Force over Distance: Chapter 57

“Distracting,” Rush said, around the pen in his mouth. “Very distracting. Contain yourself, please?”

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

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

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 57

The morning after the engagement party, Young woke slowly. Memories from the previous night tangled his thoughts: losing four thousand fake dollars to Greer in a game of five-card draw; Chloe’s list of changes that might ‘fix’ Rush’s hair and Camile’s helpless laughter, straight into his shoulder; Varro’s questions on the difference between ‘Scottish’ and ‘Irish,’ fielded by everyone but the guy who knew anything about it; the tiny bottle of “cask aged” grain alcohol they’d passed around that had, almost, tasted like bourbon.

Still mostly asleep, he heard the sound of Nick Rush typing. The quiet rhythm of the keys blended itself with the flow and tenor of the man’s thoughts.

They sit together, in the window of a Colorado Springs coffee shop. Rain sheets down the glass. Classical music plays over the sound system. Rush, wearing a tweed blazer, stops typing. He lifts a hand and studies the flex of his fingers, then looks out at the rain, a perplexed expression on his face. “What’re you doing?” He shifts his gaze to Young, as though Young is responsible for the weather. For the rain. For reality itself. “Is this honestly what y’think mathematicians wear?” He gives his jacket a bemused once-over, then drops the words “wake up” through the pane glass of a dreamed world.

Young’s eyes flew open. “Shit,” he rasped, breathing hard.

“Overdid it a bit,” Rush said, from feet away. “But, in my defense, you displaced my consciousness.”

“What?” Disoriented, Young levered himself up on one elbow. He was—lying on his own couch? Covered by a blanket? He felt. Like shit. Hungover as hell.

“Never mind,” Rush said gently.

“Did you just say I ‘displaced your consciousness’?”

“No. What I just said was: ‘never mind’.”

Young took stock of himself, not bothering to chase down the shreds of a half-remembered waking dream. He was dressed in his fatigues, but his boots and belt were off. Someone had draped a blanket over him. He didn’t have a clear memory of anything that’d happened in his quarters after the poker game. He sure as hell did not feel his best.

Rush, on the other hand, looked goddamned spectacular.

His chief scientist sat on the floor. He’d put his back to the couch and propped his left foot on the low table. His laptop was balanced on his bent right leg. He held a pen delicately between his teeth, like a cigarette. His mind was full of rain and the music of rain.

“Distracting,” Rush said around the pen in his mouth. “Very distracting. Contain yourself, please?”

Young had grounded the hell out of the man the previous night. And it showed. The scientist looked great. He was physically relaxed, mentally aligned, and god damn but Young really hoped he’d get another crack at—whatever they’d done. There wasn’t a word for it—the coupling of subtlety with raw power? Delicacy with mind-altering, looped sensation? Young couldn’t even think of a damn analogy. Flower arrangement as extreme sport? An F1 car on a mental Silverstone Circuit?

Rush snapped his fingers, pointed at Young, and made a cut-it-out motion in mid-air.

“Yeah yeah. Too poetic for you?” Unable to resist, he brushed against the scientist’s thoughts.

To Young’s surprise, Rush instantly picked up on the intrusion. He leaned forward and pulled a plastic water bottle off the table. “Tamara left this for you. I’m moderately confident it’s full of salt. I’m certain it tastes terrible. Should help with the headache though.”

“Uh, thanks.” Young took the budget Gatorade.

Rush nodded and returned to his coding.

Young felt at sea in this companionable silence, new and fragile, broken only by keystrokes that fell with the rhythm of raindrops.

“So,” Young said, halting and hesitant and hating his own uncertainty. “You’re still here.”

“Well-spotted,” Rush said absently. “Is it the military training that makes you so astute? Or is a personal gift?”

Young cleared his throat. “So—you’re, uh, you’re in, maybe, then? You wanna—you’re throwing in on my—” he trailed off.

Rush, his eyes still on his keyboard, did his best not to smirk. He shook his hair back, quirked an eyebrow, looked up, and said, “Would y’like me to sign something in blood?” with only a trace of poison in his honeyed tone.

And holy shit. That wasn’t a ‘no.’ To cover his uncertainty, Young downed half the bottle of fake gatorade. It was distractingly disgusting. “Uh,” he said. “You hang onto your blood. I’ll take a verbal agreement.”

Rush pinned him with one hell of a clear-eyed look—full of fond warning and fiery regret, then went back to his typing.

“A verbal agreement involves words,” Young said.

Rush sighed without looking up. “Words? Fine. You’ve convinced me it’s a waste of energy to oppose your rather creative efforts to optimize my mental functioning in exchange for the ever-diminishing chance of sparing you a catastrophic psychic injury at the time of my inevitable death. Happy?”

“Ugh,” Young whispered. “No. You are the worst.”

“I’m Scottish,” Rush replied, with the hint of a smile.

“I’ll take it, I guess.” Young shifted on the couch, putting himself directly behind the scientist. He started in on the guy’s shoulder, running his fingers over the material of Rush’s military jacket. “How are you feeling?”

“I’ll admit, I’m having a good day.” Rush gestured lazily at his temple.

“Uh huh. And what makes it a ‘good day’?”

“Clarity of thought. Less energy devoted to maintaining the operations of normal cognitive processing.”


“Oh, I’m sure you have a sense of it. Suppressing memories that should be suppressed? Connecting ideas logically? An intuitive understanding of cause and effect rather than one that’s rigidly and artificially applied?”

“Uh huh.” Young decided to tackle the guy’s shoulder with a little more dedication. He dug in harder, looking for the borders of the decades-old knot. “You realize this is probably a direct consequence of what we did last night?”

“The thought had occurred,” Rush said dryly.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Young began, “but, uh. Let me start over.”

“Will y’be needing a shovel for that pit you’re digging yourself?” Rush asked politely.

“Probably.” Young put some real pressure on the knot in Rush’s shoulder.

The scientist hissed.

“Too much?” Young asked.

“I’m tryin’ to fuckin’ work, here,” Rush replied through gritted teeth.

“You’d work a hell of a lot more efficiently if you’d tune yourself up from time to time. You’re doing the human equivalent of off-roading with a Ferrari.”

Rush made a small sound in the back of his throat as Young mobilized part of the knot. “Y’don’t have to keep making your argument; I already gave y’the job.”

Young snorted. “The job? As what? Your personal mechanic?”

“You want a different title?” Rush asked breathily, pressing back against Young’s hands.

“I’ll have to think about that,” Young said. “But, uh, speaking of—whatever it is we did last night—you—” He broke off, grimacing at the mess he’d made of his own thoughts. And sentence.

Across their link, he got the mental equivalent of an amused eye roll from his chief scientist.

At a loss, Young dug into the man’s shoulder and projected a memory from the prior night: a loop of ache and sustain that transcended the physical, threaded through the metaphysical, and tethered itself again into the arch of the scientist’s back against a locked console. All that, coupled with a question.

Rush made a small sound in the back of his throat as another cord of muscle broke out of the knot. “No,” he said, through clenched teeth. “I’ve not spent my life having transcendental, borderline religious, computationally looped sexual experiences. Can’t decide if I should be troubled or flattered that you feel the need t’ask.”

“Flattered.” Young said, pressing his palm flat to knot he’d been working and holding pressure. “Definitely flattered.”

“Hmm.” Rush angled his head, giving Young better access.

“You just, uh, you didn’t seem surprised by, uh, what it was like?”

“Yes well. The whole thing was predictable, from first principles.”

“What ‘first principles’?”

“One—you’re very, ah, shall we say ‘enterprising?’ Two—I’m extremely hackable. Three—loops exist within our shared network. All the rest follows.”

“I thought we agreed we were not gonna use the word ‘hackable’.”

“Do you have another word?” Rush asked, with pearl-fanged politeness.

“Sensitive.” Young ran the heel of his hand along Rush’s shoulder blade, trying to soothe unknotted muscle into its proper pattern.

“I’m not fuckin’ ‘sensitive’.”


“Ugh. No.”

“Sensitive and responsive,” Young said.

“I could stop your heart,” Rush muttered. “Any time.”

“I know.” Young gripped his shoulder and gave it a gentle shake. “My point is, genius—there’s supposed to be a physical component to this link.”

“Despite my best efforts, it’s been pretty hard t’miss,” Rush said, desert-dry.

“Don’t you think that means maybe the final outcome isn’t as fixed as you think it is? That maybe this increases our chances of success?”

“Where ‘success’ is defined as?”

“Everyone lives,” Young growled.

“Ever the fuckin’ optimist. Do me a favor. Try to remember I’m an unmitigated bastard, will you?”

“That’s bullshit.” Young took a swig of TJ’s electrolytes. “Nick.”

“And make an effort to be a bit less likable,” Rush said. “I’d appreciate that.”

“So what’s our status?” Young asked him. “Are we okay? You and I?”

Rush reached back, grabbed Young’s left hand, and yanked it forward, hauling Young himself along with it. “Our status is twenty seven minutes out from your fourteen hundred tactical briefing,” he said, after studying Young’s watch. “Get the fuck off your couch and and shower, will you? I’ll meet you there.”


“You slept for over eleven hours,” Rush said.

“Why the hell didn’t you wake me up?”

“Because you were off-shift, hungover, and exhausted. Plus, I was busy.”

“Doing what?” Young scanned the floor for his boots.

“Things.” Rush dragged Young’s boots, belt, and radio from behind the end of the couch.


“Yes. Various things.”

“Great. If I put a twenty-four hour watch on you, how pissed would you be on a scale of one to ten?” Young asked, pulling on his boots.


“That’s what I thought.”

Twenty-seven minutes later, Young sat in a mid-sized conference room, squinting through his headache. For some reason, the Science Team, the Research Team, Young’s senior officers, and Wray had all shown for what was supposed to be a closed tactical briefing.

Young did not recall inviting so many people. It made for an uncomfortably packed room.

Eli, his shoulders tense and his tone clipped, ran through a list of every option the Science Team had tried and discarded in the search for the Nakai tracking device.

It was pretty damn comprehensive.

As the kid detailed the dead ends, Rush twirled a pen between his fingers, his thoughts an intricate weave of iridescent flame that flowed into and from the delicate movements required to keep the pen in its endless, spiral loop.

God, he was distracting.

“So.” Eli crossed his arms beneath the semi-transparent midair projection. “Finding this thing’ll be a tough problem to crack. And we need time to do it. Time, and no surprise disasters. The Obelisk Worlds are our biggest concern.”

Young frowned. “They don’t exactly advertise themselves.”

“Correct.” Rush halted his pen in the middle of its spin. “Which is why we need to force an intergalactic jump.”

“No Obelisk Worlds in the starless void.” Eli gave Young a wan smile. “Probably.”

“No power sources either,” Young said. “But, if we’re sure it can be done, I like it.”

None of the tension went out of Eli’s shoulders. “Right,” the kid said. “Good. Um. So. About that. Moving on to feasibility. We’ve had this on the back burner for a few days now. The calculations are complicated. Dale, you wanna to give your spiel?” He looked at Volker.

“Sure.” As the astrophysicist approached the front of the room, the display changed to project Destiny’s course through an elliptical field of stars. “As you can see, we’re nowhere near the galactic edge of the FFA.”

“The FFA?” Telford asked.

“Oh, uh, that’s what we named this galaxy.” Volker said.

“It stands for Far Far Away?” Eli shot Telford a sour look.

“Nice!” Bill Lee called from the back of the room.

“Aaaanyway.” Volker drew level with Eli, beneath the overhead starfield. “We’re currently traveling at FTL along the galactic plane.” The map zoomed out and the elliptical star field took its place in a local group of galaxies. “To plot an intergalactic jump, we’ll need to change our trajectory. Angle away. Head into deep space.”

“Okay.” Young watched modeled trajectories arc out and away from the galactic plane. “Do we have a destination in mind?”

“Yup.” Volker indicated a delicate, nearby star spiral. “We’ve got this little guy. Already queued up in the database and seeded with gates. The issue is the trajectory calculations and all the subsequent tweaks to our power reserves to ensure we make it okay with an early departure.”

“Looks like you guys have your homework cut out for you then,” Young said.

The room was quiet.

“Ummmmmmm.” The blue and green light of the projected display caught the edge of Eli’s gray sweatshirt. “About that.”

Young frowned. He scanned the Science Team. No one met his eye. No one except for Volker.

“Homework’s not going so well,” the astrophysicist admitted.

“Meaning?” Young prompted.

“Meaning the calculations are rocky. Chloe, Eli, Lisa, and I have been working them for days.”

“So put Rush on it,” Young said cautiously. He glanced at the scientist and found the man studiously avoiding his gaze.

//Genius?// Young projected.

All he got in return was an edgy, non-verbal wave of acknowledgement.

“Rush doesn’t do this kind of math,” Volker said mildly. “These are hyper-relativistic trajectory calculations. Chloe’s the best of us, and she’s nowhere close to an optimal course. We’re not gonna crack it. Maybe, if we had months, we could do it. But, in the absence of that—” Volker trailed off.

Eli visibly steeled himself, then looked at Young. “We need Rush in the chair,” he said, plain and simple.

“No,” Young replied, just as plain, just as simple.

He got a wave of irritation across the link. Young fixed the side of the scientist’s head with a steely glare. //You knew this was coming. It’s all over the damn room. You set this up.//

//Set it up?// Rush fired back. //Yes. I fuckin’ did. I’m addressing a problem.//

//Nice try. That’s not all you’re doing. Who invited half the crew to what was supposed to be a closed. Tactical. Briefing.//

Rush ignored the question, which was a pretty damn impressive feat, given Young’s proximity and the icy pressure he’d put behind his projection.

The room was silent. Waiting them out.

Wray pushed away from the far wall. Her heels echoed on the deck plating as she approached. Without saying anything, she posted herself at Young’s shoulder.


He had Wray in his corner. They could salvage this. Young got a grip on himself. “No.” He did his best to file the aggression and anxiety out of his tone. “Not happening. Figure out another way, or we live with this tracking device. We’ve managed so far.”

Eli, pale under the light of a distant galaxy, looked to Rush.

And Rush? Rush looked straight at David Fucking Telford. “We can’t live with it.”

“Got it,” Telford said, his eyes clear and serious.

Surreptitiously, in the space between them, Wray clamped a hand around Young’s elbow and squeezed. Hard. The touch was anchoring and her message was clear as day: Don’t. Don’t lose it. Don’t go after Rush. Don’t go after Telford. Don’t pick this battle.

But Wray didn’t know the stakes; the only thing she could clearly see was—

God damn it.

If Young picked this battle—indefensible, public, his only argument hinging on knowledge that was too dangerous to share—he was gonna lose the war. No question.

Rush had Telford and his Research Team. He had the Science Team. It was why Volker had teed up the pitch and Eli had slammed it home. It was why Chloe looked so pale, her eyes blazing with determined fire. Young glanced at Greer, sitting next to Park—his expression conflicted as hell.

Rush had the room. Every damn person except for Young and Wray. Scott and TJ.

He’d been outmaneuvered. Again. By a UC Berkeley Department Chair. What was worse, he’d known this day would come. From the moment he’d stopped applying the chain of command to the guy he’d seen it on the horizon. And now?

That thing was gonna come back into existence. That modified version of the glorious nightmare sitting next to him. The thing he’d sworn to oppose; the thing he had no choice but to unmake. Every time it manifested.

Young couldn’t tell Rush what he knew. Even the idea was terrifying enough to send his heart racing, to close his throat. A cold wave of adrenaline surged out of nowhere. An image of Hunter Riley burst into his mind, too strong to keep from the link. The sergeant stood on a windswept hillside. His eyes, full of kindness, watched the breeze carry a plucked flower out to sea.

Rush looked at him, his eyes searching, the flow of his thoughts turning faster, more intricate, uneasy. “We don’t have a choice.”

Young bricked back everything he could out of their link. “I need to think about this.”

“By all means,” Rush said. “You have two hours.”

“You wanna do this today?” Young growled.

Wray dug her fingers into his arm.

“No time like the present,” Rush said lightly.

“You mind if we take a few passive readings while you’re in the chair?” Telford asked, skillfully steering the trajectory of the conversation, as though Rush had already won. As though Young had already agreed.

Again, Wray’s fingers tightened, more gently this time, as if to say, Yes, I see it too.

“Be my guest,” Rush said, politely.

And that, that right there, had probably been the goddamned deal.

“1600 then?” Young growled. “Fine. Dismissed. Everyone out.”

The Science Team scattered, dragging the Research Team after them. Telford and Wray were the only ones that lingered.

Young eyed Telford. “Out,” he growled.

Telford glanced at Rush. The scientist gave him a short nod, and he went.

Young had no idea if it was anger or panic driving up his heart rate. He wasn’t sure it goddamned mattered. His mouth was dry. His palms were damp. He stared, unseeing, at the monitor in front of him.

There was only one thing he could think to try. One card he might be able to play to stop this.

And he’d do almost anything to stop it.

He did not want to meet that combination again.

“What was that?” Wray’s tone was icy. Her eyes were fixed on Rush.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Rush replied coolly.

“Jackson.” Young lifted his eyes, not looking at Rush, not looking at Wray, looking instead to the empty air.

And, incredibly, the AI appeared.

Wray gasped.

“I’m not Daniel Jackson,” the AI said, looking at Camile with real warmth, “even though I answer to his name. I’m Destiny’s AI.”

“Oh,” Wray said in a small voice. “Hi.”

“Hi.” The AI smiled. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Hey kid.” Young looked at Jackson, covering his desperation as best he could.

“What the fuck d’you think you’re doing?” Rush’s thoughts were a panicky, edged-up spiral.

Young projected a wordless, powerful wave of reassurance at the guy, but kept his eyes on the AI. “You okay?”

The AI looked behind itself, as if it couldn’t believe Young would ask it any such question. “Me?” It pointed to its own chest, with what was probably a spot-on impression of Jackson’s most bemused look.

“Yeah.” Young gave it a weak smile. “You. You okay?”

I’m fine.” The AI edged closer to Rush. When it spoke again, its tone was cautious. “Can I help you with something, colonel?”

“What do you think of his bullshit plan?” Young asked.

“Um,” Jackson’s blue gaze flicked back and forth between Rush and Young. “You’re asking my—opinion? My opinion on Nick’s plan?”

“Yup,” Young said.

Rush and the AI looked at him with nearly identical expressions of abject astonishment. The AI shifted its gaze to Rush, its expression inquisitive. Rush shrugged, and made a small go-on-then hand gesture.

“Um.” It pushed Jackson’s glasses up its face. “I—I’d rather not look for the tracking device,” it admitted. “But I understand it’s necessary, so I support Nick’s plan.” It wrapped its arms around itself.

Young took a careful breath. He steeled himself, gathered his metaphorical chips, and laid them on the table. “What happens to you when he sits in the chair?”

The AI froze. It glanced at Rush, then back at Young.

Young waited, his heart hammering in his throat.

The AI said nothing.

“What happens?” Rush asked softly.

“I—I believe my consciousness is terminated to save space.” The AI looked apologetically at Rush.

What?” Rush breathed, horrified. His thoughts flash-froze, faceted, and spun into new patterns.

Young used every shred and scrap of discipline he had to prevent the profound relief he felt from crashing through their link.

He’d gambled and won. It didn’t know. The thing didn’t know about the combination.

“Your consciousness is terminated?” Rush pushed himself to his feet, his expression distressed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was sure it would affect your decision-making processes,” the AI said softly. “You do need to sit in the chair to change the course of the ship. We need to change course to find the tracking device.”

“I—” Rush swept a hand through his hair. “You—why wouldn’t—for fuck’s sake—my decision-making processes should be affected,” he hissed. He whirled on Young. “You. You knew. How.”

“Maybe,” Young growled, “if you spent less time calculating the best goddamned means to your preferred goddamned ends, I’d tell you. As it is? I suggest you rethink your plan.”

“That’s not necessary.” The AI looked earnestly at Rush. “Regardless of my subjective experience during your use of the neural interface—we need to avoid Obelisk Worlds.”

“The pair of you think you have it all figured out,” Young growled.

“Colonel,” Wray said warningly, her hand on his arm.

“He set this up,” Young snarled.

“Yes.” Wray shot Rush an icy look. “And he pulled it off in a unilateral, underhanded way. Everyone can see that. But, Everett, what choice did you leave him?”

None. No choice at all.

If Rush hadn’t used the Science Team to force his hand in front of a crowded room, Young would’ve been deadlocked with the guy for days.

“Nice to see someone capable of thinking critically,” Rush said acidly.

“You’re not helping,” Wray snapped. “What’s wrong with you? Working with Telford? There’s nothing more dangerous to you. Do you understand what he wants? Homeworld Command is split into two factions and he represents the one that’s dead set on forcing you into ascension. Anyone ‘capable of thinking critically’ can see that will end in disaster.”

The AI’s expression turned distressed. It hunched its shoulders, hesitated, then turned away, into its own vanishing.

Rush glared at Wray. “Nicely done.” He slammed his laptop shut, turned on his heel, and started for the door.

“Not so fast.” Young grabbed the man’s jacket and hauled him into a grip that was about six inches shy of a choke hold.

“Colonel,” Wray said sharply.

“I’m gonna let this stand,” Young growled, speaking directly into Rush’s ear. “But you pull something like this again? You go to Telford? You try to work around me rather than work with me? And I will come down on you like you wouldn’t believe.”

Rush wrenched free of Young’s grip and spun to face him. “‘Like I wouldn’t believe’?” The scientist repeated, all dark amusement and simmering threat. “Give me a little more credit.” He shook back his hair. “It’s not exactly difficult to picture.”

“I’ll help you if you ask me,” Young said through gritted teeth. The words, even delivered as they were, with barely suppressed aggression, seemed to get to Rush.

When the scientist spoke, there was a wistful edge to his tone. “That? I can’t picture.”

Young did his best to match the man’s deescalation. “Once we’re in interstellar space, what’s your plan?”

Rush squared his shoulders. “I’ll be using a Tok’ra recall device to pull forward Destiny’s memories from my subconscious.”

“Telford—what. Brought one along in his pocket?” Young exploded through his veneer of restraint. “Have you ever seen one of those in action? You’re using that thing over my dead body.”

“You are impossible to work with. That’s why I don’t fuckin’ work with you,” Rush snarled. “Y’can’t proscribe all ideas that come with risk. Why? Because YOU’VE THEN PROSCRIBED ALL IDEAS.” The man was full-volume shouting now. He’d stepped into Young’s personal space, and all the tension he’d been suppressing for the entire span of the tactical briefing was bleeding into their link. “THERE IS QUALITATIVE DATA LOCKED IN HIDDEN LAYERS WITHIN A RECURRENT NEURAL NETWORK.”

“Guys,” Wray had a hand on each of their shoulders. “Let’s cool down.”

“THE AI HAS WRITE PRIVILEGES.” Rush was screaming at him, losing the room, losing the context of the argument, losing everything except a deep, penetrating anxiety that wasn’t coming from him but through him. “SOMEONE WAS OVERWRITTEN.”

Young’s resonant, explosive anxiety plunged them into a building loop with three players. A mounting voltage differential, powered by an alien fear channeling through Rush, built across their minds. Young could feel it coming, but he was too close to it; he couldn’t do a damn thing to turn it around. It already had him by the throat.

“Nick,” Wray said, over and over and over again.



“Please,” Samantha Carter whispers, whip-thin and not a woman anymore, her eyes laced with fever or with weeping. “The city’s dying. Soon it will be too late. Soon, it will all be over.” Carter grips his jacket with icy fingers. “I know this isn’t your role.” She coughs. “But I.” Her voice is thick with tears. “I’m calling you to it.” Above them, beyond the crystal windows, stars, like street lamps, light the cosmic road.

Young crashed to his knees as the AI swept into Rush’s mind like an avalanche, roaring over running thoughts, splintering memory like frozen wood, catching Young in its wake—

He can’t see through distorting indices of glass and air but he can feel their thoughts against his thoughts. His mind comes apart along familiar lines. The human psyche opens to them, disintegrating, overripe, like fruit. Is there a kinship there? Does some part of him enjoy the mental rending that they cause as they destroy his psychic locks? But when they find the memories of Gloria, they show her to him, dying—

The lights flickered.

“Nick,” Wray whispered. “Nick. Nick. Nick.”

In Rush’s mind, through Rush’s mind, came an alien fear, vast and deep and uncontrolled.

//“Kid,”// Young rasped, psychically blind, still caught in ongoing memory. //“Don’t.”//

“Nick,” she screams, her back an arch, her voice a tearing sound, profound and raw and long. He knows, he knows it can’t have been like this—that she could barely breathe at the end. But does he know? Because he wasn’t there. So here, now, amidst this alien corps—he watches. He stands there. And he watches. Because that is what he deserves.

Young reached forward, through the memory of the Nakai, into a room he couldn’t see, where the deck plating pressed to his knees and Rush was somewhere in front of him. He landed a hand on the scientist’s shoulder, and, with enough drag to snap the track on a man and a starship, he pulled everyone into—

“Hold still.” The medic shoves him down, shields him with her body. Cautiously, she lifts her head to peer over the edge of the ramp. Her hair, half out of a too-elaborate twist, isn’t regulation. Neither is the pale pink polish on her nails. She must be new. She must, because, for some reason, Young always remembers beautiful, capable people with a hint of an edge. They get under his skin.

Slowly, Young opened his eyes.

He was on his knees in the CI room. The breath came ragged in his throat. He and Rush were gripping one another by the shoulders. Wray knelt next to them, gasping, her expression tight with fear.

“Fuck.” Rush pried his hands away from Young’s shoulders. He pressed his palm to the deck plates. “Fuck.”

“Is it over?” Wray asked. “Whatever that was—is it over?”

“Yeah,” Young rasped. “Yeah, I think so.”

Wordlessly, Rush nodded. He couldn’t feel his fingertips pressed to the cool deck plating. His visual field was full of snow. The momentum in his thoughts slowed. His mind was full of polite apology—

“God damn it,” Young growled, putting the guy on the floor before he put himself there. “Lie down.”

In his peripheral vision he saw the outline of Dr. Jackson.

“What the hell was that?” he asked the AI.

“A problem,” the AI replied, crouching next to Wray.

“A problem?” Rush said faintly. “A fuckin’ problem? Don’ fuckin’ come over here and try t’be fuckin’ sensitive.” The man was chalk-pale, his eyes half open.

“He’s very anxious about this tracking device.” The AI looked at Young and Wray, its expression earnest.

“Not sure all of that was him,” Young said neutrally. He did his best to keep his mind and his hands steady.

“Fuckin’ exactly,” Rush hissed. He came up on one elbow, glaring at the AI. “So y’can take your empathy subroutines and your mirroring subroutines and you can fuck off.” Rush pointed at Jackson’s chest with two fingers. “Or are you having trouble interpreting that?”

“Okay.” Young unzipped Rush’s jacket collar and pulled it wide. “Settle down. Before you pass out.”

“Nick,” the AI whispered, pained. “I am having difficulty with interpretability. I don’t know where that memory came from. I can’t explain my response. I’m sorry.”

“That was a flashback?” Wray looked at Young.

He nodded.

“Interpretability,” Rush muttered. “Explainability.” He tried to sit. Young pressed him back down. “Who the fuck can parse machine learning algorithms? That’s why I avoided this area. For my entire academic career.”

“I’m very sorry,” the AI said.

Rush sighed. “Not your fault.”

“You two gonna stop talking shop and start making sense?” Young asked.

“No,” Rush said testily, and tried, again, to sit.

Young shoved him back, unsnapped his jacket cuffs, and tried to rub a little circulation into the guy’s nearest, icy hand.

“Nick believes the location of the tracking device may be subconsciously accessible to him,” Jackson said.

“You have access to the AI’s subconscious?” Wray asked.

“Yes,” Rush replied.

The AI shot Rush a sharp look. “That statement is true but misleading.” It shifted its gaze to Young with a guarded expression, it said, “We share a subconscious.”

It explained a whole hell of a lot: the flashbacks to memories from millennia previous, to a society, a culture that Rush had never been a part of. It hadn’t been stray memories, lost in Destiny’s memory banks that’d somehow found their way into Rush’s consciousness, it had been the AI itself. A deeper blending.

“Kid,” Young said, with a veneer of patience spread thin over enough anxiety to choke a horse. “You need to get out of his head. Look at him. He can’t handle this.”

“I’m fine,” Rush said coolly.

“You’re not fine. You’re so fucking far from fine that we lost the damn scale light-years back,” Young growled, losing his tenuous grip on his self control. “That thing,” he pointed at the AI, “is destroying you and you are letting it happen.”

“‘That thing’ is not a thing,” Rush said, his voice icy. “She’s a sentient life form.”

“I am a thing,” the AI said softly. “I know that.”

Jesus Christ.

All three of them looked at it.

Young tried to rally. Tried to ignore the feeling in his chest. Tried to keep track of where his head and heart and priorities were supposed to be.

Silence fell.

“I think everyone’s heart is in the right place here.” Wray looked at the AI. “Everyone’s,” she repeated.

Tentatively, the AI nodded at her.

“Do you think Nick is right?” Wray asked. “Do you think you might have memories that reveal the location of the tracking device?”

“I’m not sure.” It looked anxiously at Young. “Nick believes I wasn’t always as I am now. He thinks I may have been created by merging the consciousness of a living Ancient with the CPU of this ship.”

Wray raised her eyebrows.

“A doctor,” Young said, reluctantly. “A doctor who stayed behind after his family left with Atlantis, fleeing the plague.”

“What?” Rush snapped, levering himself up on one elbow, unable to suppress a surge of alarm. “A doctor? How the fuck d’you know that?”

“His memories show up when you’re having a rough time,” Young admitted, realizing that Rush might not have nearly as clear a picture of the fragmented memories as he did, himself. “You dream about him. He’s shown up when your fever’s high. When the Nakai were in your mind. I’ve seen him standing in the wing of a hospital, I think. Looking out toward the empty city center. Trapped on the wrong side of a quarantine line. He was married. Had a little girl.”

Rush and the AI stared at him in mirrored astonishment.

“And this is why communication is important,” Wray said, like she was teaching a lesson to third graders.

“The question,” Rush said, “is why he was purged from our system.”

Purged?” Young didn’t like the sound of that any more than he liked the phrasing of “our system.”

“Yes,” Rush said. “The AI rewrote its code. It wrote him out.” Rush kept his gaze fixed on the AI, which was staring down at the deck plates. “Almost completely.”

“You don’t know that.” The AI’s tone turned flat. “I have no memory of doing so.”

“But y’wouldn’t, would you?” Rush tried to sit. Young pressed him flat against the deck. The scientist shot him an annoyed glare, then shifted his attention to the AI. “All the same, I can guess what happened.”

“Don’t.” The AI stared at the deck plates. “Don’t guess.”

“I agree,” Young said. “Let’s not speculate. Not very scientific, is it?”

“When the Nakai boarded,” Rush said gently, “the first time—something happened.”

“Stop.” Jackson’s head snapped up. “Stop. I'll terminate the program you're executing.”

“The hell you will,” Young growled.

“We all want the same thing,” Wray said, her voice soothing, her expression pinched with anxiety.

“Oh relax, both of you,” Rush said. “It loses its interpersonal skills when it’s stressed.”

“So do I.” Young glared at the AI.

“Yes yes, we’re all well aware,” Rush said dryly. He turned his attention to the AI, and his tone softened. “I understand this is upsetting. But we need to find and remove that device. We’re in agreement about that, correct?”

The AI nodded, its expression blank.

“The device was placed by the Nakai. We’re also in agreement about that. At least some potentially useful memories still exist. It’s my strong suspicion that your source code alteration and the placement of the tracking device are linked. Y’need to prepare yourself for that.”

“Find another way,” the AI said.

“I’ve tried,” Rush countered, “but I suspect that our best chance of finding this device—”

“I won't help you,” the AI interrupted. “I won’t.”

“Y’don't have to help me,” Rush said mildly. “Just don't stop me.”

The AI got to its feet and walked away. Straight through a damn bulkhead.

Wray fell out of her crouch, crossed her legs on the floor, braced her elbows on her knees, and pressed her fingertips into her temples.

Young knew how she felt. His head throbbed with someone’s headache. He looked down at Rush. The scientist’s skin was clammy, his mind was glassed to hell, his thoughts were edged up, and he was a ball of goddamned tension because he wanted off the floor. “All right,” Young muttered. “Sit. You idiot. Slowly.”

Rush organized himself into a cross-legged position and quirked an eyebrow at Wray.

“I think you broke Camile,” Young said.

At this, Wray looked up. “Does it watch everyone? All the time?”

“No,” Rush replied. “It doesn’t have the capacity for that. Plus, it’s learned decorum.”

“Oh,” Wray said weakly. “Okay.”

Cautiously, slowly, Rush stood, one hand on the nearest monitor bank. Young followed him up, then offered a hand to Wray. She took it, and he hauled her to her feet. “Camile,” he said. “Could you give us a minute? We can debrief later.”

She nodded, turned, and made for the door.

“Don’t,” Rush said, as soon as she’d sealed the door behind her.

“Don’t what?” Young echoed, exhausted. “Don’t read you the riot act? Don’t try to try to talk you out of this plan? This plan that’s so bad even the damn AI hates it?”

Rush looked away.

“Genius,” Young said. “is it too much to ask that you involve me in what you’re trying to do? Our brains are linked. I’m not sitting on the sidelines watching you burn yourself out. I’m on the damn field. Everything you do involves me. I just want you to talk to me.”

Something about Young’s words, or demeanor, or appearance derailed the scientist’s fight. He sighed, kicked his crutch into his hand, and met Young’s eyes with a pained half-smile. “Don’t let the fact that we’re sleeping together go to your head.”

“Don’t worry,” Young said dryly. “I’m under no illusions that you, in any way, give a damn about me.” It came out far harsher than he’d intended.

Rush flinched. He gathered himself, straightened, and pulled his thoughts into something hard and crystalline, faceted and fused. He shook his hair back. “Good,” he said icily. “I’ll see you at 1600.” He lifted his laptop from the table, tucked it under his arm, and walked out of the conference room.

“Shit,” Young whispered, into the empty air.

Young spent the next ninety minutes alone, pacing his quarters, his thoughts encased in mental brick, trying to get his head on straight and prepare himself for what he was sure was coming: his confrontation with the combination.

He needed to be tough with the thing.

He was not gonna give it a damn hug this time.

At 1600 sharp,Young made his way to the neural interface room. Once there, he posted himself up at the back wall, crossed his arms, and listened to Eli, Brody, and Bill Lee chat about World of Warcraft. The remainder of the Science Team was on the bridge, prepping for the coming intergalactic jump.

“Where the hell is he?” Telford snapped as the clock hit 1605. He eyed Young expectantly.

“Don’t look at me,” Young growled. “I’m not his damned baby-sitter.”

Oh yeah? Telford’s face said, loud and clear. Since when?

Young glared him down.

Greer, posted next to the door, asked, “Want me to go looking for him, sir?”

“Don’t bother,” Young muttered.

He held out until 1610.

Carefully, he moved in on the scientist’s consciousness.

Rush was on his back, half inside a bulkhead, his hands extended into open circuitry that glowed a subtle blue where he touched it. He was caught in the oscillations of a component of Destiny’s life support controls, cycling endlessly through loops of negative and positive feedback. He hadn’t joined with the ship—but his awareness of his physical body had faded.

His mind was still.

Rush wasn’t interpreting what he was seeing—no memories churned beneath his surface thoughts. He was simply there, the turn of his mind quiet, meditative. He was unaware of his surroundings, unaware of the passage of time, unaware of Young’s intrusion. His whole consciousness was consumed by the harmony of Destiny’s endless song.

Young tried to fight down the pained, raw feeling in his chest.

There was something ominous and inevitable in the soft glow beneath Rush’s fingertips, where human hands met the raw circuitry of an Ancient starship.

//Rush.// Young couldn’t keep the despair out of his projection. //Don’t do this.//

The scientist’s consciousness broke and crested, flooding Young’s mind with a slow wave of nonverbal reassurance. He pulled his hands back from the exposed circuits, and the glow died. //Sorry,// Rush’s thoughts were subdued. Well-controlled. //Didn’t think you’d notice.//

//What the hell was that?//

//Meditating?// Rush levered himself out of the hole in the wall of his quarters.

//Since when do you meditate?//

//The AI thinks it’s a good idea,// Rush replied.

//Oh well if the AI thinks so,// Young growled.

//You don’t approve?// Rush stood, swept a hand through his hair, and started for the door. There was a cast to his thoughts that Young couldn’t identify. His projection felt—careful. Deliberately soothing.

Young tried to brick back his anxiety. //You wanna meditate? Go do yoga with Chloe. What you were just doing was something else.//

//It’s exactly the same in principle, I just went a bit deeper than I intended. Am I late?// There was no mistaking it—after the goddamned ridiculous afternoon they’d just had, Rush was projecting calm in his direction.

//Yes. You’re late. Get down here.// Young took a breath and tried to settle himself. //Is it too much to ask that for half a day you don’t do anything completely horrifying?//

//Maybe tomorrow,// Rush said dryly. //Though I would say that today really hasn’t been so bad, all things considered.//

//I’ve been awake for less than three hours and you pull a political stunt to force me into agreeing to your use of the neural interface chair, you had a starship’s goddamned flashback, I found out your subconscious mind has merged with the AI, and then I find you interfacing with the wall? Damn it, Rush.//

//Yes well.// Rush shook his hair back and exited his quarters. //I’ll make it up to you.//

//You better make it up to me.//

Young tracked Rush’s progress through the halls of the ship, following his steps until he arrived. The scientist stepped though the doorway and paused just inside to lock eyes with Young. He cocked his head and quirked an eyebrow.

Young rolled his eyes in response.

Rush tried not to smile in return, and did a pretty passable job. He glanced at Eli. “Parati estis?”

“Yeah, so English is fun too, y’know?” Eli replied. “But yeah. Whenever you are.”

“Let me see.” Rush indicated the console with his eyes and Eli stepped aside.

“Where have you been?” Telford asked, coming to stand next to Rush.

“Taking a nap,” Rush said absently, his eyes scanning the screen.

//Don’t bait Telford.// Young snapped at him.

//I’m not baiting him. I’m lying to him.//


//Are you jealous?//


Rush’s eyes flicked up to meet his briefly—dark and intense and amused—before dropping back to the monitor.

“So.” Telford did a passable job hiding his impatience. “Are we ready?”

Eli glowered at Telford.

“Yes.” Rush looked up at Young, but didn’t say anything else.

It took Young a solid three seconds to realize—Rush was waiting.

Waiting for him.

That was new.

“Whenever.” He gestured toward the chair.

Rush leaned his crutch against the monitor bank and approached the neural interface. When he got within five feet of the thing, the lights in the room dimmed and the base of the chair lit up with an anticipatory blue glow. Rush didn’t alter his stride, just pivoted neatly and turned to sit down.

Young winced as the restraints snapped into place.

Rush sent him a wave of reassurance that sliced itself off as the neural interface device engaged, dragging his consciousness away, into the darkness of the ship.

The unease Young had been fighting for hours tore through his mind in earnest.

His heart sped up. His throat closed. Maybe it wouldn’t appear. The combined entity. Maybe it would leave well enough alone. Maybe—

“You okay?” TJ asked.

Young jumped, startled, as she stepped to his side.

“Sorry,” she said. “I was in the back corner. Staying out of the way.”

“I—” his throat spasmed. “Yeah. I’m fine, TJ.”

She gave him a skeptical look, but said nothing.

“Things are looking good.” Eli’s voice was quiet. His eyes were fixed on the monitors. “Things are looking right. He’s plotting our course. I think.”

“Oh wow,” Bill Lee whispered.

“What?” Telford snapped.

“What?” Lee looked up from his laptop, confused.

“You said ‘wow’,” Telford said.

“Oh. Well, his neural readings changed. A lot. A lot a lot,” Lee looked back at his screen.

“Um, yeah,” Eli said. “Not that surprising if you think about it. He’s interfaced with a starship.”

“No,” Lee replied, still looking at his monitor. “The interesting part is that his brainwave patterns are a dead match for the power fluctuations in the CPU. Down to the nanosecond. That can’t be a coincidence.”

Eli and Young locked eyes.

At his back, Young heard the quiet click of a cigarette lighter.

Popular posts from this blog