli said quietly. “It’s not your fault. And—I can fix it. I can. This is just like that time,” he said, his voice cracking. “In The Empire Strikes Back. When they.” He stopped speaking.
//You were going to help him,// Young said, very gently. //And you did. But your part’s done now, genius. You can relax.//
“I was going to help you,” Rush whispered, trying to impose order on his thoughts, shredding everything he tried to hang onto.
“I know,” Eli said. “You did. You can leave the rest to me.” Eli lifted his hand, offering the syringe to Rush.
The scientist stayed motionless other than the subtle shaking that he couldn’t control. His heart was racing, his muscles so tense that he could barely pull air into his lungs. Already, he’d lost the thread of what was happening.
The only things in his head were the height of the stakes, the depths of his confusion.
With a terrible wrench, Young forced down all his dread. All his uncertainty. All his doubt. //Go ahead and take it, genius,// he projected, as gently as he could. //You know Eli. You can trust him.//
Rush hesitated, forcing structure though his thoughts with a blaze of unendurable agony. “Colonel Young is alive,” Rush whispered, one hand at his temple. “He’s still in the gateroom.”
“We’ll get him out,” Eli said quietly. “Don’t you worry.”
Rush pushed away from the bulkhead, stepped forward, snatched the syringe out of Eli’s hand, then pressed himself back against the wall.
“Doc,” Greer said. “Come on. Don’t do this.”
Rush hesitated, looking at the syringe in his hand.
“We don’t know what that shit is, much less how it’ll affect you.” The sergeant gave Eli an unhappy look.
“It’s perfectly safe,” Telford snapped, from the floor at Greer’s feet.
“I know it’s a risk,” Eli said, his expression agonized. “But I think—I think it’s still better. I think it’s our best option.” He turned to Rush. “Go ahead. This is the right thing.”
Young buried his own doubt and projected a wave of reassurance. //You’re gonna feel a lot better after you take that, genius.//
Rush slipped halfway out of his jacket, shivering with more than just cold. Young was linked with him so fully that he could feel the smooth plastic of the syringe, the horrible tightness in Rush’s chest, the frantic, confused of images flooding his mind.
With a spike of mental agony, Rush forced clarity into the shards of his thoughts. //I’m sorry,// he projected gently. //I’m not sure you’ll get me back from this.//
Young tried to shield him from the reaction that comment produced in his own mind.
“Please,” the AI said, appearing briefly next to Eli as a fading, flickering version of Gloria. “Nick, please don’t.”
“Optimal outcomes are unlikely,” the AI whispered. “Suboptimal outcomes are likely. Their character is unknown.” Gloria’s expression twisted with unhappiness.
Rush looked at it, hanging onto his clarity with a supreme effort of will.
“This is fear,” it whispered. “Please.” Gloria closed her eyes. “Please don’t leave me. Please take me with you.”
Rush brought a hand to his face. The wave of unburied grief was so overwhelming Young could barely hold his own thoughts together. The guy was not gonna leave her. It would crack his mind to make him try.
“What’s wrong?” Eli whispered, his expression devastated.
“I don’t know,” Rush breathed, because he didn’t.
//One last thing, genius,// Young projected. //Tell Eli how to protect the AI.//
“Eli,” Rush said.
“Yeah?” Eli’s voice was ragged.
“Lock the AI into the neural interface. Do it now.”
“Okay.” Eli darted back to the console
“Nick,” the AI whispered, terrified. “What will happen? Do you know?”
“Sorry sweetheart,” Rush murmured. “No idea.” He jammed the needle into his left bicep, and injected everything in a single go.
The drug hit the scientist like a truck. He dropped the syringe and swayed. Greer slung his rifle over his shoulder and caught Rush as his knees buckled.
“Crap that stuff is fast,” Eli said.
“Okay doc,” Greer murmured, easing the scientist down. “Lights out.”
Young, very carefully, held everything left of Rush’s thoughts. //Relax, genius, as much as you can.//
Gloria sat on the floor, painfully frail, wearing a dark wig, and shoes that stole the shine of the lights. She sobbed into her open hands.
“Don’t cry,” Rush said. “Please don’t cry.”
//It’’ll be all right,// Young told him.
“It’’ll be all right,” Rush whispered to the AI.
//Say goodnight,// Young held the cracked edges of his thoughts, projecting calm, projecting reassurance.
“Say goodnight,” Rush whispered.
Gloria looked up, her mascara running down her face. “Goodnight,” she whispered.