Force over Distance: Chapter 81

Brick by metaphorical brick, Young ate away at his own block.

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

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

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 81

They sat on the floor of the gateroom, waiting for TJ.

“Rush.” Young’s hands closed around the scientist’s upper arms. “Talk to me.”

Nick Rush—impossibly alive, gloriously soaked, covered with dust—didn’t respond to Young’s question. His eyes were unfocused.

Young shook him gently, once.

No effect.

He pulled out his radio. “Bridge, this is Young. We have Rush and Greer. Repeat, Rush and Greer are aboard. Go to FTL as soon as we exit the coronasphere.”

“Understood,” Telford replied.

Rush flinched.

“Easy.” Young ran his hands over the scientist’s upper arms, trying to warm him up. Calm him down. The man said nothing. He did nothing, other than stare at the floor.

“I’d like to formally add a ‘holycrapYAY’ to the record, if I may?” Eli’s voice crackled over the radio.

Greer flipped to the science channel and said, “Seconded. Hi baby.”

“Hi,” Park whispered.

“C’mon,” Young tipped Rush’s chin up. “Talk to me.”

“If you don’t touch him,” Greer said quietly, “he does better.”

Young eyed the sergeant from beneath lowered brows.

“He needs a minute,” Greer snapped. “A lotta shit happened on that planet. Just—let him sit there.” He took a breath, regained his fraying control, and finished with “—for a minute. Sir.”

Young hesitated, tempted to ignore Greer, sweep his chief scientist off the floor, and make for the infirmary.

Jackson dropped out of his peripheral vision and into a crouch. “I don’t like how he looks. I’ve locked him out of the CPU.”

Young gave the AI an are-you-shitting-me look.

“Interfacing with the CPU takes a lot of processing power,” Jackson explained. “I have no idea what his capacity is. Plus,” he paused, studying Rush, “he could do a lot of damage if he panics while interfaced with the ship. Irreparable damage.”

“Rush,” Young tried.

No response.

He looked to Greer. “He talked to you any?”

“Yeah.” Greer did his best to suppress a shiver. “Yeah, he talked. Mostly at the beginning. Mostly it made sense. Mostly it was to me and not people who weren’t there.”

Young took a breath and fought the urge to drop his block.

The scientist still hadn’t looked at him. He hadn’t looked at anything.

 “Report.” Young glanced at Greer.

“We waited with the shuttle until the Nakai entered the upper atmosphere,” the sergeant began. “Then we got the hell outta there. Made for the ruins.”

“And he was okay?” Young asked, “after the crash?”

“Well, I don’t know about ‘okay,’ but he was better than he is now. He was talking. He knew who I was. He knew where he was. He knew what was going on, at least most of the time.” Greer shuddered with cold. “We knew when we left the shuttle there’d be no way for you to find us. So we looked for a way to get ourselves home. Rush said he needed a computer terminal, so I found him one. He plugged himself into it.”

Young grimaced.

“Uh okay,” the AI said, in a dead-on impression of Daniel Jackson. “Well, that’s terrible.”

“He was okay after that too,” Greer continued. “He used the terminal to locate some ships. An inactive gate. We decided to go for the gate, but, to get to it, we had to navigate an alien sewer system.”

Young glanced at Rush, staring sightlessly at the deck plating.

“We made it below street level,” Greer said. “He was tiring, but still more or less okay. Then—” The sergeant broke off with a shiver.


“They caught up with us. In the dark. In one of the tunnels, where the water was deep enough for them to swim. We were dragged under.” Greer shook his head. “After about twenty or thirty seconds, they pulled back. Started screaming. Grabbing their heads. I’m guessing it was the doc. Somehow. No idea what he did. But whatever it was? It was rough as hell on him. He nearly drowned.”

“Yeah,” Young rasped.

“I did some CPR. Got ‘im back, once he’d coughed up a few gallons of alien water. Afterwards, though, he got real quiet. Only answering direct questions.” Greer took a shuddery breath. “But he activated the gate.”

Rush flinched, shook himself, and looked up, his eyes tack-sharp and assessing.

“Hey doc,” Greer said, raw relief beneath his expression. “We made it.”

Rush shifted his weight, pressed his fingertips to the floor, and watched them edgily.

“Nick,” Young said. “You with us?”

Rush didn’t reply.

“You gotta give him time,” Greer said. “He reboots. Like a computer.”

“Interesting,” the AI said softly. “He doesn’t have the processing power to handle rapid changes in his environment, maybe?” The AI glanced at Young. “I dumped a reference block into his biologic hardware.”

Young glared at Jackson.

“You said ‘give him what he needs’,” the AI whispered. “I tried. Could be he’s managing too much data to fight his way from under all of it?”

“What are we gonna do about that?” Young growled.

“Hell if I know,” Greer murmured, staring at Rush. “Doc, you got any ideas?”

Rush said nothing.

“If he’s lacking processing power,” the AI said, “I’m tempted to just give it all back to him, but.” Maddeningly, it stopped there.

Young tried to crack a whip with his gaze alone.

“With a fast reintegration,” the AI said, “I’m worried about further damage to his mind and the ship.” It shifted uneasily in its crouch. “He’s tremendously powerful.”

Young swallowed his sense of decorum, looked straight at the AI, and said, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Greer gave him one hell of a side-eye.

Rush glared at the AI, his gaze a blaze of balefire and back-substitution. But as quick as the glare had come on, he lost his focus, his eyes scanning for Jackson without landing.

“It means that before, during, and after a reintegration with Destiny there are many ways he could destroy not only himself but the entire ship,” the AI hissed. “Once the wormhole connected, I was certain it was him. How? Because he powered that gate.” Jackson paused, smoothed his expression, then turned to Rush. “Sorry about that, Nick.”

Rush flinched like hell and pushed himself into a crouch, balancing on the balls of his feet and his fingertips.

“What the hell did you just do?” Young growled.

“I stopped projecting to him for thirty seconds so I could lay things out for you.” The AI muttered.

“Doc,” Greer said. “We’re on Destiny. Invisible computer programs and all.”

Rush, balanced on the balls of his feet and his fingertips, cocked his head.

Greer glanced at Young. “He looks like he’s calculating some shit, right? Like he’s adapting. He’s been adapting this whole time. With every setback.”

“Sounds right,” Young agreed. “Nick. Can you tell us your full name?”

Rush said nothing.

“Doc, give us your full name, verbally, in English, right now,” Greer said.

Rush shot Greer an unimpressed look, then eyed Young. “Aedificavisti associative array intra associative array?”

“Huh,” Greer said.

Young furrowed his brow. “One more time?”

“Unconvincing,” Rush said, with enough cool hauteur and self-possession that the guy might have been in front of a lecture hall, rather than soaking wet and covered with alien grime. “And fuckin’ derivative.”

Lost, Young looked to the AI.

It eyed him uneasily. “The literal translation of what he said is: ‘you’ve constructed an associative array within an associative array.’ It was phrased and delivered as a question. Clearly, it wasn’t a response to your question, which he may have ignored because he didn’t understand your input, because he couldn’t generate or interpret an output, or because the question itself didn’t interest him.”

Rush contemplated Young and the AI like they were two sides of a particularly intractable math problem.

Every bone in Young’s body ached to get the guy off the floor and into dry clothes. His head throbbed with the memory of Rush’s headache or with a phantom bleed-over through his own block. The man was not in good shape.

Behind him, the doors swished open. He turned to see TJ and Scott, framed by the darkness of the corridor. “Keep it slow,” he warned, as the pair approached.

TJ dropped into a crouch, gave him a nod, and pulled the strap on her med bag over her head. “Hi,” she whispered, looking at Rush.

Rush shifted away from her, still in a defensive crouch.

TJ’s eyes flicked to Greer. “You okay?”

“Yes ma’am.”

She gave him a skeptical once-over.

“Cold,” Greer amended. “Wet. Tired. But okay.”

She pulled her glowing blue device off her hip, scanned Greer, then turned her attention to Rush. “What are we dealing with?”

“Exhaustion.” Greer sounded like he was battling exhaustion himself. “Near drowning. Hypothermia, maybe. Lots of mental—stuff.”

“Near drowning?” TJ unzipped her bag.

Rush watched her edgily, shifting subtly closer to Young.

“Yeah.” Greer shivered in the cool air of the gateroom. “He inhaled a lungful of water. Stopped breathing.”

“Of course he did.” TJ kept her expression neutral. “Any shivering?”

“At first, maybe?” Greer said. “Hard to recall. None for a while now.”

TJ frowned at the aquamarine device in her hand, then eased her stethoscope out of her bag. “Can you get his jacket open?” she asked Young.

“I wouldn’t,” Greer warned. “Doubt he’ll handle the both of you messing with him very well.”

TJ frowned at Greer. “It’s the colonel.”

“Yeah,” Greer said skeptically. “Yeah, I guess.”

Young shot a back-off look at the AI. It nodded and moved to hover anxiously next to Scott. He turned his attention to Rush, who looked like he was considering bolting for the door.

“Hey genius.” He ignored every instinct he had and went for the man’s jacket zipper, rather than hauling him in. “Pretty sure you’re gonna let me get this jacket off.” Slowly, he tugged at the zipper. “Because it’s soaked. Covered with god knows what. You can’t want to be wearing this.” Slowly, he eased it over Rush’s shoulders and deposited it on the floor in a soaking heap.

Rush stared at the jacket, his brow furrowed.

Young wrapped around the scientist’s upper arm. “You’re gonna let TJ check you over, right?”

The answer to that one seemed to be a ‘no.’ As TJ approached, stethoscope ready, Rush shifted, trying to evade her. Young tightened his grip.

“Doc,” Greer said, hard and sharp. “It’s fine, just hold still—”

Suddenly, Rush was panicking. He lunged away from Young, trying to shake him off, but Young pulled him back, already halfway into a body lock. Young hauled him in, TJ grabbed his ankle mid-kick, and—

Rush relaxed into him so fast that Young was sure he’d passed out cold. He shifted his grip and pulled the scientist against his chest. As he adjusted the man’s position, he saw his eyes were open, staring sightlessly at nothing.

“Oh god,” TJ said, her voice tight with fear, her fingertips at the man’s throat. “Dr. Rush?”

“Nick,” Young said, his mouth at Rush’s ear. “Nick.”

“You crashed his damn drive,” Greer said, shivering.

“Crashed?” TJ grasped Rush’s chin and angled his head to get a clear look at his eyes. “What do you mean ‘crashed’?”

“This is what he does.” Greer uncurled to wave a hand in front of Rush’s face. “He’s not getting any of this.”

“Dr. Rush,” TJ said sharply.

“The more you harass him, the longer it’ll take,” Greer said. “Do what you need to do and back off.”

TJ looked at Young.

He nodded, resettled the scientist against his chest, wrapped his arms around him, and did his best to warm the man up while TJ went to work.

When she was done, she pushed back, putting a few feet of space between herself and Rush. “His core temperature is dangerously low. His vitals are unstable. He’s dehydrated. He needs an IV, antibiotics, anti-retrovirals, and he needs to go through decon. They both do.”

“Oh yeah.” The icy water coming off Rush’s clothes dampened Young’s jacket. He reached up and smoothed the scientist’s hair out of his eyes. “Sounds easy.”

TJ compressed her lips. “One step at a time. Can you get him up?”

“Maybe,” Young began, “but I—”

Rush tensed in Young’s grip, his consciousness flicking on like a light switch. He brought a hand up, as though to ward something off.

“Hey,” Young murmured, his throat tight. “It’s okay. You’re okay. We’ll get you fixed up.”

In the deck plates, in his own bones, he felt the ship leap to FTL, rendering itself as a wave of sung energy.

He’d been right, in those early days of their link, to take Nick Rush out of the chain of command. To treat him like a storm. Like pure chance. If he’d known, from the beginning, what his chief scientist was—the rarest of variants in the Book of the Cosmos, a signpost of a reality less traveled, tangled with the energy of the universe itself, the flashpoint of a dimensional war—he might’ve had a chance of handling all of this a little better.

Any of it.

From the beginning.

“I like to think,” he murmured, covered with soap, under the warm spray-mist of Destiny’s showers as he worked congealed dust out of Rush’s hair, “about other universes sometimes.”

Rush said nothing.

“You think there might be an array out there, a set of sets, where we meet, but where we’re nothing special?” He tipped Rush’s head back, rinsing SGC-issued anti-bacterial cleanser out of his hair. “It’d take some doing. You’d have to stick with math. I’d have to retire from the Air Force. Injury, maybe. That’d do it. Move to San Francisco. Doesn’t seem like me.”

In the dim, bronzed light of the showers, Rush rested his forehead against Young’s shoulder.

“Then again.” Young wrapped his arms around his chief scientist. “Maybe I don’t retire. Travis Air Force base is around there. Maybe I get reassigned. Maybe you never find out you have Ancient genes. Maybe we watch from the sidelines while other people fight transdimensional wars.”

Rush said nothing.

Young reached around to dispense another pump of cleanser and lathered it over Rush’s shoulders and back. “It’s gotta be possible. Somewhere. Somewhen. One little array. You banging your head against some new math thing every season or so. Cooking dinner; let’s not forget that. Me—I don’t know—working in the yard? I could get into gardening. Learn the names of all kinds of flowers.”

Rush hooked his chin over Young’s shoulder and leaned into him.

“Yeah,” Young murmured. “You’re tired. I know. Almost done.”

After the decon, the shower, the getting dressed, the IV, the antibiotics, the anti-virals, the crashes, the resets, the grind of strain, the relief that wasn’t relief at all, Young sat in a chair, his elbows propped on the edge of Rush’s gurney, utterly drained.

“Come on, genius,” he whispered. “Talk to me.”

Rush said nothing.

At the other end of the infirmary, Park and Volker hovered over Greer.

“I wonder why he’s not talking.” Jackson perched cross-legged on the end of Rush’s gurney.

Young did his best not to look at the AI.

“We know he can talk,” Jackson continued, “because he did. So—this is a choice. Probably. Do you think it’s a choice?”

Young felt a hand close around his shoulder. He jumped, the sudden sensation too much for his overtaxed nerves to handle.

TJ stood over him. “Sorry,” she whispered. “Just me.” She held out a small bottle. “TJ’s patented headache cure.” She gave him a wan smile. “From where I’m standing, it doesn’t look like the Tylenol’s cutting it.”

“Not really.” Young scrubbed a hand across his eyes and pocketed the bottle. “Any idea why he’s not talking? I mean, medically?”

TJ hooked a foot around the nearest chair, dragged it over, and dropped into it, looking as exhausted as Young felt. “I think there could be a lot of reasons,” she murmured.

Rush studied her with a closed, unreadable expression.

“None of them good.” Young pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead.

“No,” TJ admitted. “None of them good.”

They were quiet for a moment.

“You blocking him out?” She made a vague motion in the air near her own head.

“Have to,” Young whispered. “When he first came through the gate—” He shook his head. “His mind’s a wreck.”

Rush dropped his eyes.

“Shit,” Young whispered. “Sorry, genius.”

“Doc?” TJ said quietly.

Rush didn’t look at them.

“Can we put him in the chair?” TJ asked. “Let the AI fix him?”

Young glanced over at the AI, who gave itself Jackson’s self-hug. “Can you get rid of her?” It glanced at TJ. “Or at least talk to me? We need to determine how to proceed.”

“Not an option.” Young tried to avoid looking at the AI. “Depending on how much of a mess his mind is, he could screw up Destiny’s systems.”

“Ah,” TJ said quietly. “Well, if you want him to talk, maybe you should ask Greer to help you out. Rush talked to him, right? On the planet?”

Young nodded.

“I’ll send him over.” Gracefully, TJ and stood and headed for Greer’s gurney.

“An associative array within an associative array,” Jackson murmured, one hand curled beneath his chin. “That has to mean something.”

“A good chunk of his mental functioning must be intact.” Young watched Rush studiously ignore them.

“Agreed.” The AI stood to pace at the foot of Rush’s gurney. “But why won’t he communicate with us? Why won’t he engage?”

“C’mon genius,” Young said quietly. “Talk to us. Talk.”

Rush just looked at him.

“I know there’s stuff going on up there,” Young continued, “in that head of yours. So come on. Say something. Anything.”

Rush said nothing.

Greer approached silently on bare feet and dropped into TJ’s seat, looking utterly exhausted. He pulled a blanket tightly around his shoulders. “Mathlete, Doc?” He frowned at Rush’s shirt. “Who did this to you, huh? You give me a name. I’ll teach ‘em a lesson.”

“It was a present from TJ,” Young said.

“I figured that it was a ‘present’ from someone,” Greer muttered, wrapping himself a little tighter. He glanced back across the room and Young followed his gaze to see TJ pause for a word with Volker and Park. “He’s still not talking?”

Young shook his head.

“Doc.” Greer shoved the man’s gurney with a bare foot. “C’mon.”

Rush looked at Greer uncertainly.

“Where’s your hash table when you need it, huh?” Greer asked.

“What?” The AI stopped pacing and whirled to face Greer. “Did he just say hash table?”

“Hash table?” Young repeated. “What’s a hash table?”

“Hell if I know, sir” Greer said. “He was going on about it on the planet. Like it was something that he was using, or working with, or could sense. I don’t know.”

“A hash table,” the AI whispered, uncomfortably close, “is a subtype of associative array. And he was talking to it?”

“He was talking to his hash table?” Young asked.

Rush stared fixedly at his hands, very determinedly not looking at any of them.

“I think so,” Greer said, studying Rush. “He was having an awful lot of one-sided conversations.”

“Nick,” the AI said, gliding forward in a movement too fast to be natural. “What did you key it to? Your hash table. What were its keys?”

Rush flinched.

“Easy, doc.” Greer cocked his head, looking speculatively at Rush. “You know we’re all real, right? Or, at least me and the colonel. TJ.” Greer glanced across the room to where Volker and Park were talking animatedly in hushed tones. “Believe it or not, those two nerds are really, truly, arguing about Andrew Lloyd Weber.”

“He doesn’t think we’re real?” The AI looked speculatively at Young. “Could that be the problem?”

Rush’s eyes flicked to the AI, then back to Greer.

“Doc,” Greer said softly. “You remember the planet, right? You remember we gated out? We made it.”

“Did we?” Rush’s voice was barely audible.

They all froze. Slowly, Greer sat forward. “You don’t think we gated out? Why?”

“Why?” Rush repeated, fixing Greer with a fiery gaze. “This isn’t Destiny.”

Greer glanced uneasily at Young, then back at Rush. “Let’s hear your argument.”

Rush’s eyes flicked over Young and the AI—uncertain and assessing.

“What are you looking at?” Greer asked.

“Nothing.” Rush snapped his gaze back to Greer. “No one. We have to go.”

“If you don’t think we’re on Destiny,” the sergeant replied, “where do you think we are?”

“Clearly,” Rush brought the heel of one hand up to his eye socket. “Clearly,” he said again, his voice cracking, “we’re being tortured.”

“Rush,” Greer said, his voice low and firm. “We’re not being tortured. Look around. You’re okay.  You’re fine. Literally Dale is across the room trying to convince Lisa she can’t fully appreciate The Phantom of the Opera without an encyclopedic knowledge of Mozart. Proud to say she’s not buying it. Point is, there’s no way that’s background to some kind of alien torture scenario.”

“Greer,” Rush broke in, his hand still pressed to his temple. “This is absolute fucking agony, and if y’don’ feel it—you’re not here.”

“Nick,” Young said.

“You’re not here either,” Rush whispered.

Nick,” Young said again. “I am. We all are. I just haven’t touched your mind yet, because—” he looked at the AI.

“I can’t give him access,” the AI whispered, miserable. “He could overload the CPU.”

“I’ll take down my block.” Already Young was thinning his brick job.

“No,” the AI said urgently, Jackson’s eyes wide and concerned. “No. He could shred your mind before he realizes what’s happening.”

“I understand that,” Young said, looking at Rush.

“He may even attack you,” Jackson continued. “You felt what he did to the Nakai. If he tears into you—you won’t have time to raise your block. You can’t link up with him until he recognizes you’re not an enemy, or a construct, or anything he should destroy. He has to recognize you for what you are.”

“Shit,” Young breathed. “Shit.”

Greer looked at Young with a locked expression. “You talking to the AI?”

“Yeah,” Young growled.

“That may be why he thinks you’re not real,” the sergeant murmured. “Because I can’t see the AI.”

“Rush,” Young said quietly. “C’mon. We’ll let you in. You just gotta talk to us first.”

Rush eyed him warily.

“Maybe not the best juxtaposition of ideas,” Jackson said, “if we’re trying to convince him he’s not being tortured for information?”

Young buried his head in his hands.

“You want my advice?” Greer asked. “Get him outta here. Have TJ give him something for his headache and unhook him from all this garbage.” The sergeant waved a hand at the monitors. “This isn’t helping your case. Just—take him somewhere and let him calm the hell down.”

Rush pressed both hands to his temples, his knees drawn beneath him.

“Yeah,” Young said. “Let’s give that a try.”

They sat on the couch in Young’s dimly lit quarters, side by side.

Rush, tense as hell, sat with his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. His breath came rapid and shallow.

“TJ must really like you,” Young said. “Making house-calls once an hour.”

Rush said nothing.

Young laid a hand on Rush’s back, then, slowly, drew his thumb over the rock-hard muscles on either side of the man’s spine. “I’m worried that if I let you sit here, bracing for hours against god knows what, something’s gonna give.”

Rush tensed.

Young turned predictable and slow, kneading the rigidity out of the spot under his hand, moving a few inches, doing it again. “Sorry, genius,” Young said, because even though the guy was trying like hell to hold out against him, his body knew Young’s hands. “I finally learned to fight dirty.”

Without thinking about it too much, he guided Rush into his lap in one smooth, controlled motion. The scientist shifted, curling his feet beneath him, and laid down.

Young made a sympathetic sound. “You tired?” He gave the man a few seconds to adjust to lying in his lap before he ran his fingers through Rush’s hair. He pressed his thumb against Rush’s temple. Traced a small circle. Another. Another.

No response.

“I’m worried,” Young said.

No response.

“You’re stubborn enough to stonewall for days,” Young rasped. “Keep yourself awake. Refuse to eat. Refuse to sleep.”

No response.

“Don’t think I told you this,” Young murmured, “but the SGC has been holding onto letters from my family. Last time Wray used the stones, she memorized one. Wrote it out for me. You wanna hear it?” 

Rush squinted up at him.

“Hey. Just trying to think of something that’s definitely not gonna happen during some kind of mental torture session. How’m I doing?”

Rush said nothing.

“I’d read you some Kafka,” Young said, “but you already have a headache.” He reached into his jacket pocket and found the folded paper covered with Wray’s elegant script. “It’s from JD,” Young said. “My brother.”

Scio,” Rush whispered.

“Oh you do, do you?” Young murmured, and unfolded the paper one-handed.

Hi V—

Not sure this letter will reach you at all, let alone around Christmas, but that’s when I’m writing it. Christmas Eve, actually. The kids are in bed. I’ve done my job of taking bites out of five different cookies and drinking half a glass of milk. I’m in the kitchen. I can hear Dad giving Erik advice on setting up a model train set. (Erik’s not taking it well.)

Mom spent the afternoon writing an email to you. I read it. It’s long. Full of exclamation points and messages from your growing collection of nephews. I have this feeling you’ll never read it. I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself mixed up in. Something classified to hell. I know a few guys with jobs they can’t talk about. One of them told me that sometimes, physical mail will get through when someone’s off the grid. Figured I’d give it a shot.

It’s been three years running now, that you’ve ruined holiday sports. Three brothers don’t make for even games, and Dad refuses to play with us ever since Luke accidentally dislocated his shoulder during what was supposed to be “touch” football. [Can’t believe Luke’s gonna be a father himself any day now—Jenny’s expecting. Hopefully that’s not news to you. Hopefully you’ve been getting our emails.]

“It was news, actually,” Young murmured, looking down at Rush.

If Jenny has a boy, mom’s gonna lose her mind.

Young smiled faintly, drawing his fingers through Rush’s hair. He skipped over the next paragraph.

This next part’s a little tough. I just wanna say—wherever you are, I hope you’re okay, but I worry you’re not. It’s been years, V. Not even a phone call in all that time? Just a few emails? Everyone’s worried. Mom called Emily, who told us she couldn’t say what she knew, only that you were far away. That she didn’t expect you back. That she’d filed for divorce.

Young cleared his throat.

I’ve been in the field. I know what it’s like. So I’ll just say we’re thinking of you. We’ve told the baby nephews so many heroic stories about their badass uncle that the older ones are starting to wonder if you’re real. You’re gonna have to show up one day so you don’t make liars out of us.

You’ll be missing mom’s ham and cheese potatoes tomorrow, but you’re not the only one. Ethan (now nine, can you believe it?) has decided to turn vegetarian. Where the hell did that kid come from? Don’t ask me; I’m just his dad.

Stay safe,


Young folded the letter and tucked it back inside his jacket. “You’d like JD, I think. More than the other two.” He smiled faintly. “Maybe more than you like me.”

“Unlikely,” Rush muttered.

“You’re gonna wanna take it easy on the flattery there, genius,” Young whispered. “Don’t strain yourself.”

Rush said nothing.

“JD’s the ‘smart one’,” Young said, still tracing circles at Rush’s temple with his thumb. “But. Now that I have all of this borrowed set theory and combinatorics in my brain, maybe I can finally win a damn game of Trivial Pursuit. You any good at Trivial Pursuit?”

Rush quirked an eyebrow.

“You’re gonna be tough sell at next year’s Young Family Christmas.”

Young looked up and saw Daniel Jackson, sitting cross-legged on his coffee table, both arms wrapped around himself, watching them with solemn blue eyes behind wire-framed glasses.

“I’ll tell you what you do,” Young murmured. “You’re not gonna do the fake-nice thing. It’s gonna fool no one. But. You help a nephew or two with math homework, do some cooking, you’re gonna win my mom over, no problem. Once that’s done, you’re fine.”

Rush said nothing.

“So,” Young said, “that’s the plan. Down the road aways.”

The AI flickered. Young glanced up at it, but it only shook its head.

“But right now,” Young whispered, “maybe the plan is I take down my block?”

Rush said nothing.

“Rephrase as a conditional construct,” Jackson said.

“A what?” Young mouthed.

“An if-then statement.”

“Nick,” Young said, “if you let me help you, then your environment is going to be more interpretable.”

Rush flinched.

“I know you have one hell of a headache, you’re confused, none of this seems right. But this isn’t your typical mental torture session.” He rubbed his thumb against Rush’s temple in slow circles. “Am I right?”

Rush said nothing.

“Yup,” Young whispered. “I’m right.”

Rush said nothing.

“So,” Young murmured, “if I take down my block, you won’t attack me. Right?”

Rush looked up at him.

“I’m gonna to take that as a yes,” Young whispered.

“Careful,” Jackson said edgily. “I—I’m not clear on how much he understands.”

“We’re gonna find out,” Young murmured, holding Rush’s gaze as he thinned the barrier between their minds.

“Wait, wait—before you do it,” the AI said, with a dead-on impersonation of Jackson, tripping over its own words. “Tell him—tell him to verbally indicate to you if he wants you to stop. Rather than shredding your consciousness. Phrase it conditionally.”

Young looked at Rush, who was looking up at him, his gaze uncertain. Apprehensive.

Brick by metaphorical brick, Young ate away at his own block. “If you don’t like this, then you tell me to stop. And I’ll stop. No need to go to war. You get me?”

Distantly, he felt the searing ribbon-river of chaotic light that made up the man’s consciousness. Through the thinning barrier, he projected a nonverbal wave of reassurance. Most of it ricocheted. Some of it penetrated.

Rush shifted on the couch.

“You’re okay.” Young squinted through his growing headache. The wind of Rush’s thoughts blew hotter, brighter. “You’re fine.”

Rush reached through Young’s thinned-down barrier like the guy’d keyed open everything he was, everything he had been or ever would be. The room faded, the AI faded, the thrum of the FTL drive faded. There was only Nick Rush, the bright song of his thought structure. Young let him have the whole thing. Only keeping enough to say—

“Yeah. Hi. It’s me.”

The pressure on his mind drained to nothing. He got the room back, his body back, the space of his own mind, the texture of his clothes, the weight of his chief scientist, lying in his lap. He wrapped his fingers around the back of Rush’s neck. //You understand what’s happening, genius?// He feathered the question into the edges of Rush’s consciousness.

“No,” Rush whispered, his eyebrows coming together. “No, I—” He tried to sit.

Young didn’t press him back, but didn’t help him, either.

Why?” Rush whispered, with a distressed perplexity that made him difficult to look at. “You’re blocking? You were blocking? You’re both—blocking?” He collapsed back against Young, out of energy.

“They’re coming down,” Young murmured, “those blocks. The AI and I didn’t want to scare the hell out of you by messing around in your head. We don’t like our odds in a fight.”

“Tell him I’ll let him back on the CPU,” Jackson said quietly. “I put two percent of it behind a firewall for him. We can see how he does.”

Young looked at it uncertainly.

“I’m not projecting to him right now,” Jackson said, understanding the question Young hadn’t voiced.

“Nick,” Young said. “Destiny’s gonna open up a little bit of the CPU. If it’s too much, you just tell us to stop.”

“That won’t actually work,” Jackson said grimly. “I don’t have analog control. Two percent is two percent.”

Young glared at it, then switched his attention to Rush.

The scientist looked up at him, dismayed. “That doesn’t make sense, I—”

Young felt the AI make its move. His headache spiked, Rush’s thought-wind blazed with iridescent light, Jackson’s outline flickered, and his chief scientist went limp in his lap.

Shit,” Young rasped.

“It’s all right.” Jackson hugged himself on the coffee table. “I think.”

“You think?” Young growled, resettling the man against him.

“Give him a minute to adjust,” Jackson said. “I doubt he’s able to adapt to additional capacity without re-bootstrapping everything that’s left of his mind.”


Jackson shot him an irritated look. “He’ll be all right. Just don’t shake him.”

Young waited him out.

Finally, his chief scientist took a shuddering breath and refocused his gaze.

“Hey,” Young said. “Better?”

“I don’t know,” Rush whispered.

“Yeah.” Young’s vision blurred from the pain in his head. “Definitely better. Trust me on this one.”

“Better than what?” Rush pressed both hands to his temples.

“Tell me your full name.”

“Nicholas Rush.”

“You know where you are?”

“Destiny,” Rush murmured.

His relief was so intense he couldn’t look at Rush. He just shut his eyes, pulled the man into a hug, and thinned the barrier between their minds by another increment, feeling his headache increase. He watched Rush wrestle with turbulent streams of running concept. Watched him try to follow a linear thought through to its conclusion.

“You never really did it that way, genius,” Young murmured. “Not since I’ve known you. You just let it all run in parallel.”

“Insufficient capacity,” Rush whispered, sliding back into a horizontal position on the couch.

“Yeah,” Young said, “but we can fix that. Slowly.”

“Fuck ‘slowly’.”

“Mmm hmm,” Young dragged his fingers through the man’s hair. “Slowly.”

“An’ what happened to you?” Rush asked in a cracked whisper. “Y’look terrible.”

“Thanks,” Young said. “I think you should go to sleep.”

Rush shook his head.

“You’re a lotta work.”

Rush gave him a faint smile.

“Oh what,” Young whispered. “I suppose you think that’s funny?”

Rush pressed his cheek into Young’s thigh, fighting the way his smile was trying to even itself out. “I missed you,” the scientist said, without looking at him.

“Yep,” Young said through a closed throat. “Likewise.”

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