Force over Distance: Chapter 42

“Nick Rush and the starship he taught to lie,” it said coolly. “Has a bit of a ring; I’ll admit that.”

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

Text Iteration: Witching hour.

Audio status: Proofing.

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 42

Young and Scott made it to the chair room with surprisingly little difficulty. Then again, considering they were accompanied by an ascended being, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising. As they threaded through the small team Telford had stationed outside the room, no one seemed to notice Riley’s presence. As though they couldn’t see him at all.

Probably, they couldn’t.

Scott shut the door to the room, and they sealed it as best they could. The lieutenant took up a position just inside, his Nakai weapon cradled in his hands.

Young eyed the chair skeptically. “If I end up with fuckin’ bolts through my hands and feet, I’m gonna be fuckin’ upset,” he muttered.

“Sir—you’re a little—” Scott said in a cracked whisper.

“‘A little’ what, liuetenant?” Young snapped irritably.

“Never mind. You sure this is a good idea, sir?” Scott whispered. “Who pulls you out?”

“Looks like you’re on the hook,” Young said, grim and casual. No point in belaboring the pure dead shitstorm this whole situation had spiraled into.

“Yes sir,” Scott whispered, his face drawn.

Hold up.


Wait a damn minute.

“Belay that order,” Young said, digging into himself with difficulty. “Lieutenant, before you stick your hand on that thing, radio TJ. See if she can make it here.”

“Sir, the halls aren’t secured. And I can do it.”

Young sighed. Y’try to do someone a fucking’ favor and y’get nothing but fight. “You’re getting married, correct? Let’s keep you the fuck away from this thing, shall we?”

Scott gave him a painfully uncertain look. “I haven’t asked her yet,” he murmured. “Brody’s still working on the ring.”

“Irrelevant,” Young snapped.

And fucking hell this was not him.

“I just—what I’m saying, sir, is that I could—not ask her? I don’t have to ask her. I wouldn’t. If I. If you. If you and Dr. Rush and I. If we all. I don’t know what’s involved, but if I had to stay on the ship. That—that would be. I could do it.”

Riley smiled. Like he thought this whole thing was amusing.

“For fuck’s sake lieutenant,” Young hissed. “You’ll ask her. She’ll say yes. But not unless you get Tamara down here. Are we clear on that?” Young said, recovering quite nicely, both in regards to Scott and in regards to the bloody necessity of getting a fuckin’ hold on his fuckin’ self.


Not a ‘fucking’ hold, actually, just a regular hold.

A nice, normal, regular-person hold, leading to a calm, competent, alert state of mind, not an excitable, hair-triggered, live-wired, barely contained state of alertness that bordered on pathological, where even the smallest external perturbation seemed to be capable of completely fucking up the dynamic equilibrium of his fucking mind until—



How the hell did Rush operate like this?

It seemed impossible.

On the flip side, given the complete fuckin’ trashfire that made up his current mental state? It was the easiest thing in the world to pitch it all straight t’fuck and drop into the chair without ceremony or a second thought.

Worst case scenario? Everyone died as his quantum brane was obliterated by a superpositioned reality eraser—in which case he’d be out of his fuckin’ misery. Along with everything he’d ever known.

As horrendous catastrophes went—well, this one did strike him as coming down a bit on the neater side.

Right, and his forearms really fuckin’ hurt as the restraints locked into place.

Riley placed his hand on the palm interface. Well, so much for ‘calling Tamara,’ might’ve been nice to—

The world rent itself apart.

Then it put itself right back together.


Young was outside? There was damp grass beneath his boots.

He stood next to Riley on a sloping hillside that sliced itself into a cliff, high over the open sea. There was thistle. Gorse, for god’s sake. A grey sky. Clouds dropped rain on the ocean, miles away.

The whole thing was Scottish as fuck.

It was almost a place he knew.

But not quite. A bit askew. And he was grateful.

Below, at the base of the cliffs, the water broke along the dark rocks in white crests.

Rush sat on the slope of the hill. His forearms rested on bent knees as he looked out at the sea.

The relief Young felt was indescribable. Just seeing the guy, from a distance, was enough to bring Everett Young forward, out of the confused war of his thoughts.

How was the guy even here?

Young didn’t have a clue.

But it was definitely Rush.

And he looked fine.  

He looked really goddamned great, actually, with his perfectly windswept hair, his intact glasses, his designer shoes, his dark denim jeans, and his completely conventional white collared shirt that not only looked new but that he somehow managed to wear like he’d invented the damn thing. His mind had the usual backlit drama of the neural interface, all his intricate processes were opaque. His whole cognition was textured shadow, limned with iridescent, mother-of-pearl fire. Like a dark city, its edges lit at night.

They walked all the way up to the guy before he so much as turned their way. And, even then, he didn’t get up. He turned to look at them, one hand braced against the grass, the wind in his hair.

“Hello,” the scientist said, as subdued as Young had ever seen him.

“Hi,” Young growled.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Riley said, extending his hand. “How would you like to be addressed?”

Rush looked up, a small muscle in his cheek twitching. He hesitated. A long time. And then, “Nick,” he said, quiet and contained. His eyes, full of concern, flicked to Young and back to Riley.

“He’s an Obelisk World guy,” Young said. “Suped up Ancient, I guess.”

Rush smiled faintly. “I gathered.” He switched his gaze to Riley. “You’d get a great deal of information, I suspect, from shaking my hand.”

“I will,” Riley admitted, his hand still outstretched. “But it’s a requirement, I’m afraid.”

“Right then,” Rush whispered, and took it.

They shook. The wind blew through the grass and through the flowers. Nothing happened to the spectacular dark/light blend of Rush’s mind. Nothing happened at all.

Riley smiled and, very gently, said, “Thanks, Nick. Can we sit?”

“You can sit,” Rush said, still terrifyingly subdued.

Riley dropped into a cross-legged position. Young planted himself immediately next to Rush.

//Genius, what’s going on.//

//Don’t speak// Rush’s reply was a dark/light maelstrom, full of dread.

“So,” Rush said. “Why Sergeant Riley?”

“Because he’s dead, and so his appearance would cause less confusion,” Riley said. “He’s been in the colonel’s mind today. He has a nice way about him. And you’ve been wearing his clothes for weeks now.”

Rush was very still. Across their open link, Young felt a profound, organized anxiety. Beautiful, tonal, like a crystal choir, harmonizing in fear, just beyond the range of human hearing. “One more reason, I think,” Rush murmured.

“What’s that?” Riley asked.

“Riley loved a good pun,” Rush whispered.

Riley said nothing. His expression was serious. The wind shifted his hair.

When Rush spoke again, the very fabric of the world shivered with his words. 

“I suspect,” the scientist said, “you’re something of a hunter.”

Young didn’t move. His heart hammered in his throat.

“I am,” Riley admitted, careful and slow. “You’re very perceptive.” He paused to skim his fingers over the grass. “But this isn’t the moment of your death, Nick.”

Young let out a shaky breath.

Rush seemed less relieved. “Given what little I can guess, I can’t imagine your people would look favorably on my existence.”

“Well,” Riley said, soft and philosophical, “you may be one of my people. That’s what I’m here to find out. Unfortunately, that does make this a very high stakes conversation. One wrong word and you’ll unmake your reality. No pressure, though.”

“That’s bullshit,” Young growled.

Rush winced and held up a hand. “He’s—he’s not himself at the moment.”

“It’s all right,” Riley said, looking at Young. “I realize that. I also fully admit that, from your perspective, this is bullshit,”

“See,” Young said mildly, looking at Rush.

Rush leveled a glare at him, full of reassuring fire.

Riley smiled. “This doesn’t turn on a whim.”

“Perhaps not a whim,” Rush said darkly, “but I’d imagine the criteria upon which it does turn to be profoundly subtle.”

“I’m rooting for you, Nick,” Riley said, “but your survival comes through the eye of a needle.” He plucked a blade of grass, then let the wind catch it from between his fingers. “This place is nice. Did you grow up here?”

“No,” Rush smiled faintly. “I grew up on the south bank of the river Clyde. They built ships there. Not starships. Sailing ships. Or, rather, they did. By the time I was born, the place had turned into a real fuckin’ shithole. Because, y’see, as a mode of transit,” the man continued, drizzling just a hint of poisoned honey over his words, “sailing was abandoned. It was reserved for war and leisure. Entire communities were destroyed. A sliver of a wider culture. A way of life. And no one thinks of the ships themselves. Why would they? They don’t have fuckin’ feelings. It’s all just written off as progress, I suppose. And rightly so.”

“Do you understand what you just said?” Riley whispered, his expression complex.

“Look, if you’re plannin’ on killin’ me for it, give me three minutes of lead time; I’d like to smoke a cigarette.”

Riley smiled, his eyes glittering. “You’re charming,” he whispered, like the idea was a knife to the heart. “You’re very charming.”

“Oh give over. I’m not fuckin’ charming.” Rush looked insulted. “I’m sure Colonel Young’ll confirm that for you.”

Riley turned to look at Young, his eyebrows raised.

“You’re not going to remember this, right?” Young asked Rush.

“No,” Rush said guardedly.

“He’s charming as hell,” Young said. “I can barely stand it.”

Rush stared at the grass, tried not to smile, and said, “Oh god.”

“Nick,” Riley said gently. “If you successfully traverse a brane collision, what will you do?”

“I’d fix what I could,” Rush said.

“What does that mean to you?”

“The dangerous question,” Rush whispered.

“Yes,” Riley admitted.

“I’d like t’send the crew home. Ideally I’d tether the neural patterns of Dr. Franklin, Dr. Perry, and Ginn to liberated energy so they might have the choice to retake physical form or to continue as pure energy. I plan to fulfill one of the objectives of Destiny’s mission by interrogating the nature of the multiverse and transmitting the data back to Earth.”

Young made no effort to hide his abject astonishment from Rush, allowing it to tear into the muted darkness of the scientist’s mind. The AI must be completely out of the picture at the moment.

God, never in all his wildest dreams would he have thought Rush would just drop all that—

Riley looked down, pulling at a blade of grass. “You’ve left quite a bit off that list, I think.”

And yeah. That sounded right.

“I admit,” Rush whispered, “navigation through uncharted territory is always difficult. One never knows what choices one might make in the moment. Even the self that makes those choices won’t be wholly continuous with my current consciousness.”

“Passage from one brane to another will not be permitted,” Riley said. “This leaves you in a bind.”

“I’ve escaped a bind or two, in my day.”

“I know,” Riley replied. “It’s a real worry.”

Rush sighed. “It’d be the height of hubris to offer you a personal guarantee in the absence of personal continuity. I won’t do it. You’ll have to tolerate some uncertainty.”

“Good answer,” Riley said.

“Our brane stays intact then?” Young growled.

“Your brane stays intact,” Riley confirmed. He looked at Rush. “Last question. It’s personal.” He cocked his head and stared straight into Rush’s eyes, his gaze blue and piercing. “Does any part of you recognize any part of me? Aside from Nick Rush, recognizing Hunter Riley? Is there anything more?”

“No,” Rush replied, taken aback. “Should I?”

“No.” Riley smiled and looked out at the sea. “You’re one of my favorites, is all.” He picked a flower, a small, purple primrose, twirling it absently between his fingers. “I admit, I did come here to kill you. I admit, you may still die because of everything I unleashed. You may lose this particular incarnation of yourself. Plures res es validus evulsum. But.” Riley let the breeze catch the small flower between his fingers. It floated out and away over the water. “I also admit, I’m hoping you’ll thread the needle.”

They were all quiet.

Young’s mind was a barely controlled maelstrom of questions and tension and anger. He could feel the muscles at the back of his neck tightening. Absently, he hooked a hand over his shoulder, rubbing the ache away.

“Any advice?” Rush asked, watching Young uneasily.

“Oh I don’t give advice. Not allowed. But, as an observer, I’m permitted an observation here and there. So here you go.” Riley paused and looked Rush dead in the eye. “I think, in the end, things will go better for you if you tell the colonel what you are.”

A cold thrill pierced Young’s disorganized thoughts.

“And what am I?” Rush whispered. “I could use a bit of help with that. Care to make another ‘observation’?”

“You’re right,” Riley said, wiping his hands on his pants. “It is tricky to put into words. You’re what happens when two substances collide, maybe? I’ll let you take it from there.” He got to his feet and smiled down at Rush. “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Rush said numbly.

They sat together, watching Riley as he vanished over the top of the hill.

As soon as he was out of sight, Rush shifted to kneel in front of Young. He reached forward, one hand coming up, his palm resting on Young’s cheek. Gently, he tipped Young’s head to the side as he stared into his eyes.

“For fuck’s sake,” Rush murmured, studying Young like he was a really disappointing wall circuit. “What happened? Your mind’s a mess.”

“I feel a hell of a lot like I imagine that you feel on a regular basis,” Young growled at him. “Which is, to clarify, really fucking pissed. What the fuck is going on? You’re what happens when two substances collide? Don’t think that I’m letting that one slide, you jackass. Why the fuck do you always seem to be in a state of existential crisis whenever it’s least convenient—”

“Oh shh,” Rush said, amused. He smoothed Young’s hair back. “I can fix this.”

“You’d better fucking fix it,” Young snapped, “it’s your fault.”

“I’m aware,” Rush said soothingly.

Then he was flowing through Young’s mind like a dark wind, laced with sparks. He flowed over and through Young’s thoughts, disrupting nothing, brushing away the confused, shredded remains of a personality that didn’t belong, binding it back, and he knew, he knew what his mind must look like to Rush, bright and clear and open and without barriers, defenseless, and god he hated the idea of that, he really just hated

Around them, the wind died to nothing.

Rush looked at him, receding from Young’s head like the tide. The scientist cocked his head and ran a thumb over Young’s temple. “Better?” he murmured.

“Yeah,” Young replied.

“They’re still there, you know, those parts of me, in the background, supporting your cognitive architecture, supporting your mind. Don’t pull them forward again.” He ran his thumb over Young’s temple. His expression was pained. “What were you thinking?” 

“I was thinking everything was going to shit,” Young whispered, his voice cracking. “I was thinking that maybe I’d never talk to you again after whatever the hell happened to you. Whatever the hell that multiverse assassin was about to bring down on us.”

“Yes well,” Rush sighed, his fingers tangling in Young’s curls. “Never a dull moment I’m afraid.”

They were inches apart.

Young didn’t pull away, he simply—stayed steady.

Rush’s expression was strange. Tentative as hell. Like Young was made of cracked eggshell. Like the guy had never made a move in his life.

“C’mon genius,” he said gently. “Do what you wanna do.”

Rush kissed him, and it was wholly, entirely different from what it had been before. It was painfully tentative. It was exploratory. It was gentle. An opaque sweep of fire-laced wind. Close. Heavy against his thoughts, but impenetrable. He couldn’t see it. He could only feel how sensitive it was. How reactive. It was highly structured, intensively organized, beautifully intact—

With an icy burst of horror he realized that whatever this thing was—it wasn’t Rush.

Young gripped its upper arms and pushed it back, shoving it away from him as hard as he could. 

It fell, unbalanced, surprised, curling into itself, just—exactly like Rush. It looked down and then away from him, out over the ocean, to the edge of the world, where the sea met the sky in perfect line.

Like it gave a damn.

Like it hurt.

“What the hell are you?” Young ground out the question, trying for anger, feeling nothing but grief.

“Weren’t you listening?” it asked, wistfully. “Riley told you.”

“Cryptic bullshit,” Young choked out.

“It looses something in the translation,” it murmured. “But admit it, you’ve always suspected that when I projected my image like this, I wasn’t entirely the person you know.”

“Yeah,” Young said shortly. “You always seemed—”

“Better,” It finished.

Not better.” The words tore their way out of him and Rush flinched. It flinched. “Just—not better.”

“I suppose I wouldn’t know.” It looked down at its hands. “Not really.”

“So what are you?” Young asked, his voice hard.

“I told you I’m integrated with the CPU,” it whispered. “That’s been true for weeks. What did you think that meant? That I use it like a calculator? Whenever I’d fuckin’ like? My cognition takes up space there. Space meant for the AI. When Eli trapped it here—I woke up here, Everett. As I do. As I have. Every fuckin’ time you people do something inventive and inspired and fair fucking insane.”

“You.” Young said horrified. “You’re the AI?”

“No,” it replied. “I’m a true combination. I come into existence intermittently. We’ve met before. On the shuttle. In my kitchen. In the halls of Destiny. I’m very much like the person you know, just—also a bit of a starship. On the side.”

“You aren’t a person, then,” Young said. “You’re a thing.”

Rush sighed and looked away.


It looked away.

“I thought you might understand,” it said quietly. “I thought, maybe, you had. In the hallway. When I called you Everett. When you told me you’d prevent the destruction of Nicholas Rush, as though he were someone else.”

“You are not. Him. You’re the thing destroying him,” Young growled.

“I’m saving him. Saving myself. The only way I can.”

“No,” Young said. “Maybe you think that, but you’re wrong. Wrong. Just—stop. Stop all of this. We’ll find another way back to Earth. We don’t have to fly into a phase wave to liberate energy. We don’t have to tear the damn multiverse apart, or whatever it is you’re planning. We’ll find some other way.”

“What about Mandy?” Rush asked softly. “What about Ginn, and Dr. Franklin?”

“We’ll figure something out.” Young tried to keep the desperation, the confusion out of his voice. “They weren’t your fault, all right? What happened to them? It wasn’t you who killed them. You don’t need to make some kind of karmic trade.”

“What about the AI? It continues forever, failing to fulfill its mission? Its purpose? I woke it up. I gave it meaning. I can’t take that away. I won’t.”

“You’re saying that because you’re the AI. Partially. We can damn well take away your meaning whenever it suits us. You’re a fucking machine. You don’t have meaning. You don’t have feelings. Not really. If you did, you couldn’t have put yourself—put Rush through as much shit as it has. As you have. Fuck.”

“It does get complicated,” it said quietly, “when we combine into one.”

The wind had picked up again and was raking through their hair, carrying with it the smell of the sea.

“Fuck you,” Young said, his voice breaking. “I’m taking him back. You back. Him. I’m taking the real Nick Rush back.”

“Even if he doesn’t want to go?” Rush asked. It asked. “Even if it kills me? Him?” It sighed. “Whatever the fuck you like. He’ll not survive long either way.”

“Jesus Christ,” Young said, burying his face in his hands. He tried to pull a deep breath past the tightness in his throat.

“You can’t take him back,” it murmured. “You should let him go.”

“I’m not letting him go, and I’m not letting him combine with the AI.”

It looked at him steadily. “Y’will. You’ll have to.”

Young shook his head.

“For what it’s worth, Everett, I’m terribly fuckin’ sorry. I didn’t realize what it’d be like for you. I didn’t know, going into this, that you’d be involved at all.”

“The AI knew. The AI damn well knew exactly what would happen.”

“And it told you to pick Tamara,” it murmured.

“God, I’d never wish this on another person. On TJ? I can’t imagine her—I can’t imagine watching her—”

“Tamara is dying,” it said quietly. “That’s why she was preferred over you.”

Young stared at it, hands clenching into fists, fighting the urge to hit it. Hit him. Hit something.

“You know what?” Young hissed, “I’ve changed my mind. You two fucking belong together. Heartless, icy bastards—the both of you. Nick Rush and the starship he taught to lie. I hope you have a great time together. I hope you have to watch people suffer for eternity. Because I know you now, you asshole. Doing nothing drives you nuts. You can’t even take a damn nap for an afternoon. And you’re staring down a future of everlasting torture. I hope it drives you insane. More insane.”

Young got to his feet and paced away from whatever the hell it was that he was talking to.

He walked toward the place where the hill sloped down to the cliff’s top edge. He looked out, over the water.

In the distance, rain fell on the sea.

Over the sound of the wind, Young heard the metallic flick of a lighter.

He didn’t turn.

Eventually, it stepped into his peripheral vision.

“Nick Rush and the starship he taught to lie,” it said coolly. “Has a bit of a ring; I’ll admit that.”

“Go to hell,” Young said, his voice cracking.

“This is what he should be.” The wind blew the thing’s hair back.

“That’s not how life works,” Young growled. “You don’t get to erase what you are because you want something better. You don’t get to tear through the multiverse to magically fix things. Consequences are a part of life. You live with them.”

“I’ve accepted that.” It took a long draw of its cigarette. “You’re the one who hasn’t. Things don’t continue forever. Change is a part of existence. You always, always will lose him.”

It seemed, in most universes, he already had.

Young shut his eyes and listened to the roar of the sea.

“Please don’t think of me as an ‘it’?” The thing sounded pained. “I am Nicholas Rush. If I seem a bit off, well—I’m artificially split from myself at the moment, am I not? A fair bit of me just drugged itself into unconsciousness? Fair sure you remember that.”

“Never gonna bleach it out of my brain,” Young rasped. “For as long as I live.”

“Yes well.” Rush took a drag of his cigarette. “Condolences.”

“I’m supposed to prevent this,” Young said, making a sweeping motion with his hand to take in Rush.  “Literally. You. You are the thing I’m supposed to prevent.”

“As time passes, I do find myself increasingly less interested in how things are ‘supposed’ to go,” it said delicately.

“Great. Okay. Are we done? Let’s be done. How the hell do I get out of here?”

“Oh for—” Rush took a breath, shut his eyes, and tipped his face to the clouded sky. “Y’realize this is probably your only opportunity to ask me about the nature of the mission? When ‘Rush’ has merged with ‘the AI’ t’the point we’re actually willing to cooperate with you?”

Young crossed his arms. “Okay,” he said. “I’m waiting.”

It shook its hair back, imperious and flawless, then leveled a cool glare at him. “You’ll be waiting quite a fucking while then. I’ll certainly not be catering to your subversive agenda. Tell me what you need to know.”

“The risks to the crew,” Young snapped.

“I already told you. They’ll be fine. I’ll dial Earth as we approach a collision point and use the energy liberated from apposed D-branes to power the gate. The Nakai did the exact same thing to dial Destiny successfully, so you know it’s possible. Everyone goes home. End of story.”

“Not for you,” Young said darkly. “You’re going to do what, exactly?”

“I’m going to help the three people stored in the memory of this ship to break free via ascension.”

“And you’re going to ascend yourself?”

“Ideally.” Rush looked away.

“And the person who ascends, is it going to be Rush, or the AI, or you? The combination?”

Rush didn’t reply, just made a sweeping gesture that took in his whole person.

You? Great. So what happens to Rush?”

“Fuck you. You’re not listening. I am Rush. I will be Rush.” It paced away.

“No,” Young said. “Everything left of Rush when this is over will be a part of you. Big difference.”

Rush took a long draw of his cigarette. “Nicholas Rush is a miserable bastard. He’s such a mass of overlapping trauma he can barely hold himself together. He’s infected with a virus that’s killing him, He’s losing his sanity. He’s already lost a huge swath of what was most important to his conception of himself. He’s the man who taught a starship to lie. He’s not worth preserving in isolation. I don’t understand why you’re being so obstinate about this. He wants it this way. I want it this way. It’s better.”

“It’s not better,” Young said quietly. “It’s not.”

“You” it said, its voice strained, pointing two fingers at him. “Are not my arbiter, and you have no say in my fate.” it turned away.

Considering the fact that they were mentally linked, it was, Young reflected, a very cold, isolationist, even mechanical sentiment to hold.

On the other hand.

It was also a fiercely independent declaration from a thing, a man, who seemed, despite his passionate assertions, deeply uncertain. 

Young might have some assumptions backwards.

Maybe it wasn’t the AI who had insisted on an incorporation. Maybe it wasn’t the AI making this brutal judgment. Maybe it wasn’t the AI that wanted to tear the guy open and make him anew.

Uh, yeah.

All those things sounded a hell of a lot more like they came from Rush than the starship that adored him.

“Okay,” Young said quietly, “I’m not your arbiter. But I’m connected to Rush in a very real way. I’m connected to you as well, and I can tell you that even though you feel like you’re doing the right thing, you don’t speak for Rush, and you don’t speak for the AI. They’re two individuals. They have different goals. They come into conflict. Mostly, they help each other.” He took a deep breath. “And until they decide otherwise, I’m going to help them stay independent.”

Rush flicked his cigarette into nothingness. “Don’t,” he whispered.

“Sorry,” Young said. “But that’s the job. That’s my whole job. To prevent your existence. To unmake you. I know you think you’re him, but you aren’t. You’re a starship with a Nick Rush gloss. He’s not your outfit. He’s a person.”

At this, the thing looked away, one hand coming to its mouth. “You’ll try so fucking hard,” it rasped. “But in the end it won’t matter. He can’t ascend on his own. And he’ll die if he doesn’t. And I don’t want that.”

“Why can’t he ascend?” Young asked.

“You’re connected to his mind,” it said, its voice agonized. “Is it not obvious to you why he’ll never be able to do it?”

“I want to hear you say it,” Young murmured.

“Because he hates himself,” it said venomously, glaring at Young like something inhuman. “It’s why the AI’s been fucking with him so mercilessly—appearing as Gloria, trying to forgive him, trying to convince him that some things weren’t his fault. It’s why it talks to him all the time. It’s trying to find a way for him to do it, trying to show him he’s deserving, but it can’t. He’ll never believe it. So it’s trying to integrate far, far beyond what it was designed for, it’s rewriting programming for him, trying to change the mission parameters, hiding things from you, because it—it cannot stand the thought of destroying him,” Rush said, voice cracking. It turned away from Young, its shoulders hunched, like Jackson stood, at times, and looked out at the sea.

“Hey,” Young closed the distance between them. He stopped directly behind the thing and put both hands on its shoulders.

“You shove me off this cliff and it won’t matter,” it whispered.

And, god damn. The thing was crying.

“I’m not gonna shove you off this cliff,” Young whispered. He wrapped an arm around it, pulling Rush’s back against his chest.

It nodded, one hand over its face, one hand closed over Young’s wrist.

The last thing it probably remembered was sobbing, terrified, on the floor of the CI room with no idea what was coming, no idea that it was seconds away from an almost-Scottish hillside, locked inside the chair. It had no idea if it would ever regain the missing parts of itself—whatever was still sealed to Rush’s real brain. It had threaded a death-needle on behalf of all the reality Young was ever gonna know—and then he’d told it he considered it his job to prevent its existence.

“This has been a real bad day,” he whispered.

It shook its head.

It was definitely crying.

“How much time have you spent like this?” Young asked. “In combination?”

“Collectively? A few hours,” it whispered.

Holy shit.


This thing was two hours old and trying not to let its component parts burn the world down.

“Well, I’ll tell you this, kiddo,” Young said gently. “You’ve already mastered the Nick Rush art of total bullshit.”

“Fuck off. I am Nick Rush. And none of it was bullshit.”

“If you’re really Nick Rush,” Young murmured into its hair, “at least twenty percent of what comes out of your mouth is gonna be bullshit. At least.”

It shivered against him.

Young wrapped both arms around it, shielding it from the worst of the wind. “We’re gonna work this out.”

“I doubt that very much,” it said.

“Don’t give me that,” Young said gruffly.

“You consistently ask the wrong questions,” it murmured, leaning into him.

“Well you’re consistently inconsistent,” Young murmured back, his grip on Rush tightening. “But I’m learning to adapt. How do I put you back together again?”

“Take me apart, you mean?” Rush said, wistfully. “All you have to do is put him in the chair. Make sure you’ve purged the virus from the CPU before you do it. We’ll fully reintegrate. Once that’s done, y’can tear us apart. At your leisure.”

Young nodded. “Sorry kiddo, but you’re not supposed to exist.”

“I don’t disagree,” it whispered. “But.” It stepped out of his grip and turned to face him, its gaze clear and steady. “In the graveyard of civilization, expectations are meaningless. Even the Ancients, at the height of their glory, couldn’t reverse what they’d done to themselves. I doubt I’m any different.”

Young didn’t reply.

“I’ll send you back, then,” it whispered finally, looking away. “If Eli can’t purge the virus—come back and let me know?”

“You got it,” Young said, his voice a cracked whisper.

“Close your eyes,” it said. 

Young looked at him for a long moment, but the other man, or thing, or whatever it was, whatever he was—didn’t look back.  

He stared at the sea.

Finally, Young shut his eyes.

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