Force over Distance: Chapter 84

“What are ‘whales’?” Varro asked.

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

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

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 84

Young sat at the back of the mess, arms crossed, his shoulders pressed to the wall. Over the heads of the crew, in a stream of spreading light, a kino projected Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home onto a white square of canvas, 3D-printed from carbon weave and tacked to a blank patch of wall. Before the film started, Young ran his fingers over the makeshift screen to find it the consistency of a sail. Wray, at his side, thinking of art rather than the sea, asked about paint and dyes and charcoal. He could picture her quarters covered with sketches of oceanscapes and empty boats, alien worlds and moons.

The tracking device was gone.

Rush’s fever wouldn’t break.

And Eli, that morning, had come to tell Young about a subtle course alteration, laid in without the Science Team’s knowledge, that would bend them out of the void and back toward the next galaxy on their list.

Somehow, Young didn’t think there’d be time for Wray to do much artwork.

Their journey was almost over. It had to be.

In the dim light, the movie underway, Young watched Wray watch Kirk, captaining a stolen ship, far from home.

What had he joined the military for, if not for this? To navigate the unknown, to give everything he had, in defense of his planet, his people? To preserve their perspective, their persistence, their potential? Their brane of the cosmos: still living, full of movement, rich with light and waveform energy, like the sea itself.

There was so much Wray would do that Young would never see—drawings, choices, policies she’d craft, plans she’d draft with Dr. Jackson late-night and over coffee in his office of books and bones. He’d never repair things with Emily, he would never know his nephews, never span the gap that’d widened, year after year, between him and his brothers.

Volker and Brody, at the next table, whispered to one another, arguing over invented rules of a Star Trek drinking game: a sip for native Klingon, spoken aloud; two sips for mechanical breakdowns; three sips for nostalgic callbacks to prior movies; four sips for scenes of the real Pacific, wide and wild; a full shot for whalesong; a full shot for “colorful metaphors.”

He’d get the crew home. That would be enough for him. More than enough.

James sat at Volker and Brody’s table, but she’d left an empty chair between her and the scientists. In that open spot, Daniel Jackson, wearing a white sweater and a carefully neutral expression, watched on-screen Spock stare at a repeating question asked by a computer: “How do you feel? How do you feel? How do you feel?”

Within the infinite variance of his local multiversal array, was there any aspect of Young that would return home? Abandon Rush and the AI to a war he’d never ascend to see?

He doubted it.

Just didn’t feel right somehow.

A few tables ahead, the dark sweep of Chloe’s hair caught the edge of Scott’s worn BDUs as she leaned across the lieutenant to whisper a question to Eli, who rolled his eyes, and responded with “dilithium.”

Wray flinched at the mechanized, underwater sound that accompanied the alien probe onscreen. Park wrapped an arm around her, said, “Don’t worry, it’s just whales,” and, though she spoke softly, her voice carried well enough for the room to hear.

“Way to ruin it, baby,” Greer said.

“This movie came out in, what, 1970?” Park asked.

“1986,” Volker called from the back of the room.

“What are ‘whales’?” Varro asked.

“Quiet!” Eli snarled before anyone could answer.

TJ leaned into Varro, the diffuse light from the projector settling into the coils of her upswept hair. She smiled, and the device clipped to her hip pulsed the blue of the Western Mediterranean.

Young looked away, looked at nothing, looked at the screen, where, on a Klingon ship of burnished bronze, McCoy asked Spock about death, and Spock answered with frames of reference.

Rush leaned into him, pressing against the grind of Young’s constant worry with thoughts that ran like molten glass, slow and warm and full of enough energy to mimic mass.

//Quite the disjunct architecture you’re building out this evening,// Rush observed.


Rush sent him a wordless reply, a glorious blaze of astral and nautical images and metaphors: the wind, caught in a sail; the river of light that streamed from the shields; the endless view of the sea from Pinnacle Quay; and a strange blur of melded Star Trek and Ancient aesthetics: Young in gold and white on a lit-up bridge, his hair too long for Air Force regs, Camile in sea-foam gray, starlight gleaming from her hair.

Young swallowed. //You’re really underrated.//

Rush huffed. //This is coming out of your subconscious; I’m just trying t’watch a fuckin’ film.//

Young wrapped an arm around the man and said, //Not sure I should’ve let Eli pick this one.//

It’d been a long time since he watched any Star Trek, but pieces of the larger story were coming back, surfacing with a clarity that probably wasn’t his. Spock’s death, behind glass, in a reactor core. Kirk’s mutiny to honor a religious tradition that wasn’t his own.

//?// Rush sent him a wave of wordless inquiry.

//Nothing. Ignore me.// Young traced the firing of his chief scientist’s thoughts, pressing against their flow, disrupting surface patterns like trailing fingers through the bright wake of a powerful engine.

Rush, his eyes on Kirk’s attempt at a solar slingshot, projected a wave of reassurance, deep and real and wordless.

And what would it hurt, to be like Kirk? Kirk had defied everything for the sake of a friend, to honor a Vulcan tradition he didn’t even believe in. He’d held to that tradition, carried it forward, through mutiny, through the destruction of his career, his reputation, all of it—

For an idea. A small one, in the grand scheme of things. And, because, if he hadn’t taken Spock’s neural pattern to Vulcan, he couldn’t have lived with himself, afterward.

Rush shook his hair back and pressed himself against Young’s side.

At 0300, the door chime sounded.

Young woke to an empty bed. At the back of his mind, Rush’s thoughts were a distracted, iridescent wind, located somewhere near the FTL drive. //God damn it,// he growled. //You’re on medical leave.//

He got back a wave of acknowledgment, distant and ship-shadowed.

“I’m gonna handcuff you to the bed,” he growled, fumbling for the lights, pulling on his pants, his shirt, his jacket. “It’s gonna happen.”

The door chime sounded again.

He jammed his feet into his boots, crossed the ghost of a chalked diagram on his floor, and hit the door controls. “What.

James and Bill Lee stood together in the corridor. James had her game face on, hard and impassive. “Sir, will you come with me, please?”

“Lieutenant,” Young growled. “It’s 0300.”

“I’m aware of that, sir,” James said, no emotion in her face or voice. “The doc’s in astrometrics. He asked to see you both.”


“I’ll be happy to show you the way, sir,” James replied.

“Astrometrics,” he muttered, as he bent to tie his boots. “Three AM with a hundred and two fever and he’s in ‘astrometrics’.”

“It’s a lab,” James said, a razor’s edge of sympathy prying up that neutral tone of hers. “Just off the reclaimed corridor beyond the FTL drive.”

Bill Lee, his arms wrapped around his chest, trailed them silently.

All the light in astrometrics came from the room’s displays. There was no light in the walls. No light in the floors. Consoles offered up rainbows of information, packed to overflowing, like chests of sea-wet gems.

Nick Rush stood in the middle of the room, beneath a string-of-pearls constellation picked from the overhead swirl of a larger galaxy. His borrowed fatigues blended into the shadows of the floor, but the glow of projected stars caught in the frames of his half-designer glasses and edged his hair with light. The bright/dark swirl of his thoughts didn’t clarify.

“Kid,” Young growled, “you are a lot of work. A lot.”

The combination, inhabiting Rush’s physical body for what Young was pretty sure was the first time, quirked a brow, smirked at him, and projected a wave of reassurance, just as much there as gone. “Lieutenant,” Rush said, “Would you mind waiting outside?”

James didn’t look to Young for confirmation. She nodded, turned on her heel, and walked back through the doors.

“This is a bad idea.” Young glanced at Bill Lee, who was wandering through the circular array of monitors, reading displays. “You shouldn’t be here. In more ways than one. You’re burning through your—”

Rush stopped him with a look, held a finger to his lips, then pointed, subtly, at Lee. //If you really must express yourself, there are other options available to you?//

//Get out of his body.//

//I think you’ll find this is my body at the moment,// Rush replied, unperturbed. //An’ I didn’t bloody well ask for it. Your roommate’s gotten creative.//

//This can’t be good for him. You. Whatever.//

//Very little’s ‘good for him’ at this point.//


But Rush plowed over his projection in a wave of pearl and shadow. //For once in your life, don’t pick a fight? Just for the fuckin’ novelty, if nothing else?//

//What are you up to?//

//There’s one surefire way t’find out.// The combination arched an eyebrow, then turned his gaze to Bill Lee.

They watched together as Lee drifted from monitor to monitor, his hands anchored deep in his pockets. As he passed, the displays rainbowed themselves in undersea hues: blue-green and coral, amber and amethyst. “I’ve never seen it this way.” He looked at Rush, his expression warm and wistful. “As it should be.” He ran a fingertip across the nearest console, tracing a chromatic ripple, causing a new one. “Color for its own sake.”

Carmen tantum carminis,” Rush said, smooth and low, like wave-polished glass. “Daniel. Thanks for coming.”

Jackson?” Young breathed.

Jackson looked at the shining star chart above and smiled a small smile. “Just Daniel, actually. How can I help?”

Young’s shock broke over him, pulled him under, and before he could speak, Rush said: “Tell us about the war.”

“The war,” Jackson echoed, soft and surprised.

Rush nodded.

“God damn it.” Young leaned into a treasure-bright console. “Kid—” but there was nothing he could say. Nick Rush and Destiny weren’t far from what would likely be—

He cut the thought off before he was forced to complete it.

“Colonel?” Jackson said.

Young shook his head.

Jackson glanced at Rush, then looked into the shadows beyond the information-bright consoles like he could track the tides of faraway battles. “War’s not going all that well.”

“So I understand from Colonel Telford,” Rush replied.

Young kept silent, his mind brimming with memories not his own: crisp breeze, sunlight on water, and the slow drift of a silver city in its final days: full of art and song and disease, floating past the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic beyond before its star drive went online.

The AI had been built by a seafaring, spacefaring culture. A culture wiped out by the Ori. The kid’s thoughts, too, were full of Atlantis, of biochemistry discussed behind still bright glass, the crystal song of the dying behind a quarantine shield of pale pink.

“No matter what I say, no matter what I do, the power of the Ori is undeniable.” Jackson lifted his eyes to the swirl of stars overhead. “In a galaxy that’s spent millennia under the yoke of the Goa'uld, there’s just not been enough time. Not for the kind of organic healing that might create real resistance to a cult of verifiable miracles.”

And all Young could think was that after Sortes had overwritten himself, the plants that climbed the walls had died. The lights had dimmed. The decks had tarnished. His ghost had spent thousands upon thousands of years lying along the bones of a derelict ship. Until, one day, in an endless span of empty, drifting days, Daniel Jackson had arrived, newly dead and roaming the universe as a beam of something more than light.

“Even on Earth,” Jackson continued, “we’d have problems were the Ori to press their case.” He cast a rueful look in Rush’s direction. “And we were never melted down. Poured into whatever mold a passing god favored. Recast.”

“No,” Rush agreed, an undersea shine in his hair. “I’ve some second-hand knowledge of the persuasive power of Origen.”

“It’s ripping through the Milky Way,” Jackson said. “Coming on like a storm. I don’t know how much time we have left. A year? Two? Not more than five, certainly.”

Young fought the crushing realization that still—even now, after all he’d seen and done, all he’d come to understand about the ship, about his chief scientist, about the multiverse and its wars—he wasn’t prepared for the scope of all he was tied to. Tangled in.

“They must mention the Ori, in the archives here,” Jackson said.

“They do.” Rush hesitated, then said, “I’ll send you the relevant files.”

Jackson looked up. “Send? You’ll send them?”

“We’ve a dial-out in the offing,” Rush admitted. “No set date yet.”

Jackson looked to Young. Young nodded.

“We’ll be sending more than just information,” Rush continued. “Equipment. Personnel.”

Young felt a crushing pressure in his chest, as though space, like the sea, could press down from above.

“Is everyone coming back?” Jackson whispered.

“Almost everyone,” Rush said softly.

Jackson looked to Young.

Young gestured, encompassing himself and Rush. “We’re staying.”

Rush didn’t contradict him.

Jackson considered this, quiet in a quiet space, lit with math and star charts.

“He can’t leave the ship,” Young offered.

“And what about you?” Jackson asked.

“I won’t leave the ship,” Young said. Just a statement of fact.

“Nick,” Jackson looked up at the string-of-pearls constellation above, “where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” Rush murmured.

Jackson, backlit by information projected in maritime blues and greens, smiled. “I said that, once.”

“Did you.”

“I can—” and Jackson reached into the empty air, “I can almost hear your intention.”

In this navigational grotto, Young, too, nearly had it. The many-part harmony of the Cantascendis, singing above and below the range of human hearing.

“I fought to come in your place,” Jackson whispered, looking at Rush.

“An’ that would’ve been an unmitigated catastrophe, I think,” Rush replied gently.

“It seems like a lifetime ago,” Jackson whispered hollowly. “More.”

“Doesn’t it just,” Rush replied.

“Nick, there’s no workaround for ascension,” Jackson said dully. “You’ll be stopped.”

Young braced himself against the edge of a coral and amber display and thought of Hunter Riley, a violet in his hand and the sea breeze in his hair. I’m hoping, Riley had said, you’ll thread the needle.

“It’s likely,” Rush admitted.

“Any advice?” Young asked, looking at Jackson. “In case he does make it?”

“Tell them,” Jackson said, his sea and fire eyes boring into Rush, “that after I’m dead and the Earth has fallen, when the entire universe is monotonic praise fueling the war-engine of Origen—still it won’t be over. The Ori will come for the ascended.”

Rush nodded.

“Tell them also that even though I don’t remember a day, a name, a face, of my time among the ascended, even though my base descended self wants to curse them for all they haven’t done—” Jackson choked to a stop, took a breath, and collected himself. “Still, when I think of them, their language, their craft, their culture—everything they left behind—it feels like mine. As dear to me as my friends, as the back rooms of museums, as rounding the corner of a canyon to find a city carved into a cliff, as the quirks of dozens of languages, the way ‘radiation’ and ‘radical’ and ‘radish’ all come from the same ancient root: the idea of growing outward, from a central source.”

“In mathematics,” Rush said gently, “angles are measured in radians.”

Jackson’s eyes shone with unshed tears. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help. Steer clear of everything I’ve done. Don’t follow any course I’ve charted.”

“Little late for that,” Young growled.

“I know,” Jackson replied.

Rush shot Young a disapproving look, then turned his attention to Jackson. “I realize that at times it must’ve seemed something like throwing yourself at an energy field, trying to get through to me. But, ah, a few things did make it. Here and there. None that—none you’ll remember.”

“Try me.”

Rush hooked a hand over the back of his neck and looked away. “I wonder if I might ask one last favor.”

“Last?” Jackson said, keen as a blade in the dark.

“The crew will be returning to Earth soon. I was hoping you might help me convince the colonel he should accompany them.”

“Never gonna happen,” Young said mildly.

Jackson wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Squared his shoulders. “This is a—” Jackson paused, considered, restarted. “This is a very different dynamic than I remember? Than I’ve, ah, heard about?”

Young shifted his weight, braced himself against a monitor, and glowered at Rush. “You wanna explain?”

And the man in front of him, half Nick Rush, half a wandering starship, boosted himself onto the nearest locked console, looked down at his own interlaced fingers, and said. “Yes. Yes, I think will.”

It resolved nothing.

The story stretched into what would’ve been dawn on Earth. Jackson sat on the floor, his back against a bank of monitors and heard them out, asking clarifying questions, but mostly sitting, listening, attention sharp, gaze sharper. The combination talked itself into exhaustion, laying out its case.

And Young let it.

Didn’t say so much as an edgewise word.

He stared into the void-dark corners of the room, beyond the sea-grotto light of Lantean astrometrics and tried to ignore the way throat and sinuses ached.

He wondered if the poor kid really believed Daniel Jackson could say something to change his mind. As the details wove in, he decided it did. There was no other explanation for this impassioned disclosure, this full-court press by what the pair of them thought was their best self, putting forward their best effort.

But Rush left out Hunter Riley.

He left out the description of the multiversal cull.

The final needle he wasn’t gonna thread. Even in a multiverse of infinite possibilities, that needle could probably only be threaded once. Young had enough borrowed math to know the odds of one in infinity were functionally zero.

When Rush finished his tale, Jackson said, very softly, “Colonel?”

In this capsule of Lantean design, this bubble where sea and stars met, Young tried to fill his mind with anything that wasn’t Sortes, out of time and options. Anything that wasn’t Fabrice, dying in a prison, looking at the stars. He did his best to shrug, to make a joke, to lay out any argument. Nothing came to mind. Nothing but crystal. Song. The seas of his own ocean planet. Hunter Riley’s borrowed image. And a universe like a closed book, full of flowers too dangerous to bloom.

“Tried to control a lot of this,” he finally managed. “Stop it. Turn it around. Make it go some other way.” His voice faded to nothing. He swallowed. “Didn’t happen. All the same. I’m not going back without him.”

The kid, backed by a console throwing amber and pearl into midair, watched him without speaking.

Jackson nodded.

No one spoke.

The light shifted its spectrum, suggesting, subtly, an underwater dawn.

“Sha’re told me something on Abydos,” Jackson said. “After the death of Ra. Before the SGC came back for me. It was early in the morning. The sun was just rising over the eastern desert, but, already, she’d gone to the well. Come back with water. I watched her pour it into the basin. I said something. Half asleep.” He smiled, Bill Lee’s eyes warm and wet. “Something about how beautifully she poured the water.”

It was easy to picture Jackson, a decade younger, the sun in his eyes, sure the great work of his life was already behind him.

“She said the love of small things in a large time was a terrible curse.” Jackson swallowed, struggling with the words. “Even then, naive as I was, I could see how it’d been true for her people. For her. All her life. But still. I didn’t think it was right. Made a speech about it. About how it’s the small things that made it worth getting up in the morning.”

Young shook his head. Looked away.

“Sha’re loved a good speech,” Jackson whispered. “Loved how terrible they sounded when I made them, because I’d learned Old Egyptian from books and from stone.”

Young did his best to think of nothing. Thought instead of TJ’s labeled set of tea. Wray’s blue track jacket. The way Nick Rush spun a light-pen through his fingers. Of an infinite array of men who’d left the Earth behind to watch a woman pour the morning water, backlit by the rising sun. Maybe, in a few of those universes, Daniel Jackson had buried the Abydonian Stargate and never, not ever, dug it up again.

No one said anything.

Overhead, the cloud of the coming galaxy swirled like sand and salt and sea foam.

Young cleared his throat, looked at Nick Rush rather than Daniel Jackson, and said, “Kid. Give it up.”

And, “All right,” Rush said softly. “All right.”

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