Force over Distance: Chapter 67

“Is this an argument?” Rush asked delicately. “Or—” he let the word trail off.

Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Extra boundary violations. Explicit discussion of suicide.

Text iteration: Midnight.

Additional notes: Metaphysex?

Chapter 67

Rush, dressed in black, cut a striking profile against the gray homogeneity of sky and land.

The snow fell faster. Dry little flakes turned larger, more substantial. They landed on the dark material of Rush’s jacket, which was almost the coat of a math professor who’d lived in California and didn’t have the first idea how to handle snow; but the too-high collar, the subtle Lantean detailing, and the amber buttons that held their own light gave the game away.

The ground was frozen beneath their feet.

“What is this place?” Rush asked, not looking at him, his voice muted by the snow-filled air.

“I don’t know,” Young replied. “Just some empty field.”

“Some empty field,” Rush repeated. “That’s your car then, is it?” He looked down the road, toward a white Prius sitting on the shoulder, lights off. It blended into the snow and the ice and the gray-white cast of the sky. It was the only car in sight.

“No,” he said. “That’s not my car.”

“Let’s make sure, shall we?”

The snow, which’d started to stick, swallowed the sound of their steps.

“Still not my car,” Young said, when they stood in front of it, looking down at California plates.

“Mmm. I thought not.”

“What’s your point?” Young already knew the answer.

“What’s my car doing in your head?”

“Hell if know. I’m sure you’re the one who put it there.”

“Y’pull it forward under duress,” Rush whispered. “Y’can’t help it.”

Around them, snow fell.

“What is this place to you?” Young asked him.

“Just some field,” Rush said, with a pained half-smile. “It’s not important.”

Young scuffed the toe of his boot along the surface of the road, breaking up forming ice. “I’d like to know.”

Rush didn’t look at him. “Minnesota.”

“What’s in Minnesota?”

“The Mayo clinic,” Rush said quietly. There was snow in his hair.

“You drove here?”


“I love these conversations we have,” Young said, smiling faintly. “I really do.”

“David drove her here. In my car. She was to stay several months.”


“That’s the one,” Rush said softly. “I flew in later. He picked me up at the airport.”

“Where were you?” Young kept his tone neutral.

“Cheyenne Mountain.”

“And Telford pitched in because—”

“Gloria adored him.”

“What?” Young asked, a ghost of a word.

“That’s right. She ah—” his voice broke. “She thought he was good for me?”

Good for you,” Young echoed faintly.

“Yes, well. She was desperate. At the end. To find someone. Anyone. Anything—that had a chance in hell of preventing me from—”

The snow continued to fall, without sound.

“From what?”

“Killing myself. Obviously.”

“Oh,” Young said.

“She was supportive of the last-minute classified military project. The requirements it imposed. The obligations I’d need to discharge. Anything, really, that was future-focused. She poured her heart out to David. I’m sure she did. And he was terribly kind. Always found time for her.”

“Yeah,” Young said. “When he’s a great guy, he’s a really great guy.”

Rush nodded.

Young looked out over the gray expanse of sky and land. “So Telford drove Gloria from San Francisco to—where the hell are we?”

“Rochester,” Rush whispered.

“To Rochester, Minnesota.” Young swallowed. “That’s—pretty nice. Didn’t raise any red flags with you?”

“Yes and no,” Rush whispered. “In my defense, he’s so proficient at masking his feelings and allegiances I sometimes wonder if he has any. And, in retrospect, I admit you’re correct when you peg him with a rather sinister flair for Bismarkian realpolitik.” He drew out the last word and broke it off with unselfconscious Nick Rush edge that compressed whatever passed for air in Young’s chest.

“What happened in this field?”

“We stopped here, on the way from the airport.”

“And?” Young prompted.

“I agreed.”

“To what?”

“T’his proposal. To try the device that’d been found in Anubis’s lab.”


“She was dying,” Rush said. “There was nothing left for her in terms of conventional medicine. And she—” He turned away.

“She what?” Young whispered.

Rush said nothing.

“She what?” he repeated, the words slow and careful.

“She was so afraid.”

“Yeah.” Young dropped a hand on Rush’s shoulder and found all the tension the man carried in life. “There’s something terrible about an end you can see coming miles away. Marching toward it all the same.”

Rush looked at him.

Young let his hand fall.

“So that’s the connection,” Rush said. “Between him and Telford. Telford met him at a vulnerable time and worked his way in, not through Nick, but through Gloria. Gloria knew he needed something to work on if he had any hope of surviving. And Telford was willing to spend a long time—a long time trapping him into it. And in the end, everyone got what they wanted.”

“Except for Nick,” Young said.

“Nick,” Rush whispered, “stopped wanting anything. For a long time.”

The snow continued to fall.

“And what about now?” Young asked. “What does he want?”

“He wants you to live. He wants you all to live, but especially—especially you. He wishes he’d never done this to you.”

“This isn’t his fault,” Young said quietly.

“But it’s mine,” it whispered.

“Kid, if we’re drawing some metaphysical line in the sand between you and Nick Rush, that same line applies to the AI,” Young said quietly. This isn’t your fault. None of it is. It can’t be. You’re something entirely new. You didn’t exist until after the AI forced him into the chair.”

“It was so alone before him.” Rush hugged himself, in the style of Daniel Jackson.

“That doesn’t excuse what it did,” Young countered. “It used him to further its own agenda.”

“Yes,” Rush said, his voice distant as he looked into the thickening curtain of snow. “Yes. It did, but—he agreed.”

“Doesn’t he always?” Young asked. “I’m not sure how much that means, really.”

Rush gave him a twisted half-smile. “Nor am I. Nor is the AI anymore. At the time, however, it was sufficient to proceed. It’s a lot to ask of a mostly destroyed machine intelligence to interpret the psychology of a damaged human mind. It did—and does—its best.”

“Yeah,” Young said grudgingly, shoving his hands into the pockets of his BDUs. He looked away. “I guess.”

“You should go,” Rush said. “You’ll need t’—”

“Oh no,” Young broke in, and Rush’s eyes locked with his. “No way. You pull reams of batshit crazy existential risk out of nowhere, keep me on a ledge for days, then tap me to anchor your whole consciousness while you leverage enemy tech to oblivion? You owe me.”

Rush smiled faintly. “It’s your roommate who deserves all your ‘time-delayed consequence.’ Y’literally certified me blameless seconds ago.”

Young winced. “He’s had enough time-delayed consequence to last a lifetime I think.”

“Enlightened of ya.”

“No, what I mean is—can you help me out? Favor for favor?”

“Probably.” It smiled faintly at him. “If y’ever spit out your request.”

“I want you to tell me about him. Yourself. Whatever. You know what I mean. The guy won’t so much as admit to having a goddamn preference for anything. Whenever I seem remotely interested in any aspect of his past, he shuts down on me.”

Rush raised his eyebrows.

“The most personal thing I’ve ever pried out of him is how he met Gloria. And you know what he said? ‘In the rain.’ That’s all I got.”

“I remember,” Rush murmured, wistful and amused.

“I’ve found out more about his past in ten minutes with you than I’ve gotten in two and a half years from him.” Young said. “So you can damn well keep going.”

Rush ran a hand through his snow-filled hair, with a brief exhalation that was almost, but not quite, a laugh. “What is it y’want to know, then?”

“Any of it. All of it it. Whatever. Tell me about yourself.”

Rush looked down, skimming the toe of his boot along the ice. “There’s not anything to tell.”

“C’mon genius. I’ve seen your dreams. They’re full of music and wine. The curiosity is eating me alive.”

“For Gloria,” he said, “I learned t’play the piano. Play the piano and cook and make scintillating conversation at cocktail parties.”

“Why the piano?”

“She was a concert violinist. I replaced her accompanist at Oxford,” he said, with a casual, fluid shrug of his shoulders.

“I’ll just bet you did.”

Rush shot him a sharp look, but something about the idea of the scientist applying all his ruthless, merciless persistence to something as benign as learning to outplay Gloria’s accompanist was too much to take with a straight face. Young did his best to file the edges off his grin.

“I was better.” Rush tried not to smile back at Young, but couldn’t quite pull it off. “Better than he was.”

“I’m sure you were,” Young replied. “I’m sure he didn’t have a chance in hell against you.”

Rush looked away.

“And cooking?” Young asked. “I’d call bullshit if I hadn’t seen it in your dreams.”

“Would you?” Rush said, with a disdain that was nothing but appealing artifice. “Scientists make the best chefs. Attention to detail. Et cetera. It’s a known fact.”

Young watched the snow falling into his hair, onto his clothes.

“Why do you have to be so goddamned—” Young trailed off.

“You like it.” Rush looked away, a tinge of color in his cheeks.

“No,” Young said, also looking away, trying not to smile. “Not at all. Not even remotely. Stop being so damn charming. You’re doing this on purpose. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you’ve barely told me anything. You’re good, but not that good.”

“If you think you’ll get my entire life story in return for your assistance with destroying some little viral program, you’re mistaken.”

“What’s it gonna take?” Young asked. “Do I have to avert some kind of galactic-scale apocalyptic event?”

“Oh at a minimum,” Rush said, his voice pitched low, his eyes dark.

The snow fell silently over the empty road and the white, icy car.

“I wanna know you,” Young said, “but I don’t. I don’t know you at all.”

“Stay away from him,” Rush replied. “From me. We’re not good for you.”

“Oh yeah?” Young stepped closer.

“I won’t let you destroy yourself.”

“Too late,” Young replied.

“Maybe.” Delicately, Rush touched Young’s temple. “Then again,” he said, “maybe not.”

Young closed his fingers around the scientist’s wrist. “I don’t think so,” he growled. “You stay out of there.”

Rush just looked at him, with the full force of his unendurable gaze.

Young’s fingers tightened on the scientist’s wrist, suspending it in empty air.

Rush quirked an eyebrow.

Young didn’t move.

“Is this an argument?” Rush asked. “Or—” he let the word trail off.

With a deliberate pressure, Young forced Rush’s hand away from his temple and stepped in.

Human or machine or both or neither—he didn’t know what it was, or who it was; but its mind was complicated and clear and intact and it was charming and it was excruciatingly aware of its own ephemeral nature.

The air was cold, the falling snow stung as it hit, but their kiss ran fluent with all kinds of warm charge.

Young slid his hands over the man’s jacket, laced with snow, damp with melted flakes, and too thin for a Minnesota winter. “You don’t have a lick of common sense. Even like this.” He rested his hands over Rush’s hips.

“I disagree.” The scientist rested a palm flat and electric against Young’s cheek. His clever fingers tangled in the hair at the nape of Young’s neck, sending tiny shocks down his spine.

“This isn’t a winter coat.”

“In a world of thought and light, there can be no winter.” Rush kissed his way along the line of Young’s jaw, his thoughts feathering at the edges of Young’s consciousness.

“I’m not doing this.”

“Really.” Rush breathed the word, quiet and low and the skin of Young’s ear prickled with it. “Because observation indicates that, in fact, you are,” he broke off, his lips brushing the shell of Young’s ear. “Currently,” he murmured, the word inaudible but for the hard stops of the consonants, “doing this.”

“You’re wrong.” Young pressed him back until he was laid out over the hood of the white Prius. “This isn’t happening.”

“Yes well,” Rush breathed, “can it not happen somewhere else?”

The landscape distorted, reformed, and settled on an autumn afternoon dredged from deep in Young’s mind. A combination of experiences came together to sculpt an autumn hillside where gold leaves with crisp edges caught slanted sun under a gray sky. Young pushed Rush back, settling atop him in the warm grass.

“You’re ridiculous,” Rush murmured. “Y’know that, correct? Because I don’t think—”

Whatever Rush didn’t think was swallowed as Young kissed him again.

Young worked a hand inside the scientist’s jacket of Earth and Ancient cut, beneath his shirt, crisp and white, skin sliding over skin, scattering Rush’s thoughts like leaves. They so rarely touched each other without necessity, without violence, without ulterior motive, and, even though this wasn’t real, even though this wasn’t happening anywhere other than inside his head, nothing of the physical was lost.

What did that mean?

Sensations amplified into feedback loops that continued and continued and continued and—

//I want to keep you here,// Young projected.

The scientist’s hair fanned over the leaves.

//I want to keep you.//

Rush slid his thumb inside the collar of Young’s jacket and deftly separated a snap.

//I want to—//

Rush looked up at him, dark against fallen, sun-bright leaves. His eyes and his clothes glinted with hints of galvanic amber. He trailed a thumbnail along Young’s collarbone sending shivery current down Young’s spine.

Everything they felt bled into the link, echoing, building to something impossible to ride out.

Young sat back, straddled Rush’s hips, and tore open the man’s jacket, revealing his rumpled white shirt.

The maneuver startled a laugh out of the scientist. He turned his face away as if, even now, he still couldn’t bear to let anyone, even Young, see him smile.

“Hey.” Young ran a thumb along Rush’s jawline, then angled his chin back, an invitation for the scientist to meet his eyes.

The man’s attention hit like a wave of charge. Electric. Magnetic. Inseparable.

He let Rush help him out of his jacket, wet with snowmelt, then brought his hands up to the collar of the scientist’s white dress shirt and deliberately ripped through the stepwise resistance of each button.

“Admit it,” Rush said, low and thick. “You’ve wanted t’do that for quite some time. You fuckin’ hedonist.”

Young grabbed a fistful of the the scientist’s hair and tipped his head back. “And you,” he said, his voice vibrating though his chest, “have a smart fucking mouth.” He held Rush’s head in place, pressed his full weight into the scientist, and kissed his way, slowly, torturously, from Rush’s ear to his collar bone.

Every point of contact flared bright in both their minds.

Rush curled his fingers around the bottom edge of Young’s black T-shirt and pulled it over his head. “So strange,” he breathed, trailing fingertips over Young’s sensitized skin. “The relationship between computation and perception. Between perception and reality. Between reality and computation.”

“You think too much,” Young whispered, brushing the fringe of Rush’s hair, damp with melted snow, away from his eyes.

Rush gave him a quicksilver smile, there and gone. “Such men are dangerous.”

Rush pulled him in and down, grinding their hips together as the abstractions in their thoughts merged and crystallized and fractured and flew apart and he couldn’t, they couldn’t, hold together like this on the edge, this wasn’t him; he didn’t think about torque and dry friction and fluid friction and lubricated friction and skin friction and internal friction and he didn’t think about delta-v and he didn’t think about thrust to weight ratios and fuck, fuck. He didn’t think about those things at times like this, but god if Rush didn’t and the man was just so—


So difficult and also just—also just unbuttoning Young’s BDUs.


That was a good idea.

Rush’s eyes were searing and his hands were clever and capable and pressure—fuck, but pressure was force divided by area when the force was the normal force and the area was the surface area on contact. His fingers curled into Rush’s academic rockstar jeans and—

You’re so fucking brilliant, was what he’d meant to say, but instead he said:


And that meant something to Rush because—

“Tell me I exist,” he whispered, “tell me I mean something, anything, like this.”

“If anything does,” Young said, “you do.”

Rush poured into his mind, bright and intact and flawless. It was too much to withstand. He would do anything, anything to hold Rush here, fixed forever in this space that wouldn’t hurt him—but it was impossible. Always, always they moved through time. Even the Ancients, with all their knowledge, hadn’t been able to change that. There was nothing coming for them but pain and the flow of seconds that’d strip everything away.

“It’s always been true,” Rush whispered, following his thoughts, dragging a thumb along Young’s cheekbone, coming away with melted snow or a fallen tear, “that we live beneath time’s paring knife.”

“There’s something y’should do before you go.” Rush’s head rested heavy on Young’s shoulder. His fingertips traced the edge of Young’s collar bone.

“What’s that?” Young murmured.

“From within the neural interface—” Young felt Rush’s back tense. “—you have the cognitive leverage to, ah, shall we say, ‘restore’ your roommate?”

Young shut his eyes against the gold of the autumn afternoon. In his arms, Rush was utterly still. “You can kill a vibe like no one I’ve ever met, genius.”

“T’get out of here,” Rush whispered, “visualize a door.”

Young squeezed his eyes shut, his hand tangled in Rush’s hair.

“It has t’happen. Do it now.”


“Don’t prolong this,” his voice cracked. “We both know you’ll always, always choose to destroy me, because the alternative is letting him die.”

“That can’t be how you think of it,” Young whispered.

“It’s how you do.”

“Why didn’t you tell me it was gonna end this way?”

“I can’t be held responsible for figuring out which of the many things I find obvious you’ve overlooked.” The scientist was stone-still. His heart pounded fast, hard enough for Young to feel it. His mind, bright and clear and structured, braced itself for the coming tear.

At the edges of Young’s vision, the leaves of the trees iced over beneath a darkening sky.

“Why do you have a heartbeat?” Young asked, running his hand rhythmically over the space between Rush’s shoulder blades.

“Stop trying to distract me.”

“Easy,” Young said. “I’ll tell you when I’m gonna do it.”

Beneath his back, the ground grew cold.

“So why the heartbeat?” Young murmured quietly into his hair.

“It’s part of my unconscious perception of myself.” Rush shivered. “I could stop it, if I chose.”

“Maybe just slow it down.” Young spread a hand across the center of the other man’s back. “Relax a little bit.”

“Think of ice,” Rush whispered.


He reached for both halves of its light/dark mind and felt it curl into him, weave itself into his grip. “You think we threaded a needle, you and me?”

“We’re not dead.”

“That’s a yes?” Young murmured into his hair.

Rush nodded.

“Yeah, well, incredible job, genius.” Young tightened his grip on the man. “I’m gonna be so nice to you.”

He felt a subtle wave of amusement from both halves of the mind he held. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Young growled softly.

The color leached out of the world.

“Get on with it then,” Rush whispered.

“Okay,” Young said, and tore it apart.

It was over in the span of a few heartbeats. Its structure sheared into component pieces, returning to Destiny, to Rush’s physical body, leaving Young alone on the ice covered ground.

He sat.

It’d begun to snow again.

He sat for a long time, elbows on knees, his head in his hands.

When he got up to leave, the door he opened was gray.

He opened his eyes to a dull headache and a hulled out feeling in his chest.

Better than he’d expected. Maybe the software buffer had protected him. Maybe it was all his borrowed neural architecture. Maybe Rush himself had done something to ease the strain on his mind.

“Sir?” Scott knelt in front of him, Eli at his side.

“Lieutenant,” Young managed, through a throat that kept trying to close.

“You get it done?” Scott gave him a searching look.

“Get what done?” Young rasped.

“The program.” Eli’s face was pale, his eyes burning. “The ‘girl’ in our walls.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s done. It’s overwritten. How’d it look on your end?”

“Really freaking terrifying, thanks,” Eli hissed. “The AI almost got eaten.”

Young nodded. “I know.”

“You know? Great.”

“Give him a minute, Eli,” Scott said.

“But it didn’t, right?” Eli demanded, ignoring the lieutenant. “It’s fine? The AI is zero percent eaten? One hundred percent okay? Because if I have to explain to Rush that I let you go in there and—y’know what? Never mind. Just drop me off at the nearest habitable planet.”

“We’re in the void of space.” Young smiled faintly.

“Okay, then I’m gonna need your official permission to delete those logs before he ever sees them. Because—”

“Give it a rest, Eli.” He let Scott pull him to his feet. “Where are Greer and TJ?”

“Greer took the second watch on Colonel Telford’s quarters.” Scott hauled Young’s arm over his shoulders. “TJ’s in the infirmary.”

Young nodded.

“Are you okay?” Eli asked. “You look kinda, um, not your best?”

“I’m fine, Eli,” he said, but even to him, his voice sounded flat and exhausted. “Bad day.”

“Bad week,” Scott said.

“Um, you guys. Duh. Bad two point five years, okay?”

“Can I get a status report?” Young brought an unsteady hand to his forehead.

“Sooooooooo,” Eli said. “The best news is that the truly frightening team of Chloe and Brody kept us at FTL for the whole adventure. The less good news is that despite the heroic efforts of Volker and Park, we lost life support for the most terrifying thirty seconds of my life. Compounding the terror, something went wrong with Rush at the same time because TJ went tearing back to the infirmary—”

What?” Young pulled away from Scott to make for the door and nearly lost his balance in the process.

“Sorry, sorry, he’s okay. He’s fine,” Eli said hastily. “He’s fine he’s fine he’s fine he’s fiiiiiiiine; he’s totally fine. In retrospect, I should’ve led with that. My bad.”

Young glared at Eli as Scott helped him find his balance.

“He’s fine,” Eli said again.

“I want a step by step plan outlining the removal of the tracking device prepared by the Science Team by tomorrow.”

“How about, like, two days, and Becker has a second pancake morning?” Eli said. “You drugged your top guy into a coma and you can’t stay on your feet; I think we can take forty eight hours before our next terrifying adventure. Right? Matt agrees. Right Matt?”

Scott cleared his throat. “I think everyone could use a day or so of down time, sir.”

Young nodded. “We’ll talk it through at tomorrow’s NHB.” he said. “Start working up a protocol, but keep it theoretical. No one touches that thing, you get me? Nobody so much as runs a diagnostic.”

“Yeah okay. Yes on Chloe, no on touching. Got it.”

Young and Scott glanced at each other, then gave Eli identical pointed looks.

“Touching the device. God, you guys.”

Scott caught Young’s gaze. “You should probably head to the infirmary, sir. Let TJ check you out?”

“Yeah.” Young agreed.

As Scott pulled him toward the door, he looked back over his shoulder toward the center of the room.

It was empty.

TJ met them just inside the infirmary.

“Hi,” she said.

“Is he awake yet?” Young asked. “I need to talk to him.”

“No,” TJ said. “He’s not awake. Come on.” She grabbed his free arm and pulled it over her shoulder. “You look like you won’t be on your feet much longer either.”


“Don’t ‘TJ’ me,” she said sharply. “You’re lucky you’re not sedated.”

“Outta line, lieutenant.”

She looked to Scott. “I’ve got this. Can you take his bridge shift?”

“Yeah.” Scott ducked from beneath Young’s arm. “I got it covered.”

TJ dragged Young to the rear of the infirmary. He hesitated in the doorframe, looking at his chief scientist, motionless on his usual gurney.

“Come on.” TJ’s voice was cool, but her hands were gentle as she pressed him back against clean sheets.

Young caught a glimpse of Rush, his hair fanned out dark over the white of his pillow before TJ moved between them. “You should probably take him out of the restraints,” Young said.

“Already done.” TJ tore open the velcro of a blood pressure cuff and wrapped it around Young’s arm. “You should’ve told me you could see the girl.”

“Yeah,” Young said. “I should have. But—that wasn’t, uh—” he brought a hand to his forehead. “That wasn’t apparent to me at the time.”

“Yeah,” she echoed. “I guess not.”

“Eli said something happened to Rush while I was in the chair?”

“Mm hmm,” TJ flashed a penlight into his eyes, and Young did his best not to flinch. “His vitals tanked for about thirty seconds when life support went on the fritz. Maybe half an hour after that his pressure shot up. He seems to’ve stabilized.”

“How long until he wakes up?” Young asked.

TJ held a finger to her lips as she listened to Young’s heart and lungs. The metal rim of her stethoscope was cold against his ribs.

“TJ,” he said, when she was done, “how long.”

“I don’t know. It could be a while. I gave him something different this time.”

“What did you give him?”

“In case you didn’t notice,” TJ said, her voice icing over, “he wasn’t cooperative enough for an IV. The only safe intramuscular option for his physiology was Haldol. It’ll take time to wear off.”


“Meaning I don’t know,” she said, her blue eyes flashing. “Meaning I’d never’ve given him anything at all if I’d known he wasn’t hallucinating from whatever Telford’s recall device did to him.”

“Yeah.” He shut his eyes. “I get it, TJ.”

“This could have ended very badly.” Her voice cracked.

“Yeah,” replied. “I know. I realize that. I also realize it would have, if it hadn’t been for you.”

“Your minds are connected,” she said. “One would think you’d be better at communicating with each other.”

“He’s very difficult, TJ, in every—”

“I know,” she broke in. “I know how he is. I’ve interacted with him on a daily basis for the past two and a half years. Every so often, he pulls the rug out from under you and—you react badly.”

He nodded.

“Why is that, do you think?” she asked.

He looked away.

“Something to consider,” TJ murmured. “Get some sleep.” She headed for the door.

Young’s eyes flicked to Rush. “TJ.”

She turned.

“What made you believe him?”

“I didn’t,” she said quietly. “I didn’t believe him.”

“Then why—”

“I was worried about you. And—I did owe him. At least that much.”

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