Force over Distance: Chapter 70

“The shuttle just came up on short range. They’re ballistic.”

Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.

Text iteration: Midnight. Hover-to-discover intact.

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 70

Late into the evening, Young sat on his couch, scanning through an English copy of Eli’s proposed plan for something like the fifteenth time.

“So, you think this is gonna work?” Young asked, putting the ragged-edged notebook paper aside.

“Mmm.” Rush stared through Eli’s Ancient text as though he wasn’t seeing it.

“You listening?”

“Yes yes,” Rush murmured.

“Uh huh. Was that yes you’re listening, or yes it’s gonna work, or one yes for each question?”

His chief scientist sat on the floor with his back against the couch, his left foot elevated on the low table, pretty clearly not taking in a word Young’d said. His fever had broken, his thoughts were running firebright, and his mental engine was revved with all its usual horsepower.

Young flicked a piece of his hair.

Rush jerked away and side-eyed him, hard. “May I help you with something?”

“You must not like some aspect of this.” Young held up Eli’s tattered notebook paper. “Spill. What’s the problem?”

Rush hooked a hand over his shoulder. “There’s no ‘problem,’ per se, but, not t’put too fine a point on it, the removal of this device’ll take four to five hours, best case scenario. Between finding it and removing it, we may not complete the job before the Nakai get a fix on our position.”

“Yeah,” Young sighed.

“The problem then becomes a firefight in a void lacking stellar resources.”

“You think we might spend too much power in a fight to make it to the next galaxy?”

“It’s a concern,” Rush said, the FTL drive flickering in the spiral of his thoughts.

“You wanna wait?”

“No.” Rush stared at the page in front of him.

“What’s with you and the timetables, genius?”

“We’ll wait if we have to, but—” Rush shifted his hand from his shoulder to his neck, and back again. “We may not have to.”

Young sighed. “It’s always something with you, isn’t it?”

“There’s no need t’look so fuckin’ despondent. We simply scan for an orphan star,” Rush said.

“Orphan star?” Young repeated.

“A star without a galaxy. Sometimes they trail off the end of a galactic spiral, sometimes they’re ejected by gravitational slingshot effects when galaxies collide. This intergalactic void isn’t entirely featureless.”

“Sorta like stopping at an oasis in the desert?”


“Bands of thieves hang out near oases, y’know.”

“Thieves,” Rush repeated.

“It’s a known fact. If you have a place with a resource in the middle of a void, that’ll be where everyone goes. It’ll attract the wrong kind of people.”

Rush dug his fingers into his neck, tipped his head back, and looked obliquely up at Young. “It’s not a perfect solution. But once we drop out, they’ll have their fix. Stranding ourselves would be a terrible fuckin’ idea.”

“How far behind us do you think they are?”

“The sooner we drop, the greater the positional disparity,” Rush said, “because they’re faster than us, I believe. Presuming we can drop out in the next three days, I’d say we’ll have somewhere between five and twenty-four hours.”

“Think we can get it done in five?”

“Possibly,” Rush said quietly.

Young sighed. “What does the AI think?”

“The AI’s busy.”

“What do you mean ‘busy’?”

“It’s having a difficult time right now.”

“Okay.” Young stoically eyed the coffee table.

“Oh stop. Your understanding of it ought to be nuanced enough t’know it understands causation, has feelings, and is capable of changing its own behavior following the input of new information.”

“Just wondering what it’s changing, is all.” Young kept his tone neutral.

“You frightened it last night.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not the only one.”

Rush’s shoulders tensed. He swept a hand through his hair. “Fuck off. Y’don’t frighten me. I could stop your heart on a whim.”

Young snorted. “I wasn’t talking about you, you maniac. I was talking about me.”

There was a short pause.

“I knew that,” Rush said.

“Genius, I freely admit that thing scares the hell outta me.”

“I know.” Rush closed his eyes. “I understand why it would. Why it does. And, much as I’d love t’negotiate between the two of you, I know how that would end. And I—” he swept a hand though his hair and left it there. “I can’t. Not now. Maybe not ever.”

“Okay,” Young said.

Rush eyed him skeptically.

“Okay,” Young said again.

Rush gave him a look of rueful apology and hooked his fingers over the back of his neck.

“Get outta here.” Young pried Rush’s fingers away from his shoulder. “You’re terrible at this.”

“At what?” Rush asked.

“At this.” Young pressed his thumbs into the base of Rush’s neck.

Rush tipped his head forward and leaned into Young’s hands. “Relatively terrible,” he said, all princely sulk and wounded dignity.

“What other kind of terrible is there?” Young asked.

“You’re so fuckin’ witty these days.”

“I’ve always been witty.”

“I’d’ve noticed.”

Young began to project a thread of calm at the other man. “What’s this like for you?”

“It feels indescribably first-fuckin’-rate,” Rush replied. “My neck is always killing me.”

“I know.” Young pressed his thumbs along either side of the man’s spine. “Most of the time it’s killing me as well. But that’s not what I meant.”

Rush said nothing.

“What’s all of this like for you? Constantly talking with the AI. Knowing that your brain combines with it when you’re in the chair?”

Rush said nothing.

“C’mon. You never talk to me.”

“I talk to you continuously.”

“But not about this. Not about how any of this makes you feel.”

“I don’t think it matters,” Rush said.

Young was quiet as he worked a stubborn knot in Rush’s right shoulder. “I think how you feel may matter a lot,” he said. “I think it may determine what happens to you. In the end.”

“Possibly,” Rush whispered.

“So,” Young said. “How do you feel?”

He couldn’t see Rush’s pained half smile, but he could feel it through their link.

The scientist’s thoughts were a disturbed swirl of images—hurt and raw with people running through them in simultaneous strings of interrelated memories like a tangle of threads. A sense of guilt, of regret, of entrapment bloomed in Young’s thoughts and faded as it flowered. Nothing took hold, other than the memory of effort toward an ever-narrowing goal.

“Like I’m doing my best,” Rush said.

“Yeah.” Young shut his eyes and dug his hands into Rush’s shoulders.

After a day and a half of preparations, Young sat in the central command chair on the bridge, waiting for Destiny to find an orphan star that met the criteria specified by Rush. Wray, at his elbow, was briefing him on Colonel Telford’s latest round of bullshit.

“Telford wants Rush on record in defense of his position.” Wray kept her voice low. “He seems to think Rush will back him.”

Young rubbed his jaw. “See, I don’t—”

They dropped from FTL.

Wray steadied herself against the unpleasant sensation with one hand on the command chair.

“Here we go.” Volker squinted out the forward view at the yellow star that took up a large portion of the visible spacescape. Beside it was a planet, one side lit up bright white, the other side shrouded in darkness.

Young pulled out his radio. “Scott, scramble your team. Launch when ready.”


At the forward station, Chloe pulled in a breath. Slowly, she got to her feet. The light of the star put highlights in her hair and shone off her engagement ring. On her way past, Young squeezed her shoulder. She gave him a wan smile.

“You got this, Chloe.” Volker’s eyes tracked her as she headed for the doors.

She didn’t answer.

“Uh.” Brody stood, then crossed the bridge to stand at Volker’s shoulder. “That’s no moon.”

“It’s a space station,” Volker said, in a tone of quiet revelation.

“Guys,” Young growled. “Star Wars quotes are only allowed when they’re not misleading. Unless—”

“Nope,” Volker said. “Sorry. It’s definitely just a planet.”

Young pulled out his radio. “Park, Eli, get up here as soon as the shuttle’s away.” Young shot a wave of inquiry at Rush.

//Preparing the startup sequence.// Rush sent him a brief visual of Scott and Greer, coupled with a wave of irritation at their inefficient console work. //We’ll launch when Chloe’s aboard.//

//Be careful.// Young drove the words into the scientist’s thoughts.

//Yes yes. Don’t rearrange anything in your mind.//

//Pull all your shit forward, you mean?//

//Yes. That. Don’t do it.//

//It’s not a conscious strategy, Rush.//

Mostly. Mostly, it wasn’t a conscious strategy.

//Yes, well. Make an effort this time? I’m bored of fixing it.//

//Bored? You’re ‘bored’ of fixing it?//

//It’s tedious.//

//You’re a lot of work.//

//But I’m worth it.//

Young smirked. “Guys. What’ve we got?” He turned to Volker and Brody. “What’s the story with this planet?”

“It’s orbiting close to its parent star.” Volker studied the readouts in front of him. “Close enough that, yup, it’s tidally locked, which explains why it stuck with its star when it was ejected from its galaxy.”

“Any life down there?” Young asked.

“No way,” Volker said. “Tidally locked planets—”  he broke off. “Aaaaaaaaand, forget what I was about to say! I’m picking up signs of civilization in the twilight band.” He looked up at Young.

//Interesting,// Rush commented in the back of his mind. //Tell Volker to specify.//

“Specify,” Young snapped.

Volker and Brody exchanged a significant look.

Young shot a wave of irritation at Rush, and then said added, “please,” in a more reasonable tone.

“So, in the habitable band we’ve got vegetation, we’ve got a lot of—oh boy. Yup, I’m reading naquadah-based structures. It’s not exactly naquadah? It’s an alloy; I can’t tell you much more than that. I’m getting no power readings though. These are probably ruins.”

Young breathed a sigh of relief. “Nothing on short-range right?”

“Yup,” Volker confirmed. “We’ve got nothing.”

“Keep scanning the planet,” Young said. “We might as well learn what we can about it.”

“It doesn’t seem like the nicest place,” Volker replied. “Tidal forces have made it seismically unstable, and the upper atmosphere is a seething mass of ionizing radiation. I’m reading massive meteorological disruption. Huge, continent-sized storms. Thick atmosphere.”

“Hey people!” Eli burst onto the bridge, his laptop and notebook tucked under one arm. “I heard we have a tidally locked planet? Has anyone named it, because if not, I vote for Ryloth or Twi’lek, that is capital ‘Twi,’ apostrophe, ‘lek,’ which, as you may or may not know is the—”

“It’s tidally locked?” Park followed Eli onto the bridge. “I hate tidally locked planets.”

“Number one, that’s a lie because you hate nothing,” Eli replied, “and number two, even if you did hate something, tidally locked planets?  That’s like the weirdest thing to choose.”

“They have earthquakes,” Park said, “and, as I think I’ve told you guys—”

“Yeah yeah, broken glass, bleeding feet, trauma trauma. We know,” Eli said. “Is the shuttle away yet?”

“Not yet,” Young said. “What’s our current trajectory?”

“We’re at low impulse, heading toward the star.” Park slid into Chloe’s station. “A planet in orbit changes our approach vector.”

“At our current course and speed we should have a good six or seven hours before any solar radiation starts to turn dangerous for people on the hull,” Volker added.

Young pulled out his radio. “Lieutenant Scott?”

“Aye sir,” Scott replied.

“Launch when ready.”

“Will do, colonel. Just about there.”

Young rubbed his jaw.

“I’d feel better if we had four suits,” Wray said at his elbow. “I don’t like the idea of depressurizing the back of the shuttle with people in the cockpit who don’t have any kind of protection.”

Young caught her eye. “There are a lot of things I don’t like about this plan.” He depressed the button on his radio. “James, you in position?”

“Yes sir,” James said. “Barnes and I are standing by. If anyone needs an evac through the hull, Barnes is suited up and good to go.”

“Understood,” Young replied. “Hopefully you won’t hear from us.”

He drummed his fingers on the armrest of his chair and kept his link with Rush wide open. The aft compartment of the shuttle and the mechanized sound of a self-contained breathing apparatus were as sharp as the bridge chatter, as the planet that hung like a bright-dark jewel near its orphaned star.

“They’re in position,” Brody said.

“Destiny, we’re depressurizing the aft compartment.” Scott’s voice, broadcasting via the shuttle’s coms, killed the chatter in the room.

Eli flipped a switch on his terminal to broadcast. “Understood.”

Park tensed at the forward console, her hands gripping its edges. Beside him, Wray took a half step closer to his chair. Volker chewed his lip.

The bridge was silent.

Across their open link, Young felt Rush grip the metal frame of the shuttle as the atmosphere in the rear compartment vented to space.

“Hey Destiny,” Scott’s voice came through the speaker system, relief evident in his tone. “No problems with depressurization. We’re good here. Deploying kinos now.”

In the back of Young’s mind, the stark light of the star gleamed off the hull as Rush stepped onto the silver expanse.

“We’re getting visuals,” Eli called. “I’m patching them down to the feed in the mess now. Yaaaaay for crowdsourcing.”

“How many people we got scanning the footage for anomalies?” Young asked.

“Um ‘how many?’ Try the entire crew, organized into hierarchical teams based on experience with Ancient systems. Most likely though? Rush beats all of them.”

“The entire crew?” Young echoed.

“Unless they had another job, yeah. People wanna help, you know. Plus, there’s no TV here, so— ‘save the ship’ is a very popular leisure activity.”

“Guess so.” Young stared into nothingness as he watched Rush grid off the search area with a permanent marker attached to a thin piece of metal piping.

“He gridding?” Eli looked back at Young.

Young nodded.

“I see him.” Eli cycled through the kino feeds on his monitor. “Ugh,” the kid muttered. “What the heck?”

“What?” Young growled.

“Oh! Uh, sorry; I just can’t believe he’s this accurate using nothing but the scans I showed him this morning.”

“He’s got a lot of processing power.”

“Yeah. He can also draw really straight lines.”

Eli’s radio crackled. “Eli, this is Varro, some of the teams down here are already coming up with stuff they want you to look at?”

“No.” Eli grabbed his radio. “Tell them to simmer down; we haven’t even finished marking the area the kinos are gonna search. Whatever they’re seeing now is normal stuff.” He glanced at Brody and Volker. “One of you guys might have to go down there for fifteen minutes and give them a refresher in ‘normal’ versus ‘weird’.”

Young kept a mental eye on Rush, tracing his grid on Destiny’s hull.

Out of nowhere, out of nothing, Daniel Jackson appeared in Rush’s peripheral vision, walking along next to him without an EVA suit.

Rush flinched, responding to Young’s surge of adrenalin. Greer steadied him.

Which was fine.

Because Jackson didn’t need to breathe. Jackson also wasn’t Jackson.

//Shit,// Young projected as much calm as he could while his heart was still making a bid for escape. //Sorry.//

//Calm down,// Rush snarled. //You’re extremely distracting.//

“Doc, you good?” Greer asked through the in-helmet speaker.

“Yes, yes.” Rush regained his equilibrium.

“Nick?” The AI said, managing to sound like it was in Rush’s headset and not defying the laws of physics in open vacuum.

//Sorry,// Young said again.

//Stop talking to me. I can’t do this and carry on three conversations at once.//

Young sent him a wave of edgy acknowledgement.

“Hey,” Eli said, waving at him. “Hello? Earth to Colonel Young?”

What,” Young snarled, his focus back on the bridge.

Eli exchanged a meaningful look with Park. “Long range sensors are picking up instabilities in the solar corona.”

“Meaning?” Young asked.

“Meaning it’s within the realm of possibility that we might experience a solar flare sometime within the next day.” Eli replied.

“And that would be bad, I assume?” Young asked.

“Really bad,” Brody said flatly.

“Yup,” Volker agreed.

“It could create an electromagnetic disturbance that interferes with our equipment,” Park said.

“So, do we need to change our course?” Young asked.

“Um, maybe?” Park replied.

“Park. Not helpful.”

Park nodded. “I know, it’s just, there are pros and cons. Pros would be that if we change course right now, pull a 180 and head into empty space at sublight, it might be enough to take us out of range of the flare—but it might not. It depends on the strength of the flare. The major con is that if we do that, we lose the option of going for the star when the Nakai show up.”

“Eli,” Young said.

“We should stay on course.” Eli didn’t look up from the video feed of the exterior hull. “If we turn around, there’s no guarantee we’d make it outside the radius of the flare, but we will guarantee that the star won’t be an option for us anymore. That was the whole point of picking this spot in the first place.”

Young nodded.

Beside him, Wray crossed her arms. “I don’t like this,” she said, low and quiet.

“Me neither,” Young muttered.

“On the plus side,” Park offered, “it’s nice to have some advance warning, right?”

“Yeah, that’s fun,” Volker said dryly. “We can game out a few options to save ourselves from lethal solar radiation.” He raised both hands as the entire bridge crew turned to glare at him.

“Stay on course,” Young growled at Park. “Maybe we can speed things along.”

“Yup,” Eli said. “Speeding.” He straightened, kino feed in hand. On his way to his usual station, he arced near the command chair. “There can be no pressuring of Chloe when she is working on that device,” he whispered, his voice low and serious. “Lean on Rush all you want. But Chloe—she knows already, okay? She knows.”

Young raised his eyebrows.

“Come down on her,” Eli said quietly, “and it’ll backfire. It’ll backfire hard.”

Young said nothing.

“I know you’re mad I put your Space Boyfriend on the exterior hull but this is no time to throw your weight around.”

Wray quirked a brow.

Young couldn’t quite keep his smile off his face. He nodded.

“Oh shut up,” Eli hissed. “Don’t give me your “that’s cute” face. I’m serious. Do not pressure Chloe. Pressure Rush. Like, right now, please? The faster he finds this thing the more time she’ll have.”

//You get that genius?//

//No. Get what?// Rush finished his grid and handed the marking tool to Greer.

//We may have a solar flare in our near future.//

//Yes, well. That’d be a catastrophe,// Rush said, over an amusement-laced wave of dread.

//So, maybe speed things along?//

He got a wave of irritation in reply as Rush looked out across the shadowless silvered surface of Destiny’s hull, where the kinos had begun their algorithmic sweeps. Young felt the man’s attention split as he engaged with the AI, asking a question half in Ancient, half in code.

A headache pounded behind Young’s eyes as Destiny answered.

“Uh, is he just standing there?” Eli asked.

“That’s what it looks like,” Brody said.

“Um, hi? Eli to Nick, I thought we were doing a methodical sweep of the grid?”

“Don’t worry about it, Eli,” Rush replied.

“That response is so inappropriate I feel like it’s kinda an inside joke we have now? That’s fun except for the part where I hate it and it’s not funny. How am I supposed to coordinate this if I don’t know what you’re doing?”

“I’m making an educated guess about where to look.”

“I thought you were gonna walk the grid. But if you don’t want to, we already have a few candidates that’ve come up from the teams in the mess. I think they’re a little trigger happy down there though, FYI.” He paused.

Rush said nothing.

“Um, hello?” Eli snapped.

Rush shut out everything except the data from Destiny.

“Seriously?” Eli said to the room at large, “he’s gonna stop talking to me now?”

“Settle down and give him a minute,” Young growled.

Wray smiled down at her crossed arms.

“What?” Young muttered.

“Nothing,” Wray said. “Ignore me. I’m not even here.”

Slowly, Rush paced over gridlines, fighting the catch and pull of his magnetized boots. Greer kept pace with him. In his peripheral vision, the AI strolled along, unencumbered, like it alone felt the gravity of the hull.

The kinos altered their search pattern.

“God, he’s disrupting everything.” Eli muttered, staring at the kino feed.

“Y’think?” Young said, trying not to be too obvious about staring into nothing as he followed Rush through their open link.

Rush stopped near the intersection of two gridlines and knelt with difficulty.

“He’s where thirty-nine and forty meet forty-five and forty-six,” Eli said into his radio. “You guys have anything in that region?”

The AI knelt next to Rush, its head cocked. The light from the nearby star shone in Jackson’s glasses, in his hair, in the blue of his eyes and the lace-guards of his worn leather shoes. “It’s very close,” it said.

Scio,” Rush murmured, “but I don’t see a physical correlate.”

“You got something, doc?” Greer planted his feet and scanned the area.

“Maybe.” Rush spread a gloved hand on the hull, then dragged his fingertips over the metal.

“Careful,” Greer said. “Don’t tear your glove.”

“I’m monitoring the—” Rush broke off as his hand vanished from view and he fell forward, unbalanced.

Greer closed a hand around the scientist’s shoulder and yanked him back.

“Mmm,” Rush said, unperturbed. “Clever.”

“What the hell?” Eli snapped.

Young took a breath and tried to calm his racing heart.

“God damn, doc. Take a year off my life why don’t you?” Greer gave Rush’s shoulder a small shake.

Rush narrowed his eyes, studying the featureless metal. “The transmitter’s concealed by a holographic projection of normal hull, likely coming from the device itself. We never would’ve found this via kino. Chloe, are y’watching?”

“Yes,” Chloe said. “I’m here. I’m watching.”

“I’ll determine the boundaries of the projection and disable it t’give you an unobstructed view of the transmitter.”

“Negative,” Chloe said. “Just determine the boundaries. I’ll disable the projection.”

“You’ll not be able to see what you’re about.”

“Better I trigger something than you do.”

Rush grimaced. “Greer,” he said. “I’ll take that marker.”

Delicately, using the tip of the marker itself as a probe, Rush mapped out the area of the hull covered by the projection. It was no larger than a sheet of notebook paper.

Quid censis?” Rush looked at Jackson.

“I think you ruled out any kind of triggering device that operates via interruption of the holographic field when you put your hand through it,” the AI said. “The physics of the illusion implied the projection originates from the perimeter of the depression, rather than from the center.”

“Agreed. Chloe, did you get all that?”

//Genius, she can’t hear the AI.//

“Sorry,” Chloe said, “I don’t know what you mean?”

“Never mind. I think the projection originates from the edges of the depression in the hull. I’m going to test that theory by blocking an edge.”

“Um, I think I should be the one to do that.”

//No,// Young projected forcefully.

“Don’t you dare.” Greer knelt next to Rush. “I’ll do it.” Before anyone could stop him, the sergeant gingerly slid his fingers down along one edge of the depression.

The appearance of solid silver metal vanished, replaced with a dark, shallow space. Greer slid a second hand adjacent to the first, blocking the projected light along an entire side of the cavity. Rush added his hands and, between them, they blocked half the perimeter of the small hole.

In the center of the depression was a small device.

“Zoom in, zoom in, zoom in,” Eli muttered, manipulating the kino feed.

“Looks like we can block the concealing EM field without triggering any unwanted surprises,” Rush said over the radio. “The trick’ll be something we can line the depression with so Chloe has room to work.”

“Um, I put electrical tape in Chloe’s kit,” Eli said. “Feel free to give me a raise at any time.”

Young rolled his eyes.

“How much do I get paid, actually?” Eli asked. “I get paid, right?”

//Get your ass back in that shuttle,// Young shot at Rush.

//Yes yes,// Rush replied.

Six hours later found Young posted behind Eli’s station, watching the kino feed as Chloe meticulously worked to disconnect the transmitter from its countless power inputs. Eli, hunched in his chair, flipped back and forth between pages in his notebook.

“Okay and so that thing? The black thing? I think it’s like their version of a diode?”

“I said no jargon, Eli,” Chloe said sharply.

“Diode isn’t jargon, it’s like—a thing. Even I’ve heard of it.”

Porta electrica via unica,” Rush said over the radio.

“See?” Chloe said. “Just say that. Thank you. And yes, yes it’s a ‘diode’.”

“Don’t touch it; it looks like it’s a check valve, and it may help us out if we accidentally trigger an overload in step forty-six.”

“Well, I have to get underneath it,” Chloe said, “if I’m going to go after the last power input directly.”

“Maybe you can go for it indirectly. It runs along the far side of the cavity before it twists around to end up underneath the transmitter proper?”

Young linked up with Rush, who sat in the cockpit of the shuttle next to Greer, his left ankle resting on his right knee, as he followed Chloe’s progress with a handheld monitor.

//How we doin’?// Young projected.

//She’s tiring, but we’re nearly done.//

//How close is ‘nearly?’//

//Half an hour if she goes for the power supply indirectly, maybe ten minutes if she goes for it directly.//

The flashing of an indicator light caught Rush’s attention.

“Oh,” Park said, tight and high. “Hi. Hi everyone. Okay, we, uh, we’re seeing an increase in the activity of the coronasphere.”

“Chloe,” Rush said, his voice calm, his thoughts swirling with anxiety. “Go for the power supply directly. Disconnect the diode. Start now.”

“What’s going on?” Chloe asked, sharp and frightened.

“Begin,” Rush replied, smooth and neutral.

“What kind of activity?” Eli snapped.

“Magnetic flux,” Park said. “Lots of flux.”

“Oh god, yeah, okay.” Eli threw up a projection of the solar corona overhead. “Oh god. No one tell Chloe.”

“Do we have a confirmed flare?” Young asked the room.

“No, but it’s looking very likely,” Volker said.

“You’re good,” Scott said, quiet and calm, his words meant for Chloe alone. “You’re awesome. You got this.”

“Chloe,” Rush said, with a cavalier quality that Young could feel him pulling off by his fingernails. “Stop working for a moment. I’m about to rotate the ship. It’ll get quite dark. You’ll need your light.”

“He’s what?” Eli snapped. “He can do that?”

“Understood,” Chloe said. “Matt, can you—thanks.”

//Rush, what are you doing?//

“Port thrusters are firing,” Volker said. “He’s putting the bulk of the ship between them and the star. It’ll be some help, but, if we have a true flare, they’ll have to get off that hull.”

“How long will they have?” Young asked.

“Ten minutes, tops, before radiation overwhelms suit defenses.”

“All right, Chloe,” Rush said, as the ship’s rotation stabilized. “You’re clear to keep working. You have ten minutes.”

“Ten minutes until what?” Chloe asked.

“That’s when you need to be finished.” Rush’s voice was cool, almost bored. “It’d be better if you could do it in half that.”

“What?” Eli snapped. “What’s he doing? Does he know something we don’t?” He grabbed his radio. “Keep it chill, Chloe,” Eli said. “No big deal. If you don’t finish this time, you go back out. No problem.”

“Everyone stop talking please,” Chloe said.

//Ten minutes?// Young shot at Rush.

//Based on that flux? There’s already been a magnetic reconnection. You’ll detect it when it surfaces.//

Young drummed his fingers on the armrest. On the shuttle, Rush did the same thing.

“Long range sensors—we have a confirmed coronal mass ejection,” Park shouted, cutting across the chatter on the bridge.

“We’ll start experiencing electromagnetic disruption in less than two minutes,” Volker confirmed.

//Genius, how bad is this gonna be?//


“Call the shuttle back.”

Young jumped, startled as the AI appeared from nowhere.

“Call the shuttle back,” Jackson repeated. “The other two can evacuate over the hull.”

Young gave the AI a steadying look, then checked in with Rush. //You getting this?//

//Yes. The AI’s profoundly concerned, but the egress point on the hull is over seventy-five meters from their current position, whereas we are three meters away.//

//Worst-case scenario, what happens to the shuttle?//

//We lose navigation, communications, and computational control. When we try to make it to the docking port, we become ballistic and crash into the sun. Scratch that,// Rush amended, looking out the forward view of the shuttle, //we’d likely crash into the planet.//

“Nice.” Eli held the kino feed in a white-knuckled grip. “Nice one, Chloe.”

“If they don’t make it back before the leading edge of that flare hits, they may not make it back at all,” the AI hissed, its projection flickering, Jackson’s hair turning lighter, longer. “Do you understand what happens to this ship without him?”

“Almost done,” Chloe breathed.

“Eli,” Young said. “How long does she have before she gets it?”

“Three minutes, maybe?”

“And the leading edge hits in?”

“Ninety seconds.”

“Sergeant Greer,” Young said softly over the military channel. “Power up the shuttle.”

Next to him, Wray tensed.

“What are you doing?” Eli shouted. “They might not make it across the hull. Part of it is exposed to the sun. If there is so much as a tiny flaw in the EM shielding in either of their suits—”

“And what happens to the shuttle when the flare hits? Are they gonna be able to make it back?” Young growled.

“We don’t know, but they’ll have a better chance than anyone stuck on the hull, that’s for sure,” Eli said.

“Sir, this is Greer—we’re having some problems with the start up sequence, stand by.”

“Nick,” the AI hissed furiously, and vanished.

//And by problems he means you, I take it?// Young tried to keep a lid on his rising anxiety.

//Even if she doesn’t evac via the shuttle,// Rush said, //from a psychological standpoint it’d be extremely damaging for us to leave at this precise moment.// He pulled out his radio. “Take your time, Chloe. We’ll wait for you.”

On the kino feed, Chloe’s hands shook. Young rubbed his jaw, then moved to stand in front of the forward view. Wray joined him. Together, they looked out at the star.

“The leading edge of the flare hits in five,” Park said. “Three. Two. One.”

The lights on the bridge flickered.

A hiss of static replaced the kino feed.

“Shit.” Young looked at Eli. “Tell me we still have communications.”

A surge of panic from Rush exploded to the forefront of his mind, shattering his thoughts apart in a single, horrifying image:

A flashlight hurtled through the darkness of space, away from the hull of the ship.

A woman’s scream sounded from beneath the static that nearly obscured the shuttle’s communications system, short, terrified, and unmistakable.

It was Chloe.

“Chloe.” Eli held his radio with both hands, his fingers white, his eyes staring at nothing. “Chloe, what happened. Chloe. Do you read?” Eli turned the dial on his radio, listening to the homogenous static. “Chloe. Matt. Chloe. Come on.”

//“What’s happening?”// Young shouted and projected simultaneously.

At the back of his mind, Rush’s thoughts were a dull roar of panic, shot through with static and flame. //We lost our magnetic seal holding us to the exterior of the hull. So did Scott and Chloe.//

“Shit,” Young breathed, turning back to Eli. “They lost their seals to the exterior hull.”

Eli paled. “Oh god. Can he see them?”

Young linked up with Rush.

His chief scientist was leaning over the navigation panel on the shuttle’s dash, his hands pressed against locked controls, Greer at his side. Through the forward view of the shuttle he watched the dark huddle that was Matt and Chloe, holding themselves to the hull.

//She was working,// Rush projected, barely understandable above the roar of his thoughts, //and the pressure of her hands against the transmitter was enough to push her free of the hull.// The scientist slowed his breathing. //Scott managed to get a grip on the hull and grab her ankle before she was out of reach. He pulled her down. Thank fuck.//

“Yeah,” Young said to Eli. “Yeah, he can see them. Matt’s got a grip on the hull and he’s holding Chloe in place. She’s still working.”

“How are we gonna get them back?” Eli whispered.

“How long before radiation rises to lethal levels?” Young asked the room.

“Five minutes,” Volker said. “Six at the outside. It’s a strong flare.”

Young pulled out his radio. “James, come in.”

No answer. Only static.

“I need a runner,” Young snapped.

“I’ll go.” Wray kicked off her black pumps.

“How fast are you?” Young asked.

“I’m very fast.” Wray backed toward the door. “What do you want me to say?”

“Tell Barnes that her magnetic boots won’t work. Tell her she’ll need to secure herself at intervals to the hull using hooks and line.”

“Does she have hooks and line?” Wray asked.

“She does,” Young said.

“Someone give me a timer,” Wray said.

“Here.” Eli tossed her his iPhone, and she was gone.

“Oh crap,” Volker hissed.

“What?” Young turned to see Volker looking up at him, his expression stricken. “What?”

“The shuttle just came up on short range. They’re ballistic.”

//Rush,// Young projected forcefully.

//I was waiting for a better moment to break this piece of information to you, but Volker’s correct. We are indeed currently ballistic, we’ve no navigational controls, and the gravity of the planet is already pulling us away from Destiny and into a decaying orbit. I’m—working the problem.//

Young shut his eyes.

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