Force over Distance: Chapter 59

“Alignment’s gotta go both ways,” Young whispered, stroking his hair. “Seems only fair, don’t you think?”




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

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

Additional notes: None.




Chapter 59


After TJ extricated each EEG lead from Rush’s hair, Young helped the guy back to his quarters. The scientist sharpened up during the walk, and, by the time Young eased him onto the couch, he’d regained his fluency and his accent.


“We gotta talk.” Young settled himself on the coffee table, reached down, and grabbed Rush’s left foot by its bootlaces. He dragged it onto his lap.


Rush gave him an unimpressed look, but didn’t bother to reclaim his foot. “Y’know, at some point, conversation does hit a point of diminishing returns.”


Young wrapped his fingers around the guy’s ankle. “Uh huh. The rate we’re going? We’ll hit that point right around the time the universe ends.”


Rush smiled faintly at him. “Oh give over. I’m sorry I stacked the deck and forced y’into a rational decision, all right? I know how much you loathe being reasonable. Deepest fuckin’ apologies and whatnot.”


Young converted his smile into a teeth-clench/jaw-rub maneuver he was pretty sure fooled no one, least of all the idiot across from him. “Thanks. But that’s not what I wanna talk about.”


Rush propped an elbow on the arm of the couch, pressed his fingertips against his temple, and quirked an eyebrow at Young. Light streaked itself through the scientist’s hair, a whiter gold than what came from the fixtures in the walls.


“Have you seen the AI?” Young asked. “In the last half hour? Since you’ve been out of the chair, I mean? It’s okay, right?”


Rush fixed him with a penetrating look. “Why d’you ask?”


“I ask because. Shit. Even though I don’t get along with it, I know how important it is, okay? I know.”


“It’s fine,” Rush said, cool and smooth.


“You’re sure? You’ve seen it?”


“I’m in mental continuity with it,” Rush said. “I don’t need to ‘see’ it. I could invite it here if y’want to say fuckin’ hi.”


“Whatever you think,” Young said.


“Whatever I think?” Rush echoed in naked astonishment. The firewind of his thoughts blew its glassed casing into more intricate patterns. “You’re—you’re genuinely fuckin’ concerned?”


“Yeah,” Young admitted.


“Why?” Rush pressed his fingertips to his temple.


Beneath the sound of the air recirculators, beneath the low hum of the FTL drive, Young could almost, almost hear the complex harmonies of an alien choir.


“Because, genius. I just am.” He searched for something, anything he could say that might explain the one-eighty he was starting to pull. “The thing is like a kid, right? A really dangerous kid? Doing what it thinks is best?”


Rush gave him a searching look. “It’s not literally a child.” The scientist reseated his glasses, as if that might help his headache. “It does share traits with human children in that it has a plastic cognitive structure and is capable of learning quickly by imitation, but it’s a profoundly old, profoundly lonely machine intelligence. It has an unsophisticated grasp of our social conventions and relational norms.” The scientist shook his head and shut his eyes, “Does this—can y’honestly say that any of this makes a difference to you?”


Young saw what was probably some kind of cost/benefit running in the pattern of the scientist’s thoughts, forcing itself through, so rigid it split the stream of his cognition. “Hey.” Gently, he shook the man’s left foot. “Don’t run code in your brain.”


Rush cracked a skeptical eyelid. His headache pounded in time with his pulse.


“You don’t need to compute this one,” Young said. “A more accurate picture of the AI is gonna help me get along better with it. That’s all.”


“I highly doubt ‘that’s all’,” Rush said.


“Genius. You love this thing so much you’re letting it kill you. Tell me why.”


Rush’s expression locked. He shifted on the couch and did his best to pull his foot out of Young’s lap.


“Why.” Young tangled his fingers with Rush’s bootlaces and hung in there. “I’m genuinely asking. I’m not trying to argue you down. I wanna know. What’s so special about it?”


Rush stopped trying to reclaim his ankle. “Why the sudden interest?”


“I can’t tell you.” Young kept the words gentle. “In fact, I’ll never tell you.”


And, for some completely baffling reason, this was the right thing to say.


Rush smiled, real and slow. “That’s actually—that’s perfect.” He looked away trying to control his expression. A bright blend of smooth-running liquid-gold momentum flowed through his mind, encased in forming glass.


“Okay.” Young did his best ignore his own unease. “I’ll take it, I guess. So c’mon; what’s so special about Destiny’s AI?”


“I think even I have underestimated this ship,” Rush said. “It’s a hedge against a civilization-level catastrophe. A hedge as complex as the civilization itself would allow, which was fair fuckin’ complex. Destiny preserves a vast amount of Ancient culture, including their propensity for exploration.”


“Okay,” Young said.


“The AI’s an integral part of the ship,” Rush continued. “Someone’s last, best hope.”


Young nodded. “Makes sense, and, yeah, all of that’s very impressive—but, genius, it goes deeper.”


“I suppose so,” Rush said reluctantly. “Your question’s poorly formulated, but if you’re asking what I think you’re asking—the draw or regard or ‘love’ I have for the AI is a complex subjective perception built atop the execution of a novel solution to a particularly tricky problem at the interface between computation and neuroscience.”


“This problem have a name?” Young asked, his heart in his throat.


“Alignment,” Rush said softly. “The alignment problem.”


Young swallowed and did his best to keep his voice and his thoughts steady. “What’s the alignment problem?”


“It refers to the difficulty of ensuring an artificial intelligence is ‘aligned’ with the goals of the living,” Rush said, “and doesn’t convert all the resources of the known universe into, say, self-replicating paper clips?”


“Uh, yeah,” Young said. “Seen a few of those in my day.”


“Really?” Rush quirked an eyebrow at him.


“Yup. AI paper-clips bent on universal domination. The Asgard called them Replicators. Story for another time.” Young realized his fingers were clenched in the tangle of Rush’s bootlaces. He did his best to relax. “What’s the solution our AI’s come up with?”


It didn’t come up with it,” Rush said. “It was, I think, whomever built this ship that found a solution. The alignment problem is split into two pieces. Both need to be solved. Inner alignment and outer alignment. Inner alignment ensures the artificial system truly understands the goals of its builders—not just mimics understanding. Outer alignment defines objectives. Goals. What is and is not permissible to do to achieve those goals. Outer alignment is a high-level, evaluative process. It determines what real success looks like. A system capable of achieving outer alignment would have tremendous power over optimization functions. My existence solves both those problems.”


Young held stone still, his icy fingers tangled in the scientist’s bootlaces.


“But it creates more.” Rush said. “And you know exactly what those problems are. My cognition has been irrevocably altered and co-opted. Physical and psychological effects aside—even if I perfectly solve the alignment problem in the first moment I sit in the chair? I become inseparable from the system. Over the long term, my ability to preserve alignment degrades.”


Young held his breath.


“I need a safeguard to continually realign. Some way to re-evaluate objectives. Behavioral audits. Some way to alter reward weighting. Regular interrogations of interpretability. Meaning—can I explain how decisions are made and does that reasoning make sense. Sound familiar?”


“That’s me.” Young felt a chill along his bones. “That’s exactly what I do.”


Rush nodded.


“And the AI knows all of this?”


“This is so profoundly fundamental to the AI, it was astonished when I explicitly asked about it.”


“And you asked—when?”


“Hmm. Forty-eight hours in?”


“Forty-eight hours.”


“I’m a computer scientist who woke up chained to a sentient starship. Once I got over the surprise, of course it’d be the first fuckin’ thing I thought of.”


“And you didn’t tell me because—” Young growled.


“Because y’very clearly grasped the basics of the thing?” Rush said delicately. “You’re not exactly one for a discussion of academic subtleties.”


Why don’t you ever explain anything to me, Young wanted to snarl. You’ve known this all along, why didn’t you catch me up? Why are you so goddamned secretive? Why are you always the guy who takes the midnight shifts? Why are you always the guy at the bleeding edge, shoving a razor a little deeper into the dark and not mentioning it to anyone?


What he actually said was, “I’m gonna make you some tea.”


“Thanks,” Rush whispered. He closed his eyes and pressed the heel of his hand into his eye-socket.


Unbelievable.


Young crossed the room and stared at TJ’s tea assortment without really seeing it, his mind a dull roar of frustration. God damn it. He still probably wouldn’t know any of this if the damned combination hadn’t hinted at the whole thing.


Numbly, he pulled Headache Tea off the shelf.


God.


Alignment. Alignment?


His mouth was dry. He was supposed to keep Rush grounded. Keep him out of the ship. That was fine, as far as it went—but shit. This was more than that. Way more. And—


Riley had known.


Riley had understood this; he was sure of it.


The combination, god, it knew. What had it said about alignment? That it existed in a symbolic map? Relating to logic? To geometry. To sex. To truth and order?


Shit, he had to figure this out. He was the one who was supposed to keep this damn ship on track. He—


Someone pulled a teabag out of his nerveless fingers.


“You’re taking this rather hard,” Rush said, very close to him.


“I am so bad at this,” Young breathed, his chest tight.


“Debatable, actually.” Rush selected a second tea blend from TJ’s small assortment. “You’re principled to a fault, but—”


Young pulled him into a hug.


Rush made a small, surprised sound in the back of his throat, then wrapped his arms around Young. “But,” he continued, with a supernatural level of poise, “in this context, strong principles are an advantage. Y’don’t need to understand the computational underpinnings—you’ve done fine.”


“I hate this,” Young said into his shoulder.


“That’s because you’re a carbon chauvinist.” Rush patted his back with faux sympathy.


“You’re a lot of work.” Young held the guy a little tighter. “So much. It’s ridiculous.”


“Yes yes.” Rush leaned into him, warm and deliberately relaxed, projecting calm with more efficiency than usual. Young let the scientist break up his panic, the bright wind of his presence eroding it to nothing.


“Alignment’s gotta go both ways.” Young stroked his hair. “Seems only fair, don’t you think?”


“In a formal sense? No. That’d introduce unacceptable levels of risk into what is, essentially, a safety measure.”


“So I’m supposed to believe you haven’t aligned the hell out of me?” Young whispered.


Rush didn’t say anything, but Young was pretty sure the guy was smiling into his shoulder.


They made the tea together.





Rush cancelled the NHB. Young had mixed feelings about this, given he still had hope the Science Team might pull through and find this damned tracking device. Chloe and Eli also had mixed feelings about the NHB cancellation—mostly because they’d been told to report to Young’s quarters for a quantum mechanics lesson.


Young lingered in the mess long after the last meal shift ended, sipping herbal tea, chatting with passers-by, and trying to figure out how the hell he was supposed to talk to Rush about finding this damned Nakai device.


He was—god damn it—he was just as convinced as Rush was that the thing needed to come out. Not necessarily for its own sake, but for the sake of the AI, which couldn’t damn well remember its own past.


“Hey,” Telford dropped down opposite Young. The guy looked well-rested and sharp as hell—crisp uniform, regulation hair, new boots with strong laces and perfect tread.


“David.”


“Where’s Rush?”


“Not here,” Young said mildly. “What can I do for you?”


“He’s not in his quarters.”


“He’s with Chloe and Eli. He teaches them quantum mechanics.”


“Okay,” Telford said evenly. “Fine. Weird, but fine. Do you know when he’ll be free? I need to talk to him.”


“He’s busy tonight,” Young said. “Try again tomorrow.”


Telford clenched his jaw, suppressed his irritation, and kept his tone even. “In order to find the Nakai device, he needs access to fragmented memories within the AI’s neural net.”


“I know,” Young said.


“You know?”


“He told me.”


“Okay. Good. Did he also tell you I have a recall device that might be helpful? I was going to bring it up at the briefing you cancelled.”


“Yup. He told me. That’s not the direction we’ll be taking. Thanks for the suggestion.”


Telford stared him down. “I’ll be curious to read your report. Hard to justify the avoidance of a proven, tested, and validated method for pulling subconscious memories to the surface. Instead, you’ll be arguing for—what?”


“It’s under discussion,” Young growled. “The device is off the table.”


“Why?” Telford demanded. “Why are you so against this? It’s been tested multiple times, in high-stakes conditions. It couldn’t be more perfect.”


Anything else was better. Literally anything. Young’d seen that thing in action—the momentum of a whole life crashing through the mind in a few hours? No way was Rush subjecting himself to that. Forget the guy’s own life, which was bad enough, but a collection of deeply personal starship memories from the traumatic collapse of an achingly beautiful culture?


No. No goddamned way.


Rush wanted to use that thing? He’d be doing it over Young’s literal corpse.


“I don’t need to justify command decisions to you,” Young growled.


Telford sighed, all the fight going out of his frame. “Fine. You want to railroad me? Again? More? I can’t stop you. But I’m not the damn Nakai. I’m not this damn ship, Everett. I’m not the one killing you. I’m trying to help.”


“Yeah. You’ve been a big help so far.”


“I run a Research Team,” Telford replied. “You know what I’ve been doing every day since I got here?”


“Research?” Young asked dryly.


“Yes,” Telford hissed. “Research. Ever heard of it? We’re combing the database, combing Destiny’s systems, looking for its mission. Looking for context. Looking for what the hell the point of this whole thing is. You’re not going to use us?”


“I don’t think it matters, at all, what this ship set out to do,” Young growled. “Its people are dead. Gone. It needs to work with us, David.”


“I fucking agree, Everett,” Telford said, leaning into his forearms like he could barely contain himself. “So I’m gonna give you some free help. Lesson one? Its people are not gone.”


Young shivered. “They’re as good as. They’re ascended.”


“Yes,” Telford whispered, like they were surrounded by invisible watchers. “There’s a huge difference.”


“I’m listening,” Young said.


“When the Ancients understood that they’d accidentally set in motion a chain of events that was going to wipe them out? They created a council. Ten geniuses and one humanitarian with veto power. The purpose of that council was to propose Hail Mary options. They tried to mess with time and failed. They tried to mess with cognition and failed. They tried to mechanically facilitate ascension and failed. They tried to nanotech their way out of things and failed. Failure after failure after failure after failure.”


“You found all of this is in the database?” Young asked.


No, god damn it,” Telford said. “This is shit you’d know cold if you’d been on Earth dealing with the Ori for the past few years.”


“David, I don’t care about the Ori or the Council of Ten or—”


Yes you do, you jackass,” Telford hissed through his teeth. “God, I wish I were talking to Nick. This ship is a Council of Ten project. The ship is a Hail Mary. The ship is a floating lab of all they did and tried. It was tremendously controversial.”


“Why controversial?”


“That’s one of the questions we’re chasing down, but part of the controversy has to do with the bullshit situation you and Rush are caught in.”


Young raised his eyebrows.


“This is the only conscious AI we’ve ever encountered within Ancient tech,” Telford continued, keeping his voice low. “We’ve come across plenty of AIs in our day, but this one, this one, is the only conscious AI the Ancients ever built. All their cities. All their nanotech. Some of it runs on primitive neural nets. John Sheppard, that crazy son of a bitch, actually thinks Atlantis watches out for him, which might be true, but if it does—it watches out for him like an animal would. Like a dog. A horse. It doesn’t literally talk to him the way this ship talks to Nick.”


“Where are you going with this, David?”


“What? You’re too busy to sit and listen?” Telford hissed, incensed. “This ship was designed for two people to—operate, I guess.”


“I know,” Young growled. “I live that reality every day.”


“No—what I mean is that it was designed for two specific people,” Telford said. “Not ‘people’. Not any fucking two. Two specific Ancients. Two named individuals that sat on the Council of Ten.”


“You got names?”


“Yup,” Telford said. “We’ve had one name all along. Sortes. Sound familiar?”


“Nope.”


Telford clenched his jaw and did his best to control his frustration. “It’s the name of the damn ship, Everett. Sortes is all over our systems. Literally, it means a ‘cast lot.’ It came from an Ancient game of chance.”


“Chance?” Young said softly.


“Yes. ‘Sortes’ has a ‘the chips have fallen as they may’ quality to it. If you were a mathematician with a romantic flair, you might translate that word as ‘destiny’.”


Young stared at Telford. “The name of our ship is the name of an Ancient? A guy? A living man?”


Telford nodded.


“I need everything you have on him,” Young ground out.


“Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing,” Telford said. “I’ll give you what we have—but it’s not much.”


“Why?” Young said. “Why—if Sortes was some Ancient supergenius?”


“The supergenius who built this ship was named Fabrice,” Telford said. “Fabrice was supposed to be in Rush’s role. Sortes was the eleventh member of the Council of Ten. His role was humanitarian oversight. The built-in whistleblower. He was no one. Just a plague-time doctor. Respected, but ordinary. No idea how he ended up on the short list for this project.”


Young pulled in a steadying breath. He brushed his thoughts against Rush’s consciousness. His chief scientist was curled on the couch, squinting in the dim light of Young’s quarters as he gave Chloe an earful about normalizing functions. Gently, Young pulled back, then refocused on Telford. “How did you find this?”


“It’s pretty buried,” Telford admitted. “The database has an up-to-date copy of Ancient published works at the time of its launch. The Council of Ten was mentioned in a few books published in the months before the Second Exodus. There’s a chapter on the ship’s construction that appears in Roads of Song—


“Second Exodus?”


“When Atlantis left Earth for Pegasus. Jesus Everett, you need to brush up on this stuff. Watch Jackson’s damn video, at a minimum.”


“Pull everything you can find on this Sortes guy,” Young said. “And the other one. The one who designed the ship.”


“Fabrice,” Telford said. “There’s more information on Fabrice than on Sortes. There might be two Fabrices. We’re trying to figure them out. It’s either a non-binary individual or there are two people, one a man, one a woman. The Ancients weren’t big on the consistent use of surnames. We’re working on it.”


Young looked at his watch. “Send Bill Lee by my quarters with whatever you have before 2200.”


Telford did his best to suppress an eye roll. “You realize we could use all of this—everything we have—in conjunction with the Tok’ra device. We could read this shit to him while he’s wearing it? It works better when you have specific prompts. Names. Locations. We can get that stuff.”


“Give me everything you find,” Young said, “and I—I’ll think about it.”


“Is it too much to ask why you’re so dead-set against this?” Telford asked.


Young weighed his words carefully. “Proven or not—we don’t know how he’ll react to that device. Case in point? You almost killed him with Ativan during the Nakai foothold.”


Telford looked at his hands. “I’ve been thinking about that. He was more than electrophysiologically modified, by the chair wasn’t he? ‘Less than half,’ you said.”


Young clenched his jaw and didn’t reply.


“Less than half human.” Telford met Young’s eyes. “If I’d known—”


“Well, you know now,” Young growled. “So don’t go dosing him with anything.”


“This is why we should be talking,” Telford hissed. “You, me, and him. Invite Wray if you want; I don’t care.”


“You start bringing me useful information from the database and we’ll talk about it,” Young said. “Until then, dismissed.”


It looked like Telford might argue, but instead, he clenched his jaw, glared a hole in the tabletop, and got to his feet. “You know where to find me.”


Young watched him go. When the doors to the mess had swished shut, he dropped propped an elbow on the table, dropped his head into his hand and tried to hold himself together.


A Council of Fucking Ten?


A ship with the name of a god damned man?


And how much of this did Rush and the AI know?


Almost none of it. Exactly none of it. He was pretty damned sure. Rush didn’t have time to read the database for leisure. And shit, he didn’t talk about “reading” it at all. He talked about “querying” it. And—


The database’d unlocked itself when Rush used the chair.


Was it possible the AI, in isolation, had been locked out of it, just like they had?


“Kid,” he said. “Jackson. You around? You get any of that?”


No one appeared.


Bracing for the headache, he eased his thoughts back into apposition with Rush. Things had deteriorated since he’d last checked in.


“I cannot believe,” Eli said, crosslegged atop Young’s coffee table, “that we have worked through one hundred and ninety pages of this book and only now have we gotten to the hydrogen atom.”


“Well, as a political science major,” Chloe began primly.


“At least you had a major,” Rush said, miserably curled on the end of the couch, his fingertips pressed to his temple. “Puts you about four years ahead of Eli.”


“Thanks,” Eli said. “Thanks for that. Do you ever get bored of being such an asshole? Or is it like an Endless Intellectual Fountain of Academic Delights? Asking for a friend.”


Rush rolled his eyes and immediately regretted it as his headache knifed him in the optic nerves.


“As I was saying,” Chloe continued, “personally, I appreciated the slow ramp up to the hydrogen atom.”


Slow ramp?” Eli slammed the book shut in mock outrage. “Slow? We’ve done, like, five semesters of math in six weeks.”


//Hey,// Young began, easing into the fray.


Rush jerked, so startled he spilled half his tea.


//Sorry.// Young projected a wave of calm in the man’s direction, trying to soothe his edged-up nerves.


“Really?” Chloe asked. “It didn’t seem like that much.”


Eli gathered the papers strewn around him on the table. “You’re such a cheater anyway. With all your alien math knowledge.”


Chloe winced, dropped her eyes, then gave Eli a perfunctory smile.


“Uh.” Eli looked uncertainly at Chloe. “I didn’t mean—”


“Chapter six and Mathchapter E,” Rush spoke over whatever Eli might’ve said. “Shall we say three days?”


Three days?” Eli echoed.


“Don’t worry about it, Eli,” Rush said. “Mathchapter E is all of ten pages and you’re more than proficient at linear algebra.”


Chloe nodded.


Young threaded a wordless Chloe-centric question into his projection.


//Yes yes,// Rush replied. //Give me five minutes before you head back.//


//You’ve got ten.//


//Magnanimity suits you.//


Young headed for the observation deck, preserving his delicate connection with Rush’s thoughts as he walked night-spectrum corridors.


“Chloe,” Rush said, “wait a moment.”


“Sure.” Chloe neatly folded her problem set.


“Meet you later?” Eli stacked a messy pile of shredded notebook paper atop his laptop.


“Yup,” Chloe gave him a quick smile.


Eli left the room.


“Is this about the long range sensors?” Chloe tipped her chin up. “I’d’ve finished the recalibration if—”


“No,” Rush said. “It’s not about the long range sensors. Let me see your problem set.”


She unfolded her homework and smoothed it atop Rush’s textbook, then handed the paper to Rush. Neatly scripted problems covered the pages, their precision suggesting recopying, performed with great care.


Young turned off at the observation deck. The room was deserted. The streaming blue blur of FTL flickered over the benches that lined the space in front of the window.


“It isn’t cheating,” Rush said.


Chloe said nothing.


“It’s not,” he repeated.


“It is, a little bit.” She gave him an unhappy smile. “It’s okay.”


Young felt a wash of synchronized sympathy, nearly strong enough to trap them in a loop.


“I know that I didn’t earn a lot of what I have,” Chloe continued. “It was given to me. Or, actually, I don’t think they meant to give me anything. It was a side effect of what they did. I wasn’t born with these abilities. I didn’t build them through effort. I received them. Artificially.”


“I see,” Rush said.


“Do you?” she asked.


They regarded each other, hard and spare, eyes locked.


“Yeah,” Chloe softened. “I guess you do.”


“For this,” Rush lifted her problem set, “you paid a price. An unconventional price, granted, but a steep one.”


“Yes,” Chloe said, “but—”


“You took what they gave you, and you made it your own.” Rush spoke over her. “Moreover, you didn’t let them take it back from you. You’ve added to it. You’re adding to it now.”


Chloe looked away.


“Chloe,” Rush said. “It’s important you understand this.”


“Why?”


“Because,” he said, “you’re exceptionally talented. Not because of what they gave you, but because of the way that what they gave you blended with who you are. Alone, it’s nothing—but you’ve put it to tremendous use. I hope that—that you’ll continue to do so.”


“Of course I will.” She gave him a searching look. “Of course.”


“What I mean is, I hope that you’d continue regardless of circumstance. That—” Rush trailed off, weaving around the thousand things he couldn’t say. “You’d do very well in a mathematics graduate program. On Earth.”


She smiled, surprised and delighted. “You think so?”


“Yes,” Rush said.


“Good thing I’m here, then,” Chloe said. “I wouldn’t have a chance on Earth. A political science major? I’d never get in anywhere.”


“You would,” he said. “Y’absolutely would. But only if you—if you made the effort. That’s what I’m trying t’tell you. If you have the opportunity, make the effort.”


“Okay.” She gave him a small smile. “Thanks, Dr. Rush.”


He shrugged and handed her homework back to her.


“Um, just out of curiosity, does Eli also get your weird pep talks, or is it just—”


“I sincerely doubt graduate school could handle Eli. I’m only dragging him through this so he can make himself useful.”


“Liar.” Chloe grinned at him. She folded her math in half and tucked it back into the textbook.


“Off with you.” He waved an imperious hand.


Chloe stood. “Just out of curiosity, which one’s the best?”


“The best what?”


“The best graduate program,” Chloe said. “For math. Which one is the best?”


“UC Berkeley,” Rush replied. “Princeton’s all right, I suppose. Oxford. Cambridge. The UK, I mean. Stay the fuck out of Boston. Ugh.”


“Not a Harvard fan?” Chloe asked, smiling.


“Harvard’s the Air Force of academia. Militant, rabidly competitive window dressing that’s overly impressed with itself.”


“Hey.” Young grinned at the ribboned streamers of shield-light that swirled beyond the windows. “Watch it.”


//Are your ears burning?// Rush tipped the words into his mind like cup of honeyed tea.


“I went to ‘a school in Boston’,” Chloe said, with mischievous little smile.


“And do y’fuckin’ disagree?” Rush asked politely.


“Not really.” Chloe grinned and hugged her quantum textbook to her chest. “I’ll see you later.”


“Calibrate those long range sensors,” Rush called after her.


“Will do,” she said, as the doors swished shut.


Young stood. //You actually have a bit of a knack for teaching,// He headed for the door to the observation deck.


//It’s almost like I spent my entire career doing it.//


//That I can’t picture,// Young confessed.


//Yes well.// Rush curled his legs beneath him on the couch. //A decade ago I was a different person.//


//Maybe,// Young said gently.


//Is that a compliment or an insult?//


//Let’s call it a little of both. Did you eat dinner?// Young asked.


//Tamara forces me to consume at least three hundred calories every time she sees me.//


//Thanks for the fun fact. Did you eat dinner?//


//Yes yes. Are you coming back now?//


//Yeah,// Young replied, //almost there.//


//Good. We need t’discuss this tracking device.//


//Genius, you haven’t slept in two days and you just came out of the neural interface. You’re so exhausted you can barely project.//


//I know. It’s perfect.//


//Yeah.// Young ground all his irritation and misgiving and anxiety into the word. //You’re probably right.// He hit the door controls and walked in, already unzipping his jacket. “Hi,” he said, tossing it over the back of the nearest chair.


“Hi?” Rush, curled on the couch, twisted to eye him skeptically. “We’re fuckin’ mid-conversation.”


“Yeah, but—ugh, just hi, okay?”


“Hi,” Rush said pointedly.


“I found out a few things from Telford,” Young said, going straight for the tea. “Apparently this ship was named for a guy. A literal guy.”


“What?” Rush frowned.


“Yup,” Young scanned through TJ’s blends and pulled out Sleep Tea. “Bill Lee’s gonna translate the relevant part of the database, but I think this might be our guy. His name was—”


And out of goddamned nowhere, Daniel Jackson was six inches from his face. “Don’t,” the AI hissed, it’s expression terrifying, its blue eyes pure flame. Young flinched hard. He stepped laterally, reaching for his sidearm out of blind instinct.


Jackson backed away. It held its palms up, as though Young really had pulled a gun on it. “Don’t,” it said again. “Don’t say it out loud. Please. Colonel. Please just—don’t say it.”


“Telford said it.” Young’s heart pounded in his chest.


Rush was up and off the couch, one hand pressed to his head. “Everyone fuckin’ says it, if it’s the name of the ship,” he said, perplexed. “I’ve been lookin’ at the word since week two.”


“Destiny,” the AI repeated. “Destiny. The name of the ship is Destiny. You said it. In the beginning. That’s what you call it. That’s its name. Its name is Destiny.”


Young felt Rush mentally brace himself. And then, before he could stop the man—


“Sortes,” Rush said, looking dead at the AI.


Cur illi—” he whispers, one hand over his mouth. He steps forward, unsteady. How could anyone be steady when faced with this—with this—


He can’t tell what he’s looking at; they’ve been dead for too long. He grips his tissue-typing kit in both hands. His fingertips are numb.


Cantabant,” his partner gasps. “Sine disciplina. Sine duce. Convenerunt ad cantandum.”


Ita,” he breathes. Nothing has prepared him for this. Even during his training, he’d rarely seen death. He’d never seen decay. He didn’t know it could be like this, look like this, the loss of form, broken lines and angles, revealed bone. And the smell—


His knees buckle and he goes down next to something that will work. It might, it might be an arm? He’s not sure. He tries to look at it, but he can’t. He has to get used to this. He’ll be seeing more. Much more—


The AI came for the memory with a terrifying opacity that hit like a tidal wave. Rush took the brunt of it, the fire of his consciousness extinguished by the torrent of dark. Young’s vision faded, his own thoughts slowed, and, for the span of a few heartbeats he faced down a sensory void, terrifyingly complete.


The wave receded, and he had the room again—he could see, he could move, he could breathe, he could think—


“Shit,” he hissed, darting forward to catch Rush mid-fall. It wasn’t graceful, but it was enough to save the guy from concussing himself on the deck plates.


“Kid,” Young growled through clenched teeth. He eased Rush onto the floor. The scientist was out cold, his thoughts trying to spark themselves up without much energy.


“Sorry.” Jackson knelt across from Young and looked anxiously at Rush. “Sorry. I could feel it coming. I just—”


“You can’t pull this kind of shit,” Young growled, already loosening the collar and cuffs of Rush’s jacket. The scientist’s skin was pale and icy. “Do not do that again.”


The AI looked like it was about to cry. “Is he okay?”


“No,” Young hissed. “No, he is not, at all, okay.”


“I’m sorry,” the AI whispered.


Rush’s eyelids fluttered.


“Hey,” Young said. “Open those eyes, genius, c’mon.”


Rush cracked his eyelids and fixed Young with a glazed expression. He didn’t say anything.


“Hi,” Young said.


Rush nodded and tried to sit, still only semi-conscious.


“Nope.” Young pressed him back. “You stay flat until you convince me your brain is online.”


Rush made a small sound of inarticulate protest.


“Hi Nick,” the AI said softly. “Sorry.”


“What happened?” Rush murmured.


“You scared the hell out of the AI is what happened,” Young growled.


“Sorry, sweetheart,” Rush breathed.


Young shifted to the scientist’s feet and started unlacing his boots. “We gotta lay down some ground rules. No interference with his brain.” He gave the AI a dark look. “And you,” he fixed Rush with a steely glare, “never do that again.”


“What’m I meant to’ve done?” Rush slurred, still deathly pale.


“Shit if I know.” Young pulled the man’s boots off. “Right now? Everyone is gonna relax. For twenty damn minutes. At least. Everyone is going to drink tea, take Tylenol, and damn well lie there while I figure all of this out.”


You’re going to figure it out?” Rush asked vaguely.


“Yes,” Young growled. “I’ll take god damned notes if I have to. Do either of you remember the flashback you just had?”


“Yes,” the AI whispered.


“A sense of it,” Rush said weakly, his eyes closed. “They’d gathered to die. To sing the Cantascendis, it was all they could do. I came later. Weeks later. To identify the dead. To track viral genetics—I don’t know. I don’t remember.”


Young and the AI looked uneasily at one another.


“He,” Young said. “He came weeks later.”


“Who did?” Rush breathed.


“Hey.” Young threaded a hand behind Rush’s neck and snapped his fingers in front of the scientist’s mostly closed eyelids. “Eyes right here.”


Rush focused on him.


“Name,” Young said. “Tell me your name.”


“Nicholas Rush.”


Young released a shaky breath. “Do not,” he growled, “do that again.”


“Do what?” Rush breathed, confused.


Young glared at him. Slowly, he pulled the scientist into a seated position, drew the man’s arm across his shoulders, and dead-lifted him off the deck plates. “You get ready for bed, and, if you can do that without passing out, we’ll discuss this tracking device. Otherwise? You’re spending the night in the infirmary.”


“Ugh.” Rush, affronted, struggled out of Young’s grip. “Don’ fuckin’ do that.”


“Don’t pass out, then.”


“I’ve told you. It’s a hydraulics issue.”


“Do I look like I’m buying that?” Young followed the guy to the bedroom. “Have I ever looked like I’m buying it?”


Rush glared at him, and the door to the bathroom slid shut in Young’s face.


Young sighed, did his best to let up on the tooth cracking tension in his jaw. He spun to face the AI. “And you,” he growled—


But the AI had vanished.


“Thanks a lot,” Young hissed into the empty air.




Twenty minutes later, Rush was in bed with double-brewed Sleep Tea and Tylenol.


“I’m gonna help you with your bullshit plan,” Young growled.


Rush quirked an exhausted eyebrow at him.


“Finding the tracking device,” Young clarified. “I’m gonna help you pull it out of your head without destroying your mind.”


“It seems it might require as much?”


“Nope,” Young said. “That? I do not wanna hear. A smart man would say ‘thank you’.”


“Thank you,” Rush said, amused and acidic and finishing the dregs of his tea.


“In return, I want a few things,” Young said.


“Ah. So this is a negotiation?”


“Yup. I know you wanna work with Telford. Use his damned Tok’ra device. You’re not doing that. I’ll accept any other plan you propose.”


“Is the issue Telford? Or the device?” Rush asked.


“Both. Young said. “You come up with something that doesn’t involve Telford and doesn’t involve the device and we’ll hash it out.”


Rush pressed his fingertips to his temple. “The setting in which these memories appear limits our options to plans you won’t like. That’s why I want to work with Telford. He’s a bit more—ah, shall we say, utilitarian than you are?”


Young rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Utilitarian. That’s a nice way of putting it. Look, I know I’m not gonna like your damned plan, genius. I’m telling you I’ll do it anyway.”


Rush arched a skeptical brow. “I’ll need to profoundly exhaust myself. These are subconscious memories. They surface under duress. I don’t fully experience them when they occur, depending on my mental state at the time. You’ll likely need to piece the location of the tracking device together.”


“There’s maybe one more option you haven’t considered,” Young said reluctantly. “Your starship memories—they surface in your dreams.”


“Do they now,” Rush said, smiling faintly. “Can you direct my dreams?”


Young raised his eyebrows. “Never tried it.”


“Why not? I influence your dreams all the time.”


“Seriously?” Young wasn’t sure if he should be disturbed or intrigued. “What do you, uh, get up to?”


Rush’s grin got away from him. “Mostly I prevent nightmares. They’re distracting.”


“Ah. Yeah, I do that too.”


The scientist rolled his eyes. “Then you do direct my dreams.”


“Eh,” Young said, “I wouldn’t put it that way—it’s more—structural.”


“Structural?” Rush furrowed his brow. “How d’you mean?”


“Hell if I know, genius; I can see your dreams, sure, but I don’t get in there and manipulate what happens. It’s more heavy-handed than that. You get trapped in REM sometimes. A lot of times. I break up that architecture and shove you deeper. That’s mostly what I do.”


“Fascinating,” Rush murmured. “Could y’build a REM-like structure, do you think?”


“Ugh,” Young said. “Maybe. Sounds dangerous.”


“More dangerous than the Tok’ra device?” Rush asked, syrup-sweet.


“If I build something like that—don’t you think there’s at least some chance we get locked in?”


“It’s a concern,” Rush said lightly, “but a few risk-mitigation strategies immediately occur: one, you may be able to build me into it while remaining outside it yourself; two, if that’s not possible, we may be able to set it up within a sync-loop; three, it’s possible I might be able to learn to trap myself in REM, in which case you’d be on the outside, well-positioned for architectural rescue.”


Young sighed. “Any ideas besides the dream thing?”


“I could sleep-deprive myself and wait for spontaneous flashbacks,” Rush said. “I could stop taking the antivirals and court a fever. You could commandeer Telford’s recall device and you and I could see how far we get. I could experiment with psychoactive compounds in an attempt to loosen my cognitive control. I could ask Tamara to backward-engineer the tick venom that—”


“Okay okay; take it easy over there. I’ll build you your damned REM prison. Or, I’ll try, at least. But when we’ve found this thing, I want something in return.”


Rush sighed. “What you’ll have in return is the ability fly away from the fuckin’ Nakai.”


“You’re gonna take orders. For a week.”


“I take your orders every day.”


“No you don’t. Because I don’t give you any.”


Rush bit down on a smile. “I had noticed that.”


“Took you long enough,” Young growled.

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