Force over Distance: Chapter 49

//I can’t believe I missed you, you jackass,// Young projected, his tone as soothing as he could make it.

Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. References to past suicidality.

Text iteration: Midnight. Hover-to-discover is intact.

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 49

Five days out from a disastrous foothold engineered by a transdimensional assassin, Young leaned against the back wall of the CI room, James at his shoulder. Together, they watched the Science Team and a handful of Telford’s research personnel run final checks on every system and subsystem on Destiny.

Eli, stationed at the front of the room with Rush’s light-pen, kept a running tally of their progress. The kid swept a hand through “power grid,” smearing it into a gold haze of photonic chalk dust. He re-scrawled the item at the bottom of the growing “Cleared” list.

“Only a few more systems to go,” James said, eyeing the column labeled “Quarantined.”

“Yup,” Young replied.

“You get a chance to talk to Dr. Lee yet, sir?”

“No, figured I’d wait, seeing as Eli needs all hands on deck.”

That, and it’d be one hell of a different talk if Rush didn’t come out of the chair intact.

Young was taking things one step at a time and that was damn well gonna be step one.

With as much delicacy as he could muster, he threaded a slender ribbon of intent through the restive flicker of Rush’s thoughts. Not enough to disrupt the settled shards of millennia-old memory, just enough to light up the dark. Calm wove itself into his projection. Resolve. Admiration. A fierce, protective streak he knew went way too far but that he couldn’t, for the life of him, root out.

//Another day, genius. Maybe two.//

“Dr. Lee says Telford’s team is angling to take readings when the doc goes back in the chair.” James kept her voice low, too quiet to carry.

“Oh yeah?” Young asked. “See if you can’t get a few more details out of him, lieutenant.”

“Yes sir,” James said. “I’ll catch him after this session.”

“And you can put the word out that I’ll want a second sweep of all systems prior to any attempt to wake our chief scientist.”

“Got it.” James glanced at him, on the verge of saying more.

“Spit it out, lieutenant.”

“Not sure if you’ve noticed, sir,” James said, “but, uh, we’ve put an informal watch on the doc.”

“I’ve noticed.”

Not only had Young noticed, but Greer and James were driving him crazy. He hadn’t been able to sleep in the infirmary for the past handful of nights because there was always. Someone. There. Usually several someones.

He hadn’t slept soundly since he’d commandeered Wray’s gurney. Sleeping in his quarters without Rush was rough. Their link was fixed, but he was so damn worried about the guy that, in the absence of physical proximity, Young couldn’t wind down enough to get any real rest.

All the same, he wasn’t gonna change a damn thing.

“Telford’s people won’t get by us, sir.” James squared her shoulders.

“I know. Thanks, lieutenant.”

Young leaned into the wall at his back and watched Eli move system after system into the clear.

At 2300 hours, Young sat alone in the mess, waiting for Telford, sipping TJ’s strongest headache tea. He rested his forearms against the edge of the table and got an acid wash of pain for his trouble. He hissed, pulled back, and fought for his grip on his beaten metal cup.

“Damn it,” he muttered.

The doors to the mess swished open, revealing Telford, dressed in crisp fatigues. “Hey,” the other man said conversationally. “You look like shit.”

“You look sharp. You pack an iron in your duffel?”

Telford ignored the barb and dropped into a seat across from Young. “How’s Rush?”

“The same.”

“No problems with any systems?”

“Nope. Eli tells me the CPU’s running fine.”

“What about the AI?” Telford asked.

“Still locked in the neural interface. According to Eli, its code is clean.”

“Why not bring it online now?”

“This an operations meeting you’re trying to run?” Young asked. “I thought you wanted to talk.”

“I do. But I also want our chief scientist to come out of this intact, and it seems like checking in with the AI before we bring him online might not be a bad idea.”

That was gonna happen over Young’s dead body. For days now, he’d avoided thoughts of the stitched-together combination haunting the neural interface: a blend of alien tech and humanity’s most brilliant computer scientist, locked behind invisible walls. God knew what it was doing, what it was thinking, what it was planning, isolated for days on a hillside, overlooking a digital sea?

He wondered if it was lonely.

He didn’t give a shit if it was lonely.

All the same, he was sure it was.

“He’s not a computer,” Young growled.

“Figure of speech.”

“It’s—” Young stopped. Started again. “When we wake Rush up, we’ll unlock the AI.”

“Why?” Telford asked.

“Eli thinks it’s best.”

“Eli,” Telford repeated.


“Eli told me you thought it was best.”

“Yeah,” Young said. “After he ran the options for me, I did think it was best. He and I agreed.”

Telford leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and said nothing.

“You were the one who requested this meeting.” Young braced his wrists against the table edge. “You wanna get the hell on with it?”

“Sure,” Telford replied, with the poise of a predatory cat. “Does the term ‘ancora demissa’ mean anything to you?”

“Not a damn thing.”

“What about ‘navarchus’?”

“Nope, sorry.”

“So you haven’t picked up a word of Ancient, after two years on this ship?” Telford asked. “I’ll be interested to see how that little tidbit lands at my next IOA debrief.”

“You got a point?”

“Eli had my team locked out of whole swaths of the database.” Telford’s voice was hard. “For our own good. ‘Training wheels,’ he called it. But when the ship’s systems crashed and reset, those lockouts were wiped. Unlike you, I speak enough Ancient to make my way around an alien Wikipedia.”

“So?” Young fought a sinking feeling in his chest.

“So I know what he is,” Telford said, low and dangerous. “And I can damn well guess what you are.”

Young held a neutral expression, but it was probably too late for a bluff. Telford had seen him collapse when Rush’d pulled power from the stargate. He’d seen Young pass out when Rush’d stopped breathing in the distillery. Those two observations, combined with the information in the database, were enough for Telford to’ve pieced the picture together.

“Does the crew know?” Telford continued, like a guy casually dropping a brick through a plate-glass skylight. “Does Camile Wray know the pair of you are physiologically yoked to one another?”

Yup. Way too late for any kind of bluff.

“Wray knows.”

“So she covered for you. Figures. Does Jackson know?”

“No idea.”

“The command hierarchy and the IOA don’t know. They don’t have a clue,” Telford hissed. “I’d imagine there are quite a few people who’d be very interested in what’s happening on this ship. You’re hanging onto this command by your fingernails, Everett. You barely outrank me. One wrong move—” the man stopped himself.

“Keep going,” Young said mildly.

Telford smiled, grim and humorless. “Nice try.”

“If you don’t watch yourself, you’ll be confined to quarters. Under guard.”

“On what charge?”


“You’ve got no grounds.”

“I don’t need ‘grounds’.” Young shot back. “Get that through your head. You give me so much as remotely probable cause and I’ll cut you off from Earth. I’ll confine you for the duration of this mission. And that could be a very long time.”

Telford stared him down.

“You came through with a team of scientists, David,” Young growled. “Maybe, maybe, if you’d brought a squad of marines, you’d have had a prayer of turning things in your favor. But this crew is loyal to me. Military personnel. Civilians. Science Team. You wanna whine to the IOA on the stones? Be my guest. See how far it gets you. You want to survive here, you want to make any kind of progress on the war with the Ori? You’re gonna play this my way or not at all. And you’ve got one hell of a hole to dig yourself out of.

Telford said nothing.

“You can start by telling me what you did to my chief scientist in that goddamned Goa’uld lab.”

The other man’s expression turned calculating. “I thought Rush’d told you everything you needed to know.”

“I wanna hear it from you.”

“So he didn’t tell you everything.” Telford fixed glittering eyes on Young.

“He told me plenty.”

“Interesting. I thought you two’d come to some kind of real accord. But you haven’t, have you? You’ve been forced into a partnership by Destiny. Maybe—” Telford trailed off. “Maybe he never told you anything.”

“Why’d you try to kill him? Let’s start there.”

“And now I’m sure he didn’t tell you,” Telford said.

“Oh yeah?”

“Because that’s a pretty crass way to frame an attempt to modify the bounds of human consciousness.”

“Thanks for setting me straight.”

They stared each other down.

“Anubis had what we needed,” Telford said. “An electric field to induce the changes. An electroconductive gel to make them stick. A stasis deep enough to simulate death.”

Young fought to keep his expression neutral. “No way did Daniel Jackson send Nick Rush into a device built by Anubis.”

Telford smiled, a flicker of wistful malice passing over his features. “Jackson? No. Never. He tried to stop it. Jackson didn’t even know what the device was and he fought like hell against it. Can you imagine walking through the world like that? So sure of yourself you’d doom your civilization on nothing more than a feeling? The man’s arrogance is mindblowing.”

“But you knew,” Young said. “You knew what that device did. Didn’t you.”

Telford opened a hand and looked away.

“You find out from Kiva?” Young asked.

“The Lucian Alliance, like us, is looking for a way to resist the Ori. Of course they knew about the device; they’ve scavenged the scraps of a dying empire for centuries. They’d drowned dozens of their people in that gel. They all died. Because they didn’t have the right genes.”

“And you let Rush go ahead with this? You told no one at Homeworld Command? You sent him straight into it?”

“No one ‘sends’ Nick Rush anywhere,” Telford said.

“You could’ve stopped it.”

“He knew the risks.”

“You could have stopped it.”

Yes, I could’ve stopped it. Is that what you want to hear? If I’d been in my right mind at the time, I would have. God, Everett. You know me. You were so sure I wouldn’t betray Homeworld Command that you nearly killed Rush yourself to prove I’d been brainwashed. And I had been. Get off your damn high horse.”

Young stared dead at Telford and said nothing.

“If it makes any difference to you, maybe it doesn’t, but—I was with him. He wasn’t alone.” Telford’s throat closed. His gaze fell away. “Even brainwashed, I’d have stuck with him. And, for the record, he would’ve done fine. Kiva knew she couldn’t touch his mind and have him be worth anything. I made that very clear.”

“Yeah. Because she had a rep for valuing the input of her brainwashed underlings.”

“I was valued.” The ice in Telford’s tone was enough to freeze the air.

Young laughed, short and humorless. “Can you hear yourself? Are you seriously talking up the time you spent as a Lucian Alliance power player? Save it for James MacKenzie. I don’t give a shit. When were you gonna make your move on Rush? That same day?”

Telford’s expression was closed. “That was the plan. The LA attacked the Daedalus while we were planetside. They broadcasted an interference pattern that should’ve prevented an Air Force beam-out. There was a cloaked tel’tak on the way.”

“What went wrong?” Young asked.

“Dr. Perry,” Telford said. “She reprogramed the transporter on the fly.” He paused. “They saved one another. She and Nick. They have no idea. But they did. Because she was supposed to be with us, in that chamber. I was gonna have to kill her. But he sent her away. And she pulled him after.”

Young shivered, wondering in how many universes that spectacular set of matched chance had shaken out of multiversal dice.

“She really was brilliant,” Telford said, “and she cared about Nick. She was suspicious of my motives. Rightly so, it turned out.”

“What happened to Rush?” Young asked.

“He was beamed out of the gel. He was supposed to be in the stuff for at least an hour. He was there for something like thirty minutes. I’m guessing that’s why, afterwards, he wasn’t quite right.”

Young raised his eyebrows, prompting Telford to elaborate.

“More volatile, more panicky, less methodical, but—faster. At everything. More intuitive. That’s what I heard. He wasn’t exactly taking my calls. He turned secretive. Stopped talking to me, to Jackson, to the top brass. The only person he tolerated was Perry.”

“Well,” Young said, “the Air Force had probably turned out to be something of a disappointment.”

“He knew he was walking into something profoundly fucked up. He—”

“Go ahead,” Young snarled, losing his hold on his temper. “Pin this on him.”

“I’m not. But I didn’t coerce him into anything. I invited him. He stepped into that gel under his own power. He—”

“Yeah.” Young sat forward. “Dig yourself in.”

“Where do you get off?” Telford snapped. “Who appointed you his protector? You’ve nearly killed him yourself how many times? It’s an open secret you left him for dead.

“I didn’t try to kill him with my bare fucking hands.”

“No,” Telford hissed. “You marooned him. Because you didn’t have the spine to kill him outright. And what happened then?”

“Leave it alone, David.”

“The Nakai got their hands on him. They tortured him. For over a week. I understand it’s indescribably painful.”

Young looked away.

“And when they couldn’t break his mind, which was thanks to me, by the way,” Telford continued, “they implanted a transmitter next to his heart. Because even they thought no one in their right mind would try to remove something so precariously placed. But you—”

“That’s enough.”

“You didn’t give a damn,” Telford hissed. “And that was just the first six weeks of this mission. Do you need me to keep listing?”

“I said that’s enough.”

“Why the hell,” Telford said, leaning forward, “were you the one to pull him out of that damn chair?”

“The AI chose me,” Young said evenly.

Telford narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

“Ask it sometime,” Young growled. “Let me know what it says.”

“Did you bother reading a damn thing about what the Ancients had to say about what you were pulled into?” Telford asked. “The pair of you are tied to this ship. Permanently. Indefinitely. There’s no ticket home for you.”

If Telford was expecting a strong reaction, he was outta luck. Young didn’t move. “Yeah. I figured.”

“Unless,” Telford said, like he was sharing state secrets, “you let me and my team take a crack at this.”

Here it came.

“What do you mean ‘take a crack’ at it?” Young asked.

“Work with us. Let us study the whole thing. Rush’s link to the ship. Your connection to him. We may be able to help. We may be able to get you home. Both of you.”

Young hesitated.

“I get I’m gonna have to prove myself to you,” Telford said. “I get I’ve spent down all my goodwill and then some. But I came here to help. To help with the war. To do what I was meant to do—which, to be clear, is to clean up Jackson’s messes—but, I owe you. I owe both of you. I know that. I do. The pair of you freed me from Kiva. Rush brought the brainwashing to light. And you, uh, you killed me. In his body.” Telford met Young’s eyes. “That was one hell of a Hail Mary, Everett. Maybe it wasn’t for nothing.”

Young rubbed his jaw, leaning into the very real conflict he felt, wishing he could trust Telford, knowing he couldn’t. “What did you have in mind?”

“Let my team monitor everything that happens when he’s in the chair. When the AI comes back up. When you pull him out. That’s it. We take passive readings. We won’t interfere.”

“I’ll think about it,” Young began, “but you gotta understand—”

He was interrupted by the crackle of his radio. “Scott to Young, please come in.”

Young glanced at his watch. The lieutenant was right on time. “Go ahead.”

“Sorry to bother you, sir.” Scott sounded annoyed. “But we’ve got a situation down here? Volker and Brody turned on a piece of equipment in one of the labs.”

“Again?” Young growled.

“Uh, yeah, like I said, sorry to bother you, sir; it’s just not clear what it does?”

Young glanced at Telford, who was trying to burn a hole in the radio with his gaze. “Lieutenant, are you aware I’m off-shift at the moment? You should be directing this to Colonel Telford.

Telford gave Young a short nod of acknowledgement, as though taking the gesture as a peace offering.

Fine by Young.

“Sorry sir,” Scott said. “I’m not used to having two senior officers in the duty roster.”

“No need to apologize, lieutenant,” Young said. “Colonel Telford happens to be with me at the moment. I’ll send him your way. What’s your location?”

“We’re across from the machine shop. One of those small rooms with lots of monitors?”

“All right.” Young said. “You want Eli down there?”

“Eli’s still spending off-hours in the infirmary,” Scott said. “I tried to get him, but TJ says not unless the ship’s on fire.”

“Understood,” Young replied. “Telford’s on his way.” He clipped his radio to his belt.

Telford regarded him steadily. “Think about what I said.”

“Yeah. Look, in the meantime, let me know if this thing Brody and Volker turned on is gonna explode or displace us through time. Otherwise? I need to get some sleep.”

Telford nodded.

“Good luck,” Young murmured.

“Thanks,” Telford said dryly.

They parted ways at the door.

Young walked unhurriedly in the direction of his quarters. He gave Telford a good two minutes of lead-time, then turned back the way he’d come and picked up his pace.

He had somewhere to be. And, hopefully, one hell of a night ahead of him.

This had to work. It had to.

Eli was confident he’d purged the virus. The rest of the Science Team had double-checked his work. They hadn’t had a systems glitch for days.

Young rounded the corner into the hallway that accessed the chair room. No one was in sight. He swept the corridor, looking for stray kinos. After satisfying himself that the coast was clear, he made for the neural interface room and palmed the door controls.

The doors didn’t open.

He rapped out a pre-arranged signal: the Morse code pattern for a T and a J.

The doors slid open. Greer stood with his weapon slung over his shoulder, one hand loosely curled around it. He motioned Young inside.

“An assault rifle?” Young asked, eyebrows up.

“You know me,” Greer said. “I like to be prepared. Any trouble on your end?”

“Nope. Telford’s with Volker and Brody.”

“Lisa’s there too,” Greer smirked. “She and Dale can drag shit out like you would not believe.”

“Sergeant, I’ve been attending NHBs for weeks now,” Young said.

“Sorry sir, my mistake; Lisa and Dale can drag shit out like you would believe.”

Young looked past Greer to Eli and TJ, who hovered over his chief scientist. The man was on the floor next to the neural interface, in a nest of blankets. He was hooked up to a single IV—the one that kept the sharp edges of his shattered thoughts from stirring up, cutting deep.

“You guys run into any trouble?” Young asked.

“Nope,” Eli said, hunched in his gray sweatshirt and holding a bag of IV fluids. “I worked Telford’s people to within an inch of their lives, then gave them the night off. We should have eight hours before anyone misses us.”

“As long as there aren’t any medical emergencies.” TJ dropped into a crouch next to Rush. Her Ancient device glowed aquamarine in her hand.

Young posted up next to Eli. The kid’s eyes had lost the bloodied cast they’d had after his interrogation by the Nakai, but they were still rimmed with red and lined with a laced network of capillaries. “You okay?” he asked.

“I’ll be better when this is over.” Eli shrugged. “But, yeah. I’m fine. The hard part is done.” He looked uncertainly at Young. “Well. For me, the hard part is done.”

“Thanks for being here.” Young closed his hand on Eli’s shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. “You’ve had one hell of a week.”

“Yeah. But uh, you know me,” Eli said wanly. “I get around. IT guy by day, um—” he halfheartedly lifted the IV bag he held. “I don’t know—nurse, I guess, by night?”

TJ smiled up at him. “Nurse? In my dreams. More like IV pole replacement.”

“Hey.” Eli played along without any real enthusiasm. “This is skilled labor here.”

“This’ll work.” Young responded to the anxiety he could see in the kid’s eyes. “It will.”

“Yeah,” Eli flashed him a quick smile. “I know; ‘course it will.”

Young knelt opposite TJ and pressed careful fingertips to the side of Rush’s temple. //You hear that, genius? I expect you to come outta this with at least as much attitude as you took in.//

Rush’s skin was warm beneath his hand.

Young tucked a piece of the scientist’s hair behind his ear.

“So,” TJ said softly.

Young looked up at her.

“What’s the final verdict? Do we keep him sedated while he’s in the interface?”

“No,” he said, putting an end to a days-long debate by following his gut.

“You won’t have long before he starts to wake up.” TJ peeled back the tape that secured the IV. “You ready?”

“Yeah,” he said quietly. “Pull the line. Let’s do this.”

TJ nodded, then deftly removed the cannula and taped a square of gauze over the small puncture wound. She backed away, and Greer took her place.

They scooped Rush off the floor, blankets and all.

Young felt the pressure of the scientist’s consciousness engage. He projected calm for all he was worth. “I’ve got him,” he murmured, and winced as the man’s full weight pressed against his injured forearms.

Images translated across the link—silver towers, glass, a tranquil sea—disorganized and bright and searing.

//Not you, genius.// Young projected. //UC Berkeley. Math. Cypher keys. Cooking. That’s you.// He lowered Rush into the chair. Restraints snapped into place, one by one.

The scientist’s hands flexed.

Young tipped his head back.

He’s alone, on an alien world. Without water. Without food. The dust, stirred by the wind, coats his clothes and airways. He gets to his feet because fuck them, fuck all of them—

The crack of the bolts snapped the flashback in half. Rush’s mind was pulled away, into the darkness of Destiny where, this time, Young wasn’t permitted to follow.

He looked down at the scientist, locked into the neural interface, blue lights at his temples where the bolts shot electrodes deep beneath the skin. His hair brushed over the metal. Young smoothed it back. He adjusted the blankets over Rush’s threadbare T-shirt.

TJ came to stand beside him. “You okay?”

Young nodded. He turned to Eli. “How’s it looking?”

The kid studied the transparent projections thrown into midair by the monitors. “Not totally sure. But there’s information transfer going both ways.”

“That seems like a good thing,” Young said.

“Yeah.” Eli frowned. “Yeah, I guess. If his mind can handle that. I mean, we still don’t understand what happened to Dr. Franklin.”

“That’s not gonna happen to Rush,” Young said.

The four of them gathered around the displays, watching Rush’s vitals, watching the flickering pattern of voltage fluctuations in his brain, watching representations of data flow back and forth, waxing and waning through the open connection.

Greer shifted. “How long is this gonna take?”

“I don’t know,” Eli replied. “But, maybe—maybe a long time.”

It took seven hours before informational flux faded to zero and the obsidian panel opened at the side of the chair. Young, barely able to contain himself, made straight for it.

TJ pulled him back.

He turned, eyebrows raised.

Her eyes glowed an unearthly blue in the dim light. “It might take him some time to adjust, so don’t read too much into it if he’s not oriented.”

“Yeah.” Young started for the chair.

TJ yanked him back. “I just don’t want—”

“TJ. I get it.” He pulled away.

“Everett,” she snapped.

He stopped.

TJ stepped forward. Her hair shone under the soft glow of repurposed starlight. “Don’t upset him.” She closed her fingers around Young’s elbow. “I know how you can be.”

He nodded.

She let him go.

Finally, finally, he pressed his hand against the cool surface of the waiting interface.

The room faded.

He looked into the darkness of the ship and found a spectacular blend of light and shadow. Integrated and intricate. Ribboned opacity. Woven light. It’d grown since last he’d seen it. Like a living city. Like a living mind.


Oh god.

He was looking at the thing he’d spoken to. The combination of Rush and the AI. This was its structure. Laid bare. Did it know Young was here? Could it feel his presence? The existential threat he brought? Did it understand what was about to happen?

He hesitated.

He couldn’t scrape this thing apart, light from dark, filament by filament. It was so complex it would take hours. And it would be awful, he was sure of it, for the thing he’d met on that almost-Scottish hillside. Agonizing and slow.

Bracing himself, acting on instinct, he reached into both halves of the thing. Light and dark.

Both halves reached back, entangling themselves around the edges of Young’s own complex, textured consciousness. As though they both recognized him, somehow. There were qualities to the darkness he’d never discerned. There was a local shadow layered atop and within the vaster darkness of Destiny as a whole. And that local shadow knew him. It was tangling itself up, into, and around his multi-pronged mental grip.

It was the AI. It must be.

And now—god. He knew what had to be happening on that almost-Scottish hillside. If everything had gone according to plan, Rush’s entire, intact, complete consciousness had blended with the mind of the AI. It was waiting. Patiently. Twined into his hold.

//Are you trying to help me?// As soon as the question occurred, it escaped.

In response, he got a wordless wave of frustrated, anxious, get-the-hell-on-with-itness that was so familiar and so horrifying that, with a surge of panic, he rent the construct apart.

The pain came, searing and clean. There and gone.

Young opened his eyes. His heart beat hard. His palms were damp. The atmosphere in the room seemed too thin. Before he could organize his thoughts, he heard the bolts of the neural interface retract.

Rush’s mind crashed through his consciousness with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball.

A flood of discordant, disorganized images swept through his mind. Each of them shard-like, sharp enough to cut. He wasn’t sure who he was, where he’d lived, whom he’d known. Memories of TJ, of Emily, of David, of Gloria, of Shep, mixed with other faces. A woman with dark hair. A little girl. Samantha Carter, her eyes like the sea, dressed in pale gray, an Ancient datapad in one hand, a glass of calda in the other.

His eyes watered, he gasped for air—

Until Rush pulled back.

Young braced himself against the chair. Greer was at his elbow. “You okay, sir?” The sergeant asked.

Young nodded. He stepped around the front of the chair, sliding past Eli and TJ, who were watching Rush expectantly. He knelt in front of the scientist.

The man’s eyes were open but unfocused. He hadn’t moved.

“Hey,” Young whispered, covering Rush’s hand with his own. “Nick.”

Rush blinked down at him. He brought his free hand to his forehead and squinted at Young in confused disapproval. “Quid tibi accidit?” Rush whispered.

“Uh.” Young squinted right back at him. “Wanna try that one again? In English?”

Ignosce, quidnam istuc est? Quid modo dixisti?

“Uh oh,” Eli muttered.

“English,” Young said. “You’re not speaking English.” He took a breath. He clamped down on his anxiety and impatience. Hard. “Just—take a minute.”

Rush sat forward, tore his right hand out of Young’s grip, and brought it to rest against Young’s temple.

Young jerked away and grabbed Rush’s wrist. “Take it easy.” He kept his hold open, a cage of a grip.

The scientist tried the same maneuver with his other hand.

Young grabbed that one as well. “No way, genius. C’mon.”

Rush gave him an alarmed look. “Ecce, tibi adiuvare possum. Algo certe tecum non recte est. Non ordine loqueris.” He tried to jerk a hand out of Young’s grip. “Dimitte me statim. Quid facis?”

“Hey.” Young drew out the word. “Relax.”

“Ugh. Non dicas. Asinus.” Rush tried to get to his feet.

Young pressed him back. “Nope.”

“Okay, so we could do this all day,” Eli muttered. “Or.” He knelt next to Young, his hands open. “Salve. Me intellegisne?”

Rush stared at Eli. Then he was off, speaking rapidly, trying to pull out of Young’s grip. When he failed to free himself, Young felt the rhythms of his speech through his hands as he muted the other man’s gestures.

“Whoa,” Eli said. “Loquere tardius—” he broke off as Rush plowed over him.

“What’s he saying?” Young demanded, over Rush’s frustrated monologue.

“He thinks there’s something wrong with you. He thinks he’s speaking English. I’m not fast enough to get a word in edgewise. I can’t—”

Rush stopped as he took in the exchange between Young and Eli.

“Oh wait. Maybe—” Eli broke off as Rush collapsed back into the chair.

Most of the tension left the scientist’s frame. His expression was full of disgust. With a quick, calculated burst of energy, Rush snapped a hand from Young’s grip. Before Young could recapture it, the man pulled back, shot Young a pointed look, and opened his hand in what looked like half an ironic “don’t shoot” pose. He rested his elbow on the arm of the neural interface chair, pressed the heel of his hand against his temple, and said something in Ancient. One word.

“Yeah, he gets it,” Eli said, concern and relief and amusement warring in his expression. “I’m pretty sure he just said ‘fuck,’ actually.”

Young smiled faintly, maintaining his grip on Rush’s left hand. “I’ll take it,” he said, looking at the scientist.

Rush sighed.

Eli said something in Ancient, his hands open, his tone regaining the subtle, friendly quality it had been missing for days.

Rush said something in return that just sounded—exhausted.

“He feels like crap,” Eli translated, “and he wants to know what happened.”

“Tell him you’ll explain later,” Young said.

“Oh yay. His favorite thing.”

“We gotta get him out of here, and it’s not a short story.”

“Okay.” Eli started then restarted a single, halting sentence.

Young gave Rush a searching look, then opened their link as wide as it would go. Rush returned his look, just as searching. But, mentally—

Young met with a blurred wall of interference. “Damn it.”

“What?” Eli asked.

“Can you tell him to stop interfering?”

“He’s literally just sitting here,” Eli said blankly.

“Yeah. I know. Can you tell him to stop interfering with the link?” Young clarified. “I can’t get a read on his mental state.”

“I can try,” Eli said, eyeing Young like he’d just been told to roll a seven at the nearest craps table. The kid said something in Ancient. Rush shook his head, shot Young an unimpressed look, and fired off a sentence. Eli frowned. “He says, er, I think he said: ‘You can fucking forget it’?”

“You’re a lotta work.” Young motioned Greer over with his head.

Rush opened his free hand, all graceful irony. As gestures went, it did a pretty good job communicating the idea of, Well I don’t know what the hell you expected, you idiot. Which, yeah, was very Rush.

But the guy was pretty damn composed, given everything that’d just happened.

Too composed?


And why couldn’t he speak English?

Young didn’t like it. He’d given the Rush-AI combination seven hours of hardware access to the man’s literal brain. A lot could happen in that time.

“Hey, doc.” Greer appeared beside Eli.

“Hey,” Rush repeated, his normal accent effaced by an American gloss over native Ancient.

“Ew,” Eli whispered. “Weird.”

“Nice,” Greer grinned at Rush.

Rush sighed, shut his eyes, and fired off a sarcastic-sounding sentence at Eli.

“Um, he says the ability to copy monosyllabic utterances is nothing to be happy about,” Eli translated.

“Killjoy,” Greer said, still smiling.

“Let’s get him up.” Young tried to summon even a fraction of the relief Greer and Eli were feeling.

He’d torn the combination into two halves. How the hell could he be sure he’d ended up with the right one? With the amount of interference in Rush’s brain, there was no way to be sure.

That, Young realized with a sinking feeling, was maybe not a coincidence.

“Careful.” TJ hovered behind Greer. “He hasn’t been on his feet for days.”

“You think he’ll let us carry him back?” Greer asked.

“Only if he’s unconscious,” Young said. “Whenever he goes down, we’ll just sweep his legs and pick him up.”

“Got it,” Greer replied.

Rush watched Young’s exchange with Greer through half-lidded eyes as Young started detangling him from his blankets.

“I don’t like it,” TJ chimed in. “He shouldn’t be walking at all without shoes; his feet have finally started to heal now that he’s spent some time off them. Not to mention he passes out when he stands too fast on a good day.”

“What do you say I just go for it?” Greer murmured. He caught Young’s eye. “If I’m quick about it, I think he might let me do it. He looks pretty damn tired.”

Young studied Rush. The scientist’s eyes had drifted shut, and when Young pressed the back of his hand to the man’s forehead, he didn’t so much as twitch. Young steeled himself against the increasing headache, and, again, tried to get a line on Rush’s thoughts. He got nothing for his trouble but ache and blur. Young put some pressure against the interference, but Rush jerked away, one hand coming up reflexively, as though to ward Young off.

//Sorry genius.// He tried for a different kind of traction. //Talk to me, will you?//

Rush cracked his eyelids and looked up at Young. “Bona spes,” he whispered.

Young grimaced.

Rush shut his eyes.

Young sighed and looked at Greer. “Give it a shot.”

In a swift, smooth motion, the sergeant lifted Rush out of the chair, turned, and made for the door at a fast clip.

That’d be one way to get it done.

Young was hit with a wave of disorientation so strong he had trouble keeping his footing. Eli grabbed his elbow, and Young leaned into the kid. He felt a surge of nausea. A wave of panic.

//Sorry, genius,// Young projected, knowing Rush wouldn’t understand the words, but hoping he’d pick up on the intent behind them. //We gotta get you out of here. Find you a bed.//

All he got in return was the sense of Rush pushing him away.

Young joined Greer at the door to the chair room, while TJ and Eli scrambled to pack up medical supplies. He pressed a hand against the nearest wall and did his best to stay on his feet.

Rush closed his eyes against a wave of vertigo. He leaned his head against the sergeant’s shoulder.

“Does he seem—off to you?” Young asked Greer.

“Compared to what?” Greer replied.

“Never mind.”

“Hey.” Eli appeared at Young’s elbow with his laptop tucked under one arm. “Are you okay? You look like you’re about to fall over.”

“I’m fine.” Young squinted through his headache. “I feel like shit, but it’s not really me.”

“I don’t think that translates to you being ‘fine’,” Eli said dubiously.

Young shrugged. “What time is it?”

“A little before six in the morning,” Eli said.

Young nodded. “We should get going. Don’t want to meet anyone in the hallways.”

TJ joined them, her medical bag slung over her shoulder.

Without being asked, Eli jogged ahead of them, scouting out their path.

“I hate this cloak and dagger stuff,” TJ whispered, watching the kid vanish around a corner.

“It’ll be fine,” Greer murmured. “The only person we give a damn about is Telford, and radio chatter tells me that Dale and Lisa are making his life complicated right now.”

In the back of Young’s mind, images sliced through the blur of Rush’s interference. They crystalized, shattered, and reformed at random. It was distracting as hell. It seemed like Rush was attempting to control his chaotic thoughts. He was working toward something, sifting through memories that weren’t his own, maybe. Like he could determine the content of a disassembled puzzle by examining its pieces.

Maybe he could.

“Still,” TJ whispered. “I don’t like it.”

“Oh come on,” Greer said, “all things considered this is—”

His hands wrench into a keyboard in the darkness of an alien ship, as if unfamiliar glyphs in an unfamiliar layout can save him. His nails pry away from his fingers as he’s dragged from monitors that were just beginning to open to him. They pull him into the dark. If he’d paid attention, he might’ve heard them coming, but they’re strangely quiet; their movements have the beating sound of wings struggling against the air.

Young torqued the flashback that’d exploded out of Rush’s running interference and snapped them into—

The backyard grass is cold and wet beneath his back. Above them, the Milky Way splits the sky like a road. His brothers are laughing. “Don’t let them get to you, V,” JD says, grinning in the dark. “They’re just pissed because you’re already smarter than they are.” Everett sighs, crosses his arms, and frowns up at the stars. “C’mon, little man.” Erik reaches over to mess up his hair. He hates it when they do that. “Don’t take it so hard.”

Rush jerked in Greer’s grip. Young felt a sense of pressure as the scientist mentally pushed him away.

Unbelievably, his headache ratcheted up.

“Shit.” Greer’s hands tightened on Rush. His pace slowed as he looked at Young. “What was that?”

“Flashback,” Young said. “He’s okay now.”

“You can stop being such a pain in the ass all the time, doc.” Greer resumed his normal pace.

In the back of his mind, through a semi-transparent glaze of pure blur, Young felt Rush, again, start sifting through images.

//Not a good idea.// Young tried to convey a sense of warning.

Rush either didn’t understand or didn’t agree, because he pulled away from Young as much as he could. Young was more than a little concerned that if the man triggered the wrong memory in the hallway, it would not be a good scene and it would not be low profile.

//Rush.// He tried to file the edge off his tone. //Stop it.//


Young was pretty sure he’d just been told to fuck off.


They were nearly at the infirmary, the emergency lighting near the deck plating flaring as they passed, when—

They’re in his mind, he knows they are, but it’s so difficult to remember as Destiny disintegrates around him and the crew, pale and cold with icy eyes, plead for an eleventh hour save, technical or otherwise, and, even though he knows this is simulated, he’s tempted to give something away, to go for the neural interface because he regrets, he regrets he never dared to unlock Destiny; it wouldn’t have taken him long—but he can’t, he must not think of that, not here, not now, not ever, but especially not now while they’re screaming, pressing into his mind. He imagines vessels tearing open in his brain and he tries to make it happen but he can’t scream, he can’t even scream as he struggles in the water (he has never, never liked the water) it slows his movements, preventing injury (in this, as in all things, they’ve been so careful) except—yes except. Can he? Yes. Yes. Yes he can. He rips the breathing apparatus off his face. They didn’t expect this, not an action with intent, not under these cognitive pressures, a psychically displaced column of mercury fathoms deep, but, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the kilopascals of pure agony applied to his mind, it seems there is a way out and he has found it and when he pulls the water into his lungs it’s a victory because just let them fucking try to get him out in time.

Young gasped. He sank into a crouch, both hands braced against the floor. He wrenched them away and into—

“Night’s coming,” Erik whispers, standing at the window, looking at the sky. “They should’ve been back by now.” Everett tightens his rain gear down. “Let’s go up the trail,” he says, “while there’s still some daylight left.” Erik nods and shoulders his own pack. They push open the door to the ranger’s station, and step into rising wind.

With a jolt of panic, Rush shoved Young’s mind back, retreating further.

“Easy, doc,” Greer said. “Come on man, keep it together, just a little longer.”

Young gasped, pressing his palms against the cool metal of the floor, grounding himself in the terrible ache in his own forearms.

TJ dropped to her knees beside him. She placed a hand on Young’s shoulder. “Colonel, we’re almost there.”

“I’m okay, TJ,” he murmured, but he let her help him to his feet.

He felt Rush resume his merciless attempt to do—something. God damn it.

//I can’t believe I missed you, you jackass,// Young projected, his tone as soothing as he could make it. //Please stop this.// His eyes watered with the pain of his headache.

Eli was watching their approach from just outside the infirmary doors. Young waved the kid back with one hand.

“Eli.” Young winced as a spectacular scene of carnage burst across Rush’s consciousness, this time from somewhere in Destiny’s memory banks. “Can you talk to him? He’s doing some kind of ridiculous bullshit.” Young pressed a hand to his aching temple.

“Uh,” Eli eyed Rush skeptically.

“With his mind,” Young clarified. “I don’t know what he’s doing, but it’s not good. He needs to stop.”

Eli took up a position next to Greer and asked Rush a question in a conversational tone.

This seemed to do the trick. Rush, distracted, stopped whatever agony origami he was trying to force on his own brain.

Thank god.

Rush murmured something to back to Eli, who frowned, and asked another question.

“What did he say?” Young demanded.

“Um.” Eli met Young’s gaze with worried, red-rimmed eyes. “He said he’s trying to figure out what’s happening, since no one will freaking explain it to him, and then I asked him the last thing he remembers and he, uh, he said he doesn’t know?”

“That’s fine.” Young squinted through the pain in his head.

“That’s fine?” Eli echoed. “Pretty sure he disagrees.”

“Just give him the gist of what’s going on.” Young pressed his hand to his aching head. “And tell him to stop giving himself such a hard time.”

“Probably good advice,” Greer said.

TJ’s fingers tightened on Young’s elbow as they rounded the infirmary doors. They went straight to the back, passing Barnes, who watched them from the bed nearest TJ’s office. Greer set Rush on the gurney that Young had started to think of as “his.” All the while, Eli kept up a steady stream of careful, awkward Ancient.

Rush brought a trembling hand to his temple. He did his best to stay focused on Eli.

And—ugh. Whether this was his chief scientist or his sworn existential enemy, he wasn’t capable of just standing by and watching the guy work so damn hard. He stepped to his side, slid a hand behind the man’s shoulders, and started easing him back.

“No,” TJ breathed, her hands over Young’s. “Sorry. But he has to stay awake.”

“Why?” Young asked, as Rush leaned into him.

“Because he has to eat,” TJ murmured. “He hasn’t eaten in days. He needs to start. Right now.” She fixed Young with an earnest look, then whirled and vanished around a corner.

“Sorry, genius.” Young ran a hand up and down the man’s back.

Rush looked at Eli, who translated the gist of the brief exchange.

The scientist nodded, then slowly pulled his right foot beneath him, into a half cross-legged position. He had an arm wrapped around his chest. His other hand was glued to his temple.

Bene vales?” Rush asked, his full attention on Eli.

“Yeah,” Eli replied. “Er, I mean, sic ego. Uh, bene valeo.”

“Yeah?” Rush repeated, skeptical.

“Yeah.” Eli gave Rush half a smile.

Rush glanced at Young and Greer and asked the kid a question laced with disapproval.

Eli smirked as he turned to them. “He wants to know why, out of all the military personnel, only Lieutenant Scott has made any effort to learn Ancient? We’re freaking living on an Ancient ship, after all.”

“Did he say ‘freaking’?” Greer asked.

“Um, no.”

Rush glared at them.

Young opened his hands. “Hey. We just carry the guns.”

Greer knocked a boot-edge against the metal frame of the gurney. “Asshole,” he said.

TJ returned, carrying a bowl of paste. Her eyes were less troubled than Young had seen them in days. “God, you two—be nice to him.” She fought down a smile as she eyed Young and Greer. She handed the bowl to Rush.

The scientist looked at the paste, then looked up at TJ, his expression a mix of disgust and disdain. He asked a question, in Ancient, that was, without a doubt, something like: What the hell is this supposed to be?

“What?” TJ asked defensively. “It’s good for you. If you eat this and you keep it down, you can have an MRE later.”

Rush picked up the spoon with an air of resignation and looked at Eli.

“Uh, postea, poteris habere—um, MRE?” Eli translated uncertainly.

“MRE?” Rush repeated.

Young winced at the bizarre accent.

“Um, crap,” Eli said. “Kind of like, cibus paratus?”

Quidquid,” Rush sighed.

Eli grinned, the first genuine smile Young’d seen from him in days. The kid rubbed a hand across red-rimmed eyes. “I think he just said ‘whatever’.”

“And on that note,” Greer said, “I gotta go. I’m late for my shift. I’ll see you later, doc. Stay outta trouble.”

TJ produced a bottle of electrolytes and four pills, which she placed on the table next to Rush. “Tylenol and antivirals,” she murmured. “They’ll help with the fever and headache.”

Rush stared at the pills as Eli translated what TJ had said. His eyes swept the room, settled on Young, then flicked to the pills. He hesitated, then knocked back all four with a swig of electrolytes. He fired off a sentence at Eli.

“Um, he says he doesn’t want three people standing around watching him eat?”

“I don’t blame you,” TJ murmured. “I’m going to catch a few hours of sleep in one of the beds out there.” She tipped her head toward the main floorspace of the infirmary. She caught Young’s eye. “Wake me if you need me.” She turned to Eli. “You should get some sleep too. You’re on medical leave for the rest of the day, so don’t let anyone trap you into anything. Go to your quarters and hide.”

“Oh, they’ll find me,” Eli said. “They always do.” He glanced at Young. “You want me to stick around, so you can talk to him?”

Young watched Rush half-heartedly stir his paste. “Don’t think he’ll be awake for much longer,” he said. “Pretty sure we can manage.”

Esto amabilus erga the colonel,” Eli said sternly, glaring at Rush.

Rush gave Eli a look that pretty clearly said, Oh please.

TJ fiddled around for a few minutes, checking Rush’s blood pressure again and making sure the monitors were set to alarm properly before she could bring herself to leave the room.

They were alone.

Young boosted himself next to Rush on the gurney. “Hey, genius,” he said.

“Hey.” Rush set his bowl of paste on the bedside table and slid it toward Young with the air of a guy granting a huge favor.

“Nope.” Young slid the bowl right back. “You still have to eat that, even if TJ’s not here.”

Rush said something resigned and disdainful, then dug his spoon into the stuff and took a bite.

“Yeah, tell me about it.” Young fought a wave of exhaustion that might or might not have been his own. “You have no idea what kinda hell you put me through, do you?”

Rush looked up, his eyes glazed with exhaustion and fever. He laid a hand on Young’s upper arm. “Hey,” he said.

“You’re being nice.” Young’s voice faded to nothing. “I don’t like it.”

“Yeah?” Rush’s hand tightened on his biceps.

“Yeah. You’re also getting a hell of a lot of mileage outta two words.” Young tried to smile, tried to meet Rush’s gaze, curious and intent despite his fever and his exhaustion. “Eat.” He pointed at the bowl.

Rush rolled his eyes.

“Why can’t you speak English?” Young asked, keeping his tone light, despite the terrible suspicion rising in his mind. “Why are you being so—agreeable?” His throat closed on the last word.

Rush looked up from his bowl of paste, and his gaze was piercing. “Non possum nisi cogitare te torquere animam tuam, illic.”

“You don’t sound impressed,” Young whispered. “I’m thinking you should be. Because I met you, genius. A different version of you. When I sat in the neural interface chair. And I know you’re not going to like this, but I need to make sure that whatever came out of the chair—” he broke off.

Rush glanced up at him. “Tam gaudeo quod hoc tempore soliloquiis indulges.”

“I just want to make sure it’s really you.”

Rush sighed, his spoon scraping the bottom of his bowl. “Sic ita. Valde interessantissimum, scio.”

“But in order to do that,” Young whispered, “I have to look at your mind, genius, and you don’t seem to want that. Which, you have to understand, just makes me more suspicious.” He leaned forward, and, very carefully, brought a hand to the side of Rush’s head.

The scientist’s reaction was immediate. He jerked away and closed his fingers around Young’s raw, abraded forearm. The green glow of his heartbeat on the monitors behind him broke into a fast wave. “Fuck off,” Rush said, his voice wavering, and through their link Young could feel the familiar, terrible urge to move, to get away

He hissed in pain as Rush’s hand tightened around his arm.

And, just like that, Rush’s building panic dropped to nothing. He scowled at Young, let him go, and unsnapped the cuff of Young’s jacket. He pulled the sleeve up, exposing the bandaging beneath. “Quid accidit?” the scientist demanded.

“Long story,” Young murmured, pulling his hand back. “You remembered how to say fuck. That’s a good sign, I guess.”

Rush looked at him steadily, like he expected Young to start making sense any time now.

Young lifted his hand.

Rush flinched back, his heart rate rising, his breathing fast and shallow. His eyes flicked from Young’s face to his forearm, and he shifted backward on the gurney. “Noli facere,” he whispered.

“I’m not gonna to hurt you,” Young said insistently. “I just need to check. If you’d had my week, you’d understand.” He inched his hand toward Rush, changing the angle, bringing it to rest on the other man’s shoulder, projecting a sense of calm for all he was worth. “There’s only one reason I can think of why you’d be so goddamned skittish about this,” Young said, his throat tight with misery.

Rush came back at him with a wave of Ancient, upset and fluent and far too fast to follow.

“Take it easy.” Young closed both hands on Rush’s shoulders. “If I pulled the wrong thing out of the ship, it’s on me. C’mon. Genius. Kid. Whatever you are. I’m not gonna hurt you. I just need to know.”

Beneath his hand, he felt tiny tremors tearing through Rush’s back. The scientist looked down. Young could feel the effort he was putting into holding still.

This was stupid.

“Okay.” He caved with an acute flare of guilt. “It might—it might not mean anything. Could be you’re just really damn tired of people tearing into your mind right now.”

In his grip, Rush continued to subtly shake, his head angled down and away.

“All right.” Young ran his hands over Rush’s upper arms, slow and reassuring. “You’re okay. Nick. Come on. I’m sorry. We don’t have to do this right now.”

Rush didn’t look up. Behind him, the monitors showed the too fast wave of his pulse.

Young pulled away and gave the other man some space. He stared at the floor and tried not to think of a damn thing. Not a multiversal cull, not a human/starship blend, not whatever he’d torn apart.

“Jackson,” he whispered, with zero hope. “Kid. Emily. Whomever the hell you are. Say something. Anything.”

The AI didn’t appear.

Young shut his eyes.

Aegre fero,” Rush murmured, tight and miserable.

“Tell me about it,” Young whispered, not opening his eyes.

“Yeah.” Rush’s voice was so quiet that Young could imagine his inflection wasn’t off, that he actually understood.

Rush’s hand closed around his upper arm.

Startled, Young looked up, straight into Rush’s waiting gaze.

From within the blur that shrouded the scientist’s mind, Young felt a wave of reassurance. It was poorly controlled. It was exhausted. It wavered in and out, riding a headache like the tide, but it was there. “Hey.” Rush pulled Young into a cautious hug. “You’re okay,” he said, his diction precise, his pronunciation an American gloss over an Ancient base.

“God, I hope you’re you,” he murmured, his face pressed to the scientist’s neck.

Rush didn’t reply. Instead, he pulled Young down as he laid back against the bed.

“Okay,” Young said, letting it happen. He draped himself over the man, his head coming to rest against Rush’s shoulder.

Somnum necesse est,” Rush slurred, his eyes shut, his fingers combing through Young’s hair.  

“Yeah,” Young said hollowly. “Quidquid.”

“Mmm,” Rush agreed.

“Sleep, genius,” Young murmured, watching the blurred interference pattern that kept him out of Rush’s head, pressing his own mind against it, wishing he dared to push through it, to whatever was on the other side.

It was less than a minute before Rush’s hand stilled, coming to rest heavily on the back of his neck. The scientist twitched. His muscles relaxed. His breathing evened out.

His interference didn’t drop.

Young watched the blurred flare of the scientist’s thoughts, trying to discern any hint of the AI.

It was useless.

He needed Rush to open his mind, and that, at least for now, wasn’t happening.

“My god are you a lotta work,” he whispered, tangling himself up with the man.

He shouldn’t stay.

People would be looking for him. He was supposed to finish his report on the foothold situation by early afternoon so Scott could start learning the key points for his briefing via the stones tomorrow morning. Telford was expecting Young to contact him.

Young knew he shouldn’t stay.

But he kicked off his boots, pulled the blankets over the both of them, and stayed anyway.

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