Force over Distance: Chapter 82

“Y’fuckin’ patronize me an’ I’ll rewire your heart.”

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

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

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 82

Young lay trapped in bedsheets, watching the blur of shield emissions beyond the window of his quarters.

Rush slept in his arms, warm and heavy against his chest. He could feel the flutter of the man’s heart. Too fast. Way too fast.

Young’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He freed a hand and switched it off without waking the scientist.

He thinned his partial block by another increment and grimaced as the pain in his head ratcheted up.

His chief scientist flinched, coming awake for something like the eighth time in as many hours.

“Shhh,” Young whispered into his hair. He ran a hand over the man’s back and scanned the room for the AI. It stepped out of the darkness, its face illuminated by the soft light of a quantum engine.

“What do you think?” Jackson asked. “Five percent?”

“Five?” Young murmured, frowning. “Seems a little much.”

Jackson sat on the edge of the bed. “Maybe. But he’s only accessing twenty-six percent of the CPU right now. He needs to be up to forty to function optimally. At least forty.”

Forty?” Young growled. “Since when?”

“Jus’ fuckin’ do it,” Rush slurred into his shoulder. “Whatever it is you’re fuckin’ doin’.”

“Four percent.” Young gave the AI a warning look.

Jackson nodded.

On the other side of his barely-there block, the scientist’s thought patterns, already running hot and glassy, cracked to accommodate the opening CPU. The wind of his thoughts froze and restructured around the shock of additional capacity.

Rush jerked. All the tension went out of him as memory, sensation, consciousness itself rebooted.

“Easy,” Young murmured. His eyes watered at the spike in his headache. 

The flare and spiral of Rush’s thoughts sparked itself from nothing. The scientist made a distressed sound in the back of his throat, and his fingers closed on Young’s shirt.

“I know.” Young ran a hand through the man’s hair. “Try and sleep through it, genius. Hmm? That’s gonna be the best way.”

“There’s too much of it,” Rush murmured.

“Yeah,” Young said. “But there’s nothing you have to do. Nowhere you have to be. Don’t try to control the mess in your head. Just let it ride.”

“But if I can’t control this—” Rush said, trying to sit, “—if I can’t control this you are fucked. I told Eli—I—”

“Shhh,” Young pulled him down. “No sitting.” He projected as much calm as he could muster. “No telling Eli anything. No thinking. No panicking,” He pressed his lips against Rush’s temple.

Rush muttered something unintelligible into Young’s T-shirt.

“What was that?”

“I never panic.”

“Ah. My mistake.”

“Y’fuckin’ patronize me an’ I’ll rewire your heart.” Rush wedged an arm beneath Young’s shoulder.

Young snorted. “I’m trying to be nice to you.”

“I know. I’m no’ for havin’ it.”

“Too bad.” Young ran a hand up and down the space between the man’s shoulder blades, setting up a slow, predictable rhythm. He projected a wave of calm through his ever-thinning barrier.

“Oh fuck off,” Rush said into his chest. “That doesn’t work on me.”

“No talking,” Young growled in his ear, watching sleep structures battle their way through the glassy wind of the man’s running thoughts.

Rush sighed. “Wake me in half an hour.”

“Oh yeah. Sure.” Young rolled his eyes. “No problem.”

He kept up the slow sweep of his hand over the man’s spine and the ramped up his stream of manufactured reassurance until Rush lost control of his consciousness and fell asleep.

The AI faded in from the darkness, seated cross-legged at the foot of the bed.

“How is he?” Jackson whispered.

“Better,” Young murmured. “I hope. He’s feverish. Completely exhausted.”

“Yes,” Jackson replied. “I know. How much have you lowered the block between your minds?”

“Three quarters of the way, maybe? You can’t tell?”

“I’m still not interfacing with him,” the AI said. “He’s on the CPU but separated from me by a firewall.”

“You’re that worried about his mind?”

“Yes,” the AI whispered.

“I admit,” Young said, running a hand through the scientist’s hair, “it’s more of mess in here than usual, but is he really that dangerous? To you?”

The AI looked away. “It’s a complicated question.”

Young reinforced Rush’s sleepscape, then levered himself up to lean against the wall behind him so he could look the thing in the eye. “I’m not as stupid as you two seem to think. In fact, I’d wager that out of the three of us, I have the clearest picture of what the hell is actually going on. So maybe you just answer my question.”

“I didn’t mean to suggest you were incapable of understanding.” The AI raised Jackson’s hands, palms outward. “I—there are portions of my answer you won’t like.”

“Big surprise,” Young growled, still stroking Rush’s hair. “Let’s hear it anyway.”

“Over the past several months,” the AI said, “I’ve created vulnerabilities to him in my own programming.”


“Meaning I’ve ceded him the requisite privileges to overwrite my code.”

Young raised his eyebrows.

“I wanted—it occurred to me—you pointed out to me,” the AI said, with a Jacksonesque triple-restart, followed by a hopeless shrug. “I didn’t want to hurt him. Even accidentally. I didn’t want to hurt him more. I thought if there were to ever be true conflict between us, he should win.”

“So you stacked the deck for him. Does he know?”

“No.” It looked at Jackson’s hands. “Now doesn’t seem like the best time to disclose?”

“Probably not,” Young agreed, pressing a hand flat against Rush’s back.

“And there’s more.” The AI hugged itself. “He, himself, has changed. You see only the decline in his physical function. The slow erosion of his biological cognition. And certainly,” it whispered, “these changes are killing him.”

Young held his peace, running the flat of his hand up and down Rush’s back.

“But he’s gained abilities as well,” the AI said. “You’ve seen some of these already.”

“The force fields.” Young sighed and pulled Rush closer. “The way he powered the gate. The way his left foot magically knit itself together.”

Jackson nodded. “He took a device from Colonel Telford. One meant to measure progress along the path. He’s been using it. He’s there. His energetic control is flawless. If he wanted to, he could convert his entire physical mass to pure energy.

“So he can ascend?” Young rasped. “Whenever he wants?”

“No.” Jackson’s bluefire eyes burned in the soft light of the shield emissions. “More’s required than energetic control. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. In a moment of panic, he could easily destroy your mind. Stop your heart. He could wipe my source code. He could destroy the entire ship, killing everyone aboard.”

“You or me?” Young said calmly, “Yeah. That I could see. But the ship?”

“He can convert his physical mass to energy,” the AI said. “He can do it instantaneously. The amount of energy locked in his corporeal form is enough to annihilate this ship. Several times over. If he panics, if he believes he has no other recourse, if he is not always oriented, there’s a significant risk.”

“As in—he converts his matter to energy,” Young said. “All at once. Like a bomb.”

Jackson nodded.

“Great.” Absently, he shattered a nascent nightmare forming in the structure of Rush’s thoughts. “What do you think the odds of that happening are?”

The AI shrugged. “Frankly, I’m astonished he hasn’t already attempted it.”

Young brought a hand to his forehead. “Yeah,” he admitted. “Me too. Someone needs to give Greer a damned medal.”

“Furthermore,” the AI continued, “I’m no longer capable of limiting his actions within the confines of Destiny’s systems. If he tried, he could dismantle the firewall keeping him out of the CPU.”

Young sighed, looking down at Rush. “God, you’re a lot of work,” he murmured, pressing the man deeper into sleep.

The soft shine of the shieldlight caught in Jackson’s hair, his eyes, his glasses.

“You told him,” the AI began, “that when he sits in the chair, he and I—” it broke off, flickering. “That we merge.”

“You wanna have this conversation now?” Young asked.

“Yes,” the AI said.

“Not sure I do,” Young muttered.

“He’s deeply asleep,” the AI said uncertainly. “Will there be a better time?”

“Probably not, no,” Young admitted.

“What are we like?” The AI asked. “What do we make?”

Young swallowed in a tight throat, tempted to lie to the thing, tempted to tell it something, anything, that might kill the momentum of its alternate self. He could feel himself in array, across the multiverse, choosing well, choosing badly, choosing selfishly, choosing bravely, choosing not to answer at all.

“You make something new,” Young said. “You’re very like him. Almost exactly like him. More and more every time. As though—as though there’s a learning curve. Or maybe it’s just that more and more of his mind is on the CPU.”

Jackson nodded.

“But you’re not him,” Young said, through a tight throat.

“I heard what you said, nights ago,” Jackson confirmed. “Organized. Ordered. Efficient. Less bitter.”

Young nodded.

“You also said,” Jackson continued in a small voice, “that you liked us?”

“Yeah, kid,” Young said, defeated. “I do.”

“Are you still—are you linked to what we become? Is it the same?”

“The link is every bit as strong,” Young admitted, “but I can only see parts of the whole you make. A light-dark blend.”

Jackson nodded. He toyed with the cuff of his white sweater. “Why are you so sure we’ll not be able to complete a transit event? You said—earlier. You told me we’d never be able to tear through. Why are you so sure? Is it only because Fabrice never came back for me? Or might there be another reason?”

“There’s another reason.” Young grounded himself in Rush’s weight against his chest.

“I thought there might be,” Jackson murmured. “Please don’t say what it is.”

“You understand then,” Young rasped. “You know they watch.”

“I wasn’t sure.” Jackson traced his shirt cuff.

Ancient text, laid down in naquadah ceiling-ribbons, caught the shine of shieldlight.

“There are secondary mission objectives,” Jackson offered. “To observe the cosmos. To collect information. To send it home. And Earth—Earth is home. Yours. Nick’s. But also mine. Sortes lived there. I was built there.”

“True,” Young admitted.

“And I do hope,” Jackson said in a hoarse whisper, “to see something, before it’s over. Where zeroes become non zeroes. A universe, maybe, in which there was no plague. One without wraith. All things aren’t possible, but all things that are possible are. Maybe somewhere, in the fabric of existence, my people continue.”

“Maybe,” Young said gently.

“We would still die here,” it said, with all of Daniel Jackson’s sad-eyed wisdom, “but, maybe, we won’t have died everywhere.”

Young swallowed, nodded, said nothing.

“Other mission objectives were added by Nick,” the AI continued. “The crew is to be gated back to Earth. We can still do that. Dr. Franklin, Dr. Perry, and Ginn of the Sixth House can be assisted into ascension, encouraged to retake corporeal form. If they descend immediately and return with the crew—I suspect that’ll be permitted.”

Young nodded.

Jackson picked at a loose thread in his sweater, trying to work it free, destroying his shirt cuff in the process. “He added one more. One more term. Later. A few weeks in.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He wouldn’t accept any outcome that brought about your death,” the AI whispered.

“Nice of him,” Young murmured.

The AI flickered, Jackson’s blue-flame eyes full of anxiety. “Is it? I wasn’t sure.”

Young frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I have to abide by it.” The AI’s expression was uncertain. “It’s a deep directive.”

“Kid,” Young said, “he can give you all the directives he wants, but I’ll be making my own choices.”

The AI looked away. “Perhaps you should sleep. It’ll help both of you.”

“I’m fine.” Young looked down at Rush. “Plus, this one has a nightmare and we all die, right?”

Jackson did his best to smooth his picked-to-hell shirt cuff. “I can monitor his portion of the CPU. I’m certain I could wake you before it goes too far.”

“I’ll think about it,” Young said. “How long should we give him? He said half an hour, but—”

“That’s not long enough,” The AI agreed. 

“Two hours?”

The AI nodded.

Young pulled out his phone and set the timer.

The door to his quarters slid open, startling Young out of a fitful sleep.

“Just me,” TJ whispered, backlit against the light of the hall. Slowly, she navigated his dark quarters, picking her way around the couches and coffee table to approach the bed. “How we doing?” She knelt and unzipped her bag.

“We’ve been better.” Young blinked at her.

“I know,” TJ said. “I just arranged mandatory medical leave for the next thirty-six hours. For the both of you.”

“TJ,” Young murmured. “I can’t. Telford is—”

“Telford’s taking orders from Matt. He’s actively covering for you, at least for the moment. Camile’s keeping a close eye on him. She’s suspended all communications through the stones for the time being.”

“This is gonna undermine the case against him. I need to—”

“You need to be right here,” TJ said sternly. “We’re at FTL, we’ve got no emergent issues, and getting our chief scientist back on his feet will be dicey at best. Let Camile worry about the case against Telford. I’m telling you she’s on it.”

Reluctantly, Young nodded.

“How’s the headache?”

“Unbelievable,” Young said.

“That bad?” TJ sat back on her heels, studying him. “I could give you something stronger; it would put you out though.”

Young shook his head and looked down at Rush. “I need to be able to snap him out of flashbacks, out of nightmares, out of panic attacks—he can’t handle much right now.”

Young’s phone began to vibrate.

TJ, pale in the light of FTL, raised an eyebrow.

“The AI’s letting him back onto the CPU a little at a time. It wakes him up. You’ll see.”

“Ready?” Jackson asked, melting out of the dark on the far side of the window.

Young nodded subtly.

Rush jerked in his grip, and the pain in Young’s head spiked. “God damn it,” he breathed, when he could speak.

TJ watched him with wide eyes, laced with red.

Rush made a pained sound in the back of his throat as he recovered enough to move. His hands clenched on the material of Young’s shirt.

Young said nothing, running a hand rhythmically over Rush’s back as he lowered his block another fraction, projecting exhausted reassurance into the pained swirl of the scientist’s thoughts.

“He okay?” TJ asked, two fingers at Rush’s neck.

“No idea,” Young murmured.

Rush’s hand snapped up and closed around TJ’s wrist.

TJ gasped. Young flinched.

“Tamara,” Rush rasped.

“Yeah,” TJ whispered. “Yeah, it’s me. Sorry I didn’t say hi.”

“S’all right,” Rush said, and let her go.

Young and TJ locked eyes in the dim light.

“Genius, you just took about ten years off our lives,” Young muttered. “Just say hi. Like a normal person.”

Rush made an inarticulate sound.

“Okay,” TJ said, her voice full of confidence that didn’t make it to her eyes. “You know the drill.” She made short work of taking Rush’s vitals and scanning him with her handheld device. When she was done, she repacked her medical bag. “His pressure’s still low and his heart rate’s high.” She gave Young a meaningful look. “Make sure he drinks this.” She pulled a bottle of electrolyte solution out of her bag and set it on the table next to the bed, along with Tylenol and the scientist’s usual dose of antivirals.

Young nodded.

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” TJ murmured. “If he hasn’t finished this whole bottle, he’s getting an IV.”

“Let’s try to avoid that,” Young said.

TJ raised an eyebrow and tapped the bottle of electrolytes with the tip of her fingernail.

“Yeah,” Young said. “Okay. Got it.”

“Bye, doc,” TJ murmured.

Rush muttered something inarticulate into Young’s chest.

“We’re gonna call that Scottish for ‘bye, TJ, thanks for your help’,” Young said dryly.

“Fuck off,” Rush said, with perfect elocution.

TJ gave them a small smile. Her hand tightened on Young’s shoulder as she levered herself to her feet.

Young watched her go, the bright gold light of the corridor tangling itself in her hair as the doors slid shut behind her.

“Hey,” Young murmured. “Nick. How awake are you?”

“You can’t tell?” Rush replied, the words almost unintelligible.

“Trying not to mess with your head too much right now.”

“Mmm,” Rush said. “Thanks.”

“You want to sit up and drink this and talk to me?”


“Yeah you do.”

“No, actually, I fair fuckin’ don’t.”

“I’m pretty sure you do,” Young said, smiling faintly.

“An’ why is it I never win these arguments?” Rush asked, still not moving.

“You have to let me win occasionally,” Young said, disentangling himself from Rush and slowly pulling the scientist up until they were leaning side-by-side against the wall at the head of the bed. “For morale.” He cracked the seal on TJ’s electrolytes and passed the bottle to Rush.

“How do you feel?” Young asked.

“Terrible,” Rush said, his eyes shut.

“You know where you are? Who you are?” Young asked.

“Nominally.” Rush grimaced as he downed a mouthful of the electrolyte solution. “I swear this stuff is getting worse.”

“So, uh.” Jackson appeared on the edge of the bed. “He’s doing something. On the CPU.”

Young flinched.

“What are you looking at?” Rush asked, in a slow, dangerous pour.

Young hesitated. Looked at the AI. Looked back.

“He’s overclocking his CPU allocation,” Jackson said. “Trying to compensate for something maybe? It looks like uh, not sure what it looks like, you better answer him though. I’d lie. Actually, uh, no, I’d tell the truth.”

Rush’s eyes narrowed.

“The AI,” Young said. “It’s projecting to me, For now. While you’re—getting better.”

Behind his partially lowered barrier, he felt the turbulent swirl of Rush’s thoughts increase.

“He’s looking at intervals,” Jackson said, hugging himself. “He’s trying for time stamp data and running into my firewall. Aggressively. I’m not sure why. Can you—can you see if you can calm him down?”

“Nick,” Young projected all the reassurance he could manufacture. “Whatever you’re doing, cut it out. Everything’s fine. You’re making the AI nervous.”

“Is Chloe dead?” Rush asked, hard and expressionless.

“Jesus,” Young breathed. “No. No. She’s fine. Matt’s fine. Everyone’s fine.”

Rush thrust the electrolytes back at Young and sat forward, his head in his hands. “This is intolerable. I’m not—I won’t—”

“Wait,” Young said, feeling the rise of panic, not sure if it was his or bleeding through from Rush. “Wait. Don’t do anything. Not yet.”

“Not yet? This is interminable. How long have I fuckin’ been like this?”

Young looked at the AI.

“He must not know,” the AI said in realtime revelation.

“Not long.” Young placed a hand between Rush’s shoulder blades.

“Even before this,” Jackson continued, “his sense of time was profoundly compromised. He—he—actually—he may have gotten it back when he was separated from me; he may be rapidly losing it with the reintegration. He doesn’t know.”

Young gave it a subtle nod. “Trust me on this one, yeah? Drink your salt water. Go back to sleep.”

Rush said nothing.

“Genius, you can feel my mind. You know it’s me.”

Rush took another swallow of electrolytes. “I talked to you on the planet,” he said, looking at nothing, “but you weren’t really there.”

Young leaned into him. “I’m here now, though. You can feel my mind. You can touch me.”

Rush nodded.

“Everything’s gonna work out,” Young whispered.

Rush nodded.

“C’mon.” Young pulled him down. “Let’s go to sleep.”

Young woke with a start. His headache spiked. He sat, and the room spun. His breath came quick and shallow, his heart raced. He was alone in his bed.

“Shit,” he rasped. “Shit.”

“It’s all right,” the AI said, wrapped in a self-hug next to the window. “He’s fine. He’s here. I’d have woken you if anything was wrong.” Shield emissions warmed the white of Jackson’s sweater and gleamed in the frames of his glasses.

“Yeah, because your track record’s been so great in that department,” Young muttered.

“What?” Rush asked. He was seated near the door to the bathroom, his back to the bulkhead, watching the light of FTL.

“Nothing,” Young said. “Sorry. Just the AI. I had no idea how much it talks.”

Rush crossed his arms over his chest, crossed his feet at the ankles, and gave Young an assessing look, lathe-like and dangerous.

“How you feeling?” Young asked.

“Fine,” Rush said, lying through his teeth with a studied nonchalance. “Why isn’t it projecting to me?”

“It was.” Young swung his feet off the side of the bed. “It will. We’re just putting you back together first.”

Rush glared at him, icily neutral.

“He’s all the way back on the CPU,” the AI murmured, “but we’re still separated by a firewall."

Young stared at his own bare feet and tried not to look like he was listening.

“He’s very powerful,” the AI continued. “He’s been psychically probing my firewall for some time now. I think he could dismantle it if he tried. I think he might know he could dismantle it if he tried. I think he’s undecided about whether or not he’s in base reality. He’s checking for consistency. In time, in location, in system responses, in your responses, in my responses—he’s not certain of us.”

“Colonel,” Rush said, in a tonal pour of sugared strychnine, “you seem distracted.”

Young held up his hands, palms open, and tried to remember what the hell conversation he was supposed to be having. “We’re just—the AI and I—we’re just trying to help.”

“You don’ have to fuckin’ parse it out for me,” Rush said, all faux politeness. “I need no ‘help.’ For months now I’ve existed in a chaotic milieu of infinite complexity; inane statements devoid of informational content only add to the problem.” He paused regrouped, smoothed down his edges, and added, with lethal precision, “You’re doing yourself no favors.”

“Oh yeah?” Young smiled faintly at him. “What else is new.”

Rush said nothing.

“Ummmm,” Jackson said, “He’s doing relativistic back-extrapolations to determine the total mass of the ship. Trying to determine whether we’re really at FTL. Checking multiple data streams. That’s—uh. I think this is bad. Maybe very very bad.”

“Nick,” Young sighed. “Whatever you’re doing on the CPU, cut it out. You’re making the AI think you’re gonna blow up the ship.”

Rush lifted a won’t-I-though eyebrow and said nothing.

“No way are you blowing up this ship,” Young growled. “How’s Chloe gonna go to graduate school if you kill us all?”

Rush smiled faintly, and let his head fall back against the wall. “Oh fuck off.”

Young winced at the spike of pain that shot through his temples. “Yeah yeah. C’mon. Let’s take a tour of this very real, definitely not fake ship. Shower. Shave. Find you a shirt that doesn’t say ‘Mathlete.’ Maybe we’ll meet someone you can yell at. Eli. TJ. Stop calculating how to destroy everything in the local vicinity and just eat breakfast. Like a normal person.”

“Charming,” Rush whispered.

Late in the afternoon, running on the dregs of early morning sleep and not much else, Young perched on his Ancient coffee table, Jackson at his side. Together, they watched Rush, face-down, asleep on the couch.

“The chair would be safer,” the AI said. “For you. It would isolate his mind.”

“That’s not all it does. I don’t have it in me to pull you two apart. Not today.”

Jackson nodded. “Then I think we should do it now.”

“You sure?” he asked. “We won’t just wake him up and scare the hell out of him?”

“I think,” the AI said, sad-eyed and strangely comforting, “that even if we explained it, he’d still crash and reset along with the CPU, at which point he’d lose his understanding of what was happening.”

Young sighed.

“Speaking from my personal experience, crashing and/or resetting is an alarming sensation. Were he to be awake as the process began, it’s possible he might be able to prevent the crash, which would leave him panicked and in control of Destiny’s systems.”

“Okay,” Young replied. “Give me a minute.” He got to his feet, headed into the hallway, and unclipped his radio. “Eli, respond.”

“Hey.” Eli’s voice was relieved. “How’s it goin’?”

“CPU’s about to restart.”

“Uh, come again?”

“It’ll drop them out of FTL,” Jackson said, conversationally, scaring the hell out of Young as he walked through the damn bulkhead.

“Don’t do that,” Young hissed.

The AI shrugged apologetically.

“Sorry, colonel, did you say ‘restart’?”

“I did,” Young confirmed.

“Uh, we’re at FTL?”

Young looked to the AI.

It wrapped Jackson’s arms around itself and shrugged. “Tell him not to override anything.”

“Eli, don’t worry about it, just don’t override anything.”

There was a long pause.

“Did you seriously just say, ‘Eli don’t worry about it’?’ We’re an energy stream of former matter. If we’re gonna do a cold restart we need to drop from FTL.”

“It’ll wake him up,” the AI said, cocking its head and looking through the bulkhead at what was probably Young’s couch. “I can handle the safety side.”

“Do nothing. Young out.” He clipped his radio back to his belt and looked at Jackson. “We’d better get this show on the road before he drops the ship out anyway.”

The AI smiled Jackson’s small smile. “He’s already trying.”

“I wouldn’t count him out.” Young hit the door controls.

“He’s extremely intelligent,” the AI granted, “but he’s not Nick.”

“Thank god.”

They reentered the room together.

Young sat on the low table. Silently, he shut his open laptop.

“As I take down the firewall,” Jackson said, “you’ll need a full cognitive block in place.”

“Nope. Not happening.”

“Colonel, it’s required,” the AI said. “Your mind is already injured, and he’s appropriating some of your capacity through your partial block. He can’t help it. He’s not aware he’s doing it. It’s why your headache is as bad as it is.”

“I can take the headache.” Young kept his tone neutral.

“As reintegration occurs, he’ll instinctively retreat,” the AI said, with all the patience of the man whose form it’d taken. “When he does, he’ll pull the ship into your mind. Much as he did on the shuttle. You can’t allow him that option.”

Young pressed fingertips to his temple. “Kid, I get it, but if I block and the reintegration happens—you’re gonna combine. I really—I can’t. I can’t face that. The other you. The other him. Not right now.”

“I don’t think there’s a third option,” Jackson whispered. “It’s this or the chair. I can’t think of anything more. Anything different. Nothing skirts reintegration.”


Young threaded his fingers through his hair and closed his hand into a fist.

“We could wait,” the AI offered. “Another few hours? Another day? This is hard for him to tolerate, but—”

Young squeezed his eyes shut. “No,” he said. “I’ll do it.”

“I’m sorry,” the AI breathed, sounding for all the world like the kid it was.

Young straightened. He looked at Rush, still sleeping, face down on the couch. “Sorry about this, genius,” he whispered. “Doesn’t seem fair, somehow.”

“Ready?” The AI asked.

Young nodded.

It held up three fingers.



“Block now,” it said.

Young slammed a brick wall into place, thick enough that nothing got through.

His headache cut to nothing.

The AI vanished.

Rush jerked, shifted, freed a hand. He pressed his palm to the deck plates.

The lights went out. The ship dropped from FTL. The hiss of the air recirculators died.

“Rush?” Young whispered into the void.

The lights came on with a shower of gold. The ship leapt back into waveform energy, white noise and music coming from the walls, a few bars of piano that Young could feel as memory in his own fingers.

The lights dimmed.

The air recirculators kicked on.

The AI flickered into existence, dressed in Lantean black with amber accents. Rush’s eyes were alight with their own charge behind glasses with frames that could’ve been cut from Destiny’s walls.

They looked at one another.

Young’s throat was too tight for words to pass.

“Drop your block,” Rush said softly.

Young shook his head.

Rush came forward, more flow than step, and sat, more rematerialization than positional shift.

“Hi kid,” Young rasped.

“Idiot,” Rush said, fond and exasperated, and very carefully not touching him. “Drop your block so I can fix the bloody wreck under there.”

“No thanks,” Young managed.

Rush sighed.

They sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the coffee table and said nothing.

Walled off behind cognitive brick and mortar, Young could feel what he’d done to his own mind. Run it raw. Filled it with guilt, with grief, with the pain of endings, with beginnings he’d never get to see. With the parallel glory of infinite lives he’d never witness, never know.

“Kid, I—” Young couldn’t get a damn thing out.

Rush nodded. The fringe of his hair rested on the frames of his glasses and caught the shine of the shields.

“Can’t be many needles left,” Young managed.

“Just the one, I expect.”

“You got a timetable?”

“No.” Rush looked at him with a pained half-smile.

Young swallowed, bracing against what he was about to do.

Rush looked at him, amber-eyed and wistful. “I’ll see myself out, shall I?” And, with that, he vanished.

“I—kid?” Young stood, scanning the room as though the combination might let itself be found, as though it’d gone somewhere he could follow.

On the couch, his chief scientist flinched and curled into himself, both hands coming to his head, his expression agonized.

“Nick?” Young took a knee next to the couch and threaded a hand around the back of the man’s neck. He dropped his block and felt the searing agony that came with the unmaking of a mind. “Hey,” Young said, trying to soothe him through the worst of it. “Sorry genius. All done.”

Rush stared at him, his mind an undecipherable swirl of thought and image. Familiar, now. Stable. Like home.

“Oh god,” the scientist whispered, his expression horrified. “What happened to your mind?”

“Don’t worry about that right now,” Young murmured. “It’ll be fine. You can fix it in a few days.”

Rush sat. “Fuck,” he breathed. “Fuck.”

“Take it easy,” Young murmured, catching the scientist’s wrist before he could make contact. “You can fix it later.”

“Nick,” Jackson said sharply. “Don’t—”

Young’s world exploded into white.

Consciousness returned in pieces.

The pressure of Rush’s thoughts against his own was raw. Comforting.

“I’ll fail,” Rush rasped.

“Not entirely.”

“‘Not entirely?’ Is that supposed to make me fuckin’ feel better?”

“Yes,” Jackson whispered, small and uncertain.

“Well it’s not fuckin’ working.” Rush’s voice broke.

Young cracked his eyes open and found himself on the floor between the couch and the low table, his head in Rush’s lap. His chief scientist had one hand pressed to his mouth in a closed fist.

Ignosce, Nick. I’m sorry.”

Young’s headache had changed form. It was less raw. More ache.

Scio, sweetheart,” Rush breathed.

“I’d do anything for you,” Jackson said quietly. “Anything. Do you understand what I mean?”

“Yes,” Rush rasped. “Yes, but—” He glanced down, saw Young’s eyes open, and stopped himself. “Everett,” he whispered, “are you all right?”

Young nodded.

“Y’didn’t let go,” Rush said. “When the shuttle crashed. You should’ve let go.”

“Yeah,” Young said, finding his voice. “Easier said than done.”

Rush, tear-stained and exhausted, ran his fingertips over Young’s temple.

“I feel okay,” Young gently.

Rush looked away, his expression devastated. “Because I’m holding you together.”

“So, no problem then.” Young let his eyes drift shut.

“Colonel, I—”

Young captured Rush’s hand and brought it to his chest. “Don’t call me ‘colonel’ when you’ve just repaved every highway in my brain.”

Rush pulled him closer.

“C’mon,” Young said, fighting the way his own throat wanted to close. “Let’s take our wins as they come. We fixed you up; you fixed me up; no one’s gonna have a nuclear meltdown and destroy the ship.” He interlaced their fingers. “Right?”

“Not planning on it, no,” Rush murmured.

“Okay then,” Young replied.

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