Force over Distance: Chapter 54
“We spent weeks, together, trying to solve the problem of fixing our link. And now that we have, now that we’ve blown the door wide open, you wanna walk away?” Young asked. “You wanna pretend that door is shut? Just because it’s linked to the physical, rather than a circuit you can rewire?”
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Theoretical.
Additional notes: None.
Rush’s first day back on active duty left something to be desired.
TJ’d restricted the man to split-shifts, but, at hour four, Rush blew straight through his time limit, with no signs of returning to either the infirmary or Young’s quarters. His thoughts were glassed up, edged with determination, and his whole mental landscape crackled with energy.
The guy was braced for one hell of a fight.
So, instead of talking to him, instead of reminding him of his work-hour restriction, instead of marching down to the FTL drive and dragging him back to bed, Young said nothing. He did nothing. He left the man to Chloe and her impromptu presentation of the data she’d collected on the ship’s matter wave.
Slowly, in the blue glow of the cathedral-like FTL vault, as his favorite student spoke a fluent mix of Ancient and math, Rush filed down his edges.
Young spent the afternoon searching for Bill Lee.
He found the man in his far-flung quarters, sitting at the small desk he’d dragged next to the window. The room was covered with paper. Scraps of the stuff lined the floors in curving strips, all the white space torn away and used to make newer, smaller scraps. Lee’s desk was covered with ragged-edged strips and shapes. Each torn sheet featured etchings, made by rubbing something—charcoal, maybe—over engraved Ancient text. English words annotated each tracing.
“Colonel!” Lee motioned him forward. “Come on in. Sorry about the mess.”
As Young threaded his way through the maze of charcoal etchings, he scanned a selection of legible snippets.
Put no barriers between you and where you are.
The sun is warm.
Wind is wild.
Grass is green along the shores.
“What’s all this?” Young asked.
“Isn’t it incredible?” Lee replied. “Vanessa made these. She’s bringing ‘em in faster than I can get ‘em translated. And I’m pretty quick. But, in my defense? The Cantascendis is tricky. Very very tricky.”
“The what?” Young sprang over a particularly dense patch of paper.
“The Cantascendis? The collection of sung poetry that points the road to Ascension? I think you guys might have a complete set here, maybe even The Original Set. Daniel’s gonna LOSE HIS MIND. Sorry. I shouldn’t joke about that. He gets sensitive.”
“Okay.” Young perched on the edge of Lee’s bed, in a tiny space clear of charcoal tracings.
“My point is, this is incredible. Look at this one!” Lee shuffled through the pile of scraps on his desk. “I’ve never seen it before! No one has! God these are hard. Take a look.” He thrust an etching at Young.
Young studied the artfully torn paper. James’s Ancient rubbing was annotated with all kinds of English words, mathematical symbols, Greek letters, and question marks. A whole lotta question marks. But, traced and retraced in bold and messy pencil, Lee’s final translation followed the subtle curve of the Ancient itself:
To the wanderer who mis-sees
Spring winds promptly vanish.
“Uh, great,” Young said. “What does it mean?”
“No idea!” Lee grinned. “The only word I’m ‘sure’ of is ‘mis-sees,’ which is a world of puzzles in itself. It’s famous. Daniel goes back and forth on translating it as: ‘misses seeing’ versus ‘mis-seeing.’ But they’re so different!!! Like, if you ‘miss seeing,’ the thing you’re seeing is there, but you’re missing it, y’know? You don’t see it at all. But if you ‘mis-see,’ then you do see something, it’s just that you don’t perceive it correctly. If you really press him about it, Daniel thinks those two concepts occur on a spectrum! Like, first you see nothing, then you mis-see, then, maybe, you actually see? Or, all ‘sight’ is problematic and a flawed “sight spectrum” is represented by a single word? Which is nuts. And then there’s the suggestion of nostalgia. Lack. Loneliness.”
“Loneliness?” Young looked up.
“It’s a whole different axis. Because, when you’re ’missing’ something, if you’re aware of a lack, that’ll opens the door to ‘pining.’ Right? Like, maybe, pining for the concept of sight itself? I mean, when you turn into pure energy who knows what sensation is like. This could represent a yearning for a gate of the senses. There’s actually some real support for that here. You could translate this: ‘To the wanderer who misses his sense of sight, spring winds, in that same instant, vanish. Almost like focusing on the loss of one sensory modality kills a memory or a perception of a different sensory modality? But that’s just the etymological/philosophical side of things. When it comes to physics, ‘spring winds’ correlate with the massless momentum that photons possess! Who the heck knows what THAT signifies in this context! This could literally double as instructions for energetic travel on stellar winds. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a thousand times, the Cantascendis is hard. Hard like diamond, man. It’s incredible.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Young handed the paper back to Lee.
“Also? Sorry. Hi. Great to meet you. Bill Lee. PhD.” The scientist extended his hand. He gave Young a firm, enthusiastic shake. “I always forget to do this part.”
“Colonel Everett Young.”
“I know, man, I know. What can I do for you?”
Young’d spent some time considering how much to trust a supposedly friendly scientist on Telford’s team who he didn’t personally know. The answer was: not all that far. At least at first. “If Rush can solve the technical difficulties involved in getting Jackson dialed in on the stones,” Young began, “would you set up a meeting with him on my behalf?”
“Um.” Lee paused. “Absolutely. But only if he doesn’t show up and beat me to it. He keeps trying, and I’ve given him carte blanche when it comes to my consciousness. I would personally consider it an honor to be brain-jacked by Dr. Jackson. Dr. Jackson. Jackin’ in. Ha. And he might make it, one of these days. He’s looped Carter in on the project. Between you and me? She’s getting annoyed. My last trip back on the stones, I showed up to the Perry Lab, which, shoot, I guess got turned into the Hyperdrive Corps, now that Perry is, uh, now that—”
“Yeah,” Young said softly.
“Well the former Perry Lab, those troublemakers, set up a scoreboard. Carter versus Rush. As soon as Sam Carter sees that, Nick is gonna have his hands full if he wants to keep ignoring Daniel’s calls. She’s got a real competitive streak. All the great ones do.”
“Wait a minute,” Young said. “Jackson’s been barred more than once?”
“Jackson—er, darn it. Why is that so catchy? Daniel has tried countless times. Probably about once per week ever since since Nick got trapped in the chair.”
Young felt Rush’s attention divert. The man’s full focus hit like the leading edge of a storm—water-laced wind, shot through with crackling insight. //What are you doing?// The scientist projected silkily.
//You been blocking Jackson for weeks, genius?// Young winced and brought a hand to his head, bracing himself against the power of the man’s presence.
Rush dialed it back. //Yes,// he admitted, a strong undertone of uneasiness beneath his projection.
“Colonel, you okay?” Lee asked.
Young looked up at the scientist, backlit by streamers of shieldlight. He pulled his hand away from his head. “Sorry. Yeah. Headache. It happens.” Then, on second thought, he pressed his fingers back to his temple. “Give me a minute?”
“Sure,” Lee replied.
//Genius.// Young involuntarily flashed back to the thing that’d taken on a life of its own in his head, in his dreams, at the bottom of his list of priorities. The Combination. The way it had looked to the sea, to rain that fell in a gray curtain, far over the ocean. //When you block Jackson—who are you protecting?//
Rush was so startled by the question, by the insight behind it, that the answer presented itself as pure sense-impression: an architecture of light, a song of machine yearning, and Gloria, terribly frail, staring into the heart of the ship’s FTL drive, both hands on the guardrail. The glow of the engine swirled through the bits of crystal sewn to the tops of her shoes, and put a gloss on the dark wig she wore. As though she could sense Rush’s attention, she turned, and, in the moment of her turning, she cascaded from Gloria to Jackson, his shoulders hunched, his arms crossed. Jackson pushed his glasses up his face and said, very softly, “Sorry about that, Nick.”
“Yup,” Young breathed.
“What?” Lee asked.
Young shook his head.
Standing on monitoring platform, Rush grimaced, and a frustrated hiss escaped through his teeth. Chloe glanced at him. “It’s the concept of wavelength, isn’t it?” She frowned back at the display in front of her. “With the spatial distortion—ugh. It’s hard to think through.”
//You let me think it was Daniel Jackson you were protecting,// Young projected, his hostility dissolving in the sea of uneasiness he felt. //You said you couldn’t predict what the AI might do if we let the guy on the ship.//
//I did say that.// Rush’s projection, grim and dark, slid between Young’s modular defenses like a blade of ice.
//Not to him, though.// Young bricked and mortared all the thoughts he couldn’t, wouldn’t share. //Because of him.//
//Yes well,// Rush replied coolly. //Congratulations. Finally you’ve stopped to think things through for twenty seconds. Daniel Jackson’s a profoundly destabilizing element in any equation into which he inserts himself. He’s hypocritical, he doesn’t practice what he preaches, he’s talked more people into destruction than y’can count on two hands, he’s started every intergalactic or trans-galactic conflict humanity’s ever been involved in, he’s not particularly empathetic towards pure technology, and his standing with the AI rivals my own.//
Behind the barrier he’d created in his own mind, Young let the memory of Hunter Riley grip him by the throat. Riley guarded the final gate, the one the width of the eye of a needle. Riley. It was Riley that Young wanted, so badly, to ask Jackson about.
But how good an idea would that be, really?
“Oh god,” he whispered.
“You want a glass of water?” Lee asked anxiously. “I’m gonna get you water. Stay there.”
//No need t’fuckin eviscerate yourself over the thing,// Rush said, cautious and exasperated and exhausted. //We’re vastly better off without him.//
And, Young realized, the guy might be right on the money. Even lacking the full picture. Even with his mind split by forces beyond his control. Even with no awareness of what he created when he combined with the ship—he might be right. Drawing Jackson into this vortex might do nothing but hasten the culling of the quantum array that contained all Young had ever known.
Though he was sure he’d concealed most of the contents of his thoughts, he got a powerful wave of astonishment from Rush.
//What did you see?// Young asked.
//A set.// Rush’s mind brimmed with iridescent concern and slow-bolting lightning. //Torn from, or maybe through, a set of sets. Colonel—//
//Don’t call me that.//
//All right.// Rush projected a wave of what was probably supposed to be calm, but was so shot through with anxiety it was hard to tell. //All right. But I need to shore up your neural pathways. Tonight.//
//Not a chance./
//You’re conceptualizing your emotional distress using set theory,// Rush hissed waspishly. //It’s far far past time for this.//
//Well, if you’d gone off shift after four hours, like you were supposed to, maybe you’d have better luck. Try again tomorrow.//
Rush shot him a wave of irritated dismissal, and turned the majority of his focus back to Chloe.
“Here ya go.” Lee leapt across a span of charcoal-covered paper, spilling a third of the water from the glass he carried. “Shoot.”
“Thanks,” Young took the glass, wet and slick.
“You and Nick had one heck of a week,” Lee said kindly. “If I were you, I’d still be in bed. Curled in a little ball. Recreating World of Warcraft campaigns in my brain.”
Young smiled faintly. “Wish that was an option.”
“You a Warcraft fan, colonel?” Lee asked, eyebrows up.
“Um, no,” Young said.
“Eh. No one’s perfect.”
“Any chance of setting up a meeting with Nick at some point?” Lee asked. “I’ve got a few messages from Daniel to pass along.”
//What do you say, genius?//
//Not interested, thank you.// The hue of the FTL drive lit up the back of Young’s mind, a perfect match for the light of the streaming shields.
Young sighed. “Why don’t you tell me?” he asked. “I’ll make sure they get to him.”
“Mmm, these aren’t those kind of messages,” Lee said, with transparent cageyness. “It’s all personal stuff.”
“Oh yeah?” Young muttered.
“For sure,” Lee said. “Daniel’s really close to Nick. Like, personally. Personally close.”
“Yup. Nick reminds Daniel of his grandfather.”
//Oh for fuck’s sake,// Rush commented dryly.
“Hey. Daniel’s grandfather was also named Nick. Nick Ballard. He lived in a psychiatric hospital for years after he was exposed to muonic leptons—fascinating particle actually. Fascinating story. He was a well-respected archeologist, real academic powerhouse, and then he discovers this alien artifact, oh, except no one knew it was alien, obviously, since he found it in a cave in Belize. This was in the seventies, maybe? And—”
“Okay.” Young got to his feet. “Well, I’m sure you guys’ll eventually find a time to talk. If you change your mind, I’m around.”
“Wait!” Lee said. “Wait. Sorry. One more thing. Daniel has a message for you. I probably should have opened with that.”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“He said to ask you,” Lee said softly, almost apologetically, “if you know what you are?”
Young said nothing. Behind the bricked wall of his mind, without warning—
“And what am I?” Rush asks, looking into the borrowed eyes of a dead Air Force sergeant as the wind carries a plucked flower out to sea.
“What the hell kind of question is that?” Young demanded.
“Um, a very Daniel one. There’s a right answer.”
“Which is?” Young growled.
“You’re a peaceful explorer.” Lee looked at him anxiously.
Very carefully, Young placed his half-finished glass of water on the scientist’s nightstand. “Okay. Let’s get something straight, you and me. I’m not a peaceful explorer. I’m an Air Force colonel, trying to get a stranded crew home. I don’t need greeting-card bullshit from across the universe. I need something useful. Something real. Next time you see Jackson? You tell him that.”
Bill Lee gave Young a quiet look. “If he were here, he’d really knock your socks off with that kind of setup. You’d never look at a greeting card the same way again, probably.” Lee pressed his hands, smudged with charcoal, against the arrangement of shredded paper in front of him. “I mean, these, man. These are greeting cards. You can’t say all of it. So you say a representational piece, connected to all kids of depth.” Lee sighed. “I’m not doing him justice. At all.”
“You think pretty highly of Jackson, I guess?” Young asked.
“He asked me to go on trip across the universe with no way home,” Lee said, with a kind smile. “I said sure.”
“Yeah,” Young murmured.
“I’ve known the guy for seven years,” Lee continued, “minus the year he spent ascended. I’ve been in the field with him. I’ve seen him do his thing. And I’ll tell you this, colonel: In Daniel’s book, ‘peaceful explorers’ reach for maps, for dictionaries, for candy bars, instead of for guns. Peaceful explorers step into the line of fire to save people they’ve never met. To protect things they don’t understand. Peaceful explorers spend themselves down. Peaceful explorers die. The SGC throws them into the dark. Like sparks from a campfire.” Lee looked up into the air, as though tracing sparks, flying upward.
“Great,” Young muttered.
“Yeah, seems even less helpful now, doesn’t it?” Lee whispered. “His greeting card, I mean. But Daniel has worked with guys like you for a decade. I’ve seen how he does it. Time and time again. He’ll step right in front of the gun you have pointed at your enemy. He’ll raise his hands. He’ll say: ‘We’re peaceful explorers.’ He’ll speak for you. For you, and all the guys with guns at his back.”
Young smiled, in spite of himself. “And then what happens?”
“Oh, all kinds of stuff.” Lee smiled in return, then dropped his gaze to the fragments of Ancient song beneath his hands.
At 1930 hours, The Castle open in front of him, Young felt the fluted shell of REM sleep assembling in Rush’s mind, building beneath Volker’s interminable presentation on the air recirculators. The distant echo of the shields turned itself into solo piano. And then—
Gloria stands at the window, a glass of wine in her hand. Gray light illuminates her features. She looks toward the city center, but the towers of Atlantis are obscured by mist and blown snow. Absently, she adjusts the collar of her cable-knit sweater. “There’s no sign of the castle.” She sips her wine.
Young set the book on the coffee table. “Now you’re stealing Kafka?”
“Mmm, he’s got a point.” Gloria swirls her wine. She watches the snow fall on the sea. “You’re terribly unscrupulous, sweetheart. Theft. Misdirection. Subterfuge. Sabotage. If you lack difficulties, you create them for yourself. And for others. Remember the way you refused to fix the lock on our front door, just so you could fight with it? Honestly, you’d try the patience of a saint.”
“Oh c’mon,” Young muttered, pulling on his boots. “You’re not that bad. Let’s not get carried away, genius.” He hit the door controls and headed for the CI room.
“But we’re all,” Gloria says, tracing wave-like patterns with a fingertip against the glass of the window, “all of us, carried away. Aren’t we? In the end? On the currents of sea or space or time?”
Young stayed quiet as he passed through the halls of Destiny, and, with nothing to react against, Gloria returned to contemplating the blown snow. Somewhere, far away, beneath the wind and weather, the soft sonata playing on invisible speakers was accompanied by Dale Volker, describing the flow of air on Destiny.
“And beyond all their physics,” Gloria whispers, still tracing waves, “beyond their metaphysics, what did they think about endings?” Her eyes flick to the obscured towers of Atlantis, to the dark suggestions of edges in edgeless fog. “They left. But—willingly? All of them couldn’t have gone that way.”
“Why are your dreams so disturbing?” Young whispered, his boots echoing on Destiny’s dark deck plates.
“I don’t know.” Gloria’s wine is gone, vanished while no one was looking. Her fingers tangle in the generous collar of her cable-knit sweater. Still, she watches the blowing snow. “Here, insoluble problems rewrite themselves. Memory and fear recombine.” She turns, and her eyes fix Young’s, prescient and piercing. “Has this ship ruined or preserved Gloria Rush, do you think?” A tear spends itself out, sliding down her cheek. “And does it matter?”
In the control interface room, Rush’s eyelids snapped open. He took a slow breath as his awareness dissolved the bones of the dream.
Over the span of a few heartbeats, he’d lost it completely.
Young rubbed his jaw and continued on.
As Young rounded the door of the CI room, Volker, his hair shining blue and yellow beneath a glowing mid-air display, broke off his monologue. “Oh, hey colonel. How’s it going?”
“Guys,” Young growled. He crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe. “Four hours. Four. None of you could get him out of here? None of you?”
//The fuck are you talking about?// The scientist projected, defensive and disoriented, his mind still full of unease, of half-remembered grief, of the shredded image of Atlantis, lost to wind and mist and blown snow.
//Pack it in, genius.// Young projected gently. //You’re done for the night.// He scanned the room. “Where’s Chloe?”
“I gave Chloe the night off.” Rush snapped. The guy rallied quick. Young’d give him that.
“Oh yeah? I’ll bet,” he muttered.
“An’ what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re off duty tomorrow is what it means,” Young said evenly.
“Ridiculous,” Rush shot back. “Tomorrow, we’re sweeping the interior of the ship for subspace transponders, which—”
“You’re ridiculous. No one cleared any plan to go wandering around the ship looking for subspace transponders with me. I want a full briefing before we attempt anything of the kind.”
“And by ‘sweeping’ I didn’t mean literally wandering about aimlessly, did I? We have internal sensors; this isn’t the dark ages, it’s just a matter of modifying the bloody things to pick up foreign technological signatures that belong to the Nakai and don’t come from Earth-based laptops?”
“You did two days of light duty in one day. That was your choice. You made it. That’s fine. But you’re off tomorrow. End of discussion.”
“Right, so y’fancy getting into space battles every other week? Because we’re about due for one if you hadn’t noticed.”
“Yeah,” Young shot back. “I keep track. But there’s a hell of a lot more riding on your physical and mental wellbeing than just—”
James cleared her throat.
Young cut himself off. Damn it.
“Keep going,” Volker said mildly. “It was just starting to get good.”
Rush’s gaze snapped to the astrophysicist. “You, Volker, are profoundly lucky that competence isn’t—”
The scientist’s no doubt scathing remark was interrupted by a shrill whistle from just behind Young’s shoulder.
The entire room jumped. Young whirled to find himself face to face with Greer.
Greer grinned, leaned into the room, and said, “Just came by to let you all know that Scott just asked Chloe to marry him and she said yes.”
“Oh my god!! Really?” Park’s voice was stratosphere high, her hands pressed to her chest, like she was working to keep her heart in place.
“Nice.” Volker high-fived Brody.
“Ah,” James said, flat and neutral. “Cool.”
“What!? How did I not know about this!!” Eli shot Greer a betrayed look.
“Party tomorrow night. If—” the sergeant turned to Young. “If that’s okay with you, sir. Wray gave the go-ahead.”
“Fine by me,” Young replied.
“Gonna keep spreading the good word.” Greer ducked out of the doorframe.
“Greer,” Rush called him back.
“Yeah doc?” Greer reappeared at Young’s shoulder.
“Did she like it?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course she liked it.”
“Liked what?” Park gasped, excited and delighted in equal parts. “What did she like?”
“The ring.” Rush made show of examining his fingernails.
//You’re gonna kill Eli if you’re not careful,// Young said. //Then where’ll you be?//
The scientist shot him a sharp look, then returned to studying his nail beds.
“Wait. Wait wait wait.” The kid rounded on Rush. “You. You knew about this. You were in on it? You.”
“I know about everything, Eli.” Rush stood, shut his laptop, and grabbed his crutch. “Everything.” He swept his computer beneath his arm and strode past Young, into the corridor.
“I HATE YOUR DRAMATIC EXITS,” Eli shouted after him.
“And I know that too,” Rush replied over his shoulder.
“Okay, so, briefing over, I guess,” Volker said. “That’s fine. It’s not like the air recirculators are important or anything.”
“Guys.” Young swept the room with his gaze. “Terrible job. Really bad. Four hours, next time.” He held up four fingers, and locked eyes first with Eli, then with Volker. He got nods from both of them, then turned and followed Rush into the hall.
“Is it just me, or does anyone else miss the days when they were trying to kill each other?” Volker muttered behind him.
“You guys.” Eli’s aggrieved tone carried easily down the hallway. “Who knew about this? What ring?”
//Will you slow down?// Young growled. //We need to talk.//
Halfway to the nearest cross corridor, Rush stopped, looked back, and glared at Young. His thoughts were an irritated, iridescent swirl of pearl. //I don’t appreciate that kind of thing,// he said, silk-smooth and dangerous.
Young closed the distance between them. Rush started walking again, and, together, they moved through the halls, Destiny’s lights flaring as they passed.
“If you’d just follow directions—” Young began.
“Follow directions? Whose fuckin’ ‘directions’?”
“TJ’s,” Young said, through clenched teeth.
“You need to learn to pick your battles better,” Rush hissed.
“That’s all I do these days, Rush,” Young hissed right back. “All I do is pick my battles with you. It’s ninety percent of what I think about.”
“Yes. And it shows.”
“I’m trying to keep you alive.”
“Keep me alive? Bit dramatic, don’t you think? I advise y’save your sensationalism for someone who gives a fuck.” Rush shook his hair back and glared at Young.
“Dramatic?” Young growled. He flung a hand in the direction of the flaring tracklights. “You’re the one with the personalized light show and the plans to rip open the cosmos with the starship that hijacked your genome.”
The scientist flashed Young a quicksilver grin—there and gone and unhinged and delighted. “Touché, colonel. But, really, ‘plan’ is such a strong word.” He shot Young a significant look.
“You’re crazy,” Young snarled, in raw frustration.
“I’m a professor of mathematics,” Rush replied witheringly.
“You’re not crazy.” Young tried his best to course-correct.
“You’re impossible to converse with. Go stab yourself in the leg and run a lap around the fuckin’ ship.”
“You’re driving me crazy,” Young clarified. “Lie down. Please.”
“How much clearer can I be?” Rush hissed. “Do not pick. This battle.”
Young made an inarticulate sound of pure frustration. “You wanna talk about why you dream of the sea? Fields the dead?” he snarled. “Why—even when you dream of cooking, of San Francisco summers, of Mozart on the radio—there’s a star drive, vibrating beneath the floor of your kitchen? Why the memories of a ruined civilization, of one particular dead Ancient, are in your head? You wanna talk about what Telford really wants? What ascension is supposed to look like? Who built the goddamned Obelisk Worlds? Those, Rush. Those are the battles I’m not picking, all right? I’d damn well love to pick them, but I don’t think you can handle it. I don’t think you can handle much. Including an eight hour shift.”
“You’ve no idea what I’m capable of ‘handling’.” Rush leaned into his cane, shook his hair back, and glared at Young.
“I have a damn sight more of an idea than you do, that’s for sure.”
“Is that so. Why don’t you enlighten me as to why you think that’s the case.” The scientist’s thoughts were a bright, cresting wave on the verge of combing the beach of Young’s mind for answers.
Young took a breath, buried thoughts of Hunter Riley, and said, “You can see the damage to my mind? Well, newsflash, genius: that little skill set goes both ways. I can see the damage to yours. And it’s a wreck.”
“So you’ve implied.” Rush stopped in the middle of the hallway. “An’ while it may appear that way to you, I assure you, it’s perfectly fuckin’ functional. Furthermore, even if you could map the damage I’ve taken, which I doubt, y’can’t see into Destiny. You’ll never—”
“There are times I can see your entire mind,” Young growled. “I’m sure of it. And it’s a disorganized, barely functional mess.”
“Yes well, that really means a lot, coming from someone so respected for his subtle insights,” Rush snarled.
“How do you think I ‘fixed the link’?” Young shot back. “It wasn’t our link that was ever broken. It was you. Your end of it. All that pain. All that vertigo. That horrible sense of tearing. All of it came from your fucked up mind. And I fixed it. I fixed. Your mind.”
Young pressed the tips of his middle and index fingers into Rush’s chest.
Rush stepped back, his eyes narrowing.
“When you took energy from Destiny, it boosted your ability to tolerate the separation. Your ability, Rush. Yours. just like it boosted your tolerance to pain. To cold. Think about it.” He was finally getting through to the other man. He could see it. Rush’s stance was changing, his expression was changing, his thoughts were changing. “I. Fixed you.”
The scientist stilled with an insight so intense it nearly flash-blinded them both as it cut facets through their thoughts. Young saw cracked splinters of a vast realization—colliding catenary surfaces, his own face, amused and exasperated, the warping of space, of time, the feeling of mental rending—until Rush obliterated all of it with a headwind of pure light.
“What the hell,” Young rasped, “was that.”
Rush didn’t answer. Not for a long time. “You could tolerate it,” he finally said, his mind veiled with feather-light interference, his gaze piercing. “You’ve always been able to tolerate it.”
“The separation?” Young replied. “I think so. Yeah.”
Rush said nothing. His expression was wistful, the opalescent fire of his thoughts edged with hope and grief and something else, something he wove into the chaotic storm of the whole of his mind, something he didn’t want Young to see. But it was no good. Because Young could feel it anyway, running through the shifting wind of his selfhood.
Relief was the emotion Rush was trying like hell to conceal. But relief at what? That someone, for once, had his back? That he didn’t have to rely entirely on himself? That someone was drawing a line or two in the sand that the guy was incapable of drawing for himself?
There was no way to know.
“I fixed you,” Young murmured, stepping closer to him.
“Yes yes,” Rush said. His feet were planted, his shoulders were square, and there was an amused edge on the imperious fire in his tone. “Terribly impressive, I’m sure. But how did you ‘fix me’?”
“It was a hairpin turn.” Young stepped closer still. “I got my hands on your power source. It happens, I think, pretty reliably under very particular circumstances?” He closed a hand over the man’s hip and gave him an apologetically suggestive look.
Rush’s slow-motion realization of what Young was implying bordered on the theatrical. He glanced at the hand Young had on his hip. His expression went from puzzled to incredulous to deeply, painfully annoyed.
“Sorry, genius.” Young tried not to smile.
Rush eyed him with wounded dignity. “The thing is pedestrian enough as is. I certainly don’t need your fuckin’ sympathy.”
“Then you’ll be happy to hear that I actually have zero sympathy for you.” Young put a little pressure against the man’s hip. “Not any.”
“Good.” Rush, full of cool-burning fire, held Young gaze.
“And, for the record,” Young said, “I was gonna have a whole elaborate talk with you about this. Hours long. Really really detailed.” The worn denim of Rush’s jeans was warm beneath his hand.
“I’m sure,” Rush replied dryly. “Can’t imagine how I’ve escaped unscathed until now.”
“I’m trying to keep you unscathed, actually,” Young said softly.
“Mmm. Picking those battles?” Rush asked.
“You got it,” Young replied. He closed his fingers over Rush’s laptop and gave it a gentle tug. “Can I take this for you?”
“No,” Rush said, with the hint of a smile.
“Just trying to even the playing field.” Young shrugged. “But if you’re not interested, that’s fine.”
“Even the playing field?”
“Between the crutch and the computer, you don’t have any free hands.”
“Yes, well, disappointingly decent of you, as usual. But I wouldn’t go gifting advantages to the opposition.”
“You’re not the opposition.”
Rush sighed. “Don’t suppose I can convince you to abandon this whole thing?” He quirked an eyebrow. “Any personal insults I can bring to bear that might destroy all the progress we’ve made?”
“Yeah, probably,” Young admitted. He threaded his fingers through the scientist’s hair.
“To reiterate, this goes much better for you if—”
“I don’t care,” Young whispered. “I don’t.”
“Terrible stance,” Rush glared at him. “Short-sighted. Stubborn. Quintessentially you.”
“Yeah,” Young said. “Sorry genius. You don’t get to decide my fate. You also don’t get to unilaterally dismiss everything between us because you think it’s a bad idea in the monomaniacal little world that you have going up here.” Young pressed his thumb against the man’s temple.
“Don’t try it,” Rush murmured, his eyes and his tone full of warning. He didn’t move.
“Okay,” Young said mildly.
“Why do you want this so badly?” Rush asked. “Has it occurred to you to question that?”
Young struggled not to roll his eyes. “You think the fact that we’re linked is having some kind of influence on me?”
“No. I’m certain it is. It must be. A year ago, y’had to force yourself to speak more than two sentences to me in a row, and now? You want to—to what? To help me? To fucking be my friend? To deepen an already dangerous and poorly defined relationship that, given our history and personalities, will certainly end in a spectacular example of just how fucking wrong this kind of thing can go?”
“You go down this path and you’re not gonna get any traction.” Young said. “Even during the earliest days, I always wanted to like you.”
“You left me for dead,” Rush said icily.
“Yeah,” Young admitted. “I know. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that’s your favorite thing about me.”
That surprised a wickedly delighted grin out of Rush. The scientist had to turn his head to fight it down. “Ah fuck off,” he said, when he’d mostly recovered his neutrality. “I was relieved you were capable of it. That’s all.”
“I’m capable of a damn sight more than you give me credit for. I know you. I know you. And like it or not, the nature of this entire situation means that I have been and will continue to help you navigate all of this shit that you have to deal with. So why not let me do it to the best of my ability? The way I want to? The way I’m meant to, I think?”
“Meant to? Already you’ve vastly overstepped the bounds of your designated role.”
“I must really have you on the back foot, if you’re accusing me of overstepping. Talking about limits. Bounds. Designations.”
“You,” Young murmured, “are overthinking this.”
“Yes well, someone has to compensate for all the underthinking you’re doing,” the scientist muttered.
“If we ever fully align, genius, we’ll make one hell of a team.”
“We’ll never align,” Rush replied.
“You’re real big on never and always,” Young replied. “But even broken clocks are right twice a day.”
Rush gave Young a measured look over the tops of his glasses. “So what are you proposing? Spell it out.”
“Let me, physically, ground you. And—let me fix the damage to your mind. I can do better than I’ve done. Especially if you throw in.”
“Not a chance,” Rush said dryly.
“We spent weeks, together, trying to solve the problem of fixing our link. And now that we have, now that we’ve blown the door wide open, you wanna walk away?” Young asked. “You wanna pretend that door is shut? Just because it’s linked to the physical, rather than a cognitive circuit you can reconfigure?”
Rush dropped his gaze.
Young pressed his advantage. “You recognize game-changers when they come along,” he said. “This is one. You do not walk away from ideas like this.”
Rush locked eyes with him, and the scientist’s gaze was pure fire. “You think an increasingly physical relationship will give you another hold over me.”
“Yup. I do,” Young admitted. “I’ll take anything I can get.”
“It won’t be enough,” Rush countered. “It’ll never be enough.”
“You’re fucking relentless,” the scientist whispered.
“If you don’t want to experiment,” Young said, swiping his thumb along Rush’s temple, “that’s a different thing. But if you’re holding back out of some misguided notion that if you piss me off enough I’ll leave you here, on your own, or I’ll let David Telford push you straight into ascension, then you can forget it. Because whether you throw in on any of this or fight me tooth and nail for the rest of our goddamned lives? We end up in the same place, genius. Because I am not. Leaving you here.”
“Is that so?” Rush asked.
“Yup,” Young whispered.
Lightning quick, Rush shifted his grip on his crutch, brought it between them, and used it to lever Young back several steps. He switched his grip again, leaned into the crutch, and eyed Young forbiddingly. “Yes well, duly noted.”
“Duly noted?” Young repeated, rubbing his breastbone.
“Yes.” Rush arched a cool, imperial eyebrow. “I’ll consider your proposal.”
“Ugh,” Young said, pressing his palm flat against his chest. “Okay, good, I guess.”
“I’ll see you later.” And, with that, Rush turned and continued down the corridor.
Young stared after him. “You’ll see me later? Where the hell are you going?”
“To bed,” Rush snapped over his shoulder. “Alone.”
Young crossed his arms, leaned against the nearest bulkhead, and watched Rush head for his own quarters—as straight-shouldered and dynamic and determined as he’d ever been.
How long had it been since they’d voluntarily separated to sleep?
Young couldn’t remember.
“Lotta work,” he muttered, as the scientist rounded a corner and disappeared from view. “A lot of work.”