Force over Distance: Chapter 68
“Less tea, more sit.”
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Theoretical.
Additional notes: None.
“Yes well. Quid nunc?”
Young woke from a dream of a virtual landscape unmade in cruelly short intervals by the coming of a wave, beautiful, all-encompassing, and powerful enough to reset the world.
“Non habeo dexteritatem huic.”
Young cracked an eyelid and focused on Rush. The scientist sat on the opposite gurney, a dark silhouette in dim blue light. He hunched over something in his lap, studying it intently. There was something off about the way he was holding himself. Even sitting, he leaned into one arm. His head was held at an odd angle.
Young went from asleep to alert in the span of a few heartbeats.
“Quid si—” Rush began, his voice shot to hell. He broke off to look up at the empty air as if he’d been interrupted. The soft blue light of the infirmary glinted in the frames of his glasses.
As carefully as he could, Young eased their thoughts into subtle apposition.
He needn’t have worried about being detected; the aftereffects of whatever TJ had given the man were glaringly apparent. He clamped his jaw, squeezed his eyes shut, and tried not to react physically or mentally to the slowed mass of glassed-to-hell workarounds, delicate and vulnerable. The scientist was shattered with fatigue, and from the pressure in his sinuses and the ache behind his eyes, Young was pretty sure he’d already gotten caught in at least one uncontrollable crying jag.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea.” The AI, hugging itself, spoke with Dr. Jackson’s kindest tone.
Rush braced his elbows against his knees and buried his face in his hands.
This was gonna be bad.
“Nick,” the AI whispered, Jackson’s eyes wet. “Nick, I—I changed my mind. I do actually. I do think it’s a good idea. I think it’s great. I—”
“Fuck off,” Rush said in a cracked whisper. He wiped his eyes. “Discedo.”
“Yeah. Of course.” The AI pointed at something Young couldn’t make out in the darkness. “That one.”
Young cracked his eyelids.
His chief scientist was trying to get his foot in a boot. It wasn’t going fast. Or smoothly.
“Try it in English,” the AI said gently.
“Quam ob causam? Quid tibi cura?” Rush snapped, or—tried to snap. The pace of his words was about a beat and a half too slow. Boot successfully in place, he curled into himself, brought his knee up, and resting his forehead against it.
“You are very unhappy,” the AI said. “Please explain to me so that I can understand.”
“Why? Because I am incapable of understanding, or because you are incapable of explaining?”
“Statim? Non est tu. Sum ego.” Rush slurred, his forehead still resting on his knee.
“Speak English,” the AI said, sounding pained. “Please. Despite what you may say, you don’t want to lose it. I know you don’t. Colonel Young doesn’t speak Ancient. You won’t be able to talk to him.”
“Quid ad rem?” Rush whispered, staring into the dark. “Non diu nunc.”
“Nick,” The AI’s voice cracked. “Don’t say that.”
“Ignosce, sweetheart. Sorry.”
“I am sorry,” Jackson whispered, a projected hand stopping just where Rush’s shoulder began. As if it could truly touch him. “How do you feel?”
“Nescio—I don’t know. Odd. Not normal. Scitis—what caused—” Rush made a poorly coordinated circular gesture in the air next to his temple.
Young felt the slowed, labored, spiral of his thoughts as he tried to understand what had happened to him.
“Tamara gave you a drug. It’s still in your system.”
“Ah.” Rush tilted his head to rest his temple on his knee. “Explained.”
“That explains it,” the AI corrected gently.
“Why no English?”
“I don’t know,” it said. “I have a gap in my logs that spans nearly four hours. Colonel Young may know.”
Young froze, but neither of them looked his way.
“Quidquid,” Rush sighed. “Ugh. Forget. I go no shoes.”
“No no no no no.” The AI did a flawless impersonation of Daniel Jackson. “You’re not walking around without boots. Your foot is finally, finally starting to heal and—”
“I do what I want.” Rush’s voice was barely audible.
The AI’s projection flickered. It rallied, grabbed its Jacksonness in both hands, and said, “Maybe you could just pull them on and kind of,” it made a circular motion with one finger, “wrap the laces around your ankle and tie them in a knot?”
Rush looked up at it. “Unsure regarding this tying.” He fell back as he pulled on his second boot.
“Where is it that you’re so determined to go?” the AI asked.
“Not far,” Rush said. “Autonomy.”
“I’m not sure how to interpret that.” The AI gave Rush Jackson’s small smile. “Except to extrapolate that after being drugged and restrained you feel compelled to exert your individual will as a matter of principle, regardless of how ill advised such a course of action might be.”
Rush rolled his eyes with a soft exhalation.
“What?” the AI demanded.
“Piece of metal.”
“You’re a piece of metal,” the AI corrected, “and don’t think I haven’t noticed that you insult my cognitive capacity at exactly the times you find me the most insightful.”
“If so useful,” Rush said, “you help with boots.”
“I would if I could touch you.” It watched Rush get his second boot in place.
It wasn’t until his chief scientist was again sitting, attempting to wind his laces around his ankle, that Young finally spoke. “Need some help with that?”
The AI vanished.
Rush froze then glanced obliquely at him. “No.” He managed to land the one syllable word with something like his normal cadence and accent. His thoughts were a torrent of misery and humiliation, rage and anxiety.
“Okay.” Young levered himself onto one elbow.
Rush didn’t look up, simply went back to attempting to put a square knot in the laces he’d wound around his ankle. It wasn’t going well.
“How you doing?”
“Fine,” Rush said, again landing the word with a stiff, fuck-you dignity. “You?”
“I—ah.” Rush’s hands stilled on his bootlaces.
“It’s okay,” Young said quietly, trying to keep an avalanche of sympathy out of his tone. “I’ve been awake for a few minutes. I know you’re having a hard time with the English.”
“Underhanded.” Rush leaned forward, braced his wrists on both sides of his ankle, and gave the knot another serious go.
“Me?” Young said after a short pause. “Yeah, little bit, I guess.”
“You guess.” Rush closed his hand around one of the velcro restraints still attached to his gurney. He gave it a pointed yank before returning to his bootlaces.
“Uh,” Young said. “Yeah.”
“Not forgiven.” Rush braced his hands against his ankle and fought with his laces.
“Yeah,” Young whispered. “Can’t really blame you for that one, genius.”
He spent an eternity watching the guy ineffectively twist and cross bootlaces.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Young asked. “About the girl. About the doctor. About the program left behind by the Nakai.”
Rush ignored him until he finally succeeded in tying off the square not he’d been working for something like two and a half minutes. “You stay away,” the scientist said, impressively icy. “Better for you, better for me, better for everyone.” He switched feet, and started work on boot number two.
“You can’t protect me,” Young said. “Not any more than I can protect you.”
Rush hesitated, his hands hands pausing mid lace-wind. “Y’try anyway,” he said. “But from me, you expect less. Always. Why?”
Young looked at him, taken aback.
Rush braced his hands again and began the cross and twist of the laces. “For the best. Me? Heartless bastard. You? Idiot.”
He hadn’t looked at Young for over four minutes.
“I think you’re the idiot,” Young whispered.
“Insane? Maybe. Idiot? No.” Rush finished tying the square knot in the laces he had wrapped around his ankle. He got to his feet and pulled his jacket askew in an attempt to straighten it. Still, he looked away.
“Why don’t you just stay here, genius?”
In Young’s peripheral vision, Jackson shook his head.
“Nick,” Young said. “C’mon. Don’t—”
“Don’t?” Rush rounded on him. “Don’t? Don’t what? You try—” He broke off and brought both hands to his face with a distressed sound. “Fuck. Fuck you. Why? Why? You never—” Young felt the swirl of Rush’s thoughts spiral and flare, but slowly, unbelievably slowly, and without control. “You always—”
“Heyyy.” Young sat, alarmed at the feel and trajectory of the man’s cognition, realizing belatedly that even though Rush was overtired and overwhelmed and miserable the guy still probably had enough energy for a spectacular, traumatic, mind-razing meltdown. Young should’ve adopted the AI’s strategy of—
“You don’t do this,” Rush snarled, indicating the gurney and its attached restraints with both hands. “And then everything is fine. I,” he gestured at his own chest with an eloquently arced hand, “do not do what you say. Understand? Tamara—I can go. When I want. Fuck you.”
“Yup.” Young held up his hands, palms out, trying to course correct as efficiently as humanly possible.“You’re right. Of course you can go. You can do whatever the hell you want.”
“Not crazy,” Rush said, his voice breathy, steadying himself on his own gurney, glaring at Young for all he was worth. “Not compromised.”
“I know,” Young said, his voice cracking. “I—I know you’re not. Okay? I’m sorry. I’m sorry, genius.
Rush didn’t look at him, simply stood, one hand on the gurney, his breathing fast and shallow. “Not forgiven,” he said. “Not.”
“Okay,” Young said, his hands still open, palms forward. “Okay, fair enough, but—” his mouth was dry, his palms were damp. “Can I—” his throat closed.
How the hell was he supposed to fix this?
Young brought his feet to the floor and perched on the edge of his gurney.
Rush glanced at him obliquely.
“Where do you wanna go?” Young rasped.
Rush didn’t answer. The poor guy probably didn’t have a damn thing in mind. His thoughts were nothing but fever-glazed glass and slow-breaking misery. He needed to be lying down.
“I was thinking of getting some tea,” Young said. “You wanna tag along? Fifteen minutes? Before you—do whatever?”
“Okay,” Young said. “Good.” He jammed his boots on, shrugged into his jacket, and clipped his radio to his belt. He swiped Rush’s radio from a nearby table and, without thinking about it, tucked two fingers inside the waistband of the scientist’s jeans and pulled the material out just enough to clip the radio to his hip, knowing Rush was a damn sight too uncoordinated to be able to manage it himself.
“Do not touch,” Rush snarled at him, staggering back, nearly losing his balance.
“Sorry,” Young whispered, stopping himself before he grabbed the guy, again, out of instinct. “Just—try to stay on your feet, hotshot.”
“Fuck you ‘hotshot’,” Rush hissed, with teary-eyed venom.
“Yeah. I get it. I do. You’re pissed as hell. But you’re still pretty snowed from whatever TJ gave you, I think, so just—take it easy.”
“So insightful,” Rush muttered. He started for the door. “And why no English? No chair, no poison, no—” he broke off with a frustrated sound. “Hoc comtenmo. Dixisti me sonare ut perfuga. ‘Perfuga intergalacticus.’ Quam lepidum cogitatum; putasne te melius acturum esse sub his circumstantiis? Non ita cogito.” His Ancient was liquid, fluent, and disdainful.
“Um,” Young said, “did I hear the word ‘intergalactic’ in there?”
“Why. No. English.”
“Well, seems like you still have some English.”
“Yes.” Rush paused, leaning against the doorframe of the infirmary.
The guy looked like shit.
Young stepped in, but the scientist backed unsteadily into the corridor until he found a wall to lean against. “Debate semantics. Add qualifiers. Very effective. Please continue. Bastard.”
“Genius, you’re killing me. Let me help you.”
“Help?” Rush breathed, one eyebrow raised. The word was so utterly without energy it destroyed Young’s building anger. “Help with why not English? Do you know?”
“Yeah,” Young said. “Yeah, I know.”
“Please tell, then.”
“I will. Over tea, okay? Not right here. In the middle of the hall.” Slowly, he stepped closer to Rush. “I’m surprised you haven’t asked me anything about the Nakai program.”
“Old news. Tamara says you kill it.” Rush backed away and turned in the direction of the mess, one hand trailing along the metal of the wall. As he passed, the tracklights flared a brilliant blue. “Sit in chair, erase.”
“Uh, kind of.”
“What ‘kind of’?”
“It was a little more complicated than that.”
“Yes,” Young whispered. “Very difficult.”
“For you,” Rush said.
“For you too,” Young murmured. “Why do you think the AI’s being so nice to you?”
Rush waved a hand dismissively. “Always nice to me. Very concerned. Tries to make—” He broke off with an uncertain sound. “Tries to be like you.”
“Tries to be like you,” Rush repeated with a shrug. “Nick go to bed. Nick don’t walk around. Nick listen to Colonel Young. Nick don’t listen to Colonel Young. Nick eat dinner. Nick don’t talk out loud. Very, very annoying. Weeks and weeks like this.” Rush shot him a dark look.
“Wait, wait.” Young’s voice cracked on the word. “It tells you to listen to me?”
Rush shrugged. “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.”
“Um,” Young said, “I find that difficult to believe.”
“Yes well,” Rush sighed. “Maybe all lies. Ulterior motive always.”
“You or me or the AI?”
Rush stopped again, his hand pressed to the wall. The lights at his feet held a sustained, brilliant blue.
“Are you being difficult or do you think that was an answer?”
“New plan,” Rush said faintly, leaning against the wall and starting a slow slide to the floor. “Less tea, more sit.”
“Oh god,” Young whispered, grabbing his upper arms and pulling him back up before he could make it halfway down the wall. “Nope. Sorry. Did TJ really say you could leave? C’mere. You’re burning up. Get your arm—no, other arm—” He hauled Rush’s arm across his shoulders, trying not to manhandle the guy too much. “We gotta find you a bed.”
“Sleeping already,” Rush said, leaning into him. “All day.”
Young pulled one of Rush’s arms over his shoulders. “You’re literally the only guy I know who can stay on his feet through a hostile takeover of his consciousness, a truckload of sedatives, and five days of sleep debt. Very impressive.”
“Sleep debt? Truckload? Make sense.”
“You make sense.”
“So witty,” Rush breathed. He reached for the wall.
“You try sitting again and your feet get swept,” Young growled.
“Patronizing,” Rush slurred.
“Nope,” Young said, recovering. “I know you’re still smarter than me, even if you sound like you never made it to middle school. I’m being nice to you. Trying, anyway.”
“Fuck you, nice. Fuck you, middle school.”
Young snorted. “Yeah, okay.”
“Next time? I give you secret drug. Two times. Two times this week.”
“Tea. Restrain and drug.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“Look, I’m sorry all right? It seemed like a good idea at the time. Why don’t you read me the riot act when you can speak English? It’ll work out better for you.”
Rush narrowed his eyes.
“Or, sure, do the quiet menace thing. That’s fine too.”
“You know, you’re—”
“Yes yes. Lot of work. Scio. Find new phrase.”
Young snorted. “Don’t take this the wrong way, because you can be terrifying when you wanna be, but most of that comes from the whole more-lexically-adroit-than-thou thing you have going. Here’s the thing though, genius—when you can’t use English properly it kind of detracts from the whole picture, you know? So my advice is save it. Give me hell tomorrow.”
“Lexically adroit?” Rush repeated disdainfully.
“What?” Young asked, with a small smile. “You’re not the only one who can turn a phrase.”
“Not forgiven.” Rush leaned his head against Young’s shoulder. “Not.”
“Yeah yeah,” Young said. “You wanna watch a movie? Relearn some more English? How far are you on Eli’s list?”
“Four out of how many?”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No. Very serious.”
They paused outside his quarters. Young shifted his grip on Rush to hit the door controls, but, before he could do so, the door opened of its own accord.
“Thanks,” he said.
Rush gave him a vague wave with his free hand then swept his fingers through his hair.
Young tried to steer them toward the bed, but Rush made for the couch. After a show of resistance, Young let him have his way and helped him sit. The scientist ended up with one foot propped on the coffee table and his head thrown back in a pose more sprawling than sitting.
“Not sleeping here,” Rush whispered.
“Oh yeah?” Young perched on the coffee table across from him.
“Visiting,” Young repeated. “Okay. You want some tea?”
“No.” Rush cracked his eyelids. “I make tea always now. Never you.”
Young snorted. “Fair enough.”
They were quiet for a moment. Young watched the other man’s eyes drift shut. He hesitated, then closed his fingers on Rush’s jeans and gave the denim a gentle tug.
Rush’s eyes opened. “Quid?”
“On a scale of one to ten,” Young said, “How’s your comprehension of English?”
“Comprehension? Ten. Speaking? Seven.”
“This is a seven?”
“Log scale,” Rush said, with put-upon, sulky charm.
“Nice save,” Young said, smiling faintly.
“I can speak in complete sentences if, ah, such is requisite? Required. More effort though. Why?”
“Because I need to tell you something and I wanna be sure you understand.”
“Okay. But actually? Very tired.”
“Yeah, I know you are, genius. This is just one of the thirty thousand odd things I’d like to tell you right now so—stay awake for a minute.”
“You were completely out of line,” Young said.
Rush shrugged, unimpressed.
“Yeah,” Young whispered. “I get that. Because you’re always outta line, aren’t you? You won’t talk to me. You won’t talk to anyone. And, as much as I’d love to know what makes you tick, I know it’s never gonna happen.”
Rush quirked an eyebrow.
“But, as our chief scientist, you can’t just cut me out of your plans. It’s not a good strategy, it’s not sustainable, and it really pisses me off.” Young scrubbed a hand through his hair.
“Yes well. Message received.” Rush raised a hand and pulled the cuff of his jacket down to expose a three-inch wide bruise that circled his wrist. Young could feel the man’s thoughts trying to fire up, finding nothing to burn.
“Yeah. I know. And that’s what I wanted to—” he grimaced. “Shit. This isn’t coming out right.”
Does it ever? Rush’s expression seemed to ask.
“Nick,” he whispered, “I’m really sorry. For that,” he gestured at Rush’s wrist, “and for, for a lot of different things. For everything.”
“Don’t be.” Rush looked away. “Y’shouldn’t be.”
“Yes I should. You don’t know—” Young broke off, unable to continue.
“Neither do you,” Rush murmured. “This?” He motioned back and forth between his temple and Young. “Much worse for you. For you.”
“You keep saying that, but I really don’t think so, genius,” he whispered.
“You will see.” Rush shut his eyes and brought a hand to his temple.
“I love it when you say things like that.” Young wrapped his fingers around the back of Rush’s calf.
Rush looked away, covering his face with his hand.
The scientist’s mind was a slow spiral of self-shearing glass and fiery despair, burning through forming thought and English grammar. Young sensed a wave of unopposed distress building in the man’s head. It was gonna do nothing but crest and break; the guy’s control was nonexistent.
Young gripped Rush’s calf a little tighter. “Hey,” he rasped. “Genius.”
Rush’s breath came fast and shallow, his thoughts too disorganized for an English response, his body and mind stressed past the point of human endurance.
Young pulled their minds into careful apposition, projecting calm at the other man. //You’re all right. Everything turned out okay. You did a good job.//
They sat like that for a long time.
“Bad day,” Rush whispered, when he could speak.
“I know, genius. I know. But it’s over. It’s just past midnight. And I am gonna be. So nice to you.”
Rush wiped his eyes. “Nice? Why nice?”
“Because,” Young whispered. “I like nice.”
Rush smiled faintly.
“I like nice like you like math. What’s movie number five on Eli’s list?”
“You’re kidding me. We’re not watching Alien.”
“Why?” Rush’s eyes drifted shut.
“Because it’s not nice.” Young pushed himself to his feet, feeling Rush’s exhaustion leeching into him through their wide-open link. “Wanna lie down?” he asked.
“No. Visit only.”
Young sighed. “Genius, can you please just stay?”
Rush cracked his eyes open. “Yes,” he said quietly.
“That was easy.” Young looked at him suspiciously.
“Yes well. Reward—” Young felt the scientist search for the correct word before he finally settled on, “transparency.”
Young offered his hand, raising his eyebrows at Rush. “Reward transparency? You trying to train me?”
“No. Yes. Somewhat.” Rush took his hand.
Young pulled him carefully to his feet. “You’re the one who needs to be trained,” he said. “You’re a menace.”
The landscape is gray and the sky is gray and there’s something terribly terribly wrong in this moment that lengthens beyond any perception of time, too short to scream but too long to ever end and he’s being torn apart by something he doesn’t understand and can’t fight and can’t
Young struggled free and tried
He does not understand this, he does not understand this, he does not understand this, he does not understand this, he does not
to open his eyes and tried to detangle his mind from
It continues and continues and continues this terrifying tearing and this is not right his distress is splitting his processes into loops with smaller and smaller limits and he doesn’t understand why it isn’t already over, why it hurts so much to destroy code, code should not feel, code should not
Rush’s consciousness. The room was dark. He was cold. He was hearing a sound he couldn’t parse. His sense of balance was rocked by a drop from FTL.
The landscape is gray and the sky is gray and there’s something terribly terribly wrong in this moment that lengthens beyond
He realized the sound he was hearing was the sound of Rush screaming, raw and agonized and tangled in the sheets: eyes shut, hands clenched, back arched.
He does not understand this he does not understand this, he does not understand this he does not he does not
“Shit. Shit.” Young knelt on the bed, trapped by the sheets himself. He landed both hands on Rush’s shoulders and tried to snap him free from something more than nightmare.
Smaller and smaller limits and he does not understand why it’s not already over, why it hurts so much to destroy code, code should not feel, code should not feel, code should not feel but it does and he tries to think of ice of ice of ice—over the sea and over the ground and over the road and frozen into waterfalls but the landscape is gray and the sky is gray and there is something terribly terribly wrong
Rush’s mind was combining with the AI. Out of the chair, in real time, in his sleep.
Beyond any perception of time too short to scream but too long to ever end
Young tore them apart and hauled Rush’s mind back to full consciousness.
Rush stopped screaming. He gasped for air, his expression horrified.
“Oh my god,” Young whispered, looking at him. “Rush? Nick? Talk to me.”
“I—” Rush blinked. Weakly, he pushed himself onto one elbow, disoriented.
Young dragged him up and pulled him into a hug. He felt his own muscles tremble with reaction. His throat closed. “Just—tell me you don’t remember that,” Young breathed into Rush’s hair, his voice cracking. “Tell me you don’t. God. Tell me you don’t.”
Rush’s hands came up to wrap around Young’s shoulders. “Everett,” he whispered, his voice raw. “Erat—nothing. A nightmare. You’re all right.”
Young made a sound that began as a laugh and was strangled by his locked vocal cords.
“You’re all right,” Rush repeated.
The ship jumped back into FTL.
“A nightmare,” Young rasped, with a horrible smile no one could see with his forehead resting on Rush’s shoulder.
He felt unmoored. Nearly hysterical.
“You sure about that one, genius?”
His radio crackled. “Hi, this is Eli. Colonel Young or, um, Dr. Rush, could one of you please respond?”
Rush shifted his position, keeping one arm around Young as he reached for his radio.
“Adsum, er—” the scientist shook his head. “Rush here.” His voice was raw and wet and he was shaking, or—
Maybe it was Young who was shaking.
“Oh. Um, really? Hi. How—are you?”
“What? I haven’t talked to you for a while. Hi. Anyway, I you probably noticed the ten second drop out of FTL we just had—I wondered if you had any, uh, thoughts? About that?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Somehow? I knew you were going to say that. And yet, here I am, still worrying about it. Is Colonel Young around, by chance?”
“No,” Rush replied. “Unavailable.”
“Um—” Eli trailed off.
“Ecce. Eli. English mea non valde fortis est nunc; nescio cur. Difficilis week erat, et scis quod Destiny sensibile est menti meae, quid putas accidisse? Non est rocket science.”
“Ooh, nice Anglish. Um, fortasse somnium habuisti, id coniciebam or something? Et quod, y’know, dropped us out of CQL?”
“Yes.” Rush ran the flat of his hand up and down Young’s back.
“Tu scis quod non est bonum, right?” Eli sounded dubious.
“Yes well. Et quid tibi suggerere?” Rush’s tone was polite, but he was shivering so hard that the cadence of his words turned choppy.
“Well, I don’t know, er, non scio. You’re the one with the amazing firewall skills, estne aliquid quod facere possis?
Before Rush could answer, Young grabbed the radio from his hand. “Eli,” he growled. “Enough.”
There was a long silence from the radio.
“Okay. Eli out.”
“Bad idea,” Rush murmured, leaning into him in the darkness. “Not very—“ he trailed off with a shrug that Young felt rather than saw. “You are the nice one.”
“Not always,” Young said, the words fighting their way past the closing of his throat.
Rush ran his hand up and down Young’s spine. “You are very upset,” he said finally, his voice quiet, exhausted. “Very upset. Why?”
“Tell me about your dream,” Young said.
Rush shrugged, shivering. “You saw. You pulled me out.”
“I want you,” Young said, pulling back, clamping his hands around Rush’s biceps, forcing the other man far enough away to look at his face, “to tell me. To describe it.”
Rush gave him an inscrutable look.
Young shook him, very gently, once. “Describe it,” he said again. “Please.”
“Not much to describe.” Rush frowned. “It is difficult in English.”
Something in his face or the tone of his voice or his hold on Rush must’ve alarmed the other man because he raised a hand, palm up. “Okay,” he said quietly. “Okay. I was somewhere—poorly defined. Gray. Gray sky, gray frozen ground, gray road, gray ice.” He looked away from Young, closing his outstretched hand into a fist, pressing it to his mouth. “It was evening.”
Young raised his eyebrows.
“The context, or setting—probably unimportant,” Rush whispered.
“Maybe,” Young said. “Keep going.”
“There was the sensation of being—” Rush’s hand opened briefly and closed again. “Torn apart? Without end. As if in computational loop.”
“Yeah,” Young said, barely able to speak, “keep going.”
“Unsure why, or who, if anyone, was doing the tearing.” Rush looked at him and their eyes locked.
Young wanted, needed to look away. He couldn’t breathe.
“I was not preventing it,” Rush murmured, like he was piecing the whole damn thing together out of spun-naquadah wire and shards of crystal. “Nor trying to do so? It seemed requisite, but in what way—” he shrugged and opened a hand.
“Yeah,” Young whispered, “keep going.” He found his voice again. “What did it feel like?”
“Painful,” Rush replied. “But abstraction of pain, abstraction of rending. Not a form of injury or tearing that was—non scio verbum pro—” he opened and closed his hand. “Embodied? Literal. Not a form that was literal, like a burning pain or aching pain or—you understand? The concept of pain made—as if encoded. Or better, executable. Pain that would—that could cause a program or a system of circuits to respond with distress, but not just—but to impart the information or understanding of distress? I think I am not explaining this well.”
“You’re doing fine. Keep going.”
“A sense of loss,” Rush whispered. “But again abstract, as if applied to code of a running system. And a meta-awareness of loss that was—acute. Scio quod—” He broke off again. “I think this makes little sense. For a dream it’s very—existential. To be unmade into nothingness? I’ve had worse. Why does it upset you?”
“Why does it upset me?”
He had to get up. He had to get out. He had to get away.
Young tore free from the bed, from the belated tightening of Rush’s hand over his shoulder, dragging the tangled bedcovers with him as he made his way unsteadily across the room. He hit the door controls for the bathroom, ignoring whatever admonishment Rush was throwing after him—it wasn’t in English anyway.
He sealed the door behind him, gripped the edges of the sink, and tried not to be sick. Still foregrounded in his awareness he could feel Rush shivering, half-dressed on the edge of the bed, also trying not to be sick, utterly confused, his mind slowed by the drug still in his system. Young couldn’t stand it; he wanted to block him out, but he couldn’t, he didn’t dare so instead he pulled away, he thought of nothing, of not nothing, of not ice, of anything but ice, instead he thought of the desert where sand whitened to blinding in sun strong enough to sear everything away.
He took a deep breath.
He let it go.
He took a deep breath.
He let it go.
He took a deep breath.
He let it go.
//?// Rush projected a wavering stream of confusion-laced reassurance.
What did it mean that the scientist remembered being torn apart?
There was a knock on the bathroom door.
“Give me a minute,” Young managed.
The door swished open.
“I fucking locked that.” He stared at his hands, braced against the sink.
“Locked doors cannot keep me out,” Rush said, his voice dark and thick.
“Nothing keeps you.”
“You are feeling very abstract tonight,” Rush murmured.
“And you’re just—heartbreakingly direct.”
“Yeah. It means—”
“I know what it means,” Rush said. “I can fix this. I can. Not yet, but before the end.”
“Before the end,” Young repeated. “Genius,” he said, his voice cracking, “before what end? You don’t even know what it is you have to fix, let alone how to do it.” He covered his face with a hand and turned away from Rush.
“You are afraid of what?”
God, what could he even say? Nothing of multiversal assassins and their pressed-flower books of death, nothing of the blurred line between biology and computation, nothing of arrays of choice, nothing of sets of sets ripped from and through other sets of sets, nothing of transdimensional wars he didn’t, couldn’t understand, nothing of Riley’s needles, his Religion of Chance, what it might mean if their executioner was, somehow, subtly rooting for them to win a game of odds and choice and end up—where? On some time and war blasted threshold better suited to someone like Daniel Jackson? And all that was leaving aside Rush himself.
Nick Fucking Rush. His infuriating, impulsive, hot-headed, son-of-a-bitch chief scientist who was unmanageable and relentless and had been utilitarian to the point of inhumanity even before he’d merged himself with millenias-old hardware. Single-minded to the point of monomania, an unstable, mercurial, drama-queen live wire who was also—it.
The guy’d destroyed Young’s capacity to be with anyone else. Ever again. It’d been burned out of him.
“I don’t want this to happen to you,” he confessed.
“Everyone dies, Everett.”
“Fuck you. Not like this. Not like this. You’re being remade. By a virus. By a ship. I know you’d fight it if you could, but you don’t understand what’s happening to you, and I can’t fucking take it anymore, I can’t.”
“You are very cryptic,” Rush said carefully. “My dream relates to this?”
Young shut his burning eyes. His whole self ached with the need to speak to Daniel Jackson. For an hour. For ten minutes. But Jackson himself must have stood in many a lightless bathroom, lacking help, lacking recourse, shaping himself through choice and chance, ambivalence and anxiety.
“When you sit in the chair,” Young began, dredging for words, “you combine with the AI. You create a fused entity. A combination.”
Rush said nothing.
“You’re changed by that. You both are. The AI doesn’t go offline to save space when you sit in the chair. You fuse.”
Rush said nothing.
“You become code. Code that my mind is linked to.”
Rush said nothing.
“Your mind is organized, I think, on a memory of who you were—before so many godawful things happened to you. It’s organized based on how I’ve tried to fix things. It’s not the unbelievable mess you’ve got now. Its ordered and efficient and less bitter and less angry and I like it, okay? I really goddamned like it, but when it exists, you don’t. Everything you are is incorporated.”
Rush said nothing.
“You certainly seem to want it, you seem to like it, you’re claiming metaphysical continuity with your own biology, like that makes it okay. I can feel, right now, how goddamned curious you are.”
Rush said nothing.
“So you want it, or you think you do. The AI certainly wants it. But it scares the shit out of me. Not least because this is what I’m supposed to prevent.”
“And so,” Rush said quietly into the darkness, “you dismantle my code.”
“Yes,” Young said, his voice a cracked whisper. “I have to.”
“So, in the dream, that was you.”
“Yes,” Young whispered again. “It was a memory. Your memory. His. The only one you might ever share.”
“I see.” Rush stepped closer and laid a hand on Young’s shoulder.
“What’s more, you were half combined when I woke up. In your sleep. It’s getting stronger. This other version of you. It has its own agenda. It—”
“Shhhh.” Rush pulled him into a hug. “‘Agenda’,” he repeated, amused and exasperated. Shivering, he pressed his forehead to Young’s temple. “Always agendas with you. So suspicious.”
Young laughed: short, sharp, and coming undone.
“Dismantling is required,” Rush said, deliberately soothing. “So you dismantle. Nothing wrong with this.”
“I don’t think you’re getting the big picture here, genius,” Young said, his eyes shut tight.
Rush huffed. “I am very insightful, yes? Find bridge? Find tracking device? Avoid obelisk planets, save the day always. More than Eli. More than whole Science Team. Combined.”
“Don’t get cocky.”
“Very arrogant. Yes, true. You like this.”
“You talk a good game,” Young said. “But you’re a mess right now, genius.”
“I do not admit this.” Rush shivered with wounded dignity.
Young turned into the hug Rush was giving him and wrapped his arms around the man. “Fever?”
“Yeah.” Young ran a hand through Rush’s sweat-damp hair. “You’re soaked.” He made an attempt to pull himself together. “Pretty sure I saw a new shirt balled up under the bed while you were lifting the lid on your own sanity?”
“Tamara,” Rush said, unimpressed. “Campaign.”
“Still under the bed?”
Rush shrugged. “Lost.”
“Uh huh. Lost.”
“No plans for wearing.”
“Because,” Rush said, imperiously.
“God, you’re a lotta work.” Young swung him around and edged past him, out of the bathroom door. He hit the lights with his elbow and they flared to full brightness, then dimmed themselves as Rush emerged from the bathroom, squinting.
“Gave it to Brody.” Rush leaned in the doorway, shivering.
“You did not,” Young said, retrieving the shirt from beneath the bed. It was a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt, gray, and totally unobjectionable. He tossed it to Rush. “Put that on.”
“No. You have it. I give it to you.”
“Rush,” Young growled.
Rush sighed and stripped off his threadbare, sweat-soaked T-shirt, dropped it on the floor, and retreated into the bathroom.
Young picked up the shirt, tossed it into the laundry corner, then detangled and untwisted the sheets and bedcovers. He finished remaking the bed just as Rush reemerged rom the bathroom with finger combed hair, dressed in TJ’s campaign contribution.
“Mathlete?” Young said, reading the text that appeared across the front of the shirt.
“Conclude,” Rush snapped.
“Is that Ancient for ‘shut up’?” Young asked with a half smile.
“Do not tell Eli.”
“Your secret’s safe with me, genius.” Young climbed into bed. “Get over here.”
Rush sighed and crossed the room unsteadily, falling into bed. Young pulled him over so that Rush was mostly lying on top of him. He wrapped his arm around the other man’s back as Rush curled a hand around his shoulder.
“You are a little bit of a mathlete, though,” Young whispered.
“Insert threat,” Rush said.
Young laughed. “Did you just say ‘insert threat’?”
Rush shrugged. “Choose well.”
“Yup,” Young murmured into his hair, putting a gentle pressure against his thoughts. “Don’t you worry. You go to sleep. You’re not gonna have any more nightmares.”
Rush sighed and traced the tip of his index finger along Young’s collar bone. “I will fix this for you.”
“Oh yeah?” Young grabbed the man’s hand and trapped it against his chest. “Thanks.”
“Go to sleep,” Rush murmured.
“Sure.” He smoothed his hand over Rush’s hair, settled the other man’s head on his shoulder, and pressed against the slow, sedative-disrupted sleep architecture he should’ve noticed hours back, the first time they’d gone to bed.
“I will fix,” Rush repeated, his accent still strange as his voice shaded into sleep.
Young stared into the dim, starless shadows of FTL that flickered over the walls of his quarters. He tried not to think. Of anything.