Force over Distance: Chapter 56
“Stop pretending you don’t understand the concept of karaoke. It’s not that difficult, and you’re a supergenius, all right? No one’s fooled. Zero people.”
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Theoretical.
Additional notes: None.
Young slept terribly. His dreams jolted him awake, fading into shreds as he tried to recall them: a storm-swept grove of orange trees; the death of a bear in tall grass, next to a stargate; his childhood home, choked with SGC personnel wearing dress uniforms and somber expressions. By the time his alarm went off at 0600, he estimated he’d gotten no more than four hours of sleep.
Rush was already awake. Either that, or—
//Did you even go to sleep?// Young snarled, as he blearily made his way to the bathroom.
In return, he got a wave of disdain.
Yeah, he reflected, splashing cold water on his face, that seemed about right.
Rush, at the back of his mind and the front of his thoughts, sat in the mess with Wray, doing his damnedest to choke down a bowl of white paste doctored-up with Earth oatmeal.
It wasn’t going great.
Young spent a good three minutes focused on the crisp mint of honest-to-god, brand-name toothpaste, which both did and didn’t help his low-grade, second-hand nausea.
//You’re off duty today.// Young managed a little more civility this time. //I was serious about that.//
“Should you really be on duty?” Wray asked Rush, unconsciously mirroring Young.
“Great minds,” Rush muttered, with enough sarcasm to choke a lesser mathematician.
“What?” Wray said.
//We’re sweeping the ship,// Rush projected acidly. He shot Wray a sharp look.
Wray eyeed Rush with a mixture of confusion and concern.
//You realize you need to respond verbally to Wray, right?//
“I would really appreciate it if only one person talked to me at a bloody time,” Rush hissed.
//This is what happens when you don’t sleep. Talk to Wray.//
“Nick?” Wray said slowly.
“We’re sweeping the ship,” Rush said hastily. “For the Nakai tracking device. I need to be here. There. Available. At least for the first hour or so, while the sensor calibration’s performed.”
Wray took a bite of oatmeal-paste. “Where’s Colonel Young?”
“Do not know, do not care,” Rush said, in a poisonous sing-song.
“Seriously?” Wray asked. “You don’t know?”
Rush sighed. “Of course I know. He’s in his fuckin’ quarters.”
“Did you guys have a fight?” Wray asked, with a small smile.
Rush made an affronted noise. “No. Or. Maybe? That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think—yes, actually. A standing yes.”
“So what does a knee-jerk ‘no’ mean in a world of ‘standing yes’?” No doubt about it, Wray was trying to hide a smirk.
“I don’ fuckin’ need this from you at 0600,” Rush said, spinning his spoon through his fingers and pointing it at Wray. “All right?”
“All right, all right.” Wray grinned at her bowl.
“An’ what’re you doing up anyway? Last I heard, you were still on medical leave. Shouldn’t you be having a lie in?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Wray admitted.
“Ah,” Rush said quietly. “That does become a problem.” He took a bite of oatmeal-paste.
Wray said nothing.
Rush looked down at his revolting breakfast. “It does improve with time,” he offered. “Eventually it won’t seem so immediate. You’ll be able to tell they’re dreams.”
“Good to know,” Wray replied, cool and professional. “Do you know how they—” She cleared her throat. “Do you know how they achieve the—” Wray placed her spoon, very carefully on the table next to her bowl.
//Don’t be a jerk,// Young growled.
//Stop backseat counseling. It’s insulting.// Rush took another bite of oatmeal-paste. “Who was it?”
“My significant other,” Wray whispered.
“Ah,” Rush said.
“I know it doesn’t make sense.” Wray brushed her hair out of her face. “She isn’t on Destiny. She was never on Destiny. I know that. But, somehow, I gave up the information anyway. When I saw—when it was her. Being tortured.”
“One’s sense of reality,” Rush said delicately, “becomes distorted. The longer they go, the harder it torques. You held out for a long time.”
“Not long enough,” she whispered.
“Long enough to prevent them from moving on to someone else,” Rush said mildly. “That’s worth a good deal, I should think.”
“Maybe.” Wray gave him a wan smile and picked up her spoon. “Thanks.”
He shrugged, then stood. “This ‘significant other’ of yours,” he said quietly.
“Sharon.” Rush repeated. “I’d imagine it’d help to talk to her, even via the stones. It might lend a sense of unreality to what you saw.”
Wray nodded. “Is that what you did?”
“No. But then, I rarely take advice. Not even my own.”
Young pulled gently out of his mind as Rush left the mess. The scientist’s thoughts were bent toward sensor modifications, detection thresholds, and the balance of sensitivity versus specificity—not in words, but in images—wave functions fluctuating with time, with power, and with the rhythm and the feel of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Young left him to it.
Given he’d made the strategic decision not to have a pitched battle with Rush about the fact that he reported to his Science Team shift, Young’s day passed uneventfully. The sensor modification failed to turn up a tracking device, so the Science Team decided to go back to the drawing board. But, on the plus side, the combined pressure of Chloe, Eli, Volker, and Park had kept Rush to his four hour duty restriction.
That was something.
As the day shift ended, there was an air of anticipation in the mess during the evening meal, which ended early to provide adequate time for the party set up.
Young arrived in the mess at 1900 to find the Science Team, with the conspicuous absence of Chloe, gearing up for the party. Becker and James had pushed tables together to make a stage. Brody and Volker were rigging up a sound system, with microphones routed directly into an open bulkhead. Park was atop a chair atop a table, hanging blue and white streamers, turned pastel beneath the lights. Eli flitted around the room, supervising everyone.
“We have streamers?” Young stopped to stabilize the precarious-looking table-chair tower Park was perched atop.
“I made them,” Park whispered, grinning down at him. “With the 3D Printer!”
“It’s up and running?” Young asked. “Since when?”
“Oops,” Park said. “Yeah. Sorry. Lots going on.”
“You make anything else besides streamers?” Young asked.
“Yes!” Park whipped a tiny object out of her pocket. Elatedly, she held it up to the light. Young squinted up at it, but couldn’t make out a damn thing between her fingers.
“Congrats,” he said mildly.
“Thanks!” Park shoved whatever it was back in her pocket, then finished hanging her streamer. Young helped her down off the chair, then off the table. As soon as her feet hit the floor, she relocated about six feet and started recreating the same bullshit setup.
Young scanned the room and saw Greer and Scott at a side table loaded with metal cups, arms crossed, in the midst of debating the finer points of a beer-pong setup. “Sergeant,” he said. “Lieutenant. Make sure Park doesn’t break her neck, please?”
“Lisa,” Greer said, sharp and exasperated and grinning and already halfway across the room. “I thought we agreed that you cannot hang crepe from metal. That’s why we strung nice-looking shrapnel along pipes.”
“But look!” Park, one foot already on her chair, made a theatrical gesture at the ceiling. “I made tape!”
“Nice work.” Scott, grinning, trailed Greer. “We’ll help you out. No problem.”
Slowly, Young approached Rush. The scientist had set up his laptop on the edge of the newly constructed stage. Young could feel, from the liquid sheen of his thoughts, that he was coding.
He boosted himself onto the table next to the scientist and looked over the flurry of activity in the room. “So. You trying to pretend this isn’t happening, or what?”
Rush bit down on a smile, and the spun-up flow of his code dispersed itself, in pieces, like petals on the wind.
“You’re supposed to be off duty, you know,” Young said.
“Oh I am. This is unmistakably nonessential, I assure you.”
Young reached across the guy’s laptop to pick up the beaten-metal cup sitting next to Rush. “Starting a bit early, don’t you think?”
“If you consider the question critically for nine tenths of a second you’ll realize it is, in fact, impossible to start ‘too early’,” Rush said, desert-dry.
“Nine tenths of a second, huh?” Young echoed.
“Baby. We will move. The table.” Greer shouted, as Park leaned out into nothingness.
“Yeah, okay, good point.” Young threw back the rest of what was in Rush’s cup, ready for the burn of Brody’s grain alcohol. But instead—he got something else.
“That’s—that’s water,” he coughed.
“Well spotted.” Rush smirked at his laptop, his eyes scanning lines of code.
“Okay,” Volker said, wiping his palms on his pants as he got to his feet. “Hardware interface is looking good. Where next, mon capitaine?”
“Alcohol siphon,” Eli said, frowning at his new, blue spiral-ringed notebook. The kid looked up and zeroed on Young’s chief scientist. “Rush,” he snapped. “You done with that program yet?”
“I would be if people would stop interrupting me,” Rush said silkily.
“Colonel, leave His Magicalness alone, please.” Eli pointed at Young with his pen. “We need that program. Help with the siphon.”
Young shot Eli a pointed look and didn’t move.
“Ummmmm, please? Please go help with the siphon?”
“We don’t need help.” Brody uncoiled a length of clear, flexible plastic tubing and stretched it along the side table.
“Brody.” Young frowned. “Where’d you get that?”
“It was special request made on behalf of the distillery.” Brody said. “Wray okayed it.”
“Gravity,” Volker said genially, clapping his hands once. “To get our siphon going, we need some gravity, am I right?”
“You have artificial gravity,” Rush said, flat and dry and not looking up from his laptop. “What you need is vertical displacement.”
“Vertical displacement,” Volker said genially, clapping his hands again. “Literally everyone knows that’s what I meant by ‘gravity.’ Right? Literally everyone knows that? And ‘vertical displacement has its own conceptual problems when you’re not vertically displaced from an astrophysical mass? Which everyone here also understands? But that’s fine. Let’s get some chairs. Or, actually, given how much of this stuff we have, maybe we can stack alcohol containers.” Volker ducked behind the stage. “Oh. Wow. Okay. Oh my god.”
Young raised his eyebrows at Brody. “How much alcohol do you have?”
“A lot, Brody admitted.
“Kind of an embarrassing amount actually,” Volker said, hands on hips, staring at the assembled collection, “seeing as we could’ve used some of that grain for food.”
“We couldn’t store all of it. It would’ve gone bad,” Brody said. “As I’ve explained. Many times.”
Volker picked up two of the alcohol containers. “Ugh. Oh god. These are heavy. It’s okay. No one help me. Everyone just watch.”
Young snorted, slid off the table, rounded the “stage,” and stopped. “Hang on,” he said. “Are those—are those gasoline cans?”
“We washed ‘em,” Greer called across the room. “We washed ‘em real good.”
“Yup, soap and everything,” Volker added.
“Um,” Young said. “Why do we have gasoline cans?”
“They’re for the MALP,” Scott said.
Greer, Park, and Scott joined Young in surveying the alcohol.
“But we don’t have a MALP,” Young pointed out. “We’ve never had a MALP.”
“So true,” Greer said.
“What did you do with the gasoline?” Young asked.
“We gave it to Rush,” Greer said.
“That seems, maybe, a hair more responsible than lighting it on fire for fun.” Young helped Volker lift the first can onto the table. “And what did you do with it?” He turned to Rush, who’d gone back to staring at his laptop.
“I lit it on fire,” Rush murmured absently.
“Rush,” Young growled.
Rush shrugged without looking up.
“Um, before there’s some kind of capital-I Incident,” Eli called from the back of the group, “let me just say that there was never any actual gasoline in those cans? Science Team needed more liquid storage, and Earth provided, okay?”
“No one wants to go blind,” Park added in a chipper sing-song.
//You’re not on your game today,// Rush projected.
//Were you baiting me?//
Young raised his eyebrows.
//Greer started it,// Rush replied nonchalantly. He looked up. “Eli,” he said. “I’m finished. Do you want to take a look?”
“Aw, super kind of you. Thanks man. But, turns out, no, I don’t need my self-esteem scooped out of my brain and served to me on a plate by whatever you just did. Hook it up.”
Rush rolled his eyes. “Hook it up t’what?”
“Stop pretending you don’t understand the concept of karaoke. It’s not that difficult, and you’re a supergenius, all right? No one’s fooled. Zero people.”
Young looked down, hiding a smile.
Rush, with an aggrieved expression, transferred his program to a flash drive. The scientist got to his feet, then limped over to Eli’s computer, which Volker and Brody had interfaced directly with the open bulkhead. He downloaded the file, queued up the program, then—
“Hey,” Young snapped, before the guy could tear his foot open dropping into a crouch.
Rush turned and quirked an eyebrow at him.
Young strode over, grabbed the scientist’s elbow, and said, “Let’s show a little respect for our CMO, please? If you’re gonna rip open your foot, it better be for something more important than Destiny Karaoke.”
Rush rolled his eyes. “Do y’have an intermediate setting?”
“You talking to me, or the wall?” Young asked, helping him sit.
“You,” Rush said coolly. “Something between murder and whatever th’fuck this is?”
Young snorted, crossed his arms, and put a shoulder against the wall. “Nope. What are you doing?”
“Making sure Volker hasn’t somehow managed to kill us all with ‘karaoke’,” Rush got down on one elbow, then laid on his back and slid himself halfway into the bulkhead, looking up at a maze of wiring.
//Yeah yeah. All of this seems unusually nice of you, genius.//
//Correct. But, rest assured, I’ll be exacting compensation from the responsible parties.// Rush reached up and, very delicately, traced the interface between the adaptor and the spun-naquadah wire in the wall.
//You do owe Eli,// Young pointed out.
//I’m not insensitive to that. Clearly.// Rush finished checking the connection, flash-frozen satisfaction faceting his thoughts along gemstone lines.
Without thinking, without asking, because he understood Rush was done, Young pushed away from the wall, grabbed the guy’s ankles, and dragged him out of the bulkhead. Slowly, with a pace calibrated by recent experience, he pulled the man into a seated position. They looked at one another, and time carved itself off in reflected perception, a strange loop, intricate and mirrored, curving back on itself without end.
“Guys.” Eli veered out of his way to pass next to them. His gray sweatshirt, tied around his waist, grazed Young’s shoulder. “It’s cute and all, but Chloe is going to be here in NINETY MINUTES,” he whisper-hissed.
Rush shook himself, glared at Young, got to his feet, pointed at the wall and said: “Volker. Test this.” He threw himself into a chair, propped his boots on the stage, crossed them at the ankles, shook back his hair, and scowled at the grain alcohol siphon drama unfolding on the other side of the room.
It was gonna be a long night.
By 2100, the entire crew had arrived, with the exception of Chloe, Wray, and TJ, who were ensconced somewhere, working on Chloe’s hair. Young sat with Rush at one of the tables that’d been pushed to the side of the room.
In the middle of the “dance floor” twenty or so of the military personnel huddled around Scott, passing around shared cigars someone had requested from Earth. On the opposite side of the room, Park and Volker seemed to be rehearsing some kind of dance routine, full of shadowed moves and fluttered jazz hands.
As they watched, Greer approached, three cups carried in two hands, balanced against one another.
“My god, man,” Rush said, neatly stabilizing Greer’s precarious handful of beaten metal. “Finally.” He extricated a cup, passed it to Young, then took his own. “I’d’ve preferred to be fucking wrecked circa ninety minutes ago?”
“Doc, you are the worst kind of lightweight.” Greer crashed his cup into Rush’s, then tipped his head back and downed its contents.
“Get t’fuck,” Rush said good-naturedly, and knocked back his own shot.
“You think you can handle this stuff, but actually—”
“Actually I can handle it, sergeant.” Rush slammed his cup on the table, rim down, and shook back his hair. “I’ve more alcohol dehydrogenase in my little finger than you have in your entire body. Most likely.”
“Yeah. ‘Most likely.’ You hang onto that.”
“I fuckin’ will.”
“You’re gonna need to be at least little bit drunk anyway.” With that, Greer turned back, wove his way through the crowd, and returned to manning the gasoline cans with Dunning and James.
“What d’you suppose he meant by that?” Rush asked, as they watched Barnes and Chu venture into the empty space between the tables and start dancing, very awkwardly, to a pop song Young couldn’t place.
“No idea.” Very slowly, Young sipped his own shot.
“Best not to stay and find out.” Rush made as if to stand.
Young grabbed a handful of the guy’s jacket and dragged him back into his chair. “Not so fast. It’s only 2100. You’ve got at least another hour before the NHB time slot is up.”
Rush shot him an unimpressed look. “I—” But whatever the scientist would have said was cut off by Greer’s shrill whistle.
“Clear a PATH!!” The sergeant roared over the music. “CHLOE’S COMIN’.”
The room erupted in cheering. Greer, his radio pressed to his ear, kicked a chair into place next to the stage.
Eli clambered up on the table, microphone in hand, and stood, looking at the doors at the back of the mess. The music changed to something upbeat. The strummed guitar suggesting summer: warm and never lasting long enough. And, for some reason, Young remembered the way Gloria adored the complex rhythm the turn signal of a white Prius would create when superimposed over American Top Forty radio.
“You are good to open the doors,” Eli said, the microphone picking up the words he spoke into the radio. His expression was tight, excited, complicated, anxious. Next to him, a laptop displayed running words he wasn’t singing.
The doors swished open.
Chloe stepped into the mess, light pouring down on her sculpted hair, braided and twisted with crystal from Destiny’s circuitry, lit, somehow, from within, shimmering subtly with more than caught light. She wore a pale pink dress that Young had never seen her in before. Flanked by TJ and Wray she walked into the room, beneath Park’s streamers and wire-suspended glitter shrapnel.
There was a general uproar, clapping and whistling coming from the whole crew.
“Get up here,” Eli whispered into the mic, looking at someone in the crowd below the stage.
Volker bent down, interlaced his fingers, and Park stepped lightly from his bridged hands onto the stage. Volker boosted himself up right behind her.
“C’mon, come on,” Eli hissed into the microphone, grinning anxiously at Chloe, as Brody clambered onto the stage, followed by James.
Park restarted whatever was playing on the sound system, threaded a hand between the two Eli had on the microphone, and started singing, high and clear. Volker joined her, harmonizing, until the entire Science Team got themselves organized for the chorus.
Hey, soul sister
Ain’t that Mr. Mister on the radio, stereo
The way you move ain’t fair, you know.
Hey, soul sister
I don’t wanna miss a single thing
You do tonight.
Chloe stood just inside the doorway, her eyes sparkling, her hands over her mouth.
TJ gave her a gentle shove forward.
“Matt, do The Thing,” Eli commanded into the mic.
Scott stepped out of the crowd, into the clear space between Chloe and the stage, and offered her a hand. Blushing, Chloe took it. Scott swept her into a spin, her pink dress flaring in a pale swirl under the lights. Chloe, overcome, smiling, her eyes streaming with tears, was intensely beautiful.
Subtly, Young shifted his thoughts closer to Rush’s. Just enough so that—there it was.
Across the room, dressed in white, Daniel Jackson watched Matt and Chloe, his expression fond. Full of kindness.
Rush looked over at Young, his eyebrow quirked.
//Shouldn’t you be on that stage, genius?//
//Yes well. The line must be drawn somewhere.//
As the song drew to a close, Matt spun Chloe out and she flung a hand wide, her dress rippling with momentum, with drag, with the waveform turbulence of the flowing air.
“Chloe, you look hot,” Eli said. “Amazing hair.”
“Thanks Eli!” Chloe called.
Volker grabbed the mic, looked dead at Scott, and said, “Matt, you’re okay too, we guess.”
The room erupted in laughter and clapping.
“Gimme that,” Eli said, swiping the mic back from Volker. “Ahem. So, uh, first of all, on behalf of the entire crew, but especially the Science Team, I just want to say congratulations to Matt and Chloe—you guys are both awesome, and everyone knows it, so—er, have lots of kids and stuff. Pass on those spectacular genes! I mean, er, if you want?”
Rush covered his face with one hand as the crew broke out laughing.
“Second, as pretty much everyone knows, because I think I told everyone, we’re doing Destiny Karaoke—” Eli broke off to let the general applause and catcalling die down. “And, no, I’m not going to strip for you, James, so you can just stop asking,” he said, over the general uproar.
James made a solid attempt to dump her drink down Eli’s shirt, but, Park, mostly in the way, took the brunt of the moonshine shower.
“Get ‘er back, baby,” Greer yelled from his position at the alcohol station.
Park grabbed the mic, looked straight at Greer and said, “I believe in peace.”
“Tell it to the twenty-five metric-ton gun you run,” James said, to a shower of cheers and cat-calls.
Wordlessly, Brody held up a hand and James slapped him a high five.
“Okay, anyway, Destiny karaoke!” Eli said, recovering the mic. “Sign up in chalk on the wall to my left. We’ll kick things off with—let’s see. Oh. Oh god. Okay. So, Volker and Brody are going to do The Immigrant Song? Which is, uh, a bold choice?”
“You’re gonna wanna buckle up, Eli,” Volker said, motioning for the mic.
“Yeah. Okay. Preparing. This should be—interesting. Take it away Volker and Brody.”
“So.” Rush shot Young a scorcher of a look. “Want to get out of here?”
“I’d say yes,” Young murmured in his ear, “if I trusted you not to abandon me for the first wall circuit that crossed your path.”
Rush gave him a speculative look.
“Plus,” Young continued, “they’d be crushed.”
“Not irreparably crushed.”
“And—your laptop’s been incorporated into the sound system.”
Rush sighed. “Fuck.”
“So, there’s not much point in leaving anyway, is there?” Young smirked at him.
“I suppose not. But y’realize if I’m expected to tolerate this I’ll need—dear god.” Rush stared at Volker, who had launched, with full commitment, into the falsetto opening of The Immigrant Song.
“We come from the land of the ice and snow,” Brody, deadpan, spoke the lyrics into the microphone. “From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.”
Young looked up and saw them standing together atop the table, each holding a separate microphone, the overhead lights glinting off their hair. “Holy shit,” he said to Rush. “They definitely practiced this.”
“Clearly,” Rush murmured. “Actually they’re not—” he trailed off.
Young and Rush watched Volker and Brody in horrified fascination for about twenty seconds until: “We are your overlords,” they sang in tandem, pointing out over the crowd.
“Yeah. So—drinks?” Young said.
“Unquestionably,” Rush murmured.
It’s just that everyone takes the hydroponics lab for granted.” Park was barely audible over the dull roar of the crowd. She leaned into the hand she’d planted on Young’s shoulder. “And, I mean, it’s not just that it’s important for food, which is, really really important, y’know? But the plants are living things too, y’know? We have to take care of them. We have a responsibility. We’ve uprooted them from their homes. They’re lost. Just like us. Y’know?”
“Yeah,” Young said. “I get that. I do.”
“I knew you would,” Park slurred. “I knew it. I would die for those plants. Sometimes I’m sure I have.”
“What?” Young said.
“I mean, if there really are multiverses—right? I can’t be the only one who thinks about it. All the other things I’ve done. It’s like the cure for FOMO you’ll never know. The cure for FOMO you’ll never KNOMO. All the other yous. Doing everything. Doing everything you could statistically do?”
“Shit,” Young whispered. “Yeah.”
“You’ve thought about it?” Park leaned in, the breath of the question coming cool against the shell of his ear.
“I’ve thought about it,” Young admitted.
Young glanced over at Rush, who leaned indolently against the bulkhead next to the table from which Greer and Dunning were still dispensing alcohol. The scientist’s eyes were half closed, his thoughts muted, blending into Young’s like running paint. Watercolor, not technicolor.
This, then was why he had been so adamant about drinking.
This had been what he really wanted.
Onstage, James took the microphone. “This song was written by one of the greatest artists of our time,” she said, alcohol blunting the crispness of her words, “AKA Beyonce. It’s dedicated to Destiny.”
//You should’ve told me,// Young projected, knowing that Rush would pick up on his train of thought. //We can do something about those flashbacks. I’m sure we can.//
Rush sent him a wave of regret-laced negation. //I need them.//
//You don’t,// Young sent back gently. //There’s no reason you need to re-experience torture and violence and death, most of it not even yours.//
“I can see your halo,” Park sang softly along with James, over and over again.
//Those are exactly the parts I need,// Rush replied. //The bits that aren’t mine. That come from Destiny. I need to pull them forward. Figure out what they are. Why they’re buried.//
//Sounds like a terrible idea.//
Rush smiled faintly as he leaned against the wall. //Doesn’t it just. But it needs to be done, before the end.// There was a hint of amusement in his projection, but not enough to hide the regret that wove in and around his words.
//Ugh, give the fatalism a rest. For one night, genius.// Young replied.
Next to Young, Park threw an arm over his shoulders and thrust her free hand into the air, the flashlight on her phone shining bright. “Her voice is so beautiful,” Park whispered.
Onstage, in a white T-shirt and military fatigues, her hair down, James serenaded the ship.
“Nick.” Telford appeared in Young’s peripheral vision.
Young snapped his head around fast enough that the room spun.
“Colonel,” Telford added dryly.
“David.” Rush narrowed his eyes, sipping his drink.
“I haven’t seen much of you lately,” Telford said mildly. He eyed Greer, who was posted up at the wall on Rush’s other side.
“You’ve been here for what? Ten days?” Rush asked casually. “Stands to reason, as I was unconscious for most of them.”
Telford raised his glass, locking eyes with Rush. “I’d like to propose a toast,” he said.
“T’ what?” Rush asked dryly.
“Cold-hearted bastards?” Telford quirked his brow, tilted his head, and managed to throw the line down like the most obscure apology in the universe.
“Hmm,” Rush said, not entirely able to hide his amusement. “Takes one t’ know one.”
The idiot was halfway through lifting his damn cup before Young, with the impulsive grace of about two drinks too many, intercepted the motion, pulled Rush’s cup out of his hand, and said, “Damn straight.”
Telford and Rush looked at him with troublingly similar expressions of astonishment.
“If you wanna toast cold-hearted bastards, get it right,” Young said. “That guy,” he jerked his head toward Rush, “is a hot-headed pain in the ass.”
Telford stared Young down, his eyes dark, an amused twist to his mouth. “Cheers then.”
They crashed their cups together with an aggressive crack, then downed the shot simultaneously.
“Fuckin’ slainte, t’ both of ye,” Rush said, nonplussed. He turned to Greer. “Sergeant,” he said in a tone of voice that Young was, very generously, not gonna label ‘whining,’ “Colonel Young fucking stole my fucking cup. I need another.”
“Well get it back,” Greer replied. “We don’t have unlimited resources here, doc. Last I checked, we were all outta cups.”
“How about I hang onto this for you for—twenty minutes?” Young said, wrapping his fingers around the scientist’s cup and pressing it against his chest
“Sure,” Rush said, and, lightning quick, stepped in, reached around, snapped Young’s cup out of his undefended grip and handed it straight to Greer.
“Where the hell did this come from?” Greer asked.
“Thin air,” Rush said. “Could I persuade you to join me in a hot-headed-pain-in-the-ass toast?”
“I’ll drink to that,” Greer smirked at Rush.
“Half a shot,” Young mouthed at Greer.
//I fuckin’ hear you in my head,// Rush projected at him, his thoughts swirling with irritation. “Greer, s’help me god, if you pour me half a shot I’ll—”
“Doc, how drunk are you on a scale of one to ten?” Greer asked, stepping up to the drink table to hand Reynolds his pair of cups.
“Four,” Rush snapped. “Three.”
“Soooo we’re gonna call that a seven,” Greer said. “That’s about right. Here.”
Rush narrowed his eyes at his cup. “This is not a full shot.”
“Switch with me then, you skeptical son of a bitch.” Greer grinned.
“Right then, I fuckin’ will.”
Telford and Young stood shoulder-to-shoulder and watched the pair of them switch shots.
“Hot-headed assholes,” Greer said as their cups touched.
Rush raised his eyebrows and they downed the shot in tandem.
“I’ll be right back,” Greer said, one hand on Rush’s shoulder “Don’t go anywhere.”
“Th’fuck am I gonna go?” Rush called after him.
“Heard though the grapevine that the Science Team has prioritized searching out a Nakai tracking device,” Telford said quietly.
“You heard right,” Young said neutrally.
Telford leaned in and lowered his voice. “And we don’t think that tracking device is Chloe Armstrong because—” he trailed off, leaving an open cadence for Young to fill.
“Because these guys have been on Destiny’s ass for millennia, David,” Young growled. “We lose them, they find us. They predict our trajectory and lie in wait.”
“If they can telepathically communicate it stands to reason—”
“Save it,” Young growled. “For tomorrow. We’ll have a tactical briefing in the afternoon.”
“Early afternoon.” Telford tracked Rush as he stepped away and dropped down next to Park at the nearest table.
“Let’s say 1400,” Young replied.
“Hi doc,” Park wrapped an arm around Rush. “You’re so much nicer when you’re drunk.”
“Not as fuckin’ nice as you are,” Rush snapped sulkily.
“Aw,” Park said, sympathetically. She laid her head on Rush’s shoulder. “Try again. You can do it.”
“Do what?” Rush asked, confused.
“Park,” Rush sighed exhaustedly. “I can’t be expected to do everything around here.”
“Brody’s right,” Park wrapped both arms around Rush and started sobbing into his shoulder.
“What?” Rush said, perplexed, half-heartedly wrapping an arm around Park.
“You’re a really really good boss,” Park sobbed.
“I—I’m afraid I have t’disagree,” Rush said, gingerly patting her shoulder.
“I know.” Park cried harder. “It’s so sad.”
“Fair fucking sad,” Rush agreed philosophically.
“I think this is the weirdest party I’ve ever been to,” Telford said. “And I used to go to Felger’s Friday-Night Physics Phair.”
“Yeah,” Young said, watching Park sob into Rush’s shoulder. “This place has been a little bit of a pressure cooker.”
Across the room, TJ finished up a surprisingly soulful rendition of Brown-Eyed Girl. Young watched as Varro reached up to help her down from the table. She smiled at him, her face flushed and happy, her hair swept up, tangled with light.
“Okay,” Eli, back on the mic, stood on the table. “We’ve got a late breaking addition, who I will be announcing as: Sergeant Greer et al.” He reached down and gave Greer a hand up to the stage, then passed him the mic.
“Hey everyone—” Greer tapped the microphone, frowning, as the sound cut out. “What the hell, Eli?” He spread his hands.
“Sorry!” Eli called from the crowd, already off the stage. “Must be something wrong with the input!”
“Rush,” Greer shouted over the dull roar of the room. “Come fix this for me.”
“Thanks a lot,” Eli shouted.
Rush rolled his eyes, extricated himself from Park, and approached the stage. Greer knelt down, microphone in hand.
Something about the sergeant’s posture sent a thrill of alarm through Young. //You might want to—//
As Rush reached up to take the microphone, Greer grabbed his upper arm, dragging him up with some strategic assistance from James and Barnes who happened to be posted up nearby.
His chief scientist sent Young a wave of intense irritation.
Greer, with the air of a satisfied showman, ostentatiously clicked on his mic.
“Oh fuck no,” Rush said.
“Oh fuck yes.” Greer’s voice echoed over the mess, barely audible over the explosion of laughter and cheering that filled the room. “Where’s that second microphone?”
“No.” Rush said, as Eli gleefully passed the microphone up to Greer. “No. Absolutely not. Y’brought me here under false pretenses.” He tried to wrench away, but Greer had a hold of his upper arm.
“Unbelievably, you fell for it.” Greer shrugged. “No one let him leave this table.”
The sergeant could barely be heard over the general eruption of cheering and laughter in the mess. Across the room, Young caught a glimpse of Wray, one fingertips pressed to her mouth, hiding a smile. She with Matt and Chloe, both of them alight with laughter.
“I don’t know any songs,” Rush protested. “Not a single fuckin’ one.”
//Now you’re just whining,// Young projected at him.
“Then consider this my contribution to the Increase the Cultural Literacy of Nicholas Rush Campaign,” Greer said into the microphone. There was an upswing in the cheering. “Before we get started—I’d like to dedicate my performance of this song to Dr. Lisa Park. I love you baby.” He blew her a kiss.
Park caught the kiss out of the air. “I love you too!” She called back, high and clear.
“And,” Greer continued, “I’d like to dedicate Dr. Nicholas Rush’s performance of this song to the longest-suffering, least-appreciated guy on this ship: Dr. Dale Volker.”
“What.” Rush shot Greer a dark look.
“You deserve it,” Greer said, pointing straight at Volker.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life for this,” Volker shouted back, arms open wide.
“We’ll be performing Metallica’s version of Whisky in the Jar. Which is a Scottish song, so,” Greer turned to Rush, “you should know it, unless you’ve been faking that accent this whole time.”
“It’s a fucking Irish song, actually,” Rush snapped, trying to wrest away from Greer.
“Whatever. Same thing.”
“It’s not the same thing, Greer. They’re extremely different.”
“You know the song don’t you?”
“Yes,” Rush said, reluctantly, “but—”
“Man up then, why don’t you?” Greer asked, to general applause.
“Fuck right off,” Rush said. The room erupted with catcalling.
“Fire it up, Eli,” Greer yelled.
//Just go with it,// Young projected at him.
//Fuckin’ fine,// Rush shot back coolly, and swept his hair out of his eyes. Heavy-metal guitar emanated from the walls themselves.
“You are kidding me,” Telford said, trying to twist his grin off his face.
The familiar silhouette of Dr. Daniel Jackson stepped into Young’s peripheral vision. Young turned to look at the AI. It smiled Jackson’s most uncertain smile.
Young nodded at it, and its gaze flicked back to Rush and Greer.
“As I was going over the Cork and Kerry mountains,“
I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was countin’.
I first produced my pistol, and then produced my rapier,
I said stand and deliver, or the devil he may take ya—“
It hadn’t taken Rush long to pick up the rhythm of the song, though Young could tell from the slant of his thoughts that he was used to a faster pace, a different key, and a woman named Jenny, rather than Molly.
And, yeah. Rush had a great voice, breathy and complex, like smoke and salt and, somehow, the sea.
“Your culture has odd and beautiful customs,” the AI whispered.
Young looked over at it and saw it was mirroring his pose, its arms crossed, leaning into the wall, smiling Daniel Jackson’s smile as it watched Rush and Greer. He gave it a nod of acknowledgement.
“I took all of his money and it was a pretty penny,
I took all of his money and I brought it home to Molly.
She swore that she loved me, no, never would she leave me
But the devil take that woman, for you know she tricked me easy.”
Rush shook his hair back and quirked an eyebrow at Young.
Young smirked at the guy, and very subtly, shook his head.
“Being drunk and weary, I went to Molly’s chamber,
Taking Molly with me, but I never knew the danger.
About six or maybe seven, in walked Captain Farrell.
I jumped up, fired my pistols, and shot him with both barrels.”
There was a long instrumental interlude, during which Rush made a bid to escape Greer’s hold on him. “How long is this fuckin’ song?” the scientist snapped.
“It’s over when it’s over.” Greer grinned at him.
Rush suffered through the final verse and, finally, the song came to an end with a wave of relief from the scientist.
The room erupted in applause.
“I hope you enjoyed that, Volker,” Rush said dryly into the microphone.
“More than you’ll ever know!” Volker shouted.
Rush handed the microphone back to Eli. Several people helped him down off the stage.
“Well, I think I speak for everyone when I say, holy crap, that was awesome,” Eli said into the microphone.
“I cannot believe that just happened.” Telford shot Young a wry look.
“Me neither,” Young replied.
A few minutes shy of midnight, Greer at his shoulder, Young glared across the tables at the back of the room. Rush and Telford sat with a mix of science personnel, mostly composed of Telford’s Research Ream.
God damn,” Greer said softly. “You leave them alone for three minutes and they find each other.”
“Yeah,” Young growled. “And not by accident either.”
Young could tell from Rush’s expression and the pitch of the man’s thoughts that the scientist was interested, extremely interested, in what Telford had to say. Young blended into Rush’s mind, making no attempt to be subtle about it.
He got a semi-organized wave of acknowledgement from the scientist as he did so.
“—well it just so happens that I brought one with me,” Telford said quietly. “Call it a hunch.”
“Propose it as an option at tomorrow’s joint briefing,” Rush said, his thoughts splitting with kaleidoscopic complexity.
“You don’t wanna just try it?” Telford asked, overly casual. “Tracking device aside, it could be extremely useful for the purposes of research.”
//Try what?// Young snarled.
//Nothing. Don’t worry about it. I’m handling it.//
//I feel so reassured.//
“As I said,” Rush said coolly, “mention it at the next joint briefing.” His eyes followed Chloe as she daintily stepped into Matt Scott’s bridged hands and alighted on the stage.
“Okay, everyone,” Eli said. “Last song before the afterparties. Give it up for Chloe. Across the Universe.” A familiar progression of guitar chords echoed from Destiny’s walls.
“You wanna go?” Greer asked Young, “Or should I?”
Wordlessly, Young clapped Greer on the shoulder and started forward.
“Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,” Chloe’s hair was full of crystal, her voice full of song.
In the back of Young’s mind, Telford spoke through Rush’s thoughts. “So you’re some kind of a team player now? You’ve turned over a new leaf?” Telford smiled lazily at Rush. “Bullshit, Nick. You’re up to something. I know you. I know you.”
“They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe.”
Rush smiled faintly. “Y’knew me, maybe. I’ll give you that.”
“You haven’t changed,” Telford said. “At heart, you’re the same as you’ve ever been.”
“Pools of sorrow waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind,”
“Bang t’rights,” Rush murmured. He looked dead at Young.
Telford followed his gaze.
“Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world—”
“Rush,” Young growled, “I need to talk to you.”
“David.” Rush, already on his feet, nodded at Telford. He turned to Young and lifted an unimpressed eyebrow. //Not your most subtle work.//
//C’mon,// Young growled, resisting the urge to grab the guy’s arm and forcibly drag him out of the room.
“Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,
They call me on and on across the universe—”
Rush followed him into the deserted corridor, where Chloe’s voice echoed ship-wide through the walls themselves. “Jus’, like, for personal reference,” Rush breathed, “how would you describe your mood right now?”
“Frustrated,” Young growled, and hit the door controls to the nearest monitoring station. He grabbed Rush’s upper arm, pulled him inside the small room, and backed him against the nearest monitor bank, which locked itself in an iridescent version of an Ancient screensaver.
“Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter-box,
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe—”
“Right, an’ so what is it with you and violating my personal space?” Rush asked, the tenor of his thoughts more amused than anything else. He shifted, pressed Young back, and boosted himself onto the damned display that was rainbowing beneath him. “Y’really fuckin’ enjoy it, I think. Maybe y’always have. Maybe—”
“Stop talking to Telford,” Young broke in, staring the guy straight in the eyes. “Stop encouraging him to do whatever the hell it is that he wants to do to you. Stop. Letting him. Fuck with you.”
“But how d’y’know I’m not fucking with him?” Rush whispered.
“Just—stop it.” Young’s voice cracked. “He’s dangerous. And you’re too fucked up yourself to convincingly fuck with anyone.”
“How dare you underestimate me,” Rush whispered, his voice low, his smile starting to straighten.
“Go to hell. You’re crazy. You’re driving me crazy,” Young said.
“Nothing’s gonna change my world,
Nothing’s gonna change my world—”
“This is all because I won’t let you call me Nick, isn’t it?” Rush breathed.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You can call me Nick,” Rush murmured.
“Oh really?” Young said, laying on the faux gratitude as thick as it would spread. “Thank you. Thank you so much for that major concession. You’re unbelievable. The attitude on you. You arrogant—”
Rush kissed him.
Young kissed him back.
“Don’t mistake this for anything other than what it actually is,” Rush breathed against his mouth, his eyes shut, a palm pressed to the center of Young’s chest.
“And that would be?”
“A bloody terrible idea,” Rush said, his voice dark and warm and destructive.
“Nothing’s gonna change my world,
Nothing’s gonna change my world—”
“Y’know what, Nick?” Young shifted his grip to the scientist’s wrists, pulling his hands down, pressing him back against the console, as if he could hold the other man down, could hold him back, could keep him from whatever the hell was coming for him beyond and through the book-like pages of the cosmos.
“What?” Rush breathed back.
“I don’t wanna hear it. Not now.” His lips grazed Rush’s ear, and the other man shivered in his grip. “Not ever.” He eased Rush back against the locked touchscreens.
“You want to do this here?” Rush asked.
“Well, we can’t go back to my quarters.” Young kissed the edge of his ear and felt a delicate shudder tear through Rush’s frame.
“Right,” the scientist breathed, tilting his head toward Young. “And—remind me why that is?”
“Because I told Eli he could host an after party there.”
“What could’ve possessed you t’—” Rush broke off, his thoughts faceting themselves to nothing as Young kissed his way down his neck. “Why?” He reorganized himself, a little more succinctly.
“I don’t know.” Young pulled back. He watched the scientist blink twice, trying to hang onto the disorganized remains of his concentration. “I really don’t.”
“Well,” Rush began.
Young scraped a thumbnail over the inside of his wrist and watched the scientist’s half-formed sentence shatter into a glittering shower of fragments that faded to a warm haze in both their minds. “You’re in all kinds of trouble,” Young smoothed his thumb over the man’s wrist.
“What?” Rush breathed, the swirl of his thoughts starting to clarify.
“Hold it together.” Young wrapped a hand around the back of Rush’s neck. “Look at me. This is the hairpin. It’s either happening right now, or it’s about to happen. Can you feel it?”
“Maybe,” Rush whispered.
Young slid his thumb over the skin of Rush’s neck. The scientist’s mind clarified, his eyelids fluttered, and Young backed off. “You still with me?”
“Yes,” Rush whispered, looking up at Young from half-lidded eyes, his mind fading in and out of transparency.
“Tell me what I just said,” Young murmured.
“You warned me about a transcritical bifurcation,” Rush breathed.
“Uh.” Young cocked his head.
Rush glanced at the door, and the locking mechanism engaged. “I’m distracted, not inattentive. Keep up.”
“Okay. What’s a transcritical bifurcation?”
“A small, smooth change made to the parameter values of a dynamical system that causes a qualitative disruption in behavior on a macro scale in such a way that two points exchange stability.”
“Oh yeah?” Young said, kissing him gently, keeping the man on that knife-edge equilibrium, halfway into his hairpin or his transcritical bifurcation or his stability exchange or whatever the hell it was. “Tell me more.”
“One can linearize the system around each bifurcation point by taking the derivative with respect to system variables and get something of a sense of any given node’s stability based on the sign of your answer. But, as your bifurcation parameter passes through zero—” Rush trailed off suggestively.
Young grinned. “You really know how to sweet talk a guy.”
“I can do better,” Rush replied, dark and amused and dangerous, full of all kinds of cosmic promise.
“You really don’t have to,” Young whispered.
Their minds tangled. Flaring physical dynamics and frozen images that cracked like lightning, too fast to catch. Half-remembered dreamscapes. The spiral of an orange peel in a sunlit kitchen. A panel removed from a wall, circuitry exposed, flaring bright in the darkness.
“You can’t hold yourself together in a system state like this one.” Young swept the man’s hair out of his eyes. “You’re gonna come apart.”
“T’quid tu ad es?” Rush breathed, and pulled him down.