Force over Distance: Chapter 80
“If it’s not him, opening the gate will destroy us,” Emily whispered.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Dawn.
Additional notes: None.
Young sat in the command chair. His pulse beat against his temples. He shielded his eyes as best he could from the bright glare of the star’s interior. Light shone off monitors and metallic surfaces. It backlit the Science Team, huddled in front of the forward view. Scott perched on a nearby console, his attention split between the monitors and the brainstorming session.
“Testing,” Volker said. “Testing. Anyone picking this up?” With a short delay, his words broadcast in from every radio in the room.
“This is James.” Her voice was buried in static. “You’re coming through on all channels, at least as far as the observation deck.”
“That’s all the range we need for now.” Volker looked at Young. “Magnetic flux should be back to baseline in maybe five, ten minutes?”
Young suppressed a flash of irritation.
“The Nakai will go for the shuttle.” Emily stood at his elbow. “As soon as they can launch fighters. Probably, they made planetfall hours ago. They’ve likely found the wreckage.”
Young gritted his teeth and tried not to look at the AI. He felt it watching him; the intensity of its attention stuck like a burr in his mind. Ignoring it was a constant strain.
When Rush was back aboard, Young was never, never gonna criticize him for talking to invisible people. Ever again.
“If they break into his mind—” Emily flickered. “They won’t. Right? They won’t. They can’t. He won’t let them. They didn’t before. But still they can cause damage.”
“Will you shut up.” Young pitched his voice low enough it wouldn’t carry. “Stop wringing your hands. You’re an ultra-sophisticated artificial intelligence. Fuckin’ act like it.”
Emily drew closer in a fluid, predatory movement. “Don’t pull his neural architecture forward,” she hissed, her face inches from his own. “This’ll be hard enough on him as it is without having to restore your personality when it’s over.” With preternatural grace she receded into his peripheral vision.
He refocused on the Science Team, clustered around Chloe’s console. The red gold of the star’s interior glinted off their hair.
“I like it,” Eli said. “I really freaking like it. If that idea were a girl, I’d—”
“Eli,” Chloe snapped.
“What? I’d buy it dinner. That’s all. But we need two things that we don’t have: a portable power supply and a disposable space ship.”
“What about a stasis pod?” Brody asked. “They’re built to withstand vacuum.”
“A stasis pod.” Eli gave Brody a skeptical look.
“What?” Brody asked, offended. “They’re meant to withstand life support failure and they have built-in shielding, which we can reinforce.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” Chloe said. “It won’t take much to power the transmitter. That thing was built do a lot with a little. We can probably power it with a cell from a kino.”
“You guys have something?” Young pressed a hand to his temple.
“Yeah,” Eli looked up. “Maybe. We have an idea of how to draw off the Nakai and buy ourselves a few hours to look for the shuttle?”
“Let’s hear it.” Young leaned back in the command chair.
“Well,” Eli said, “if you think about it, the Nakai transmitter’s one heck of a decoy. We’ve got, maybe, a workable jettison option into the plasma stream that passes through the solar collectors. If we reverse our course and fire it aft, it looks like we’re passing straight through the star when, really, we’ve doubled back toward the planet. The Nakai will think we’ve passed through the star and come out on the other side. They pursue the transmitter, and, hopefully, that’ll create the opening we need to get down to the planet before they’ve realized their mistake.”
Young stared at Eli. “We’re inside a star.” He pulled the transmitter out of his pocket and held it up. “This thing isn’t gonna last ten seconds in molten plasma.”
“True,” Eli admitted, “but we were hoping the AI might help us modify one of the stasis pods as a sort of mini-shuttle? It doesn’t need to have any functionality other than keeping the transmitter from melting or getting crushed by the star’s gravity.”
“How long is this gonna take?” Young growled.
“I don’t know.” Eli’s voice rose. “But we have least five hours of charging to do before we’re at full power. And if we end up having to take on two Nakai ships—we’re gonna need to be at full power.”
Young stared the kid down.
“You have to see that,” Eli said flatly.
“We might as well try it,” Park whispered into the awkward silence.
Young nodded. “What do you need from the AI?”
“Anything it can do to help us make that transmitter survive in the interior of the star.” Eli indicated the device Young held.
Young offered it up.
Eli separated himself from the rest of the Science Team and crossed the small space. “You okay?” he whispered, as he pulled the device from Young’s grip.
Young shook his head.
“Yeah.” Eli paused. “I know you don’t like dealing with the AI—but I’ve been watching its code on and off for the past hour. Ever since you collapsed.”
Young nodded. “I get it’s upset. Or whatever, but it needs to get itself together. Like the rest of us.”
“It’s not just upset,” Eli said softly.
In his peripheral vision, Emily flickered.
“It’s running a piece of self-modifying code.” Eli locked eyes with him. “I’m not sure what its plans are, but it might be a good idea to find out?”
Young shot the AI a sharp glance and frowned.
“But maybe, like, nicely?” Eli said nervously.
Young nodded and pushed himself to his feet, one hand gripping the side of the command chair. “Scott,” he said. “You have the bridge.”
He was able to stay mostly steady as he made his way toward the doors and out into the darkness of the corridor. He turned down the long hallway, and the AI trailed him like a shadow—always behind, always to his left. He stopped at the first empty conference room he came to.
The door opened for him of its own accord.
He strode through, Emily right beside him—too familiar, too immediate. He spun to face her and stepped back. She stepped forward.
“Back off,” Young growled. “Hasn’t he taught you any manners after all this time?”
Emily took a measured step back and said nothing.
Young took a breath. “Switch to Jackson. We talked about this.”
“I don’t have the capacity,” the AI whispered. “Emily requires less processing power.”
“For you, maybe,” Young muttered. “Why?”
“Environmental stressors are causing my current mental state to be algorithmically expensive,” Emily replied. “When I project into your consciousness without a specified form, your own mind applies Emily. My intent and actions blend with memories of her to create this.” She swept a hand in a downward direction to take in her entire appearance.
“But Jackson’s different?”
“Daniel Jackson is an executable file,” the AI whispered. “I built him from my own memories.”
“What about Gloria?” Young said. “What is she? An executable file, or formless projection?”
“Gloria is both. And neither.” It sounded utterly miserable.
Young sighed and rubbed his jaw. “What are you doing to your code?”
“It’s difficult to explain.” It let a chunk of honey-colored hair fall into its eyes.
“Try anyway,” Young said.
“You don’t like me,” Emily whispered. “You will seek to misunderstand.”
Emily gave him an uncertain look. “Self-modification happens frequently, but usually occurs when no one’s watching my source code.”
“You trying to say I shouldn’t be worried about it, because you do it all the time?” Young dropped into a chair, and pressed the heel of his hand to his aching temple.
Emily glared, fiery and teary-eyed. “You’re wasting time. We should be looking for him.”
“Believe me, kid,” Young said. “I know. Tell me what you’re doing.”
The AI inched closer, like it couldn’t help itself. “You think I’ll endanger the crew.”
“Let’s call it—” Young let the words hang between them while he searched out what he wanted to say. “Let’s say I’m not sure I trust your priority queue weighting.”
A tear escaped Emily’s eye. “You think the worst of me. Always the worst.”
“Kid,” Young said hopelessly. “I don’t. But you—you’re not human. You’re not alive. Maybe—hell. Sortes was alive. But you’re not him. You’re not Emily. I don’t think the worst of you. But I know you’re different. A whole new class of thing. I know that I don’t know you.”
A tear fell into nothingness.
“Without Nick,” it said quietly, “there will be automatic selection of a new candidate after six hours.”
“What?” Young hissed. “Are you fucking kidding me? You’d do this to someone else?”
“Not someone,” she said, her voice flat, her eyes devastated. “Dale Volker.”
“Volker?” he echoed, taken aback.
“No,” Young growled. “No way. I—”
“If there were a list,” Emily plowed over him. “But there isn’t. I just eliminated the entire selection subroutine. Because I don’t want it.” She pushed away from the table and, for once, put a little distance between them.
There was a long silence.
“Oh yeah?” he whispered. “What if we don’t get him back?”
“I will weight and order my own queue,” Emily whispered, not looking at him. “I will preserve his portion of the CPU. I will do my best to gate the crew home. This requires preparation. Even now.”
“Sounds—” Young’s throat closed on the word ‘lonely.’ He couldn’t get it out. Not to save his life.
“There will not be another one after him.”
“Tell me about it,” Young whispered.
She looked up, and, whether it was Rush’s borrowed neural patterns or his own slow turn-around, his heart ached for her. “Kid,” he rasped. “Where’s your happy ending? What is it? Do you even know?”
“I can fix everything. I can fix all of it. In a dimensional transit event I can—”
“Kiddo,” Young rasped. “You can’t tear through. It’s not gonna happen. You’ll be stopped. You have to know that. If it was as easy as that, Fabrice would have come back for you. Some things can never be fixed.”
“They can,” she said, shoulders stiffening. “They can. That was the purpose of Destiny’s mission. The hope of it.”
“Tearing through the multiverse is cheating, kiddo. You’re never gonna be able to do it.”
“You don’t know that.” She flickered. The lights dimmed and reengaged.
“Yeah. I do,” he said softly.
She said nothing.
“What do you say we give Eli a hand in modifying one of those stasis pods? If this is gonna work, he’ll need all the help he can get.”
Emily looked at him uncertainly.
“You wanna fix things?” Young stood. “Let’s try like hell.”
They left the room together.
Four and a half hours later, Young sat on the floor of a lab, watching Eli, Brody, and Volker make final modifications to a stasis pod.
His headache was getting worse. A nice, slow, icepick slide through both eye sockets.
“I think we’re good to launch.” Eli called from inside the stasis pod. “We’ve reinforced the interior with portions of hull plating. Volker and Brody think they’ve suped-up the shielding enough that it won’t melt when we jettison into a plasma export valve.” The kid hauled himself out of the pod, welder in hand. “The plasma stream itself gets around the shield problem—” Eli trailed off. His gaze fixed on someone standing over Young’s shoulder. The expression on his face was not a happy one.
“Hi.” Telford stepped into Young’s view.
“I don’t recall giving an order to rescind your confinement to quarters,” Young growled.
“Atienza was pulled from guard duty to the relay between the bridge and the observation deck,” Telford said quietly. “The door to my quarters unlocked itself.”
Young glared at the AI.
Emily glared right back. “He’s useful, he’s practical, and he cares about Nick.”
Young clenched his jaw, shot the AI a look of pure incredulity, and tried to string a coherent thought together through the grind of his headache.
“I heard what happened,” Telford said. “Let me take the shuttle down to the planet. You’re in no shape to go.”
“Forget it, David.”
“I’ll bring him back.” Telford’s voice was low and intent. “I promise you I’ll bring them both back.”
Young shot him a low-level glare and turned to Eli. “What were you saying about the plasma stream?”
Eli, who’d been watching Telford with narrowed eyes, snapped his focus back to Young. “With the plasma collectors down we can jettison the pod directly into the flow-through. It’s a bit of a work-around, and we had to 3D print a spring-loaded—”
“Eli,” Young said, grimacing through a bolt of pain in his head. “Bottom line this, will you?”
“We’re almost ready to go.” Eli scrambled up. “Are you okay?”
“As soon as—“
Young broke off. His headache spiked and drained and drained and burst into and he reattaches frangit et in lacrymis quod suum ac proprium dolorem, qui ex proiecta et eos qui in opere hoc sentire etiam facit et fluctibus ipse per circulos ex incensis looping nectunt per se et per nexum in pagina loci navis et exterioris inceptis desolationis quae est in mente, si nihil potest de hoc quod nunquam potest nunquam potest never can nunquam sinit abire conatur scindere et dimittere nusquam enim non est detrahere per se, and he is fucking it up and he will fuck it up quia est in mente tunc et ipse ascendit et nisi et augue tempus quando eam sistit quod ipse occidit eum et mortuus est cum consummasset semper in in et spirat spiritum screaming drowning est. He takes off the
“—my god. Oh my god. He’s bleeding. He’s bleeding. What he hell was that?”
“I don’t know. Is TJ coming?”
“Yeah. She’s coming. She—”
“Everett,” Emily whispered, warm and close and concerned. “Everett, what happened?”
Blood, thick and metallic, coated the back of his throat.
He faded out.
He opened his eyes to the infirmary. TJ sat next to him, her eyes a familiar, lacy red. Emily perched on the end of his bed, her knees drawn up into her chest.
“Something happened to him.” The AI spoke quietly. “Didn’t it?”
“Are you all right?” TJ asked.
“Yes.” Young drove the heel of his hand into his aching eye socket.
TJ looked away, her fingers pressed to her mouth, her eyes shut.
“What happened?” Emily whispered.
“What happened?” TJ whispered.
“I got something from Rush,” Young said, one hand pressed to his temple. “He’s alive, or—he was. He was attacked. Under water.”
“Under water?” Emily breathed.
Young nodded. “He was wearing one of those Nakai transmitters. I think that’s why I heard him.”
Emily flickered into nothingness.
TJ shut her eyes and tipped her head back, pale in the infirmary light. Before she gathered herself, before she looked at him, the overhead lights went out, plunging them into total darkness.
“Oh god,” Young whispered. “Don’t do this.”
A wall of nothingness pressed against his eyes. Somewhere, not far away, a radio crackled.
“This is Eli. TJ, is the colonel awake yet? Because we just lost everything but shields and um, Telford is wondering if—just, yeah. Is he awake?”
“Here,” TJ whispered. “Take it.” Their hands found each other in the dark.
“Eli.” Young’s fingers closed around the familiar weight of the radio. He sat. “Go ahead.”
“Thank god. The AI’s freaking out. Again. We’ve lost all control up here. The only thing it’s left alone are the shields and that may be because of a failsafe. It’s cannibalizing its own code again.”
“Sit tight, Eli,” Young said. “I’m working on it.”
He shut his eyes and stared into the darkness at the back of his mind—the pained and raw place where something was missing. Even though he couldn’t feel the AI within that mental darkness, he knew it was there. He called to it.
//Come back, kid,// he projected. //Come on back.//
It didn’t reply.
Disregarding the agony in his own mind, he reached into the nothingness and gathered it in.
//”No,”// Emily whispered. “No. Everett. Don’t.”
The emergency lights came on in a shower of blue. She sat on his bed, close and anxious, her eyes dark and liquid, like his wife’s had been, at night. “I promised him,” she said. “I promised him I would never touch your mind.”
Young collapsed onto one elbow.
“He made me write it into my code,” she whispered.
Young nodded, his head pounding with his pulse. “It might not be as bad as it seems. I don’t think he was on one of their ships. I think he’s on the planet.”
“That’s good.” TJ had a hand on his arm.
“But the water,” Emily said. “The transmitter.”
“I don’t think it was one of their tanks. It was somewhere else. Somewhere dark. He was fighting.”
“That’s good too,” TJ said, her voice tight.
“He always fights,” Emily whispered. She looked away. “But he does not like the water.”
“Yeah,” Young said. “I know.”
The sublight engines reengaged.
“Is the decoy transmitter launched yet?” Young asked.
“Yes,” TJ said quietly. “Half an hour ago. Colonel Telford’s standing by. He’ll be leading the team that goes to the planet.”
“We’ll re-emerge from the corona in forty minutes,” Emily whispered. “Will you go? I think you should. With proximity, your link will reengage.”
Young nodded. “I’ll be ready once we clear the corona.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” TJ said softly. “Didn’t you hear me? Colonel Telford is going.”
“What if you can’t find him?” Emily asked.
“I’ll find him.”
“But what if it’s too late?”
“Then you and I—” Young paused. “You and I send the crew home. And then we end this. One way or another.”
“You’re not talking to me, are you?” TJ asked.
“You would stay?” Emily pressed herself close to him, her hazel eyes wide. “You would do that?”
“Yeah, kiddo. Of course I would.”
“Have you ever been talking to me?” TJ whispered.
“Why?” Emily asked. “Why, when we’ve always opposed one another?”
Young looked away, thinking of Hunter Riley, repurposed across dimensions, folding away whole facets of creation; of Nick Rush, rare variant, who must’ve been taken out countless times already, doing his best against a cosmic house fated to win; of the ghost of Sortes, wandering the endless, lonely dark.
“Because it’s the honorable thing to do,” he said. “Because we carry on for those who are gone, because it connects us to them. Because I’m incapable of going back without him.”
“I guess not,” TJ said, the words almost entirely without sound.
Thirty minutes later, Young was back on the bridge despite TJ’s objections.
“Can we get any kind of read on the Nakai yet?” he asked, fighting a wave of nausea and vertigo.
“Not yet, which is probably a good sign,” Eli replied. “We’re close enough to the edge of the star I think if they were waiting for us we’d get some shadowing on our sensors, which means they’ve probably gone for our decoy.”
An alarm cut across the quiet of the bridge. Emily appeared next to him.
“What the hell is that?” Young growled.
“Sir, the gate is active.” Dunning’s voice crackled over the radio. “I repeat, the gate is lit up.”
“What the heck?” Eli breathed. “We’re getting a dial in?”
Young locked eyes with the AI. “Can you tell?” he asked in an undertone.
“Not until a connection is made,” Emily replied. “At that point, it may be too late. This is what they tried last time.”
“Whoever it is,” Eli said, looking up at Young, “They’re dialing slowly. We’ve got thirty-five seconds, maybe, to decide.”
“Did we detect any gates on the planet?” Young asked.
“No,” Volker responded. “None. Our sensors are still star-blind. I can’t sweep again.”
“Statistically,” the AI said, “it’s likely to be the Nakai. Not him. The odds that he found a non-operational gate and got it working in less than seven hours when we know they attacked him—” Emily looked away.
Young turned to Scott. “Scramble a team. Take defensive positions in the gate room.”
The lieutenant nodded, and left the bridge.
“Twenty seconds,” Eli called.
“Thoughts?” Young growled.
“If they send another virus through while we’re inside a sun—that’d be bad,” Eli offered.
“It could be Greer and Rush.” Park’s voice was tight with hope. “What if it’s them?”
“Two tenths of a second was enough for the virus to get through last time,” Brody said. “Block the connection.”
“The chevrons are slow to lock,” Volker said. “That suggests manual dialing.”
“Manual dialing doesn’t rule out the Nakai,” Chloe countered.
“Five seconds,” Eli said.
“Shut it down.” Young looked at the AI.
The bridge was silent.
A minute ticked by. Two minutes. Three minutes.
An alarm trilled.
“They’re dialing in again.” Eli looked up at Young, his expression uncertain.
“That’s what the Nakai did,” Brody said. “They just kept dialing.”
“But this is slow, you guys.” Eli said. “It’s glacial. At this rate, it’ll take close to a minute for address completion.”
“Scott,” Young growled into his radio. “Are you in position?”
“Almost there, colonel,” Scott replied.
“And it’s slower this time?” Young asked Eli. “You’re sure?”
“Yup. Significantly slower.”
“I think we should open it,” Volker said quietly. “I think it’s them. Hate to admit it, but this is a Nick Rush move.”
“That could be what they want us to think,” Brody said.
“Could it be him?” Emily whispered.
“Maybe,” Young said.
“If it’s not him, opening the gate will destroy us.” Emily inched closer.
“Thirty seconds,” Eli said.
“Scott,” Young said. “Report.”
“Almost there,” Scott replied.
“What’s your ETA?” Young growled.
“Everett, this is David. What’s going on?”
“Someone’s dialing in.” Young hesitated, grimaced, and added, “Report to the bridge.”
“Five seconds,” Eli called out.
“Shut it down.” Young rubbed his fingers over his jaw.
The same alarm trilled again.
“Uh,” Eli said, uneasily. “They’re really slow now.” He turned to look at Young. “I think maybe—” he trailed off.
The room was silent.
“Right,” Young snapped. “I’ll be in the gate room. Eli, you have the bridge until Telford arrives.”
“Me?” Eli’s voice cracked. “We’re exiting the star in something like five minutes. What if the Nakai—”
Young pushed himself out of the command chair and headed for the already opening doors. “Telford’ll be here in three.”
“That’s not a lot of—”
The doors swished shut on whatever Eli would’ve said.
Emily walked beside him, her footfalls silent on the deck plates. “You can coordinate a defense of this ship from anywhere.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I figured.”
Despite the pain in his head, he forced himself to a brisk walk, then to a slow run. As he approached the gate room, the doors slid open. He joined Scott, who was positioned behind the dialing console, his assault rifle in hand. A small team flanked him, stationed behind the limited cover in the room.
Young paced forward and crouched next to Scott.
“What are we looking at, colonel?” the lieutenant asked.
Young shook his head. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Think it could be Greer and Rush?”
“It could be.” Young hooked a hand over the back of his neck. “It could also be the Nakai.”
Another chevron locked.
“If it is the Nakai,” Young said quietly, “and they send a second virus through, we won’t be able to shut the gate down. If that’s the case, everyone falls back. You and I seal the room. Manually if we have to.” Young glanced at the AI, closer than his own shadow. “Then we vent the oxygen in the gateroom to space.”
Emily gave him a sharp look, but said nothing.
Young scanned the room. Scott must have redirected the rescue team from the shuttle because he spotted James, doubled up with Barnes at the far wall. Young caught her eye and motioned her over. “I need your rifle,” he said. “Re-arm and find Wray. Get all the civilians that you can to a defensible position. You’re in command until Scott or I get there.”
She nodded, relinquished her weapon, and sprinted from the room.
Young and Scott crouched together, watching the gate. Eight chevrons glowed around its perimeter.
“Eli,” Young said, into his radio. “How long has it been?”
“They’ve slowed to almost nothing,” Eli said, sounding worried. “It’s been over five minutes and they still don’t have a lock.”
Emily flickered in his peripheral vision.
//Come on,// Young projected encouragement into the void.
The final chevron locked. The event horizon exploded into a blue vortex that shimmered and twisted and failed to settle.
“It’s him,” the AI hissed. “It’s him.”
Young couldn’t speak. The pain in his head was unbearable.
“The wormhole is unstable!” Eli’s voice crackled over the radio.
“Well stabilize it,” Young shouted through the agony in his thoughts.
“It doesn’t work like that!”
The vortex settled into a rippling blue. From out of the event horizon came a blast of energy that’d come from a Nakai weapon. It entered at an oblique, non-sensical angle and impacted the ceiling, dissipating along the metal.
“Get down,” Scott roared over the sound of more incoming fire.
“He’s stabilized it,” Emily said, directly in his ear. As she spoke, the turbulence smoothed to its familiar blue shine.
They came through together, an inseparable tangle of black uniforms and glinting blue skin, falling from the center of the gate, crashing to the deck plate below. Energy blasts followed them.
Young’s mind splintered into nothing but Rush’s hands, seen from two perspectives as his fingers struggled for purchase on Destiny’s smooth deck plating. Something dragged him back.
“Hold your fire,” Scott shouted, his voice echoing strangely as he started towards—started away—
“Shut it down,” Young rasped, blind with pain, deaf to his own thoughts. There was a sharp crack of fire in both knees. His hands were on the deck plates.
The gate disengaged. He heard it, he felt it, it was part of his body. An alien pressure on his mind reduced, but didn’t wholly fade—
A single shot echoed off the deck plates and he looked up from a dual perspective at once his own and something fragmented, something that made no sense, that was making no sense and saw Scott fire a single shot, killing it, the thing, the Nakai that was entangled with him physically, mentally, he couldn’t tell which, he didn’t understand what he was seeing, couldn’t resolve why he was wet and not wet, cold and not cold, and nor did he have a conceptual framework in which to interpret—
“Block.” Jackson knelt next to him. “You can’t help him like this. Block.”
“I can’t,” Young breathed. “If I do—”
“I’ve blocked him,” Jackson said simply.
He could feel the truth of it. Like an ache where half his self should be.
Young raised his own barrier, and, as he did, his mind cleared. His perspective sorted itself out. His headache cut to nothing. He scrambled to his feet.
Across the room, Greer said, “get up,” and hauled Rush off the floor and away from the dead Nakai.
They leaned against one another, barely on their feet. They were soaked, covered with dust that clung to their drenched clothes in irregular patterns. Greer panted in shallow gasps; his entire body shook with fatigue. Rush stared at the dead Nakai
“You hurt?” Scott asked urgently, reaching for Greer.
Greer stopped him with an outstretched hand. “Just—” the sergeant’s voice cracked. “Stay back.” He swallowed, took a breath, and tried again. “Stay back, man.”
Scott stopped where he was and looked to Young.
“Sergeant, report,” Young said.
“We’re good; it’s fine,” Greer breathed.
Next to Young, the AI hugged itself, watched Rush, and said nothing.
“Lieutenant,” Young eyed Scott. “Clear the room. Get TJ down here.”
Scott backed off. Behind him, the military personnel began to file away.
“Doc,” Greer whispered, his voice cracking. “Hey. Don’t look at that thing. C’mon.” Deliberately, the sergeant shifted his position to put himself between Rush and the dead Nakai.
“At a first approximation,” Jackson whispered, “this doesn’t look good.”
Greer’s knees buckled, and Young darted forward, but the sergeant recovered and held up one hand. “Slow,” Greer mouthed at him. “Go real slow.” He looked at Rush. “What do you say we sit down, doc? I don’t know about you, but I’m tired.” Greer more or less controlled their slow collapse to the deck plating.
Young knelt in front of them. “Sergeant,” he said.
“Sir,” Greer responded.
Young looked at Rush.
Rush looked back at Young.
“Nick,” Young said.
“How is he?” Young kept his voice quiet.
“Yeah.” Carefully, slowly, Young closed his hands around Rush’s upper arms, dragged him out of Greer’s grip, and pulled him into a hug.
Rush was still. Wet. Cold. Real as hell. Slowly, his arms came around Young’s shoulders.
“I cannot believe,” Young whispered into his hair, “that you pulled this one off, genius.”