Force over Distance: Chapter 50
“You’re gonna wake up at bullshit o’clock,” Young whispered. “Midnight. 0300. Aren’t you.”
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Early morning.
Additional notes: None.
He had a vicious headache. His eyelids felt like lead.
He was warm. He was comfortable. His body was a distant, waiting ache. He was damned if he was getting up. He didn’t hear any alarms. He didn’t hear any weapons fire. He didn’t hear the hiss of air, escaping to vacuum.
The world could sort itself out, for once.
“Colonel Young,” it was a woman’s voice, quiet and urgent and very close to him.
He was tired.
A hand closed on his shoulder. “Colonel, wake up.”
It was Wray.
Young dragged his eyelids open. The room was a blurred tableau of lines and angles. White sheets glared beneath day-spectrum lights. He lifted his head, fighting double gravity or invisible drag or fatigue so intense it felt like it came from the world rather than from him. He shifted, and pain hit like an acid wave. His forearms were on fire. His left eye-socket had encountered an icepick at some point. His back ached. His neck was killing him. And—
He’d fallen asleep.
In the infirmary.
On top of Rush.
Definitely, one hundred percent tangled with and around his still-sleeping chief scientist in a way that did not suggest platonic efficiency.
Wray was shaking him awake, her still-bloodshot eyes wide.
“Shit,” he whispered. “Camile, I—”
“Shh.” Wray held a finger to her lips. “Quietly,” she mouthed. She inclined her head toward the open doorway.
“You can’t go back there.” TJ’s voice was sharp. Pitched to carry.
“You don’t have the authority to block me,” Telford snapped. “My team was supposed to be involved in any attempt to reintegrate Dr. Rush with the ship. Colonel Young confirmed it. If you’ve gone outside the chain of command on this one, lieutenant, I will court marital you faster than you can spell your fucking nickname.”
Telford was on a tear.
Young couldn’t face this. Not any of it.
He had nothing left.
Forget Telford—what was he gonna do about Rush?
He dropped his head back against the scientist’s shoulder and tried not to think of what he’d said to that poor, stitched-together thing in the neural interface. He tried not to think of what it might mean if it’d reintegrated itself in the hardware of Rush’s brain. No wonder it was afraid of him. No wonder—
“No,” Wray hissed, bottled lightning in a tiny package. “Don’t give up. Get up.” She looked at him with red eyes, her expression cracked with anxiety. “Please. Colonel. It’ll be that much harder if he finds you like this.”
Carefully, he untangled himself from Rush. //Sorry kid,// he projected gently. //Don’t wake up.// He did his best to keep the scientist from registering the movement, but it was hard to say how successful he was, given the interference the man’s brain was still running. He projected his own exhaustion through their link, coupled with all the calm he could muster.
Rush didn’t stir.
“Sir,” TJ said. “Regulations state that medical decisions fall under the purview of the Chief Medical Officer.”
As soon as Young stood, the blood left his head. His peripheral vision misted to gray. He staggered and reached for the edge of the gurney.
Wray shoved his head down, then guided him to sit on the cool deck plating.
“This isn’t just a medical decision.” The edge of anger in Telford’s voice sharpened itself. “Dr. Rush is integral to the function of the ship, which makes this, primarily, a tactical call. Your authority doesn’t extend that far.”
Wray crouched next to Young, her face hidden by the dark curtain of her hair. She unfolded along the floor to snag his boots and drag them within reach. She placed them silently in front of him, then swept her hair back and met his eyes with obvious concern.
He gave her a short nod.
“A tactical call?” TJ echoed. “A tactical call?”
Young pulled on his boots.
Wray stood. She straightened the sheets on Rush’s gurney and smoothed the blankets down.
“Yes,” Telford shot back. “You could make that argument.”
“The ship is in no immediate danger,” TJ countered.
Wray dropped back into a crouch. Deftly, she went to work on Young’s bootlaces.
“The Nakai are tracking us, lieutenant, they must be. This ship is constantly in danger. We’re one FTL drop away from total disaster. Move.”
“No, sir.” TJ’s voice was firm.
Young gathered himself as he watched Wray lace away, cool under time pressure. She wore a new athletic jacket. It was pale blue, with clean lines and navy detailing. Just a shade too big for her. Miles from her usual style. Young hooked a finger around the cuff of a sky-colored sleeve.
Wray looked up at him.
He looked back at her, eyebrows lifted.
She finished tying off his boot laces, gave him the ghost of a smile, shrugged, and nodded.
“That was a direct order, lieutenant,” Telford snapped. “Or wasn’t that clear?”
Wray smoothed Young’s hair, straightened his collar, then stood and offered him a hand.
Young took it.
Slowly, Wray pulled him to his feet.
“My authority here supersedes yours, colonel,” TJ said, pure ice.
Young leaned against Rush’s gurney. He started to cross his arms, then aborted as a wash of pain stopped him. He interlaced his fingers instead, then crossed his ankles, aiming for a casual pose.
Wray adjusted his jacket and gave him a double thumbs-up. She dropped into the chair next to the bed.
“Thanks,” Young mouthed, trying to put all the gratitude he felt on his face.
Wray smiled a small smile and curled her legs beneath her.
“Move aside,” Telford said.
“No sir,” TJ replied.
There was a soft clatter from around the corner.
Wray and Young locked eyes, then looked to the doorway.
Telford rounded the frame. He stopped short as he took in Young and Wray. TJ slipped through the doorway behind him. Her cheeks were tinged with pink and her eyes glittered with anger.
“Did you just shove aside my Chief Medical Officer, colonel?” Young growled.
“I stepped past her,” Telford said, on his guard. He eyed Rush, still dead asleep on the gurney behind Young. “My team tells me the neural interface chair was active for most of the night. From what they can tell, it looks like the AI’s no longer locked behind a firewall.”
“Yup,” Young said.
“Why wasn’t I informed?” Telford kept a lid on himself. “My understanding was that my team would be involved.”
“Sorry David,” Young said mildly. “There wasn’t time. It was a medical decision.”
Telford took a breath, on the verge of calling bullshit.
Young pushed away from the gurney and straightened.
“A medical decision,” Telford repeated.
Young looked at TJ.
“He developed an allergy to the anesthetic agent keeping him under,” TJ said coolly. “Due to his unique genetic status, we didn’t have a replacement. We had to wake him up immediately.”
Telford stared Young down. “Convenient timing.”
Young said nothing.
“So how’d it go?” Telford asked. “Your half-cocked, bullshit reintegration attempt, I mean?”
“Just fine,” Young replied.
“Oh yeah. Looks like it went great.” Telford glanced at Rush.
“You’re outta line, David.”
“You’re the one of line, Everett,” Telford’s voice rose as he lost his grip on his temper.
Young stepped in, his hands curling into fists. “You so much as wake him up and you spend a week confined to quarters,” he growled.
Behind Telford’s back, Wray shot Young a warning look.
Young did his best to calm the hell down.
Telford took a breath. When he spoke, the words came quieter. “Was he conscious at any point? Is he mentally intact?”
“Yeah,” Young said.
“How do you know? Did you do any cognitive testing?” Telford looked at TJ. “There’s a standard SGC battery that should be administered under circumstances like this. Did you give it?”
TJ said nothing.
“Did you even know it existed?” Telford gave TJ a withering look.
“So she doesn’t have every SGC form memorized,” Young growled. “Unlike some people, she’s got better things to do with her time. She assessed him. He’s fine.”
Telford glared at Young. “Oh yeah? Can he speak? Read? Write? Do math in his head? He knows who everyone is? His memory and personality are intact?”
“We didn’t administer any damn IQ tests, David,” Young said. “It’s not gonna happen. The man just spent the better part of a week in a drug-induced coma. You can give him a few days.”
“A few days? Are you kidding me? His functional status should be assessed immediately,” Telford pressed. “He’d be the first one to agree with me. He’s integral to the functioning of the ship; it’s a tactical requirement.”
“No.” Wray’s voice was cold. “Dr. Rush is a civilian member of this crew. He isn’t subject to orders—something most of the military personnel on this ship seem to forget.” She eyed both of them.
“You don’t speak for the Oversight Committee,” Telford shot back. “There’s more at stake here than you’ve been made aware of, Camile.”
Wray tipped her chin up and looked straight at Telford. “This ship is a microcosm of the culture we brought with us. Martial and civilian. On this ship, I am the IOA.”
“Bullshit,” Telford said. “You have what authority we give you. Which, in this case, is none.”
“Did you just threaten to overthrow a civilian government?” Young asked mildly.
“What ‘government’?” Telford snapped. “They have a damn interest club. On methods of governance. That’s not—”
“The Governance Club is recognized as the civilian authority on this ship,” Wray said. “We’re drafting a constitution.”
“Are you fucking serious,” Telford asked flatly. He looked at Young. “A constitution?”
“They’ve got letterhead and everything.” Young fought down a smile.
“Nicholas Rush,” Wray said, recapturing her momentum, “is under my jurisdiction. The balance between his rights as an individual versus the effect his status has on the safety of the crew is mine to weigh. Not yours. Not either of yours. Not until this ship comes under attack.” She stood. Her black pumps echoed on the deck plating as she stepped forward. “No one is waking him up. No one is administering the SGC-MCHV22.” She shot a knife-like look in Telford’s direction. “That assessment was developed by Dr. MacKenzie and its use is controversial. There’s no evidence it’s ever identified mental abnormalities or prevented cognitive insurgency that couldn’t be detected using the Jackson Method.”
“Jesus Christ,” Telford hissed.
“What’s the Jackson Method?” Young asked.
“A medical interview and a ten minute conversation with a friend.” Wray gave him a small smile. “It was proposed by Colonel Jack O’Neill as a more respectful alternative to the SGC-MCHV22.”
“Yeah, because Jackson can’t pass the V22 on his best day,” Telford muttered.
“Jackson Method sounds good to me,” Young growled. “And he’s already passed it. You and your team can go back to reading the database. He’ll let you know when he wants something from you.”
“This is unbelievable,” Telford hissed. “I—”
“Dr. Rush has been comatose for the better part of a week.” Wray spoke over Telford, low and powerful. “He needs time to recover. I intend on giving it to him. So the pair of you can move this argument elsewhere. Right now.”
Young and Telford stared at her.
“I said. Right. Now.” With a cool poise, Wray brushed her hair back over her shoulders, wrapped herself in Sharon’s jacket, and stared them down.
“Fair enough.” Young motioned Telford to precede him out of the room. As he followed, still none too steady on his feet, he shot a look over his shoulder at Wray.
She gave him a rueful shrug.
“Thanks,” he mouthed at her.
The hall outside the infirmary was empty. As soon as the doors shut behind them, Telford rounded on Young. “What the hell are you doing, Everett? You’re shooting yourself in the foot and sabotaging a war we’re already losing. For what? For Nick Rush?”
Young opened his mouth to come straight back at Telford, but—
Telford was more right than he knew. Rush should have been assessed. Not for mental competence but for—for mental solvency. For separation from the AI. Young should have done it the second the man had opened his eyes. He should have overpowered whatever interference Rush’d decided to run and goddamned looked. If that combination was in the body of his chief scientist—it needed to be kicked out.
Instead, he’d let it take a nap?
Probably not the best decision.
He was still letting it take a nap.
What the hell was wrong with him?
“You don’t have the temperament for a command like this,” Telford continued. “You’re conservative to a fault. And the really crazy thing? Rush has the temperament for it. If he were awake, and in his right mind, he’d be agreeing with me right now. Who the hell knows how far he’d have come if I’d been here, from the beginning, instead of you?”
Young could almost see it. The pair of them. There was something beautiful about it. Glorious. The way they’d egg one another on, build on complementary drives, reciprocal insanities, until they’d wired themselves up with starlight and knowledge enough to set the universe itself aflame. Who could say how far they’d get before the day a multiversal assassin pressed them, like preserved flowers, between dead branes of the cosmos?
“I’m his only shot,” Young said. The words came heavy with their own certainty.
“What do you mean?” Telford asked.
“David,” Young said, exhausted, braced against the nearest bulkhead. “I know you’ve got a line on the war with the Ori. I know it weighs on you. I’m even guessing,” he continued, “that what the LA put you through makes the idea of the Ori pretty hard to take. There’s an aspect to it that’s similar. A curb on free will. You must hate that.”
Telford couldn’t hide his astonishment.
“You probably can’t even tell me half of what you know,” Young whispered. “The real reason you hate Jackson so much.”
“I don’t hate Jackson,” Telford said, hollowly.
Young nodded. “You’re not the only one with secrets he can’t share. You may think you see clearly. All the pieces. How they fit. But there’s always a level above. A better view.”
“And,” Telford said, his voice soft, “what does this look like from your perspective, then?”
“Forget hearts and minds,” Young said. “Forget ideas. Forget physical war. I think this ship—” His throat closed. A sudden, profound terror warned him he shouldn’t finish his sentence.
Telford stared at Young, his features pale and drawn.
I think all of reality may be at stake, Young didn’t say.
“Everett,” Telford said, and, for the space of a heartbeat, Young could see the guy he’d met years back—curious and sharp and ready for anything the galaxy might throw his way. “Let me help you.”
Young shook his head. “No matter what I tell you—you’ll never back down. And that’s what I need you to do, David. I need you to back down.”
“I can’t,” Telford whispered. “I can’t, because Jackson already opened the door. You must see that.”
“I don’t know what I see.”
“Then let’s work through this together,” Telford said softly.
Young shook his head. “Leave Rush alone.” His voice was flat. Final. “Don’t help him. Don’t hinder him. Just leave him alone. Read the database. Write your reports. That should be enough for you.”
“Even if I took that as an order,” Telford said, “even if I followed it—Nick Rush will never fall in line.”
Young nodded. “I know.”
“So what’s the point of pumping the brakes?” Telford asked.
“Time it right, and, maybe, you can navigate a pretty tight hairpin,” Young said.
“Brakes do you no good when your car’s already gone over the edge of a cliff,” Telford hissed.
Young said nothing.
“I’ve heard your piece.” Telford’s voice was cold. “And now? I’m gonna say what General O’Neill should have said to you on day one of this mission. Get over yourself. Fall in line. Do your damn job. Don’t nursemaid a group of whiney adults who signed up for an off-planet mission. You’re not Captain Fucking Janeway. You don’t need to go home. You need to go on. You’re a soldier. Sometimes, in the end, we return to where we started. But more often? People like you and I burn on the Altar of War, far from home, so that others can live in the clear.”
“Jesus, David,” Young whispered.
“If you can’t accept that, you’re in the wrong profession.” Telford’s voice was hard. “Come talk to me when you get your head on straight.” He turned and vanished around the nearest corner.
Young slid down the bulkhead to sit on a time-tarnished floor. “Well,” he whispered, “he’s lost it.”
He felt wretched.
“Jackson,” he said, into the empty air. “Emily. Kid. Destiny. Please. If you’re around—talk to me, damn it. You have terms? I’ll listen. You wanna tell me to fuck off? No problem. Just say something. Anything. Please.”
No one appeared.
Young tipped his head back, shut his eyes, and tried not to lose his mind.
One problem at a time. And the first problem was one hell of a mess.
What if he’d trapped Nick Rush in the ship? What if he’d, somehow, opened an avenue to corporeality for the AI? Would it take that? Would it want that? Would it know what the hell it was doing? Could the combination exist, running on the hardware of Rush’s brain? He thought he’d pulled it apart, but what if it had recombined within Rush?
He wanted to know so badly that he could feel it everywhere; from his mind to his nail beds.
Whatever’d happened, something was different now. Rush had never behaved like this—he’d always been able to understand English; he’d always been able to snap back to speaking it immediately; he’d always fought Young every inch of the way, about everything, through their entire relationship—it was a part of who he was.
But now? Speaking Ancient? Running interference? Politely acquiescing to TJ’s requests? A willingness to be carried through the halls? The flashbacks he’d forced through his mind like code? The terror that Young’s attempts to reach him had triggered? The AI’s vanishing act?
Everything pointed to the idea that he was dealing with the combination, rather than Rush himself.
Young was almost positive he was right about this. Damn it.
He should have checked.
He should check now.
He could pull down Rush’s running interference. A thousand different ways. The guy was so played out that pressure alone would probably erode it. A while-loop would work. Whatever he found, at least he’d know. He wouldn’t need to sit here, wondering whether that was Rush in there, or some—some unnatural thing.
A thing with his eyes and his hands and his mannerisms.
A thing that’d looked sadly over the sea, toward the edge of the world.
Young squeezed his eyes shut.
He was just—so tired. He’d held up pretty well over the past week, if one didn’t count the twelve hours of unconsciousness somewhere in the middle, but now? He was at the end of his rope. His head ached. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. He wanted nothing more than to go straight back through those infirmary doors and get back into bed with his chief scientist—except he couldn’t even do that, because, if he did, he wouldn’t last thirty seconds before tearing into the poor guy’s mind because he had to know, he had to, he—
Young opened his eyes.
James knelt in front of him. Her hair was down. She wore jeans. A gray shirt. A green vest. Her eyes were wide and uncertain. In new, civilian clothes, she looked like a kid. Like she was Chloe’s age. And, god. She was Chloe’s age, he realized.
“Sir,” she said again, “are you all right?”
“I—I’m fine, lieutenant.”
“No sir,” she said. “Let’s get you up. TJ can—”
Young shook his head. “I just need a minute, lieutenant.”
“Is it the doc?” James asked. She glanced along the corridor. “How’d it go last night?”
“I don’t know, lieutenant.” Young’s voice cracked. “He woke up, but—”
James curled into herself, braced for bad news. Her fingers absently traced the ring of bruises at the base of her neck.
“He can’t speak English,” Young continued. “He’s only speaking Ancient, and I—” he stopped himself, searching for an alternative to all he couldn’t say. “He’s not himself. He’s too agreeable. Too polite. He should be acting like a complete bastard, but he just, he—” Young trailed off hopelessly.
“Well,” James whispered, her gaze still concerned. “No offense, sir, but you look terrible. Maybe he was feeling sorry for you.”
“Maybe,” Young said.
“Plus,” James continued. “Think about all the energy it must take to achieve doc-level bastardism. Bastardry. It’s gotta be off the charts, the way he runs around, yelling at people all the time. Maybe he’s just tired.”
“Maybe,” Young gave her a weak smile.
“You on shift right now?” James asked him.
“Yeah.” Young eyed his watch. “Technically. I just slept through the first two hours of it.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” James said. “Any way you can sleep through the rest of it? Scott and I can cover for you.”
Young shook his head. “Not necessary, lieutenant.”
James gave him a small, sympathetic smile. “Only six hours to go, then. For you? That’s nothin’.” She pushed herself to her feet and offered him her hand. Young took it, and she hauled him up.
“Thanks, lieutenant. How’s the neck?”
“Fine,” she dropped her eyes. “Which way you headed?”
“Lieutenant Scott’ll be reporting our latest disaster to Homeworld Command this afternoon; I need to meet with him, make sure he’s prepped.”
“Last I saw, he was on the bridge.” James fell into step beside him. “Anything I can do to help you out, sir?”
“You’re off-shift, lieutenant,” Young said. “Nice civvies, by the way.”
“Gonna be hard to pretend you’re on shift when you’re wearing them,” Young said dryly.
James cleared her throat. “Yes sir. But, I’ve gotta say, it’s nice to have something other than a single uniform and what I had in my pockets when we came through.”
“Is there anything I can take off your plate, sir? I really don’t mind.”
Young hesitated. “Lieutenant, if you could post up in the infirmary for a bit—that’d take a load of my mind. Wray could use some backup. We had a little trouble with Colonel Telford earlier.”
James nodded. “It’s where I was headed anyway, sir.”
“Your ‘informal rotation’?” Young asked.
James nodded. “Sounds like maybe we need to tighten it up? Teams of two, maybe? One person on defense, on person a runner?”
“Wouldn’t be a bad idea, lieutenant. At least until Rush is back on his feet.”
“Yes sir,” James replied.
“Thanks, lieutenant,” he said.
She waved him off.
Young got in a few hours of sleep, but spent the bulk of the day overseeing the proper allocation and storage of the supplies they’d received during Homeworld Command’s dial-in. The Nakai attack, coming hard on the heels of the RSM, had left them little time to properly sort through their new haul.
Young found the stacks of crates containing munitions and body armor particularly reassuring.
Around 1700, he dropped by the infirmary and ate an early dinner in TJ’s office. She’d spent the afternoon revamping her newly restocked pharmacy. He listened to her tell him about it over dinner, then over tea and a Tylenol chaser, before he slipped into the back room to check on Rush.
He stood at the man’s bedside, looking down at his chief scientist, pale and drawn and braided with an alien relic that ran on pure starlight. A ship that had no home to return to, even if it could turn itself around.
Tentatively, Young touched cautious fingertips to Rush’s temple. “You gonna wake up?” he whispered.
The scientist’s dreams, blurred with interference, were impossible to access. But, as Young watched, he could see, as through an electrostatic veil, the ghostly pattern of REM. Spectral images of Gloria. Faint strains of music. Fields of stars.
//How different would you be, really?// Young projected gently, over the mental echo of unearthly chords. He trailed his fingertips through the scientist’s hair. “Don’t get me wrong. If there’s any chance of undoing this bullshit, I’ll take it. If I can keep you clear of the ship, I will. But if it doesn’t go that way—” Young’s throat closed.
He wondered, looking down at Nick Rush, if it was possible to run forever in the red.
“What the hell am I supposed to do, if you’ve got the AI in there with you?” He tucked a blanket over the scientist’s shoulder. “Gotta say, genius, you’re the only guy I know who can pit himself against himself while using himself as collateral.”
He watched Rush sleep, curled on his side, his brow furrowed with a headache he might never shake.
“You’re gonna wake up at bullshit o’clock,” Young whispered. “Midnight. 0300. Aren’t you.”
Rush didn’t stir.
“All right,” he murmured. “You win. I’ve got stuff to do anyway. Reports to write. Pep talks to give. NHB’s comin’ up. That’s where the action is, these days.”
Young spent the hour between dinner and the NHB putting himself in order. He issued himself a new pair of socks from the replacements they’d gotten from Earth. He collected his allotment of toothpaste, floss, soap, and shampoo, then returned to his quarters to drop off the items.
When he entered his room, he stopped short. There was something on the coffee table he didn’t recognize. He piled his handful of supplies on the couch and knelt next to the table.
It was a book.
The cover was new, obscured with reflected light. He picked it up, all crisp pages and shine. He angled the book to cut the glare and read its title: The Castle. By Franz Kafka.
He flipped it open. On the title page, there was an inscription, written in Wray’s fluid hand. All it said was: For the Campaign. Beneath the words, she’d signed her name in an elegant mix of English letters and Chinese characters.
“What ‘campaign’?” He murmured, smiling incredulously. He hefted the book in his hand. The thing had to weigh the better part of a pound. He couldn’t believe Wray had done this. It’d never even occurred to him that anyone might use part of their weight allotment to—what. Give gifts?
His throat ached.
But—how had Wray known? A lucky guess? It wasn’t like Young went around discussing his closet love for Franz Kafka.
Rush must’ve told her. She must’ve asked him.
Young shut his eyes, leaned against the foot of an Ancient couch, and pressed Wray’s gift to his chest.
He held this book in rare array. He knew he did. Weeping. Dry-eyed. Touched. Unsettled. Grief-stricken. Annoyed. Across the multiverse, this was happening. Each array must contain infinite arrays of its own. Layers of layers. Sets of things, passing out of or through other sets of things. He could remember Chloe saying it, days ago.
“We revere chance,” he whispered, quoting the person who hadn’t been Riley.
There had to be reason to hope. The further he could go without seeing his reality culled—it gave him more options, didn’t it? Wouldn’t it have to? This moment existed in array. So did the next, and the next, and the next. Camile didn’t always give him The Castle. But now that she’d done it here, weren’t there whole reams of reality where he’d carry it with him, for whatever time he had left?
Maybe, in the end, he’d find out.
Young felt Rush wake early in the stripped-down NHB Eli held with Park and Volker. He sent the man a mental “hello” and got a a low-energy psychic shove in return.
That was fine. Young could take a hint. Dimly, through the link, he could hear Chloe, speaking a mix of Ancient and English.
After the NHB, Young powered through the last of his paperwork. As the night wore on, he caught more and more frequent snips of Chloe. She’d been going non-stop. For hours. Rush was tiring.
//You can tell her to get lost, you know,// he projected gently.
//?// All he got in return was a wordless wave of inquiry. Profoundly exhausted. Reflexively polite. Hard on its heels came a sweep of directed blur.
“Ugh.” Young propped his elbows against the desk, and covered his face with his hands. “Genius, c’mon. You think I won’t show up?” He dropped his hands, shut his laptop, and stood. “You know I will.”
It was 2300 hours when he returned to the infirmary. Atienza was posted next to the doors.
“Airman?” Young asked.
“Evening, sir,” Atienza said.
“What are you doing here?” Young asked mildly.
“Seemed like a nice spot to pass a few hours, sir.”
Young snorted. “As you were.” He hit the door controls.
The main floorspace of the infirmary was dimly lit. Reynolds had been released, leaving only Barnes in the gurney nearest TJ’s office. She gave him an uncertain smile as he approached.
He stopped at her bedside. “How you doing, corporal?”
“Fine, sir.” Her face was pale under night-spectrum light. “TJ tells me I’ll have a kick-ass scar.”
He smiled at the tough-guy attitude. “When are you supposed to be up and around?”
“Day after tomorrow, if there aren’t any problems with infection.”
“See that there aren’t,” Young said.
She gave him an informal salute. “How’s Dr. Rush, sir?”
Young glanced toward the infirmary’s back room. The lights were turned down low. “Not sure, corporal.”
“Can I ask what happened to him?” Barnes asked tentatively.
“You can ask, corporal.”
“Understood. There are just a lot of rumors.”
Young raised his eyebrows. “Like what?”
“People say the Nakai interrogated him and he’s not waking up. Other people say that Colonel Telford—” she trailed off.
“What about Colonel Telford?”
“It’s a small crew.” Barnes kept her tone brusque. “Everyone’s worried.”
“Corporal,” his voice was sharp.
She met his eyes. “I heard James and Telford got into it this morning. At breakfast. She was off shift today, but Telford started dressing her down. In the mess. In front of everyone. Because she pulled her team back. Did what Wray said.”
“Telford was dressing down James,” Young repeated neutrally.
Barnes nodded. “Telford had been up all night. Dealing with some equipment malfunction. He was short on sleep. I guess he really laid into her. Started saying stuff about Special Forces. It was going on. She was taking it. No back talk or sounding off. Nothing like that. But, uh, Eli was there.”
“And I guess he was pretty short on sleep too. He has been. All week. And then—” Barnes flashed Young a small, infectious grin. “Eli starts laying into Telford. Like there’s no tomorrow. I hope someone got it on kino.”
“Me too,” Young confessed.
“But, uh, during the course of the yelling, one of the things that came out—the thing everyone’s talking about—is that Eli implied Colonel Telford was somehow responsible for the doc not waking up. There’s been a lot of speculation. And I’m hearing this second and third hand, so—” Barnes trailed off.
Young nodded. “Eli’s had a rough time of it.”
Barnes nodded back at him. “I know. I heard that too. It’s just—” she broke off. “A lot of the guys, I mean, the military personnel, have warmed up to the doc. He’s got a bit of a rep.”
“A ‘rep’?” Young asked, amused.
“As a badass motherfucker,” Barnes said. “Pardon my language, sir.”
That surprised a short laugh out of Young. “Well,” he said, drawing out the word, “Don’t tell him I said this, corporal, but—that assessment isn’t too far off base.”
“Yes sir,” she smiled, a quick, infectious flash of teeth. “Anyway, Eli isn’t the only one saying that Telford has it out for the doc. Greer’s worried about it. James too. Dunning. Atienza.”
“Telford’s here to study the ship.” Young chose his words carefully, knowing that whatever he said would spread like wildfire through the crew. “Rush is integrated with the ship. If we don’t stay on top of it, that setup could turn—”
“Fucked up,” Barnes said solemnly
Young snorted. “Uh, I was gonna say ‘problematic,’ but yeah.”
Barnes nodded, and without skipping a beat, said, “Yes, sir; problematic.”
“So I’ll take any help I can get when it comes to staying on top of the situation.”
Barnes nodded. “You got it, sir. I’ll keep an eye out.”
“Thanks, corporal,” Young said, pushing away from her gurney. “I’ll see you later.”
“Tell the doc I say hi,” she called after him.
Young gave her a bemused nod, wondering what would actually happen if he told Rush that “Barnes said hi.” The pair of them probably hadn’t exchanged ten words over the past two years.
Yellow-gold light spilled from TJ’s open office door. She looked up as he passed, her eyes a warm flash of aquamarine. Young gave her a nod. She smiled at him, then returned to her work.
Young paused in the doorway that led to the back room and let his eyes adjust to the dark.
Across the room, Chloe had climbed into Rush’s gurney, and was lying shoulder-to-shoulder with the guy. Chloe had a computer open on her thighs. From what Young could pick up from the audio—it sure as hell sounded like fancy British people talking. Chamber music? Maybe some horses clopping along?
Rush looked up, met Young’s eyes, and opened a hand, giving a pretty strong well-what’s-a-guy-to-do vibe.
“Wait no, watch.” Chloe elbowed him, her eyes glued to the screen. “This is the best part. Colin Firth is gonna jump in the pond! Oh my god. I almost died the first time I saw this.”
“Facile te contentaris.” Rush seemed unimpressed.
“Hey,” Chloe snapped indignantly, “my standards are as high as they come.”
Young cleared his throat.
Chloe jumped. “Colonel! Hi. Sorry; I didn’t see you there. We were just—um, we’re studying English.”
Young fought down a smile. He tried to cross his arms and got an acid wash of pain for his efforts. “Oh yeah?”
“Yup,” Chloe said primly.
Young pushed away from doorframe and approached the gurney, taking in what was on Chloe’s laptop screen. It was a woman. Wearing a bonnet. Standing in a garden. With a rust-colored, extremely unattractive, angle-length dress. “Uh, what are you watching?” he asked.
“It’s the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice,” Chloe whispered, with barely contained glee.
“Dic ei haec rem sex horas durat.” Rush shot Chloe a low-wattage glare.
“Actually, why don’t you tell him?” Chloe looked up at Young. “He’s getting his English back really fast. We did, like, I don’t know, a solid two hours of English as a second language? Guess who has a whole series about that? Daniel Jackson! We have his complete collection now. Bill Lee brought it from Earth. I watched it in preparation. Varro told me that pirated Jackson tapes are how the entire LA learned English. Dr. Jackson is actually a really good ESL teacher.”
“Are you serious?” Young asked.
“Oh yeah. He has separate lectures divided up by which major galactic language is your native one. Like, when you’re coming from Goa’uld, he does a whole thing about how to approach English verb tenses. Or, if you’re coming from Ancient, here’s how to think about leaving your nouns alone to just be themselves, or if you speak—”
“I get it,” Young said.
“Right. Sorry. I really like languages. After we got through that, I figured watching movies would help with comprehension. And, if you’re gonna watch a movie, it might as well be a British one, so that the accent’s at least in the ballpark. I’ve already started a ship-wide search for movies with Scottish people. I’ll put Eli on the case.”
“Fuck,” Rush said listlessly, sounding distinctly American.
Chloe snorted and shut her laptop. “Yeah, you’re in trouble now.”
Young looked at Rush, lifted his eyebrows, and did his best to bury his unease. “We gonna hear more English out of you than ‘fuck’?”
“No,” Rush said, sulkily.
“Thought you wanted to tell me something,” Young said mildly.
Rush sighed. “It is six hours long,” he said carefully.
Young tried to hide his wince.
“Yikes,” Chloe whispered. “Okay, technically correct, but very bad pronunciation. Try to say it like Mr. Darcy would. ‘It’s six hours long’.” She modeled a generic British accent.
“It’s six hours long,” Rush repeated. It was an improvement, but still not remotely normal.
“Okay,” Young said. “Great. What’s six hours long.”
Rush picked up the DVD case on the table next to the bed and shook it at him.
“The movie?” Young said. “How can it be six hours long?”
“It’s actually more like a mini-series,” Chloe whispered guiltily. “I may have not been entirely forthright about that. But it’s not six hours.”
“How long is it?” Young asked.
“Five hours,” Chloe said primly.
“Me salvare potesne?” Rush asked plaintively, looking at Young.
“Oh stop.” Chloe sat. “It’s been helpful. You know it has. We’re finishing the rest of it later.”
“What did he say?” Young asked.
“Nothing.” She rolled her eyes.
Young looked down at Rush. “Y’know, Barnes was just out there telling me that everyone thinks you’re a badass motherfucker, and then I come in and you’re watching a five hour version of Pride and Prejudice? That’s not very badass.”
Rush narrowed his eyes. “Badass?”
“Kind of like awesome meets scary?” Chloe climbed off the gurney. “Though I believe the term the Colonel is looking for is BAMF.”
Rush looked at her with an air of puzzled disapproval.
“Oh fine, that was pretty colloquial.” Chloe fired off a line of Ancient, then snatched her DVD case out of his hand.
“When did you learn to speak Ancient so well?” Young asked, eyebrows raised.
“When I joined the Science Team,” Chloe replied.
Rush frowned at Young and muttered something that probably fell in the “unflattering comparison” category.
“Yeah yeah.” Young rolled his eyes at the other man. “Teach me some Ancient then, why don’t you?”
Rush just looked at him.
Chloe, already backing toward the door, cleared her throat. “I’m, uh, I’m gonna go, unless you need any translating? But like I said, he’s getting better really rapidly.”
“Thanks, Chloe,” Young said softly. “We’ll be fine.”
“Proxima vice cum advenias, fer tecum exercitium mechanicarum quantum,” Rush snapped.
“Um, I only take requests in English?” Chloe threw back over her shoulder. “Byyyyeeee!” She vanished around the doorframe.
“Kids these days,” Young agreed.
The room turned terribly quiet.
“So,” Young said. “Impress me with these new English skills of yours.”
Rush shrugged and looked away.
“Come on,” Young whispered.
“No?” Young boosted himself onto the edge of Rush’s gurney without looking at the man. “You’re a lotta work, you know that? C’mon. Talk to me.”
“You don’t like it,” Rush said carefully. “I can tell.”
It was true.
Young didn’t like it.
“I’m worried,” Young murmured into the darkness, “that’s all.”
“Why?” Rush whispered.
“Because, genius,” Young said, his voice cracking. “I think you might not be you anymore.”
Rush said nothing.
Young looked at his chief scientist, and found the guy giving him a magnetic stare, one eyebrow quirked. He looked like he was grinding on a whole set of cyphered locks. It was impossible to say if he’d understood Young’s statement.
“Where’s the AI?” Young whispered.
“AI?” Rush repeated, like he had no idea what those two letters stood for.
“Jackson. Emily. Gloria. That thing.”
“Ah,” Rush said dryly. “That thing.” He paused, then, very carefully, said, “I don’t know.”
“Yeah,” Young whispered. “Okay. That might be true. I have no idea how any of this works.” He shifted closer to Rush. “Genius, I need to look at your mind.” He lifted a hand. “Really look.”
“No.” Rush tensed. He levered himself onto an elbow. The heart monitor broke into a fast, panicky wave.
Young had been afraid of this. “Why not?” he asked, unable to keep the misery out of his tone.
“I don’t want that you would see it,” Rush said, his phrasing awkward, his accent altered. He inched away from Young.
“I have to,” Young whispered. “Don’t you understand? I have to. You’ve gotta be able to feel that, genius, even if you’re not getting what I’m saying.”
“No,” Rush said emphatically. “You do not fix me. I fix you. Later. Not now.”
“I don’t think you’re grasping the nature of the problem.” Young held up both hands. “But that’s okay,” he murmured. “That’s okay.”
Rush stopped inching back. “That’s okay?” he repeated, uncertainly.
“Yeah,” Young murmured. “That’s okay.” He pointed at the heart monitor. “You gotta do something about that, genius, or TJ’s gonna yell at me.”
Rush furrowed his brow, glanced at the monitor, and then looked back at Young. Then looked at TJ’s office. “Yes.”
Young snorted. “Yeah. Exactly. So, relax.” Gently, he laid a hand on Rush’s upper arm. “I have a different plan. Don’t worry about it. I admit it’s a little bit underhanded. You know that word? Underhanded?” Young started projecting a wordless wave of calm.
“Define underhanded,” Rush said, way too tired to hang onto his panic in the river of reassurance coming his way.
“Why don’t you sit up for a minute,” Young murmured.
“Yeah,” Young said easily. “C’mon.” He pulled the scientist up.
“Why sit?” Rush squinted skeptically at Young. “Headache.”
“Yeah, I know, genius, but here’s the thing. You won’t let me look in your head, right? And that’s pretty much imperative. So I need a different strategy.”
“Nescio.” Rush gave Young a searching look.
“Yeah.” Young kept his thoughts and hands steady. “Confused? You know that one?”
“What are you doing?” Rush breathed.
They were inches apart.
The room was dark, lit only by the light that spilled from TJ’s open door and the glow of track-lights at the base of the walls, where night-spectrum blue had, for thousands upon thousands of years, kept the darkness at bay.
“Well, to put it colloquially, I’m trying to get you to make out with me, genius.”
“Define ‘make out’,” Rush whispered, his thoughts an unreadable blur.
Young pulled him forward and, very gently, kissed him.
The scientist jerked back, surprised. “Make out,” Rush breathed, wry and immediate.
“Yeah.” Young gave him a half smile.
“Bad idea,” Rush whispered. “For you.”
“So you’ve said,” Young murmured. “But you haven’t convinced me. Or yourself either, I don’t think.”
“Define ‘convinced’.” Rush’s eyes were wide and dark. His hair stole blue highlights from the glow at the base of the walls.
“Convinced is gonna be you, in about thirty seconds.” Young pulled him forward again, kissing him carefully. He kept his hands open and his touch light.
After an interval of indecision, Rush brought both hands up. One wrapped around the back of Young’s neck, pulling him in, tangling in his hair. The other came to rest over Young’s collarbone, as if retaining the option of shoving him away.
Already, the blurred veil of the man’s interference had begun to clarify.
Young didn’t push. He didn’t close his hands. He didn’t do anything other than continue the kiss.
When he felt Rush start to relax, Young slid his hands down and hooked his fingers into the belt loops of Rush’s jeans. He yanked the other man forward, sliding him over the sheets, over the blankets, closing the space between them.
Rush made a quiet, surprised noise in the back of his throat.
“Shh.” Young projected pure reassurance. He slid his hand up Rush’s spine, then pressed his palm against the place between his shoulder blades. He could feel the scientist’s heartbeat through his thin frame.
He deepened the kiss.
He deepened the kiss and he waited.
He waited until he had Rush in his lap, waited until he could feel the tension draining out of the other man’s shoulders, his back. He waited until Rush’s mouth was consistently opening under his own, letting him in, letting him—
Rush’s running interference shredded to nothing.
Young had been braced for the AI, but—
This was not the AI.
A pained, shattered wreck. A whirlwind of sharded memory held together by processing power, shoestring, and a strong sense of self. Energy poured through a network that couldn’t contain it, arcing over gaps, seeping from sheared channels. As Young surveyed the psychic landscape, he saw new and fragile filigree form along cracked-glass networks, layering itself atop what had been broken.
There was enough fire left in Nick Rush to heat and spin the edged glass spin of his mind into new, ever more spectacular architectures. And, Young understood, he’d done it before.
He’d done it after Anubis’s device had unstrung and retuned his mind.
He’d done it again when Young had left him to die and the Nakai had taken him.
And now, he was doing it for a third time, and he—he just didn’t want Young to see.
Young could feel the wordless sentiment coming across the link, the panicky need to conceal how badly he’d been hurt. How deep the damage ran.
“Oh genius,” Young breathed, already in direct contact with the starfire glow of Rush’s endless energy. “It’s okay.”
“It’s okay?” Rush repeated.
“Yeah.” Young wrapped an arm around the scientist and slid a hand up the man’s spine. He did his best to support Rush without any sense of confinement. “I can help you fix this,” Young whispered, and reached for the light.
He poured his presence through their link, using Rush’s own energy to power emerging order, to restore temporal sequencing. He coaxed energy into structure. He pulled forward what was Rush and shoved back what came from Destiny.
As he worked, the scientist stilled under his hands. His heart rate slowed. His eyelids fluttered. His head tipped back. His awareness faded as Young flooded his entire mental landscape. Ordering it. Forcing Rush to order it.
When he had done all he dared, Young withdrew, trying to mimic the way that Rush had pulled out of his mind on other occasions—like rain, draining gently away, like the tide receding, with nothing left behind except a sense of calm.
Ignoring the pain in his forearms, Young pulled Rush into a hug, one hand over his back, the other guiding the scientist’s head down to his shoulder.
The sense of relief was overpowering.
It had told him the truth.
That thing in the chair.
“Hey,” he murmured into Rush’s hair. “You okay?”
Rush sent him a vague sense of exhausted assent through their link, and taking that as an invitation, Young snapped together with the scientist. He was shocked to feel how much his efforts had exhausted the other man.
“Did that tire you out, genius?” He whispered absently, running his fingers through the hair at the base of Rush’s neck.
“No,” the scientist murmured, his eyes shut, collapsed bonelessly against Young.
Young made a sympathetic sound. “You have no idea idea what I just did, do you?” he whispered, continuing to run his fingers through Rush’s hair. “Not a damn clue.”
“Make out,” Rush murmured against his shoulder, an affronted gloss atop profound exhaustion.
“Yeah,” Young whispered. “Close enough. I’ll tell you later. Come on, genius. You need to lie down.”
Young eased him back, coming forward himself until he was half on top of the man.
“Define close enough,” Rush murmured.
“I’ll tell you later.” Young propped himself on one elbow and looked down at the scientist.
“Mendacity,” Rush murmured listlessly.
“Mendacity?” Young repeated. “That’s at least a five dollar word. Are you calling me a liar? Bit hypocritical, don’t you think?”
Rush blinked at him. Young was pretty sure he hadn’t gotten much of that, but then he cocked his head and said, “Yes. Deceitful. Define hypocritical.”
“God,” Young said. “Um, characteristic of being a hypocrite?”
“Not helpful,” Rush murmured.
“You. You’re a hypocrite.”
“You’re bad at English,” Rush replied, annoyed. “I cannot be all these things.”
“All what things?” Young asked him.
“Pain in the ass, genius, idiot, doc, hot mess, badass, convinced, tired, hypocrite.”
“Yes you can. Who called you a ‘hot mess’?”
“Chloe is better than you.” Rush ignored his question.
“Better at what?” Young whispered.
“Go to sleep,” Young growled, trailing his fingers through Rush’s hair.
“Not tired,” Rush murmured, his eyes mostly shut.
“Incorrect,” Young said.
“Unlikely.” Rush smiled faintly at him.
“You’re a lot of work.”
“Link fixed,” Rush murmured.
“Our link is fixed,” Young corrected. “But yes, it is, fortunately.”
“You’re getting awfully lazy with your verbs and pronouns there, genius.”
“You learn Ancient then. One day. Four hours awake only. Also? Very tired. You do something. Not explained.” Rush narrowed his eyes.
“Okay,” Young said dropping his head down to rest on Rush’s shoulder. “You have a point there, I suppose.”
“Staying?” Rush breathed.
“Define ‘obviously’.” Rush seemed to be trying to keep himself awake.
“It means yes, but like, really obviously yes.”
“Worst definition. All day.”
“Oh stop,” Young murmured. “Something obvious is something you can clearly see. This is obviously an infirmary. I am obviously staying, because you can see that I am.”
“Better,” Rush said.
“Thanks,” Young pressed his cheek against the scientist’s shoulder. He slid the flat of his hand across the man’s chest, letting it come to rest over his heart.
Rush, struggling against sleep, was still trying to order his mind. “Talk,” he whispered.
“Go to sleep,” Young murmured.
“Talk,” Rush said insistently.
“You never want to talk.”
Young sighed. “You are incredibly tired. Don’t fight this, genius—”
He inhales, pulling the stuff into his lungs. It’s thick and viscous and heavy and choking him and even though he knows this is a part of it, he can’t stop fighting. He thinks it would help if he knew where it came from—this substance that's going to kill him or save him, or change him, or set him free. He wishes he knew whether it was Ancient, or Goa’uld, or some twisted combination of the two invented by Anubis. God, he hopes it's Ancient, please, please let it be Ancient. But he suspects it’s not—their technology has always been kinder than this, crystals and delicate midair displays and beautifully redundant systems and demanding, yes, certainly, but not this way, not this way—
And shit, this one was Young’s fault. No question about that. The motion familiar by now, Young snapped his thoughts to the side, into—
“Son of a bitch,” Mitchell yelps as Young tackles him to the grass. They go down hard, harder than Young had intended, and he looks up just in time to see Telford field the interception, his outline dark against the pale sky. “That is what I’m talking about.” Sheppard hauls Young to his feet. Together, they look down down at Mitchell, who’s still lying in the grass. Cam raises his head to glare at Jackson. “Jackson, what the hell was that? You threw it right to the guy.” Telford opens his hands in an artless who-me type gesture and Sheppard smiles lazily. “This is somehow your fault,” Mitchell says to Sheppard. “How come you always get the former football players and I always get the aliens?” Young reaches a hand down to Mitchell and pulls him to his feet with a grin. “You got first pick, Cam,” Sheppard says mildly. “Stop choosing them.” Mitchell sighs. “You’d think Teal’c would be awesome at this game. And Ronon? Come on. Don’t you guys play football on Atlantis?” Sheppard cocks his head and runs a hand through hair that’s always a bit too long. “Nah. We mostly play golf, actually.”
Rush tensed beneath him. Young could feel the hitch in his breathing, the rapid beat of his heart.
“Sorry.” Young tightened his grip on the scientist. “Sorry, that was my fault.”
“Yes,” Rush breathed, sounding awake, sounding upset. “So talk.”
“What should I talk about?” Young asked, looking out into the darkness.
“So. Pride and Prejudice? Are you kidding me? That is the most chick-flick of all chick-flicks.”
“For girls?” Rush murmured.
“You got it.”
“Chloe is a girl.”
“True. What I’m saying, though, is that it’s nice of you to put up with such a boring movie.”
“Too much killing,” Rush murmured pensively.
Young raised his eyebrows. “Um, too much killing? Which version were you guys watching? I’m pretty sure last time I checked there was no killing in Pride and Prejudice.”
“Too much killing for Chloe,” Rush snapped disdainfully. “Not today. Before.”
“Ah,” Young said. “Right.” He was not embarrassed.
“Look, in my defense, you’re being awfully vague, you know. But yeah. Chloe did take down a lot of Nakai. How’d you find out about that?”
“Words,” Rush said dryly.
Young nodded against the scientist’s shoulder. “She talked to you about it, huh?”
“Not good.” Rush sighed.
“No,” Young whispered. “Not good. But, on the flip side, she’s got some nice things coming her way. I think she might get proposed to at some point in the near future.”
“Define proposed to.”
“Um, married? Engaged?”
“Lieutenant Scott?” Rush asked.
“Yeah. He’s the one.”
Rush made a disapproving noise in the back of his throat.
“What’s wrong with Scott?” Young asked defensively.
“Nothing.” Rush shrugged listlessly. “Grad school is better.”
“Just because they get married doesn’t mean she won’t go to graduate school.”
“Look you. I already told Scott that you were going to help Brody make an engagement ring.”
Young snorted, and pushed himself back onto his elbow. “Oh what. You have other plans?”
“Very busy.” Rush looked up at him with dark eyes. “Tomorrow. Day after. Day after that. Fix ship.”
“C’mon,” Young said, smiling at him. “This is getting ridiculous, what are you, some kind of intergalactic refugee? Tomorrow, I will be very busy. I will be fixing the ship.”
Rush sighed. His eyes flickered shut. “Tomorrow I will be very busy fixing the ship.”
“Good.” Young said, tracing the line of Rush’s collar bone through his thin T-shirt. “But actually, you won’t be, because you’re on medical leave.”
“You define medical leave.” Rush narrowed hid eyes.
“No ‘you.’ Just ‘define medical leave, please.’ Please would be nice. Anyway, medical leave is where you sleep all day, watch movies, make engagement rings. No doing work. Like a sick day.”
“No,” Rush said. “I do not have medical leave.”
“Yes you do.”
“Um, yes. You’re not winning this one. Pick something else to argue about.”
“Fuck off,” Rush said, without ire.
“How the hell are you gonna get to sleep if you just keep pissing yourself off? You want some thought friction?”
“Define ‘thought friction’.”
“Uh, that thing I do? Just me?”
“Do you speak English?” Rush asked carefully. “I think no.”
Young snorted. “This is thought friction.” He began to press, very gently, against the swirl of the scientist’s thoughts. “How does that feel?”
“Complex,” Rush whispered.
“Complex?” Young echoed. “Good or bad?”
“Hmm,” Rush said smiling faintly. “No.”
“You want me to keep doing it?”
“Like, uh, continue? Do you want me to continue doing it?”
“Define ‘to’,” Rush murmured, a little too innocently.
“No you’re just messing with me,” Young whispered. “Instead of trying to keep yourself awake, why don’t you think about nice things. Did Chloe teach you that one? Nice. It means—nice.”
Rush shot him an unimpressed look.
“What about where you grew up?” Young asked.
“It’s not nice there,” Rush murmured, maybe making more of an effort to speak in sentences after Young’s ‘intergalactic refugee’ comment.
“Well, I grew up somewhere nice. Six miles south of the North Platte River.”
“Wyoming,” Young said, unnecessarily smoothing Rush’s hair back. “The Intermountain West.”
“Not the coast?”
“No. Not the coast. Are you just practicing your vocab or are you going somewhere with this?”
“I don’t ‘make out’ with Americans not from the coast. Policy. I have that policy.”
“Too late,” Young smirked at him.
“Not my fault,” Rush murmured.
“You should’ve asked. Anyway, the West is nice. Very rugged terrain. Lots of scenery. Bears and pine forests. Snow and outdoor sports. Hockey is very popular.”
“Hockey?” Rush’s eyes were shut. Through their open link, Young could see the emerging structure of REM sleep beginning to disrupt the flow of the scientist’s thoughts.
“Hockey in the winter, football in the fall, and baseball in the spring and summer,” Young said quietly.
“Mmm.” Rush managed to sound exhausted and unsurprised and a little bit disdainful, all at the same time.
“I know. A bit of overkill to play them all, right? But eventually I just stuck with the hockey. It can get quite vicious, you know. You’d probably be good at it. Unfortunately, you don’t have the right physique. You’re built more like a sprinter. Track and field kind of guy. Maybe a soccer player. Maybe. Maybe just captain of the Math Team.”
Rush’s eyes were closed.
“Are you asleep? Finally?” Young whispered.
In the scientist’s mind, REM took hold slowly, transforming the dark infirmary into an aching mirrored landscape, where they lay tangled in expensive sheets, and California sun streamed through the windows. “There you go,” Young whispered. “Hang on to that one.”
Carefully, Young reached across Rush to pull his phone off the bedside table. He checked the alarm, then rolled his eyes when he saw that it was set to go off at 0500. “Nice try, genius.” He switched the phone to vibrate, reset the alarm and then pocketed it.
TJ would see them at some point, but—she would understand.