Force over Distance: Chapter 69
“Every human being is created from a blend of two others,” Rush said, smiling faintly. “Cooperation and conflict play out on the level of our crystal.”
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Witching hour.
Additional notes: None.
Young didn’t sleep for the rest of the night.
After the round of midnight bullshit Rush’d put him through, he’d be lucky if he ever slept again.
In the early hours of the morning, he laid awake, one arm around his chief scientist. He studied the shadowed ceiling of his quarters where Ancient text, inlaid in custom ribbons of wrought naquadah, wove its way across the ceiling, a silent record of a still-sung song.
“What’s it like to be you?” He whispered the question into his chief-scientist’s hair. “Hmm?”
Overpowered thoughts running a body that did its damnedest to keep up? What did it feel like to know a thousandfold more than one could ever or would ever share? What did it feel like to tack into the headwind of the unknown over and over, further and further?
“Bet it feels like shit,” Young whispered, resettling Rush’s head on his shoulder and flexing his tingling fingers. “Ninety-nine percent of the time.”
The scientist didn’t so much as twitch. He was dead asleep, not a shred of muscle tone anywhere.
Young checked the time. 0630.
He’d wait at least an hour before he bothered TJ. She was gonna need some space after everything that’d gone down the previous day.
Maybe he could make himself scarce while she checked Rush over.
“You have enough common sense to be extra nice to TJ, right?” Young whispered. “I guarantee you she’s gonna be extra nice to you.” He pulled Rush a little closer and sighed as the scientist cycled from deep sleep back towards REM. “Why is it never easy with you?” He stabilized the architecture of a half-formed dream. “Sleep isn’t supposed to be hard. You can brick a ship while you’re comatose, you can overwrite foreign code while you’re sedated, but this is where it breaks down for you? This?”
Young let himself be drawn into a shadowed lecture hall, blue-lit and eerie. An unearthly melody played through the walls—
Rush, startled by Young’s sudden appearance, drops his chalk. As it hits the floor, the worn tile of the lecture hall cracks like a geode. Seawater wells out of a glistening, viscera-lined tear in the fabric of the world.
“Hey.” Young steps in and tips the man’s chin up. “Hi. Eyes right here, genius.”
“Colonel?” Rush breathes.
“Yup.” Young tries to get his bearings. Whatever’s lurking beneath the floor is probably best avoided. “What did I say about using my rank?” He pulls Rush away from the growing fissure. It follows slowly, splitting the world at their heels.
“That it’s to be used, without fail, on Wednesdays,” Rush says, with crushing sincerity. He glances back.
“Nope.” Young puts an arm around his shoulders and quickens their pace. “Don’t look back. What’s so special about Wednesdays?”
“Love a good Wednesday.” Rush is nothing if not a contrarian who’ll damn well do exactly what anyone in a uniform tells him not to, so of course he tries to turn to the growing abyss behind them as they start up wide, shallow stairs that ascend toward the rear of the lecture hall.
“I said don’t look back,” Young growls, picking up the pace. “Can we just talk about Wednesday? Please.”
“I, ah, suppose so?” Rush says uneasily. “If you’re not sure what day it is, always choose Wednesday.”
“Oh yeah?” Young can feel the dissolution of the world at his heels. He shoves Rush ahead of him. “Why’s that?”
“It’s in the middle of things,” Rush breathes, as they reach the top of the stairs. “Named for the Norse god of wisdom.”
“God of wisdom?” Young plows through the doors at the back of the room and crosses a deserted hall, silent and extending away too long on either side. He heads for the daylight. “You making that up, or is that a fact?”
“Gloria told me,” Rush murmurs.
“Yeah, she probably knew what she was talking about.”
“Knew?” Rush whispers.
“Shit. Knows. I mean she knows.” Young shoulders his way through a set of glass doors and emerges beneath an overcast sky.
He’s expecting California.
This isn’t California.
Cultivated, rolling hills stretch to the horizon. The clouds are low to the ground and full of rain. In the distance, he sees a city on a river. Young’s outfit has changed to a dress uniform: half Air Force, half commercial pilot. Rush wears a dark suit. Ahead of them, there’s goddamned hole in the grass-green countryside. A tight-knit circle of mourners, dressed in black, stare into it.
“Oh god,” Rush breathes, scanning the landscape, backing up a step.
“Novels,” Young says, scrambling for any cue that might jump a track. “Movies you’ve seen? Uh, golf, historical cemeteries, Pride and Prejudice, English histories, damn it, Nick.”
“What?” Rush’s voice cracks, bewildered.
A woman peels away from the black-clad knot near the grave. She approaches, blonde hair wisping in the wind. Her eyes take on the gray of the day. She has Gloria’s sharp features, her quicksilver shift of expression, her bearing, her step, light across the grass. “So you decided to show.” She shouts the words into the wind.
“Julia.” Rush backs up a step, “I—”
“After everything you put her through,” Julia snarls, her eyes flooding with tears, “dragging her across the ocean, across the bloody planet—and for what? For an abstraction?”
“Why don’t we take a walk?” Young steps between Rush and Gloria’s sister. “Hash this out later?”
“Yes. Run away,” Julia shouts at their backs. “It’s what you’re best at, eh?”
Young pulled back, giving up on REM stabilization. Instead, he tried to press Rush’s mind into dreamlessness. The withdrawal hung up halfway through, as though the scientist’s mind fought to hang onto him.
“Come on,” Young said, making another effort break the dream structure and guide Rush under.
Rush physically tensed, still caught in the dream, digging in, intensifying his grip on Young’s consciousness. He shivered with the fever that’d already broken through his 2 AM Tylenol.
“Damn it,” Young hissed, as the dream pulled him back in.
“What’s happening to you?” Rush shouts into the wind, blindly upset, his dreaming mind a collage of already fragmenting ideas, tears running down his face.
“Tell me how you fix a nightmare,” Young shouts back.
“What?” Rush asks, hands open, telegraphing the kind of despair Young has only ever seen once, from the combination he makes with a starship intelligence wandering the void of space.
The wind eats at the edges of the world.
“You fix my nightmares,” Young shouts. “How the hell do you do it?”
“Electrical systems take my energetic input,” Rush says, utterly confused.
In one swift, sure motion, Young pulls him in, torques the momentum of his fever-dream into a hairpin, and reaches into the bright core of Rush’s cognitive engine.
The wind died to nothing.
“Easy when you know how,” Young whispers, into a suddenly still afternoon.
Rush, startled into silence, braces his hands on Young’s shoulders.
“This looks like Wyoming.” Young reforms the landscape with words and thought, drawing on the fight for the fabric of a dozen worlds he’d waged in the neural interface. The clouds split and reform, towering higher, letting some daylight through. The landscape rises, turns mountainous. Bare rock towers above tree lines. Snow lingers in shadowed patches on the distant slopes.
“My brothers used to take me camping every summer.” He holds Rush’s gaze as he sculpts detail into the world. “We’d do the Cascade Canyon Loop. Twenty miles of mountains, pines, exposed rock. Too much sky.” He threads the images into the scientist’s thoughts and the landscape turns exquisite. When the still water of Jenny Lake reflects rocky peaks, mid-summer clouds, he gives the scientist an encouraging shove onto his own two feet, and turns him to face the afternoon.
“I’ve never been anywhere like this,” Rush rasps, his voice still rough as hell. He wipes tears he doesn’t understand out of his eyes. “I don’t know why I—” he trails off, and Young can feel him trying to order his thoughts within a fragmented, shot-to-hell dream.
“It’s the wind,” Young says. “Happens to everyone. C’mon.” He starts walking, defending the world itself against whatever’s trying to crawl out of Rush’s damaged subconscious. “There’s an overlook up ahead.”
“An overlook?” Rush says, skeptical. “Never been much o’one for appreciating a view.”
Young snorts. “That was before you met me.”
The scientist side-eyes him with sly appraisal.
“Now you’re big into views. Sleep. Nutrition. Hiking. Green smoothies. Meditation. Cooking. Designer shoes, when you’re in shoes. Skewering Air Force top brass with your vocab. Cleaning out my work friends with your secret poker skills. Underdressing for the winter. Overdressing for the summer. Pretending you still live in California when really you live in the Rockies.”
“I do not ‘hike’,” Rush says delicately.
“Yeah, that’s probably true,” Young replies, undeterred. “I could see you as a climber. Bouldering, maybe? Less time commitment, more technical skill. Spend forty-five minutes thirty feet off the ground, hissing ‘fuck you’ at a rock until you fall off an overhang. You’ve got the build for it. I’d assign you a dog, but I can’t picture it. A cat, I could see. An annoying one. Ridiculously attached to you, tries to maul anyone else who approaches it. It tolerates me. Barely. You’d name it something ridiculous. Ada Lovelace. Sierpinski.”
“Y’shouldn’t have those names at your beck and call.” Rush’s brow furrows.
“Hey. Don’t get distracted by my latent math skills. You need to be taking notes on this stuff.”
“Why? Because this is the plan, genius. After we’re done.”
“Oh yes?” Rush says, with a small smile, there and gone.
“Yeah.” Young looks over the still water of Jenny Lake. “Tuning you up. Tuning you down. For years. Whatever you need.”
“Why?” Rush asks.
“What the hell kind of question is that?” Young shoves his hands in his pockets. “Idiot.”
At 0730, his door chime rang. He eased himself out from beneath Rush, applying a gentle pressure to the man’s thoughts to keep him from registering his change in position. He snagged his jacket from the floor near the nightstand and shrugged into it, not bothering with boots. It was TJ. Had to be.
He hit the door controls, already running through what he was gonna say—
“Hi.” Wray stood in the doorway, a plate of pancakes in hand. She gave him a once-over, her eyes lingering on his bootless feet, his open jacket, his hair, which was probably a tangled mess.
“Pancakes?” She held the plate up.
“Sure.” He ushered her into the room.
She set the plate on the table and pulled a tiny bottle of syrup and two forks out of her pocket.
Young raised his eyebrows.
She gave him a small smile and a too-innocent shrug.
“I’ve got tea.” Young kept his voice low.
“Do you really?” Wray said, equally soft. She let her gaze wander over the chalked schematic on Young’s floor, and to Rush, asleep in the bed.
“TJ’s blends,” Young crossed the room and pulled out the array of options. “She’s got something she’s calling Morning Tea. It’s got a trace of a caffeine-like molecule. Supposedly.”
Sounds wonderful.” Wray took a seat. “How’s Nick?”
“He’s been better,” Young started the water heating. “Down for the count right now.”
“Looks like,” Wray said, in muted agreement. She was quiet as the water boiled. “I’ve heard about six versions of what happened yesterday.”
Young poured the tea. “Oh yeah? What’s the word?”
“Majority opinion is that Colonel Telford put Rush on the wrong end of a piece of alien tech and you—reacted strongly.”
“Some would say ‘proportionally’.” Young put Wray’s tea in front of her. He sat, his own cup in hand.
Wray gave him a small smile. “I’m sure. You wanna tell me what happened?”
And yeah. Turned out, he did. The story came pouring out of him. The AI’s missing memories. Sortes and Fabrice. Telford’s use of the recall device. The increasingly urgent search for the broadcasting Nakai tech. The girl. Who she’d looked like. The way Rush, drugged into oblivion and combined with the AI, had taken her out, with a grounded, breathtaking blaze of pure power.
Wray listened, eating her half of a plate of shared breakfast, taking it all in without comment. When Young was done with the tale, she slid the half-stack of pancakes directly in front of him.
Young took a bite.
It conjured up a thousand buried memories: diners with cheap plastic menus, the taste of eggs, the smell of Emily’s french toast, of his mother’s cooking, a universe away.
The sweetness of the syrup was so intense it was painful. “Oh god,” he whispered, wiping his eyes.
“I know,” Wray said. She waited until he was done before she spoke again. “Everett, you’re treading some dangerous legal ground.”
Young looked up at her. “With Telford, you mean?”
“You can’t leave him in his quarters, with no access to appeal.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” he replied mildly, looking at the swirl of shield-light beyond the window. “But that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“You continue this way and it’ll force the leadership structures at the SGC to either reprimand or replace you. If you defy a direct order from Homeworld Command, it’ll precipitate a crisis. The IOA will become involved. They’ll call for your head.”
Young sighed, scrubbed a hand through his hair, and picked up his tea. “Can we slow-play this?”
She nodded. “To some extent, yes. There’s an SGC stipulation that allows for seventy-two hour holds during a crisis, where ‘crisis’ is loosely defined and at the discretion of the ranking military official. It was created because there are so frequently instances where personnel could be compromised, but there’s no way to determine whether they truly are. You can use that provision as legal backing. We can argue our crisis window extends through the removal of the Nakai device, which I understand technically hasn’t happened yet That’ll give us the better part of a week to formulate a strategy.”
Young sipped his tea. “I want him confined.”
“If you keep him indefinitely confined with no recourse, you could be facing a court martial when we—” she steeled herself, like she was bracing for bad news. “When we get back.”
He nodded. “I’m not worried about it.”
“Camile,” he said gently. “I’m doing everything I can to get the crew home. That hasn’t changed. But, uh. After that, I’m just. I’m not worried about it. Court martial, no court martial—” He shrugged.
He saw her working it through, her expression tight and careful. She dropped her eyes and looked away. “He can’t leave the ship,” she murmured.
Young shook his head. “Don’t tell TJ. Don’t tell anyone.”
“I,” Wray said, not looking at him, her eyes on her hands. She compressed her lips, tried again. “Even so. I’d like to make an effort. On your behalf. I want you to—at the very least, I want—” her voice faded to nothing.
“Camile. It’s fine.”
“I’ve cross referenced our losses. Against the Atlantis expedition, which was much better equipped. With a safer base of operations.” A tear trickled down her cheek. She brushed it back into her hair. “Our losses are much lower. Our hostile engagements are comparable. We have fewer resources. Our crew is over half civilians.”
“Look at you,” Young said, smiling faintly. “Tracking hostile engagements in your free time.”
Wray sniffed. “You joke, but things can change. Your star is on the rise; it’d be a shame to waste that. Let’s take it in pieces. Seventy-two hours after the tracking device is out of our walls, you give Telford his phone call. You formally charge him in a military court. I can arrange that for you by proxy. You allow him access to counsel. It’s worth that much to stay in Homeworld Command’s good graces.”
“All right,” he said reluctantly. “We can game it out.”
She nodded. “That’s all I ask.”
Rush woke around 1100 hours, surfacing slowly and evenly, his thoughts running reassuringly clear. Young, back in bed with man, put down The Castle, and ran his fingers through hair at the nape of Rush’s neck. The scientist didn’t move, didn’t say anything.
“You okay?” Young asked.
Rush nodded, and sent a non-verbal wave of assent in washed-out gold and iridescent molten glass.
“Yeah,” Young murmured, watching the man sort himself out. He didn’t seem in much of a hurry to get up. Probably because he felt like hell. “Hey.” Young watched shield emissions shine in Rush’s hair. “Real question for you, if you’re up for it.”
Rush made a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat.
“Do you think it’s possible,” Young whispered. “That that little girl—the real girl, not the viral program—that she was taken by the Nakai? That they messed with her?”
“Why?” Rush murmured.
“Not sure how far the construct got with you,” Young said, still running his fingers through the man’s hair, “but uh, she made some claims. That the daughter of Sortes had been taken by the Nakai. That they’d used her to create a wraith queen in the Pegasus Galaxy. That it’d turned the tide of the war there.”
Young pulled him closer. He could feel a split in the man’s thoughts, could feel a gathering energy, like he was about to— “Hey,” Young whispered. “Don’t even think about running code on your brain, genius. I’m not asking for probabilities here. I just want your take. That’s all. Not gonna hold you to it. Not gonna act on it. I just wanna know what you think.”
The tension ebbed out of the scientist’s thoughts. “It personalized itself to some degree,” Rush said, the words almost tentative. “And your daughter was taken. We presume. And then—just by virtue of working at Stargate Command, y’have an extensive knowledge of humanity’s struggles in Pegasus?”
“Yeah,” Young said. “I know the guy in command of that mission. We oriented to the SGC together. I keep up. Or, I did.”
Rush nodded. “It might be no more than that.”
“But?” Young prompted, feeling the split spin of the scientist’s thoughts.
“But,” Rush murmured, “after they found me, after they found Destiny—it was Chloe they took. Chloe they modified. Not by chance, I think. The youngest crew member. A woman. I can hear the hard fork in her crystal to this day.”
“What?” Young asked, a cracked whisper.
“Her DNA, I mean,” Rush amended. “The change there. The injury. I can hear it. It hasn’t faded with time. I doubt it will. There should be some trace left of what they did. Perhaps what changes remain could be compared to the genetic sequence of the wraith. It might provide a clearer picture. More grounds for Bayesian guesswork.”
Young sighed, and rubbed the flat of his hand up and down Rush’s back. “Don’t suppose I can convince you to stay in bed all day, can I?”
“I expected t’wake up handcuffed to th’thing,”Rush muttered.
“If I tried it, TJ’d probably put me under military arrest. C’mon. You gotta hydrate. Get more anti-virals. Eat.”
“Fuck off,” Rush said, half silk, half sulk.
After a day of damage control and morale-boosting, Young made his way to the control interface room a good ten minutes before the NHB was due to start.
He found Rush in his usual spot, his left foot hooked over an adjacent chair, a pencil held between his teeth like a cigarette. He watched the rapidly changing display in front of him with arms crossed.
“What,” Young said, startling him, “you don’t even have to type now?”
“Jealous?” Rush smirked around the pencil in his mouth.
“No,” Young said. “Not really. I prefer the typing, actually.”
“Well. Y’would, wouldn’t you?” Rush replied, in his most condescending tone. He pulled the pencil out of his teeth. “I admit there’s a certain mechanical artistry to the fingering of a key.”
With a strange blend of desire and instinct, Young caught the guy’s gaze and put it on lock.
“This is new,” Rush murmured, staring helplessly into his eyes.
“Shit.” Young broke whatever the hell hold he had over the guy. “Sorry.”
Rush shook himself and quirked a brow. “Acquiring skills while I’m drugged into oblivion?”
Young winced and looked away. “Some kinda while-loop thing, probably.”
“Oh I doubt that.” Rush didn’t bother to hide his interest. “It felt more like a reweighting of a prioritization queue.”
“Great,” Young muttered.
The scientist smiled, subtle and slow.
“Look you,” Young growled, with zero follow-through.
“Yes?” Rush said, with a provocative sweetness strong enough to knock Young off every play in his book.
Young dropped his gaze.
“Y’know, after weeks of consideration, I’ve decided I quite like your Puritanical streak,” Rush said, slow-pouring the words down Young’s spine. “It’s deposited in the bedrock of your psyche. Like a vein of crystal. I think it’ll reliably remain a satisfyingly complex exploit.” The man gave the final “t” in “exploit” a deliberately villainous crack.
“I just wanna be nice to you,” Young growled.
“Oh, is that all?” The light glinted off the frames of Rush’s glasses. “Well, if that’s your only goal, you’re doing an abysmal job. Averaged over the duration of this mission, it’s been a truly pathetic showing. If, on the other hand, the desire to be ‘nice’ is the acceptably Puritanical half of a deeply paradoxical desire to simultaneously—not sure what you’d call it. Rend and repair? Battle and build? It becomes profoundly more interesting.”
“No paradoxes here,” Young said, all the strength gone from his voice.
“Every human being is created from a blend of two others,” Rush said, smiling faintly. “Cooperation and conflict play out on the level of our crystal. Y’can’t escape it. If you truly only wanted t’be ‘nice’ to me, you’d be a piss-poor alignment anchor. I think a deeply conflicted mind is probably a tremendous advantage in your role.”
“I’m not conflicted,” Young growled. “I consider. I consolidate. I don’t invade Russia in winter.”
Rush’s smile evened out and laced itself with terrifying charm. “Don’t you? I’d reassess.” And then, with a shoulder-throw of the mind that revealed the hold he’d had on Young for the entire span of their conversation, he locked down Young’s attention.
Young lost everything but Rush’s eyes, backed by the opal and amber wind of his running thoughts. “Don’t y’think Napoleon, too, thought himself a consolidator?” He could feel the flaming lace of Rush’s thoughts, wrapping his own, reaching for details he didn’t have. “The crossing of the Nieman River? Smolensk? The Battle of Borodino?”
Young couldn’t look away, couldn’t find the space for thought beneath the light-torrent of Rush’s mind.
“Burn the countryside if you must.” Rush backed the words with a waterfall of fire and light. “But get out before winter.”
Young gasped as the scientist released him. “God damn,” he hissed, the tips of his fingers and toes numb and tingling. He hip-checked himself on the console as he swayed, his whole body and mind feeling the lack of the attentional lock, the aching desire to be back under its influence. “What the hell was that?”
//Apologies,// Rush paired the word with a soothing flow of his own presence. //Bit of a turnabout.// He gave Young an uncertain look.
Young steadied himself. //You’re not a doomed military campaign.// He brushed the fringe of of hair back from Rush’s glasses. “Stop getting all edged-up because you can’t get rid of me. Settle down. Settle in, even.”
“Never,” Rush whispered, with a cracked-apart smile.
“I don’t mind a challenge,” Young murmured, and pressed the back of his hand to the scientist’s forehead. “How’s that fever coming along.”
“Don’t do that.” Rush ducked away from his hand. “You’re very irritating, you know.”
Young hauled him back by his shoulder, clamped him in place, and tried again. “Oh yeah. I’m irritating. Me.”
“I fail to see what you’re implying.” This time, Rush sat still and let Young make contact. His skin was a reassuringly normal temperature.
“TJ got ahold of you?”
“Yes yes. Paracetamol and extra anti-retrovirals. Happy?”
“Not really.” Young let him go.
“Good,” Rush said silkily. “In other news, Eli wants a title. I blame you for this.”
“A title? What kind of title? And how is that something that’s ‘blame-worthy’?”
“He wrote out a list of grievances.” Rush reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a piece of folded notebook paper, and offered it to Young.
- Number of briefings run by Eli in the past two weeks: 13
- Fraction of briefings run by Eli in the past two weeks: 0.69
- Fraction of briefings run by Eli vs. time (in weeks):
“Uh, he graphed the fraction of briefings he’s been running?” Young asked.
“Yes.” Rush looked up at him with a small smile. “Yes he did.”
- Number of hours worked per week by Eli (average of past 6 weeks): 96.7
- Number of CRITICAL PIECES OF INFORMATION WITHHELD FROM ELI IN PAST SIX WEEKS BROKEN DOWN BY PERSON DOING THE WITHHOLDING:
- Colonel Young: 5
- DNR: Unknown [PROBABLY AT LEAST ONE MILLION ITEMS]
- Chloe: 1
- Brody: 1
- Everyone else: 0
- Number of times people have said thank you to Eli:
- Colonel Young: 2
- DNR: 0
“There’s no way he handed you this,” Young said, fighting a smile.
“I believe the intended recipient, if anyone, was Chloe,” Rush said archly. “He’s becoming utterly too complacent if he thinks I’m too far-gone to notice he’s not paying attention when he is supposed to be learning quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, he makes a fair point.”
“Wait a minute.” Young crossed his arms. “You stole his little private tally-sheet that he’s been making to vent his frustrations against you, and it convinces you to promote him?”
“Acting chief scientist,” Rush shrugged. “He’s been doing the job anyway.”
“So this is less him wanting a title than you wanting to give him one. Yours.”
“No,” Young growled. “Not semantics. I know what you’re doing. Cut it out. If you’re not running the briefings you won’t come.”
“Your track record says otherwise, genius. No dice.”
“Y’realize I can go over your head on this one, don’t you? Wray is actually the highest civilian authority on this ship and—”
“Wray won’t back you,” Young said. “Not a chance in hell.”
“It’s not clear to me that I need anyone’s permission t’do this, other than my own.” Rush smirked at him, leaning back in his chair, managing to balance it on two legs.
Young stepped down on the rung of the chair, bringing all four feet to the ground. “You may not be directly in the chain of command, but, like every other god damned scientist, you operate within a military hierarchy which I run.”
“Cute,” Eli said.
Young whirled to find Eli and Chloe in the doorway, damn it.
“Stop baiting the colonel.” Eli stalked to his usual station and started setting up his laptop. “Not before the NHB.”
“Not cool, doc,” Chloe slipped into her usual seat. “Definitely not cool.”
Rush rolled his eyes.
“Hey.” Young tapped his chief scientist on the shoulder. “The answer is no, you got that? Don’t try it.”
“Try what?” Eli asked, short and sharp and done with everyone’s bullshit.
“Don’t worry about it, Eli,” Rush said.
Eli shut his eyes, tipped his head to the ceiling, clasped his hands, and whispered theatrically, “Dear God, please help me to not murder my boss today and every day, for the rest of my natural life.”
“Amen,” Volker called from the back of the room.
Chloe laughed into the cuff of her sweatshirt.
“Yes yes,” Rush said, unimpressed.
Park entered the room, followed by James and Brody. Young pushed away from the monitor bank, ready to post himself up at the back wall.
“Am I running this?” Eli asked, clipped and irritated.
Rush ignored the question, caught Young’s sleeve, pulled his own foot off the chair next to him, and gave Young a gentle shove in the direction of the chair. “I understand that there was an incident this morning involving the distal port weapons array?”
“Yeah,” Eli said reluctantly. “It’s no big deal, one of the—”
“Um, hi. You guys? Hi.” Park stood, her fingers tracing the rim of her still-shut laptop.
An awkward silence descended.
“Hiiiii?” Eli drew out the word.
Rush said nothing.
Young followed his lead.
“What’s up?” Eli asked.
“So, um, clearly there are like circles.” Park made vague, overlapping circular motions with both hands. “Circles of knowledge? About what’s going on exactly? but um—”
There was another good, long chunk of intensely awkward silence.
Rush sighed. “You’re wondering why lost touch with reality, locked Volker in the control interface room, drew a schematic of the location of the Nakai tracking device on the floor of Colonel Young’s quarters and was then unconscious for a day and a half.”
The guy really had a flair for—
Well, Young wasn’t sure what kind of ‘flair’ it was that Rush had, but the man had it in spades.
“I don’t know if I’d put it that way,” Park began.
“Yep.” Volker cut in. “Nice summary. I’d also add that while you were out of commission, Colonel Telford was placed under military arrest, his team was locked out of the database, and Colonel Young sat in the chair.”
Rush looked at Young, one eyebrow lifted. “Military arrest?”
Young shrugged. “He assaulted a civilian.”
“Who?” Rush asked, visibly astonished.
Young clenched his jaw, stared at the ceiling, and tried to dredge up what was left of his patience.
“Wow,” Volker said. “Okay.”
“Fuck off,” Rush said, edgy as hell.
“See? This is what I’m saying,” Park whispered. “Circles.”
“You,” Volker said. “He assaulted you, Rush.”
“He did no such thing,” Rush snapped.
“Yeah,” Volker shot back, quick and solid, before Young could scrape a sentence together, “he did. He used a Tok’ra interrogation device on—well on a guy who doesn’t have the bandwidth to be messed with; let’s put it that way.”
“Fuck off,” Rush hissed.
“Against direct orders,” James said, hard and quiet and in support of Volker.
//Settle down.// Young projecting a wave of calm in the scientist’s direction.
“Yes, well,” Rush eyed the room uneasily. “Anything else?”
“It’d be nice to know why the colonel felt he had to sit in the chair,” Volker continued, “or why TJ was found in a corner two levels down crying her heart out into a bulkhead.”
The room went silent.
Rush looked away.
Young grimaced and rubbed his jaw.
“Thanks so much for that little addition, Volker,” Rush said acidly.
“You asked,” Volker shot back. “Don’t change the subject. What’s going on with you, Rush?”
Rush fidgeted with his pencil.
His thoughts were an anxious swirl, and despite the fact that he, to all outward appearances, was having a good day, Young could feel the difficulty with a temporal sequencing that’d satisfy the Science Team. His mind was overrun with oceanscapes, with the outline of silver towers against the blue-white of an alien sky, with ghostly Nakai pacing the halls of Destiny in overlay, with—
//Throw out everything from Atlantis, genius. Those memories aren’t yours.// Young reached in, bringing his thoughts together with Rush’s, helping him put together and hold together a linear sequence of events long enough to describe it. When they reached the point in the narrative where Rush had nothing but a mnemonic blank, Young took over, bringing the Science Team up to speed.
“Um,” Park said, when they’d finished.
“What,” Rush sighed, defensive and exhausted.
“Just glad you’re okay,” she said in a small voice. “That’s all.”
“Yes well, thank you, Dr. Park. I ah—” Rush trailed off. He pulled a small notebook from a pocket. “I regret the necessity of locking you in the control interface room, Volker.”
“You ‘regret the necessity’?” Volker echoed. “Terrible apology, buddy. But I’ll take it.”
“You attacked me,” Rush said icily.
“Only because I thought you were about to take life support offline,” Volker muttered.
“Knock it off,” Young said mildly. “Let’s move on. Get this thing out of our walls.”
“Eli,” Rush waved the kid to the front of the room. “Proceed.”
“Oh, uh, okay. So I’m running this then?”
“Yes,” Rush said. “You’re running this. You’re running all briefings from now on. You’re also in charge of Colonel Telford’s research personnel until such point that he successfully navigates himself into a position to take them back—”
“Not gonna happen,” Young growled.
“—something that will be quite difficult for him to accomplish if you manage to do something useful with them in the meantime,” Rush finished.
Young glanced obliquely at Rush. //Not a bad strategy.//
Rush gently kicked Young’s chair.
“Uh, okay.” Eli’s gaze shifted to Young. “So we can let them back into the database?”
“Break them up,” Young said. “Don’t let them operate as a unit. If you’re gonna lean on one of them, make it Bill Lee.”
“Come up with a set of projects,” Rush said. “I’ll queue them for you. I still need gaps in the power grid mapped. Put that at the top.”
“Come up with a—are you serious?” Eli crossed his arms. “You’re giving me more work? This is revenge, isn’t it? I’m tired of it. Do you realize how much time I have for sleeping? Very little, okay? Did you not read that list you stole? I need all of the limited limited sleeping time, so—”
“Eli.” Young broke in before the kid worked himself up too far. “He just promoted you.”
Rush raised his eyebrows and made a sweeping motion with one hand toward the front of the room.
“Uh. Seriously seriously?”
Volker snorted. “C’mon Eli. Get up there already.” He made a show of consulting his watch. “Caltech Rules say you’re on thin ice.”
“Okaaaaay,” Eli said, inching toward the front of the room. “Well, if I really get to run all the briefings then I’m changing things up. Number one, the daily briefing is now going to be at fourteen hundred hours, not nineteen hundred hours so we can change stuff afterward and have the opportunity to meet again at like, not midnight. No one likes that. Except you.”
“Fine,” Rush said.
“Hang on.” Volker crossed his arms. “You wanna trade the NHB for what—an FHB? No way, man. Veto.”
“Seconded,” Brody said. “Second veto.”
“I like the night meetings,” Chloe confessed. “Something to look forward to?”
“It’s a little bit social,” Park agreed.
“I—but, guys. Fine. But we’re going with first names, then. All the time. For everyone. Not just me and Chloe.”
“I get a ‘Miss Armstrong’ here and there.” Chloe shrugged. “At least, from Dr. Rush.”
“I prefer ‘Brody’,” Brody said.
“Ugh. You guys. There’s a reason that everyone uses first names in academia and science and stuff, and it’s about the data, not the hierarchy and—” Eli began.
“I could be Dale,” Volker said, leaning back like an elder statesman. “I’ve been trying to get you people to call me ‘Dale’ for years. It’s always ‘Volker do this’, ‘Volker get my laptop’.”
“I call you Dale,” Park said.
“You’re different,” Volker replied.
“You guuyys,” Eli said.
//He can’t quite control a room like you can.// Young tried not to smile.
//Yes well. Few can.//
“Wait, what about Lisa?” Chloe said. “She mostly gets Lisa. Could this a gendered thing?”
“Sucks to be ‘Eli’,” Brody said, deadpan.
“Dr. Rush calls me ‘Park’,” Park offered. “One hundred percent of the time.”
“He’s very progressive,” Chloe replied. “He has zero gender biases, at least as far as I can tell. I was more talking about the rest of the team. First names for ladies, last names for men?”
“Chloe,” Eli said darkly, arms crossed. “No.”
//You gonna put a stop to this any time soon, or should I?// Young glanced at Rush.
“Oh.” Chloe looked apologetically at Eli. “Right. Sorry. Maybe it’s actually an age thing.”
“Not better, Chloe,” Volker said.
“I find it flattering.” Park ostentatiously flipped her hair.
//I’m beginning to think they don’t respect me anymore,// Rush said, almost wistful.
//Only one way to find out.//
“Actually,” James said, “Dr. Rush tends to use titles; Chloe and Eli don’t have advanced degrees.”
“Oh my god,” Volker said, in slow-motion revelation. “It’s a grad student thing. Last names for everyone except the honorary grad students? Aw! That’s actually really—”
“Quiet,” Rush snarled.
The room fell silent.
//Your reign of terror continues,// Young said.
//I believe I said ‘quiet’?//
“Let’s proceed to the portion of this briefing where you communicate something useful?” Rush asked Eli, with venomously precise elocution.
“No problem. Nick.”
//He’s been wanting to do that for so long,// Young projected.
//Nothing was stopping him.//
//Do you have any idea how much work you are? You say you do, but I don’t think so.//
Rush spared him a half-amused, half-disdainful tilt of the head before focusing on Eli.
“Okay,” Eli said. “So. By popular demand, I give you: actual info.” A pink and blue projection of the Nakai device schematics shot into the air overhead. “This is what we’ve got on this thing so far. Its composition is sixty percent some kind of neat alloy which, yeah, we have no idea exactly what it is since our R&D materials science wing doesn’t so much exist as not-exist? The other forty percent is carbon-based.”
“Carbon,” Rush repeated.
“Yup.” Eli raised his eyebrows expectantly at Rush and shifted forward onto the balls of his feet.
Rush said nothing more.
“That’s all you’re gonna say? ‘Carbon’?”
“What do ya want, a medal?” Rush asked waspishly. “If it’s carbon-based, it’s carbon-based. Continue.”
//Genius?// Young projected cautiously. //You okay?//
“This doesn’t surprise you?” Eli asked.
The flare-and-spiral of Rush’s thoughts crystallized and shattered apart. “Does the fact that the Nakai have interfaced biological material with a mechanical framework surprise me?” Rush said, all edged up sarcasm and defensiveness. “No, I can’t say it does. Chloe, are you surprised?”
Again, his thoughts crystallized and shattered apart.
“No. It doesn’t surprise me,” Chloe said, using her Senator’s Daughter voice, full of power and certainty. It doesn’t surprise me at all, as I’ve been on the receiving end of such an interface myself.” She paused, softening her delivery. “But it surprised Eli. He asked around. Tell him what Telford’s people told you.”
“I thought I told you to keep Telford’s people out of this,” Young growled.
//Did you?// Rush projected, cool and collected.
//Idiot. Y’can’t tell scientists not to talk to one another.//
//I do it all the time.//
//How’s that worked out for you, then?//
“Yeah, I mean, I didn’t tell them anything specific, it was more like I said, ‘what would you say if I told you that I found a tracking device that kind of grew into the life support system like a plant’?”
“Oh very subtle,” Rush said with a half smile.
“I knew you’d like that,” Eli replied. “Anyway, interestingly, the answer was wraith tech. As in, like, the wraith. The species.”
He felt a familiar pressure build like a voltage differential across the back of Rush’s mind, felt the scientist bring all the organization he had regained in the past day to bear on trying to suppress it, felt him try to fracture his train of thought as a defense, felt that it wasn’t going to be enough.
“The wraith?” Chloe said slowly, as if she were pulling the information from distant memory. “That isn’t what the Nakai called them.”
Young tried to defuse the coming flashback, tried to—
Chloe hissed an alien word.
Perhaps there’s another way. Perhaps he can core himself out. Convert himself to potential. To space. To nothing that runs. To Fabrice’s waiting instrument, still playing the song of its people, without thought or memory or eternal grief. There will be nothing to interrogate. There will be no thoughts to manipulate. There will be no thoughts at all—
With a flex of raw cognitive power, Young snapped him free.
Rush made a sound from between clenched teeth, and gripped the edge of the table.
//Easy,// Young projected.
“Sorry,” Chloe whispered, stricken.
“That was,” Rush whispered hollowly, staring unseeing at the monitor bank in front of him, “that was the end.”
//For Sortes,// Young said. //Yeah.// He drew Rush’s attention back to the room, to Eli, to Chloe. //Hang in there.//
Rush took a breath, shook his hair back and looked up at Eli. “Continue.”
Eli had his arms crossed over his chest, his mouth set in a thin line. He hesitated, but only for a moment. “Sure. Of course. Let’s skip design implications and jump to detangling it from our life support.” He hit a button, and the overhead display shifted to a block of glowing text. “Chloe and Brody drafted a step-by-step plan for removal. Not finalized, of course, but it’s something to talk through.”
Rush sighed, fidgeting with his pencil.
Eli looked at Rush.
Rush looked back at Eli.
Wordlessly, Eli picked up his notebook, flipped to a page in the middle, and handed it to Rush.
Young leaned over the scientist’s shoulder and saw the entire page was covered with meticulous Ancient text, written in a blend of three handwritings. Young was pretty sure it corresponded to the glowing block of English overhead.
Rush tried and failed to suppress a wave of relief.
Young rubbed his jaw.
“Chloe,” Eli said, “start us off.”
“The Nakai are good at cutting holes in the side of vessels and avoiding atmospheric decompression,” Chloe said, “and this device is buried inside Destiny. It made sense since it’s grown into the life support system that it might also grow toward the outer hull of the ship in order to boost its signal strength. We looked for evidence of that, and we found it.”
Eli clicked a button and the midair display shifted away from the step-by-step outline to what scans of Destiny’s bulkheads.
“It’s so subtle that Chloe had to really work to convince us,” Eli said. “But, using her creepy alien instincts, she found a tiny sliver of the EM band that resonated with the tech. Turns out that very fine tendrils of this device run through the walls with Destiny’s other circuitry. We’ve highlighted them in yellow here.” Eli advanced the display and Young could see thin strings of yellow running like a web through the glowing blue of the schematics.
Rush grimaced. “That’s—inconvenient.”
“Yes, we do have an Understatement of the Year award, and yes, that’s gonna be a strong contender,” Eli said.
Rush rolled his eyes.
“Eli,” Young growled.
“As our Fearless Leader instantly identified,” Eli continued, “there’s no way to cut off communication between the device in the life support system and the transmitter in the hull without completely gutting our own circuitry in the process.”
“Guys,” Young said. “Lay this out for me. Why can’t we just go for the device itself? This crap in the walls should be dead anyway once we get this thing out of our life support system.”
“Yeah,“ Eli said, drawing out the word. “I don’t know that we’re going to be able to do that.”
“We need to get rid of this thing.”
//Calm down, won’t you? He’s about to explain.// Rush projected.
“Not true, actually,” Eli said. “Technically we don’t have to get rid of it, we have to stop it from transmitting. That’s all it’s got left, now its defenses have been hulled out. Just a base protocol. Pure mechanics. No sinister programming.”
“Okay,” Young said. “I’m listening.”
At the most basic level, there are three ways to kill transmission: one—remove the power supply interfaced with life support; two—cut the connections between the power supply and the transmitter in our hull; three—disable the transmitter.”
“And option two is off the table,” Young said. “Fine. So one or three. Which is it gonna be?”
“There are problems with both,” Eli said. “Brody—er, damn it. Adam is going to take us through the problems with number one.”
“Uh, like I said, I’m good with ‘Brody.’ Removing the device would be cleanest, but it’s no coincidence that they placed it where they did. It pulls power from life support and has a port to the AI’s neural net. Probably it’s that interface that was driving Rush crazy.”
Eli cleared his throat.
“Yeah, I’m not calling him Nick. It’s too weird.”
“Not what I was clearing my throat about,” Eli muttered.
“Didn’t you found a civilization that worshiped the guy?” Volker asked dryly. “Seems like calling him ‘Nick’ wouldn’t be that big of a deal.”
Rush raised his eyebrows at the pair of them.
“For the last time, Dale, that wan’t me.”
“Quiet,” Rush said, the word drawn out and disdainful.
“If we go for the power supply,” Brody said cautiously, “and try to remove it or damage it in situ, we risk screwing up not just life support, but also the AI. Bad idea. Really bad. Especially given—“ Brody gestured at Rush, “all your stuff.”
“Okay, so it’s option three then?” Young asked. “Disable the transmitter? Is that why I saw the letters EVA in step seventeen of your step-by-step plan?”
“Yeah, option three is best,” Eli said cautiously, “but it’s not without problems.”
“Being nearly impossible kinda tops the list,” Volker said. “In order to disable the transmitter we’ll need to precisely correlate its position on the surface of the ship with its tangle of inputs. Eli, show the scans of the hull.”
Young looked up at a blue schematic of the exterior hull. It was shot through with delicate yellow tendrils that concentrated themselves in a broad, tangled snarl across a wide swath of the hull.
“So, yeah,” Eli said. “We know the transmitter’ll be kinda in this region—” he waved at the place where the web of inputs was most dense, “but, as you can see, there’s no one, obvious nexus. This means we have to look for it, visually, within the confines of a large area of the hull.”
“Is it too much to request a scale bar?” Rush asked.
“How large?” Young asked.
Eli grimaced. “Forty by sixty feet?”
“Metric system,” Rush said. “You people. Honestly.”
“Like you don’t know what feet are. Fine. Roughly thirteen by twenty meters? Happy? Anyway, the point is, that’s a very large area, especially when what we’re looking for probably blends in with the hull and could be as small as a maybe—a poker chip and is probably somehow concealed?”
“I’m guessing,” Young growled, “there’s gonna be no way to search for it without dropping out of FTL.”
“Nope,” Eli said, “which brings with it a whole host of other problems, not the least of which is that the Nakai have two points on our current trajectory, given we’ve had a few FTL drops. Given the point we started from, they’ve now got a defined line which they can back-extrapolate to the point we left the galactic plane. They’ll be significantly behind us, but they will show up.”
“It might take them a while,” Park said hopefully. “Whenever we vanish at FTL they’re forced to pick a likely trajectory, but they couldn’t’ve predicted we’d change our course and head into empty space.”
“True,” Eli said. “We might have as much as a day of lead time on them before they show up. I don’t know that that’ll be enough.”
“It will be.” Rush scanned the block of handwritten Ancient tech. “I’m certain I can cut down our search time significantly.”
“Coolness,” Eli said. “Ship whispering.”
Rush looked up at him with raised eyebrows. “If what y’mean by that is I can tell the difference between Ancient and Nakai technology by looking, then yes. This will, however, require me to actually look.”
“At the risk of getting ridiculed, I will respond with: duh?”
“As in, not via kino.”
“As in,” Eli said, with the slow grimness of a dawning realization, “you think you need to do the EVA.”
“No,” Young said flatly.
The room was silent.
“No.” Young repeated. “Absolutely not.”
“Ummmmmmm,” Eli said reluctantly, “it may actually be the best way.”
“He can’t walk down a hallway without a problem,” Young snapped.
“Charming,” Rush said, dust-dry.
“All he has to do,” Eli said, “is find it. The extraction itself can be done by someone else. It shouldn’t be too difficult. We can send a four man team in the shuttle—two to find and mark the device, two to do the actual removal.”
“I think it should be me,” Chloe said, her voice small. “I think I should do the removal. I have a sense for their technology. If there are any defenses built into the device, I’ll have the best chance of detecting them.”
“Hey,” Young growled. “Listen up. I have the final say in who is going and who is not.” He looked pointedly at Rush. “Chloe, you have no experience with EVAs. It’s not as simple as walking around in a damn space suit. I don’t want either of you doing this.”
“Y’realize if I stage another mutiny, I’ll certainly carry it off, correct?” Rush asked, with predatory indolence.
“You’re not gonna stage a mutiny.”
“Won’t I?” Rush picked up his pencil and twirled it through his fingers.
Eli rolled his eyes. “You guys. Seriously. It’s adorable, but get a room. Now. The Science Team is cool with the concept of chain-of-command, right? Right. We are. But’ll be difficult under the most ideal circumstances and there’s no point in not using the resources that we have to our best advantage, right? Right. It’s a really bad idea to stack the deck against ourselves. Is Rush kind of unstable? Yes. Yes, he is. But we can work around that. Does Chloe have any EVA experience? No. No, she does not. But we can work around that too. We’ll send Matt with Chloe; he has tons of EVA experience and they’ve got a good working relationship. We’ll send Greer with Rush.”
“Greer.” Young crossed his arms. “Why Greer.”
“Um,” Eli said. “Lots of reasons. Look, everyone’s a big fan of the new leadership dynamic and all, but I’d say you’re pretty hit-or-miss in your ability to keep—” Eli glanced at Rush, who was glaring daggers at him. “Um, put another way, crap is probably gonna go down during this whole transmitter-removing project. So, if you’re not going to be on the bridge when the Nakai drop out in the middle of this thing, then who is going to be there? Maybe TJ, or Varro, or TJ and Varro, but—you’re kinda irreplaceable in the whole Attack Coordination Thing, right?”
//That is an example of what’s known as ‘logical thinking’,// Rush projected. //I point it out because experience indicates you may be unfamiliar with such a concept.//
//Shut up, Rush.//
He got back a delicate wave of headache-laced amusement in return.
“All right,” he growled reluctantly. “Let’s talk through it. From the top.”