Rush is afraid.
He is running and he feels like he has always been running. In this time, now, here, this moment, racing down the dark and indistinguishable corridors of Destiny (which have, increasingly, colonized his dreams— his brain untethering what’s irrelevant or what he prefers not to remember, or compressing it into inaccessible compartments), he wonders if the place to which he is now running is in fact the place to which he’s always been running— not on the physical level, but certainly on the metaphorical, where he has always been running in less obvious ways. Perhaps it was and perhaps it was absurd to ever think he could avoid this arrival. Somewhere, he imagines, Destiny laughs.
Except that Destiny does not laugh because Destiny has been boarded; that is why he is running; the pitch and roll of ships in battle, the shields failing, the soundless light of explosions in space, and though he does not yet know by whom Destiny has been boarded in the purely objective sense, at the same time he knows and Destiny knows, he suspects, or he knows although he does not like this knowledge because there is no mechanism to explain it. When he skids around a corner he touches a wall with a bare hand and he knows that Destiny is afraid, and that she does not like their presence, and this is true for him also. Their thoughts cause him pain.
This pain is useful, though, because with it he knows when they are coming and backtracks, sliding frantically against the walls with no escape as his head turns inside out with the alien torque of their brainwaves. That is when she finally speaks to him, and by she he means Destiny but also Gloria or possibly some Gloria-Destiny hybrid because he finds the inputs confusing and he cannot always remember to whom he’s speaking when he speaks to her.
“Nick,” she whispers urgently.
She is standing inside a recess in the wall. She is wearing a loose white jumper and her fair hair is disheveled. He cannot think how he is supposed to respond to this apparition until she beckons him and says, “In here!”
So he goes to her and a hidden door slides shut to conceal them, and then they are standing face to face together, very close to one another in this very small space. Like they are two children playing a game of hide-and-seek from others. Any minute now she will rumple his hair, which he pretends to hate, and laugh the husky laugh by which he would know her blindfolded. Any minute now. Any minute.
Out in the corridor, a group of the nameless spindly-limbed aliens pass, whisper-footed along the deck plating.
He is looking at Gloria and he is on Destiny and he can sense the painful thoughts of these intruders, and he presses a trembling hand to his forehead but there is no relief from it.
"I'm not sure if you're real," he whispers.
He hadn’t seen her for months until she had shown up this evening on the bridge.
No one else can see her. But then his life is constructed of things that no one sees except for him. Answers, equations, agonies that go unexpressed and therefore perhaps unformed, not even nascent only potential and therefore nonexistent, and this is what it means to be an outlier, and so how are you supposed to know? How are you supposed to tell? What is reality but the iceberg-tip of a Gaussian distribution and if he is below the waterline then how can he—
"I am real," she says, with a small smile that is meant to be reassuring. "I always have been."
"But you're not Gloria," he says. Absurd, because of course she is not Gloria. Gloria is dead and Gloria is dead and Gloria is—
"No," she says. "Not Gloria."
"And you want something from me."
She studies him, her mouth closed and tense. "You know what it is I want," she says. "You have always known what I wanted."
"I won't. I can't."
"You have done so before. Almost. You were so close."
"I had an application-layer firewall."
"Yes," she says.
He had a firewall, when he sat in the interface chair. He dreamed— he dreamed Destiny and he dreamed California in the springtime and he dreamed the crisp white sheets and Gloria beside him in bed and she wept in the corridor and he knew it was not real but still he wanted to wrench the bones out of his body as though he could find the place where it was hurting and pull it out and leave the rest of him and maybe that would be enough, maybe he could go on functioning, maybe he should have done that when it had been something more than a technological dream and maybe he had done that, hadn't he? hadn't he tried? But he had not gone far enough. Maybe this is the chance. Maybe this is what he needs.
“What happened to Dr. Franklin?” he asks. "When he sat in the chair?"
Gloria— not Gloria Destiny the AI this image pulled from out of the depths of his brain— looks away. “He was not an excellent candidate for the use of the neural interface,” she says. “He did not have an application-layer firewall.”
“I don’t—” Rush says. He closes his eyes. The cognitive dissonance is having an adverse effect on him. “I won’t have an application-layer firewall either. Not this time.”
She bites her lip. "It is not my goal to hurt you."
He says nothing.
She says with a note of desperation, "Nicholas. You must do this. Please. They are hurting me, Nick."
He puts the heels of his hands up to his eyes because he is having an emotional reaction and that is not optimal in the current situation. He has to evaluate. He has to prioritize. He has to calculate a course like threading the ship between hazards except that of course it is never Scylla or Charybdis, because this is real life and in real life you must pick one or the other, the one you think you can survive, the one whose net harm is potentially less, but for whom? For whom? Isn't that the bitch of the calculation?
When he opens his eyes Gloria has vanished. But he knows where she is. He knows where she will wait for him. So he edges out of the wall and he turns the corner and picks up his pace and soon he is there, of course, the only there that matters, the neural interface room with its waiting chair.
The AI too is there waiting. It watches as he seals the door and rapidly disables the entry mechanism.
“Nick,” she says softly. “Unlike Dr. Franklin, you are an excellent candidate.”
He does not know exactly what she means by that statement but at the same time he knows or he can guess. He does not want to, cannot think about it at this precise moment. That will certainly have an adverse effect.
Instead he goes to the monitor bank and scans through the local cache of programs, looking for something that can serve as a barrier between his mind and Destiny. He does not expect to find such a thing, but it buys him the space of a few breaths to complete his analysis of the situation.
“Nick, what are you doing?” she asks, her voice growing slightly frantic. “Why are you stalling? We have no time for this!”
She is afraid. He had known she was.
Several options exist that might shield his mind— firewalls, buffers— but all of them would take time to configure, and even if this were not the case, all of them cut him off from too much of the CPU to be effective. He requires full access if he is going to retake the ship on his own. He will need to be in too many systems.
Doors must come open.
They must be vented into space.
“They are attempting to disable the FTL drive!” Gloria says, or rather begs.
He looks at the interface chair. It is rather unassuming, considering the nature of what it is.
Go, Young had said once. Sit. Be my guest.
He wonders what Young is doing now. Probably something loud and unproductive that involves an assault rifle.
“Nick,” Gloria says. “They will disable the drive. I cannot prevent it!”
Can he believe her, is the question. She is not Gloria. Therefore she is already deceptive in a sense. He does not know the rate of similarity between her goals and his goals. She wants an apposition of their minds without the firewall. She wants access through every cognitive port he possesses. She has always wanted this. As a goal it is not strictly good or bad, but merely as is the nature of most goals something difficult, unpredictable, and costly.
That’s what she wants.
And perhaps he wants that too.
He is not in that habit of assessing his wants. He knows only that this is the place to which he's been running.
“Can you act as my firewall?” he asks.
“...Yes,” she says after a hesitation. Her voice is flat.
“Will you? Just this once?”
They face each other in the small, dark, humming room. She looks at him through Gloria’s now-emotionless features. She is Destiny now and not Gloria, who was not emotionless, who cried easily and played the violin with such feeling that you could not believe that the wood and glue didn't rip themselves apart under her fingers, who once threw a glass a wine at him during an argument at Oxford, but he did not mind, because he admired the artistic temperament, and because everyone said how like chalk and cheese they were, Nick and Gloria, and he had thought, At last, here is what I’m missing, my other half.
This is not Gloria.
She says, “Just this once. But only just this once. If I do this, then the next time you will...?"
As though she knows already that this will not be the last time he sits in the chair.
There is a familiarity to that sensation. Other people thinking they know better than he does.
"Yes," he says. "You can have what you want. Then."
There is a familiarity, also, to this deal. This leveraging. But it is the only deal he knows how to make. The only leverage he has.
And he is so tired. He has been running forever.
He rounds the monitor bank, his eyes fixed on the chair. He feels, for a moment, a thrill of trepidation.
Just before the bolts engage, he smells something like lightning in the air.