Force over Distance: Chapter 41
Even at the unravelling of the world, some things stayed the same.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text Iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: None.
As the light of Rush’s mind faded, Young’s internal landscape went dark. He lost the CI room. Around him, the wind of the scientist’s mind died to blown ash and glowing ember, too fragile to handle without further damage.
Young pulled back and found himself locked in his own paralyzed body. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t feel a thing. He couldn’t open his eyes.
What had he just done?
He’d sent Rush into the dark. He’d put the guy down. Without knowing what Telford’s drug would do, without knowing whether the scientist would ever wake again.
Out of nowhere, out of nothing, like the memory had been beating down a door he couldn’t see—
It’s cold. It’s dark. Metal walls, warped to failure, press close. Riley, caught beneath and within the wreckage of a downed shuttle, says, “I’d ask for your gun but I don’t want them to blame you.”
God damn it.
He couldn’t take this shit. He couldn’t. Maybe, once upon at time, in sun-touched places on his own planet, married to a girl with curves and pearls and highlights in her hair, he’d been able to shoulder the responsibility of command.
Nick Rush had shattered it right out of him.
Young’s heart slammed against his ribs. He had to get through this foothold, and then he had to get the crew home. He had to. In order to survive, in order to hold himself together, that’s what he had to do. He was nothing without that. Even if he burned everything he had as fuel in the attempt, he had to get the crew home. Or die trying.
He’d made so many mistakes.
But. If Camile could just get back to Sharon. If Matthew could see the son he’d never known; if Eli could see his mom. If TJ could start treatment for the thing waiting in her nerves. If Rush could hold himself together through everything that was happening to him—
//I’m gonna make this better for you, genius,// Young whispered, into the darkness at the back of his mind. //If you wake up, it’ll be more than just slog.//
With an adrenaline-powered effort, Young’s eyes came open.
He was lying on his side. He was facing the stargate. The lights were low. The gate was active. The blue glow of the open event horizon seared his retinas.
His eyes slid shut.
He focused on his breathing. On trying to calm himself enough to recover.
Giving a damn, giving way the hell too much of a damn, was a huge weakness in the field. But all weaknesses, every single one, had a corresponding strength. He was gonna consolidate the hell out of this situation. He was gonna to scrape back pieces of what was his. One person at a time. Starting with Scott. Ending with Rush.
The Nakai were the ones who’d sent their fleet to Sicily.
Young was the one who knew the terrain. The banks of the Assinaros by day. The banks of the Assinaros by night.
Nearby, he heard the quiet flutter of a Nakai soldier, shifting position.
There were more of them in the room, but not many. One near him. Two further away. Maybe more. It was hard to tell. They didn’t speak. Not aloud.
He focused on recovering. Recovering and not panicking.
They could still get out of this.
There might not be very many Nakai on board, if they’d left only three in the gateroom.
Telford was an outstanding tactician—one of the best Young had ever met. Clever. Inventive. Deceptive. The fewer resources he had, the better he performed. Telford was the guy who could pull impossibilities out of flaming wreckage. The problem was, he’d come back with a tenth of the force he’d gone in with.
But Wray. Wray was different. Wray was like Young. A consolidator. She was in the mess. She had most of the crew. She had James as her ranking officer. James would listen to Wray.
One step at a time.
Beneath his shoulder, the reassuring hum of the FTL drive cut to nothing. Young felt the sickening drop to normal space.
He cracked his eyes. The overhead lighting had gone out.
It was hard to breathe.
There was a terrible pressure in his chest.
He took a breath. He took another. He tried to think of anything but Nick Rush, lying on the floor of the CI room, atop of the ribbon of emergency track-lighting, right next to a piece of wall that’d been trying, like hell, to heat itself up.
Young opened his eyes again. This time, they stayed open. Scott was paralyzed beside him, pale in the blue light of the room. Young eyes swept over the silhouette of a lone Nakai, backlit against a fluxing field of event-horizon blue.
It looked directly at him.
Great. It’d seen him. No question.
Young stared right back at it, all his challenge on his face.
The thing looked to the other Nakai, positioned somewhere behind Young. But the glance was almost—furtive? Then it looked back at Young.
The whole thing was weird as hell.
It started toward him. That was less weird. Young braced himself, knowing he didn’t have much recourse, but determined, somehow, some way, to give the thing one hell of a fight, even if it was just mentally, through a godforsaken silver transmitter. But—
The thing stopped. Feet away. It cocked its head and dropped into a very unnatural-looking crouch.
//Hi,// it projected at him.
He looked at it.
What. The hell.
//What the hell?// Young asked, too astonished for anything but astonishment.
//Hmm,// it projected. //Not sure how to respond to that one.// He could—he feel a tinge of amusement? Its voice sounded human. Strange. Very familiar. Like someone he’d known with overtones of other people he’d known—there was a subliminal buzz to it.
//What are you?// Young asked. He glanced over his shoulder at the two aliens working at the monitor bank near the doors. They seemed to be absorbed in their work. When he looked back, he wasn’t staring into an alien face.
Sergeant Hunter Riley crouched in front of him. His expression open, familiar. Friendly, edged with the sadness the man himself had carried.
//Hi colonel,// Riley said.
//Riley?// Young asked, unable to keep the hope out his projection.
//Sorry, colonel, no.// Riley looked pained. //I don’t mean to cause confusion. I’m not Hunter Riley. I’m borrowing his appearance.//
//Who the hell are you then?//
//I’m a member of the race that built the Obelisk Worlds, as you’ve named them.//
Young, at a loss for what to say, flashed back to John Sheppard.
“How’d you convince a wraith to break you out of a holding cell?” Mitchell asks, drunk and shoulder-to-shoulder with Sheppard on a king-size bed in Vegas, a pillow beneath his knees to ease the stress the car ride had put on the five separate cracks in his back. “Ah,” Sheppard says, drunker, one arm overhead, guiding a deck of cards around imaginary obstacles like it’s an F-302. “You gotta figure out what they think they know, because most of the time it’s wrong. And you gotta figure out what you think you know, because some of that’ll be wrong too. And then you gotta figure out what you both want. If there’s nothing—you’re screwed. But there’s usually something.
//Nice to meet you,// Young said. //You got a name?//
//Riley’s fine, for now.//
//Uh, okay. That’s a little weird for me.//
//I know,// Riley said, with quiet sympathy. //Sorry about that, but I don’t have another name you can use.//
//Oh, uh, okay.//
It studied him without speaking.
//Something I can help you with?//
//You’re an interesting person. Across the multiverse, you’ve created wildly different fates for yourself. I was wondering if you have an explanation for that.//
//An explanation for—for my different fates?//
//Yes,// Riley said.
//I don’t know what that means.//
Riley smiled. //In the universes where you make it to Destiny, you’re dead. You’re in stasis. You’re missing. You’re in enemy hands. You’re locked in the brig. You’re living on an array of alien worlds with an array of different people. You’ve become terribly kind. You’ve become profoundly cruel. You’re lost to alcohol. To trauma. You’re despised by your crew. You’re found. You’re adored. You’re absent. You’re central. Even now, even here—in this slender line of salt on the beach of a cosmic sea—even here, you’re in array. If I were less experienced, you’d chance-blind me in this moment alone.//
//Chance-blind?// he asked, even though, based on context, he had a pretty good idea what the thing meant.
Riley ignored his question. //Can you explain the depth and variety of your own array?//
//Well, uh,// Young said, trying to be accommodating, //seems like you have a lot more experience in this area; what do you think about it?//
Riley smiled, brilliant and sad-edged. //I know the answer.//
Then what the hell are you asking me for, Young wanted to growl. Instead he said, //Sorry to disappoint, but I got nothin’.//
//Maybe we’ll circle back on this,// Riley said.
//Uh, sure. How’d you meet your friends over there?// Young subtly gestured at the Nakai at the back of the room.
//They flew into my phase wave. Within a collision, many things are possible. I joined their crew.//
//Do they know who you really are?//
//No,// Riley said, his gaze lingering on the blue forms at the back of the room.
//And how did they get here?//
//Their own technical ingenuity,// Riley said. //They’ve had your gate address for millennia. They store salvaged stargates on their ships. But they’ve never had the power to dial Destiny while she’s at FTL. I admit, they wouldn’t have known it was possible, if not for me.//
//Wait a minute,// Young growled. //You helped them get here?//
Young’s blood turned to ice water, but it was no match for the firestorm of anger that spiraled straight from his core. //Why the hell would you do that?// He flexed his fingers, trying to encourage his sensation to return as quickly as possible. //You realize that in facilitating their arrival here you not only put this crew in danger, you profoundly fucked up a sentient piece of technology? A piece of technology, by the way, that’s directly linked to my chief scientist and if he doesn’t recover from this, I will destroy you, if it’s the last god damned thing I do. I promise you that.//
Riley smiled his sad-edged smile. //You can threaten me if you like, colonel. You can do whatever you’d like, in fact. I encourage it. But I’m very sorry to tell you—I’m here to thin the local array.//
Young hesitated, breathing hard. //What does that mean?//
//Have you ever found a flower, pressed between book pages?//
//Are you fucking kidding me,// Young snarled.
//Press too many flowers,” Riley said, //and you’ll ruin the book. Let them grow out of the book, and you have a devouring garden.//
Young shivered. //What the hell are you saying?//
//You’ve understood the threat correctly.// Riley cocked his head. //You and all you’ve ever known might be unmade.//
Young’s heart hammered wildly in his chest. //Might,// he echoed, no strength in his projection. //You said might.//
//It may not surprise you to hear this, colonel, but your chief scientist is a point of extreme contention amongst my people.//
Even at the unravelling of the world, some things stayed the same.
//Yeah, well, welcome to the club,// Young whispered.
//Why draw it out?// Young asked, grasping at straws. //Why do it this way? Why would you—// He couldn’t continue, thinking of Wray’s terror, of Eli’s drawn expression, of the AI, sobbing on the floor of the CI room, of Rush—
//It must seem terribly cruel,// Riley said gently. //And, locally, I admit, it is cruel.//
//Locally?// Young asked.
//For every petal in the flower of your full self that won’t make it, that cannot make it—the local endings can be terrible. Perhaps it will happen here. Perhaps it will happen very soon now.//
//‘Perhaps’,// Young said fiercely. //Perhaps? Meaning some of us won’t make it—but some of us will? You’re doing it this way to give us a chance?//
//We revere chance,// Riley whispered. //And we prefer not to unmake entire realities, if it can be avoided.//
//Okay,// Young said. //Okay. I can work with that. And—your issue with Rush is—what?//
//Whether he should best be classified as human or Ancient.//
//Why does that matter?//
//Because we are Ancients.//
//We aren’t ‘your’ Ancients. We aren’t ‘local.’ We exist in superposition across the multiverse.//
Oh god. He was way out of his depth. Paralyzed on the floor. His hands tied behind his back. His crew under siege. And all of existence was, somehow, on the line.
He could do it.
He had to do it.
There was no one else.
“Just keep ‘em talking,” Sheppard slurs, still flying that pack of cards around invisible obstacles.
//So if Rush were fully human, you’d stop us, but since he may be, semantically, an Ancient, you’re undecided?//
//Okay. So he’s making trouble, but maybe in the clear. And, because of that, you’re ‘thinning the local array.’ Of—what. The most dangerous flowers?//
Riley nodded, looking at him thoughtfully. //You’re a bit more perceptive than some of your other incarnations. Yes. Well put. In this universe, and in all the others within this array, your chief scientist is very close to achieving successful navigation between two D-branes.//
//And you’re opposed to this?// Young asked.
//Not categorically,// Riley said carefully. //It depends on his intentions.//
//Can’t you just look at all his simultaneous paths and figure out his intentions?// Young asked, surreptitiously pulling against the cords that restrained him.
//We can’t,// Riley said. //Too few arrays exist to make a definitive decision.//
//What’s that supposed to mean?//
//He’s a rare variant. He doesn’t often survive to this point. Given he lives this long, his arrays are wildly divergent. Only a handful exist. Seven. Three of those seven arrays threaten the integrity of the multiverse. Within each array, he exists as manifold. Some manifold petals are more dangerous than others.//
Young shut his eyes. He compressed his lips. //We’re just trying to get home,// he whispered. //We don’t want to screw up the multiverse, or whatever it is you’re afraid we’re gonna do.//
Riley sighed. //Nice try, colonel, but, important as you are, you’re not the one endangering all existence.//
He didn’t understand this. Not even close. But one thing was coming through loud and clear.
Riley, or whoever he was, didn’t trust Rush or the AI not to do something extremely irresponsible as they tore through the fabric of the universe—if that was their plan.
Honestly, Young could see the thing’s point. //So—what now?//
//Now, you do your best,// Riley said. //Whatever that looks like to you.//
//Meaning,// Young said shortly, //that you have some kind of noninterference policy that prevents you from helping me? Though I noticed you sure as hell gave the Nakai a hand.//
//Not to their benefit,// Riley said. //There’s no question about what their fate will be.//
Young shivered at the thing’s callous disregard for the Nakai. //You’re pretty damn decisive for an Ancient.//
Riley looked amused. //I’m something more than Ancient. I guard the integrity of the multiverse.//
//Sounds like a great justification for doing whatever the hell you want.//
//Rather than debating me, might I suggest an attempt to free yourself would be a better use of your time?//
And yeah. If it wasn’t gonna offer assistance, that was damn well true.
Young shifted his focus to Scott. The lieutenant still had a dart in his shoulder, which’d been leaching toxin this whole time. Young inched toward the man, angling himself with the idea of pulling the thing out. As he moved—
What the hell?
The dart wasn’t reflecting the light like it should.
It was translucent. He shifted his gaze from Riley to the Nakai across the room. They, too, were subtly translucent. The blue light from the gate shone through them. If Young looked carefully, he could see the bulkhead behind them.
Telford had noticed this. It was why he’d hesitated before firing.
The Nakai were out of phase. Not entirely. There was enough overlap that their darts had brought him down, but—Young felt better than he should feel. Better than he’d felt with the first round of dart poison in his system. Maybe the same would be true of Scott. Maybe the phase shift would work in their favor.
He wished Rush were around, to weigh in on the implications.
With a sloppy, wavering effort, Young rolled onto his stomach, the maneuver bringing him significantly closer to Scott. He shifted his position in slow increments, until he was close enough to use his teeth to pull the dart from Scott’s shoulder. He carefully lowered the small weapon to the deck plating, so it wouldn’t clatter against the metal.
He looked Scott over as best he could, hoping he hadn’t missed any other darts. The lieutenant was bleeding slowly but steadily from a small wound that, as luck would have it, was positioned just past the edge of where his Kevlar jacket had shielded him.
Young glanced again at the Nakai near the door, and realized Riley had posted himself between Young and the two guards, shielding him from view.
//Thought you weren’t gonna help out,// Young projected.
//While I am, primarily, an observer,// Riley replied, //you’ll find that observation itself can influence events.//
//Oh yeah?// Young struggled surreptitiously against his bonds, trying to get a sense of their composition.
//It so happens I prefer to observe events from this particular spot.// Riley shrugged.
//Sounds good to me,// Young replied.
His bonds were made of an elastic material that bit savagely into his bare skin. The Nakai had forced his sleeves up and wrapped whatever it was around his forearms. The configuration pulled at his shoulders, but, strangely, left his wrists free. Even more strangely, they’d left his feet free. Maybe they assumed he wouldn’t be standing anytime soon? Maybe they were worried about something else? Something he might do with his hands?
It didn’t matter. The better question was—why the hell hadn’t he issued himself a damn knife the second new supplies had come through the gate?
He scanned Scott’s form, but the lieutenant had nothing visible on him.
There always was the possibility that Scott’d picked up Greer’s habit of strapping a knife to his ankle.
As surreptitiously but as thoroughly as he could, Young searched the other man, coming up with nothing that had a remotely sharp edge. He considered using the dart he’d pulled out of Scott’s back, but its needle-sharp point wasn’t gonna be effective and he’d probably end up stabbing himself in the wrist with the damn thing.
What would Rush do in this situation?
Rush would do something. Rush had escaped an alien ship in an alien craft. With Chloe. Neither of them were pilots.
Young could get himself off the damn floor.
Supposedly, he’d been ‘rebuilt’ by the guy. If that were true—maybe, with a little effort—he could purposefully pull some of those subterranean patterns to the surface?
It would, in this moment, definitely help more than it could possibly hurt.
He took a breath. He dug into himself, and he thought about problems. Not his specific problem, but problems in general. Ways around and through. Arrays. He was a member of an array, a layered set, observed by Riley, flowering with small differences, flagged to be culled. He had to get himself out of his bonds and he had to get this D-brane through the bottleneck of whatever allowable permutations were out there, and, for fuck’s sake, he might actually have a chance of pullin’ the the thing off if he were in superposition—
Ah. Success. Fuck, better than success; this was satisfying. There’d always been something in him that loved a job done well.
Now. How, exactly, was he t’get off the fuckin’ deck plating?
With a click of total acceptance, he admitted there was no way to cut free. It wasn’t happening. He flipped through a catalogue of possible options and settled on—
Leverage. Given the bite of the bonds and the friction involved, he’d cause a fair bit of damage, up to an effective flay of his own forearms. That’d be costly.
Given the stakes, that cost was immaterial.
Young shifted again, turning on his side with his back to Scott. He reached behind him and ran his fingertips over a ridge in Scott’s jacket, tracing his way up until he’d found the man’s collar. Delicately, he reached inside and found the metal chain of the lieutenant’s dog tags. Slowly, he worked the chain free.
Riley continued to shield him.
Once he had it, he flipped to his stomach. He held one end of the thing in his left hand. Using his right wrist, he started trying to flip the tagged ends up and over the bindings around his forearms.
It took patience. And dexterity.
He found, for this, he had patience. And dexterity.
He had, in fact, a bloody-minded determination to make this plan do some real fuckin’ work within the confines of the system it occupied. Especially if the system itself was about to be unmade by an alien entity.
After small shifts in position, in momentum, after accounting for drag, for friction, for an angle that couldn’t be worse—he arced the metal chain over the loop that secured his forearms.
Young began to pull, clenching his jaw, tensing his shoulders, his neck, his chest, flexing his wrists for all he was worth. He dragged the bonds down towards his hands a fraction of a centimeter at a time. Even with the diminished sensation courtesy of the anesthetic in the dart, the pain was incredible.
The skin on his forearms was tearing, bruising, bleeding under the pressure he applied.
It was immaterial.
Scratch that. Blood, actually, was helpful. Blood was preferred.
He tangled chain through his fingers, he flexed his wrists, and he kept his mind off the damage he was causing. It was easy. Nothing easier.
After all, damage was immaterial and blood was preferred.
Finally, finally, he’d pulled far enough that the skin-shredding tension in the bonds eased. The material slid quicker now, easier. The pressure on his shoulders faded. In the end, he had, in his hands, a blood soaked mass of alien cord and slick chain.
He lay there, controlling his shuddering breaths, staying conscious, shoving Rush’s mental patterns and reactivity as far down as they’d go.
It didn’t feel like they’d gone all that far?
But it was enough. It’d have to be.
His next move would be to wait for Scott to regain consciousness and then free the lieutenant. Unfortunately, that was probably going to involve the same thing he’d just done to himself. Yeah well, the kid was tough. He could take it. After that, they’d immediately run into their next problem, which was that they’d been disarmed. So it was either hand-to-plasma weapon combat or—
He looked speculatively at Riley, still shielding him.
Would the forcible reallocation of resources [read here: taking Riley’s plasma weapon] be grounds for the destruction of the entire crew? Seemed terribly unlikely. And he needed that weapon. The risk calculus favored the attempt. Absently, he flexed his hands. If he could—
Wait a goddamned minute.
That was completely crazy.
Riley, watching Young, subtly shifted his stance.
Maybe in some other universe Young was currently attacking him?
God, an’ that was fascinating. What’d that even look like? Feel like? Was there some kind of privileged perspective that kept him clear of the entire mess? ‘Chance-blind,’ he’d said. Was—
Wait, no, not ‘fuck.’ God damn it.
Young needed to get rid of his curious-edged panic, his aggressive need to move, the physical fucking requirement to take some fucking action, the imperative to do something, anything other than lie here, uselessly on the floor. He flexed his hands, feeling the blood run down, warm, over his fingers, and it was satisfying and it should fucking hurt and he bloody well deserved it, this was his fault and—
Jesus fucking Christ.
Rebuilt. Yeah. Okay. Great.
Because this went way, way beyond some kind of mental support structure, this was fucking personality and fucking facts he shouldn’t know, and fucking sentiment he shouldn’t have, and a fucking predisposition to absolute panic, which from the outside had always looked like some kind of self-indulgent, academic, prima-donna bullshit, but was, in fact, extremely—just extremely difficult to control and organic, and god—and no one, god, no one should feel this fucking trapped by their own body, ever–it was fucking torture, and maybe, maybe if he didn’t fucking just miss the man’s mind so fucking much maybe he would really be able to just let go of what he had called up, but—
Behind Young, Scott shifted. “Sir?” he breathed, the barest hint of whisper.
That one word snapped him out of whatever’d been building in his mind. Panic, probably. Panic like he’d never experienced.
He was not Nick Rush, damn it.
He was Everett Young, who was, in fact, famous for not panicking in situations like these.
He needed to get it together.
Rush needed him. The entire crew needed him. He had a responsibility to all of them. He had decades of experience, he had math in his head, and some kind of superpowered Ancient standing between him and his enemy.
He could damn well make it.
Young reached back and closed a bloody hand around Scott’s wrist. He tightened his fingers, then worked his way up the man’s forearms to find the loops of material that bound his arms. Using a combination of the chain and his fingers, he started to work the bonds down. More gently this time.
Scott tensed, holding himself still, helping where he could. And, when it came, the blood made everything easier.
When the lieutenant was free, Young found the man’s palm and tapped out a pattern in Morse code on his hand. Can you move. He had to repeat the message twice before Scott tapped back.
Some. The other man’s fingers were shaky and cold.
Tap when you can stand.
Young watched the Nakai behind the monitors. They had their hands near their weapons and a nice, clear shot across the open floor. He and Scott would be easy targets, slowed by the aftereffects of the darts and the blood loss. He’d have to get them to approach without alarming them.
Probably, it’d be as easy as revealing he’d regained consciousness.
The cold tap of Scott’s fingers against his hand startled him. Ready.
Young forced his muscles to relax. Don’t move yet. I’ll draw them over.
Behind his back, Scott gave him a subtle thumbs-up.
Young tightened his grip on the metal chain of the dogtags and sat. He kept his arms behind him.
The Nakai looked toward him, turning in tandem. Their movements had a certain grace, he supposed. He wasn’t above appreciating that. He shook his hair back, then leveled a glare at them. One of them hissed at Riley, who stepped aside, clearing their path.
The one on the right hissed threateningly as it approached.
“Right so.” Young shifted, getting his feet beneath him. “Maybe y’both go fuck yourselves?”
One of the Nakai held a metal communication device. He was pure dead certain he didn’t want that thing attached to his head. Already, before it so much as touched him, he could feel the pressure of its thoughts against his own.
It was meters away.
Reaching towards him.
With an explosion of energy he forced himself up. The cold and the drug and the pain and the blood loss—they slowed him, but not enough, not enough. His hands came apart as he tackled it to the floor, easily unbalancing its long, ungainly limbs with his lower center of gravity and all he needed was to just—
It tore into his mind. It wasn’t looking for information. He could tell. He could tell because he remembered the interrogations but he remembered this too and this was only about pain, which was fuckin’ fine with him. He preferred this actually, he did, even though, yes well, he was screaming, he supposed, choking on the tension that clamped his teeth together and the blood that was running down the back of his throat. He tried not to be bothered about the fact that he could not breathe because he would fucking kill this thing if it was the last thing he ever did.
He wrapped the chain of Scott’s dogtags around its neck and hauled back for all he was worth.
These things had to breathe, right?
With one last burst of vindictive, dying agony, it faded from his mind.
He looked up, gasping, shaking with adrenaline, but there was nothing left to fight. It was only Scott, Scott who was kneeling next to him, his hand on Young’s shoulder, and it was intolerable to him.
“Don’t touch me,” Young snarled, pulling away.
“Sorry sir.” Scott looked pale and lost. Confused. Afraid. His hands were covered with a pastel blue-white substance; his face was spattered with it. His eyes, his eyes were horrified. His breath came in gasps as he looked back and forth between Young and Riley. He looked anywhere but at the floor, where, a few feet away, the other Nakai lay on the deck plating, its features an unrecognizable mess, half submerged in its own blood.
“God,” Scott whispered. He brought a shaking hand to his forehead, leaving a smear of blue where he touched his skin. He looked at Riley. “Oh my god. I—this is. You’re—”
With a heroic mental effort, Young shoved Rush’s thought patterns back as far as they would go.
“Hey.” Young put a hand on Scott’s shoulder and looked the lieutenant straight in the eyes. “Eyes on me. You’re fine.” He pulled the kid into a hug. “You’re fine,” he said again, his mouth next to Scott’s ear. “You’re okay, son. You did good.”
“But did you feel that?” Scott whispered, hugging him back, his voice strained to breaking. “That’s what they did to her. They must have. And worse. Worse than that. More. Longer. And I—they must have left something behind; for her they did. And I see—I can see something. Something I shouldn’t. Right now.” Scott’s whole body was trembling.
“Yup,” Young said, his own voice tight. “I know. Even so. We’ve gotta go.”
Scott nodded against his shoulder, then pulled back, still shaking, still unsteady. He looked at Riley, but he didn’t say anything.
“Hi Matt,” Riley said, quietly.
Scott’s eyes flicked to Young.
Young nodded at him. “I see him too.”
“Um, hi,” Scott whispered, his throat dry. “Then I guess you must be the AI?”
“No,” Riley said softly. “I’m an observer.”
Scott looked at Young. “Chloe’s told me—they left things in her mind. They. She didn’t always know what was real, after they’d—after—”
Young squeezed Scott’s shoulder. “He’s not with them. He’s some kind of suped-up Ancient. Comes from the people who built the Obelisk Worlds, I guess.”
“Oh,” Scott whispered. “Okay then.” He turned to Riley. “Uh, nice to meet ya?”
“Nice to meet you too,” Riley said, with his sad-edged smile.
//You’re fair fuckin’ polite for someone in the midst of a cross-reality cull,// Young hissed, hooking a hand over his shoulder and rubbing the base of his neck. He was having pretty good luck ignoring the pain in his shredded forearms, the way the blood coated his wrists and hands.
//You seem to have developed some interesting personality traits in the past half hour,// Riley said mildly.
Wait, no. God damn it.
He wondered if he’d really fuckin’ fucked himself—
He wondered if he’d really screwed up by digging Rush’s patterns out of the deeper layers of his mind. He also wondered if this was partially or even primarily a consequence of the other man being profoundly unconscious and therefore effectively missing from their link. Rush’d consistently been concerned about what the outcome would be for Young if anything happened to him.
Well, it looked like he’d fuckin’—
It looked like, maybe, he was getting a little preview.
Yes well, it was all fine, actually, because Rush was deadass brilliant when it came to surviving situations like this. He’d worry about getting his own architecture back later.
Young cleared his throat. “So,” he said, looking at Riley. “You’ve had some time to observe; any ‘observations’ you’d like to share?”
Riley looked speculatively at the ceiling. “Yes,” he said, his eyes running over the bulkheads. “A visit to the neural interface device would be in order, I think.”
“You’re gonna sit in the chair?” Young asked, not at all sure that was a good idea.
“No,” Riley said quietly. “You are.”