Force over Distance: Chapter 60
“I am a Cartesian demon, but I’m a nice one.”
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Intense boundary violations.
Text iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Theoretical.
Additional notes: None
Beyond the windows, date palms stand in dark silhouette against a pale sky. Gray and yellow birds sing in a garden of salvia and rock rose.
“God damn.” Young, sitting at the kitchen island, runs a finger across the smooth soapstone countertop. “Is this actually working?”
“Is what actually working?” Rush’s crisp white shirt collects the early morning light. His jeans are darkwashed and his feet are bare. His hair, too short, grows out of a not-so-recent cut.
“You’re dreaming, genius.”
Rush pulls a knife from a magnetized strip on the wall, gathers a handful of chives, and brings them into perfect alignment before he starts slicing. “Seems vanishingly unlikely.” Each pass of the blade is economical and sure.
Young doesn’t know what to say. If only he’d watched the movie TJ’d brought by; the one about dreams. It might’ve had some tips. “‘Vanishingly unlikely’? Really?”
Rush appraises him over the rims of his glasses, math-professoring the hell out of surreality. “I very much doubt I dream of you?”
“Oh, don’t be insulted.” One-handed, Rush cracks an egg into a bowl like he’s a the frontrunner on a cooking show for erudite assholes. “Y’really want to discuss it? Are you familiar with the concept of methodic doubt?”
“No, I don’t want to ‘discuss’ it.” Young watches him crack three more eggs in quick succession. “I want you to take it at face value.” The rising sun creeps along the far wall of the kitchen.
“Hmm.” Adroitly, Rush pulls a fork from a drawer at his hip and starts beating the eggs. “Bit of an inversion from your typical pop-philosophy setup, where a Cartesian demon creates a dream to trap the dreamer, and the dreamer, through application of methodic doubt, breaks free. Or, at least, free enough. Not sure what I’m supposed to make of a supposedly forthright demon spreading a dark message about an otherwise unobjectionable world.”
“Pop-philosophy?” Young sighs. “A ‘Cartesian demon’? You serious right now? You’re asleep.”
“So you say. But, put another way? This is extremely civilized.” Rush makes a casual circle with one hand, taking in the kitchen, the windows, the garden beyond. The edge of his sleeve catches a ray of sunlight. “And my dreams are bloody terrible.”
“Yeah, I know, genius.” He can’t keep the sympathy out of his voice.
Rush studies the array of unchopped vegetables awaiting him on the counter, like he doubts their origins. Zucchini. Mushrooms. Onion. “My therapist says people with good dreams can’t be trusted.”
“You have a therapist?” Young asks, thrown for a loop.
“No, but I did invent one so I could converse with Gloria’s friends.” Rush picks up the onion and studies it.
The onion is goddamned perfect and definitely not gonna help Young’s case. “Hey,” he says, “can I have a beer?”
Rush looks up at him, full of disapproval. “It’s fuckin’ dawn.”
“No it’s not,” Young says. “It’s five o’clock.”
Rush’s expression loses some of its judgmental superiority.
“It’s five o’clock.” Young leans into the idea. “I just got out of work, you just got out of work. You invited me over to, uh, debate the nature of reality?” As he speaks, the light changes walls and puts gold glints in the frames of Rush’s glasses. “You just finished a long day of, uh, math. I, well, I guess I flew some planes?”
And despite the shitty transparency of what’s coming out of his mouth, the subtle shifts continue around them. A well-worn messenger bag appears on the end of the counter. Rush’s shirt turns a little less crisp. Young’s own uniform alters into something resembling the dark jacket worn by commercial airline pilots. There’s cheap gold braid at his cuffs. He’s wearing a white shirt and a black tie. There’s a service cap next to him on the counter.
He does his best not to laugh. He doesn’t want to mess with his chief scientist; Rush didn’t ask for any of this, it was Young himself who’d said he “flew some planes,” but, god damn, does the guy not understand even the first thing about the Air Force? He clears his throat. “So, uh, if you’re gonna get metaphysical, I’ll be needing that beer you promised me.”
“Yes well.” Rush opens the fridge. “Seems only fair.” He retrieves a bottle, pulls a magnetized bottle opener off the fridge and levers the cap off in the same way he chambers a round. Precise. Economical. With an energetic edge Young longs to file down. He hands Young a bottle of amber glass, correctly proportioned, with a faint sheen of condensation that slicks his fingers.
That’s about as far as the accuracy goes. The already-damp label is a creative mashup of about six different shitty American beers.
Young clenches his jaw and, very heroically, holds a straight face. “BudCoorsona Lite Blue Ribbon, huh?”
Rush starts to roll his eyes, but restrains himself. “Don’t pretend to have standards. It doesn’t suit you.”
Young snorts and ducks his head before his expression gives too much away.
Deftly, Rush works a corkscrew into a wine bottle.
With more than a little delight, Young cautiously takes a sip of BudCoorsona Lite Blue Ribbon. It tastes like a combination of bread, piss, and sugar. He chokes it down, then bursts out laughing.
“Oh what.” Rush shoots him a withering look.
“You ever had a beer in your life, genius?” Young tries to stifle his laughter. “Oh my god. Of course that’s what you think beer tastes like.”
Rush pulls the cork on his wine bottle and frowns at Young. “What does my opinion on ‘what beer tastes like,’ whatever the fuck that means, have to do with the taste of that beer?” Rush points at the monstrosity in Young’s hand.
“You created this,” Young fires back, grinning.
“Bit more credit than you usually give me.” Rush pours the wine without looking at the bottle or the glass; his focus is on Young. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” There’s a note of instinctive apology in his voice. He hooks his boot heels over the rung of the stool he’s sitting on and regrounds himself. “Sorry. Long day at the ranch. I’m just getting the hang of this.”
“The hang of what?”
“Being a Cartesian demon in a dream world, I guess.”
For some reason, this answer unsettles Rush. There’s a sea change in the tenor of his thoughts, and the glassy gold wind he’d run all day silvers and slows, drawing in on itself. Rush puts down his wine. He swipes a hand through his hair, then braces himself against the edge of the countertop. He doesn’t say anything.
Young has the overpowering desire to give the guy a hug. He doesn’t, though. He keeps his seat and asks, “How long is your memory?”
“Explain your question, please?” Rush’s tone is meticulously polite.
“Do you remember the dawn?” Young clarifies gently. “We talked about methodic doubt?”
Through their link, he feels Rush’s thoughts edge themselves up with unease. He stays silent.
“I am a Cartesian demon, but I’m a nice one.” Young projects a delicate tendril of calm. “You’re dreaming; I’m not.” Deliberately, Young paints a picture. “You’re telling me what you know. Showing me the lay of the land. I’ve never done this before. You have all the control, all the context. But I have all the insight.”
This doesn’t have the intended effect.
Rush’s stance shifts from flight to fight. He centers his weight. He tenses his fingers against the soapstone countertop. “This won’t work on me. Don’t attempt it.”
“Genius, come on. It really is me. We gotta team up. We’re looking for old memories. They live in the place where your mind fuses to the CPU of a starship.”
“Best of fuckin’ luck,” Rush whispers. “As a rule, I don’t compromise systems, even in my sleep.”
With a wave of intense misgiving, Young formulates a plan. “Dial it back a notch, hotshot. I’m not asking you to compromise anything.” He keeps his tone light, his body language open. “This is your plan.”
Rush watches him edgily.
“What about a memory I’ve already seen?” Young asks. “Nothing compromising about that, right? If I’ve already seen it? If I describe it to you? It had to’ve come from when the ship was new, because the wall paneling shone silver, like Atlantis does. The light was different. Brighter. More complicated. Like it came from a real star.” He presses the images into Rush’s mind, and the world morphs. Everything he describes fluxes into place around them.
Rush flinches, startled at the loss of the counter, the shift of space and time and mind. His breathing loses its depth and cadence. He shivers, barefoot on silver floors, and edges closer to Young.
Young has the overpowering urge to put a violent end to anyone or anything that so much as inconveniences the guy for the rest of his life. “Hey. Genius. This is a dream.”
“I’m not sure that’s true.” The corridor lights flicker from silver to an eerie, bluish hue.
“It’s definitely true. You’re doing great.” He puts an arm around Rush’s shoulders. “This is Destiny. Just—new. That’s perfect.” He couples his words with a wave of calm, hoping to take the edge off Rush’s unease.
In this unstable world of silver-gilt shadow, projection works alarmingly well.
The tension drains out of Rush’s frame. The flickering lights stabilize. The scientist steps away from Young side. His body language and the turn of his thoughts shift from anxiety to curiosity in the span of a few heartbeats. He walks over to the nearest wall and places three fingertips against the paneling. “It’s resonating,” he says, “just below and just above the range of human hearing.”
Young’s unease skyrockets, but he bricks it out of the link. “Uh, okay. That mean anything to you?”
“It’s always like that,” Rush says absently. He cocks his head, looks down the length of the corridor, and starts forward, like he’s following something.
They walk the long hallway, illuminated with a silver-white glow that coaxes shimmer from the metallic paneling. The grating at the bases of the walls is wrapped in hydroponic greenery. Here and there, a respectful tendril climbs the edge of a panel. They pass open alcoves, crystal-lit in every color of the visible spectrum. Ahead, always just out of sight, someone leads them through corridors that have begun to curve. Rush picks up his pace.
Young brings up their six, glancing behind, where walls vanish into a strange, amorphous mist as they pass beyond Rush’s awareness.
“Sequere,” the voice of Samantha Carter calls.
It’s not the first time he’s seen her in Rush’s head.
“Genius.” He draws even with Rush. “Any idea why your brain keeps casting Carter in these memories?”
“Memories?” Rush echoes.
“Fine. Dream. Whatever you wanna call it.”
“Dream?” Rush goes full math professor and gives Young a disappointed look over the tops of his glasses. “I highly doubt this is a dream.”
“God damn it,” Young whispers, as Rush pulls ahead.
“Fabrice.” Rush catches Carter’s arm and pulls her to a stop. “Non curo quam formosum hic locum facias—numquam id quod fecisti probabunt.”
“Dicis.” Carter’s water-blue eyes shimmer in the silver light. “Numquam approbabis. Hoc est finis. Finem fecimus.”
“Credere debere mihi est nos posse hoc convertere.”
“Te exspecto cognosco erras.” Carter’s voice is tight with distress.
“Hi.” Young steps to Rush’s shoulder. “Any chance you guys might speak English?”
They stare at him.
“So, we’re looking for a Nakai tracking device.” Young keeps his eyes on Carter. “Any idea where we might find something like that?”
“Terrible idea,” Rush whispers. “Don’t look for it.”
The lights flicker.
“They had to have placed it sometime after launch.” Young cautiously presses the point.
The corridor tracklights take on a bluish cast.
Carter’s eyes ice over. Her posture closes in on itself. She eyes Rush with a predatory stare.
Young steps between them. “Tracking device.” He keeps his voice as business-like as possible.“There’s a tracking device somewhere on this ship. Tell me where.”
Carter gives him a coy little smile. Her skin picks up the blue cast of the overhead lights. “You want to know where the tracking device is?” She steps closer.
“Yup,” Young holds his ground, keeping himself between her and Rush.
“We always put it in the same place.” She steps closer.
“And where is that?” Young asks.
“The heart,” Carter says, sugar sweet, her blue eyes wide and earnest.
He stares her down, waiting for more.
She drives her hand into Young’s chest. He hears his sternum crack, feels the splintering of bone. Her fingers reach and wrap and lift—
“Rush.” Young chokes on the guy’s name. “Get us out of here.”
Carter grabs Young’s jaw. Steely fingers clamp his mouth shut. “It goes in the same place. In every living thing. Every time. You don’t have to look for it.” Her eyes have gone opaque, like the eyes of an insect. He can’t tell if her voice is in the air or in his mind.
He can’t breathe. He has no leverage to move. He wonders if Rush’s mind can kill him.
As soon as he has the thought, he’s sure it can.
He tries to project calm, but finds nothing but panic and pain in his mind. He reaches back behind him, fingers spread wide, towards the only lifeline he can think of.
Rush takes his hand.
The scientist’s fingers are icy. But he hauls Young back, hard enough to pull him away from Carter and into a room, bright and sterile. They land on a floor, covered with water, flowing from a cracked observation tank. Gasping, Young presses a hand to his chest. His skin is intact, the bone feels solid, but god it aches, deep and hot in his otherwise frigid body. He’s soaked. He’s wearing a skin-tight alien suit, molded to his skin. Rush is next to him, his lips tinged with blue.
“Hey,” Young rasps over the memory of Sam Carter’s hand in his chest. “Genius. Listen up. This is a nightmare.”
“Fuck off.” Rush trembles with cold. He’s staring at a dead alien on the floor in front of him.
“Think of UC Berkeley.” The floor is a sheet of metallic ice beneath his knees. His chest aches each time he pulls in a breath.
“I’ll do no such thing,” Rush hisses. “Get out of my head.”
In the hallway, Young hears the approach of the Nakai, like an asynchronous beating of wings. Panicking, knowing just how bad this is about to turn, he grabs Rush by the shoulders, pries open his mind, and pours California sunlight into his thoughts and into the world itself. “Your office,” he whispers. “I bet it’s a real goddamned mess. Papers everywhere. And not even regular papers. Torn up, miniature scraps. Things you carried in your pocket for days before you taped them to a wall.” He projects a landslide of panic-laced calm and Rush’s mind buckles and shifts, taking the alien ship with it.
Profoundly disoriented, Rush flinches at the shift in the fabric of the world.
Young falls out of his crouch. He pulls Rush with him and they hits the side of the scientist’s desk in a tangle of uncoordinated limbs. Already the room erodes at its edges, revealing Nakai underpinnings. Distantly, he hears Chloe Armstrong, sobbing with fear or pain or both.
“It’s okay.” Young puts his back against the side of Rush’s desk and pulls the scientist into his arms. “You’re fine. Everything’s fine. Everyone’s fine.” He can feel the man shaking with adrenaline, with the cold of the memory his unconscious can’t release. “This is your office. We’re in California. Everything’s fine. Set theory.” He’s panicking, pulling concepts from Rush’s thoughts, from buried places in his own mind, trying to stop the clean, white room from deteriorating. “Information theory. The intersection of Shannon entropy and cryptography. Midterms. Faculty meetings. That guy who keeps bugging you about Leibnitz. NSF grants.”
The drywall and paint seal themselves to completion, blocking the blue light at the edges of the room.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. That was my fault.” He does his best to project calm into the scientist’s thoughts, but it won’t come; he can’t separate it from the feeling of an alien hand in his chest, wrapped around his heart.
Across the link, Rush locks himself down, projecting nothing, saying nothing, cyphering himself closed.
Young is positive that this disorientation, this shift of landscape, this lack of memory, of continuity—must suggest nothing so much as psychic torture.
“I am really sorry,” Young shifts, detangling himself from Rush, who isn’t moving. At all.
Nothing but translucent veneer comes through their link. A frozen wind, lined with glass, crackable as shell. He tries to pull the scientist into a hug. Rush doesn’t fight him. But he doesn’t lose even a fraction of his tension.
“Damn it,” Young whispers, trying to think of anything but Carter’s hand around his heart and doing a miserable job. “You’re okay. You’re dreaming.”
“I doubt it.” The scientist’s voice is thick with tears.
“Yeah,” Young says softly. “You know what? Sorry. Sorry, you’re right. You usually are.” He strokes the man’s hair. “I don’t know why I thought this was gonna be better than the Tok’ra device.” San Francisco sun streams through the windows. “Guess I thought you’d be a little more in the game.”
“In what game?” Rush asks, bewildered.
“Well exactly,” Young whispers.
He sits on the floor of a UC Berkeley office, trying to forget the malice on Sam Carter’s face, doing his best to soothe the traumatized bundle of nerves in his lap. Rush holds himself rigidly, more locked down in this dream landscape than Young has ever seen him, except for the time he’d come out of the neural interface chair after the Nakai foothold. When Young had been trying to break into his mind.
This whole plan was shit. What they needed was a hairpin. Rush was such a mass of triggers and had so much power over the environment that this bullshit dream excavation was going to be nothing but pure torture. Young needed the ability to direct the environment. And he needed to understand Ancient.
“We’re gonna give you a minute,” Young whispers. He lets his gaze wander over the whiteboard. The math on the walls. When he’s sure he can project calm with no terror attached, he brushes a tendril of his presence through their link, against and through the frozen wind of Rush’s thoughts.
Rush shudders as his eggshell resistance snaps.
Young pours reassurance into the man’s undefended consciousness. “See? Just me.”
The scientist’s mind unlocks. The gold wind of his thoughts sparks itself to life with the momentum of projected calm. His tension thaws and flows away like spring runoff. He melts into Young’s hold, optimizing a thousand charming topologies like only a mathematician can, fitting himself to the available space like someone made it for him.
Because someone did.
“So,” Young whispers conversationally into his hair, “I would definitely destroy at least one civilization for you. Maybe two. Three would be pushing it.”
“Can’t say I condone that stance.” Rush presses his cheek against Young’s collar bone.
“Yeah yeah. Gonna lecture me on the ‘greater good’?”
“Maybe later,” Rush whispers.
“Well, speaking of the greater good, I’m gonna make a unilateral decision.”
“Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Idly, Rush traces the lapel of Young’s ridiculous pilot outfit.
“Uh huh.” Young projects a wave of compliance-laced calm across their link. “You don’t need to worry about anything right now. Close your eyes. Block the room.”
Rush lays a hand on Young’s chest, in the exact spot where Carter had reached in and split his breastbone. Young feels something happen; some flow of power, brief and wholesome. But, before he can ask about it, the schematic of their link fires up, vast and spectacular and dream-spangled with color and light.
An ethereal chorus of alien crystal fills the upper and lower registers, bracketing human hearing. Young tips them into the dark and grounded topography of his own end of the link. Light and song lens into joint physicality.
Young focuses on what he wants—the reins of the man’s consciousness. He feels the flare of tension in Rush’s muscles as though it’s his own, an instinctive response to a foreign pressure that runs along circuitry that isn’t meant to be shared.
And it won’t be.
Already using the pathways he’s coopting, he shapes the man’s consciousness, blending their awareness. The scientist’s mind settles beneath him like a well-trained horse on an open trail: bridled, powerful, and one hell of a ride.
He opens his eyes. He sits alone, on the floor of Rush’s office.
“Hmm,” he says, studying his right hand, flexing his fingers. He’s not sure how much he likes that horse metaphor. It strikes him as offensive. Exogenous. This experience, though, is absolutely first fuckin’ rate. Less of a ‘horse’ situation and more of an horsepower situation, by which he means metric fucktons of Watts—kilogram meters squared per second per second per second.
This isn’t quite what he expected.
There’s a bit too much of Rush in the mix, isn’t there? Or—scratch that. There isn’t too much Rush. It’d be bloody difficult to have ‘too much’ Rush for a situation like this. He’s still himself.
“Don’ fuckin’ tell me I’m some kind of combination.” He scrambles to his feet, one hand on the desk for support. He’s in Rush’s body and he can feel the scientist’s unconscious mind humming beneath him—still separate. There’s nothing integrated, nothing that might need to be torn apart; they remain distinct.
The correct metaphor, when it strikes him, is distinctly his own. Wedge yourself into someone’s steel-cast boots and it’ll be your own feet that give.
He crosses to the nearest window and drags the world to night. He looks at his reflection in the glass. “You can fix this, correct? You have before.” He flexes his hands, quick and lithe. His mind moves like wind-whipped mercury, shredding slower pathways.
He decides it doesn’t matter whether the situation is fixable. It’s already in place. Might as well make the most of it.
He sweeps his cluttered office aside and strides into—
A rooftop bar. Even millennia ago and a universe away, some principles don’t change. Idea exchange and hydration. Even insects do such things. The sky is a dome of matte sapphire enclosing a sea of a deep blue. Everything’s the right shade. The sun is warm and strong and falls like it does on the western Mediterranean.
This is Earth. He can tell by the smell of the wind, the temperature contrast between the cool breeze and the warm light.
The diners on the sunlit patio are dressed in the colors of sea foam, salt, and sand.
Fabrice, sitting alone, manipulates holographic catenaries that glow and chime and ignore the wind. As his shadow crosses their usual table, the inventor looks up, in-eye contracts turning a deeper shade of blue to block the glare of the day. “How’s Retia?”
“Better, thanks.” Young takes a seat, and the dream drives itself. “It was nothing. Just a summer virus. I wasn’t worried.”
Fabrice gives him a skeptical look.
“Fine,” he admits, “but it wasn’t a rational worry. I spent five weeks in quarantine after the trip to Aurea. There’s no chance I brought anything back.”
“We know the incubation period then?” Fabrice’s tone is skeptical.
He ducks a true answer. “My genome was sequenced five times. There was nothing emergent.” The sun shines off the water and off the nearest silver spire. He shifts his chair to cut the glare. “What are you working on?”
Fabrice folds away the strands of light. “Nothing.”
“Messing around with the fabric of existence is out of style this season.”
“It’d be bad to split the universe, right?” Fabrice grins, cat-like.
“Yes.” He calls up a delicate menu, difficult to read against the bright day. “Very bad.”
“The thing is, you’d only have to do it the one time,” Fabrice says, still grinning. “Across every brane. Just one. We’re so close I can guarantee we’ve done it somewhere.”
“Do you know,” he says, his eyes on the menu, “how difficult it is to order a cocktail from a detention cell?”
“You’d bring me one, here and there, for old times sake, right?” There’s a wistful note in Fabrice’s voice.
“I would not. I will be. So mad at you. If you destroy all creation.”
Fabrice scoffs, then taps the most elaborate, pain-in-the-ass drink on the menu. “I won’t ‘destroy all creation’.”
He sighs. “Can we not talk about this? How’s your ship?”
“Orbiting Neptune, still looking for an unimpeachable candidate to anchor against alignment drift.”
He selects a wine from from the nearby continent and banishes the menu. “Who’s on your short list?”
“No one.” Fabrice is motionless in the sea breeze.
“They won’t let you do it without a second person.”
“You mean you. You won’t let me do it without a second person. Stars below, you’re stubborn.”
“Always have been. Always will be. You were the one who put me up for the Council.”
“What would it take?” Fabrice speaks softly.
He can feel the horrible depth of the question. How deadly serious it is. He thinks of the dead he’d seen in Aurea. The schools, the labs, the hospitals—all turned to charnel houses. “To let you do it alone?”
“Either that,” Fabrice says softly, “or, to convince you to come with me.”
“Are you asking what I think you’re asking?” He hears the dread in his own voice.
“No.” Fabrice’s eyes, behind tinted contacts, are the same blue as the sea and sky. “I know you have a family. I’m not literally asking you to anchor against alignment drift. I have no intention of asking it of you. But—you’ve changed. After what you’ve seen. I thought you might be less inclined to hold your line so hard.”
He stares at his wine, dark in its glass, and resolutely does not think of Aurea. A city of people. The dead. The ascended. It’d been so quiet. In the end, there’d been nothing to hear. “What would it take to sacrifice your mind to a machine?” He traces the rim of his wineglass. “To court anathema? Despair, I think. The loss of my family. The loss of all hope.”
Fabrice wraps slender fingers around his wrist. “That day may come.”
“I know that,” he admits.
Fabrice hesitates, still holding his wrist. “The song of your crystal has changed.”
His throat closes. “Ganos said the same thing. She was afraid I was infected.”
“No,” Fabrice looks into his eyes, listening. “But I can see why she thought so. You’re lifted. What’s your number?”
“Twenty-five,” he admits.
“Twenty-five? You’ve never been more than a twenty in your life.”
“It’s not—” the words are hard to find. “It’s no victory,” he whispers.
Their drinks arrive on an autonomous, floating platter that surfs the irregular sea breeze. He takes his wine and hands Fabrice the ridiculous spectrum cocktail that spans the range of visible light and turns clear at its edges.
“How do you mean?” Fabrice asks.
“I’ve trained myself to hear the dying. That’s all.” Even though every one of his colleagues has done the same, still the words come with difficulty. He feels strange sharing this. The practice isn’t widely known. “It’s,” he swallows. “It’s a kind of triage.”
“Sortes,” Fabrice whispers. “you can hear success and failure?”
He can’t speak.
What a word to choose. It’ll never pass his lips. He looks out at the sea. He was born after the First Exodus. He doesn’t recall the cast of the light on Altera. He’s never seen the Plains Ventorum, where the wind moves through the grass like the tide. He adores this blue jewel of a planet. Its warm little star. Its mists and its rains. Its ices and storms. Its gold days and its silver nights. He’d chosen an ordinary life. To have a child. To raise it. To live for living’s sake.
So had a lot of other failures.
“I can hear ascension,” he admits. “And I can hear death.”
“Sorry,” Fabrice says, chastened. “Of course. That’s what I meant. You know me. I’m better with numbers than with words.”
A pounding echoes through the world. Loud and insistent and waking him.
Gasping, disoriented, he opened his eyes and tried to remember who the fuck he was. Sortes. Nick Rush. Shit. No. Nick Rush was asleep in front of him. Everett Young. He was Everett fucking Young and he was sitting cross-legged on his own bed, one hand on his chest like a fucking lady with fucking vapors in one of Chloe’s period dramas. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” he hissed.
Rush stirred on the bed, sleep blurred and fighting for consciousness. The knocking came again, louder this time, and the scientist levered himself into a state of true awareness. He tried to sit.
“Ah fuck.” Young whispered, shoving him down as he adroitly climbed over him. “Stay there. Don’t talk. Don’t move.”
“Did y’jus’ say ‘don’t talk’?” Rush slurred.
Young crossed the room and threw open the door. “What?”
It was Bill Lee, caught mid-knock. He stared at Young, astonished. “Colonel. Hi. You have really good hair.”
“Sorry, I have no filter when I’m surprised. I, uh, brought some stuff for you?”
“Some ‘stuff’?” Young said, unimpressed. “And what ‘stuff’ would that be?”
“Reports? On everything we found in the database? Council of Ten? Builder of Destiny? The guy who gave his name to the ship? Not much on him; I think Colonel Telford might’ve mentioned that?”
“It’s about time.” Young swiped the datapad out of Lee’s hand. “Keep working.” He hit the door controls.
The closing doors cut off whatever Lee might have said.
He strode back across the room, already scanning the datapad. It was surprisingly organized. But fuck he hated just reading these things. He needed some kind of time axis, at a minimum. The order of events wasn’t linear; he needed the ability to rearrange all he’d seen on some kind of continuum. He crossed the room, grabbed a blank notebook out of Rush’s stash and tore out page after page.
The bedside light clicked on. Rush propped himself on an elbow and gave Young a perplexed, sleep-rumpled look that was, confusingly, both very cute and deeply annoying. “What are you doing?”
“I’m doing exactly what you asked.” Young crossed the room, already projecting reassurance. “Making good progress.”
“Really?” Rush slid his glasses into place and frowned at Young. “Your mind feels—disorganized.”
Young sat down next to him on the edge of the bed and pulled the guy’s glasses right back off. “Don’t worry about me.” He pressed a hand to Rush’s temple. “Go back to sleep.”
“I—” was all Rush had time to say.
In one smooth, mental shoulder throw, using a combination of drag, relaxation, and pressure Young remounted Rush’s consciousness and drove deeper. Later. Toward a latent memory of the last days before the Second Exodus, when the waxing moon shone on the water and the plague came to Atlantis.