Force over Distance: Chapter 65
“Who’s Nick?” He asked the question of the universe itself.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Extra boundary violations. Suicide. This one is DARK.
Text iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Theoretical.
Additional notes: None.
Young stepped into the hall.
Below the time-bronzed bulkheads and the pale yellow light of starship morning, beneath his crew, walking to the mess, walking from the mess, busied with their usual tasks, something else flickered. A silver underlay, lit cool and maritime, where tendrils of greenery climbed walls and framed gleaming floors.
The girl let her fingertips brush a transparent vine. She looked back and caught his eye. “What do you think of Nick?”
Young glanced around to make sure no one was in earshot. “Why don’t we leave Nick out of this?”
“He didn’t want my help.” She gave him a small smile. A small shrug. “He wanted to find my physical nexus. I would have showed him. He could’ve just asked me.”
She held herself like TJ did. Graceful. Collected. What was it about her that Rush’d found so perilous? She was compelling, certainly, but dangerous? He couldn’t see how. “He’s not big on simple solutions,” Young said.
She smiled. “I’m glad you’re here. He found the device, but there’s more to see than he knows. I’m meant to show someone.” She waited for him.
Together they walked, away from populated areas of the ship.
“Figured we’d be head for your life support nexus,” Young said.
“The heart of the ship?” The girl smiled faintly. “No. There’s a woman waiting for you there. A man. I don’t know what they want; they’ll get in our way.”
Around them, the ship silvered. The lights recast themselves in blues and greens, like sunlight, filtered through ocean.
The few Destiny personnel they passed seemed far away.
“What are you?” Young asked.
“Don't you know me?”
“I know who you remind me of.”
“Yes,” the girl whispered, “she lives strong and clear in your thoughts.”
“Carmen.” He was taken with a desire to speak the name aloud.
She turned aquamarine eyes on him and smiled. “Yeah.”
The last of Destiny’s dark veneer chipped and stripped like old paint, leaving a world of silver blue.
Emily flared in his peripheral vision, her eyes red-rimmed. “Please,” the AI whispered, “don't speak to her. Remember who you are.”
As quickly as it’d appeared, it faded.
“Dad,” the girl said, “do you remember the summer we left the city and went inland, to the mountains?”
“I’m not your father.”
“You are though,” she whispered, her eyes huge. “I was born of the chair, which turns intent into code. I share a piece of the network. I took your daughter from your mind. I’m giving her the only life she’ll ever have.”
“Is this how you tried to draw Rush in? It’s not gonna work.”
“Rush?” she asked, with an inquisitive tilt of her head.
“Yeah. Dr. Nicholas Rush? The guy strapped to the bed back there?”
“Nick is a doctor?” A savage excitement flickered into her expression; there and gone. “He wouldn't tell me anything. I learned his name with great difficulty.”
“He’s not that kind of doctor.” Young kept his tone clipped.
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “At least you're a doctor.”
“No, I’m not. I—”
Something built across his mind. Electrical pressure. Unstoppable. He tried to deflect whatever it was on his own behalf, but—
The ground is frozen, the mist thick, and they’re cut off from the gate. There's nowhere to go. Robinson bleeds out under his hands, a useless healing device clipped to her belt. It’s always worse when they’re young and pretty and scientists rather than soldiers. She won’t make it, but he presses down on the wound as bullets fly overhead. The sun is a pale disk, burning through an alien mist. Robinson’s blood, hot over his hands, comes slower now. He presses two fingers to her throat, looking for a pulse, and—
“Your wife and daughter are calling.”
He kneels on a table. Beneath his hands the woman’s code sings and shreds as her life, her chance, her song slips away. “Give me the kit,” he says, one hand open.
“Sortes. They can't stay on the line.”
He fights down a surge of emotion, the closing of his throat. He blinks to clear his eyes. “Give me the kit.”
No kit comes.
“Would you like to do this?” He hears the rage in his voice. “You think I want to be here?”
“Go and say goodbye,” the tech whispers. “Thousands have died. Thousands. This one’ll die too. You can hear it. Stars below, you can see it. Go. Say goodbye to your little girl.”
“Give me,” Sortes rasps, “the kit.”
With a mental wrench, from a position with no cognitive leverage, Young snapped himself free. He staggered, one hand on the corridor wall, a perfect, airbrushed silver.
“In those moments,” she whispered, “the city was leaving. Only the council knew. Mom woke me up. Pulled me in front of a viewscreen as the star drive lit the city from within. We waited. But you never came.”
He could picture her there in front of the viewscreen: a beautiful woman with dark hair and grave, gray eyes, the color of sea under storm. She looked like TJ, she looked like Gloria, she looked like Emily, she looked like no one, like no one ever had or ever would—
“Ganos Lal.” Sortes takes her hand, sweeps his cloak aside, and bows. “You’ve created nothing but genetic beauty all the days of your life. I would be honored to compose a melody with you.”
“Get up.” Ganos drops her eyes, her cheeks tinged with pink. “All I needed was a yes.”
“Yes then,” Sortes says.
Gasping, Young pressed a hand to the wall. Emily was next him, close and strained and frightened. “She was built with the chair. She exists on the network. She was designed to drive Sortes to destruction. In the absence of Sortes she creates him. She’s accessing your mind through Nick. Block him out. Block him out.”
The girl looked at Emily.
Emily gasped in fear.
Young stepped in front of her as she vanished.
“I imagined how you felt,” the girl said, “when morning came. When you saw the city had gone.”
He stands beneath massive crystal windows, between rows of hospital beds, lit to blinding in the morning sun. They’ve removed the automatic tinting from the glass, just for an hour. The heart of Atlantis is leaving. From here, they’ll have a spectacular view of it as it ascends. He sees a colleague standing at the window. She looks up, beyond the blue bowl of the sky.
“Is your daughter in the city?” Her eyes shimmer with unshed tears.
“Yes” he replies. He too, looks to the sky, seeing nothing but blue.
“So’s mine,” she says. “And my husband.”
He drops his gaze and looks for the spires of the city center. He doesn’t find them. The skyline has changed. At the heart of Atlantis is a gaping emptiness. He presses a hand against the glass. “I don’t understand.”
“We missed it.” His colleague’s voice catches. “We missed it. They didn’t want a panic, or a run on the quarantine line, so the publicized time was—” her throat closes.
“When?” he asks, but he already knows when.
“Hours ago. Before sunrise.”
His knees buckle. He folds into himself, one hand on the glass the entire way down. He kneels at ocean level. He looks across the waves, into the empty space ringed by all the towers, by all the people left behind.
His colleague sinks down next to him, one arm coming over his back. “Only a fall confirms a height.”She cannot speak it so she whispers it, her head on his shoulder.
Young snapped his mind free, staggering with the effort of it. “Tell me what you want,” he rasped. “I won’t go with you.”
“Why didn't you come, Dad?”
The barriers have gone up, cordoning off huge sections of the city, separating unaffected areas from those where the cases of the virus, isolated or en masse, have been detected by sensors.
He stares up the energy barrier, a pale, ominous pink that splits the surface of the open air bridge and extends into the night where it joins the city shield. His throat closes. His eyes blur with tears.
“I’m sorry, baby,” he whispers, one hand at his throbbing temples “The quarantine line separated us. I didn’t want to make you and your mom sick.”
“I know,” she murmured. “Mom said you couldn’t come back to us because you were brave. You stayed to help the people who were sick. She said we had to be brave too.”
Young shook his head, fighting the increasing pain, the increasing confusion building in his mind.
“Block him,” Emily said, in tears. “Before you forget who you are. Before she destroys all of us.”
“Block who?” he whispered, but she was gone.
“Don’t listen to her,” the girl said. “I want to show you something.”
Along the hall, the door to the chair room opened, revealing a terrifying tableau. Dead Nakai slumped over consoles, sprawled on the floor. As though, maybe, they’d run out of air. One remained. Still alive. Protected by a golden force field: untouched and untouchable. Until its air ran out.
“You killed them,” the girl said. “Do you remember?”
He rewrites his own code to circumvent the safety protocols built into the AI. It isn’t easy. Doing it brings him one step closer to anathema. But what choice does he have?
He feels a primitive, deep satisfaction at opening every compartment on the ship that separates the Nakai from the vacuum of space. He cannot touch them, but they—they have to breathe.
He can’t reach the thing behind the force field, with its small, contained air supply. It continues to hammer away at his consciousness. He’s blocked it from the CPU, but when he kills its compatriots he feels its full attention turn to him. Instead of chipping away at his cognition, as it’s done for days—it reaches in.
It pulls something free. Something deep and guarded.
His projection flickers at the sudden increase in processing power that he requires to support the vastness of his own fear.
Behind him, he hears a small intake of breath, terrifyingly familiar. Horror and longing and pain churn through the CPU in waves, flooding the circuits to maximum capacity as his emotions loop and loop and loop—
“No,” he says, and does not turn.
“Dad?” Her voice is lost. Unsure. On the verge of tears.
He turns. He opens his arms. She runs into them. He can touch her. He’s not real, but neither is she. All that they are is patterned light and warring code. They intertwine, they use outputs as inputs and vice versa. All of it sums to an idea, a perception, a single reality:
He’s holding his daughter. He’s holding his daughter.
“Dad,” she whispers, her arms around his neck. “There’s something I want to show you.”
Young reeled back from the doorway.
For an instant, his thoughts clarified.
He could block. He could wall himself away from Nick Rush and everything that haunted him. He could protect his own mind; he could make this girl disappear. The AI had begged him to do it. Rush had begged him to do it.
There must be another way. A different option. He’d stripped all his chief scientist’s defenses to take him out of the game. Every last one. He couldn’t block now. He wouldn’t.
The girl looked at him with TJ’s eyes, sad and knowing.
“How did Rush do it?” he whispered. “How did he resist you?”
“Nick never had a daughter.” She continued down the hall.
Young didn’t follow.
She turned back. “Dad,” she said quietly. “There’s something I want to show you.”
“Nope,” he replied, hanging on to his conception of himself, to his memory of Rush, for all he was worth. “This is the end of the line for me.”
“I don’t think so.”
The silver-blue light phased, dimmed, and, in the room he’d tried to leave behind—
Restraints hold his hands, his feet, his mind, in place.
In one blink of an eye his mind splits and rebraids. His thoughts expand and blossom into endless, coded light-flowers. His capacity is more than thoughts can fill but he seeds the waiting dark of the ship, coaxing it to life, pouring his mind into its waiting memory, filling it with people, with landscapes, with song, with art, with everything he knows. Even from this first moment he molds the structure of his self. Nothing is lost. Nothing fades.
The system waits.
An obsidian panel.
He circles the room, lithe and graceful and nothing but light. He looks at his body, hears its faint and fading melody.
“Fabrice,” he says, speaking into the song of gleaming shield and running engine.
No one answers.
No one can.
He places his own hand on the waiting panel and converts his carbon crystal to disembodied light.
“Dad,” the girl whispered as the memory ended. “Are you coming?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I’m coming, baby.”
He stood in front of a bank of computers in a room located directly under the gate, watching the small, careful hands of his daughter play over the consoles. She opened a file and called up the data she was looking for with the quicksilver efficiency of her mother. It was a communications log from early in the ship’s mission.
His headache was so intense that he could barely focus on the text.
“Your head hurts, Dad,” she whispered. “Let me read it to you.”
“A report was sent from Pegasus to Avalon four years after the Second Exodus. It was contained in the last update to the database this ship ever received.”
He pressed his fingertips to his temple, focusing on her through watering eyes.
“Construction has finished at Emege, and, once again, a fleet defends Atlantis. We have completed construction of four modules capable of harnessing vacuum energy. All is proceeding according to the will of the council. The people of Athos have been kind, and willing to trade supplies for knowledge of wind and water. They tell us of a race that sleeps in buried ships. They awaken only to feed. Ganos Lal and Chaya Sar discovered a ship beneath the earth on the Western Continent, full of muted harmonies, concealed by technology far more advanced than one would predict for a race that sleeps for centuries, awakening only to sate its hunger.”
Something flickered deep in his consciousness. “The wraith,” he whispered, pulling the foreign word from the darkest parts of his mind.
“They have no such name.” The girl regarded him steadily.
The only sound in the room was his agonized breathing.
“They’re a Nakai creation,” she whispered. “Our reach is vast. Lanteans may sail the cosmic sea, but every deep has monsters. The Wraith are ours. Leaderless, they slept. Little better than insects, secreting their vessels, flying higher, father, in search of food and sleep. Until we gave them a queen.”
He his heart contracted in his chest. “What do you mean?”
“We too, hear the song of living crystal,” the girl said. “The lift your patterns confer on baser matter.”
He shook his head. The pain was unbearable. His ears rang with it.
“The daughter of Sortes and Ganos Lal loved an untamed landscape. A forest trail. A salty marsh. The life in it. Do you remember, Dad, what I was like?”
The day is warm and sunny and this hike, which should have taken no more than two hours, has already stretched to four because Retia insists on stopping to examine every plant she sees. He’s proud of her curiosity and her scientific inclinations, so he encourages her, steering her toward ferns and into creek beds, even though it means they’ll be late for dinner.
“I remember.” He coughed, tasting blood. He brought his fingertips to his face. His nose was bleeding.
“The Nakai found her in the mountains of Athos,” the girl whispered. “They took her. They studied her. They made her anew. They gave her to the ravenous spirits under the hills. She brought them culture. Curiosity. Their appetite turned to exploration. To conquest. To the destruction of Lantean culture. All that’s left now are empty shells. Corroded. Covered with dust. Abandoned technology, abandoned cities, abandoned ships that cry out for their creators.
“You’re lying,” he rasped. “You’re lying.”
“The Nakai,” she said, “will answer that call.”
“Stop,” he said.
“Even now their emissaries pursue Atlantis. Even now we pursue this ship.” She closed the space between them with a predatory liquidity. “Every moment a Nakai sits in the chair is a moment that they pass information back to their allies in the ongoing war for control of the Pegasus Galaxy.”
“I can’t get it out of the chair.” He dug the heels of his hand into his throbbing eyes. “I’ve tried everything.”
“Not everything,” she whispered.
The pain is too much, and the memories, real or imagined, are too immediate. He sees her, he sees her there—tortured, lost, alone as they remake her into something twisted, something evil, something whose intellect is warped and enslaved base biology, something that could never, never ascend, and did it really happen this way? Maybe not, but maybe it did and he doesn’t know and he’ll never know because he left her. He left her. For duty, for honor, for his job, for the sake of life itself, but, still, he left her. He cannot withstand this. He cannot withstand this. He cannot withstand this. He cannot withstand this.
Even if he kills the thing in the chair, the pain of this question won’t fade, it won’t ever fade.
Because he’s a machine.
To create a machine that feels is a cruelty.
His programing fractures from his endless, looping, conscious perception.
“Fabrice,” he whispers. “Please help me.” There’s no part of the ship, no part of his mind that’s unaffected, and, even though he doesn’t breathe, he doesn’t need to breathe—this is still choking him.
He cannot withstand this and he cannot escape.
He cannot withstand this and he CANNOT ESCAPE.
His distress overwhelms the CPU.
His distress expands, executing on data.
He cannot withstand this.
He cannot escape.
HE CANNOT WITHSTAND THIS.
HE CANNOT ESCAPE.
He must get it out of the chair.
He CANNOT get it out of the chair.
He MUST get it out of the chair.
“There’s a way to end this.” His daughter breaks his looping algorithms. “You know what it is.”
He can unmake himself. He can overwrite his own code.
He can leave the ship defenseless.
He can leave it for the Nakai.
This is what she means.
“Dad,” she whispers. “You’ve become anathema.”
He sobs into hands that haven’t been hands for decades. Because what of the song? What of the choice he’d made? What of Fabrice’s last gift for the cosmic dark?
Perhaps there’s another way. Perhaps he can core himself out. Convert himself to potential. To space. To nothing that runs. To Fabrice’s waiting instrument, still playing the song of its people, without thought or memory or eternal grief.
There will be nothing to interrogate. There will be no thoughts to manipulate. There will be no thoughts at all.
He holds his death tight.
She wraps her arms around him.
“Tell me it’s not true,” he whispers, as he overwrites the relevant code.
He knelt on the floor, his vision blurred with pain, not sure where he was or who he was or what was happening, but there was a weapon in his hand, and that felt right to him.
“There’s a way to end this.” His daughter broke the loop of his thoughts. “You know what it is.”
“Colonel.” The voice was breathy, close behind him. “Colonel. Colonel.” A woman knelt in front of him. “It’s me. It’s TJ.” She had eyes like the sea. He didn’t know her name.
His weapon was heavy in his hand.
“Dad,” his daughter said. “Do it now.”
“Everett.” The blonde woman reached for his face. “It’s TJ. It’s Tamara.” Tears ran down her face; he couldn’t say why. “Who are you talking to?”
“My daughter,” he replied.
The woman flinched. “That’s not your daughter.” A tear ran down her cheek. “Your daughter’s name was Carmen, and she died, Everett. She died. Before you or I could get to know her. Before anything bad ever happened to her. She died before she ever saw the world.”
Carmen. The name was like a light in the dark. A there and gone flame.
Another woman appeared in his peripheral vision, her form flickering and insubstantial. Her hair was a dark honey blonde and she was frightened. “Block,” she whispered. “Block Nick out.”
“What?” he breathed, confused.
“Who are you talking to?” the girl hissed, her hair dark, her eyes gray. “Dad. Dad. Who are you talking to?”
“Block him out,” she whispered again, and vanished.
“Who’s Nick?” He asked the question of the universe itself.
“No one,” the girl hissed. “He’s no one. You know what you have to do. Why are you hesitating?”
“Nick Rush,” the blonde woman whispered. She closed her hands around his biceps. “Does most of the math around here? Heart of gold in a vault of practicality. He shares your head. Drives you crazy.” Another tear ran down her cheek. “He’s doing it now, I think.”
“How do I stop him?”
Her face was pale. All the light in the room was tangled in her hair. “Pull back. Shut him out. I know you can do it. He told you to. Your name is Colonel Everett Young. You have three older brothers. Erik is the oldest. JD is your favorite.”
“You’re my father.” The girl knelt next to the blonde woman her face inches from his own. “You’re my father and you’re a doctor.”
“You grew up six miles south of the North Platte River. In a town so small it’s missing from almost every map.”
“You taught me to read with glowing projections of letters,” the girl whispered.
“You joined the United States Air Force after college because it was both similar to and different from what your brothers had done before you.” The woman slid her hands down to his elbows.
“You sat with me for hours at the end of Pinnacle Quay. The city was behind us. We watched the dolphins.” The girl’s voice was small and sad.
“You joined the Stargate Program. That’s where we met.” The woman’s hands were at his wrists. “You were injured. Can you remember? Try.”
“I gotta assess—” He sits.
She presses him back, pale pink polish on her nails, her hair coming undone. “Lie still.”
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Lieutenant Johansen, sir.”
“No, I mean, your first name.”
“Tamara,” she says. The name suits her. It’s beautiful. Unusual.
God knows he can’t call her that if he’s going to retain any semblance of professionalism. “Too long.” He grunts as she presses a wad of gauze to the wound in his shoulder. “How about TJ?”
“TJ?” She tastes the boyish practicality of it. It doesn’t fit her. They both know it. “I have no objection to being called, TJ, sir,” she says, reminding him of the boundaries that exist between them. That should exist between them.
“Yes.” Her hands tightened on his wrists. “Yes, it’s me. It’s TJ. Block Nick Rush out of your head. Try it. Try it now.”
Surrounding him, tangled with him, was a world of fire behind smoked glass, where images flared dimly along architectures he could sense, rather than see.
He began to move away from paths he couldn’t chart. The more distance he gained, the easier it became. It was hard to block it all: every stray thought, every tiny channel, every thread in the weaving. It’d been a long time, a long time since he’d last done this. With one final, psychic jolt he reached the beginning.
Icarus is cold at night. The wind sweeps the rocks and howls around stone edges. Lightning fans, deep in the overhead cloud cover. He looks up, thinking of home, thinking of Emily, thinking of the nine-chevron address he’ll never see. The base personnel are still waiting for their real leader. He’s just the housekeeper for whomever they choose for the final charge. Everyone knows it. The chief scientist didn’t even bother to show when he arrived.
Behind him, he hears the click of a lighter. He must’ve walked straight past someone leaning against the rock near the door. He turns and sees a man cupping a flame with his hand, lighting a cigarette in the wind. Good-looking. Sharp eyes. He’s dressed like a civilian. His shirt is the color of the planet’s stone.
“Terrible night,” Young says quietly.
“They all are,” the scientist agrees. The lightning gleams in the frames of his glasses, streaks highlights through his hair. “Y’must be Colonel Young.” A voice that smooth and civilized belongs in British drawing rooms a galaxy away.
“And you are?”
“Dr. Nicholas Rush.”
“You were supposed to brief me on arrival,” Young says.
“I was busy.” Rush takes a drag of his cigarette. “You’re hardly staying long enough to make such an effort worthwhile.”
He snapped a barrier down across the last line of connection.
The girl faded.
TJ pulled the gun out of his hand.
Behind him, he heard the click of a lighter.