Force over Distance: Chapter 66
The combination, dressed in black, stood alone in a clean, white room that stretched to infinity on all sides.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Extra boundary violations. Suicide.
Text iteration: Witching hour.
Additional notes: None.
Young leaned into TJ. Blood trickled down the back of his throat. He wiped his nose with the cuff of his jacket, the frayed material harsh against his skin. His hands shook.
“You okay?” TJ’s breath was warm on the side of his neck.
He didn’t want to turn.
This time, he had created this thing.
He took a shuddering breath.
It walked toward him, its footsteps quiet on the deck plating.
He didn’t turn.
It stepped into his field of vision. Tapered denim. Designer shoes.
He didn’t look up.
Without ceremony, it dropped into a crouch. It wore a crisp white shirt and square-framed glasses, eyepieces inlaid with amber. It held a lit cigarette. Layered beneath the smoke came a hint of sea-crisped air. It studied him from under the fringe of hair forever falling into Nick Rush’s eyes.
God, it was difficult to look at.
“Are ya all right?” it asked. “I can’t tell.”
Young shook his head.
“Yes well, I’d imagine not. Thank god Tamara believed me. Otherwise,” it took a drag of its cigarette, “we’d’ve been right fucked.”
“I fail to see how we’re not still fucked.”
The cold deck plating warmed subtly under Young’s shins.
“Colonel,” TJ whispered.
“Sorry TJ. I’m talking to the AI.”
“I’m not the bloody AI.” It surged to its feet and paced away, one hand hooked over its shoulder. “The AI was so fuckin’ terrified of that thing it could barely project t’you.” It gestured at the center of the room. “You’ve made your opinion on my existence quite clear; there’s no need to continuously drive it home. I fuckin’ know, all right?”
“Can we not fight about this right now?” Young fired back. “What the hell are we gonna do about that thing you called up? It’s an immediate threat. I’m surprised it hasn’t gone after you already.” Young glanced edgily at the center of the room, seeing nothing but empty air. “We can’t just leave it there, wherever the hell it is—and project to TJ, will you? God. Rush.”
“Oh right. Like that’s so bloody easy.”
“Um,” TJ said carefully, “I thought you were talking to the AI?”
“Kind of.” Young leveled a glare at it.
“Don’t fancy chatting with nothingness in front of your ex-fuckin’-girlfriend?” It quirked an eyebrow and took a drag of its cigarette. “Engaging with this thing causes it to run its code, as I attempted to explain while you were in the middle of restraining and drugging me. Thanks for that, by the way. So, as long as we don’t talk to it like the fuckin’ idiots we are, we should be fine. However. Bringing Tamara into the mix complicates things. I’m dealing with quite a bit at the moment, and—”
“Do it,” Young growled.
It glared at him. “Tell her to look over here, won’t you? I can’t exactly do this ad infinitum.”
“TJ.” Young pointed at the mesmeric version of Rush.
She froze, startled.
“Hello, Tamara,” it said. “Thanks for coming. I believe y’singlehandedly saved the ship. Don’t let that one,” it pointed at Young, “gloss over the thing in his report to Homeworld Command, eh?”
TJ stared at Rush, eyes wide. “You’re—the AI?”
It rolled its eyes. “It’s complicated. Yes’n no. Mostly no. Would love to discuss the details at some point, but—”
TJ’s eyes flicked to the center of the room and held there, transfixed. Her face paled.
“TJ,” Young said. “What are you looking at?”
“Fuck.” Rush’s projection pitched its cigarette into nothingness.
TJ’s hand flew to her mouth.
“Shit.” Young grabbed her shoulders, wrenched her around, and locked eyes with her. “Don’t look at it,” he breathed. “Look at me. It’s not real. It’s a program.”
“Yeah.” TJ swallowed. “I know.”
Rush’s projection flickered.
“What’s happening to him?” TJ reached for the scientist, as though she might lend him her own stability, but her hands touched only empty air.
“Kid,” Young growled. “Nick.”
It was fading.
Unsure of what to do, knowing only that he needed to do something, Young partially dismantled his block and pulled like hell on its moonstone and midnight mind.
It leaned into him.
God. He felt the nacre and shadow interface where it’d split the last time he pulled it apart.
As soon as its projection solidified, he recoiled, pulling his thoughts back, reestablishing its block.
In his peripheral vision, he could, again, see the girl.
“Is he okay?” TJ whispered, her eyes searching.
“Yeah,” Young said. “It’s okay.” He locked eyes with Rush’s projection. Its expression was frozen into uninterpretable neutrality, but its eyes burned into him.
Young looked away.
In the center of the room, the girl stood, her eyes wide and blue. “Dad?”
“Don’t look at it.” The combination’s voice was breathy, the way Rush’s turned, under strain. “Don’t look at it and don’t talk to it.”
“Right.” Young focused determinedly on Rush, and nothing else. “So, uh, projecting to TJ wasn’t good idea, I guess.”
“I fuckin’ said as much.” It took a drag of its cigarette with subtly shaking hands. “It’s dead difficult to ignore the viral hook. When I projected to Tamara, she tagged along.”
“Great,” Young said. “So what’s the plan? Can you get rid of her? Overwrite her? Put her back where she was?”
It wrapped an arm around its chest, brought a closed fist to its mouth, and paced.
“What did he say?” TJ asked.
Rush’s eyes flicked to her.
“Nothing yet,” Young said. “It’s thinking. I hope.”
“You hope?” It glared at him. “You ‘hope’ ‘it’s’ thinking. Bloody fantastic. Pure dead brilliant.”
“He seems more like a he,” TJ said tentatively.
“Fine,” Young growled. He looked at the AI. “You wanna be a ‘he’? You can be a ‘he.’ Just so long as we’re clear that you’re not goddamned ‘him’.”
“No one’s clear on that,” Rush hissed. He looked away, swept a hand through his hair, and said, “I can overwrite her, or, rather, I can attempt it. But you’ll not like what’s required.”
“Meaning it’ll require massive processing power. Meaning the conflict will spread to the ship’s systems. We may drop from FTL. We may lose life support.”
“Okay, so we bring the Science Team in on this. Isolate what systems we can.”
It looked away. “There’s more.”
“You’ll need to psychically anchor me. Using the neural interface.”
Young looked it dead in the eyes. “Bullshit. I know what you want.”
Rush paced away, pulled a lit cigarette out of nothingness, and took a long drag. “Don’t fancy the job? Can’t imagine why.”
“Is there any risk to him?” Young growled. “With your plan?”
“If you don’t anchor me and I get overwritten you’ll not have much of ‘him’ left. Beyond that? Hard t’say.”
“I want to talk to him again before we do this. Not you. The actual Rush.”
“Hmm, maybe y’shouldn’t’ve drugged him into oblivion, then? That hardware’s unusable. It’ll be down for hours and, presuming y’tear me apart to have your little chat, he’ll be enough of a fuckin’ mess that the program would pull him in without any difficulty.”
“‘That hardware?’ You mean his brain?”
“Yes of course I mean ‘his’ brain.” It rolled its eyes.
“This is all working out pretty conveniently for you, isn’t it?”
“The fuck is that supposed to mean? This is the LEAST convenient thing I can envision. Despite my less-than-forthright track record, with a ten second application of logical fucking reasoning y’should be able to determine I’m telling you the truth. I don’t even exist as a conscious entity when he’s not combined with the ship. He doesn’t form memories of my experiences and neither does the AI, so there’s no way either of them could’ve known a complete block would result in this.” It made a broad, sweeping gesture to encompass its entire appearance. “You’re the only one with total continuity here, Everett, an’ I find that to be fucking debilitating if you want t’know. I’d prefer it wasn’t the case, but it is what it fuckin’ is, all right? You’re not this bloody stupid, or you shouldn’t be, by now. YOU called me up this time. D’ya realize that? Stop being such a bloody-minded bastard because I shut you out of this one. You’d never’ve agreed to any of it and we either would never’ve found the device or we’d’ve found it too fuckin’ late. You think,” it snapped, pointing two fingers at him, “if one can even fuckin’ call what you do ‘thinking’ that he or I or both of us are possessed of a self-indulgent, self-destructive, self-defeating, monomaniacal impulse to—what? Compulsively fuck ourselves over without regard for external circumstance? Not true, by the way. But rather attempt to understand what we’re driving at, y’tie me down, drug me out of his mind, and try t’defuse an existential bomb yourself? What kind of plan is that? It ranks right up there with leaving me on a planet to die, in that in both cases the outcome was a near catastrophe. Did I deserve it? Maybe. Was it a good fuckin’ idea? Absolutely not. You idiot.”
“You’ve got a hell of a lot of nerve to stand there and lecture me about critical thinking, you son of a bitch,” Young growled. “You decide we have to get this damn device off the ship and instead of the three weeks in the intergalactic void that we have, you move up the timetable to something like three days instead, for reasons you can’t or won’t explain. And then, because you don’t think I’ll agree to sit by and watch your consciousness disintegrate into shreds, you decide to shut me out, stop sleeping, and work with Telford for god’s sake, who got you into this mess in the first place. You claim you’re doing this for a reason, but you won’t spell out what it is—”
“Guys,” TJ said in a cracked whisper. “Come on.” Her gaze flicked between Young and the empty air, misjudging the thing’s position by several feet.
They looked at her, then at one another.
Young took a breath. “Yeah,” he said. “We need a plan.”
From the center of the room, the girl watched them.
An hour later, the Science Team and Young’s senior staff had been briefed, what ship systems could be isolated had been removed from the mainframe, and Young had taken a seat in the neural interface chair for the second time in a month.
This time, a customized version of Rush’s dream interface protected his consciousness.
Young shut his eyes on the chair room and opened them to a world of featureless white.
The combination, dressed in black, stood alone in a clean, white room that stretched to infinity on all sides. “You clean up nicely,” it said, warm and amused.
Young examined himself. The fabric of his BDUs was crisp and new. His headache was gone. His backache was gone. There was no pain in his scarred forearms. No stiffness in his bad shoulder. Every ache from every injury he’d racked up in his life was gone. He felt strong. Like his best self on his best day.
He fought down a wave of anxiety, of embarrassment even, at the crisp lines of his uniform. The shine of his boots. The effort it implied. The control. The type-A care. The conformity to regulation. None of this was real. None of it was earned. None of it was possible under his current circumstances. With scrupulous effort, he de-shined his boots and put himself in his his real uniform, faded and frayed. He gave himself his real hair, rather than a regulation buzzcut.
“Shut up.” Young, still self-conscious, looked down and away into a void of depthless white. “What’s the plan?”
“This a hulled-out variant of my dream interface,” Rush said. “It’ll allow the chair’s ability to transform thoughts into code, but it’ll prevent the ship from executing anything on your biological hardware.” The soft light that came from everywhere and nowhere gleamed in the frames of its glasses. “You’ll create a world, I’ll invite it in. Once it’s here, I’ll isolate and overwrite it.”
“I think I should be the overwriter.”
“Do y’have any idea how to overwrite a program in theory, never mind in praxis?”
It smiled Rush’s rarest smile, there and gone, the ghost of something that might be real, D-branes and D-branes distant.
“C’mon. Don’t give me that. This interface transforms intent into code, right? Can’t I just think of destroying it, and it happens?”
“Are you kidding me? You are exactly what this thing was designed to destroy, kid. Hell, it did destroy you last time. For me, none of this is real. It’s all artificial.”
“In this interface, code forms reality,” it said quietly. “It’s all ‘real.’ Y’can die here. Y’can kill yourself with a sustained application of will.”
“Great.” Young crossed his arms. “I still think it should be me.”
“Do you? I’m astonished.” There was a warm and steady glow in the thing’s eyes, in the inlaid amber of its glasses.
“Kid, you’re this thing’s favorite snack.”
It’s eyes flashed in irritation. “That’s exactly why we shouldn’t work counter to our native strengths. Think about our link. Consider the way it works. You’re meant to ground me, not the other way around. If I’m the anchor, y’can simply block, and you will when she gets a hold of you. I, on the other hand, am incapable of shutting you out.”
“Even like this?” Young gestured at it. “When you’re this weird combined thing?”
“Charming.” It crossed its arms, stopping just short of Jackson’s self-hug. “Yes, of course like this. Why do y’think it’s so easy for you to tear my mind apart? I assure you, you’re a special case. I’m uniquely weak to you, Everett; not across the board. Do your best not to make the same mistake twice in one day an’ let me handle this?”
Young sighed. “We need to work on doing nice things together. Okay? Nice.”
It gave him a small smile. “Such as?”
“Pretty much anything that doesn’t risk death or insanity.”
“Sounds boring.” Its eyes slid away.
“You’re wrong,” Young said softly.
They stared at their own shoes in a world of featureless white until Young cleared his throat, gathered himself, and said, “Let’s get this thing done.”
“Take us somewhere then,” it said, soft and wistful. “Somewhere y’have powerful emotional ties. Don’t use your strongest memory. Save that.”
Young chose a memory, called up its details, and projected it at the world itself. The space around them morphed and shifted, brightened and darkened. Mass coalesced from nothing.
When he was done, they stood on sun-drenched pavement, just outside the entrance to the Cheyenne Mountain base. The hillside was covered with a few inches of weeks-old snow. Crocuses fought their way through a crust of ice. The wind was cool and smelled like spring.
“Cheyenne Mountain.” Rush pulled sunglasses from his jacket pocket. “An auspicious place for a battle.”
“Why outside the base?”
“You’ve been here too,” Young said. “You know the terrain. Before we met, on Icarus, I remember seeing him here. He’d come outside to smoke.”
“You remember that?” With the toe of Rush’s designer shoe, it crushed the stained snow at the border of the road.
“Yeah. I had no idea who he was at the time, but—” he shrugged. “He was memorable.”
“Well, for one thing, you’re not supposed to go for a smoke just outside the world’s most classified military base. Every damn time I saw you I had the urge to file a breach of confidentiality report.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Eh, I figured you’d end up being some Tok’ra dignitary. Some alien prince. You had enough damn attitude for it.”
It smiled, a quick and feral flash of teeth. “I quite like that, I must say.”
“You shouldn’t smoke, y’know.” Young said.
“Think it’ll kill me?” it asked, shit-eating innocent, gemstone sly. Its sunglasses, amber-lined, reflected the shroud of cirrus over the pale spring sky.
Young looked down the road, in the direction of Colorado Springs, and did his damnedest not to fall into the abyss this thing was opening at his feet. He reached into his own pocket, visualized sunglasses there, and pulled out a pair of aviators. He slipped them on.
Maybe, in a neural interface that turned intent into code, he could guard himself against this thing. Maybe he could tell himself not to fall for a Nick Rush edge on a wistful, ageless ghost, tuned like a dial to the vibrational frequency of spacetime itself. The math there. The music.
“I’m going to let her through the firewall,” it said softly. “Are you ready?”
A cold wind blew at their backs, whistling over the ice and across the pavement.
“If you are.”
The landscape itself screamed with her coming.
White noise sheared edges in the road, in the air, exerting a terrible pressure against Young’s mind. Beneath their feet, the ground rocked and cracked apart. He lost his footing. Rush twined a hand into the loose fabric of Young jacket, hauled him up, held him steady.
The solidity of the contact was startling.
The asphalt lost its texture, distorted, turned metallic. Spectral edges of towering structures faded in around them, settling into the Rocky Mountains like they’d always been there, waiting.
Far away, he heard the cry of gulls.
“What’s happening?” Young growled, trying to get his bearings.
“She’s trying to overwrite me directly,” Rush said tightly. “Within this interface, she’s isolated. Vulnerable. Amenable to overwriting because she has nowhere to go. Unfortunately—” he broke off, a muscle in his cheek twitching. “The reverse is also true. I’m trapped here as well.”
“Wait,” Young said. “Damn it. Why?”
It braced its feet against the pavement, lifted a hand, and shoved the ghost of Atlantis back down the road. Ten feet. Twenty. “Because you’re here.” Rush’s voice was strained. “If I leave, she’ll destroy you.”
“Well get this done then,” Young growled.
“Will y’bloody well help rather than impersonate a Proposal Review Panel?” it asked, through clenched teeth. “If I want t’get fucked I’ll submit a grant t’the NSF.”
“God, y’never fuckin’ change, do ya? Throw in.”
The road, flat and silver, was flanked on either side by a mountain sea. Young projected outward, reestablishing control of the world, draining the ocean, pushing against the girl’s projection with all his strength. He extended the surface of the pavement by one foot. Another. Another. The Rockies reestablished themselves. The snow. The wind.
“Everett, what are you doing?” Rush snarled. “Control of the landscape doesn’t matter; this isn’t helping.”
He didn’t want to lock minds with this thing. He wouldn’t. There had to be another way.
The girl began to coalesce from the air itself.
Her hair flickered a dark/gold strobe. Her feet materialized at the line where the road changed from asphalt to airbrushed silver. Her face was terrible, her form distorted, her eyes black and compound like the eyes of the Nakai.
“Shit,” Young whispered, falling back a step.
“Ah fuck.” Next to him, Rush staggered, knocked off his center of gravity like he’d taken a hit Young hadn’t seen. “Pull me out.” His jacket was longer, his was hair darker, shorter—
With a blaze of intent, Young destroyed and reformed the landscape.
As the memory stabilized, he heard the sound of gunfire.
Young tackled Rush to the ground before his question was out of his mouth, twisting to take the brunt of the impact behind the limited cover of a hedge exploding in small purple flowers.
The ground was cold. The world was full of mist.
Rush, shaken, studied his own hand, the cuff of his sleeve. Young had forced him into desert fatigues, pale and washed out, the color of a frozen marsh, of a misted, alien morning.
“What do you think,” Young breathed, gathering himself behind the hedge of frost-covered flowers. “Will this thing die if I shoot it?” He unslung his P-90.
“Unlikely,” Rush breathed, pale in the pale air. “Maybe y’could distract it, I—”
The girl tore into his new landscape. Young brought his weapon up and fired, aiming at the center of the disruption, where she forced her way into existence. He focused on the reality of the gun in his hands: on the kickback, the firing mechanism, the clatter of brass-on-brass at his feet.
Rush knelt next to Young’s falling shells, his eyes closed.
This round seemed to go better. The landscape stabilized. The disruption closed, but—
“Switch,” Rush rasped, the word subtly inflected with Ancient.
Young looked down at him. The scientist’s hair had darkened. His BDUs were sleeker, the color of smoke at dawn, threaded with quartz and silver.
Rush looked up at him and spoke with the voice of Sortes. “Switch.”
Young snapped them out.
Flags, placed by the Boy Scouts, flapped in a stiff breeze. It was cool for Memorial Day, but the sun was warm, the grass was damp under their bare feet.
“This isn’t working,” Rush said.
The stars and stripes and street of a small Wyoming town rent apart.
Young snapped them out.
Storm-stripped willow leaves floated on a small lake. The air smelled of ozone, of the shock and aftershock of lightning.
Still she pursued them, her presence razoring itself through the rain-damp world.
“You need t’ground me,” Rush, on the edge of the pier, wore shorts and a half-done shirt cuffed to the elbows. No shoes. His eyes, amber and live current, burned into Young. “I can’t make any headway.”
Over the surface of the lake, something horrible oozed through the tight weave of his memory.
Young snapped them out.
They stood next to an old, stone wall that formed the base of the portico for a hillside estate. Roses, pink and white, climbed a nearby trellis. The sun was low in the sky.
“What are you afraid of? What could possibly be worse than that?” Rush flung a hand at the tear that was already beginning to open over the manicured lawn. “What do y’think you’ll see? What do y’think will happen?”
“If I can keep her out of the landscape—”
“Controlling the landscape makes no difference.” The late afternoon put red highlights in the scientist’s hair, flared off a cufflink as he gesticulated, furious. “She adapts, ignores it, and comes after me every time. Y’gain us some ground when you go with a strong memory like—what is this—” he broke off, looking down at the well-cut charcoal suit Young’s mind had forced him into, “your fuckin’ wedding? But she’ll always break in.”
Across the green lawn, something clawed through the world, backlit by the setting sun.
Young snapped them out.
Light entered the attic through gaps in drawn shades. The space smelled of old newspapers and exposed insulation. Of his grandmother’s clothes. Of books and wood and unsmoked cigars.
“What are you afraid of?” Rush demanded, lying on top of him in faded jeans and the pale blue T-shirt of the boy next door. “Tell me.” Overhead, sunlit dust glittered in the air.
The world was rending, Rush’s hair darkening. From the other side of a wall of boxes, he heard someone say: “Dad?”
Young snapped them out.
September, his college campus. They stood on an empty football field the morning before a game.
“Spare me the fuckin’ tour through American suburbia,” Rush snarled, dumping Emily’s Gender Studies textbooks in a pile at Young’s feet, his hair already darkening, his autumn sweater already threading itself with geometric details at its collar, at its cuffs. “This isn’t working.”
Young snapped them out.
They stood on a sloping hillside that ended in a cliff high over the open sea. Below them, water broke along the dark rocks. Sea foam laced its way up the coast. Gorse and thistle dotted the hillside.
Rush, dressed in a crisp, white shirt let the wind tear at his hair. He rounded on Young, shouting this time. “WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?”
“I WON’T GROUND YOU.” Young came right back at the man.
“What?” Rush breathed, horrified.
“This is BULLSHIT. Show your damn hand and GET THIS DONE.”
At the crest of the hill, the sky tore itself open.
“You’ll kill both of us if you do this,” Rush said, his voice full of despair.
Young snapped them out.
They struggled for balance, feet skidding on black ice. They stood next to Young’s first truck, its back end in a ditch, its high-beams on and angled into the night. Rain hit the road and froze. In the distance, a branch broke under the weight of forming ice.
“Just fucking get this done,” Young shouted. “I know you can do this. How can she be stronger than you? In this interface you created? That I control. She’s a virus. You’re an AI. You’re trying to manipulate me into looking at your mind. It won’t work.”
Black-clad and silent, Rush cut a dark silhouette against the askew high-beams, against the glitter of freezing rain, falling through concentrated light. “I see. Don’t suppose I can really blame you for that sentiment.”
The rain drummed against the frame of the car.
From the darkness, a deep growl threatened the fabric of the world.
Young snapped them out.
They stood on a porch lit by multicolored lights wound around an iron railing. Their breath condensed in the darkness. Above them, the stars of the Milky Way scattered crisply across the night sky.
“Where you grew up,” Rush said quietly. “Christmas.”
“Uh, yeah.” Young’s nerves were stretched to breaking, his ears straining for any sound of the girl’s arrival.
Rush nodded, unhurried, shivering in a coat too thin for a Wyoming December. “To leave the interface, visualize a door.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Tell Eli to have Chloe double-check everything he does when he removes the device. She has an instinct for their technology. She’ll steer him right.”
“Don’t give me this shit, kid. You’re powerful as hell.”
“This is a nice memory.” It pulled a lighter out of its pocket. “Strong. I can feel it. Years of holidays, piled high. You must’ve—” Rush’s throat closed. He looked away. He pulled a cigarette out of nothingness. “You must’ve really loved your family.”
Young yanked the cigarette out of his hand before he lit the damn thing. “Straighten up,” he growled. “Fly right. Get this thing done.”
“I think, now, I may have some insight into your perspective.” He forced a lightness into his tone he clearly didn’t feel. His amber eyes glittered with tears, reflecting the multicolored lights. “I’d hoped to convince you of my cognitive continuity with Nicholas Rush. Unfortunately, I think the convincing’s gone the other way.”
“What do you mean?” Young asked, his heart in his throat.
The combination looked at the silver lighter in its hand, then reverse-gunned it into nothingness. “His whole life long he’s—searched out advantages, no? Kept secrets. Aces for sleeves. Keys for locks. But here we are. At the end.” It swallowed. “And I’ve got nothing. No ace forthcoming. Doesn’t seem like me, does it?”
Young wiped his eyes.
It looked up at the night sky. “Tell me this, on my way out: d’you think there ever was a chance? Or do you think Hunter Riley’s suggestion that I tell you my nature sealed this moment in stone?”
“That question’s feeling a little like a sleeved ace, genius.”
Rush smiled into the night, his hair too dark, his amber eyes bright with tears, with reflected holiday lights. “Terribly kind of you t’say.”
“Dad,” a voice whispered from the open abyss beneath December trees.
Young snapped them out.
The land was flat and white, blanketed with snow. The clouds, low to the ground, produced tiny, dry flakes that matched the sky and the land and the cement of the road.
Young looked at Rush. His hair was black. His eyes were dark. His coat, white now, was lined with blue embroidery, the color of the western Mediterranean.
The air shimmered. The girl stepped onto the pale asphalt. Raven hair. Gray eyes. “Dad? she asked, looking at Rush.
“Hi baby,” he whispered.
“Nick.” Young’s fingers closed around Rush’s arm like a vise.
“Nick?” The man’s accent morphed from Scottish to Ancient. “Who’s Nick?”
“You win.” Young hauled him back, spun him a quarter turn, and wrapped an arm around the man. He grabbed his jaw to hold his head in place. “Eyes right here, kid.” He braced himself, then grounded the thing in the only safe territory in their whole damn computational world.
His own mind.
He had it. Body and mind and blazing champagne on endless pour into depthless glassware. The combination contained all of Rush’s fire, all of his structure, all of his raw power and chaotic glory and current arcs through loose connections. It had the ship’s textured, inertial darkness, its power in potential. Code ran through it, powerful and organized, a light/dark blend. Jackson was patterned there, complex and deep, etched with love and longing, built atop the ghost of a good person, unmade by despair, but never entirely gone.
There was something else within it.
Something that didn’t belong.
The Nakai program was within its living network. The combination couldn’t clear it. The combination couldn’t see it.
But Young could. “Hold still,” he said, and ripped it free.
The world split.
The daughter of Sortes, standing under a gray sky, screamed in rage, in mortal terror.
“Hey.” Young kept his chief scientist’s full attention on lock. “How’s this for leverage?”
Rush stared helplessly into his eyes. “More than adequate.”
“If I let you go, can you take this thing down?”
“Okay then.” Young let the man go, body and mind, clamped a hand on his shoulder, and spun him to face the girl.
When it was over, they stood side-by-side in a frozen, gray landscape, looking down a featureless stretch of road.
Rush, still shaken, ran a hand through his hair. “Right so, ah, that was fuckin’ new?”
“Not really,” Young said.
“Not really?” Rush echoed faintly. “D’ya often—” he trailed off.
“It’s what you asked for. That’s was a real ground, kiddo, in an interface where you gave me the power to control the world. You were hairpinned. I had your consciousness on lock. Saw the whole damn thing.” He swallowed and stared at his boots. “Wish I hadn’t.”
“Why?” Rush asked.
“Because it’s not Nick Rush. Not exactly. But all the same? It’s pretty goddamned great,” Young said bleakly. “That’s why.”
“Sorry,” Rush whispered.
“This is what Fabrice would have been, right?” Young whispered. “What you are? Right now?”
“Who can say what Fabrice had in mind.” Rush’s breath misted in the cold. “I, for one, would never presume so far.”
“You’re not gonna speculate? I just pulled you outta the fire.”
Rush gave him a galvanic amber side-eye from behind designer glass. “Y’took your sweet time about it.”
“I’ll speculate. The way we’re using the ship, the way the AI forced us into this—it happened per the owner’s manual specs. As advertised. Aligner and alignment drift anchor. As reported to the Council of Ten. But there was something else beneath.”
Rush said nothing.
“Fabrice’s fallback position for when everything went to shit was what Sortes ultimately executed, maybe? Fusing himself with the neural net, destroying his physical body? Inhabiting the ship itself as its permanent, living consciousness?”
“An interesting theory.” Rush shivered.
“The ship was built to ascend.” Young whispered. “It sings their damn song.”
“What do y’want from me?” It asked, eyes flashing. “Confirmation? I don’t know any more about it than you do.”
“Kid, I’m trying to figure out how we thread Riley’s Needle. There’s gotta be a way.”
It dialed itself back, scanning the bleak, snowcovered countryside. “Anything strike you?”
“Yeah,” Young said. “We jump the damn track. We get you out.”
“We fix your biological mind, reseat your consciousness there, and use the ship like it’s supposed to be used. Owner’s Manual only. The AI keeps its independent self. You stop blending. Instead of ripping through the multiverse we keep working the problem of gating home.”
“Adorable.” Rush smiled faintly at the bleached asphalt beneath his shoes.
“No, damn it,” Young growled. “It’s viable. Stop blocking Jackson on the stones. He wants to help you. Let’s bring Carter into the mix. Let’s get Carolyn Lam in a remote posting. We can fix this. We can jump a track. Turn all the problems local, rather than trans-galactic. You’re ours. Riley’s people won’t bother us, the Ancients won’t bother us if we keep everything contained. Hell, we can adopt the damn AI. Put it in uniform, give it a name. It worked in Star Trek.”
Rush looked up. “You think you could pull off some eleventh-hour save, don’t you?” The expression on his face was devastated. Fond. Conflicted. Complex as hell. “Maybe y’could.”
“I can. I will. We’ll make it happen.”
“Counter-question,” Rush said softly, “if you’re amenable.”
“Yeah. Bring it on.”
“What’ll happen to you if I go back to Earth and die there? Be it six weeks, six months, six years, sixty years. What do you think’ll happen?”
“Bloody hell. What’ll happen to you if there’s a multiversal transit event? If I successfully ascend? If I’m stopped and torn apart by ascended beings and smeared across the known universe, light-years between every one of my constituent atoms?”
“Jesus.” Young growled. “Tone it down, will you?”
Rush quirked an eyebrow. “Answer the question.”
“Whatever happens to you happens to me.”
“That’s a problem.” Rush shivered in the cold wind, and wrapped his jacket tighter around himself, both arms crossed over his chest, like Daniel Jackson, in distress. “We need to prioritize disentanglement.”
Young shook his head. “Don’t do this.”
“You cannot follow me,” Rush said, slow and clear, “through Riley’s Needle.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because there’s not an ounce of lift in your crystal.”
“So put some damn lift in there,” Young growled. “Create a viral vector and make it happen.”
“Listen to yourself,” Rush said. “Everett. Before this started y’didn’t even like me. Even now, you’re conflicted. Not ten minutes ago you nearly let me die due t’your raging preference for my biological aspect.”
“It’s fine. I understand. Ultimately, my point is: you’re still grounded enough in your humanity that we can separate. Y’need to preserve that ability. No incarnation of me is inclined to sabotage your exit strategy.”
“Exit strategy?” Young looked out at the snow-covered field. “There’s no exit strategy, genius. You’re it.”
“Stay with me and die,” Rush said, in his hardest, coldest tone. “Not only will you die, but the psychological distress of my direct culpability in your demise will so cripple any attempt to ascend that it’ll guarantee failure. You have to leave. Y’have to live as best you can.”
“I’m not going without you.”
“Yes you are.”
“Regardless of what happens to me, with time, you’ll recover.”
“Yes,” Rush said. “You’ll recover.”
Young shook his head. “You can tell yourself whatever you damn well want to tell yourself, but this unilateral bullshit works both ways. You have no say in whether I stay or go back. This ship goes down? I go down with it.”
“That’s the Navy.” Rush pulled a cigarette from thin air and lit it against the wind. “Not the Air Force.”
Rush said nothing, his profile dark against the gray of the land and sky.
“I’m staying,” Young repeated.
“I heard you the first time,” Rush replied, and took a draw of his cigarette.