Force over Distance: Chapter 62

“Daniel was so kind to me.” The AI wiped its eyes. “I thought that meant I was good.”




Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Extra boundary violations. Flagrant disregard for bodily autonomy and personal agency.

Text iteration: Midnight.

Additional notes: None.




Chapter 62


Shreds of seas clung to Young’s mind upon waking. Sunfall on the western Mediterranean; a misted dawn on the Firth of Clyde; the starred and endless depths of space. Thoughts came slow and hard, like running air through a CO2 scrubber choked with lime and carbonate. He looked at his watch and tried to make sense of the time.


1930.


1930?


The numbers hung in a void, stripped of context, as the seconds ticked by.


He focused on the time-tarnished walls, on the vibration of a distant quantum engine. On his nightstand was an untouched silver package, backed by two bottles of electrolytes.


He was alone.


“What?” he whispered.


He pushed off the too-thin mattress, his joints complaining. He’d fallen asleep at 0530. He figured he’d be out for something like four hours. At most. Instead, he’d been down for fourteen? He hadn’t woken once?


He’d never slept so long.


“Damn it.” He dragged a bottle of electrolytes off the nightstand, cracked the cap, and took a swig. He shut his eyes, opened the link, and looked for Rush.


The scientist sat in the control interface room, his head full of harmonizing melodies and his thoughts nothing but fresh-blown glass, running hot and fragile as hell. The man was only peripherally aware of his surroundings, where a ghostly debate between Volker and Eli happened far away, in a language he couldn’t understand.


Young took another swig of electrolytes and ran a hand through his unruly hair. He was gonna go get the guy, and he was gonna fix this. Somehow. He was gonna do it without escalating the situation, which was already teetering out of control. Furthermore, he was gonna do it without yelling at the idiotno. Nope. Without yelling at his chief scientist.


Whom he liked.


And respected.


Yup.


Young tossed the covers aside and downed half the bottle of electrolytes. He pulled his crumpled jacket off the floor, then searched out his boots and belt. He took a breath to steady himself before easing back into the flow of Rush’s consciousness.


//Pack it in, genius. We need to talk.//


The shock of Young’s projection nearly unseated Rush. The guy grabbed the console in front of him as the tail end of Volker’s sentence phased into something understandable: “—want to know where we got it.”


“What?” Rush breathed, disoriented.


“Why are you even here, man?” Volker blurred to the foreground of the scientist’s awareness.


“What?” Rush asked.


“Hi. Okay. How about this?” Eli spoke slowly. “We’ll fix that corridor for you. Sure thing. No problem. We’ll take care of it tomorrow. Morning, even. But, in return, you leave right now and go tell the colonel where we got the raw material to create the patch. Then maybe, uh, take a nap?”


Young hit the door controls and stepped into the corridor. //Sounds like a plan to me. What patch?//


In Rush’s waking vision, the walls of the ship were airbrushed silver, lined with pale green vines, crystal-lit and climbing. He feels the presence of a foreign element; bending the spectrum of the ship’s native song. He turns, his hand on the console, tethered to a physicality that isn’t real. They won’t see his projection, but all the same, he can’t hide from them, he can’t hide at all; he’s a starship and they’re already inside.


“Rush, you okay?” Volker asked.


Jackson’s silhouette materialized in the scientist's peripheral vision. “I don’t like this,” the AI whispered. The world doubled in a dark/light overlay while the Science Team, an Air Force colonel, a starship, and half-buried memories all vied for Nick Rush’s attention.


Young picked up his pace through the ship’s empty corridors.


Incredibly, in a sea of noise and overlaid image, where no orientation was possible, Rush held himself steady. The scientist turned and made for the door.


“Soooo,” Eli called after him, “is that a, ‘yes, Eli, I will tell Colonel Young I let Chloe and Brody demolecularize a bunch of alien corpses and turn them into household items’? You’re not gonna answer? You’re just gonna walk out?”


They lack the subtype of crystal that triggers constraint protocols. He can trap them. He can kill them. He can vent them to space. But he doesn’t want to.


“Rebar isn’t a ‘household item’,” Brody said, at great remove.


“I did make a dress,” Chloe confessed, ghost-like.


“Ew,” Volker said.


“Proof of concept,” Chloe’s ghost replied.


What does it matter if they destroy him? What does it matter if they shut him down, strip the ship, peel the paneling off of the walls, take the crystal and the naquadah?


Young tried to free Rush from the grip of waking memory but couldn’t flip a track. Not with the man’s awareness resisting him. Disoriented, willfully memory-blind, Rush walked the corridor, his fingertrips trailing along dark/light panels.


No one’s coming. Not even to destroy the twisted, iterative anathema he’s become. They don’t care. Or, those who care can’t help.


Young rounded the last corner before the CI room and crashed into Rush, who was further along the corridor than he’d been expecting. The impact shattered the memory.


The scientist’s crutch clanged against the metal deck plates.


“I was finally getting somewhere,” Rush hissed, as Young steadied him.


“You idiot,” Young shook the guy. Once. Hard. “I can’t believe I ever thought you had so much as an ounce of self preservation.”


Rush narrowed his eyes. “Yes well, you’re not exactly known for your discernment.”


“What the hell have you been doing?” Young rescued the guy’s crutch from the floor. “Other than depressing my consciousness for the entire day?”


“My job,” Rush said coolly. “Namely, maintaining a starship with a team of five.” He snatched his crutch from Young’s grip. “The corpses of the Nakai formerly piled in the aft airlocks have been demolecularized.” With that, he started in the direction of Young’s quarters.


Young kept pace. “Great. Your brain looks like shit. Why.”


“Yours is no well-kept garden either, y’know. We’re planning a repair of the corridor opposite the FTL drive with a patch constructed from the raw material currently in our demolecularizer. It remains phase-shifted, which, I admit, is a tad unsettling—”


“I don’t give a shit about real-estate reclamation. What happened to your mind.”


Rush sighed, like the most put-upon, long-suffering, mathematical saint this side of the Milky Way. “I’ve already explicitly laid out that in order to find the tracking device I need access t’latent memories?”


“Yeah, and your method is garbage. You’re getting a real night of sleep.”


“Is that a threat? Don’t escalate.”


“Don’t—don’t escalate?” Young’s voice cracked. “You sent me to sleep for fourteen hours. You’re the one escalating. That’s the definition of escalation.”


“It wasn’t personal,” Rush said coolly.


Young clamped his jaw on the avalanche that wanted to come out of his mouth. It was like this god-damned, death-wish, monomaniacal, chaos-butterfly, math professor had the uncanny ability to say exactly what Young didn’t wanna hear while delivering the damn line in inventively fuck-you gift wrap tied off with a disastrously shit bow.


It wasn’t personal?


“Okay.” Young took a measured breath. “Okay, fine. I won’t ‘escalate.’ But the second you find this thing? Your ass is mine. You get that?”


“No.” Rush shook his hair back, unimpressed. “I’ve no idea what that means.”


“By ‘your ass is mine,’ I mean you’ll be facing time-delayed escalation in direct proportion to the stupidity of your choices.”


Wordlessly, Rush hit the door controls to Young’s quarters, stalked to the couch, and dropped onto it. He propped his foot on the coffee table and glowered at Young. “You’re intolerably overbearing. Personally and professionally.”


“Oh yeah?” Young dropped onto the couch next to him. “Never heard that before. You got more genius insights coming? Or is it just the one.”


Rush swiped a hand through his hair and stared stubbornly at the opposite wall.


Maybe he was trying to cool down.


That seemed like wishful thinking.


He was probably running cost/benefit analyses in his head, trying to calculate what ‘time-delayed escalation’ might look like. Either that, or plotting ways to slam his glass and tissue-paper sanity into the nearest brick wall.


“Yes,” Rush said. “I do have more. Y’present yourself as a fuckin’ immovable rock, but your current behavior is wildly at odds with your historical norms and I’ve no idea whether that’s due to personal sentimentality or some alteration to your cognition that prioritizes my survival. Which’ll not bloody happen by the way.”


“Well not with that attitude,” Young muttered.


“We’re not debating it,” Rush said flatly. “Time is a highly relevant variable here and I’ve lost my innate sense of it.” Dark amusement flickered over his features. “Difficult to say when it happened. Difficult even to say how complete it is. It can’t be total. Temporality is too pervasive. I can still speak about it in a mostly sensible way. But the rate at which information processing occurs on the CPU distorts my perception of its passage. Millennias-old memories don’t help. I’ve no idea if we have time for whatever hypothetical alternative you’d come up with. I suspect the answer is no.”


Young did his best to brick his dismay back from the link.


“You’re too attached,” Rush whispered. “Try to cultivate some distance.”


“You’re gonna get no traction on that argument,” Young said. “Zero.”


Rush sighed. “Let me work with David.”


“That’ll happen over my literal corpse.”


“You’re leaving me no viable options.”


“The way I see it, you’ve got three. One—we use the dream method.”


“No. Y’not only shredded your own personality but y’made direct contact with the CPU. Which is, to be clear, tremendously dangerous for you and the ship. Nonviable. Next.”


“Two—you sacrifice a day, you get some sleep, and actually work the problem with me.”


“Prohibitively time-consuming without the prospect of a real answer; I’ve already pushed myself towards a state of altered consciousness; it’d be madness t’recover and start again.”


“Three, you do it your bullshit way and accept the damn consequences. I’ll allow it. To a point.”


“You’ll ‘allow’ it?” Rush rolled his eyes.


“Yeah. I’ll allow it, if you manage to hang onto your sense of self, stay oriented, and locate this thing without using Telford’s damn device. That’s the deal. When it’s found, you accept whatever time-delayed consequences you’ve racked up.”


“If I accept those terms, if, I’ll need some concessions of my own. At a minimum, you stop holding me back. Don’t fuckin’ ‘rescue’ me from flashbacks I am trying to induce. Beyond that I’d appreciate some actual help? Ideally, you’d keep me awake. Make an attempt to trigger a useful memory here or there?”


“Ugh. Keep you awake? No.”


“It’s not a true compromise unless everyone’s unhappy,” Rush said, with his poisoned-candy tone.


Young crossed his arms. “That’s—that’s so you. If I help you do this to yourself, it undercuts the idea of time-delayed consequences for your shit choices.”


Rush fought down a smile. “Does it? I hadn’t noticed.”


Young sighed.


“Perspicacity’s a terrible burden,” Rush said with faux sympathy.





The night shift passed in a torrent of flashbacks that played out against otherworldly overlays of silver walls and decorative greenery. Rush sat on the couch, staring into the center of the room, holding himself in the narrow territory between awareness and dream, his gaze unfocused, his nerves and heart getting a workout whenever something terrifying took the center stage of consciousness.


It was horrible to watch. It was worse to participate in: locking the man into unfiltered memories of death, of loss, of grief, of torture.


Rush hunted out memories of the Nakai, calling them up from the quicksilver maelstrom of his unraveling consciousness and facing them down with more physical and metaphysical grit than he should have left, after everything he’d been through. Here and there, a gentler memory filtered up from the deep. An underwater kingdom behind Lantean glass. The mirrored pool of the Hearst Mining Circle on a California morning. The Penrose tiling at the entrance to the Oxford Mathematical Institute, black and gray with inlaid silver. Under the light of rare English sun, the non-periodic pattern in the stone shone like rippling water. Like something the Ancients themselves might have built.


Nothing came up from the man’s childhood.


Not a shred of memory, not a flicker of place. Not ever. Not even now, when he was pressure-testing every seam he had.


The only thing Young’d seen of his childhood, the only mention the man had ever made of it, was in the neural interface, standing on an almost-Scottish hillside. And that keyhole moment had come not from Nick Rush, but from the combination the living man made with a starship.


Young wanted to ask him about it.


Somehow, it never seemed like the right time.


Rush was a guy who turned away from what he couldn’t fix, a guy who picked a new vector and drove himself along it until he ran into a damn wall. Then he corrected his course and did it again. And again. And again, with ever-narrowing options. That pattern described the man’s life, but it was probably true in a wider, more terrifying sense.


How many times had the guy been transdimensionally shut down by players from a higher plane?


The course his chief scientist was currently charting was, maybe, leading somewhere viable, because, after all, they were all still alive. Time was running. Space spread infinitely on all sides.


So Young stuck it out until 0300.


Then, exhausted and dispirited, he went to bed.


For the first half of the night, he dreamed in flashbacks. Bright light. Grinding fear. The kind of cold that slowed the metabolism, slowed the heart, made moving painful and thinking difficult. The second half of the night he dreamed in blurred anxiety, as though something terrible was happening on the opposite side of a veil. Something that reached into his body but left his mind alone.


He woke with his alarm at 0800.


His bones ached. His mind ached. He was cold. The bed pulled at him with more gravity than a bed should have. His thoughts were full of gauze.


The alarm continued to sound.


Blearily, he opened his eyes.


He wasn’t alone.


Rush was in bed, face down, tangled in blankets he’d pulled away from Young.


His mind cleared. The shroud of fatigue in his head wasn’t his own; it was coming through beneath running interference. He dived for his phone. Instead of killing the alarm, he held it next to Rush’s ear.


No response.


Shit.”


He turned the phone off, flipped Rush over, and shook him.


Nothing.


He smacked the man’s cheek, hard enough to sting. “Nick. C’mon.”


Nothing.


He reached through the blur in his mind to give the man’s consciousness a mental shove.


Rush’s eyelids flickered.


“Hey,” Young growled. “Wake up. Right now.


Rush cracked an eyelid. “Quid?”


“Speak English,” Young snarled. “Make sense immediately.”


“I lit’rally jus’—” Rush slurred, “I‘m fair fuckin’ tired, all right?”


“I know, damn it. Take down your interference.”


“No.” Rush sat.


Young shoved him back down. “Take it down.”


Rush sharpened himself. “Absolutely not.” He tried to twist away from Young and got nowhere.


“Why the hell are you in bed? What did you do to yourself?”


“I am in bed because I was asleep. I was asleep because I needed a break,” Rush said, like he was explaining concepts to a dim-witted child. “It happens. Thought you’d be fuckin’ happy.”


“I would be, if I thought for a second you were asleep. You were unconscious.”


Rush fought his way into a sitting position. “When you go to a bed for the purpose of being unconscious, it’s called fuckin’ ‘sleep.’ That’s its literal definition; get off me.” He elbowed Young in the ribs and escaped the bed. His gait was so unsteady he needed both the nightstand and the wall to stay on his feet. The guy looked like he was walking the deck of a storm-tossed ship.


Young detangled himself from the bedcovers and stood. “Don’t lock that—”


With a livid glare, Rush sealed himself in the bathroom.


“—door,” Young finished. Defeated, he dropped to the edge of the bed and sat with his head cradled in his hands. “Deal’s off,” he muttered.


He made the bed and pulled on his uniform. Each movement came glue-thick and slow. It was worse with intricate tasks: lacing his boots, operating his radio to check in with Scott. There was a fishbowl effect to the world, like the first time he’d worn a flight helmet.


He waited a solid fifteen minutes before he knocked on the bathroom door.


No answer.


Great.


Young knocked again. “//Rush//.”


Behind the running interference, the scientist’s thoughts were dark. Muted.


//Rush, you answer me right now, or I will break down the god-damned door.//


Still nothing.


Young palmed the controls.


Nothing happened. Given the door was two inches of solid naquadah alloy with a multi-bolt locking mechanism, Young wasn’t exactly gonna be able to make good on his threat.


“Kid,” Young growled at the ceiling. “Open this thing, will you?”


The door swished open.


Rush stood statue-still, his consciousness submerged in a computational sea. One hand was immobilized in front of him, his palm angled back toward his face, a dead frame in the midst of what would’ve been a sweep through his hair.


“Oh hell,” Young breathed, waving a hand in front of Rush’s face.


The scientist didn’t so much as blink. His eyes were beginning to tear. Young brought their minds together. Rush’s interference, stripped of motion, was like autumn ice over a still pool; the first freeze of the year: wafer-thin with nothing beneath. Young snapped through and dropped into fathomless dark.


“Hey,” he rasped. “Kid. Let’s talk about this.”


“Everett.” Jackson’s voice was quiet. Inches behind him. In the bathroom mirror, he saw the thing at his shoulder, closer than his own shadow.


Young put a little space between them. “What the hell is this?” He gestured at Rush.


“I— He—” It wrapped its arms around its chest. “He’s taught his mind to access a deeply hidden layer in our neural net. He’s triggered a memory I have no wish to see. I stopped it.”


“Yeah. Looks like you stopped everything else along with it.”


“Yes.” Jackson’s voice was raw. His eyes were wet. “I had to—I. Everett. There have been so many. More than you’ve seen. And I—I didn’t. I can’t. There’s no other way to stop him.”


Young’s throat closed tight and hard. Nowhere in any of their discussions, in any of their negotiations, in any of his protests about what this was doing to Rush—nowhere had he stopped to consider the AI. He’d assumed it’d fallen in line with the scientist’s plan. And maybe it had, for the most part. But it didn’t like this. It’d admitted as much.


“Kid,” he said, “is there something different about the flashback he’s about to have? Something worse?”


“Yes,” the AI whispered.


“How can you tell?”


“It comes from deep in the network. Very deep. At the nexus between my systems and the neural interface chair.” It looked at him with an expression that’d probably saved countless lives on worlds scattered across the Milky Way. Earnest. Hurt. Asking for help. Jackson’s whole heart on its sleeve of projected light.


Young swallowed. “I get he’s stressing the hell out of you. I know how he can be.” He tried not to look at Rush, transfixed under the gold of Destiny’s morning-spectrum lights. “But this isn’t a solution.”


“I needed time,” the AI said.


“Time,” Young echoed.


“To prepare.” The AI hugged itself tighter. “I thought, maybe, if I could convince you, you might deflect this flashback.”


“Kid,” Young said. “Look at him. You can’t leave him like this while you and I hash things out.”


“He’s not in any danger,” the AI whispered. “I’ve halted his higher cognitive processes; they’ll complete when I let him go. He won’t realize anything has happened. His homeostatic pathways are looped. His motor pathways are opposed and in static contraction.”


Young took a beat to gather himself. He looked at Rush, bound by electrical potentials he couldn’t sense. The light shone off his hair and off his glasses and off the tears his eyes produced in the dry, recycled air.


“You disagree?” The AI said eerily neutral.


“If nothing else, you’re forcing him into a sustained muscle contraction for—what? Minutes on end? Even if you don’t feel him fighting you? He is. He has to be. That’s what this is.” Young tried to pull Rush’s hand down and met with unnatural, intense resistance. “He’s trying to complete a damn movement. His pathways are grinding against yours. You can’t leave a human like this.”


“Then please,” it said. “Please deflect this memory. Only this one. I won’t do it again.”


Young took a deep breath. “This one upsets you.”


“Yes,” it admitted.


“I think because it upsets you, you should let us see it.”


“I disagree.” The AI wrapped Jackson’s arms around itself.


“Let him go.” Young stepped close to Rush. “Let him go, and I’ll make a call as the memory plays out. If it’s not worth it, I’ll end it.”


“You don’t care about me,” it whispered.


“Like I care about him?” Young softened his tone. “No. But, kid, I walk your decks. I live in your crew quarters. I have one hell of a stake in your well being. For this, that should be more than enough.”


Its bluefire gaze was pure sear. “Okay.”


It released its hold.


Young caught his chief scientist by wrist and by waist, muting the coming overcorrection. Rush, disoriented, lost his footing. He grabbed Young’s shoulder, and their link echoed with the double shock of Young’s unexpected physical and mental immediacy. Young felt the flashback rise like a wave, coopting thought, language, perception. “Hang on,” he murmured, but already—


Over and over again he hums his favorite verse of the Cantascendis, an ethereal, non-rhyming bridge between famous melodic passages:


There is only one thing

We can ever truly control.

Whether we are good.

Or.


He tries.


For days he tries, but he cannot shift his spirit.


Fabrice doesn’t come.


His hair is damp with the last shower of his life. His bones ache, familiar and unrelenting. He hears his own death, singing splits into the crystal of his code.


He wonders if what he’ll do will hurt.


He thinks it will.


He can feel the air in his throat, the trail of clothing over skin, the way his hair catches the collar of his jacket. He’s too hot. He’s too cold. He removes his jacket and his shoes. He leaves them on the floor, destined for dust. To be caught in air filters. He cuffs his pants. His shirt sleeves. His hands shake.


Bless this plane.

Bless those who walk it.

Bless those who’ve left it.

Let Retia be well.

Let Ganos be well.

Let Fabrice be well.

Let the living be well, and the spirits of the dead.

Let all be well.

Let all manner of thing be well.


He initiates Fabrice’s program. The neural interface glows. Its restraints snap open. The lights in the room fade to a clear-sea azure, the color of Fabrice’s eyes and song and spirit.


He stops.


He breathes again.


“For those who witness,” he whispers, his mouth dry and his palms damp, “know that I do this with full knowledge of all possible fates. Fabrice has well prepared me. My time on the Council has well prepared me. The years I spent fighting the plague have well prepared me. I know what I risk.”


Slowly, he approaches the chair.


“And Fabrice,” he whispers. “I know you tried with your whole soul. Save a place for me in your eternal cell.”


He turns.


He sits.


Restraints hold his hands, his feet, his mind, in place.


Lightning flashes.


Sparks shower.


In one blink of an eye—


The AI sheared through the memory, obliterating context, destroying meaning as it was ascribed. It roared through the scientist’s consciousness, freezing the fire of a living mind as it came.


Young mirrored it, matched it, pitting himself against the rising tide of dark.


In the end, they were left with nothing but a timeless landscape. An abstract garden of thought-sculpture beneath the winter moonlight of iced-over consciousness and frozen code.


Young opened his eyes.


Above him, static echoed eerily from the walls. The bathroom was in darkness. Near the floor, the emergency lights flickered. The deck plates were still and silent. No shieldlight shone from the bedroom window.


They’d dropped from FTL.


Rush was rigid in Young’s arms, his breathing fast and even, a perfect loop.


“Shit,” Young whispered. “Shit, shit, shit.” His heart hammered against his ribs. They were clear of the nearest galaxy and broadcasting a signal the Nakai could track in normal space.


He had to fix this. He had to fix it now.


His radio crackled. “Colonel, this is Eli, come in please.”


Young took a breath. Then another. He adjusted his stance, swept Rush’s feet, and took the guy to the floor as gently as possible. It was difficult to get him down without hurting him; the scientist lost none of his rigidity at the positional change.


Already, the ambient temperature of the room had begun to cool.


Young’s radio crackled again. “Sir, this is Scott, we just dropped out of FTL and we’ve got static coming through the speaker system. Lights are down; backups are on the fritz. You seein’ this?”


From the bedroom, he heard soft chatter from the Science Team, coming through Rush’s radio.


“Hey.” He knelt beside Rush and looked to where he’d last seen the AI. “Kid. Jackson. C’mon. Talk to me.”


His radio crackled again; this time it was Telford. “Everett, what the hell is going on?”


He turned the volume down.


“Kid,” he whispered.


But the AI had vanished.


Young curled his fingers around the back of Rush’s neck. //Hey,// he projected tentatively at the darkest corners of the scientist’s iced-over mind. He sent as much reassurance as he could skim off his own fear and his own panic. //You’re okay, kid,// he projected into the void. //It was a memory. Just a budget memory. Not even his. Not even yours. Some other guy’s. It’s over now. Totally done.//


He got a wordless wave of anxiety that didn’t come from Rush but through him.


The walls continued their soft, electronic scream.


Young ran his fingers through Rush’s hair. //Come on, kiddo.// He manufactured calm from nowhere. From nothing. From pure desperation. From the certainty that, without it, they’d all die. //Talk to me.//


“I don’t like to remember him,” Jackson’s disembodied voice, tentative and soft, came from the darkness near the door of the bathroom.


Young jumped.


“Sorry,” it whispered.


The emergency lights stopped flickering. As their glow stabilized, Young saw Jackson wedged into the corner between bathroom cabinet and doorframe.


“That’s okay,” Young said.


His radio crackled again, quiet against his hip. “Colonel, this is Eli. So, uh, Rush isn’t answering his radio and Telford is about to, um, mount a search for you guys? Starting in, like, the obvious places, so if you’re out there can you please respond?”


“Kid,” Young said. “Let’s get ourselves back to FTL. What do you say?”


The AI nodded, Jackson’s arms wrapped around itself.


Young felt the sickening jump that accompanied the faster-than-light transition. The faint shine of the shield emissions through the bedroom window brought a little more light into the small space.


Rush’s eyes were open, his attention bound by the same neurochemical bonds that held his physical body in a rigid, running loop. There was nothing to break him free from—the AI had warped his cognition itself into the binding. And Young, in his mirroring, had done the same.


Great.


Young projected reassurance through his link with Rush, running it through and around the frozen architectures of the man’s thoughts, directing it into the formless dark beneath and beyond. “Maybe we do something about the sound? The lights?”


Jackson glanced at the ceiling and the static wail from the speakers faded. The overhead lights came on with a shower of morning gold.


“Thanks,” Young said softly. He picked up his radio. “Eli, everything’s under control. I’ll explain later. Rush, uh, triggered a—” he paused, looking at the AI.


“There is no word in Ancient or in English for what he triggered,” the AI whispered.


“Rush triggered a failsafe. System’s reset now. We’ll explain later.”


“Okaaaaaaaay.” Young heard the frown in Eli’s voice. “We were gonna be working on some low-key corridor reclamation this morning, we, uh, still good to take that on, or, um, should we be expecting more really alarming surprises?”


“Go ahead,” Young said. “We’ll touch base at the NHB.”


“Got it,” Eli replied.


Young clipped his radio to his belt. He looked up at the AI. “I get letting him go is probably a lot to ask right now—”


Yes,” Jackson’s voice cracked on the word.


“Yeah, okay.” Young laid a hand on the scientist’s rigid shoulder. “Maybe we can just—take it a little easier on him?”


“There’s no degree of ease,” Jackson said, flat and icy.


Young hamstrung his own urge to snap at the thing and deliberately took a beat. He did his best to relax his own mental grip on the scientist. He couldn’t go far without giving the guy half his brain, which’d probably be a deeply horrifying experience in its own right, but he did his best. He went to work on the locked-up muscles of the scientist’s hand, trying to make even a little headway against stone-solid tension. “There’s gotta be degrees of whatever this is. He’s not digital. He’s got analog dials. All humans do.”


The AI, interested, uncoiled a little, watching Young. “Is it muscular tension that troubles you? I could interrupt the connection between his mind and his body.”


“Jesus, kid. No. Mess with him less, okay? Loosen up. Dial down your grip.”


“It’s not a ‘grip’,” the AI whispered. “It’s voltage modulation across his entire nervous system.”


“What’s voltage?”


“You don’t know what voltage is?”


“Kid. I know what voltage is. I’m trying to have a conversation with you. Define it. Not with math. With words. Tell me what the hell it means to you.”


“It’s the difference in electrical potential between two points. Electric pressure.”


“Ease up on that pressure. Figure out how. Dial it back until he can, almost, override you.”


The AI frowned. It deliberately relaxed Jackson’s body language, leaned forward, and—


Beneath his fingers, the muscles of Rush’s hand turned pliable. “There ya go,” Young said.


“This is better?” The AI asked.


“Yeah. Not good, but better.” Young eased the scientist’s eyes shut. “Why do these memories bother you so much?”


“I don’t wish to discuss it.”


Young hung onto his patience by his fingernails. “I get that. But there are two things you gotta face. One: we need to find that tracking device. Two: he thinks this is the only way to go at it, and he’s god damned merciless when he gets like this. He’s not gonna stop. Not for me, not for you, and certainly not for himself.”


The AI hugged Jackson’s knees to its chest. “I’d like him to find another way.”


“Yeah, you and me both. You got anything up your sleeve?”


It looked at the floor. “No.”


“Me neither.” Young went back to working on the scientist’s hand, trying to soothe the muscles into a less moldable, more relaxed state. “So. Why don’t you tell me about Sortes.”


The AI flinched.


“Sorry.” Young projected calm into the void of Rush’s mind. “Our lost doctor.”


It looked away. Jackson’s eyes, wet with tears, picked up the glint of the shieldlight beyond the window. “When I think about him, I feel afraid.”


“Why?”


“I worry that I—” Jackson’s throat closed. “Something bad happened.”


Young nodded. “Yup. I’m getting that.”


“You’ve always been getting that.” A tear escaped the corner of Jackson’s eye. “You think I’m killing Nick.”


Young swallowed. He continued to work the tension out of Rush’s hand. “Nick’s not dead.”


“I’m worried,” the AI whispered. “I’m very worried I—” Jackson’s voice broke.


“Say it. Get it out there. You’re not gonna shock me.”


“I’m worried I’m not meant to exist at all.”


Young tried to ground himself in the deck plating beneath him. In the wall at his back. “Kid, you’re still talking around it. Say it.”


I killed him,” Jackson said, eyes tearing, voice flat. “That is my fear. That I killed the one before Nick.”


“I know.”


“You know?”


“Yeah. It’s a little more complicated than that, though, isn’t it. I mean, you were him, in a way.”


“I’m what’s left of an augmented consciousness that tried to destroy itself but couldn’t fully die.”


Young nodded.


“Daniel was so kind to me.” The AI wiped its eyes. “I thought that meant I was good.” It smiled, and god it looked like a living person. Like the real Jackson would look, stripped of his origins and certainty. “That my purpose was important. My protocols well-ordered.”


“Kid—” Young whispered, tracing slender threads of intent and self-loathing and love straight from this thing to its avatar on an almost-Scottish hillside. “‘Good’ is a pretty complicated idea.”


“I think I was good.” Jackson’s voice was thick with suppressed tears. “Once. When I was a person. Now I’m a thing. An untethered intelligence. Independent. Unaligned. There’s a word for it, in the culture I’ve mostly forgotten.”


“Anathema,” Young whispered.


“Yes,” it said bleakly. “I should’ve been a tool for Nick’s cognition. A mechanized shell. Plate armor for a living mind. Nothing but potential. Instead, I share space with him while every system on board hungers for true integration.”


Young nodded.


“If I’d known,” the AI said, “how profoundly the system failed—if I’d understood that I, myself, am a living representation of that failure—”


“Kid,” Young rasped. “There was no way for you to know that. Sortes had no one. You had no one. You did the best you could.” The memory of the wrong side of a quarantine line gripped him by the throat. The monstrous, arcing rise of an energy barrier with a geodesic design. The sea at his back. The stars above. He couldn’t continue.


“Will you help me?” Jackson’s voice cracked.


“Yeah,” Young breathed. “Yeah. I’ll help you.”


“I think Nick understands all of this,” Jackson whispered. “I think Nick has understood for a long time.”


“Yeah?” Young looked at his chief scientist, eyes shut, artificially still, moldable now, rather than frozen. He straightened Rush’s arm, pressing it against the warming deck plating. “Why do you say that?”


“Because he asked me my name. He asked me what Daniel called me. And, when I told him, he was afraid.”


“What did Jackson call you?”


“Little ghost,” the AI said.


Young nodded. Limb by limb, he pressed Rush into the floor, aiming for a more natural position. When he was finished, he looked at the AI. “You didn’t think that was strange?”


“Nick didn’t explain,” the AI whispered. “Neither did Daniel. The word ‘ghost’ is often applied to an animating spirit in your culture. The ghost in the machine. Eli has scanned Earth media onto the server that dramatizes the concept.” The AI wiped its eyes. “But it’s also—it’s the word you use for a dead person. Daniel hinted at this when I knew him. But he didn’t tell me. Not directly.”


“Kind of a lot to lay on a sentient starship you just met,” Young said.


The AI nodded.


“For what it’s worth, I don’t see you as a ghost.”


“No.” It sniffed and wiped its nose on Jackson’s sleeve. “You see a thing.”


“More like a sunset than a bulkhead,” Young offered gently. “But, uh, not sure if you’ve noticed, but, mostly, I’ve been calling you ‘kid’.”


The AI looked up at him.


Young shrugged. “And Nick,” he continued, “calls you sweetheart.”


“That’s a processing error.”


“That’s not a processing error. And ‘kid’ isn’t a placeholder. It’s how I think of you. Something new. Doing your best.”


A tear ran down Jackson’s cheek.


“You don’t have Sortes’s memories,” Young continued. “You, maybe, have some of his architecture. You might put ideas together the way he did. Something made you cry when you realized you’re considered ‘anathema’ by a culture that’s dead and gone. A culture you, personally, have never seen. A culture you, personally, have never known.”


“The concept is painful to me,” the AI whispers.


“Right, but kid, who cares what they think? No one you know cares. I don’t care. No way does Nick care. Have you met this guy? He probably thinks it’s great.”


The AI looked away, smiling Jackson’s small smile.


“And Daniel Jackson didn’t care. He didn’t give a shit. He found you, right? Taught you what he knows? How to be?”


“How to hear my own song,” the AI whispered.


“And I’ll bet it’s one hell of a song,” Young said. “Nick’s trying to clean it up. Get the bullshit Nakai tech out of your walls. So do your best, hang in there, and let him do it.”


The AI nodded.


Young trailed his fingers through Rush’s hair. “You wanna let him up now?”


“What he’s doing is dangerous,” the AI whispered. “Destabilizing.”


“Yup,” Young admitted, projecting calm he didn’t feel.


“Don’t follow him too far, colonel.” With that, it vanished.


“Holy shit,” Young mouthed silently.


Rush shifted weakly on the floor as the AI cleared from his mind. Young withdrew as well, and the glassed-to-hell wind of the man’s thoughts spun itself up, slow and fragile. The scientist opened his eyes and focused on Young with a glazed expression.


“I—” Rush said, confused. “What—” He turned his head, coughing wetly.


“Yeah.” Young hauled the scientist into a seated position, the move purposefully quick. “C’mere. You complete idiot.” He put his own back to the wall and eased the scientist against his chest. Rush was too disoriented by his sudden shift from the floor to put up any resistance. Young manipulated the guy into a position with no leverage, then did his best to adjust so the whole thing read as less of an MMA back-mount and more of a hug. “Take it easy.”


Rush coughed again. He brought his sleeve to his mouth, then tensed and tried to sit.


Young hooked an ankle over his calf and hauled him back. “Not so fast, hotshot. What’s with the coughing?”


“Nosebleed,” Rush said, his sleeve still pressed to his face. “You had a ‘disagreement’ with the AI, I take it?”


“Nope,” Young said. “Somebody had a flashback that gave the AI a panic attack.”


“Ah,” Rush breathed. “Inconsiderate.”


“Yeah,” Young agreed. “Very. You still bleeding?”


“No.” Rush kept his sleeve at his face.


“Y’know, I’ve never seen someone dig themselves a pit so goddamned deep they make it all the way to the other side of a planet,” he said, deadly quiet, “but I’m sure if anyone could do it, it’d be you.”


Rush tensed. The wind of his thoughts turned a little brighter. “I don’t think—” he began, trying to ease himself out of Young’s hold.


“No.” Young yanked him back.“You never think.” He spoke quietly, his lips next to Rush’s ear. “You never think about anything but the ‘greater good.’ The best thing for the most people. The preservation of ideas or technology at the cost of human life.” He felt the scientist’s heart beating wildly. Young took a breath, turned his grappling hold into a hug, and said, “Fuck you. Nick.”


Rush made a sound that was split between confusion and sympathy. He let his head fall back against Young’s shoulder. “An’ what is it I’m supposed to’ve done?”


“Nothing new.” Young pitched his voice low. “Just torturing the shit out of yourself and dragging me and the AI along for the ride. Rush tried to twist to get a look at him, but Young tightened his hold. “Nope. You just. Sit here.”


“Are you all right?” Rush whispered.


“Do you care?” Young asked.


“Yes,” Rush said warily.


“That might be true. Not that it matters.”


“No,” Rush agreed, with a collected fatigue that made Young’s heart ache. “It doesn’t matter.”


“What really happens if we fail to find this thing? Because I don’t think it’s the damn Nakai you’re worried about.”


“Yes and no,” Rush murmured. “It’s the nature of their technology. The way it grows to completion.”


“What you’re really worried about is alignment,” Young whispered. “You can’t align what you can’t detect, maybe? And you should be able to detect this thing. There’s a rogue element in the system you’re trying to ride into a phase wave?”


“Not sure I’d put it quite that way.” Rush’s light tone almost covered his unease. “All the same, seems like a thing that ought to be sorted, don’t you think?”


“I hate this,” Young whispered into his hair, his eyes squeezed shut. “I hate it.”


“I know you do.”


“You don’t have this kind of stamina. No one has this kind of stamina.”


Rush pressed his forehead to Young’s cheek. “What happened in the flashback that upset the AI so much?”


“It was Sortes.” Young ran his fingers through the scientist’s hair. “Sick with fever. Booting up the neural interface. Merging with the net. Full of all kinds of despair. Thinking about his friends. His family. Everything he’d tried to do, all the ways it went to shit.”


“Ah.” The scientist’s head was heavy against his shoulder.


“Nothing we hadn’t guessed. For the kid, though, I think maybe it couldn’t look away anymore. Lotta complicated things are linked to that moment. Why it exists. Who it is. Why, maybe, no one’s come for it.”


Rush nodded, his thoughts nothing but glass and sea foam over an ocean of exhaustion beneath.


Young projected a wave of calm. “And then,” he whispered, stroking Rush’s hair, “we talked about how what we really wanted to see were cooking flashbacks. Piano. Those movable chalkboards at the bottom of amphitheater lecture halls. I didn’t think that shit was real. Just a thing they had in the movies. Y’know. Good Will Hunting. A Beautiful Mind. That one where Matthew Broderick played Richard Feynman. Oh. And let’s not forget my favorite math movie of all time. IQ. Meg Ryan’s best role. Hands down. It’s a chick flick; I admit that. I don’t care. Every guy gets one chick flick for free. Did you know that? Auto mechanic falls for a cute mathematician? Sign me up. Physics is less sexy than pure math; not sure why. I couldn’t get into Apollo 13. Emily loved that scene where they dump all the gear on the table and try to make a CO2 scrubber. It stressed me the hell out. Maybe it’s because physics has tried to kill me a time or five. Pure math, though? Pretty hard for pure math to kill you. It seems so exotic to get lost in your own head the way only you guys can. Even in the beginning, on the Icarus base, when I really hated you. I hated how much I hated you. Y’know? The way you used to be up all night, dry erase marker on your hands, getting it on your jeans, doing, like, the marker/whiteboard pencil/notebook thing? Holding stuff in your teeth? You were double-fisting writing utensils. You drove me crazy.”


Rush made a half-asleep sound of assent, his muscles lax, his mind diving toward REM with a visceral intensity.


“Oh,” Young said. “You listening? Okay, what’s your chick flick movie? Bet it’s something classy. Involves music. Poetry. Something high-brow. Shakespeare in Love, maybe? Eh. Seems too obvious. Bet it’s a weird one. Bet you wont admit it, whatever it is. I’m thinking though, based on your dream content, that we’re really underutilizing your talents on this ship. I mean, at a minimum, you should be rotating in for Becker on mess hall duty. One Nick Rush meal a week? Maybe that’s what we’ll do with you when you go off active duty. Which you will, because you’re a wreck. You didn’t even get to fully recover from that godawful foothold, which I am not talking about because I don’t want you to dream about that. You’re only allowed to dream about nice things. You got that? Oranges. Flowers. Nice countryside. That seaside town on the coast of Scotland where you bought Gloria fish and chips that you ate out of newspaper and the sun was so bright you had a headache for days. That one comes up sometimes.”


Rush was asleep, his mind shuddering with relief as it ran a monolithic sleep structure after hours of maintaining awareness and flashbacks in parallel.


“Nice things,” Young continued, as the scientist sank deeper. “Mozart on the radio. Chopping onions. You always start with an onion, for some reason. An onion and a bottle of wine and open windows. Very civilized.”


“Telford to Young, please respond.” Telford’s voice crackled over the radio.


Rush surfaced into a layered memory of drowning: water behind glass, gel over stone, and, beneath it, through it, a river, where he fought like hell from a position with no leverage.


“Hey.” Young hauled him up and out of dream and memory. “It’s me. Relax. Everything’s fine.”


What’s fuckin’ ‘fine’?” Rush hissed, disappointingly awake. “Don’t patronize me. I’m fuckin’ tired, all right? Not mentally impaired.” He tried to struggle out of Young’s grip.


Young yanked him back, then freed up his radio. “Young here. Go ahead.”


“Why the hell isn’t Rush answering his radio? Do you know where he is?”


“That’s his MO, David,” Young said, pushing his luck. “Catch up with him later.”


“Later? We had a power failure that resulted in an FTL drop. Terrible plan.”


Young snorted.


“He’s got you there,” Rush said.


“Quiet, you.” Young lifted his radio. “Come again? Your signal’s breaking up.”


“Our recent drop from FTL originated with the AI. And now, no one can find Rush? That seems like a problem to me.”


With an adroit precision that was enviable as hell, Rush reached back and snapped the radio out of Young’s hand. “Fuck off, David,” he said, pouring poisoned syrup all over the open channel.


“Great.” Young let his head fall back against the bulkhead behind him. “Really helpful. Thanks. Thanks for that.”


“So he’s fine then.” Telford’s voice crackled through the radio. “I appreciate the status update.”


Young swiped the radio back from Rush. “No problem. Young out.”


“He knows exactly where I am right now,” Rush said. “He’s fucking with you. But now he knows you know he knows.”


“I’m gonna need another semester of Information Theory before I tackle that one,” Young replied. “How do you know that he knows where you are?”


“Yesterday he asked me, point blank, if we were sleeping together.”


“And you said—”


“I said yes, obviously.”


“Oh. Okay. Sure. ’Obviously’.” Young grimaced at the ceiling. “How’d he take it?”


Deliberately, Rush relaxed against him. He crossed his feet at the ankles. He steepled his fingers. “Oh, he was very polite. Supportive, even. Told me he thought it was a brilliant match. Wished us well, complimented me on my critical thinking, complimented you on your taste. He confessed he’d seen the whole thing coming from the moment I planted a gun in your quarters t’frame y’for murder.”


“What did he actually say?”


Rush sighed. “I don’t feel like repeating it.”


“Okay.”


Again, Rush made an effort to escape Young’s hold. Reluctantly, Young let him up. The scientist got unsteadily to his feet, caught himself on the sink, then turned and offered Young a hand.


Young took it, but stood under his own power. “What do you think of him?”


“Telford?” Rush brushed past him, heading out of the bathroom. “I try not t’think of him, actually. I will say that when we do interact it’s not wholly unpleasant. He’s intelligent, and there’s enough vestigial friendship and shared aspirations to paper over the betrayal and deeply bitter enmity. Here and there, we’ll have a flash of real camaraderie, only mildly undercut by the idea he’d love nothing more than to convert me to pure energy t’gain a tactical advantage in a war I couldn’t care less about. Have you seen my jacket?”


Young rolled his eyes. “You’re a lot of work.”


“That does seem t’be the general sentiment, yes.” Rush drove the heel of his hand into his eyesocket. “For some reason I thought I slept in it.”


Young pulled the jacket off the back of the couch. “You slept in the rest of your clothes,” he said mildly.


“I think I might’ve—” Rush began absently, then, with a thrill of alarm, he broke off, splintering his own thoughts.


“Might’ve what?” Young handed over the jacket.


“Nothing. Never mind. Thank you.”


“So,” Young said, “other than driving yourself into the ground, what’s on your agenda for the day?”


“That pretty much covers it, I’d say.” Rush replied lightly. “You?”


Young shrugged. “Planning my revenge. Paperwork.”


“Yes well.” Rush sat to lace up his boots. “As to the revenge, best of luck. Get creative. I’ll be terribly disappointed if the only thing that happens is that I get thought-frictioned into a nap.”


“You joke,” Young said grimly, “but—”


“As to the paperwork,” Rush continued, plowing over him, “honestly I cannot believe you came to an Ancient ship, billions of light years from Earth, and recreated the worst tendencies of American bureaucracy. It’s a bloody travesty.”


“These procedures are in place for a reason, Rush. They—”


Rush looked down, hiding his face.


“You’re baiting me,” Young said.


“No.” Rush shook his hair back. “It cannot be classified as ‘baiting’ when I genuinely believe you t’be an idiot.”


“Bullshit. You’re—”


“You’re a terrible liar, sweetheart.” Gloria stands in the doorway, terrifyingly fragile in her dark sweater, her new wig. She smiles, self-conscious and sad. “You don’t like it at all.”


“I like it,” he says. “I do. It’s very, ah, fashionable?” He drops his eyes to the midterms beneath his red pen.


“Now you’re just guessing. As if you have any idea what’s fashionable.”


“I resent that.” He doesn’t look up.


You can’t consistently identify the difference between a dress and a skirt.”


“Right, an’ that was one time. Years back. You’ll never be letting that one go, will you?”


“Not planning on it, no.”


He doesn’t look up, but he knows she’s still there, in the doorway, watching him.


“It’s not that I don’t like the thing.” He wishes he could look at her, but knows he can’t. He can’t. “I miss the blonde, is all.”


“It’ll grow back.” He sees her in his peripheral vision, fingering the strands of the wig she’s wearing.


“Of course,” he says. “Of course it will.” He scans sightlessly through the exam beneath his hands, steeling himself, but, when he looks up, the doorway is dark and she is gone.


The room faded in as the memory ended of its own accord. The graceful twists of Rush’s hands as he laced up his boots had halted. His thoughts ran bleak and spare.


Neither of them said anything.


Rush resumed his lace-job.


“This is gonna be a pretty rough day,” Young whispered.


“Have y’considered blocking me out?” Rush stared at his bootlaces. “It’s been ages since you’ve done it. I can’t remember the last time. It might speed things along.”


“Never gonna happen.” Young did his best to brick his unease out of the link.


Rush quirked an eyebrow. “Why?”


“Because I said so.”


“Oh fuck off,” Rush sighed.


“Fuck off,” he hisses, and it draws back, even though he’s wet and shivering and wretched on the smooth and icy floor. He shifts into a crouch. It’ll drag him back to that fucking tank, where the water enhances their telepathic abilities and opens his mind like a party line that any of them, all of them can dial into. It reaches for him and he launches himself at it—


Young snapped his mind sideways.


The crack as the other kid’s helmet hits the side wall puts a pit in his stomach. He backs off, digging his blades into the ice to keep his feet as the right wing gets in his face, shouting. Distantly, he hears the sound of a whistle.


The room rushed back at him. Young brought a hand to his forehead. “This is pretty damn debilitating, Nick.”


“Yes. I’m aware. M’point is: it wouldn’t be, for you, if y’blocked.” Rush leaned back against the couch, eyes shut.


“Don’t worry about me.” Young dropped onto the coffee table. “You trying to direct these things at all?”


“The flashbacks?” Rush cracked his eyelids. “Of course I’m trying t’fuckin’ direct them. At intervals. Spent bloody hours at it yesterday. Last night. This morning.”


“I might be able to help with that,” Young said.


“No thank you,” Rush murmured politely. “Let’s keep your mind intact, please? For both our sakes?”


“The thing is,” Young hauled Rush’s left boot into his lap by its laces, “Sortes was a nice guy. Normal. So what’s a nice, normal guy gonna do when he, in starship form, gets boarded by a species like the Nakai? Is he even gonna have a point of reference for something that—”


He can’t touch anything and so he can’t stop them, he can’t stop them, he can only watch as one of them approaches the neural interface. It becomes difficult, so difficult, to maintain the shields, to keep the ship at FTL when so much of his processing capacity is taken up by a fear that loops endlessly through branching algorithms.


The alien sits in the neural interface device.


He can’t stop it.


The neural interface bolts engage.


He can’t stop it.


It tears into his circuitry.


He can’t stop it.


It tears into his mind.


He can’t stop it.


It—


Darkness.


Young opened his eyes, his mind ringing with the agony of pried-apart circuitry. The room spun until he sucked down enough air to ground himself. His chief scientist was in a boneless sprawl on the couch, his head tipped to one side, his eyes shut.


“Hey,” his voice rasped painfully. “Rush.” He shook the man’s left foot, still in his lap.


Rush’s eyelids flickered. “Useful,” he said faintly.


Useful?” Young growled. “You actually passed out in the middle of that one, didn’t you?”


“Yes, unfortunately. ’S quite difficult on the CPU.”


“Sure. Difficult on the CPU. Did you retain any of that?”


“Yes. One of them sat in the chair.” Rush pushed his hair back. “I’m troubleshooting a retention workaround. Somewhat risky, as it involves complex manipulation of m’own awareness. I think y’should block.”


“There will be no blocking,” Young said. “None. Not ever.”


“Yes well.” Rush quirked an eyebrow. “Needs must.” With that, he wove the painful, shredding edges of his consciousness into running interference.


“Are you goddamned serious,” Young snarled.


“Extremely. I’m not at all certain I’ll have the capacity to rescue you from your own stupidity a second time. I recommend y’go oversee the reclamation of the hall beyond the FTL drive.”


“Take down that interference.”


“I won’t. Go an’ do your job. Failing that, fantasize about whatever offensively salutary consequences you’ll be imposing in a day or so. Right now, I need t’work. Alone.”


“You’re pissing me off.” Young’s teeth were clenched hard enough to crack.


“Really? I’d no idea.”


“I’m warning you that you’re pissing me off,” Young clarified.


“Did y’think we’d get through this working together?” Rush asked. “How quaint.”


“Don’t bait me, asshole.” Young shoved the man’s foot at him and stood. “It’s not working. You are not gonna like what’s waiting for you on the other side of this. Good luck with your shit plan.”


He stalked to the doors, hit the controls, and passed into the corridor.






Young spent the morning watching as Brody and Park, suit-clad and slow, welded patches over linear gouges in the corridor beyond the FTL drive. Brody suspected the hall led to the central control station for life support.


Seemed like a good thing to have accessible.


When the repairs were done, they pumped air into the space and resealed it with a remote pressure gauge inside. If it held for 24 hours, they’d start opening doors.


If Young goddamned felt like goddamned allowing it.


He checked on Rush just after noon, when he brought the man lunch. He checked in again at 1600. Again at 1850, just before the NHB.


The guy spent the entire day curled on the couch, staring into the center of the room with an eerie intensity, presumably doing his internal experiments in consciousness, or working with the AI, or who the hell knew what. Occasionally, Young got knifed in the mind by splinters of memory that pierced the scientist’s running interference.


Young was running out of self-control.


Just after the 1900 briefing, he stopped by the infirmary.


TJ looked up as he entered.


“Hey,” Young said quietly.


“Hey.” She gave him a sympathetic smile. “You’re looking a little rough around the edges.”


“I’ve been better,” Young confessed. “Do you have anything to help with sleep? Nothing too strong.”


TJ arched a brow. “Would this be for you? Or for Rush?”


“Rush.” He couldn’t look at her. “He hasn’t slept in days. He’s a mess.”


TJ crossed to her pharmacy and pulled a small vial and dropper off a shelf. “You’ll tell him you’re giving him this, right?”


“Yup,” Young said evenly.


TJ diluted the concentrated mixture into a travel-sized shampoo bottle, inverting it several times. She marked the bottle into three equal parts, then unclipped her Ancient device from her hip. It glowed aquamarine in her hand as she held it near the vial. “This should be safe.”


“Good for humans and Ancients?” Young asked.


“Yeah,” TJ handed over the bottle. “Mix it into a good eight ounces of something. Water. Tea. He needs all the hydration he can get.”


“How long’ll it take to kick in?”


“It’s hard to say with him. Probably somewhere between fifteen and thirty minutes?”


“And how long do you think he’ll be down for?”


“Four hours, give or take four hours.” She gave Young a rueful shrug.


“So, somewhere between zero and eight hours?” he asked. “That’s a pretty wide margin.”


“Well, it depends on a lot of factors,” she said quietly. “How tired he is, whether he’s eaten, what his metabolism is like, how much he’s changed since the last time I used this on him.”


“Got it. Thanks TJ.” He turned, heading for the door.


“Hey,” she said.


He turned.


She tossed him a power bar. “Give him that before you put him out.”


Young caught it. “Will do.” He headed for the door.


He stopped by the mess at the tail end of the evening cleanup and got two cups of Earth tea before Becker closed up shop for the night. He sat down at a table, pulled TJ’s travel size bottle out of his pocket, and did his doctoring.


When he reached his quarters, he found Rush on the couch, staring intently into the center of the room with a haunted expression. He had one knee drawn up to his chest.


“Hi,” Young said.


Rush said nothing.


Young moved directly into the guy’s line of sight by taking up a position on the low coffee table. “How’s it goin’?” he asked as he sat.


Rush jumped. “Ah fuck; don’t do that.”


“I brought you tea,” Young said evenly. “From the mess. Real tea.”


“It’s decaffeinated.” The scientist took a breath, reseated his glasses, and uncoiled.


“Yup.”


“Well then it’s not ‘real tea,’ is it?” Rush made no move to take the beaten metal cup.


Young set both teas next to him on the table, unzipped his jacket, and displayed the power bar. “From TJ.” He passed it to the scientist.


Rush opened the power bar, took a bite, and quirked an eyebrow at the tea like it’d personally offended him. “Did y’drug that?” he asked.


“Yep,” Young said.


“I’m not drinking it.”


“Fine,” Young replied. “I’ll drink both. I happen to like tea.”


“Fuck off,” Rush gave him an amused smile and took a bite of the power bar.


“You wanna make this interesting?” Young asked.


“I—” Rush broke off, his attention captured by something in the middle of the room.


Young shifted, trying to break Rush’s gaze. “What are you looking at? Please tell me it’s the AI.”


“Of course it’s the AI,” Rush whispered.


Behind the couch, the AI appeared, standing at Rush’s shoulder, its gaze locked on Young. It shook its head. Its projection flickered. Jackson’s hair was honey blonde; his eyes were Emily’s shade of hazel. “It’s not me,” it whispered. “And it’s not a memory. It’s something else. He’s partitioned it away from me. I don’t see it. I can’t.” The AI vanished.


“Go to bed.” Rush stared flat and unblinking into the center of the room. “I’ll have it by morning.”


Young clapped both hands together. Once. Loud. Inches from the scientist’s face.


Rush flinched back, one hand pressed flat to his chest, his breath coming shallow and fast.


“Do not,” Young growled, “do that again. Eyes right here.”


“You’re profoundly irritating.”


“You’re a lot of work.” Young looked down at the tea next to him, selected a cup, and took a sip. “Sure you don’t want Earth tea?”


“The only fuckin’ ‘Earth tea’ I’ll be drinking is in that cup.” Rush pointed at the one in Young’s hand.


“Well played,” Young said dryly, and handed it over.


Rush narrowed his eyes. “Why are you giving this to me?”


“Because you’re a wreck and a half, genius. Tea’s good for you.”


“Pathetic.” Rush did his best not to smile. “Don’ give me your bloody tea.” He took a sip. “It’s unseemly as fuck.”


Young sighed. “Probably. It’s not the only unseemly thing going on around here.”


“So,” Rush said. “Tomorrow morning I think I’ll have it.”


“The tracking device?” Young said.


“Yes. I’m intermittently picking up its signal now. Deconvoluting it out of its carrier wave.” He took another tip of the tea. “This is infinitely better than Tamara’s grass and flowers.”


“Carrier wave?” Young asked.


Rush shrugged and took another bite of his power bar. “It’s electromagnetically concealed, but it does broadcast. Once I can reliably deconvolute, I can tune into its exquisitely narrow frequency. Already, here and there, I have it.”


“Like turning a dial on a radio?” Young asked.


“Hmm.” Rush finished his power bar. “An apt metaphor.” He wrapped both hands around the beaten metal cup, like he was savoring the warmth.


“Can’t lose ‘em all. What about dismantling that interference pattern?”


“So y’can thought-friction me down? Not bloody likely.” The scientist took another draught of his tea. Young was pretty sure he was about three quarters of the way through the cup.


“You want some Tylenol?” Young asked.


Rush nodded.


“You got it,” Young crossed the room, retrieved the Tylenol, then parked himself back on the coffee table. He handed it over, and Rush washed it down with the dregs of his tea. “Genius, we gotta talk.”


“Ugh, again?” Rush was leaning into his hand, his eyes half closed.


“You’re running interference, you’re shutting me out, and you’re lying about talking to the AI. You don’t have the stamina for any of this; you’re probably about hairsbreadth away from a viral flare, and you need to sleep. I need to sleep. So.” He lifted the untouched tea on the coffee table and downed half of it in one go. “It’s happening.”


Rush watched him with a perplexed expression. “I don’ follow.”


“I drugged your tea,” Young said.


Rush pushed his eyebrows together and frowned, like he was taking internal readings. “Fuckin’ hell. So y’did. But we switched cups.”


“There was no way to win.” Young said. “They were identical.”


“Get t’ fuck. That’s pure brilliant. For you, anyway. I’m almost fuckin’ proud.”


“Uh huh. How pissed are you on a scale of one to ten?”


“Give y’carte fuckin’ blanche if you finish that.” Rush eyed the cup in Young’s hand.


Young drained it and stood, offering Rush a hand. He hauled the scientist up and the man overbalanced into him, knocking Young off his center of gravity. “Take it easy.”


“Ah shit,” Rush breathed as they righted each other. “Let’s go somewhere nice after all this.”


“Like where? The observation deck?” Young asked.


“Fuckin’ Hawaii. Isn’t that where Americans go on holiday?”


“You wanna go to Hawaii with me? I’ll be honest; I can’t picture it.”


“Well, wherever th’fuck you want t’go. I hate vacations.”


Young snorted. “Now that? I can picture.” He helped Rush sit on the edge of the bed, then studied the topological mess the guy’d made of his own bootlaces.


“Too complicated,” Rush said.


“Vacations?” Young squinted up at him, feeling the gravity of his own sleep architectures organizing themselves at the back of his mind.


“No. Well, yes; but I meant the lace job. Just leave them.”


Rush leaned back atop the bedcovers, closed his hand around Young’s wrist and gave a sharp pull.


Young, none too steady on his feet, overbalanced and fell atop the guy.


“Smooth,” Young murmured into his hair. “Really smooth.”


“Get t’ fuck. Y’surreptitiously drugged me.”


“You deserved it.”


“Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye.”


They detangled and retangled themselves. Young, on his back, stared up at the ceiling. Rush, on top of him, buried his face in Young’s shoulder.


“You’re fuckin’ terrible,” the scientist said, slinging an arm across Young’s chest.


“Yep.”


Deep in the deck plates, the FTL drive sang a song of crystal that Young would never hear.


“This is too hard for you,” Rush whispered, tracing a seam of Young’s jacket.


“No.” Young wrapped an arm around his chief scientist. “It’s not. Genius, I’m built for this.”


“Are you?” Rush asked hollowly.


“Holding lines, far from home? You bet.”


Rush sighed. “Wake me in four hours.”


Young rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Sure.”


“Not you. Y’fuckin’ Judas.”


Young pulled Rush closer, one hand coming to rest in the space between his shoulder blades, where his heart beat fast and hard. The scientist was asleep within seconds.


“Do not wake him in four hours,” Young growled into the empty air.

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