Force over Distance: Chapter 53

“The hole in the wall gang,” Young murmured, reading off the laptop screen, “led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, are all dead now.”

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

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

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 53

Young left his quarters in the mid-afternoon. TJ had agreed to keep watch over Rush while Young took care of a few things, which mostly amounted to a strategy session with Wray regarding her upcoming IOA meeting, a fruitless search for Bill Lee—and that talk with Eli he’d been putting off.

For over a week now.

As Young headed for the CI room, he felt a spike of irritation from Rush. He was annoyed with TJ. He was annoyed, full stop. He didn’t want to be awake, he hated the idea of sleep, his head ached, he had zero interest in the power bar TJ was pushing, he was restless, he was exhausted, he was cold.

Carefully, before his sympathy could give him away, Young withdrew, sure that Rush hadn’t detected his intrusion.

That seemed to be happening more and more.

When he entered the CI room, he found Eli and Brody side-by-side behind a monitor bank, in the midst of what looked to be an intense conversation. Young stopped in the open doorway, crossed his arms, and eyed the pair of them.

“I see what you’re saying.” Eli was so quiet he was barely audible. The kid gave Brody a significant look from under his eyebrows. “But if it’s true that the Nakai boarded Destiny a long time ago, then, one, why did they leave? Two, why didn’t they, or couldn’t they subsequently reboard? I’m just—I don’t know. Skeptical, I guess? What exactly did he say to you?”

“It was one of those dramatic pronouncements he does.” Brody broke off at the sight of Young, standing in the doorway. “Colonel. Hi.”

“Hi,” Young said pointedly.

Brody wiped his palms on his pants.

“Oh hey!” Eli covered his anxiety about ten times better than Brody. He gave Young an easy smile and deliberately opened his posture. “We were just talking about the Nakai tracking device. Can we get Rush’s take on this soon?”

“Rush can go back on duty when his fever breaks and not before, unless there’s some kind of emergency.” Young kept his tone mild.

“Yeeaaaah,” Eli said. “And what are the chances of us having an emergency? Basically zero. Track record be damned. That’s what I say.”

Brody rapped his knuckles against the console. “Knock on wood.”

“That’s not wood,” Eli said.

“Do you see any wood around here?” Brody asked.

“Um, no, but knock on your shoe, man. Rubber comes from trees. C’mon. What are you thinking?”

“My shoes are leather,” Brody replied.

“Well ask to borrow my shoe if you’re so desperate to—”

“Guys.” Young sharpened his tone. “Rush is benched. You’re up.”

“Yeah. We know,” Eli snapped back.

Young raised his eyebrows. “You got anything to report?”

Eli took a breath. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re getting crushed by the Nakai. Over and over. You probably remember even that Ancient Seed Ship Captain Guy had a run-in with them? Maybe the first run-in? Long story short, even when we don’t have people with devices implanted in their hearts, we’ve gotta be broadcasting some kind of low-intensity, long-range signal. Because otherwise Destiny should’ve lost these guys about a thousand galaxies back.”

Young nodded. “Sounds right. You get any hits yet?”

“Uhhhhh, no. Can we ask Rush—”

“He’s benched.” Young crossed his arms.

“I heard you let Telford talk to him this morning—” Eli began.

“Yeah. Because Telford and Wray have an IOA meeting day after tomorrow and I don’t wanna get ordered to make Rush available by some oversight committee a universe away,” Young growled. “Because then? I’d have to say no.”

“Sounds like it could get awkward.”

“Yeah. Let’s try to keep it to the one mutiny, please?” Young replied.

“Ha. Okay. We’ll do our best. How’d the thing with Telford go?” Eli asked.

“About like you might expect,” Young said, feeling drained just recalling the event.

“Fun,” Eli said.

“Really fun.” Young sighed. “He’s exhausted. Sick as hell. Maybe you guys can put something together and run it by him tomorrow? Keep it short. Thirty minutes tops.”

“Yeah.” Eli hesitated. “We can put something together, it just seems like—” the kid broke off, glanced at Brody, and plowed ahead. “It seems like he might, possibly, have some information about this tracking device?”

“If he knew anything about it, don’t you think he would’ve told—” Young broke off. He sighed, then pulled up a chair to sit with the pair of them.

Eli and Brody watched him warily.

“So,” Young said. “Of course he knows something about it. Of course he does.” He eyed the pair of them. “What. Just tell me.”

“Uh,” Brody said guardedly. “I don’t think it’s as bad as all that. Yesterday he asked me how the search for the tracking device was going.” Brody stopped there.

“How does he know you guys started a search?” Young growled.

“Chloe,” Eli and Brody replied, prompt and simultaneous.

“Yeah okay,” Young muttered. “And what did he say?”

“Rush said the Nakai had gotten on board. Very early in Destiny’s mission. That’s probably when they planted it.”

Young stared at him. “You’re kidding.”

“Um, no?”

“Anything else?” Young growled.

“Nope, that was it. I didn’t ask any follow-up questions.”

“When were you guys gonna tell me this?”

“Hey, don’t look at me.” Eli raised his hands, palms open. “I heard about it five minutes ago.”

“I, um.” Brody looked uncomfortable. “I figured you already knew. Probably.”

“That’s great. That’s just great,” Young muttered.

“Hey.” Eli’s voice turned sharp. “There’s no indication he knows anything about the tracking device. All he knows is that the Nakai boarded Destiny at some point in the past, which is information he probably got from the ship’s memory banks, and might not’ve been consciously aware of. I’m pretty damn sure that he doesn’t have some kind of secret, pro-Nakai agenda.” Eli’s eyes were narrowed.

“I wasn’t suggesting he did,” Young said. “I just wish he’d talk to me sometimes. That all right with you?”

“Yeah. Yeah, of course.” Eli shrugged, but his gaze skittered away.

Young eyed him steadily, then got to his feet. “Let’s take a walk.”

“Kinda busy at the moment.” The kid still didn’t look at him.

“Eli,” Young said. “Now.”

“Okay, okay.” Eli shut his laptop and tucked it under one arm. “See you later, I guess,” he muttered to Brody.

They walked in silence. Eli fidgeted with the light-pen for the photonic chalkboard, clicking it on and off. He rubbed at his eyes, still red after a week of slow healing.

“They hurt?” Young asked.

“The eyes?” Eli asked. “Not really. They itch. It feels like I have something in them, which is super annoying. TJ said they’d be better by now if I didn’t stare at computers all day.” He paused. “How’s all your—stuff? Injuries and whatnot?”

“The forearms bother me here and there,” Young said.

“Yeah, I’ll bet. That was disgusting.”

“Uh. Thanks.”

“Just, y’know. Telling it like it is. Or was. Whatever.”

Young turned onto the observation deck, which was, to his relief, empty. He shut the door behind them and sealed it.

“Oh crap,” Eli said, with a smile that was probably meant to land as dry, but hit as raw instead. “Observation deck? That’s like the conversational Big Guns. That’s like a, ‘Sit down, Luke, the girl you’ve been crushing on is actually your twin sister,’ type deal.”

Young raised his eyebrows.

“Oh please,” Eli said. “Don’t give me that. I distinctly heard you make a Star Trek reference to Wray last year, so you can stop pretending you’re not a closet nerd.”

Young snorted. “Sit down, Luke.”

Eli flashed him a quick, nervous smile, but sat. He clutched his computer to his chest.

Young sat beside him.

They watched the blur of the shield emissions at FTL.

“Ugh,” Eli said, seeming to realize he’d been hugging his computer. He slid the device beneath the bench they sat on. “So. I’m getting The Talk, I guess. Right?”

“Well, you are acting head of the Science Team,” Young said mildly. “I gotta give The Talk to somebody, right?”

Eli’s shoulders lost some of their tension. “You can’t keep The Talk inside. It’s bad for you.”

Young nodded. “Yup.”

“Lay it on me, cap,” Eli said, affecting the gruff tone of a world-weary, comic-book soldier. “I can take it.”

“You’re doing a great job. In pretty much every way.” He left it at that.

After a moment, Eli spoke.

“Um, that’s it? That’s The Talk? That’s The Talk you give to the head of the Science Team every week?”

“Well.” Young smiled faintly. “Rush gets a different version.”

“Yeah. I’ll bet.” Eli shot Young an incisive look. “Wait. Do I bet? If you told him he was doing a great job I feel like it’d really annoy him. Is this how you drive him crazy? Earnestly-delivered talks that are completely off base? Because I’m not doing a great job. I know that. I’m snapping at people. I feel the uncontrollable urge to (verbally) rip Colonel Telford’s face off whenever he says literally anything. Chloe got tortured and genetically made over and somehow got better at math because of it. I’m a lazy, piece-of-shit gamer who can’t stand up to, what, twenty minutes of twisted memories, alien-induced hallucinations, and an ice-pick headache? Sounds right. Sounds exactly like me.”

“You done?” Young asked.

“Yeah,” Eli said dully. “Thanks for The Talk.”

“You’re not lazy,” Young said.

“Yes, I am. I’m a lazy person who doesn’t want to die. I’ll make an effort for that, I guess.”

“You’re not a ‘piece-of-shit’ gamer. If you’re dead set on that idea, then, sure. That’s what you were. It’s not what you are now. Now, you’re an experienced trans-galactic explorer.”

Young looked out at the light of the shields, singing themselves through the dark places between stars.

“Experienced trans-galactic explorer, eh?” Eli said.

Young smiled. “Its objectively true.”

“Yeah,” Eli said, also looking at the shine of the shield emissions. “Guess it’s hard to argue.”

“There are some things in life that get easier as you go along,” Young said. “That benefit from experience. Some things that—after you survive them—make you a stronger. They carve you into who you are.”

Eli said nothing.

“But there are other kinds of things,” Young said.

“Yeah.” Eli’s eyes glittered.

“The things that get harder as you go. That break you down. The mistakes you can’t undo. That follow you. The things that—that’ll never be done. That will never be finished.”

“Yeah,” Eli said. “I know about those things. Better than you think.”

“I know you do, kid.”

“They poison the rest of it.” Eli sniffed.

“Yeah. Anything in particular on your mind?”

“Ginn.” Eli’s voice cracked. “She was—she was really—maybe she is—fuck. Hell if I know. What it would be like. To be preserved. The way she’s preserved. As network within a network. Folded down. In darkness. To make space.” He exhaled in one long shuddering breath. “I did that. I was the one.”

Young nodded.

“She liked me. She was good. She was smart. She was brave. She barely knew us and she. She was the one who.” Eli shook his head. “Not only that, but she liked me. She, like, liked me, liked me. Do you know how rare that is?”

“I can’t imagine it’s that rare,” Young said, trying not to smile.

“Oh, trust me.” Eli looked away, eyes glittering. “It’s rare. It’s only happened the one time.”

“You’re what? Twenty?” Young asked.

“Um, twenty-five. But that’s not the point. Not at all. Do you understand what life was like for her? With the Lucian Alliance? Not sure if you know this, but they’re not exactly science friendly. She was with us so briefly. And still—she was ready to sacrifice everything. Everything. Her life and consciousness. For us. For Rush, honestly, because I folded her away to get him back. And she told me how to do it.”

Young nodded.

“She’d have been on the Science Team,” Eli whispered. “I think about it all the time. Almost every NHB.”

Young said nothing, thinking of the little LA redhead he’d never really known. Sharp and quiet. Decisive. Brave. “Are her patterns okay? After the Nakai virus?”

“Yeah. Now you remember to ask.” Eli wiped away a tear and glared at the shield emissions.

“Are her patterns okay?” Young asked sharply. “And the other two. Perry? Franklin?”

“Yes,” Eli said, his face frozen as tears trailed out of his reddened eyes. “They’re folded behind one of the most beautiful firewalls I’ve ever seen. He built it as he was losing his mind. He didn’t forget them.”

Young nodded, trying not to think of that almost-Scottish hillside.

“He’s practical.” Eli’s voice cracked. “To a fault. So there must be a chance for them. But I don’t see how. I don’t see where. Somehow, that makes it worse. Do I mourn her and move on? That seems like giving up. That would be giving up. But how the hell are we supposed to find her another body? It seems impossible. And—really problematic, ethically.”


“So, instead, Ginn haunts me. All my life.” Eli shut his eyes. “Not alive, not dead, just waiting. Waiting for me. Forever. For always. Knowing that, knowing that—how could I ever be with anyone else?”

“I don’t know,” Young whispered.

“I wanna ask Rush.” Eli sniffed and wiped away his tears. “But I know what he’ll say.”

“‘Don’t worry about it, Eli’.”

“Yeah.” Eli smiled bitterly. “As though he doesn’t know it’s all I do. I hate him so much sometimes. And it’s like he goes out of his way to make it as easy as possible to dislike him. I think he’s genuinely confused about why it’s not working as well as it used to.”

“Yup,” Young said.

“It’s Chloe’s fault.” Eli wiped his nose with his sleeve. “Greer’s fault. Volker’s fault a little bit. But mostly? It’s yours. I really, really resent that.” Eli glowered at him.

“Sorry,” Young whispered.

“Yeah,” Eli’s dark delivery was ruined by the crying. “You made him super likable and now I get to experience guilt. Real, Shakespearean-level garbage.”

“Eli,” Young said firmly. “You have nothing to feel guilty about. Nothing. You got that? If you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about—that’s all on me. All of it.”

“Easy to say. Easy to rationalize on a good day, when nothing is trying to kill us, when no one is dying. But, um, much less easy to rationalize when you spend twenty minutes, twenty goddamn minutes, being tortured for information and it seems like a lifetime, like every second might be the one that finally kills you—and you remember they had him for a week. For over a week, oh fuck—” Eli’s throat closed off. He squeezed his eyes shut and curled his hands around the edge of the bench in a white-knuckled grip.

“I know, Eli,” Young said. “But none of that is on you.” He closed a hand over the kid’s shoulder.

“When I’m thinking most clearly, I can see it was on all of us,” Eli said. “You. Rush. Me.”

“It was between me and Rush, Eli,” Young said. “You had nothing to do with it. Nothing.”

“Why,” Eli said dully, “because I was ‘following orders’?”

“Yes,” Young said.

“I’m a civilian. I don’t follow orders. I make my own choices. He was trying to undermine your authority in a horrible, callous way.” Eli pulled in a deep breath. “But I kept it quiet. I let you leave him there. I was the only one, the only one who could’ve prevented it. And I did nothing. I said nothing.”

Young looked down at the gleaming deck plates.

“Because I thought he deserved it,” Eli said. “For doing that to you. And I actually did think it would be better. One of those ‘tough command decisions’ people are always talking about in the movies.” He smiled unhappily. “Well, the joke was on me, because he was doing way more than anyone knew or gave him credit for.”

Young said nothing.

“And yeah, in the end, maybe no one deserves to be left for dead—to die of dehydration or exposure or whatever. No one deserves to be tortured. No one deserves to be surgically implanted with a fucking transmitter. And then—everything that happened after. To Chloe. The endless attacks.”

Young said nothing.

“And you know what the worst part is? The part I really can’t stand is how he seems to not think of it as a big deal. Have you noticed this? It drives me insane. I let you leave him, and not only that, I found the evidence that he’d erased and I gave it to you and I told no one—and he doesn’t care. He treats me the same as ever. Not only that, but I’m pretty sure, I’m certain actually, that he cares about us. After all of that. He gives a damn. In his way. Oh fuck. Not even in ‘his way’—in the normal human way. Who shrugs off that shit?”

“I’ve become pretty curious about that myself.” Young admitted.

“I’ll bet.”

They looked out at the stars.

“Eli, he treats you the same because he doesn’t blame you. Not at all. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he liked you more for the role you played, which was only to find evidence of wrongdoing and turn it over to your commanding officer.”

“Okay, but, for real, you’re not my commanding officer.”

Young rolled his eyes. “My point is, this is between Rush and me. And we’ve worked past it. Mostly. True, the consequences keep showing up to bite us in the ass, but that’s the nature of consequence.”

Eli looked over at him, his expression tight, his eyes red. “It’s a great act,” he whispered. “But I can’t even imagine how difficult this is for you now. You care about him. I know you do. Everyone knows.”

“Turns out he’s an acquired taste,” Young said, with some difficulty.

“Like the finest of wines.” Eli smiled hollowly at the stars. “Is he getting better?”

Young shrugged. “His English is improving by the hour. He still has a fever. He still feels like shit. His mind’s a wreck, but he’s fixing it.”

“What do you mean his mind is a wreck?”

“His thoughts are disorganized. Painful. Full of technicolor flashbacks.”

“Join the club,” Eli said.

“Yeah. Unfortunately, he has more than just his own memories to flash back to.”

“Oh, great. Starship memories. What are those like?”

“Difficult.” Young watched the flicker of FTL play over Eli’s features. “Have you ever come across anything in the database about the person who sits in the chair—fusing with the AI?”

“You mean like how he sometimes links up with the ship to do stuff?” Eli asked.

“No, I mean a fusion with the AI itself. Two personalities merging into one.”

“Ummmmm,” Eli said. “I suppose that, in a lot of ways, the existence of a person who sits in the neural interface chair and runs the ship ends up having a lot of overlap with the role of the AI? The AI kept Destiny going while we weren’t here, and it could take over again if something happened to Rush—but that overlap is more like—in terms of job description. Not cognitive overlap. I don’t think.”

“Interesting,” Young said.

“They probably intended the AI to run in the background and take over if necessary. That’s my best guess. I haven’t seen it around much for the past month or so.”

“It appears to you?” Young growled.

“What? Oh—no. Not as a person or anything, just in the systems of the ship. It’s running in its own space on the DL. By this point it’s surrendered almost everything over to us.”

“Not everything,” Young said, looking back out at the stars.

“So I’m getting the feeling that you’re asking me about this for a reason.”

“The AI and I have been clashing lately. Over Rush.”

“Oh, really?” Eli said. “Kinda hard to miss, when he’s losing his ability to move in the middle of the NHB. Pro-tip: the AI is probably not something you want to ‘clash’ with. It’s got a lot of latitude in terms of what it can do.”

“I know,” Young said. “Believe me, I know. I’ve been trying to mend some fences, but it’s been avoiding me ever since we brought it back up.” He scanned the room without much real hope.

“I mean, it had a pretty rough time.” Eli looked at him dubiously. “Not sure I’d want to tangle with you either, if I were, uh, it.”

“Yeah,” Young said softly.

“Plus,” Eli said. “When you fight with that thing, it puts Rush in the middle, right?”

“Unfortunately, yeah.”

“Well, it probably doesn’t want that either right now. It likes him. Really likes him.”

“Yeah,” Young said grudgingly. “I know.”

They watched the shimmered swirl of the shields.

“So.” Eli bent to grab his laptop. “I have a campaign contribution for you.” He opened the computer and ejected a disk from the disk drive.

“What’s this ‘campaign’ I keep hearing about?” Young asked.

“Wellllllll,” Eli said, “there are two campaigns, actually. This little item is courtesy of my Colonel Young Is an Idiot and Requested Nothing from Earth Campaign.” He passed Young the disc.

“What?” Young asked.

“Not to be confused with the almost as popular Increase the Cultural Literacy of Nicholas Rush Campaign.”


Eli smiled. “So it is true. Neither of you ever set foot in the rec room. I always suspected, but now I know for sure.”

“We have a rec room?”

“Um, yeah, it’s an empty room with a deck of cards in it, but people hang out there. Now that we have ping-pong balls? Things have gotten interesting. You know who’s amazing at ping-pong? Volker. Turns out he wasn’t all talk. Anyway, there was a sign-up sheet for people to donate some of their five-pounds of personal items to either one of you.”

“Uh.” Young swallowed. “That’s—”

“Nothing,” Eli said airily. “It was nothing.”

Young clapped the kid on the shoulder and gave him a nod, then looked down at the disk he held. It was a burned DVD, labeled in Eli’s scrawling hand. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?” Young smiled faintly. “I love this movie.”

“Well,” Eli said, smiling in return, “you’re not the only one. After what, two and a half years of trying to engage Rush in conversation about basically every form of media invented by humanity, I weaseled this one out of him by identifying something he’d quoted.”

“The time loop device.” The silver CD in Young’s hands reflected the swirl beyond the windows.

“Yeah,” Eli said. “It was really only when you called him Cassidy that I realized he’d quoted something. He’s a quoter. A sneaky one. But you’re not typically one for fun nicknames; that’s how I knew.”

Young made a noncommittal sound.

“Yeah yeah. Go. Have your date night.”

“Eli. We don’t have date nights.”

Eli looked at his watch. “Dinner and a movie? Sounds like a date to me.”

When Young returned to his quarters, disk in hand, he found Rush on the couch, arms and ankles crossed, glaring at TJ’s laptop like he was trying to short the thing out with the power of his mind. That looked about right. What he wasn’t expecting, however, was to find TJ and Varro sitting on the floor next to him, their backs to the couch, also staring at the laptop. On which a movie was playing. They were eating—popcorn?

They were having a date night.

In his quarters.

With Rush.

“Hi colonel,” TJ said. “Popcorn?” She held the bowl out.

//What the hell?// Young projected conversationally.

//How uncomfortable you feel about this is matched only by how uncomfortable I feel about this.// Rush thoughts wavered painfully.

“Uh, sure. Thanks, TJ.” Young stowed the disk he held on a small shelf, placing it carefully atop The Castle, then walked forward to take a modest handful of TJ’s popcorn. The stuff was unbelievably delicious. Light and airy, with an even coating of butter that wasn’t butter at all but some synthesized chemical that, somehow, tasted like the planet they’d left behind.

“I know, it’s good, right?” TJ watched his face.

//You’ve no fuckin’ taste. That stuff is revolting.//

“Yeah,” Young rasped. “What movie are you watching?”

Inception,” TJ said. “You want to sit? Lisa’s parents put it in her package as a surprise. They included a flash drive with every major movie she’s missed. Inception’s the most popular one. It’s making the rounds through the crew. We just started it.”

Rush rolled his eyes.

“Um.” Young glanced at Rush. “What’s an ‘inception’?”

“It’s not a word,” Rush drawled, unimpressed and a little American sounding.

“There’s a British character in it,” TJ glanced back at Rush.

Rush shot her a low-wattage glare.

//You want them out of here?// Young asked.

//Why would I want them out of here?// Rush asked, his tone like poisoned syrup, his headache flooding their link. //I’ve played through nothing but variations on this exact theme for days now. I—//

“Settle down,” Young said, squinting as Rush’s headache ratcheted up a notch.

TJ and Varro looked up at him, puzzled.

“Damn it,” Young muttered. “Never mind.”

Rush raised a math-professor eyebrow.

“So, ‘inception’,” TJ said into the awkward silence, “is when you try to make a person think what you want them to think without them noticing. By influencing their dreams. A lot of the movie takes place in dreams. That’s what Lisa says.”

“Uh,” Young said, not at all sure he wanted to watch anything even remotely like that.

“Right, and so far it’s fuckin’ terrible,” Rush added conversationally.

“What are you talking about?” Varro asked. “This is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Because you’ve never seen a fucking film in your life,” Rush snarled.

Varro raised both hands.

//Hey,// Young projected as much calm as he could in Rush’s direction. //It’s just a stupid movie.//

“Yes.” Rush sat. “Scio. Vultus, discedant. Volo ego solus.”

“That wasn’t English,” Young said.

You’re not fuckin’ English.”

“As insults go, I’ve heard you do better,” Young replied.

Rush shot Young a spectacular glare, then forced himself to his feet. He swayed unsteadily.

Young grabbed the scientist’s elbow, steadying him. “We talked about this,” he began.

“Don’t touch me,” Rush hissed, pulling away. “Don’t fucking touch me.”

TJ stood, alarmed.

“Okay.” Young put out a hand to stop TJ. “Okay. Just—”

Rush backed away unsteadily, then ducked into the bathroom. The door sealed behind him.

“So,” TJ said into the silence, drawing out the word. “No Inception. Got it.”

“Not your fault, TJ.” Young sighed, looking at the bathroom door.

“You going to be able to talk him down?” TJ bent gracefully to pick up her laptop. Young and Varro watched her, then their eyes snapped to one another.

“Yeah.” Young broke his stare-down with Varro to check his watch. “But not before dinner ends. Can you send someone by with—”

“Already taken care of.” TJ indicated a bag at the foot of the coffee table with her eyes.


“Make sure he eats,” TJ said, her expression unhappy. “His meds are in there too. And um,” she lowered her voice, glancing at the bathroom. “His laptop is at the bottom of the bag. I took it away from him this morning, but I didn’t have the heart to keep it.”

“Yeah. I know how you feel.”

He saw them to the door. As they walked in the direction of TJ’s quarters, Young watched her angle her head toward Varro as he bent to say something. She smiled at whatever it was, then stole a handful of popcorn from the bowl he carried.

Young turned away and hit the door controls for his quarters. He rested his forehead against the cool metal, resisting the urge to sigh.

Rush’s headache dug into him.

He shucked off his jacket and draped it over the back of the couch. He set his radio on the table and pulled his boots off.

He gave the scientist a good fifteen minutes, then knocked on the bathroom door.

No answer.

He turned, put his back to the door, and bent his knees. He slid to the floor, where he sat, looking into the room.

//Y’know,// Young projected conversationally through the door, //mostly it’s teenage girls that lock themselves in bathrooms.//

//You’re misinformed. It’s the general privilege of the mentally unsound.//

//You’re not mentally unsound.//

//Nice of you t’say,// Rush projected wistfully. //It’s difficult to control something as complicated as a human mind from the top down.//

//I’ll bet. You wanna open the door? You’re exhausting yourself with all of this projecting.//

//Infinitus est vis mea.//

//English, please.//

//My energy is limitless.//

//You quoting?//

//I’m being clever. D’you know the scientific definition of energy?//


//Pick up a fuckin’ book.//

Young smiled faintly. //Maybe, one day, I will. Open the door, please.//


The door slid open.

Young fell backwards into the bathroom.

“God damn it, Rush. A little warning would have been nice.”

“You said, ‘Let me in.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ What more d’you want?”

Young levered himself up on an elbow, and twisted to look at Rush. The scientist was curled on the floor, his hands tucked into the sleeves of his jacket, his feet bare except for the bandage that still covered the left one.

“You’re a lot of work,” Young said.

“I know,” Rush sighed.

Young settled himself against the wall and looked down at his chief scientist.

“Let’s go get drunk,” Rush said, his hair streaked with light.

“Yeah, okay. Great idea. I’ll find your shoes. Let’s go get you completely trashed, hmm?”

“No need t’be so sarcastic about it.” Rush smiled faintly.

“You already can’t walk a straight line.”

“I’m sure I could,”

“I doubt it, genius.” Young tugged on a piece of Rush’s hair.

Rush flicked Young’s hand with two fingers. “Stop being nice to me.”

“I will. Any time now. You definitely don’t deserve it. I think you almost made TJ cry, you bastard.” 


“Are y’serious?”

“No,” Young said. “She’s tough. Unlike you. What’s wrong.”


“Nothing. Yup. I can definitely see how that would make you storm off and lock yourself in the bathroom.”

“It starts with the sea,” Rush said, staring at nothing. “A lost child. A room full of light. An idea.”

“What does?”


“C’mon,” Young said mildly. “If we’re going by movies, your life is like A Beautiful Mind, meets, I don’t know, Independence Day.”

“Haven’t seen either of those, and I’m fair fuckin’ certain you’re insulting me.”

“Following your orders, genius. You’re the one with a vendetta against everything nice.”

“Yes well.” Rush shut his eyes.

“Let’s get off this floor.” Young trailed his fingertips through Rush’s hair. “What do you say?”

“No. Nisi imus bibere, hic maneo.”

“Now you’re just being lazy.” Young hauled Rush up and pulled the guy against his chest. “Speak English.”

“You’re sure we can’t go drinking?” Rush kept his eyes shut.

“Yes. I’m sure.” Young pressed the back of his hand against the scientist’s forehead.

“Still there,” Rush murmured. “These antivirals don’t do shit.”

“TJ said they might take a while put a dent in your viral load.”

“Viral load.” Rush’s tone was disdainful. “Biologists put on a good show, but it’s all fuckin’ guesswork.”

“Pretty sure they don’t feel that way about it.”

“Yes well. Very fuckin’ diplomatic of you, colonel,” Rush gathered himself, then shot to his feet, overbalanced, and caught himself on the edge of the sink.

Young, unimpressed, looked up at him. “You’re trying to pick a fight with me about—I don’t even know what to call that. Biology as a discipline?” He stood. “I just wanna eat dinner.”

Rush looked at him, hands braced against the sink. His hair fell into his eyes. He shook it back. “If I were picking a fight with you,” he said, “believe me, you’d know.”

“Would I? You’re so damn mercurial, it’s hard to tell sometimes.”

“Yes well. You’re terribly fuckin’ reliable,” Rush muttered.

“Was that supposed to be an insult?”

“Oh absolutely.” Rush stared at his own hands and tried, very hard, not to smile.

“C’mon, genius.” Young pried him away from the sink and hauled Rush’s arm across his shoulders.

“I can walk.” Rush pulled away.

“Yeah, you sure as shit can.” Young pulled the guy right back in. “And you’re gonna tear open your foot again for what? For the hell of it? Don’t you feel crappy enough for something like five people already? Just take your goddamn weight off it, will you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Rush hissed. “I’ll just tear it open again eventually.”

“That’s the spirit.” Young dragged Rush over to the bed and retrieved the dinner that TJ’d left for them.

“Huh,” Young said, as he opened the bag, “this looks like actual food.” He pulled out two MREs—mac and cheese and spaghetti with meat sauce, as well as potato chips and cookies that, incredibly, looked homemade. There was a note with the cookies that read:

For the Col. Young (is An Idiot*) Campaign


(*Sorry, sir.)

Wordlessly, he passed the note to Rush.

Rush glanced at it briefly, then passed it back to Young. “Interesting.” He leaned back on one arm, and let his eyes fall shut.

“Interesting?” Young repeated. “That’s your response?”

“Yes well, it’s interesting to look at English without being able to read it.”

Young stared at him, the note held between nerveless fingers. “You’re serious.”

“Yes,” he said, resigned and exhausted, “yes I am.”

“God damn it, Rush,” Young growled.

Rush’s eyes flew open. He gave Young a startled look. “I’ll get it back. Most likely.”

“Most likely? Shouldn’t you have it back already?”

Rush shrugged again. “If I spent five minutes staring at that note I could probably figure out what it says. I doubt it’s worth it. Why don’t you just tell me?” His tone was soothing, as if he were trying to calm Young down.

Which was, of course, ridiculous.

Young shoved it back at him. “Do it.”


“You’re doing it right now.”


“Because I want to know you can.”

Rush’s thoughts, which had been a disorganized swirl, crystalized into something hard and determined. “I’m not doing it.”

“Yes you are.”

“Un-fuckin’-likely,” Rush shot back, gloriously Scottish.

The room was silent other than the low hum of the FTL drive.

“You’re afraid,” Young said. “You’re afraid you won’t be able to do it.”

Rush focused on him for a long moment, his thoughts and his breathing steadying themselves. “Close.” The scientist gave Young a faint smile, his accent stronger than ever, “But you haven’t quite got it. Not quite.”

What then?”

“I’ll do it later with an actual book, not some colloquialism-laden, hand-written scrap, all right? Let’s just eat.” With that, Rush grabbed the container of cookies and examined it. “Who are these from, then?”

“James.” Young tried to strip the grudge from his tone, and did a piss-poor job of it.

“Have y’noticed people’ve been giving you things of late?” Rush asked, puzzled, annoyed, and trying to hold Young’s attention. He shoved the cookies back without taking one.

“What kind of things have you gotten?”

“Eli gave me a digital library of films, most of which I’ve never heard of, arranged in the order he wants me to watch them. Bit optimistic on his part, I’d say.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes actually. Mostly media files of different kinds, though Tamara gifted me a shirt of dubious aesthetic value.”

“Yeah, those’ll be campaign contributions,” Young said, still having one hell of a time letting go of the idea that Nick Rush couldn’t read English.

“Campaign?” Rush echoed.

“Yeah. It’s like a thing you go on. Engage in. Where you do stuff. With people.”

Rush rolled his eyes. “You’re a truly pathetic excuse for a personal dictionary. I know what a fuckin’ campaign is? What I want to know is what the fuck kind of campaign involves shirts and films and baked goods from James.”

“God, you’re impatient.”

Rush gave him a so-what-else-is-new shrug.

“Before everyone submitted their requests for personal items from Earth, Eli started a campaign to increase your cultural literacy.”

Rush lifted his eyebrows. “You’re joking.”

“Nope. In fact, I’m pretty sure he named it the Increase The Cultural Literacy of Nicholas Rush Campaign.”

Rush continued to stare at him.

“He likes you.” Young shrugged.

“I know,” Rush said, his eyes closing briefly. He shook his hair back. “While that might explain the virtual library of films, it does not explain that.” He pointed to James’s cookies. “I can’t imagine there’s not a Colonel Young equivalent.”

“Yeah,” Young sighed.


“It’s not important.”

“Called?” Rush repeated.

“It’s called the Colonel Young Is an Idiot and Requested Nothing from Earth Campaign.”

Rush smirked, then looked away as he lost his grip on a genuine smile. “The Colonel Young is An Idiot Campaign. Aptly named, I must say.”

“Yeah yeah.” Young eyed the pair of MRE’s TJ’d left them. “So what do you want?” Young asked “Mac and cheese or spaghetti with meat sauce?”

“Pass,” Rush said.

“I’d give you the mac and cheese out of spite,” Young said, “but I’m sure you wouldn’t eat it. So here.” Young tossed the package of spaghetti into Rush’s lap.

The scientist looked at it listlessly, leaning back on one arm, as if he could distance himself from his dinner.

“You’re eating that entire thing.”

“Oh I know,” Rush murmured.

“At least it’s not paste.”

“The paste doesn’t lie about what it is.” Rush tipped his head back and closed his eyes.

Young snorted. “Then you have more in common with the MRE.”

“Very witty, but I don’t look for common ground between myself and my food, thank you.”

Young shook his head. “Step one is opening it.”

“Will y’be providing instructional commentary the entire time?”

“Only if it seems like you need it.” Young glanced at Rush to see the scientist’s head turned away. His eyes were shut. Young was hit with an echo of intense nausea.


“Hey, are you—”

“Don’t think I can eat right now,” Rush said faintly, looking like he was about to be sick or pass out. “Maybe later.”

This was about to turn into a disaster unless Young did something immediately.

“Yup.” He wasted no time dumping everything back into the bag and putting it out of sight on the floor.

You should eat,” Rush said. “You’ve been working all day.”

“Pretty sure that wouldn’t end well for either of us.”


“You want some water?”

“No,” Rush said, his eyes still shut.

“How long have you—”

“Please don’t talk to me right now,” Rush said through clenched teeth. “Go do something else. Anything else.”

“Sure.” Young stood, crossed to the bathroom, and soaked half his hand towel with water. He shook it out, letting the air cool it.

He found Rush curled miserably on the bed, a very similar position to the one he’d adopted on the bathroom floor. Young perched next to him. “Scoot.”

“I knew it was too good to be true,” Rush whispered.

“What?” Young asked.

“You leaving. Will y’get out of here?”

“Nope,” Young pressed the washcloth to the back of Rush’s neck. “Not gonna happen.”

“Think of ice,” Rush murmured, his eyes shut.

“What?” Young asked.

“That’s what I used to tell Gloria,” he said. “T’think of ice.”

Young shut his eyes.

White tile and white paint and white porcelain and her hair spread across the floor as she lies there. He runs his fingers through it carefully, but already it comes away under his hand. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” she says, wry amusement in her tone. It can’t hide that she’s been crying. He knows. Of course he knows.

“Glaciers,” Young said, not snapping him out of the memory, just picking an aspect of it and—

“Don’t think about it,” he says. “Think of something neutral. Like four.” She tips her face toward him. “Four?” she repeats. “As in, the number? The one after three and before five?” He cocks his head at her. “Name something more neutral than the concept of four. She shuts her eyes against the tears that threaten, but it just makes them spill over. “You’re a very odd man,” she says, smiling.

“Fields of glaciers. As far as you can see. Cold and clear and clean,” Young said quietly.

“Ice, then?” he asks as she rides out another wave of nausea. “Ice is good,” she says, when she can speak again.

Young readjusted the towel, shaking it off, cooling it down. He unzipped Rush’s jacket, pulled the collar wide, and and pressed the wet cloth against his fevered skin. “Snow.”

“Oxygen,” he says, stroking her hair, “Oxygen and hydrogen, crystalizing as they give up their kinetic energy in the cold.” She smiles again. “You incurable romantic,” she whispers. He can’t look at her.

“Frozen lakes,” Young said. “Frozen rivers. Frozen waterfalls.” He projected images from his own past, interleaving them with Rush’s memory. “You ever seen a frozen waterfall?”


“It doesn’t look real. All the motion of a waterfall locked into ice. Cold and hard and quiet.”

Young opened his mind to the vast, snow-covered space of the American West, under a clouded sky. Unconfined. Unconfining. White and gray and frozen.

The crunch of his boots through a crust of snow. The slide of a skate over ice, the feel of tiny shards needling his face in a frigid wind, the frozen branches of trees and the crack of wood splitting beneath the weight of the snow—

“These are your memories?” Rush asked.

“Yeah,” Young said, still thinking of snow, of long, frozen grasses and the rough, dark ice of the North Platte River.

“You have so much control,” Rush whispered.

Young wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything. He held the damp cloth to the back of Rush’s neck.

After another five minutes of winter memory, Young realized Rush was asleep.

“Oh no you don’t,” Young said, rubbing his arm. “I’m onto you. You sleep through dinner and you’ll wake up at 2300 hours with some bullshit case for dragging me around the ship in the middle of the night.”

No response.

“Not today, genius.” Young closed a hand on the scientist’s upper arm and gave him a gentle shake. “Wake up.”

Rush jerked awake with a surge of panic, nearly cracking their heads together.

“Hi.” Young eased him back.

“Sorry,” Rush said, disoriented. “I was—you were—”

“Yeah,” Young said softly. “Feeling any better?”


“C’mon,” Young said. “Sit up.”

“I cannot eat right now, I—”

“Oh will you give it a rest?” Young propped his pillows against the wall at the head of the bed. “You’re so negative about everything.”

Rush glared at him, but he uncurled and shifted back to lean against the wall.

Young fished the man’s computer out of the bottom of TJ’s bag and placed it on the scientist’s lap.

“You’re giving me my laptop?”

“You get five minutes while I make you TJ’s Anti-Nausea tea. Then we’re gonna watch a movie.”

Rush made an aggrieved sound and drove the heel of one hand into his eye. “Do you have any idea how many fucking ‘movies’ I’ve watched in the past two days?”

“Nope,” Young said, “let’s hear the list.” He got to his feet, crossed the room, and pulled out TJ’s set of assorted teas.

“An uncountable number,” Rush called after him. “I watched six hours of Pride and Prejudice with Chloe, under the guise of improving my accent. I watched fuckin’ Braveheart with Barnes. With Barnes. I don’t even know Barnes.”

“Well at least the one’s Scottish,” Young threw back over his shoulder, dumping TJ’s Anti-Nausea blend into the thermos she’d loaned him.

You’re more fuckin’ Scottish than that fuckin’ film. And then, I watched some movie about corrupt law enforcement officials with Greer. No fuckin’ Scottish people in that one. I watched about two minutes of Trainspotting with with Eli, then he lost his nerve and switched to Hackers. Supposedly a fuckin’ classic. I watched fucking Lord of the Rings with Volker and Brody.”

Young snorted. “That one, I can’t picture.”

“No. Me neither. Thank god. I fell asleep about ten minutes in.”

“So that one doesn’t count,” Young said, heating water in a wall alcove.

“Yes, it absolutely counts. I don’t like people and I don’t like movies. I’ve always been very upfront about both of these things.”

“That’s true.” Young returned to the bed, handed Rush the tea, and, while the scientist’s hands were occupied, he stole his laptop.

“What are you doing?” Rush demanded.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” Young relocated the bag containing the MREs to the bed, then climbed over the mattress to sit next to Rush.

“I don’t like people touching my laptop.”

“Uh huh.”

“I feel—weird about it,” Rush said.

“You feel ‘weird’ about people touching your laptop.” Young repeated, fighting a smile.


“Fortunately for you,” Young said, sliding the disc Eli had given him into the drive, “I’m not ‘people’.”

“I suppose not,” Rush muttered. He took a sip of tea. “The fuck is this anyway?”

“You’re gonna like it.” Young settled in beside him on the bed.


Young started the movie. The sound of a flickering film projector emanated from the laptop. Sepia-toned images played on the left-hand side of the screen.

“Oh all right,” Rush said, sulkily.

“The hole in the wall gang,” Young read off the laptop screen, “led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, are all dead now.”

“Y’don’t have t’fuckin’ read it,” Rush muttered. “I know what it says.”

“Watched this thing a few times, have you?” Young asked.

“More than,” Rush admitted.

Together, they watched Cassidy, sepia-toned and silent, walk into a building full of closing doors, spinning locks, shuttering windows. Together, they watched The Sundance Kid, sepia-toned and silent, win a high-stakes game of chance.

Courtesy of the distraction provided by the two-hour movie, Young managed to get Rush to eat about three quarters of an MRE plus two of James’ cookies. In his opinion, this counted as a damn fine success. The fact that Rush fell asleep about fifteen minutes before the movie ended, his head slowly coming to rest on Young’s shoulder, was also going straight in the wins column.

The ending of the movie, after all, was fairly grim.

Young woke in the middle of the night, grasping at the shredded remains of a dream already gone.

He was exhausted. A headache pressed against his eyes.

Rush was awake.

The scientist sat in the bed, his mobile phone aglow one hand, a book in the other. Young recognized his own beaten-to-hell copy of The Trial. Rush was hunched over the text, his eyebrows furrowed, his glasses on, the fringe of his hair resting against the frames of his glasses. The light reflecting from the page illuminated his features.

“Fuck,” he whispered. “Et hoc est?”

With as much gentle subtlety as he could bring to bear, Young drew his thoughts and Rush’s into closer proximity, until, in the dark, sitting next to Rush on the edge of the bed, he saw the outline of Dr. Jackson.

Est gerunduim,” the AI said. “A gerund. In modum de ‘swimming’ or ‘walking’.

Describitur hic finis?”

“Yes. ‘i-n-g’.”

“The right understanding,” Rush began, the words slow and labored, “of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.”

Item. Quod dirum sonuit. Make it sound like English,” it said, amused.

“You’re barely sentient,” Rush snapped. “Non etiam viventes.”

“Oh yeah? Well, you’re a jerk,” it said, mild and friendly. Like Dr. Jackson had really taught it something, years ago, when he’d been nothing but light and living memory.

Malo alio libro,” Rush said.

Certo scio,” the AI replied, “but I’m afraid speaking Ancient won’t help, if you’re determined to reacquire this skill.”

“I’ll not be fucking illiterate. D’you have any idea how much that would undermine my intellectual credibility?”

“We could be using this time for more important things,” it said.

“It won’t take long with the processing power I have access to. Just fuckin’ read this so I know what I’m looking at, please?”

The AI sighed and looked over. “The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.”

Rush sighed.

“Why did you not work on this earlier with Colonel Young?”

“Because.” Rush kept his eyes fixed on the book.

“Because why?”

“Because there’s only so much one person can take, all right? Just drop it.”

“Are you speaking in regards to yourself or to the colonel?”

“Are y’making a fuckin’ processing error? What did I just say?”

“Nick,” the AI said, quiet, pained.

Rush shook his head.

“Try it again,” it whispered.

“The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.”

“Better.” The AI smiled, every bit as kind and unassuming as the man whose face and manner and body it borrowed. “Much better.”

Young shut his eyes, shut his mind, held to nothingness, and, eventually, sleep carried him under.

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