Force over Distance: Chapter 64
He’d fix this.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Extra boundary violations. References to suicide.
Text iteration: Witchingest hour.
Audio status: Theoretical.
Additional notes: None.
The underside of his eyelids had been coated with glue.
Everything hurt: his muscles, his bones, his shoulder, his eyes, his head.
“Everett.” It was Emily’s voice. Low and hard and frightened.
He opened his eyes, lifted his head, and saw her next to the bed. Her face, inches from his, was too close to focus on. A sweep of honey-colored hair blurred its way over a hazel eye.
“No,” she said. “No, Everett, I’m sorry.” She backed off, her jaw turning square, her face elongating, her hair turning shorter, turning darker, but not quite short enough, not quite dark enough. Jackson’s eyes stayed hazel.
“Kid.” Young pushed himself up on one elbow. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Something’s wrong with him.” The AI hugged itself with Jackson’s arms, the sleeves of its white sweater held tight in its hands.
Young looked to the other side of his empty bed. He fell back and buried his face in the pillow, overwhelmed with everything that was always spiraling out of control on this ship. “Something’s always wrong with him.” The words were unintelligible.
“What?” Jackson’s voice carried a vein of Emily’s anxiety, low and weighty, a line of gold in a lode deposit.
“Nothing.” Young sat, and found himself fully clothed, down to his boots. He remembered the previous night in pieces. Flashes of falling into bed. Shards of a “pure brilliant” idea. “How’n the hell did he wake up before me?”
“It’s oh seven thirty,” The AI whispered. “He’s been up for five hours.”
“Five hours? And you’re just waking me now?”
“Sorry,” the AI hugged itself harder.
“What the hell are you thinking?” Young snarled.
“He makes it difficult,” the AI began, in Jackson’s most rapid, uncertain tones. “His logic is sound, his logic is always sound, but it’s not obvious to me what his biological limitations are; he rarely considers them—only when they’re an absolute barrier. I don’t have such limits myself, I don’t have even a memory of them, not even a hint of a computational instinct. I have the readings Tamara has collected from scans in the medical bay, but these are difficult to extrapolate from.”
“Oh yeah?” Young stood, and the room spun around him. “Well, let me clear it up for you. When it comes to extrapolation you’re doing a shit job. Complete garbage. Where the HELL is he?”
The AI looked anxiously at the anteroom. Young followed it’s gaze, and—
All the free floor space was taken up by a schematic that’d had been chalked in intricate detail directly onto the deck plates. The chalk lines were ghostly, white carbonate taken up only irregularly by the time-tarnished metal of the floor. Beyond the diagram, Rush was facedown on the couch. His right hand, still holding the chalk, trailed on the floor. On the other side of their link, his mind was banked fire of veiled interference.
Every betrayal, every omission, every elusive turn of expression, of phrase, of thought that Nick Rush had ever employed in service of whatever goal he’d decided to pursue stuck in Young’s throat. The lies he was capable of. The deceit. The god damned duplicitous pretense that came as naturally as breathing and math.
It was impossible not to take it personally.
It was impossible to cool down.
It was impossible to oppose someone who could calculate the best ways to grind through every shred of his humanity. Like a machine.
“Did he find it?” Young asked, with ironclad control.
“Yes.” The AI hugged itself in his peripheral vision.
Young stepped carefully through clear floor space on his way to the couch.
He knelt next to the man and touched his shoulder, leaned into the blur of interference in his mind. Even through his jacket, he was too warm. His mind was a blur of unstructured ache. He didn’t respond to the pressure of Young’s hand or mind.
“So,” he said, through clenched teeth. “You wanna tell me what happened?”
“I think if I tell you, you’ll be angry,” the AI whispered. “More angry.”
“It’d be pretty difficult to get more angry,” Young said. He pulled the chalk out of Rush’s lax fingers and set it on the table with a quiet click. He manhandled the man onto his back.
“You shouldn’t be as angry as you are,” the AI said quietly. “I don’t understand.”
“Yep,” Young said.
He looked Rush over. The guy looked like he’d been in a damn fight. The collar of his jacket was torn. There was dust on his BDUs. The knuckles of his left hand were bruised. A thin trail of dried blood ran from behind Rush’s ear down his neck. He tipped the man’s head to the side to examine the injury more closely.
“What the hell?”
There was a small puncture wound immediately behind the other man’s ear. Young’s first thought was the neural interface chair, the electrodes that penetrated beneath the skin’s surface, but this injury was the wrong location, it was one-sided—
“You’re fucking kidding me.”
Rush’s skin burned against Young’s icy fingertips.
“He did it for you,” the AI said, with Jackson’s urgent haste, tripping over itself to get the words out. “To spare your mind from the difficulty of a dream extraction. He did it for me. A biological solution that he could partially partition from my awareness.”
Young shook his head, unable to speak.
“I’m sorry,” the AI whispered.
With nerveless fingers, he unclipped his radio from his belt. “This is Young. TJ, Eli, Greer, and Scott report to my quarters. Now. And TJ, bring Varro.”
He got a chorus of “understoods” and an “okay,” from Eli.
“I can explain,” the AI said quietly.
“Get out,” Young said, just as quietly.
“Colonel, there’s more to tell you. The device is broadcasting a signal. He attempted to neutralize it last night, but—”
“Get out,” Young said.
“There’s a serious, ongoing problem,” the AI whispered.
“Y’think?” Young snarled, gesturing at Rush. “Out. Right now.”
The AI vanished.
Young’s chest was tight with panic or with rage, it was hard to tell the difference. He shouldn’t have allowed this. He shouldn’t have allowed any of this. He was supposed to keep the damn ship on track. He was supposed to keep Rush on track. He wasn’t doing enough.
He was gonna fix this.
He was gonna fix the whole damn thing. On his own. The way it should be. He was in command of this ship; time to act like it.
“How out are you?” He gave his chief scientist a gentle shake and got nothing in response. “Pretty damn out.”
The interference-blurred momentum of the man’s mind was hard to parse. That’d have to go. He leaned into it, hard. It resisted. More than that, it drew energy from Young’s attempt to bring it down.
“Smart.” He took a breath, forcing himself into a calm he didn’t feel.
This was a battleground. A campaign with a complex objective that would play out in the world, in the mind, in the literal deck plates of the ship. He needed to physically secure his vessel, he needed to physically and mentally secure his chief scientist, and he needed to get the damn tracking device out of the walls. In that order.
He could do that.
He would do that.
Everything was fine.
The door chimed.
Young stood, walked the perimeter of the chalked diagram, and hit the controls.
“Hi!” Eli was surprisingly bright-eyed for 0730. “Quick proposal: we have this not-so secret meeting thirty minutes from now? Because Becker is making a hey-welcome-to-the-intergalactic-planetless-void-with-pancakes type breakfast—” Eli put on the brakes. “Okaaaaaay. That’s your Stress Face. So, um, yeah. Now works for me. It’s cool; Chloe will save me pancakes.”
“Thanks.” Young stepped aside and Eli entered the room.
“Ooh, you’re letting him redecorate, huh? That’s a serious relationship milestone—” Eli trailed off as he took in the extent of the drawing and Rush, passed out on the couch. “Oh crap. He doesn’t look so good.”
“I know,” Young rasped. “I’m pretty sure he found it. Can you get the Science Team to take a look at this? Figure it out?”
“Yeah.” Eli’s attention flicked between Rush and the chalk drawing on the floor. “Already, I can tell you this is part of the life support system. It’s an information hub, where internal sensors feed statistics about conditions on the ship back to the mainframe, and hence, I guess, the AI. There are three of them onboard. One’s newly accessible after the repairs he asked us for yesterday.” Eli gave Young a wry look. “Ten bucks says that’ll be the lucky winner.”
His door chime sounded again.
“Come in,” he called.
The doors slid open to reveal TJ, her medical bag slung over her shoulder, Varro at her side.
“What is it?” TJ asked, after one look at his face. “What’s wrong?”
Young beckoned them inside. “Colonel Telford,” he paused, controlling his tone with effort, “used a Tok’ra memory recall device on our chief scientist. Not sure how voluntary it was; he looks like he’s been in a fight.”
Eli looked at Rush, startled.
“Oh god.” TJ stepped forward, but Young caught her arm. “Careful of the floor,” he said.
She nodded, tip-toed through the diagram, and parked herself on the coffee table next to Rush. “How long has he been out?”
“No idea,” Young said. “I gave him your mix. He went to bed. At some point he woke up and either ran into or sought out Colonel Telford.”
“His vitals don’t look good,” TJ said, two fingers at Rush’s throat, her aquamarine device bright in her hand. “He needs to be in the infirmary.”
Young nodded. “I figured. Can you two get him there? I’ll meet you in fifteen minutes or so.”
TJ looked up at him. “You’re going after Telford.”
“I’m not ‘going after’ anybody.” Young kept his voice mild. “Flouting orders and assaulting civilians comes with consequences on this ship.”
“Yes sir,” TJ said, in grim agreement.
“Eli,” Young said. “I want you to temporarily lock Telford’s team out ship’s systems.”
“I, uh, his whole team? Because they’ve been helpful when it comes to—”
“Eli.” Young gave the kid a hard stare. “They’re benched. All of them. Until I say otherwise.”
“Got it.” Eli gave him an anxious salute.
The door chimed for a third time.
Young buckled on his sidearm, then paused, hovering over TJ. He beckoned Varro over. “If he wakes up, keep him in the infirmary. You got that?”
“TJ?” Young prompted.
“That could get ugly.” Her gaze was full of warning. “I don’t know if it’s even possible. He doesn’t respond to threats. Locked doors won’t hold him. Force fields won’t hold him.”
“That’s what Varro’s for,” Young growled.
TJ’s expression hardened. “You know what he’s like.”
“Lieutenant,” Young growled. “We all know what he’s like. You keep him in that infirmary for twenty damn minutes. I don’t care how you do it.”
“Yes sir,” she said, her face a neutral mask.
Young headed for the door, hit the controls, and found Scott and Greer in the hallway. He stepped past them. They spun to follow. He set a brisk pace.
“Sir?” Scott said. “Can I ask what this is about?”
“Either of you seen Colonel Telford this morning?”
“He was at breakfast around 0600.” Scott spoke warily. “I haven’t seen him since.”
Young stopped dead in the middle of the hallway. He pulled out his radio. “David, come in please.”
“Go ahead, Everett.”
“What’s your current location?”
“I’m in the CI room. Were you aware Volker’s been locked in here since 0400?”
“On my way,” Young said.
“Have you seen Rush?” Telford asked.
“Hold that thought,” he growled. “Young out.”
Scott and Greer looked at him expectantly.
“Colonel Telford,” Young couldn’t help the vicious twist he put on the man’s name, “at a minimum, willfully disobeyed a direct order which resulted in deliberate injury to a civilian under his protection. I plan to charge him under Articles 92 and 128 of the UCMJ, relieve him of his current duties, and confine him until such a time that his case can be reviewed by a military court.”
“Yes sir,” Greer said.
They set off toward the CI room.
As they walked halls lit with artificial morning, Young put a chokehold on his fraying self-control.
He felt himself overreacting. Rush, with his nuclear drive in a glass casing, was getting to him. Telford, with his layered loyalties overlying molten strategy, was getting to him. The AI, with its hollowed-out heart and cored-out memory, was getting to him.
He was tired of doing such a shit job, tired of letting people down, time after time. Tired of making shit decisions, tired of leaving civilians to die, tired of watching Wray walk into hostage negotiations with no flak jacket, tired of disappointing Scott, tired of asking too much of Eli, tired of the looks TJ gave him in the middle of bad decisions stacked so deep he couldn’t see clear of the rut he’d made for himself.
Young hated letting people down.
It wasn’t who he was.
And when—when he did let people down, he fixed it. He fixed it. He damn well worked on it and he fixed it. At any cost.
He’d fix this. He would.
It was his job; he’d do it. Everything would be fine.
He hit the door controls for the CI room. The metal panels opened to reveal Telford and Volker seated together, in front of Rush’s usual station. Volker was pale. His shoulders were hunched, his body language was closed. Telford, next to him, bent close, spoke quietly, appeared to be trying to talk him down. James, too, was there, wearing jeans and v-neck shirt. She stood at Volker’s shoulder, her expression neutral, her eyes on Telford.
“Everett.” Telford slid out of his chair as they entered. He crossed the room to meet them. “Does anyone have eyes on Rush?”
Without a plan, without foresight, without a thought in his damn head, Young curled his hand into a fist, and used all his forward momentum to drive it straight into Telford’s jaw.
The man staggered with the force of the blow. He dropped to a knee, then fell out of his crouch.
“You’re under arrest, you son of a bitch.” Young shook out his aching hand.
Greer moved laterally, pulled his sidearm, and sighted down the barrel. Scott stood at Young’s flank, his hand on his gun. James stepped in front of Volker.
“What the fuck, Everett?” Telford touched his fingertips to his split lip.
“You’re charged with willfully disobeying a direct order and at least one count of assault on a civilian under your protection,” Young growled. “What the hell did you do to him?”
Telford spit a mouthful of blood onto the floor. “He came to me, Everett. Begged me to fucking help him.”
“How many sessions. How many fucking hours, David. That’s all I goddamned need from you.”
“Go fuck yourself.” Telford wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “You’re the worst excuse for a full bird colonel I’ve ever seen. Reactive. Cautious when you should be bold. Bold when you should be cautious. You’ve undercut the best scientist the SGC’s seen since the glory days of Sam Fucking Carter at every opportunity.”
“How many hours, David.”
“Two the first night. Three the second.”
“And then what. You left him alone? You let him wander the goddamn ship?”
“No,” Telford snarled. “I fucking walked him to your fucking quarters.”
“Do you have any idea, any idea at all how close to the edge he operates? How fragile his—”
“Fragile?” Telford spit blood onto the deck plates. “Fragile? Nothing about that man is fragile. Listen to yourself. Jesus Christ, Everett. You are compromised like I’ve never seen.”
“You’re sleeping with him,” Telford hissed. “He flat out confirmed it. Can’t wait to hear what the IOA thinks of that.”
“Not sure you’ll ever find out,” Young growled. “Scott and Greer will escort you to your quarters. Once there, you’ll surrender the Tok’ra device to Lieutenant Scott. You’ll remain in your quarters until I say otherwise.”
Telford ran his sleeve across his mouth. “Did he find it?” he rasped.
“Yeah,” Young said grudgingly. “It looks that way.”
“Then it was worth it.”
“Go to hell,” Young said, and strode out of the room.
He was halfway down the hall, his own fury buzzing in his ears, before the sound of someone calling him by rank penetrated his awareness.
He turned to see Volker, jogging to catch him up. James strode at his six, her gaze flicking between Volker and the empty air.
Young watched her, eyes narrowed.
“Colonel,” Volker said, reaching him. The astrophysicist was breathless and pale, with dark circles under his eyes. His hair was a mess, and his shirt collar was missing a button. “We gotta talk.”
“Later,” Young said.
“No,” Volker replied, with more strength in his voice than Young’d ever heard from the man. “Now. I ran into Rush last night.”
“He’s out of his mind,” Volker said, the words falling over themselves. “I mean really. He’s going after the tracking device. By himself. He was hallucinating. It’s messing with him. The device, I mean. He’s down in the space beyond the FTL drive. James’s corridor. I tried to stop him. We have to go now. I don’t have a radio. Do you have a radio?” Volker stopped, panting, his breath coming short and fast.
Young and James looked at one another, then at the radio clipped to Volker’s hip.
“Crap. I don’t have a working radio. Rush disabled mine. Guys. He’s on his own and his brain isn’t online. He—”
“He’s in the infirmary,” Young said.
Volker stared at him. “Oh. Really?”
“Yeah.” Young said. “He found the device.”
“But, uh, did he ‘neutralize’ it?”
“Probably.” Young turned in the direction of the infirmary and started walking. “Write it up in a report.” He threw the words back over his shoulder. “Get it to me by 1700.”
“A—a report?” Volker echoed.
“That’s what I said.” Young didn’t look back.
“Is he serious?” Volker’s high-pitched question carried easily down the hall. “A report? We have to—”
“Save it,” James said, short and professional. “Come with me.”
Young peeled off the main corridor and holed himself up in a conference room turned storage closet before he tangled with whatever the hell was waiting for him in the infirmary. He parked himself on a gray crate labeled: Normal Saline [Dry Mix] and did his best to get himself in hand.
He was pretty damn sure Rush was awake.
Awake, and upset as hell.
It was hard to tell with all the interference the guy was running, but Young’s body knew the story, wired all to hell in some kind of subconscious, sympathetic, metaphysical simpatico.
Locking Telford up had been the easy part. Dealing with Rush was infinitely harder. But it was only harder because he cared what Rush thought. It was only harder because Young couldn’t, for the life of him, turn of his visceral reactions to the guy. It was only harder because Rush had enough native tactical instinct to use every weapon at his disposal in an argument.
And there was no mistake. They’d be going at it. Hard.
Coming into alignment.
He’d spent days giving ground. Weeks. He gave ground and he gave ground and he gave ground and what the hell did he have to show for it? A chief scientist who’d driven himself out of his mind and into a viral flare? An AI so frightened it had backseated itself to very guy it’d slaved to it’s own CPU? A ship so sensitive to the psychology of its favorite human that it dropped itself out of FTL whenever things went too badly wrong?
All of it had to stop.
It had to.
Around him, crates of waiting supplies were stacked in dark towers.
No one would like how things were about to go down.
Not Rush, not the AI, not TJ, not the Science Team.
Not him. Especially not him.
It didn’t matter.
He stood and passed through the doors into the corridor, then entered the infirmary.
It was quiet.
The door to TJ’s office was open. The interior was dark.
He walked to the back, posted himself up in the doorway, leaned against the frame, and got the lay of the land.
Varro perched on the gurney nearest the door. He was working a block of wood with a small knife. He glanced up at Young, nodded once, then dropped his eyes to the shape he was coaxing free. It looked like it might be a bird. A thing with wings.
TJ sat next to Rush, her expression locked, her eyes like sunlit ocean, wet and wild and blue.
Rush was in restraints, his burning gaze looked on nothingness at the center of the room.
“TJ,” Young said softly.
Her eyes flicked to him. She didn’t move.
“C’mon,” he whispered, and turned out of the doorframe.
She followed him into the main infirmary floorspace, her Ancient device blazing at her hip, running through an array of blue: sapphire to aquamarine and back again, over and over in distressed rainbows.
“How is he?” Young asked.
TJ shook her head.
“Lieutenant,” Young said.
TJ shook her head again, turned away, and paced to the wall, one hand at her face. She stayed silent.
Young was sure she was crying. He stepped in. She shrank from his touch, one hand raised, as though to ward him off. She ducked away from him, backing toward the room where Varro waited. “That’s the last time I do that,” she whispered. “The last time you ever ask me.”
Young grabbed her by both arms, hauled her away from the open doorway, dragged her back a few steps, and let her go, hands raised. “He locked Volker in the CI room last night. He’s hallucinating. He’s looking, right now, at something that isn’t there. He cannot be up and walking around.”
“I know,” TJ’s said, with suppressed fury. “While we were in here, forcing him into restraints, where were you? Beating the hell out of Colonel Telford?” Her eyes were tearing, but her voice was cold. “Did you enjoy yourself?”
“That’s enough, lieutenant.”
“Yes sir.” She turned away again, making for the open doorframe.
“TJ,” he said, real desperation in his voice. “TJ.” Again, he pulled her back, more gently this time. “You and I both know,” he said, his breath coming short and shallow, “that I’d—be shit at—” He gave up. Started over. “This is my fault, lieutenant. The whole thing. I know that. Better than anyone.”
He could see her softening.
“Whatever’s happening in there?” He pointed at the back room of the infirmary. “It’s on me. I’m supposed to prevent this shit. I let him go way too far, on his own, because he convinced me it was necessary. I’m gonna fix it. I’m gonna fix him. But I need your help.”
The hard fire faded from her eyes.
“I need you, lieutenant. You’re not a means to an end, you’re not a convenience, you’re the best chance I have of pulling him through this. I put him down and there’s no way he cooperates with me. And he needs to, TJ. He has to. Pretty sure his sanity literally depends on it.”
“I’m listening,” TJ said.
“He hasn’t really slept in days. Telford used a Tok’ra device on him. His mind is nothing but interference, starship flashbacks, and pain. I need to take down his interference so I can see what we’re dealing with.”
“It’s his interference,” TJ said, full of doubt.
“I know. But it’s burning his energy and he’s running it to protect me, I’m pretty damn sure. I’ll try to get him to drop it, but if I can’t—is there something you can give him that might help? Something safe?”
“You’re sure he’s really hallucinating?” TJ asked. “He’s not looking at the AI?”
Young nodded. “The AI itself confirmed it.”
Still, TJ hesitated.
“I’ll try to get him to drop it on his own,” Young said. “But if I can’t—TJ. You have to see that—that this isn’t normal. He needs help. I can sort out his brain, he sleeps it off, and hopefully we stay on top of whatever viral flare he’s kick-started.”
She turned away, walked to a cart, and pulled out a vial. She held it up to her Ancient device, then pocketed it. She opened another drawer and came up with a capped needle and syringe. “Don’t argue with him,” she whispered. “It isn’t fair.”
They entered the back room together. TJ moved to the foot of the bed, her supplies concealed in her pocket. Young dropped into her empty chair.
Still, Rush stared down the nothingness at the center of the room like he was was the fastest hand in the west, waiting for a specter to make its move.
Young dragged his chair directly into the man’s line of sight.
Rush blinked at him, startled. He jerked, once, against the restraints that secured his wrists.
“Hey,” Young rasped.
“Fuck you,” Rush replied, in a politely conversational tone.
“How you doin’?”
“Bit fuckin’ tied up, thanks,” Rush hissed, jerking viciously at his restraints, hard enough to bruise. “How’re you?”
“Why’d you lock Volker in the CI room?” Young asked.
“Because Volker’s a bloody open crystal book,” Rush snarled. “Will y’please. Let me up? I learned something from my failed neutralization attempt, but, unfortunately, the device seems t’ve honed in a bit better on my consciousness. I’m holding it at bay, but I will, eventually, run out of energy.”
“Why don’t you drop that interference and we’ll talk about it.”
“I’ll die first, thanks.”
Young glanced at TJ. She nodded.
“What’s your plan, genius?” Young asked. “If I let you up, what are you gonna do?”
“We’ll split the Science Team in two,” Rush said. “You’ll take Eli, Volker, and Park and oversee the removal the paneling atop the life support node where the device is located. You’ll hold there. I’ll be in the CI room with Brody and Chloe. We’ll monitor while Eli does the extraction.”
Young nodded. “Uh huh. You and Chloe, the two people who have a real feel for Nakai tech, are gonna hang back and monitor life support, huh? While Eli does the extraction?”
Rush hissed through his teeth and yanked viciously at his restraints. “Fuck you.”
In Young’s peripheral vision, he saw TJ draw up the solution from the vial in her hand, and flick the air out of the syringe.
He glanced at her and nodded.
This time, Rush followed his gaze. He tensed, when he caught sight of TJ. “Tamara,” he said, sharp and panicked. “Tamara.” Along the wall behind him, monitors began quiet, rhythmic chimes as Rush’s heartrate skyrocketed, his pressure shot up, and his breathing quickened. “Do not—fuck,” he hissed as she pulled his jacket open and injected the contents of the syringe into the muscle of his shoulder.
“Sorry genius,” Young said, already pressing against the man’s running interference, dragging against it, trying to break it up.
“This is a catastrophe,” Rush said through clenched teeth, fighting Young for all he was worth. “Don’t break it down you complete fuckin’ idiot, I’m shielding you.”
The monitors continued to chime as Rush glared daggers at the ceiling, holding out against Young’s pressure and whatever was leeching into his system. “Bloody nightmares, the pair of you,” he hissed, pouring what felt like endless energy into the spin of his interference.
Young—felt something in his peripheral vision. Felt rather than saw. Something cold. Something unsettling. Something looking at him. But when he looked to the center of the room, there was nothing there.
Rush fought the restraints for all he was worth, straining to get his left hand free. Young clamped a hand on his forearm and applied counterpressure, trying to minimize the damage.
“Fuckin’—” Rush snarled through clenched teeth. “Bloody idiots.”
“Settle down,” Young said, wincing at the damage the guy was doing to his wrist. He glanced behind him. God, but it felt like there was someone there.”
Rush stopped fighting, his breathing shallow and way the hell too fast. He switched his focus from Young to TJ. “Tamara,” he breathed. “Tamara I’ve, uh, I’ve made, perhaps, a serious misstep. I’d love to explain it to you. In detail. Is there anything that could be done to—” he broke off, breathless. “neutralize whatever y’just gave me?”
“No,” TJ said.
And, like she’d landed a psychic blow, Rush’s running interference cracked apart.
Young’s mind ached, like it was bleeding, deep beneath the bone of his skull. His eyes hurt. His bones were on fire. But worst of all, worst of all, was the crawling sensation of being watched.
He turned his head. This time, in the center of the room, he saw a girl.
She was maybe fourteen. Tall for her age, her arms and legs thin and coltish like she was in the middle of a growth spurt. Her eyes were like TJ’s: an ocean blue. Her hair was blonde. She’d piled it atop her head. It curled like his did, when it got long.
“Fuck,” Rush breathed. “Fuck. Everett. Don’t look at her.”
“Don’t look at who?” TJ demanded.
“Don’t look at her,” Rush snapped again. “She’s dangerous. She’s too attuned to you already. That’s not what she looked like. That’s not.” Rush yanked against his restraints. “What she looked like. She’s changing. For you. In real fuckin’ time.”
“Colonel?” TJ said sharply.
The girl held a finger to her lips.
Young looked at TJ. “Sorry. Just an echo. I’m okay.”
“No,” Rush’s voice turned breathy. “Tamara. Tamara. Tamara.”
“I’m here,” TJ said, across from Young, both hands on Rush’s shoulders, easing him back. “I’m here. Try to relax.”
“Genius,” Young said, helping her, pressing against Rush’s undefended thoughts, projecting distracted reassurance. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“No. Fuck. I am worried. I—don’t follow her. She’s not a memory. She’s a piece of malicious code. She can influence you through you connection t’me. Tamara. Don’t let him—oh god.” Rush stopped fighting them, relaxing back against the bed as the combined pressure of Young’s mind and whatever was working it’s way into his bloodstream finally got to him.
Young straightened, unable to help himself from glancing over his shoulder.
The girl was still there. She had TJ’s eyes. If Carmen had grown up—
He couldn’t finish the thought.
“Tamara,” Rush breathed. “Y’can’t let him leave. He can see her.”
TJ threw an uncertain glance at Young.
Young shook his head.
“Don’ fuckin’ shake your head,” Rush hissed. “Tamara. I realize—” his eyes rolled back as Young pressed hard against his running thoughts and his muscles lost their tension. Even then he rallied, battled back, adapted to the pressure Young had him under. “I realize how this looks. But Tamara. He can see her.”
“Who,” TJ asked.
“Your daughter,” Rush breathed.
TJ recoiled like she’d been slapped.
Young caught and held her gaze. He shook his head. “TJ, he doesn’t know what he’s saying. He’s semi-conscious at best.”
“Fuck you,” Rush breathed, his eyes half open. “Tamara, you owe me. F’things I’ve not done. Not yet.”
Again, TJ flinched.
“Yeah,” Young said, gently, “because that makes a lot of sense. Stop giving TJ a hard time. She doesn’t owe you a damn thing.”
“Tamara,” Rush breathed.
“Eyes right here,” Young said, angling the scientist’s head away from his CMO. “Leave TJ alone. Talk to me.”
Rush’s eyelids fluttered. “Block,” he slurred, semiconscious. “Y’have t’block.”
“Any advice I can actually follow?” Young asked, dragging his fingertips through the scientist’s hair.
The girl moved from the center of the room. She approached TJ, staring at her with huge, longing eyes.
They were so alike.
“Don’t,” Rush whispered. “Don’ confront her without me. Don’ talk to her. You need me. Y’do.”
“I know,” Young pushed damp tendrils of hair away from Rush’s too-warm forehead. “Go to sleep.”
Rush made a soft sound of protest as Young finally forced him down and through the floor of awareness, into a disorganized, exhausted blend of dream and sedation.
“Jesus Christ,” Young breathed shakily. He looked up at TJ, trying like hell to keep his gaze off the girl. “Thanks.”
In his peripheral vision, the girl turned, heading for the open door of the infirmary.
“I gotta go,” Young said.
“Maybe you should stay.” TJ’s eyes were shadowed and uncertain.
“I really don’t want him waking up with that thing still in the walls.”
“Was he right?” TJ asked. “About any of it? About our—”
“No,” Young said gently. “Keep an eye on him. Radio if you need me.”
Without a backward glance he headed into the dark of the corridor, where the girl waited.