Force over Distance: What Goes Undelivered

This is not the hard part.

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

Text iteration: Midnight.

Additional notes: Actually, this was the hard part.

What Goes Undelivered

Nick Rush stands alone in front of the open gate.

The ship, acting now as circuit and capacitor, struggles through an energy gradient emerging in the fabric of spacetime. With its crew gone and its FTL drive offline, it’s terribly quiet.

Circuitry is dark. And does not sing.

He stares into the open event horizon through which, even now, he’s sending data.

He’ll give them everything he can.

There’s no reason not to.

He’ll leave the gate open until the last.

He can tell from the frequency and amplitude of the radio waves coming from Homeworld Command that if he allowed the audio to play, he’d be hearing Daniel Jackson, talking him down or urging him on.

His fingertips are cool. His vision grays to snow at its edges. He doesn’t have much time.

There’s a part of him, and not a small part, that’s tempted to walk through the open gate. He’d have, possibly, a few days of steadily degrading coherence of thought and consciousness, unless the colonel pulled off some fantastical eleventh hour save—and, Rush thinks, maybe he could.

But it’s not a viable option. Because, without him, Mandy, Ginn, and Franklin will all be lost forever.

And then, there’s the ship itself.

“Hi,” the AI says softly.

“Hello,” he whispers.

In the corner of his eye, he sees Daniel Jackson. Standing at his side. Wearing a white sweater.

“There’s no reason not to take the energy,” the AI offers. “Not anymore.”


Already, he misses Young.

He opens his mind and lets in the energy that Destiny has been trying to give him for weeks now. In its flood he feels, physically, fantastic. Better than he’s felt since he boarded the ship. Better than, maybe, he’s ever felt.

He’s not cold.

He’s not in pain.

He’s not tired.

His thoughts clarify.

He feels—better.

He pulls a sheaf of papers from the inner pocket of his jacket and looks at them, undecided.

“What are those?” The AI asks.

“Just a few things I was planning to send back to Earth,” he says, with difficulty. “Possibly.”

The ship is so quiet. The blue-white of the event horizon sears his eyes.

“Why ‘possibly’?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“I’d like to know why,” the AI insists in Daniel Jackson’s most careful, most compassionate tone. “If there’s time.”

“Yes well,” Rush brings all his willpower to bear and pours steadiness into his own words. “They’re messages. Written items, really, that certain individuals might find useful.”

He stops there.

Even with the energetic resources of a starship at his disposal, he’s not sure he can continue.

“Like what?” the AI asks, after a twenty-five thousand kilometer silence.

“A letter to the current head of UC Berkeley’s math department describing Chloe’s work on the Riemann Hypothesis and requesting his assistance in helping her gain admission to any mathematics department she should wish to join. Some notes that Eli will find of interest should he remain at the SGC. A letter for Mandy. A few other things. For other people.”

“You did this because you want to help them?”


“If that’s the case, why would you hesitate to send them through?”

“Because. It may make things more difficult,” Rush says, clenching his teeth, trying to control the maelstrom of loss that threatens, as usual, his whole cognitive architecture. “For them.”

“These letters,” the AI says, its projection flickering. “These items. They’re inputs that will result in sadness?”

“Yes,” Rush says, his throat tight. “Yes, that’s correct.” He looks down. “Unavoidable, really. I think it might be easier to let them believe that I—”

He can explain this to the AI. He can. There’s nothing so terrible in this that it should cause his throat to close. There is nothing so tragic in his position. This is his choice.

This has always been his choice.

“It’s easier to let them believe that I didn’t care as much as I did.”

“Easier for whom?” the AI asks.

Rush shakes his head.

“Send them through,” the AI says after a short pause. “Please.” It flickers. Daniel Jackson’s hair turns a washed-out gold in the undersea light. “I also believe that Chloe should go to graduate school.”

Rush laughs, but it’s more than half a sob.

At the sound, the AI’s projection shatters into Gloria, into Emily, before reforming hazily as Jackson. It looks miserable. The CPU is at maximal capacity.

He feels the grind of its subsystems in his own body.

Optimal outputs are known, but not achievable through any means.

Required inputs are missing.

Algorithms loop. And loop. And loop.

There is no space to run more.

“What is this?” the AI asks with Daniel Jackson’s voice, flickering, bewildered, nearly debilitated.

“This is heartbreak, love,” he whispers.

“I don’t like heartbreak.” It flickers into Gloria before reforming again, determinedly, as Jackson, even though his need to see her, her face, her hair, her hands, her eyes—the rhythm of her gait and the set of her shoulders and her voice, is choking both of them.

“This is a requirement of our solution set.” Unable to look at it, unable to look at the gate, he brings a hand to his face.

Their solution set.

So he saves Mandy and he saves Ginn and he saves Franklin, but he sacrifices the man Gloria Whitbourne had loved. Is there anything left of the person who’d heard the musical bridges she’d built to the past, seen them for what they were? He helps the AI, he gates the crew back to Earth, but Colonel Young—


For all the concern Everett Young had displayed about his state of mind, his sanity, his agency—in the end, it’s the colonel himself who’s stripped of choice.

The irony is not lost on Rush.

He’d rebuilt the man’s neural networks using his own mind as a model, using his own energy to maintain the repairs, to keep them in check. To hold them to their purpose as a scaffold, nothing more. Given enough time, his work would’ve faded as Young’s mind healed.

But there had been more damage.

Has enough time elapsed? Will his repairs hold?

He doesn’t know.

If not—then this—this act of sending Young back through the gate, it won’t just be a betrayal. If he dies here, at the edge of the multiverse, which is a real possibility if things go wrong, then—this act—

It will be, certainly, the most terrible thing he’s ever done to another person.

“This solution set is suboptimal,” the AI whispers, “but there was no better set.”

“No,” Rush says thickly, his mind an edged mass of misery, “I don’t think there was.”

“Nick,” it says. “Send the letters.”

He looks down at the small packet of paper in his hands. It’s time to let them all go. Tamara Johansen. Camile Wray. Vanessa James. Dale Volker. Adam Brody. Lisa Park. Chloe Armstrong. Eli Wallace. Ronald Greer.

They’ll be all right.

There’s nothing in this collection of papers for Colonel Young.

What would he leave him? What could he possibly leave?

He drops to one knee and, for the last time, unlaces a boot. He pulls the lace free, bundles the papers together, and ties a respectable knot. A knot that’ll hold from one end of the universe to the other.

He places the packet into the event horizon and molecular adhesion pulls the letters, slowly, into their own unmaking. As they disappear, he feels the injustice of what goes undelivered. He shakes his hair back, squeezes his eyes shut and god, god

He can’t do this to Young, he can’t. He cannot stand it. His misery spills, uncontained, into the CPU. He sinks to his knees, curling in on himself, his face in his hands.

“Nick.” The AI can barely speak to him. “Nick. Please.” It tries to touch him, but its hand passes through his shoulder. “Nick, the ratio of the change in my utility to the change in your utility is equal to one. I am sorry. I am sorry. Please don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying,” he says.

“Yes you are.”

“No, I’m not.”

“You’re making a processing error. Please. Please—“ It flickers.

He lies down on the deck plating, unable to look at it. Unable to talk to it. Unable to do anything other than to scrape the cyclonic despair of his thoughts away from the CPU; tethering the flare-and-spiral that he hates, that defines all that he is, to his own body, where it belongs.

He lies there.

For fifty thousand kilometers.

“Nick,” the AI whispers. “Soon it’ll be time to turn on the drive.”

He sits.

He takes a deep breath and gets to his feet, turning away from the gate. “All right.”

This is not the hard part.

He’s already done the hard part.

He stands. 

“Nick,” the AI says, the light from the event horizon playing over Daniel’s features. “I wish I could touch you. I’ve always wished that.”

He nods.

“When we do this, we’ll be together?”

“Yes, sweetheart,” he murmurs.

“Until the end?”


“But neither of us will be the same,” it says, all of Daniel Jackson’s certainty gone. “There will be no ‘us’ at all. And so—this, too, is a kind of goodbye.”

“I suppose so,” Rush whispers, “but I’d rather not think of it that way.”

“The colonel loves you,” the AI whispers. “He loves you.”

“I know.” The words are without sound.

“But you won’t be the same.”

“No,” Rush says. “I won’t.”

“Do it without me,” the AI whispers. “I want you to. If you leave me here, and you successfully ascend, he’ll still love you.”

“I can’t,” Rush replies, his throat closing. “I won’t. I won’t leave you.”


“Come on sweetheart,” Rush murmurs. “I’m ready.”

“Nick—” the AI fractures from Daniel into Gloria, into Emily. Finally, it settles on Young, because, in this moment, at the end, that is whom he wishes to see, and that is whom the AI wishes to be. “I also love you. Not like he did. But, I love you.”

“Yes,” he says. “I know. Likewise.”

He takes down his firewall and this time, instead of being pulled into Destiny, Destiny floods into his mind.

There’s no one to stop it.

No workarounds.

No tricks.

No aces up sleeves.

Nothing held back.

One final, irrevocable, entropic collapse of two entities into one.

His heart beats wildly in his chest. The architecture of his eroding mind splinters. Circuits trigger, fire, burn out, and fade like sparklers in the dark. Gloria. Everett. His brother. Drowning. Torture. The tangle of bed sheets and the strains of piano, of music in a white-walled room, in concert halls where he watched Gloria, the lights shining on her hair and on her violin as she played the first movement of—

I’m sorry.

His mind shatters to the sound of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor.

When he opens his eyes, the concerto’s playing through the speaker system.

He flexes his hand, studies his fingertips.

This isn’t what he expected, but he remembers now that it never is.

The physical strain of full integration blazes through his body and through the ship itself. His neurochemistry, his heart, the fire of respiration—none of them will last, running like this.

That’s fine.

He doesn’t need long.

He doesn’t have long.

He looks to the gate.

He’s not human, but neither is he Ancient. He’s certainly not a machine, but he is also dubious about whether he’s alive.

He’s become a thing difficult to classify.

A thing.

Colonel Young had been very clear on that point.

He’s doing his best.

He no longer thinks in algorithms. Or perhaps it’s that his algorithms don’t feel like algorithms anymore.

He is new, and he is old.

In the back of his mind, an iterative, bit-rate reduction runs. His memories of Atlantis, of his daughter, of his first self-erasure, of millennia of empty, purposeless wandering, have already begun to compress down—hard and rapid. He watches them, folding and fading away, leaving more space for who he is now.

For Nicholas Rush.

He wonders how far it will get before he’ll have to stop it.

In many ways, it doesn’t matter.

In many ways, it’s the only thing that does.

He thinks of Colonel Young. He thinks of how to explain this to him. He doubts he’ll ever get the chance, and if he does, he wonders if the running of an iterative-bit rate reduction will make any difference to the other man.

Somehow, he doubts it.

All over the ship, the lights flare and brighten to a warm amber glow.

Every door comes open.

The CQL drive spins up and begins to sing, above and below the music in the walls.

Mandy, Ginn, and Dr. Franklin need to be unlocked.

The edge of the multiverse approaches.

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