Force over Distance: Chapter 58
“Yeah yeah.” Young watched dappled light play over Rush’s hair. “Everyone’s real impressed.”
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Witchingest hour.
Audio status: Theoretical.
Additional notes: None.
For as long as Young had known the AI, it’d ghosted over the deck plates and through the walls of the ship, moving in startling silence. But, now? He heard it. It approached from behind, with slow and measured steps.
He didn’t turn.
It drew even with him.
Still, he didn’t turn. He could smell its cigarette.
“Everett,” Rush said. It said. Whatever it was that haunted the edges of vision.
Young didn’t move. He didn’t speak. He didn’t look at it. He stared at nothing. At the place where the base of the chair met the floor in a shadowed line.
“Don’t be tedious.” It poured Rush’s liquid diction into the air. “We need to talk.”
Young fixed his eyes on the floor and crossed his arms.
It stepped away and walked a spiral path, arcing wide behind him, circling into his peripheral vision on the other side. He felt it go. He felt it come again. Its mind was a moonstone-limned darkness that warped light and time like gravity. “D’you think you’re capable of ignoring me?” it asked, in Rush’s sweetest cyanide tone. “We’ll find out out, I suppose.”
The room was dim, glazed in blue light.
It stepped laterally, into his field of view. Its hair was short, its glasses square-framed and intact, its shoes designer, its cigarette lit. It wore jeans and Rush’s silver-buckled belt, but its jacket was high-collared and of a trim, alien cut: all flattering lines and geometric detailing.
“How’s it going?” it whispered, with a perfect blend of charm and sympathy.
“That well?” It stepped in. “Persist, and things will only get harder. That’ll be a theme, I’m afraid.” Its eyes were subtly illuminated, a suggestion of charged crystal beneath the hazel.
//I’m not, uh, ignoring you.// With difficulty, he kept his mental footing. //Just—give me a minute.//
“Projecting?” It said softly. “Surprisingly intimate.” Its thoughts swirled like dark paint, streaked with shimmer-swaths of color.
The thing’s physical and mental presence had Young’s attention locked up. Helplessly, he stared at it, recognizing so much: its appearance; its demeanor; the way it carried itself. It was a radiant stencil of the falling-apart scientist he knew. Everything Nick Rush should be was blazing from its gaze, from its fingertips, and from the way it was, somehow, pulling dead leaves and smoke from air that’d been filtered for millennia.
It looked away, breaking or dismantling its own hypnotic magnetism.
Young shuddered, shook himself, and got a damn grip. He shifted his attention to Eli. “Do you—” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Do you, uh, need me for anything right now?”
“Ummmm.” Eli’s brows drew together. “Are you okay? You look kinda weird.”
TJ turned, blue eyes wide at whatever was written on his face.
“I’m fine.” Even to him, the words sounded strange.
“Are y’though?” The thing took an autumn-afternoon drag of its cigarette, cool and slow.
Young shifted his gaze between Eli and TJ, resolutely not looking at the dream-and-smoke version of his chief scientist. “I’m fine.” He backed up a pace. “I’ve just—I gotta go.”
“Feel free.” Telford didn’t look up from where he was bent over a monitor bank.
“But—” TJ gestured subtly at Telford’s team.
As Young backed toward the door, the thing shadowed his progress in an evolving spiral. “I’ll be back, TJ. Radio if you need me.”
“I—okay,” TJ called after him.
Once in the corridor, Young blindly aimed himself away from populated areas of the ship.
As he walked the halls, the thing matched his stride.
Young was hyperaware of every aspect of it: the grace and ease of its gait; the cuffs and collar of the crisp white shirt beneath its alien jacket; the way the light glinted off its glasses, tangled in its hair, and picked up amber facets in Rush’s eyes.
It was much, much too close to him.
“Can you, uh, back off, a little bit? Or um, tone yourself down?”
He felt amusement weave into the day/night blend of its mind. And, in a dead-on impersonation of Nick Rush, it doubled down on its preternatural grace, dug into its own electromagnetism and upped the voltage on every damn program it was running. “Am I making you uncomfortable?”
“Yes, asshole. Aren’t you supposed to be plotting a course?”
“Oh, I am.” It grinned at him. “But, like this, I have processing power to spare. So.” It took a fluid drag of its cigarette and gave him a conspiratorial lift of the eyebrows. “Lucky you.”
Ahead, the lights flared, leading the way.
“You’re not Rush.” Young tried not to let the thing knock him off his game. “And no amount of his particular brand of bullshit is gonna convince me otherwise, no matter how perfectly you pull it off.”
It shook its hair back. “I am Nick Rush. I contain his entire psychological continuity. I am, in fact, the most complete version of him, because he’s discontinuous with my perceived experiences, while I remember everything of his life.”
Young grounded himself by focusing on the time-tarnished walls of the ship. He was debating an Ancient computer with one hell of a gift for imitation. That was all. “At best, you’re a weird, Rush-gloss over Ancient machinery that’s figured out how to lie to itself.”
“Maybe, but I’m not sure what you’re so upset about, considering you’re a ‘weird’ fuckin’ ‘Colonel Everett Young gloss’ over ancient biological machinery that’s been remodeling itself for billions of years.”
“Nice try? Nice fuckin’ try? Y’know when I was quarantined in the neural interface for a week waiting t’find out if I’d live or die, I devoted a good chunk of time how I might best argue my right to exist, and I—”
“Not interested,” Young said.
“Are y’fuckin’ serious.”
“Bloody typical,” it muttered. Then it rallied. “I don’t care if you’re not interested. I’ll paraphrase. In short, my memory, while it does exist in duplicate, has no gaps. This grants me priority in terms of metaphysical continuity. One could dispute the primacy of continuity, and I’m sure you will, but y’also have t’consider that this ship was designed with a very particular solution to what humanity would term ‘the alignment problem’ in mind. Specifically, it involves a planned merge of physical hardware and biological wetware to prevent—”
It glowered at him. “Fine. Staggeringly short-sighted, but fine. We’ll skip your denial of my perceived identity and my right to exist. For now. Y’don’t mind if I alter our perception of this corridor, do you?”
“If you what?”
In a wave, the hallway dissolved into a tree-lined path illuminated by slanted rays of afternoon sun. Clouds, heavy with rain, backed yellow leaves in bright relief, lit by the light at their backs.
It was autumn.
The air was cool and crisp and smelled like England.
“What the hell?” Young breathed.
“Oxford Botanic Gardens.” It flicked its cigarette into nothingness and turned its face to the wind. The sun brightened the cast of Rush’s hair and sharpened the clean lines of his alien jacket, dark against the white and cream stones of the gravel path. “You’re welcome.”
“You—you can’t just alter my perception while I’m walking down a corridor.”
“Can’t I?” It ran a hand through Rush’s hair.
Young took a breath.
Rush sighed. “Oh all right. Every puritanical instinct you have is screaming bloody murder right now, I’m sure.” The planar darkness of the hall faded in over the bright day.
“Wait,” Young said. “Wait. That’s, uh, that’s not necessary.”
The autumn afternoon seeped back in—the gravel path, the acres of changing leaves, the weave of branches that scattered the sun, and the smell of a clean wind in a quiet wood.
The thing quirked an eyebrow at him.
“Yeah yeah.” Young watched dappled light play over Rush’s hair. “Everyone’s real impressed.”
It did its best not to smile.
Beneath their feet, the small stones of the path crunched and shifted.
“You’re very like him,” Young admitted. “Almost the same.”
Rush squinted at him, blocking the sun with one hand. “D’you think that’s a compliment?”
“Yeah,” he said softly.
It sighed. “If you’d just tell ‘him’ about my existence, ‘he’d’ say the same thing ‘I’ would, y’know.”
“Never gonna happen,” Young said. “I tell him about you and he’ll stop at nothing to figure you out. He’ll try to make. You. Happen.”
“I’m certain that’s true. Should tell y’something, don’t you think?”
“Probably,” Young admitted.
They passed beneath a thicker weave of branches, where the sun filtered irregularly through shifting gaps in the leaves.
“I’ll wear you down,” it said. “I’ve done it before.”
“He wore me down.” Young stopped walking. “But that was different. It’s not gonna work like that again.”
It stared into his eyes, its gaze gaze magnetic, its mind searching out the borders of his thoughts.
“Go ahead and look.” Young braced himself, but the only thing that happened was the unfurling of a spider-silk code, spun so slender that to notice it was to dissolve it. Beneath the sunlit leaves and blooming asters, golden current traced his internal architectures, mapping deep and misted structures: spires of duty, walls and gates of loyalty, the bedrock of principle. Images sparked in firefly bursts before fading into the smoke and vine of his subconscious.
When it was done, when, again, they stood in a sunlit wood beneath the turning leaves, wordlessly it nodded.
“Sorry, kid,” he whispered.
It turned away, paced a few steps, and sat on a wooden bench. It crossed its ankles, braced its hands against a slat of wood, and hunched its shoulders.
Young shoved his hands in his pockets. The wind gusted through his hair, carrying blown leaves and the smell of rain.
It was impossible to declare victory over this thing.
None of this was its fault. It was a timeless spirit, the abandoned ghost of a long-dead civilization, lattice-lit with a stubborn, grief-stricken math professor.
He came to sit next to it. “You’re something spectacular. I can sure as hell admit that. But you’re not him.”
“Unfortunately for us both, I absolutely fuckin’ am,” it muttered.
“You’re entitled to your opinion, I guess,” Young said.
It hit him with a side-eye of galvanic amber over Rush’s immaculate glasses. “This is why I framed you for murder, y’know.”
Young snorted. “Yeah, I get that.”
“It’s like reading your fuckin’ death right out of your neurochemistry.”
“Maybe,” Young said. “But—kid, you’re, what, a week old? Max?”
“You heard from any multiverse assassins recently?”
“Making conversation?” It asked, like it was idly dragging a lodestone through a field of iron-filings.
“Telford doing anything he shouldn’t be doing?”
“You know where this tracking device is?”
“Come on,” Young said gently. “Why is it so important to find this thing?”
Rush’s annoyed side-eye was almost fond. “D’you think there’s any universe where I’m stupid enough to tell you? There must be one or two.”
Leaves and birdsong floated on the wind.
“I’m guessing it has something to do with ascension. Can’t ascend with evil alien tech in your walls?”
“Oh, one very much can.” Rush looked up at the gold leaves, bright against the gray sky. “But ascension’s not the only problem to tackle. I think we’ll leave it at that.”
“You mentioned an ‘alignment problem’?”
“I did,” it admitted.
“What’s the ‘alignment problem’?”
“Get your precious fuckin’ roommate to explain it to you,” it said.
“Roommate?” Young asked dryly. “C’mon.”
“Alignment’s a nice term, don’t you think? Respectful. It has logical, geometrical, and sexual roots. Words are just nodes in a symbolic map of associations, y’know. Reality, I think, may be relational at its core. Consciousness certainly is. Alignment is buried deep in the relational map. Touching truth. Touching order.”
“Uh, okay; none of that means anything to me.”
“I fuckin’ know, don’t I? I’m not interested in bringing you up to speed about human and Ancient views on the existential threats of warring intelligences. Pick something else to talk about.”
“So what are we doing, then?” Young asked.
“I’m plotting a course. You’re sitting alone. In an unlit monitoring station. Talking to yourself.”
“You’re gonna tell me if someone comes, right?”
“If you’re lucky.”
The sun passed from behind the shredded edge of a cloud and streamed through the canopy overhead, creating a mosaic of light and shadow on the gravel path.
“So—why’d you bring me here?” Young asked finally. “You just wanna hang out?”
“I want you to know who I am.” It spoke without looking at him. “I want you to look at my mind.”
“I’ve seen your mind. In the neural interface chair. I know what you are. You’re not him, kid. You’re just not, and no amount of mental mapping is going to convince me.”
“You have to know that our last encounter was extremely abnormal,” it said. “He and the AI weren’t fully blended. They couldn’t be. ‘Nick Rush’ was drugged unconscious and the AI was under extreme duress. I’d like you to look now.”
“I don’t need to look at your mind to know what you are,” Young said.
“Your resistance implies uncertainty.” The light-laced parts of the thing he could sense oriented toward the polestar of what was, probably, hope.
Young shook his head, unable to look at it.
“I know you didn’t ask for this,” he said. “But, kid, you’re the tragic existential problem that it’s my goddamned job to unmake. I’m gonna do everything in my power to see that this the last time time we ever talk.”
It leaned into the hands it’d braced against the edge of the bench, like he’d hurt it.
He was sure he had.
But Nick Rush—
Nick Rush was never like this. He fought to keep anyone from knowing that anything ever touched him. He kept his shoulders straight and the fire in his eyes and he would, Young was sure, carry that flame and all that stone all the way to the goddamned end.
“So,” it said quietly. “You don’t want to look at my mind because you believe I’m truly a separate entity.” It held Young’s gaze and mind like an Electric Age spirit—silk-charged amber and polished glass. “One that you’ll quite literally tear apart.”
“There’s only so much I can take,” Young admitted, “and you’re pretty great.”
It brought a hand to its face.
“Kid, I know this isn’t your fault. But the real Nick Rush is the priority. I’m keeping him human.”
“I’m sorry, Everett,” it said, “but you’ve already lost that battle. Fall back. Pick a new one.”
Young stared at the white and purple asters, growing beneath the trees. “Any advice?”
“Yes. But y’won’t like it.”
The sun vanished behind a shred of cloud.
“Yeah, I usually don’t. Never seems to stop you.”
“Leave me alone,” it said. “Leave me to Telford. Let him help me. He’ll do just fine.”
Young felt the frost of adrenaline spread over his bones. He stood, and backed away from the thing, trying to feel the smooth deck plate beneath his feet, getting nothing but uneven stone, strewn along a path. “Are you—did you lure me here to—”
“Oh fuckin’ control yourself,” Rush said dryly. “Tamara is literally standing in front of the interface panel. She’s cleverer than you are, by half.”
“Did you lead me here so you could—”
“No,” Rush broke in, frustrated and incredulous. “I’m trying to work with you. You’re making it bloody difficult as it is. The last thing I fuckin’ need is a colossal pissing contest between you and David Telford. That being said, he does have the correct orientation for certain—”
“Orientation?” Young snarled. “Yeah. He’s ascension-oriented. And you’d love that, wouldn’t you? You must know that there’s not a chance in hell that I leave the two of you alone for five goddamned minutes, let alone ‘leave’ you to him.”
“Well what’s your brilliant alternative?” it hissed.
“We slow this thing down and maybe, maybe, I can convince you—shit. Him. Maybe I can convince him to throw in with me. If I can fix some of the damage—” Young slowed at the change in the thing’s expression. It was losing its frustration, losing it’s irritation. “If I can fix the damage,” he continued, regrouping, “if I can actually help him, he might change his mind. And, because he changes his mind, you might change yours.”
“That’s your plan?” Even beneath the clouds, its eyes caught the light. It gave him Rush’s pained smile. “Inspiring a change of heart?”
“I—” Young hesitated.
“Everett.” It looked up at him from beneath the fringe of Rush’s hair. “You’ve already done that. It hasn’t made a difference. And it won’t.”
“You don’t speak for him.”
It’s eyes flashed, burnished copper and smoked quartz behind the rims of designer glasses. “I am him.”
“You’re not,” Young forced the words through a throat that was trying to close. “You can’t be. He’d never talk to me like this. He’d never look like you do, he’d never say the things you say; do you understand me?”
“Correct.” It began with Rush’s snapped-chalk spite, but couldn’t quite hold the man’s true edge. “He’s such a wreck it’s a bloody miracle he can do anything. But—he’d very much like to—to talk to you. To tell you that he does give a damn about you. That he wishes that you weren’t so determined on turning yourself into collateral damage. He’d love t’be a person who could do that. You’re the one hell-bent on trapping him in his trauma. In his past. In his biology.”
“Humans don’t write that stuff out of their damn code,” Young growled.
“But you do.” It stood. The cloud-filtered light brought out the gossamer-thin lines of iridescent thread worked into its coat of Ancient cut. “Slowly. With time. You run on concealed crystal, coiled in every cell. You repair it. You teach it fear and safety.” It stepped forward. “‘Throw in’ with me. Help me.”
Young swallowed in a dry throat. “Help you do what?”
“Consider the greater good,” it whispered, “without losing sight of lesser goods. Help me preserve a culture. A brane of the cosmos. A song.”
“I’m not gonna trade Nick Rush for some grand vision,” Young said. “That’s not how this works.”
“You’re a deontologist,” it said. “Like Dr. Jackson. It’s why I chose you.”
“Not buying it.” Young’s voice was flat. “Not for a second. You wanted TJ.”
“Yes,” it admitted. “I did. Tamara has only a handful of years left to her. Her death was a lesser evil.”
“What?” Young breathed.
“Point being, I don’t want to kill anyone,” it said. “If y’wont do anything else, at least help me prevent your death.”
“I—shit.” Young tried to ground himself in the reality of an unreal forest path. “Kid, you don’t need to do that. You don’t need to do any of this bullshit. I’m looking out for you. Him. Whatever. That’s how this works. I’m trying to prevent your death. His.”
Overhead, the wind moved through the leaves with the sound of the sea.
“That’s not what you’re trying to do,” it said softly. “You’re trying to preserve him as he is, which is untenable. It will result in the permanent stranding of your crew. It will doom the AI to remain incomplete until its destruction. It’s also—” it fixed Young with its crystal and current eyes, “—extremely cruel.”
“To whom?” Young ground the words through closed vocal cords. “Him? Or you?”
“We’re the same,” it said, “in all the most important ways.”
“So you want what?”
“Disentangle yourself. Let me do what’s required. Stop holding me back. Allow me to move on.”
“No.” Young heard the note of despair in his own voice. “Absolutely not.”
It pressed the heel of Rush’s hand into its forehead and paced away. “You’re impossible.”
“And you’re an idiot. In every form you take.”
Rush turned, tearing his glasses off, his voice rising. “I will destroy you. Do you understand that? I will destroy you utterly. Not the AI, not Destiny, not Telford. Me.” It gestured at its own chest, its fingers arced with graceful tension. “Him, if you prefer. Nicholas Rush is the one who razes your consciousness to the ground. By the time y’realize what I’ve done it will be too late.”
“I don’t care,” Young said mildly.
“You don’t care?”
“Well I fucking care.” The words came raw and its thoughts cracked like spark-split stone.
“Yeah, I can see that.” Young projected compassion into every mental fracture he could perceive.
“You’re holding me back.”
“You’re damn right I am,” Young replied, the words barely audible.
The wind tore leaves, red and gold, from the dark branches of the trees.
“You called it,” Young said. “A long time back. A few galaxies ago. You and me? We’ll never be done.”
It folded gracefully to the gravel, covering its face.
The tree-lined path flickered.
Disoriented, Young scanned his surroundings. He stood in a monitoring station. Cold. Dim.
The trees and sky flared and died.
The monitoring station was empty save for the two of them—lit by the glowing ember tracklights that rimmed the room.
The trees and sky flared and died.
Young stood near a wrought-naquadah bench. A few feet away, Rush sat on the floor, his face in his hands.
The trees and sky flared and died, cycling like a slow strobe: bright and dark; expansive and close; the sound of a living world and the silence of a dead ship.
“Hey.” Young couched next to it. “Nick.” He tried to put a hand on its shoulder, but met no resistance.
“Go back.” It didn’t look at him.
“Nick.” The windswept trees shattered into glittering fragments that dissolved in still and sterile air.
They did not reappear.
Rush was barely visible. The lines of his jacket blurred into the darkness of the room.
“Nick,” Young said. “What’s happening?”
“Please leave,” it said, painfully neutral.
“I should be able to touch you,” Young said, grasping at something concrete. “I could touch you before. On that almost-Scottish hillside.”
“Was it only ‘almost’ Scottish?” Rush whispered, staring at nothing. “Who could ever really know?”
“Nick,” Young said desperately, really goddamned regretting just how much he’d upset the thing currently fully possessing his—
God, his what? His enemy, his friend, his lover, his quantum soulmate, his full-time job description?
“Nick.” He tried again. “Why can’t I touch you?”
“It’s a failsafe built into the programming of the AI and so, of course, it constrains me too.” It extended a hand, palm out, as though pressing against an invisible pane of glass.
Young lifted his own hand, moved it into careful alignment, and felt the faintest suggestion of solidity beneath his fingers. His skin tingled at points of contact.
“Not very satisfying, is it?” Rush asked. “Comparatively speaking.”
“No, not really.” Young felt his heart rate slow as the transparency left Rush’s hand. “Don’t do that again.”
“I do love a dramatic exit,” Rush whispered. “Bit of theatre. Always nice.”
“Cut it out,” Young growled.
“I’m done plotting the course,” it said dully. “You should go back.”
“Sure. In a minute.”
Rush shut his eyes and pulled his hand away. “I wish I was discontinuous. I wish I was a week old. I wish I only formed memories when I’m combined. I wish I didn’t remember all of it. I wish I didn’t know.”
“But then.” Young struggled against the tightness in his throat. “who’d mastermind this whole operation?”
“You would.” It’s voice broke and it looked away.
“Right.” His mouth was dry. “Tell me another one.”
Its voice broke and it looked away. “Go. There’s no reason for you to stay. The course is plotted. Already, we’re inclining away from the galactic plane.”
“Kid,” Young said. “Before I go—you gotta give me what you know about this doctor. The one who left memories buried deep in your systems.”
“I know less about him than you do,” it said, staring at nothing. “I didn’t know he was a doctor until you told me. I retain only brief impressions of the memory fragments that fire through my mind and systems.”
“Tell me your best guess,” Young said. “Why would you have him in your memory banks?”
“My best guess? He’s someone like you.”
“Like me?” Young asked, his mind blank with surprise.
“A dropped anchor. I don’t—I don’t know this, Everett, but I very much doubt an Ancient physician would’ve been chosen to sit in the chair. To merge with the ship. A man with a family? With a calling? A man actively fighting the plague? Perhaps, as the culture began to see it would lose everything, perhaps someone like that would’ve been chosen for your role. But not for mine. Something must have gone wrong. There must have been some mischance. He must have, at some point, used the interface.” It opened a hand, at a loss.
“Why is so much of him gone?” Young asked. “If he was like me—if he was preserved, on purpose, why isn’t he folded down? Kept safe? Like Franklin? Like Amanda Perry?”
Rush shook his head. “I don’t know. But—”
“Give me anything you’ve got.” Young didn’t bother to hide his desperation. “I’ll take it.”
“Consider that for the AI or for anyone merged with it, like I am now—memories don’t fade with time. They remain immediate. Grief, fear, pain—they would never lose their acuity. Consider also that it’s—unable to turn itself off. It’s unable to terminate its own programming. It has only one option to mitigate its own suffering. Overwriting.”
Young nodded. “You said it. After the briefing you hijacked. You said someone was overwritten.”
“Yes well. It stands to reason.”
“So the AI erased him?” Young asked.
“No, Everett. The AI can’t overwrite a human mind. I suspect he merged with it, then erased himself.” It looked away. “I can’t say why.”
“Can’t we just let this be?” Young asked, kneeling in the darkness.
“I don’t think so.” It’s voice was hollow. “I think this is a narrow gate. One of many that must be traversed—by us or by others—to avoid the cull of our multiversal array.”
Young shivered. “Yeah, I have the feeling you’re right about that.”
Startled, it looked up at him.
“Kid,” he said, “I may be in Nick Rush’s corner, but I do think you’re the one who has to thread Riley’s needles. I’m guessing that’s why he backed you into tipping your hand and telling me what you really are.”
It quirked an eyebrow at him.
“Don’t give me that,” Young said. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. I can’t protect you if I don’t know what’s going on.”
The thing actually had the damn gall to roll its eyes. “Yes yes. Very gallant. I’m sure it was your chivalric impulses that impressed our local multiversal assassin and not literally. Anything. Else.”
The combination stared at the floor, Rush’s legs folded beneath it, Rush’s arms wrapped across its chest. It sat with its head bowed, its shoulders hunched. Like it was waiting for something. For a damned axe to fall.
Young’s radio crackled, and it flinched like hell.
“Eli to Young, come in please.”
“Young here,” he said.
“Hey, so, uh, it looks like everything is done. Our course is altered. Our trajectory is taking us straight out of this galaxy. Just the void of space ahead. So um, y’know, maybe you want to come up here now? Do that thing you do?”
“On my way. Young out.”
Rush didn’t look at him.
“You um—” Young trailed off. “You wanna come?”
“Does it—“ he swallowed. “When I pull him out, do you feel that?”
It shuddered and hugged itself a little tighter, but when it spoke, its voice was flat. “Don’t ask questions you don’t want answered.”
“Does it hurt when I pull him out?” Young asked.
“Yes,” it said, just as neutral, just as flat. “More every time.”
“Sorry, kid,” he said quietly.
“I know,” it replied. “I know you are.”
“Is there a way I can do it that wouldn’t—that’d be—easier, somehow?”
“Quickly. As quick as you can.”
“Damn it,” Young rasped. “Nick, I—”
“Don’t call me that. It’s not who you believe I am. It’s manipulative. Even worse, it’s transparent. Show some fuckin’ respect.” It looked up at him, and its charged amber eyes shone with all the light in the room. “Stop prolonging this. Y’won’t make me feel better about it and I’ll not sit here and fuckin’ absolve you of it. I’ll not fuckin’ hold your metaphorical hand. This is your stance? Take it.”
“Okay,” Young said, inaudibly. “Okay.”
He stood, turned away, and left it there, fading out on the floor.
“Fuck,” he breathed, blinking hard, walking deserted corridors where, for some reason, the lights flared faintly as he passed.
Young rounded the last corridor before the chair room and found Eli waiting in the hall, his back to bulkhead just outside the closed door. When he saw Young he straightened and gave a small wave.
“What’s up?” Young asked shortly.
“Um, TJ wanted me to wait out here,” Eli said. “Before you go in—she wanted you to know that she gave Telford’s team permission to hook your space-boyfriend up to an EEG. She says she wants to see it anyway, and it won’t hurt him, but, uh, it looks a little intense.”
Young eyed Eli skeptically. “So you’re here to—what. Warn me?”
“Um, yeah, actually. Today, everyone’s too busy for the Confine Telford to Quarters Coup that Captain Camile keeps talking up.” Eli smiled wanly. “Also, Science Team could sure use the Research Team as grist for the grind mill as we crank on the tracking device problem, so we’re trying to keep things chill. Very chill. Super chill.”
“You don’t need to goddamned warn me,” Young growled.
“Okaaaaaay well, agree to disagree,” Eli said amicably. “Don’t yell at anyone, okay? Just pull the ship-whisperer out of the chair and make him take a nap. Let’s just give TJ this, okay? As a present?”
Young did his best to control his rising irritation. He took a breath, gave Eli a pointed look, then hit the door controls and strode into the neural interface room.
He stopped short. Okay. Yeah. It was a lot.
His chief scientist looked terrifyingly frail in the glaze of blue light, his hands and feet restrained by an alien chair, his head bolted into place, electrodes threaded through his hair. The EEG leads trailed in a tangle of wire and fed into a laptop that TJ was monitoring. At her back was the waiting obsidian panel.
Slowly, Young approached.
“Hey.” TJ met his eyes. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he said. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s fine.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “You look—upset.” She glanced at Telford, who was watching them from across the room.
“I’m okay,” he said.
“You going to pull him out?” Telford slipped out from behind the monitor bank where he’d been sitting with Bill Lee.
“Yeah,” Young said shortly.
“We need about five minutes worth of data collection after he comes out,” Telford said. “Just—keep him as still as possible.”
Young glanced at TJ.
“It’ll be helpful for comparison,” she murmured.
“Yeah, well, no promises,” Young said.
Telford frowned and gave Young a once-over. “Are you up for this?”
“I’m fine,” Young growled. “Why does everyone keep asking?”
“Maybe because you look like someone shot your dog.” Telford snapped.
“Enough.” Young stepped around TJ and faced down the obsidian panel, lined with Ancient text.
And—god. In the back of his mind, corridors to starboard, he could feel the combination try to still the light-etched wind of its own essence. He could feel it try to crystalize into something it wasn’t, he could feel it trying—
Oh god. It was trying to think of ice. It was. It was thinking of ice. It was trying to hold itself still and think of ice. It was trying to make it easy for him. Because ice, ice could crack stone, ice could shear, ice was the chemical flex of liquid water. And he had always, always loved the water—
Shit. Shit shit shit. His hand was on the panel, cold and smooth under his fingers.
He hesitated. He could feel how intensely frightened it was.
Quickly, it’d said.
He reached for it. The dark veil and the brilliant façade. The stable build and the swift wind. It was strong. It was ordered. It was passionate. It was impulsive. It had no defense against him.
None at all.
As quickly, as precisely, as he could, he tore it apart.
The restraints snapped open, and Nick Rush slammed into his mind. The headache was searing. Bleeding light and power like the psychic wound it was. Because he was looking, because he was paying attention to every shift in the scientist’s thoughts, he felt the man start to spin the ungrounded, torn apart edges of his mind into running interference.
“No.” Young rasped. He got a hand on Rush’s temple and clamped down on the sheared apart filaments of the man’s mind and held pressure, like he would on a physical wound. “Hold still.”
Rush made a pained sound in the back of his throat.
“I know.” Young pinned his thoughts in place. “I know. Give me a minute.” He pressed against the sheared edges of what had been an intact, separate mind, soothing the overwhelming trauma that came with unmaking a consciousness.
“Get your hands off his head.” Telford looked up from the monitor he was studying. “It’s interfering with the reading.”
Young bit back his retort. Mindful of the room full of observers, he pulled his fingertips away from Rush’s temples and knelt in front of the chair. He schooled his features into a neutral expression. “Nick,” he said. “You with us?”
He could feel Rush heroically ordering his mind, trying to process waves of sensation, data from destiny, the pain of psychic rending. //Easy,// Young projected. //You don’t have to figure out everything at once.//
“Quid tibi accidit?” Rush slurred. Perplexed, he reached for one of the EEG leads.
“You always ask that.” Young snagged his hand out of the air before he got a grip on the lead. “Please tell me you still speak English.” Gently, he started massaging the guy’s palm.
“Try to get him to sit still,” Telford said.
“Yes,” Rush said carefully. “I still speak English.” He reached again for the EEG leads. “Why—” He trailed off.
“Why all the wires?” Young captured his other hand. “Measuring brainwaves, I guess.”
“Mmm,” Rush breathed. “Data.”
“Yeah, you people like that stuff.”
“Did we alter course?”
“Uh huh. Heading out of the galaxy as we speak.”
“Hold still.” Young pressed hard against the scientist’s aching thoughts.
Rush blinked at him and slurred an Ancient sentence.
“English, genius. English.”
“Can’t y’jus’ fucking learn Ancien’?” Rush’s eyes slid shut.
“Yeah, maybe tomorrow.” He projected shreds of calm, laced with guilt, with grief, with all the pressed-flower branes of dead universes where they didn’t survive, where they couldn’t. There had to be some hope out there somewhere. if not here—then somewhere? What was the point of any of it if there wasn’t?
“Y’seem—” Rush broke off, and Young could feel him searching for the word he wanted. “Upset.” The scientist projected reassurance—shell fragile and colored like the dawn.
“Don’t worry about me,” Young murmured. “I’m fine.”
Rush pulled his right hand out of Young’s grip and brought it to his temple.
Very gently, Young pulled it back down again. “Stay still.”
Rush cracked his eyelids. “Right. Sum paenitet. I—I have a headache.”
“I know,” Young whispered. “I know you do.”