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A Change in Energy (The Force over Distance Remix Project)

Chapter Text

 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 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 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, and though he does not yet know by whom in the purely objective sense, at the same time he knows and Destiny knows, he suspects, or knows although he does not like this because there is no mechanism for this knowledge. When he skids around a corner he touches her wall with a bare hand and he knows that she 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 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.

Out in the corridor, a group of the blue 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 aliens, and he presses a trembling hand to his forehead but there is no relief.

“I was beginning to think you were a stress-induced hallucination,” he whispers.

He hadn’t seen her for months, until she had shown up this evening on the bridge, looking at him as though to confirm what he had already calculated was the case. A kind of saint of last resorts. Hadn’t Gloria already been that? Or no. A saint perhaps of lost causes.

“What are you going to do?” she says.

She knows, so he does not know why she is asking him this question.

“What happened to Dr. Franklin?” he asks.

She 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 don’t have an application-layer firewall either. Not this time.”

She doesn’t say anything and after a time he edges out into the empty corridor. 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. “You are... 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 grown slightly frantic. “There isn’t 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 chair. It is rather unassuming, considering the nature of what it is.

Go, Young had said. Sit. Be my guest.

He wonders what Young is doing now. Probably something loud and unproductive that involves an assault rifle.

“They will disable the drive,” Gloria says. “I can’t 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. This is not as a goal strictly either 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. She's gone still. 

Will you?”

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, “This time. But only this time.”

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.

He nods to her, to her superior knowledge, and rounds the monitor bank, his eyes fixed on the chair. He is tired. He has been running forever.

He turns.

He sits.

Just before the bolts engage, he smells something like lightning in the air.

 

Chapter Text

Young was looking for Rush.

This was not a novel experience. By his reckoning, approximately 50% of his time aboard the Destiny had been spent in some state of looking for Rush. The man was a goddamn escape artist. Rush would probably have taken that as a compliment, but Young had never understood what was so great about the ability to contort your way out of absurd tortures you’d created for yourself. That was what escape artists did— they locked themselves up in boxes full of water just to prove that they could break free whenever they wanted, and most of the time it seemed like that was what Rush did, too. Except with Rush, it could be anything from an actual box full of water to some mildly irritating bureaucratic task he was responsible for.

Maybe that wasn’t fair. Rush hadn’t locked himself in that box full of water. If anything, it had been Young’s fault, though Young couldn’t not still see it as a consequence of Rush’s own actions, the fallout from his poorly-thought-out master plot.

Maybe that wasn’t fair, either. He had to admit that about 20% of his time aboard the Destiny had been spent trying to get rid of Rush. Where that left him, he didn’t know— except with a 70%-Rush-centered lifestyle, a sense of existential confusion, and a headache that wouldn’t quit.

He’d tried looking in the mess, though he’d already guessed that Rush wouldn’t be there. Most of the time, Rush seemed to live on air. Young had tried to sell him on the value of shared meal times as social bonding mechanism, and how that was necessary in a closed community like the ship, but Rush had looked at him like he couldn’t believe the shit that was coming out of his mouth. “Please provide advance warning before we reach the stage of fraternity hazing, fox hunting, or matching tattoos,” he’d said.

Young had a tattoo. It was the 552nd Spec Ops Squadron emblem. He and his buddies had gotten matching ones done in a little place with bad lighting right outside Clovis. He didn’t tell Rush that. But Rush looked at him like he just knew.

So he wasn’t that sympathetic to Rush whenever Rush did show up to dinner and almost inevitably ended up sitting alone, hunched over his bowl of rehydrated protein with his hair half-obscuring his hostile eyes. Or when Rush didn’t show up and people spent the whole time talking about him, which was more or less what they’d been doing tonight. Eli had been on some tangent about how Destiny (Eli called the ship Destiny, just Destiny, like it was a person, which was something he’d picked up from Rush) liked Rush, and Greer had said, “Naw, it doesn’t. You know how I know? Because no one likes that man.”

Young had let it go, and moved on. But it was hard to conduct a shipwide search when your knee had twenty stitches in it and you were working with a couple of busted ribs. The incursion four days ago hadn’t gone great for anyone, except maybe for Rush, who’d disobeyed a direct order, kicked Young in the face, sat in the neural interface chair— without a firewall— and somehow managed to save their collective ass by firing the main weapon, trapping the intruders and venting atmosphere out of their compartments. And was he so much as bruised? The hell he was. Just those little marks on his temples, almost invisible, where the chair’s bolts had made contact.

That was why Young was looking for him— the chair, the goddamn chair, and the fact that Rush refused to answer how he’d known that it wouldn’t scramble his brain (“Just lucky, I suppose— I didn’t have much to lose at that point, now did I?”) or how he’d known he would be able to wire himself into the weapon and the sensors (“Tactically, it’s always made sense”) or anything, really, about what had happened. He’d been dodging Young for days, probably because he was a pretty lousy liar, much worse than someone who lied almost constantly should be. He knew exactly why the chair hadn’t hurt him, and Young would bet he’d been damn sure it wouldn’t, and that he was holding out on a lot more, a lot more information about the ship.

Young was heading to the bridge, but he took a left onto the observation deck, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to take a minute and rest his leg. He sat down on the small bench, wincing— God, the knee was a bitch of a joint— and stared out at the solid dark length of the ship, cutting its way through the stars as though they were water.

He couldn’t stop thinking about how Rush had known. There’d been a moment on the bridge, just before they were boarded, when he’d turned to Rush to find him still. That wasn’t like Rush, first of all— just try making him stay in one place. He had seemed distracted, staring at empty air with a curious focus, as though he were watching or listening to something that wasn’t there. That was right before he first tried to make a break for the chair room, without bothering to spare anyone a single explanatory word, and Young had shoved him back.

“Let me go!” Rush had said, and Young had said, “Nobody’s going anywhere. Do you get that? Nobody’s leaving.” Then the alien ship had hit them hard, sending everyone flying, and in the chaos, Rush and Young had grappled on the floor: Rush kicking and clawing and scratching as Young tried to hold him, till finally he went for Young’s weakest spot, driving a foot into his just-broken ribs. Then the fight was over, and Rush was running for the hallway.

The door to the bridge had opened at his approach, as though in anticipation.

Young shut his eyes against the deck’s stream of blurry starlight. “What are you up to?” he breathed aloud.

He wasn’t sure if he was talking to the absent Rush, or to the silent bulk of the ship.


When at last he made it to the bridge, it was to find that Rush wasn’t there either.

“Hey,” Brody said, looking up from where he was seated in the command chair, studying displays. “How’s the leg?”

“Better,” Young said shortly. He hated that he was limping— that it was such a visible injury. He was worried that it made him look weak. Ever since the would-be mutiny early in their time on the Destiny, he’d been hyper-conscious of anything that might undermine his command. They were in a better place now, he thought— at least, he was pretty sure no one was actively plotting to overthrow him, except maybe for Rush, who had never really stopped— but some knee-jerk fear remained, a sense that he was hanging on by the tips of his fingers. “Have you seen—“ he started to ask.

Brody preempted him. “Yeah, no, he’s not here.”

“I don’t think he likes us,” Volker chimed in, not looking up from his monitor.

“He likes us,” Park said from the far corner. “I mean—“ Her voice wasn’t completely certain. “In his way.”

Young sighed and pulled out his radio. “Rush, this is Young. Come in.”

He should have just done this in the first place, really, but he had a feeling he knew how Rush was going to respond.

And, predictably, there was a long silence before Rush answered, in a flat tone, “Rush here.”

“Lucky you,” Volker said under his breath. “He doesn’t pick up for us.”

“Rush here,” Rush said again, sounding halfway between bored and furious.

“Where are you right now?” Young asked.

“Control interface room.”

“I thought you were supposed to be repairing the weapons array with the rest of the science team.”

There was no answer. Young waited a good minute and a half. He rubbed a hand over his face, feeling incredibly weary.

“Rush,” he said again.

Across the room, a dark bank of monitors suddenly lit up in shades of brilliant gold and blue. Images flickered across the screens as machinery hummed into action.

“Welp,” Brody said with a fatalistic shrug.

“Is that what I think it is?” Young asked.

Park had moved to the newly lit consoles. “Looks like primary and secondary weapons arrays are back online. No— wait. All three arrays are up. Everything except the main weapon. Power flow is stable.”

“I wish he would explain how he does this stuff,” Volker said.

“You guys had nothing to do with this?” Young felt his headache intensify.

“Nope.”

Young picked up the radio. “Rush,” he said, unable to keep the frustration out of his voice.

A pause.

“You’re welcome,” Rush said shortly. “Rush out.”

“He’s been in a bad mood all day,” Park said apologetically, still scanning through the weapons consoles.

“Yeah,” Volker muttered. “Because he’s so charming the rest of the time.”

Young stowed his radio. “I’ll talk to him,” he said.

At least he knew where Rush was now. He made his way to the control interface room, wishing in hindsight that he’d just picked up the damn radio in the first place, and risked Rush’s irritation rather than wandering all over the ship. His knee was killing him, and he really just wanted a nap and some aspirin. But the thing with Rush was that you had to keep after him. Otherwise, he thought he was getting away with it, and would move on to whatever his next insane stratagem was, and then you’d have to waste your time on that, and then he would get away with it, because there just weren’t enough hours in the day.

When he reached the CI room, he saw that it was mostly dark. The only light came from the consoles, a bluish underwater sort of glowing that reminded him of aquariums back home. Rush was perched in front of the main interface, leant forward, his dark eyes flickering across the screens and his left hand rubbing at the back of his neck.

Young stood in the doorway for a while, watching him without saying anything. There was a sort of peacefulness to the dark, although Rush himself didn’t look very peaceful.

“You missed dinner,” he said at last. “Again."

Rush didn’t react. So maybe he had known Young was watching.

“I wasn’t aware that you were keeping tabs on me,” he said. “Again.”

“Nice work with the weapons array, although your team’s a little tired of being sidelined.”

“This is not a training program. If and when their help is required, I’ll ask for it.”

“Right,” Young said. He leaned against the doorway, trying to seem casual. “How’s the main weapon coming?”

“It’s not looking promising. It was always designed to be used in conjunction with the chair.” Without seeming cognizant that he was doing it, Rush brought one hand up to his temple, touching the small scar that the neural bolt had left.

“You’ve used it without the chair before,” Young pointed out. “You unlocked the firing mechanism months ago.”

“That was only a workaround,” Rush said. “When I fired the weapon from the chair, it reset the system.” There was something a little too smooth in his tone. He wasn’t looking at Young.

“Is that what happened,” Young said.

“That’s what happened.”

“So why can’t you just make another workaround?”

Rush slammed his hands against the edge of the console. “Absolutely. Let me just crack and dismantle the six adaptive algorithms that are currently locking me out of the ship’s processing core. That should be simple, and free of any and all negative repercussions. Perhaps you’d like to offer some input, based on your extensive computational experience.”

“It’s just a little weird,” Young said mildly. “All of this.”

“You expecting me to rewrite the laws of physics simply because you find them inconvenient? I agree. That is, as you term it, ‘a little weird.’”

Young shrugged. “You. The chair. It could have killed you, you know.”

“Yes, well,” Rush said dismissively.

“You had no way of knowing what would happen.” Young paused, just for a second. “Did you?”

Rush’s hands stilled in midair. He looked up, his eyes sharp and very probing. It felt like he was weighing and measuring what he found in Young’s face. Or worse, like Young was a shellfish he was figuring out how to crack. “No,” Rush said at last. “Of course I didn’t."

So they were going to keep at it like this a little longer.

Young sighed. “Just get that weapon online,” he said.

When he turned away, he imagined that he could feel Rush’s gaze. The blade of Rush’s intellect, carefully dissecting his seams.


That night, he dreams of the attack. It takes the form of some mixture of things that had and hadn’t happened, in the strange way of dreams. He’s trying to drag Rush back as alarms blare on the bridge, but he’s having to fight at the same time, the way he’d fought off the invaders in the mess, shooting wildly as sparks flare down from the overhead panels. He has no cover, and plasma bolts sear the deck around him, and he takes an agonizing shot to the knee, and he’s holding on to Rush’s ankle, and he cannot let go, or something terrible is going to happen. To Rush, or him, or to the ship. “Rush,” he tries to say, but his ribs are cracked and he is winded. Rush is trying to crawl to the door, which opens for him, but what’s behind that door isn’t the ordinary hallway. Young doesn’t know what it is. Only that he has to stop Rush, and so he brings his sidearm down on Rush’s ankle, feeling the bone crack. Then he does it again. Rush doesn’t make a sound. Maybe he doesn’t notice. He just keeps clawing desperately at the deck. “You’re going to get us killed,” Young says, as a plasma bolt hits a half-inch from his shoulder. “You’re going to get us killed!” “Then let go,” Rush says.

He woke up as, in the dream, he was bringing the gun down once more, knowing exactly where to strike to really hurt. He lay in bed, feeling faintly nauseated— he knew in intimate detail what it felt like to really hurt Rush. It took him a minute to realize that something had woken him, and another minute to realize that it had been Eli calling him on the radio.

“Colonel Young?” Eli said again. “Do you, uh, have a minute?”

Young sat up, rubbed his face, and looked at his watch. It was twenty-two hundred hours, so: not an unreasonable request, even if he felt like he could sleep for twelve hours and still be too tired to walk.

“Sure, Eli,” he said. “Want to stop by my quarters?”

It was possible that Eli had just been lurking outside, because he seemed to get there remarkably fast. Young barely had time to shrug his uniform jacket back on and comb a hand through his increasingly unruly hair before he heard a knock at the door.

“Yeah,” he said, crossing the room to key the door open.

Eli was balancing an open laptop on one hand. “Hey,” he said. “Were you— I can come back if you were sleeping. I mean, but I kind of think you might want to see this. But I can totally come back.”

Young waved him in. “It’s all right. Sit down. What’s got you so worked up?”

Eli took a seat on the couch and set his laptop on the low table. “I was kind of— look, you know I do not like the spying. I kind of always thought the feds would’ve tried to recruit me if I stayed at MIT, but I totally would be have been like, ‘No way, man!’ Information wants to be free. Also, the military-industrial complex is just, like—“ He stopped, looking hunted. “Not that you’re— “

“I get it, Eli.” Young resisted the urge to drop his head in his hands. “Just— show me what you want to show me.”

“Okay, so I was going through a bunch of kino recordings, and…” He reached out and hit play on a video file he’d pulled up.

The image showed one of Destiny’s interchangeable corridors. For a while, nothing happened. The image might have been still. Then, as Young watched, the normal harsh corridor lighting faded to a soft, luminescent blue in a slow-moving wave that propagated down the long, straight line of the hallway. Beneath the kino, Rush stepped into view, his head bent and one hand wearily rubbing at his neck. He looked tired. The kino descended to follow him, and caught the way the leading edge of the lights dimmed as Rush moved forward, almost exactly matching his pace.

“What the hell is he doing?” Young murmured.

“I don’t think he’s doing it,” Eli said. “I don’t even think he’s noticed. It’s sort of the same way that doors have started just opening for him? Am I the only one who’s noticed this?”

“No,” Young said.

“It’s in a bunch of the kino recordings from the past few days.”

“Since he sat in the chair, you mean.”

“Yeah, so, about that— just keep watching.”

Young watched as, on the laptop screen, Rush kept moving down the hallway. Suddenly a door to his right slid open, pouring out a bright light that immediately dimmed. Rush paused, startled, and did a double take, as though wondering if he had accidentally triggered something. Then he looked into the room and frowned, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Cute,” he said tightly. “But I don’t think so.”

He glanced sideways and caught sight of the kino. The camera went wobbly as he reached up and gave it a good push, sending it spinning down to the far end of the hallway. The picture bleached in the sudden rush of light and went dead.

Young let his head drop back against the couch. “That’s the chair room, isn’t it?

“Affirmative.”

“At the risk of repeating myself: what the hell is he doing?”

“I think—“ Eli appeared uncertain. “I kind of think it’s like the ship is trying to communicate with him.”

“By turning off the lights wherever he goes?”

“Turning them down. He gets, you know, headaches.”

Young stared at him. “You think the ship was trying to make him feel better?

Eli shrugged. “Or just trying to be helpful? I mean, there’s the whole deal with the doors.”

“The door to the chair room,” Young said. “That sounds like a bad deal. I do not want him cutting the science team off from key systems again. He’s done nothing but bullshit me about what happened four days ago, which makes me what I think is pretty understandably nervous. I need you to keep an eye on him. I don’t care if the ship has some kind of crush or whatever, but if something else is going on…”

“Right,” Eli said, although he sounded like he thought that Young was missing something.

“Just—“ Young stood, wincing as his knee protested. “Stay on top of things. And get some rest.”

After the door had closed behind Eli, Young pressed a hand against it. He could feel the faint, almost life-like hum of the ship.

“Do you talk to him?” he whispered. He leant forward, letting his forehead rest against the cool metal. He closed his eyes. “Why don’t you talk to me?


When Young’s radio went off again at oh-five-hundred, he’d only managed to get a few hours of sleep.

“Colonel Young, this is Rush, do you read?”

Young rolled over and buried his face in his pillow, resisting the urge to groan.

“Colonel Young?”

He fumbled for the radio. “This is Young.”

“Can you please clarify the reason a guard is posted outside the chair room?”

The reason was that Young had a less than 100% conviction that a ship who was trying to get cute with Rush might not get other cute ideas, like giving him lockout codes or override privileges. He didn’t trust that Rush might not get some cute ideas, like sitting in the chair again, now that he knew he could survive it, and doing who-the-hell-knew-what in the mainframe. He’d called Scott late last night and told him to put a guy on it. Now he knew that his instincts were still sharp, no matter what the state of his knee.

“Just a precaution,” he said to Rush.

There was a long silence. Young imagined what-all Rush might be up to: glaring at his radio, throwing it at a wall, holding the guard at gunpoint… did Rush have a gun? He could probably get one if he wanted, and that was a worry.

“Rush?” Young said.

Rush said, in a chilly tone, “If you want me to bring the main weapon online, that requires rerouting the control systems away from the primary interface. I know these technical terms are hard for you to comprehend, but that means the chair.”

“You can work on it later. With the rest of the science team.”

“Later,” Rush said, as though he hadn’t understood the word.

“Yes. Later. With the rest of the science team.”

There was no reply.

Young tried to go back to sleep, but arguing with Rush wasn’t conducive to relaxation. He ended up just heading to the mess for the early meal shift. Camile Wray was there, picking at her rehydrated protein with something that could have been disgust or delicacy. It was hard to tell with Wray. That was what made her a great diplomat.

“Camile,” he said, dropping down across from her.

“Everett,” she returned. “You look exhausted.”

He shrugged, unwilling to outright lie.

“How are repairs coming along?

“Fine. A few minor—“ he grimaced— “hiccups excluded.”

She looked at him, somehow managing to radiate amusement without betraying even a hint of a smile. “You know you have a facial expression you use exclusively when discussing Dr. Rush.”

“I never said I was talking about Rush.”

“No. But your face did.”

He sighed. “Yeah, okay, I’m talking about Rush.”

“Speak of the devil.”

Young fought the impulse to plant his face in his breakfast, or possibly flee the room altogether. Rush had indeed appeared. As Young watched, he strode across the mess and grabbed a bowl of protein paste from Becker. It seemed his plan was to eat it as quickly as humanly possible while standing in front of the man, so as to give the bowl back to him with maximum efficiency. Becker was watching Rush with a resigned amusement, and Young got the feeling this scene happened all the time.

“Dr. Rush,” Wray called to him. “You can have my seat. I was just leaving.”

She stood, ignoring Young’s disgruntled look.

Rush looked confused and irritated, but approached the table as Wray left. He stood, staring at Young.

“You might as well sit,” Young said, gesturing. to the chair. “We’re going to have to talk about this plan of yours sooner or later.”

Rush narrowed his eyes. “I’m not sure what plan you’re referring to,” he said with an offhand air of nonchalance that absolutely breathed disingenuousness, and consequently sent chills down Young’s spine.

“Interfacing with the chair,” Young said uneasily. “You radioed me about it? At five in the morning?”

Rush sighed noisily and sat down across from him, practically hurling his half-empty bowl onto the table. “What are your terms? What are the conditions under which you will allow me to carry on doing the very work that you yourself—“

Young held a hand up before Rush could really get going. “Whoa, okay, cool it down a little, Brando. I just want to set a couple of ground rules. One: the entire science team is involved. Two: someone is to be stationed outside the door at all times, in case of emergency. Three: no one sits in the chair.”

“One: I will involve Eli and no one else. Two: what do you think someone outside the room is going to do? Number three I accede to.”

“This is not a negotiation, Rush.”

“Fine. Everyone but Volker.”

“What did I just say?”

Fine.” Rush slammed his spoon down on the table. “Perfect. And what time would you like to start?”

“Any time,” Young said easily. “Just let me know. I want to be there.”

“Half past nine, then.”

“Great.”

“Yes. Great. Exceptional. Outstanding.” Rush stood.

“You didn’t finish your breakfast.”

“Oh, please. Be my guest.” Rush shoved the bowl at Young and stalked away from the table.

There was a nervous scattering of laughter after he vanished from sight, and the whole mess seemed to let out a collective breath it had been holding.

Young rolled his eyes and held in a sigh.

“Just— carry on, people,” he said.


The chair room was a riot of activity by the time Young arrived. Park and Volker were practically flitting around the room, booting up monitors and checking on system levels. Laptops were perched here and there, like butterflies that had alighted on the monitor banks. Eli and Brody where chatting loudly about internal rheostats, running some kind of cable between a monitor and their own laptops. Young stayed in the doorway, leaning against the wall next to Greer.

“I feel like I’m becoming an expert at this,” Greer said.

“At?”

“Watching other people watch computers.”

Young’s mouth twitched slightly. “Well, it beats alien incursions any day of the week.”

“Where’s Rush?” Volker called from behind the main console. “We’re pretty much ready to go here.”

He seemed, for some reason, to be directing the question at Young. But it was Rush who answered, as he strolled casually in: “Right here, Mr. Volker.”

As soon as Rush crossed the threshold, the lighting in the room abruptly dimmed and the chair came alive— activated, Young corrected, because the chair wasn’t alive, and the ship wasn’t alive, and some sort of mechanical program that was making these things happen. It was a mechanical program that lit up the base of the chair and opened its restraints with an ugly snap that was audible even over its hum.

Rush flinched as though he’d been slapped, and took an unsteady step backwards. This brought him right into contact with Young, who had reached out on instinct for his shoulder. Young was rattled enough to pull Rush in, and he could tell Rush was rattled, too, because his heart was racing— Young felt it where he held Rush against his chest. That was unsettling. Most of the time, Rush was the thing Young was afraid of. He’d gotten used to Rush not being afraid of anything. The escape artist who could always get out of the boxes: that was Rush. It didn’t make sense that this was what scared him, this piece of furniture in a darkened room.

All the same, for a second, Young could sympathize. There was nothing about the chair that was particularly teeth-like, but if anyone had asked him, he would have said that it looked hungry. It looked very lean, very skeletal.

As though it hadn’t had a meal in a long time.

Chapter Text

 Rush tore himself free of Young’s grasp almost at once, straightening his shirtsleeves.

“You do realize it’s a chair?” he snapped. “It’s bolted to the floor. What exactly do you think it’s going to do to me?”

“Uh,” Eli said uneasily, “you realize how creepy that was, right? I mean, even you have to admit that was, like, a nine on the creepiness scale.”

“Eli.”

“What? That freaked you out. I know it did.”

Young watched Rush, who had headed to the main console and was typing with a kind of controlled fury on his laptop. He didn’t look particularly freaked out, but Young had felt Rush's heart slamming against his ribcage. It made him wonder what else Rush was lying about— and then he almost laughed, because of course Rush was lying about everything; that was the whole deal; that was the #1 fact about Rush. Young had just never thought about it like that before, that Rush was also lying about what scared him or what made him sad, if Rush could even get sad. If there was that much of a human inside of him.

“I’d rank it more like an eight point five out of ten in creepiness,” Volker said after a pause.

“I’d give it a seven,” Brody added. “Tops.”

“No way,” Eli said. “A seven? Are you kidding me?”

“Why are the lights off?” Park asked.

“Because the chair likes it that way,” Eli said in a ridiculous Hammer horror-movie voice.

The ensuing laughter broke the tension somewhat. And nothing else happened in the next half-hour that seemed to suggest some kind of sinister consciousness to the ship, so Young pretty much sat back and watched the science team work. It was kind of enjoyable; he rarely got to oversee work on the Destiny that wasn’t happening under life-or-death pressure, or that was going well. Most of the time it was underrested civilians trying not to cry as they played soldier, or million-year-old Ancient devices that no one could get to work. The worst thing that happened in that half-hour was Rush throwing a pencil stub at Volker, which he came close to apologizing for.

They had just accessed the core systems of the neural interface when Lieutenant Scott showed up, looking out of breath and urgent.

“Sir, Homeworld Command wants to talk to you,” Scott said to Young. “Wray was using the communication stones, and now Colonel Telford’s waiting on the other end to switch with someone.”

Young swallowed a grimace.

So much for easy working atmospheres. Whenever Telford got involved, these days, things went to hell fast. Somehow it never ended up looking like Telford’s fault, either— even before Icarus, when they were working out of Cheyenne Mountain, it was the same kind of shit. He was always brainwashed, or body-switched or a time-displaced duplicate, or under the influence of mind-altering drugs, and never just a ruthless son-of-a-bitch with his own agenda. At least he’d hadn’t pulled some excuse out of his ass when it came to Emily. In that sense, getting involved with her, even though it had destroyed their friendship, was probably the most honest thing he’d done. 

But he couldn’t be avoided, so Young followed Scott to the communications room, where a tense-looking Wray was waiting for him.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Wray said, before he could even ask the question. “The trouble with the Lucian Alliance is escalating, which is obviously… not good.”

They shared a look. Young thought that Wray, maybe more than anyone else, shared his sense of helplessness when it came to the conflicts back home. She had a girlfriend there, he knew, but more than that, on Earth she’d been in a position of power. She was used to being involved in what happened, not stuck millions of light-years out with no capacity to act.

He wondered if she still dreamed about Earth. He did, sometimes, though those dreams were getting more and more rare. Oddly, he almost never dreamed about Colorado Springs, where he’d been stationed for a pretty long time. It was always Wyoming, or New Mexico, or Florida. Big, full-on sensory dreams where he was out in Medicine Bow in the late weeks of springtime, when stormclouds were crowding in on the trees, and the whole world seemed crammed and green, overripe and noisy with new life. Or New Mexico, driving west to Albuquerque, doing 110 miles per hour under the stars, which you’d think he wouldn’t miss on a goddamn spaceship, but God, how he missed those stars, and that rusty scrubbed-raw smell of the Southwest. He didn’t even think about Earth that much, or have a reason to visit; he just dreamed about it, like a reflex he could never quite get rid of.

Camile said, “I think Homeworld Command is close to attempting a dial-in using an alternative power source, so maybe they want to talk to you about resupply. Although that seems awfully premature.”

Yeah. And that wasn’t his kind of luck.

“Well, let’s see what they have to say,” he said, refusing to say, Let’s get this over with.

It was Scott who switched with Telford, which was always strange to see. Scott was eager and somehow innocent where Telford was grim and wonder-weary, and it was easy to see the moment when the transfer of consciousness took place.

“Everett,” Telford said.

“David,” Young responded.

They stared at each other.

Telford jerked his head at Wray. “We need to talk alone,” he said.

Wray gave him an incredulous look. “Excuse me,” she said pointedly, as she turned and left the room.

Telford didn’t seem to notice. He sure as hell noticed, though, when Young winced as he took a seat in one of the room’s chairs.

“You’re injured again?” His primary response seemed to be offense and irritation. “How?”

“We had an incursion last week. I took some fire.”

“You need to report these things as they happen,” Telford said. “What’s your status? How much damage did you take?”

“Our repairs are almost completed. Shields and defensive arrays are up and running."

"I'd hope so."

"Look," Young said with some asperity, "Homeworld Command will have my full report within twenty-four hours.”

“We’ll be needing more than that.” Telford leaned forwards and folded his arms on the table. He looked like he thought he was the one in charge— like he was imagining himself as a general, and Young as an underling. “We’re making plans for an attempt to dial the Destiny from the alpha site. Colonel Carter and Dr. McKay have figured out a way to dial the gate through a series of ZPMs.”

“Is that safe?”

“They aren’t sure. They need to talk to Rush.”

Young laughed shortly. “Good luck. He hasn’t used the communication stones for— what, over a year now?”

Telford raised his eyebrows. "I wonder why."

Privately, Young thought that there was more to it than Rush’s traumatic bodyswitch disaster. He very much doubted that Rush still dreamed about Earth.

He shook his head. “You’re not going to get him to go back.”

“Maybe not voluntarily.”

“And what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Telford studied him. He had this expression sometimes like he was playing a very high-stakes and very complicated game of chess in his head, and most of the time, these days, Young felt like one of the pieces. “You seriously think we’re going to let Rush stay on the Destiny a minute longer than we have to, once we can send additional personnel through the gate?”

“I think that’s not your call,” Young said levelly. “Is what I think. Unless you’re planning on replacing me, too.”

Telford didn’t break eye contact with him. “That decision hasn’t been made as of yet.”

“I see.” Young’s mouth twisted.

“So I’d recommend that you find a way to get him to use the stones. Since that’s an order. From General O’Neill.”

“There is no way,” Young said, enunciating the words sharply, “that I’m going to force one of my people to switch bodies with someone else against his will.”

“You may not have a choice in the matter,” Telford said mildly.

Young was never going to learn his lesson, apparently, about letting Telford rile him. “Cut the crap, David,” he said. “How about you stop being so goddamn coy and tell me what the hell you’re hinting around?”

Telford shrugged, cool and seemingly unaffected by Young's anger. “We’ve been studying the communication stones. If an individual has used them, even just one time, there may be a way of replacing that person without their terminal being active.”

“So, what, you’re just going to yank Rush back, with no warning, against his will, if I don’t convince him to cooperate?”

“Why do you care? Are you really going to bat for him?” Telford affected surprise. “I have to say, I thought you’d be the first to come down on the side of someone finally getting him well in hand.”

“All right, so the man is a lot of work,” Young said. ‘But—“

“He’s a deceitful, manipulative little saboteur. I mean, don't get me wrong, I respect the man's—" Telford crooked his mouth, almost wry. "—Persistence. But you wouldn’t trust him to keep two chickens in a coop, much less to run a highly sophisticated Ancient starship that, in case you’ve forgotten, also happens to be our most important interstellar weapon. What, you’re going to tell me I’m wrong?” His lip curled. “Please.”

You don’t know me, David, Young thought, with an abrupt surge of resentment. He said, keeping his tone casual, “You know, I have to admit, I got pretty curious about why Rush is such a piece of work. Last time I used the stones, I did some digging. Looked into his background.”

“Did you,” Telford said. He sounded bored, but he suddenly wasn’t meeting Young’s gaze.

Now Young had the upper hand. “You know what he did before he joined the program?”

“The same thing that any of them do. Am I supposed to give a damn?”

“He was a math professor.”

“Yeah?” Telford said, challenging. “And what’s your point?”

“It just makes you wonder where he learned it all. All the lying, the fighting dirty. Where he learned to manipulate people like he does. Why he seems to think it’s necessary.” Young paused. Telford still wouldn’t meet his eyes. “The two of you were stationed on Icarus Base for a while. Together. That was a pretty lonely spot."

"For Rush? Nowhere's lonely enough. Stick the man in Antarctica and he'd probably complain it was too social."

"I just wondered if you ever got to know each other."

“Why would I get to know Rush?"

“Well," Young said, still casual, "he was a high-profile Lucian Alliance target. And you were working for them at the time— sorry, I mean under their influence. Not working for them, of course.”

Telford said softly, “I don’t think I like what you’re implying.” Now he did look at Young. His eyes were very dangerous. “You think you know Rush? What, you’ve got a soft spot for him now?”

“That’s not—“

“You don’t know the first thing goddamn thing about him. Not the first goddamn thing.”

“… But you do,” Young said. It wasn’t a question. "You know him."

They stared at each other.

The silence stretched, like a wire pulled taut between their bodies.

“I have to get back,” Telford said at last. “We’ll be expecting your report in the next twenty-four hours. When you file it, you can let us know when Rush will be using the stones.”

He’d barely switched back with Scott— the hyper-alertness fading from Scott’s body, his face turning softer, and less marked by hard intelligence— when Young’s radio went.

“Colonel Young, come in.” It was Greer.

Young’s reaction was an inappropriately powerful sense of dread. He sighed and reached for the radio. “Yeah. This is Young.”

“Sir, we have a situation in the chair room. You might want to get down here.”

“Goddamnit,” Young murmured, closing his eyes.


“Hey,” Eli was saying to Rush when Young reentered the chair room. “Give me a break. It’s not a static system, okay? It’s in some kind of dynamic equilibrium, and if I upset that, we don’t know what the consequences will—“

“I’m aware of that, Eli,” Rush snapped.

“What the hell’s going on here?” Young demanded.

Rush sighed and turned away, his hand going to the back of his neck. He was standing near the chair, clutching a pair of pliers, and looking like he was about halfway to being worked up about something. The rest of the science team was clustered in the corner of the room, staring at a monitor screen.

“So—“ Eli began, when no one else stepped in with an explanation. “We had to interrupt the power supply running from the chair to the main weapons array, but there was no way to circumvent the adaptive algorithms protecting the chair’s central programming. We had to sever the connection manually.”

“Okay,” Young said. He’d understood… most of that.

“And so when Rush got close to the chair so he could open the panel, he kind of— got trapped behind a force field?”

Young looked at Rush. Rush shrugged minutely. He was wearing an unusual look of resignation. He reached out with the pair of pliers, until— about six inches from where Young was standing— the tips of the pliers seemed to trigger a transparent golden field. When Rush withdrew the pliers, the field vanished.

“Hurts like hell when you touch it,” Rush said.

“Right,” Young said, resisting the urge to scrub a hand over his face. “Of course. Of course this is what’s happening.”

“The thing is,” Eli said hesitantly, “the force field’s getting its energy from the chair. That means the power’s coming from the central core. Which— is going to make getting it down really, really tricky.”

“But not impossible,” Young said. It came out like an order.

“Sure. Not impossible,” Eli said. He sounded less than 100% certain.

Rush didn’t say anything. Young looked at him. Rush was staring down at the deck, neck bent, face closed and weary. Young was willing to bet he had a good idea of what was going on here, or at the very least knew more than he was telling. Even now, he thought with something between anger and amazement. Even now Rush would refuse to say, would hang on to whatever goddamn cards he was holding to his chest, and still expect Young to do everything possible to save him—

Which Young would do, of course. And not just out of duty— not just because Rush was part of his crew. Not out of a need to atone, either, which was the easy explanation. He wasn’t sure if he even believed in atonement. You couldn’t cancel out the things that you’d done; It didn’t work that way. And he’d seen shit, in Somalia, and then, with the Stargate program, from the Lucian Alliance and the Goa’uld, that made him think that men were capable of damage there was no undoing. They couldn’t fix it themselves, God or Jesus or whoever couldn’t fix it; nobody else could fix it for them. But maybe that was it— that because you couldn’t undo it, you were always tied up with somebody you’d hurt; you were part of them in a way you couldn’t take back or manage. He felt like he was a part of Rush. Like Rush was a part of him. He didn’t know what to make of that. He didn’t think he had to know what to make of it. It was just something he had to live with.

“Rush,” he said, and saw Rush’s head lift a little. “Is there anything you can do from over there?”

Rush made a vague, frustrated gesture and chucked his pliers at the base of the chair. They bounced off, deflected by another force field.

“I’ll take that as a no. All right, so— let’s get somebody in from Earth. What are we thinking? Carter or McKay?”

“McKay,” Rush said. “He’s more widely conversant with Ancient systems.”

“Done.” Young nodded to Greer, who’d been waiting in the doorway. “Take Volker with you." When they'd gone, he prompted, "What else? Other options?"

Park said hesitantly, “We could try to drain shipwide power levels. Fire the weapons, increase demand. It might cut power to the field.”

Rush shook his head. “We’d almost certainly drop out of FTL long before enough power is drained to make any kind of difference. We can’t risk it, with the likelihood that we’re being pursued.”

“All right,” Young said. “What else? Brainstorm, people.”

“Uh,” Eli said, his voice trailing up in alarm. “The power flow is changing, you guys—“

“Changing how?” Rush asked quickly.

“The field harmonics are fluctuating,” Brody answered.

“What does that mean?” Young demanded.

No one answered him. Park and Brody had gathered around Eli’s computer. Only Rush spared a glance at Young.

“I’d clear the room of nonessential personnel,” he said without explanation.

“Why?” Young said. “What’s about to happen?”

“Oh, crap,” Eli said quietly.

There was an electric sound, like a power line loaded past capacity. The force field flared to life, sparking and impossibly bright, before it collapsed to contain an area that was about three foot by three foot. In other words, just enough space for Rush and the chair. Rush looked trapped; he wrapped one hand in his sleeve and brought it up to touch the force field, like he was feeling his way along the wall of a cage.

“Okay, Park, Brody— out,” Young ordered. “I’m not risking anybody else until we know what the hell is going on here. Unless somebody wants to throw out ideas?”

“It wasn’t me,” Eli said, fingers flying across his keyboard. “That’s all I can tell you. That fluctuation came from Destiny’s mainframe. And it was designed to collapse the field. It’s like it’s— and I know you’re going to hate this, but just stay with me, okay— herding him. Like, herding him towards the chair.”

“Eli.”

“I know, I know!” Eli glanced at Park and Brody. “You guys should probably go. There’s literally nothing we can do right now. Plus, the field’s visible now, so—“

“And that means what?” Young asked, trying to control his frustration.

Rush answered: “The field is stretched across a smaller area, but drawing an equal amount of energy from the core. That makes it stronger.”

Young rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “Do you want to fill me in on why this is happening?" he asked Rush. "To you, of all people?”

Rush looked at him, his face closed. “I’m sure I have no idea.”

“That’s such bullshit, Rush.”

“What, you think I planned for this to happen?” Something tense in his expression suggested that the answer was no. He hadn’t planned or wanted this. He didn’t like close quarters. Young could remember him getting edgy whenever he was pent-up and unable to move.

“No,” Young said. “But I’m pretty damn sure you know what’s going on.”

“Fuck you,” Rush spit at him, kicking the base of the chair and sending sparks from the force field flying off.

“Losing our tempers already? That was quick.”

Young turned to see Volker poking his head through the door. He frowned. “Volker?”

“Definitely not Volker,” Volker said, striding into the room with a familiar bouncing step.

“Rodney,” Rush said, casting his eyes upwards. “Thank God.”

“You look terrible, Nick,” McKay said. “Will no one lend you a razor?”

“I’ve more pressing problems at the moment, I’m afraid.”

“Just noting. Hey, Math Boy.” McKay snapped his fingers at Eli. “Laptop, please. Faster. Come on. Let’s get going.”

Eli handed his laptop over to McKay, who headed to the main console. “You know what your problem is, Colonel?” he said to Young without looking up.

“I’m sure I’m about to find out.”

“Your science team is being run by a mathematician. There’s a reason it’s not called a math team.”

“I was an engineering major,” Eli offered.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” McKay said. “Did you graduate? I believe the term major implies that you have a degree of some kind.”

Young looked at Rush, who, despite McKay’s presence, still seemed uneasy. He was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, and his arms were folded across his chest.

“I think I like you better than him,” Young said quietly to Rush, trying to defuse the situation a little.

Rush gave him a faint taut smile. “That would be a first.”

Young shrugged. “You clearly haven’t met Colonel Carter.”

“Tell me about this fluctuation,” McKay was saying to Eli. “What triggered it; what were you trying? Were you messing around with harmonic compression?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Eli said defensively. “It just happened!”

“Uh-uh. Try again. Nothing just happens in systems like these.”

“Fine. Then Destiny initiated a command to collapse the field by twenty percent.”

“No no no no no. See, what you’re obviously missing—“

A mechanical trill from Eli’s laptop cut McKay off, and some sort of chiming alarm started to sound. The two of them bent over the computer, eyes intent and unhappy.

“What’s happening?” Rush said loudly.

“That’s— why on earth would that be—“ McKay muttered to himself.

Something was happening inside the force field box. Young couldn’t quite make out what it was. Rush was looking upwards, his face strained and disbelieving. “Oh, fuck you,” he said, his voice jerking up with what sounded like panic. “Fuck you; did you have to— fuck—

At first Young didn’t understand what he was seeing. Rush’s face was damp, and sure, maybe someone else in the same situation would be crying, but that really didn’t seem like Rush. Then he realized that water was leaking from the ceiling onto the deck plates, collecting within the boundaries of the force field. The energy didn't seem to be reacting with the water. The same barriers that had kept Rush from tinkering with the base of the chair were protecting it from any kind of water-plus-electronics disaster, but nothing was protecting Rush— Rush, who was now stuck in a box rapidly filling with water, already an inch and counting, at least.

“Eli,” Rush said unevenly, “I really need you to—“

“I don’t know where it’s coming from!” Eli said. “I mean, it’s obviously being rerouted from somewhere, but we’re being locked out of a whole branch of systems, and—“

Eli,” Rush said.

Okay. Rush was not dealing with this well. Young moved forward to stand as close as possible to the force field, lining his toes up at the sparking edge, and tried to project reassurance. This was what he was supposed to be good at. This was one of those things that officers did.

“Rush. Look at me,” he said, keeping his voice low and steady. “You’re fine. You’re going to be fine. It’s not that much water.” The water was barely over the tops of Rush’s boots.

Don’t,” Rush snapped, “talk to me like I’m an idiot or an infant.” He was breathing hard, almost hyperventilating.

“That’s not what I’m doing, okay? I just want you to keep looking at me.”

Fuck you and your fucking psychology bullshit. Tell McKay to get me out of here.”

“I’m working on it!” McKay called across the room tersely. “I’m trying to cut power now. Just— hold onto your horses.”

The water had crawled up almost to Rush’s ankles. It was splashing a little every time he moved, which was a lot, because he kept flinching in short abortive bursts.

“You’re fine,” Young said again, wishing he didn’t feel so much like he was lying. Something of Rush’s panic was communicating itself to him. He swallowed roughly. ‘We’re going to get you out of here. Just—“

Rush had twisted around, and was looking at the chair with a fierce sort of calculation.

No,” Young said at once. “No way. Don’t even think about it.”

“This is not sustainable,” Rush said. He was pretty clearly trying to sound like he was not freaking out to the actual, full-on extent that he was. “This is not… a sustainable situation.”

“Give McKay a chance,” Young said. He was still trying to make his voice sound soothing, but he had a feeling that wasn’t going to fly with Rush. For starters, Rush seemed like the kind of guy who wasn’t easily soothed in general. Like— the kind of guy who always assumed he was about to get hurt. And if anyone was going to convince him otherwise, it wasn’t going to be Young, which was… fair enough, really.

“Just… hang on,” he said futilely, and raised his hand as though he could press it against the force field, or even maybe reach through and touch Rush, though Rush always hated to be touched, so maybe that was the upside of a force field, for him.

“Colonel,” Eli whispered.

The water was climbing up Rush’s legs.

Young crossed the room to where Eli and McKay, looking haggard, were still hunched over Eli’s laptop.

Before Young could even ask, McKay spoke. “This ship is fighting me,” he said, sounding so quiet and so serious that his voice was almost unrecognizable as himself. “This isn’t a protective network of interlocking algorithms preventing manipulation of the chair. This is a full-blown AI embedded in the Destiny’s CPU. Even if I could dismantle it, which– I doubt that even I could— there’s no way to predict what the consequences might be shipwide.”

“We’ve pretty much always thought that there might be something like this going on with the ship,” Eli added. “If there is, it’s probably in charge of– like, a whole lot of stuff.”

“So you can’t get him out,” Young said.

Eli looked miserably at McKay.

“No,” McKay said. “Not a chance.”

Young turned away from a second, unable to control his expression. “… Yeah. Okay,” he said.

“He might be able to get himself out, though,” McKay said thoughtfully. “If he actually sits in the chair. Assuming that it doesn’t, you know, kill him or anything.”

“Right.”

Young glanced over his shoulder. Rush’s eyes were squeezed shut. Young could see the rapid, jerky rise-and-fall of his breathing. He was trying to balance on the base of the chair, though the water was still coming up over his ankles.

He opened his eyes as Young approached. There was a second— just a second– when he couldn’t quite get a lid on his animal fear, and it was there in his expression, raw and hard to look at. Then he bent his head and raked his hair back, and by the time he looked up again, Young almost, almost couldn’t tell that there was some level at which he was screaming at the top of his lungs. If he hadn’t seen that one second he might not have known at all.

“How is—“ Rush swallowed. “How is giving McKay a chance working out?”

He knew the answer already, of course. He could probably read it in Young’s face. He was just taking the opportunity to rub it in.

“I’m sorry,” Young said.

Rush gave him a faint, shaky trace of a smile. “Oh, of course you’re sorry. I’m never going to let you live this down, you know.” He raised his voice. “And that goes double for you, McKay.”

He looked like he was barely holding it together, but he still paused and gave the chair a considering glance, as though he thought he might, at the last minute, come up with some other option. Workarounds— that was what Rush did best. There was no workaround for this, though, and after a moment, he sank into the chair. The metal restraints snapped closed at once, hard around his wrists and ankles. At the same time, the water shut off and seemed to start draining through the deck plates.

There was a long pause.

The neural bolts did not engage.

“This is new,” Rush murmured, as a panel emerged over his left shoulder and projected a grid of blue-white light over his neck and the side of his head. Only a slight tick at the at the corner of his mouth showed that he was still suppressing panic.

“It’s scanning you,” Eli said. “It just ID’d you as— well, not Ancient, which hopefully it’s not super pissed about. We’re getting your vitals, and some kind of biochemical analysis.”

“That can’t be right,” McKay said, squinting at the screen.

Rush’s eyes flicked towards him, suddenly wary.

“Oh, hang on,” Eli said. “I don’t think it’s so much analyzing something biochemically as performing an organic synthesis?”

“Eli?” Rush asked. Young couldn’t tell if he was requesting clarification, or seeking some form of reassurance.

“Um, not sure what’s going on with that yet.”

With a sudden hiss, the panel near Rush’s shoulder opened and a hydraulically powered projectile launched itself at Rush’s neck, carrying thin tubing behind it. Rush flinched hard, but didn’t make a sound.

“Rush?” Eli asked uncertainly.

“Yes yes,” Rush said. He was biting his lip. “I’m fine.”

“You’re getting some kind of salt solution.”

“Normal saline,” McKay corrected. “Hopefully it’s not a million years old and contaminated with Ancient bacteria.”

“Ugh,” Eli said.

Rush eyed them incredulously. “I want to thank you both. You’ve been so helpful.”

“Rush,” Young said, trying once more for the right note of comfort. “We’ll get you out of there. It’s going to be fine.”

“I find these unending platitudes of yours infinitely reassuring. By all means, continue. Are you also going to tell me to look at you again?”

“I’m serious,” Young said. He was. Rush seemed calmer— the water had mostly drained off by now, which probably helped— but there was something distressed about him that Young didn’t like. It triggered a sort of protective instinct.

“I know you are,” Rush said. He sounded sleepy. The fluid in the tubing that ran to his neck had changed from something clear to a pale green color.

“Rush,” Eli said sharply.

“…Eli,” Rush said, blinking at him.

“You’re getting the synthesized compound now. How do you feel?”

“ ‘m tired,” Rush said. His diction was slurred, and his eyes were barely open.

“Hey,” Eli said, snapping his fingers. “You need to stay awake. Rush.

“I’m reading delta waves on the monitor,” McKay called. “He’s out cold.”

The sudden crack of the neural interface bolts caused Young to jump. He tried to hide his unease, looking over at McKay and Eli. “What have we got?”

Eli brought up a display in midair. “Okay, so we’ve got his vitals, which are stable; we’ve got something that is pretty much like an EEG, which is showing us delta waves; this looks like sympathetic activation, which I assume is kind of like a rough gauge of pain or panic. He was really high, but he just dropped to zero, which I’m thinking is probably from the injection.”

Young rubbed his jaw, looking at the displays. He still couldn’t make much sense of them. (Rush was always bitching about how no one on the Destiny took time to learn Ancient.) He watched the graphs pulse and the foreign characters change.

“What does the ship want with him?” he murmured, half to himself.

“Well, another display just popped up,” McKay said. “Okay, let’s see…” He trailed off, peering at the screen. “I think this is a representation of the Ancient genetic code.” He pointed a rapidly progressing list of Ancient letters running across the top of the display. “And this is Rush’s.” He pointed to a second series scrolling along the bottom.

“It’s comparing them,” Eli said, sounding uncertain. “Maybe it’s trying to learn about us?”

As they watched, the characters came to a halt and a new window opened. It displayed what looked like a single progress bar.

Eli made an unhappy sound.

Young pointed to the screen. “What does that say?”

It was McKay who answered: “Percent complete.”

"What does that mean?" Young looked from one of their uncomfortable to the other. "What does that mean?"

"It wasn't comparing them," Eli whispered, looking down. "The two genetic codes. It was trying to figure out how to turn his into theirs."

Young shut his eyes.

When he opened them again, the Ancient characters were still blinking on the screen.

PERCENT COMPLETE.

PERCENT COMPLETE.

Chapter Text

 

It took seven hours for the progress bar to make its way to completion.

Young found it hard to leave the room. He suspected he wasn’t the only one. Eli stuck close to his computer, and Greer— who didn’t even like Rush, for God’s sake— kept patrolling in long, slow, restless circles, his rifle never leaving his hands. Young had called TJ in at some point, mostly to feel like he was doing something, but also so she could check out Rush’s vital stats, and she had gotten one look at Rush before settling in for the long haul. Young had to admit that Rush looked pretty grim. Or just— really small in the chair, and kind of sickly. His eyes had that bruised quality you got when you couldn’t sleep. Not that Young would know anything about that.

McKay finally left after about six hours, but he seemed determined to go out with an explosive argument.

“I might as well head back to Earth. My expertise is situationally useless,” he announced to Young. “And I don’t say that lightly, and I want to emphasize the situational part of that statement; my inability to get anything done is solely the result of your total lack of knowledge about your own computer systems. Seriously, who ignores an active, advanced, computationally expensive AI?”

“Rush,” Young said, since that was clearly the punchline.

“Um,” Eli said, looking up. “I’m pretty sure that, actually…” He trailed off.

Young shut his eyes. “Eli.”

“Look, we never triggered any defensive measures from the AI, but we have to have interacted with it. Based on what I’m looking at in the CPU, I think it sets the countdown clock and charts our course. It’s probably designed to monitor and interact with people on board, and, you know, protect the ship from crazy blue alien invaders, which, if you think about it, is kind of what happened four days ago. There’s no way that  it didn’t notice Rush cracking the code, or sitting the chair, or taking control of the ship, so…” He hesitated again. “I think we should probably consider the possibility that it was talking to Rush and he just never bothered to mention it.”

“Right,” Young said. “Of course. What was I thinking.”

It was obvious in retrospect. He remembered Rush during the battle, standing on the bridge, his head tilted, his expression abstracted, his attention focused on something that no one else could see.

“To be fair,” Eli said, “mentioning that you’re having conversations with computer programs no one else can see is maybe not that great of an idea if you’re already on the, uh, eccentric side.”

“Making excuses for him isn’t part of your mandate,” Young said shortly. He turned to McKay. “Let’s get back to you and your useless expertise.”

Situationally useless,” McKay emphasized again.

“What are you going to put in your report? You can’t tell Homeworld Command about any of this. In fact, I think it would be best if the information didn’t leave this room.”

“I assume you’re joking,” McKay said. “Your evil computer kidnaps someone and turns him into an Ancient, and you think I’m going to keep my mouth shut about that? No way.”

“Look, Homeworld Command already doesn’t like him,” Young said bluntly. “If you give them a reason to suggest he’s been compromised, it’s going to destroy his credibility.”

“Nice try.” McKay was pacing a little, getting worked up. “But I destroy people’s credibility all the time. It’s actually a specialty of mine.”

“Undermining confidence in our chief scientist could damage morale. I don’t think you understand what that means on a mission like this one. It could cost lives.

“Look,” McKay said, leveling a finger at Young. “You think I don’t know what’s going on here? Nick Rush is an arrogant asshole. I don’t really like him that much. But in the interest of arrogant assholes everywhere, I’m not going to stand by and let you use this as an excuse to get rid of him, of whatever euphemism you want to use, just because he happened to be both irritating and and modified to interface with the ship. I’m not an idiot. No one would ask questions if he happened to die while using a million-year-old Ancient interface chair, but telling everyone he’s been modified, trying to keep him from accessing critical systems— which will never work, and he’ll always find a way to get access, because he’s a brat when it comes to workarounds— and then executing him as some kind of security risk? That would raise a hell of a lot of questions. So all of this—“ McKay gestured broadly around the room— “is going in my report, and is going to be dealt with in a civilized way. Not whatever the hell you people do out here when you’re not stranding each other on deserted planets.”

The room was silent. Eli, Greer and TJ were carefully not looking at Young.

“I’m not going to kill him,” Young said. It sounded weak, even to him. But he was more concerned with— “Wait a minute. Modified to interface with the ship?

“Yeah, uh,” Eli said awkwardly. “So, I was actually going to explain this. You know how we’ve always been locked out of Destiny’s systems? Sure, we got a little more access when Rush broke the code, but there are whole parts of the ship that we still can’t get into. Physically and metaphorically. I”m pretty sure that’s not an accident. It makes sense, just from a security standpoint, that you’d only be able to take full control of the ship by having an Ancient use the interface chair. It prevents the ship from falling into the wrong hands, and it also seems like it’s integral to the way the ship is designed. Destiny’s not supposed to be like a tool or a machine. That’s not the way the Ancients thought about tech.” He was getting passionate, his hands rising to gesture in the air. “I’m not saying Ancient tech is alive or something, but— it’s just a totally different worldview. It’s like Atlantis!” He turned to McKay. “Come on, back me up here.”

McKay rolled his eyes. “All right, fine, yes, so Sheppard says it gets sad when he’s gone. I don’t know how much stock you should put in that, because he also used to name the helicopters at McMurdo. But— yes, okay, on the very simplest fundamental level, without getting into nonlinear dynamical systems and emergence, you could say that Ancient technology is designed to be minimally sentient. It wants a biochemically compatible operator to interact with it.”

“… And now it’s got one,” Eli said. “So that’s good! It’s really good! I mean, assuming that he survives this. He’ll bond with the ship, and maybe, you know, he’ll be nicer, because now he’ll have a friend, and the ship’ll have a friend, and it’ll be… good times for everyone.” His expression was uneasy.

Young scrubbed at his face. Right. Good times. “There’s another complication,” he said. “Which I hesitate to mention, because it absolutely cannot leave this room. Earlier, when I was talking to David Telford, he told me that Homeworld Command is working on a way of pulling people’s consciousnesses back to Earth, regardless of whether they’re using the communication stones. As in: against their will. Guess who their number one pick is.”

“Carter pulled the plug on that project,” McKay said, shaking his head. “As soon as she was put in command of the resupply mission. She would never—

“Telford says otherwise. My guess is someone went behind Carter’s back. And if Atlantis gets sad when Sheppard goes on vacation, imagine what’s going to happen if Rush is all buddy-buddy with the ship and Homeworld Command decides to yank him out of his body?”

“…Yikes,” Eli said.

McKay was still focused on the political machinations. “I just bet that’s Bill Lee’s big secret project. He won’t shut up about it. But if Carter doesn’t know, then who are they even going to switch with Rush?”

“I’ll give you one guess,” Young said flatly.

“Telford.” McKay made a disgusted noise. “There is something wrong with that guy.”

“If he finds out about this, he’s not going to be able to resist messing with it,” Young pointed out. “If anything, it’s going to make him more determined to pull Rush out. Look— I’m not thrilled about lying to Homeworld Command, but you’ve got to see that this is one hell of an explosive situation. The last thing you want to do is throw more fuel on the fire.”

McKay hesitated. “I want to do what’s best for Nick,” he said. “If I redact my report, you’re going to need to prove it was the right choice. Get Math Boy here to stay in touch, so I know that everyone’s still, you know, unexecuted.”

“I already said I wasn’t going to kill him,” Young said, exasperated.

“Right. Uh-huh.” McKay looked skeptical. “Let’s just make sure there aren’t any little slip-ups.”

“Fine.” Young waved exhaustedly at Greer to take McKay back to the communications stones.

“Always a pleasure to visit such a delightful workplace environment,” McKay said snottily as he left.

Young dropped his head, massaging his neck in a way that made him think forcefully of Rush. He wished he’d gotten more sleep. He wished he’d gotten ten years of sleep. On the Destiny, he mostly felt like it just never stopped. Whatever it was.

“So,” Eli said after a long pause. “I didn’t want to bring this up when McKay was here, but there is one tiny problem with the Atlantis analogy.”

Young made a gesture not dissimilar to the one he might have given someone in a fight. Go ahead; I’m ready for it; bring it on.

“The people who work with the tech on Atlantis have, like, one or two Ancient genes. I think Sheppard’s got two, but the gene therapy they do over there is just changing one. This is like… a lot of genes. As in, thousands. Based on what the computer's saying, I think he’s going to end up more than sixty percent Ancient, if you can even really quantify that kind of thing.”

Young covered his face.

There was a silence.

“I’m really hoping he gets nicer,” Eli said.


Young had thought, for no real reason, that when the ship was done “modifying” Rush— a word he hated, especially after hearing it thrown around so much during the past seven hours, since it made him think of someone rewriting a computer program, not making changes to someone’s real, warm, actual, human flesh— it would sound an alarm or something, or Rush would just open his eyes. But nothing that drastic happened.

Instead, as the seventh hour ended, Eli said quietly, "It's almost done."

A light on the monitor screen began blinking, calling attention to itself, as though they somehow might have forgotten, any of them, what was happening in the chair.

"—Here we go," Eli said, as the displays begin to flicker: heart rate rising, some other measurement falling, jumpy bursts of overlapping blue-colored lines. 

"TJ?" Young said uneasily.

TJ frowned at the screen. “I don’t love his vitals.”

“The neural interface is charging,” Eli said. “I’m guessing this is the part where it gets dicey.”

Young looked at him incredulously. “As opposed to the rest of it, which’s been a walk in the park?”

The mechanical hum of the chair, which set Young’s teeth on edge, built into something that sounded sawing and violent.

“It looks like he’s entering REM sleep,” TJ said. “The EEG is showing mixed frequencies with sawtooth bursts. But this is— really intense. His body can’t take it for long.”

“Whatever it’s doing, it’s not dumping information,” Eli said. “Which is— good? That’s good? The transfer’s actually going in the opposite direction. Like it’s getting information from him. Um— in a voluntary or involuntary way, I guess.”

Young closed his eyes. “Jesus. That’s just perfect.

“Relax; who’s it going to leak it to, the Lucian Alliance? God, you are so military.”

Eli,” Young said, clenching his teeth. He suspected that Eli felt, as he did, almost nauseated with tension, and unable to in any way discharge it. That was one of the horrors of command, and maybe, he guessed, one of the horrors of science. Both involved watching things unfold from a distance.

“There’s some kind of countdown happening,” Eli said rapidly. “Okay, okay, this is— uh, guys, whatever this is is about to—“

There was that weird, sickening, pitching-floor sense that accompanied a drop out of FTL.

The lights died abruptly, and the vibrations shut off in the deck under their feet.

Young could hear him own breathing in the sudden dark of the room. He was astonished by the ragged sound.

“We just lost power shipwide,” Eli said. The light from his laptop screen made him look oddly ghostly. “Or— actually, we’ve got emergency power in here, but everywhere else is—“

Young’s radio crackled, loud in the silence. “Colonel Young, this is Brody.”

Young grabbed it. “Go ahead?”

“We’ve got massive power failures all over Destiny— life support, weapons, shields, sensors, sublight engines; we’re dead in the water.”

Young met Eli’s eyes over the radio. “Is Rush doing this?”

“I mean, I’m relatively sure he’s not doing it on purpose, but there’s no way this is not related.”

“We have to have sensors and shields.” Young paced close to where the chair was still surrounded by the occasional glimmer of the force field, bright and unnerving in the darkness. It was hard for him to see Rush's face. “Is there any way we can communicate with him? We are fucked if we can’t get—“

“I know!” Eli almost shouted. “I know we are, okay?”

“Then give me something that I can—“

Abruptly, the lights flared to full strength above them, so bright that it was actually painful. The sublight engines began to grind under the deck plating. The radio was crackling, and an alarm was chiming worryingly from somewhere nearby, and then another at a subtly different pitch, and a third, and what sounded like a speaker system was broadcasting a high-pitched piercing whine of static that was jumbled with bursts of incoherent musical noise.

For a long and overwhelming second, Young couldn’t make sense out of any of what he heard. He managed to isolate Brody’s voice on the radio for a moment: “systems activating— everything— power— know— most of this stuff is—”

There were voices talking over each through the static. It was like overhearing a cocktail party from very far away or behind a wall. You wanted to understand what people were saying, but you couldn’t get any closer, and too many of the words got lost.

Gradually the noise began to fade, and resolved itself into the sound of a solitary piano.

“What is that?” Eli asked hesitantly, looking up at the ceiling.

They listened to the music without speaking.

“That’s Rush,” Greer said quietly from the corner. “Doing his thing.”


It didn’t take Eli long to determine that not only had they gotten full power back, but they had access to almost everything. “Internal sensors, intercom system, research labs, plus the entire ship database. Everything’s unlocked. Shields and weapons are at one hundred percent, the main weapon is back online, we’ve got backup power generators all over the place, and… yup, here we go, we should be jumping back to FTL…”

He looked expectantly upwards.

Sure enough, there was the disorienting jerk.

“So this is good,” Young said, steadying himself against a monitor.

“Are you kidding? This is awesome.” Eli was paging through data almost faster than he seemed able to keep up with. He didn’t look like he noticed when the music cut off, or when the bright edges of the force field around the chair disintegrated. When an alarm chimed softly, however, and the midair displays changed from orange to blue, he looked up— just in time to see a panel on the back of the chair open and extrude some kind of touchscreen interface.

“Oh. Hey!” Eli said, and made a beeline for it.

Young had to catch him by the neck of his t-shirt. “Whoa, there,” he said. “Not so fast.”

“I’m just going to look, okay? No touching.” Eli held his hands up, looking affronted.

They looked. The screen showed the outline of a human hand— or, well, Ancient, which freaked Young out a little bit. He was a simple guy. He liked being able to see differences. The idea that you could look at a hand and not be able to tell, by that one look alone, if it was like you, or if it was a million years’ worth of different, a million years and however many genes Eli had said, which made it— look, he liked John Sheppard fine, better than fine; he'd missed the guy when he was off in Pegasus and Young had still been stationed back on Earth. But one time he’d been on a mission with Sheppard to some place where there was an Ancient temple or whatever, with one of those magical devices that, when Sheppard got close, would light up and start humming to itself, almost like a cat purring. Sheppard had kind of run his hand across it, which only strengthened the impression, because that was exactly what you’d do to a pet, and Young had asked him, just kind of idly, trying to get a conversation going, “So how old is this place, anyway?” and Sheppard had stared out at where the sea was eroding the steps of the temple. “Old,” he’d said. But there’d been this look on his face when he said it that Young still couldn’t describe, except to say that it had given him chills, because he’d thought to himself, I don’t know this man at all. Even though he did know Sheppard, had known him for years. That was the kind of look that Sheppard had had.

And that was two genes.

“Okay,” Eli said. He’d been peering at the Ancient text on the touchscreen. “So this is supposed to— hmm. It’s how we’re supposed to get him out of the chair. But I guess in order to do that, you have to go into the interface? Like— I’m presuming he can’t separate himself from the CPU, so someone else has to do it. It looks like you have to connect to him mentally somehow, which— fun times. I’m sure his brain is totally normal.”

“Is there anything about this in the database?” Young asked.

“I can check. It might take a while.”

“TJ, are we good to leave him like this?” He looked over at her.

“I mean,” TJ said. “It’s obviously not ideal. But he’s stable right now, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Young nodded at Eli. “See what you can find. I’m going to check in with Brody and make sure the power situation’s normal.”

He was headed towards the bridge, finally allowing himself to lean heavily on his uninjured leg and wondering how much he’d worry TJ if he asked her for codeine, when the sound of his own name stopped him.

“Everett.”

The voice was familiar. It was also supposed to be on the other side of the universe. (He could almost hear Rush disdainfully telling him that the universe didn’t have sides.) Not only that, but it was more than enough of a coincidence for him to find the whole thing eerie. Like eerie eerie. The hair stood up on the back of his neck.

He turned slowly and looked at something that was wearing the body of John Sheppard. It was a good imitation, down to his jacket’s Atlantis insignia. With his hair just a little too long and his uniform just a little too rumpled, he could have been heading out of Cheyenne Mountain right after setting some general’s teeth on edge.

“Shep,” Young said. “Although— that’s not really who you are, is it?”

“Very perceptive,” the thing that wasn’t Sheppard said. “Although you must admit that it’s not exactly ‘rocket science.’”

Young could practically hear the quotations around the words. He winced. Sheppard didn’t talk like that; he talked like— like a human.

“Do you not appreciate my mastery of human colloquialisms?” not-Sheppard asked.

“Mastery’s a little strong.” Young kept his voice steady. “You must be the Destiny.”

“I am the AI at the center of Destiny’s mainframe.”

“Nice to finally meet you,” Young said. He was pretty sure he wanted to stay this thing’s good side. Eli had seemed to think it was essential to the running of the ship. But he wasn’t feeling that kindly inclined towards it, truth be told. Even if hadn’t apparently reached into his head without asking and helped itself to John Sheppard’s likeness, he would just have been thinking about that goddamn force field box and the way it had slowly filled up with water. “I assume you’re here to talk about Rush?”

“He is important to me. He is needed.”

“Just a tip: try sending a card next time. It tends to go over better than making someone relive their own torture.”

The AI didn’t appear to understand. It frowned at him, a strangely un-Sheppard-like expression. “He is needed,” it said again. “But he also needs someone. He cannot be alone. The ship will pull him in.”

Young felt his eye twitch. He resisted the urge to let his frustration take over. Thank you for that very fucking cryptic explanation, he wanted to snap. Instead, he said carefully, “That’s, uh, not as clear as you seem to think it is. I could use a little more context. You’re talking about the interface? Getting him out of the CPU?”

It looked dissatisfied. “Your expressive ability is very limited. I cannot tell whether you understand the concept.”

“Let’s assume I don’t,” Young said. “Limited expressive ability, that’s me all over. Maybe break it down for me in very small words.”

It raked a hand through its spiky hair, which was just such a Sheppard motion that for a moment an intense wave of cognitive dissonance hit. But then it spoke in that stilted and semi-disdainful manner. “Your language does not have the correct frequentative form. Someone must get him out of the CPU. Yes. Now and— from now on. He is no longer separate. He is a part of Destiny. He will not leave this ship again.”

“Well, that’s just perfect,” Young snapped before he could control his reaction. He turned away for a minute, clenching his fists. When he was sure his tone would be level again, he said, “You said the ship will pull him in. What does that mean?”

“Destiny does not want to be alone. It will demand his attention. But it is too large for a person’s mind. He will get lost in it. This is why he must have a counter. A—“ It tilted its head. “An anchor. Someone who will keep watch over him.

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes,” Young murmured.

The AI looked pleased. “Custos. Coistos. Yes. That word is appropriate. You might describe this person’s role as a custodian.”

“And what Eli said about connecting to Rush’s brain? Is that also part of this whole deal? The— what did you call it, frequentative form?”

So much for the pleasure. Now it just looked disappointed, as though he’d failed some unbelievably simple test. Sheppard never looked like that, even though he had to be thinking it sometimes, since the guy was some kind of secret genius, or so Young had heard— Sheppard never really talked about it; he let you feel like the two of you were on the same level. Maybe he was just good at hiding what he was feeling. Better than the AI.

Although the AI didn’t really feel anything, Young reminded himself.

It just seemed like it was judging him. “Such a role cannot be performed without a neural connection,” it said, as though this obvious conclusion shouldn’t need to be stated.

“I’m sure people are going to be jumping all over themselves for that chance,” Young muttered. Fun times, Eli had said.

The AI eyed him coldly. “I would suggest that you choose someone who cares if he lives or dies, as it is relevant to your own survival. It will need to be someone who is a match for him in force of will.”

No one’s a match for him,” Young said. “The man is a maniac.”

It looked away abruptly. “He is not like the rest of you,” it said. It sounded— Young didn’t know what to make of how it sounded. It seemed more like Sheppard suddenly than it had since it started talking, in some really complicated, almost sad way that he didn’t understand.

“Is that why you picked him?” he asked.

But it had vanished without warning. He was standing alone in the corridor, talking to air.


Young ended up checking in with Brody via radio on his way back to the chair room. He didn’t trust himself to go the bridge; he had a feeling he’d only come across as distracted. He was distracted. He was facing a choice he didn’t want to make. God, couldn’t he even get an hour to enjoy the fact that the ship, according to Brody, was apparently doing what it was supposed to? That they didn’t have to worry about life support failures or having no weapons or not being able to plot their own course? No; instead he had to figure out what to do about Rush, and who was going to hold his mental leash, which Rush was going to hate no matter who it was. And man could Rush hate, when he really put his mind to it. In Wyoming they would’ve said that he was twenty pounds of temper in a ten-pound guy.

Not a lot of people cared if he lived or died, either. At least beyond the practical ramifications. Chloe, for sure— she and Rush seemed to have developed some kind of strange, fragile, math-genius connection, and Rush probably even listened to her and gave a fuck about what she had to say. But Young wasn’t letting Chloe get anywhere near this mess. Eli— Eli liked Rush, Young thought, even if he’d never say so. But Eli also regularly let Rush walk all over him, and that didn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. TJ would volunteer, and she was gentle enough to maybe just about pull it off. But she’d been through so much already, and he just— wanted to spare her. Maybe that made him a bad person, or a bad officer, or maybe that’s why they should never have served together, because his instinct was always to give her a chance to be happy, even it meant the weaker command choice.

Who else was even possible? Camile Wray? She was such a consummate politician; it was hard to know what she really thought about Rush.

Really, all of this was just stalling— buying a couple of minutes to let his body acclimate to the knowledge of what he was going to do. He’d known; he’d known when he was talking to the thing-that-wasn’t-Sheppard; he’d known, he thought, from when he’d said, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

He thought he'd known even before then. It was a big knowledge, something tangled up with Sheppard, and with the past night’s dream, and maybe with the struggle on the bridge, and the way he hadn’t held on to Rush, and now Rush was in this situation, even if it was really Rush’s fault, because he’d fought dirty, like always, and kicked Young in the ribs, and lied, and maybe he’d wanted this, like any escape artist wants a good box; but at the same something more than all of that, too. He didn't know the right words for it yet. He didn't know if he'd ever know what it was, what it meant. They'd never be done, Rush had said. They were, Young thought, bound to one another.


Eli looked up as Young reentered the chair room. “Wow, that was an hour?”

“No,” Young said shortly. “But I want to hear what you’ve found out.”

“Um, some. Not a whole lot. I was pretty much on point earlier. Rush is definitely connected to the ship now, like in an Ancient cyborg-y tech way; I guess that’s a pretty standard thing, because there’s a word for it, coirator, which is kind of like— I guess curator? But not exactly. The thing with the interface is a little more complicated. He seems to need like a sidekick or partner? Someone who can, like, remind him to be a human, so he eats and sleeps and does all the stuff that ships don’t do.”

“Rush already doesn’t do that stuff,” Greer remarked from the corner.

Eli laughed nervously. “Yeah, but here’s the thing, I think that whoever’s supposed to be his sidekick—“

“Please don’t say sidekick,” Young said.

“—is, like, connected to him? Also I n an Ancient cyborg-y tech way? Um. Like. Permanently.”

Young sighed. “That’s pretty much what the AI just told me.”

“You talked to the AI?” Eli looked inappropriately excited. “What did it say? What did it look like? Would it talk to me? Wait— it speaks English? Did it learn English from Rush? Did it, like, absorb Rush’s mind?”

Eli.” Young rubbed his temple. “We talked. It wasn’t what I would describe as informative. But I’m pretty much clear on what I have to do.”

There was a brief silence.

You?” TJ said, as Eli said, “Uh, is this the AI’s advice? Because it seems kind of—“

Greer said bluntly, “He’s going to kick your ass. Sir.”

Young fixed him with a stern look. “Have a little faith, Sergeant. I’m a colonel in the United States Air Force. He’s a mathematician who weighs a hundred pounds soaking wet.”

“Right,” Greer said skeptically.

“Just—“ Young  was aware that he was talking to all of them now. “Have a little faith. No one’s going to be happy about this, but we’re going to make do. Right?”

He caught TJ’s eye. She was looking at him with a curious, perceptive expression: a little wary, a little searching, but not as concerned as he’d had cause to expect.

“I know what I’m doing,” he said, though he didn’t, really. “Just— if anything goes wrong. Which it’s not going to. But if it does— follow orders from Scott.”

He stepped up to the interface. It was exactly as he’d left it: lit with the outline of a hand, which now struck him as a little bit ghostly. Had anyone else ever put their hand here? Some Ancient a million years ago, programming the equipment? Was he standing, right now, in the exact space where that man had stood? It was an oddly comforting thought. One of the things he’d learned in the Air Force was that when you did dangerous things, you didn’t want to be alone. Another thing he’d learned was how often you ended up alone anyways, in one way or another. It was harder than it looked. It was the hardest thing in the world to not be alone.

He pressed his hand to the panel.

He was aware of his taut breathing.

Then he was

not

himself

and he was

not

here

and he was

not in his body but rather one minor electric manifestation amongst the slow vast pulsing circuits of a larger world, but wait that world is fast in some ways places that he cannot process and he cannot look at it, it makes his head ache, it is not meant for him and in fact it’s monstrous, a big dark alien thing that shrieks and whistles and groans and hums weird atonal music and his impulse is to recoil from it, because he does not like it, because he is not like it, except he sees the shape of Rush’s consciousness there: the bright twitching wires of human neural patterns, so small and so marked-out against the spread of the ship, and he is supposed to do something with those wires, unknot their little tangled branches, which he must be able to do though in his hands (he has no hands) they are as fine as bird’s bones and he is so afraid that he will break one of them, but they do not break, and how could he break them when they are his own neural patterns, when they are his own bones and he is the bird and he is something held alive and flinching in the hands of something dark that has no hands that hurls him upwards and he is

gasping

staggering

bracing himself against the chair.

“Are you all right?” That was TJ. That was— she was— touching his arm which he did not like— she— he hurt and he was dizzy almost to the point of nausea and something was terribly terribly wrong in his head where everything was bursting in swelled-up colors and there was so much noise and—

“Dr. Rush?” TJ said.

“TJ,” Young managed. “Move.”

He touched Rush urgently and found some relief through the touching. Then he was lifting Rush out of the chair, aware of pain that was not his or maybe his but it did not matter; he needed to be away from that darkness that had picked him up and spat him out.

“Put him down!” TJ said. “I think he’s bleeding.”

Young lowered Rush to the floor, wincing as his knee almost refused to complete the motion. TJ knelt beside him, tearing the worn cloth of Rush’s shirt away. Rush’s forearms were— something had happened to them. At best guess, a metal bolt of some kind had cut through the muscle and soft tissue on both sides, several inches above the wrists. TJ was rapidly disinfecting and wrapping the wounds, which were Young’s wounds and not Young’s wounds because blood was not coming out of him, it was his knee that was aching, not his forearms, but at the same time he was sure that TJ’s hands were on him, making him lie still, making him hurt.

“Dr. Rush?” TJ tried again.

Rush was— conscious, or he was conscious in Young, or Young was conscious in him; he was trying to focus on TJ, the blonde aureole of her hair, faintly blurry, which he did not like—

“I think he’s still kind of drugged,” Young said with difficulty.

“Can you talk to me?” TJ asked Rush. She was shining a penlight in his eyes.

Young flinched back from the light.

“I need you to talk to me.”

He was trying to talk, and he did not know why the words weren’t emerging. He was trying— he dragged up a breath and—

Cubi essom?” Rush whispered, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to curl onto his side. “En Lantead, aute nauim iunievamos? Ne memonaisse potissum—“ He brought his hands to his head.

Ancient. He was speaking Ancient. He was thinking it, too, Young realized— thinking in the actual words, which Young couldn’t understand, though he was subject to huge frantic waves of panic and confusion, intermingled with floods of memory that made no sense. Maps of galaxies and a fountain in an Ancient courtyard, blue fish swimming under the silver water, someone playing the violin; a sense of fever and a musical fugue that didn’t sound human; Atlantis clouded by seabirds, and the window of a church—

“Eli, can you understand what he’s saying?” he asked, trying to get ahold of Rush’s hands before Rush could hurt himself.

“Um—“ Eli said. “He’s got kind of a strong accent. I don’t think he knows where he is? He wanted to know if he was in Atlantis.”

Neum,” Rush said. “Scio ute tempos praeteresad, at multua— nimia— nimia indeicia sent—“

“He says he knows that was a long time ago, I guess, but— something about too much information. Tu, um, en Fatod est,” he said to Rush. “Scies, en nauid Fatos?”

Young didn’t hear the answer; TJ had moved on to Rush’s feet, and her first reaction was to make a noise very much like the one that Young had to swallow when she tried to remove Rush’s left boot.

“More bolts,” Young said tightly.

“Yeah,” she said. “This is… not good, Everett.”

She almost never called him by his name. He wanted to meet her eyes, but she was trying to take Rush’s right boot off, and he had to clench his hands into fists and look away.

Tegei dolhes?” Eli asked Rush, touching his shoulder.

Me genwei dolhet,” Rush said vaguely. His eyes had gone unfocused.

Young looked at Eli, waiting for a translation.

Eli’s face was closed and troubled. “I asked him if anything hurt,” he said. “He said his knee. But I’m guessing it’s actually your knee that's hurting him?”

Chapter Text

 

Young lay on a gurney in the Destiny’s infirmary, elevating his wounded leg on a stack of towels. TJ had ended up giving him two of her few remaining tablets of codeine, which were giving the world a warm halation. He hadn’t told her that he needed the pills more for Rush’s injuries than his own. He didn’t want to worry her, and he had a feeling she’d be pretty damn worried if he tried to explain how the link with Rush was making him feel. Which was—

Well. Physically, the pain in Rush’s wrists and feet had receded to a constant dull ache. But mentally, it was like the floorboards of his mind had been pried up, and what lay underneath them was not the solidity of earth, as he’d always supposed, but the kind of cavernous space that housed its own ecosystem. Like the caves that people found in Mexico or China, with underwater lakes and animal species of their own. He could go down into the cave, but he wasn’t sure that was the best course of action. At the same time, it felt like he sort of was in the cave, or at least aware of what was going inside it. He knew the weather systems; he got flashes of geography, faint images, and echoes of text.

Rush was unconscious on another gurney right now, as he’d been for almost five hours— ever since TJ had sedated him. That had been for the best, not only because Rush had been distressing himself to the point of injury, confused and scared and determined to stand up, but because it had given Young a chance to get used to the strange experience of Rush’s presence. He’d thought of the floorboard analogy (or was it a metaphor— he could never keep the two things straight) because he kept feeling like the ground had dropped out from under him. He would let himself get absentminded— thinking about why the AI had looked like Sheppard, trying to figure out what he was going to tell Camile Wray— and then lurch in panic when he was suddenly reminded of the whole vast alien landscape on which his thoughts seemed like only the thinnest crust.

He was sure he’d get used to it.

It was just— strange. The was the only word.

He couldn’t think about it. He got anxious when he thought about it too much.

He’d been waiting for Rush to wake up for while now, ever since TJ’s shift had finally ended. (She’d been really reluctant to go, but he’d said, “C’mon, we’ve got the radios for a reason. I’ll let you know if we run into problems. Go get some rest.”) He hadn’t wanted her to be there when the two of them had it out over whatever it was they were going to have it out over. Mostly, the fact that Young had mindmelded the two of them together without Rush’s consent, Young guessed. He was hoping the ship would take some of the blame, considering that what it had done was a hell of a lot more invasive, but somehow he wasn’t sure Rush was going to see it that way.

Maybe it was going to be a nice, quiet, rational conversation. But he didn’t think he’d ever actually had one of those with Rush. So— better to get it out of the way now, with all its histrionics, and then move on.

He tried sort of pushing at the place that he thought of as the floor of his consciousness, where the bright order of his mental house turned to cave. On the other side of the room Rush frowned a little and twitched, but he didn’t wake.

Young effortfully shifted his leg off the stack of towels and climbed off of his gurney, wincing. The codeine didn’t really do much for his knee. At least it made him reasonably calm in a way that was probably going to be useful.

He crossed the room to where Rush lay, now once more unmoving. He wasn’t really sure how this was going to go, but he went ahead and put his hand on Rush’s shoulder, gently shaking him a little.

“Hey,” he said softly. “Rush.”

“No,” Rush said distinctly, but didn’t seem to wake. It figured that his default setting was contrary, even when he was unconscious.

“Yes,” Young said. “C’mon, wake up.” At least Rush seemed to be speaking English? Young mentally prodded at him again.

Then the world tilted, as he was hit by the sense that he was waking up while already awake, which was just— a little much, like having a ghost body attached to his body, just a tiny bit to the left of him, or underneath him, like the cave.

“What the fuck,” Rush mumbled.

So: definitely speaking English.

Rush squinted up at Young, half-covering his eyes. He looked— confused.

As his brain seemed to slowly come online, the awareness of him that had shivered around the edges of Young’s consciousness for hours dialed itself abruptly up. Before, Young had gotten a vague sense of, for lack of better words, Rush’s geography and weather. Now the weather was rapidly becoming a tropical storm, and he’d lived in Florida, so he knew from tropical storms, and this was one hell of an unstable field of PANIC with sharp winds of INCOMPREHENSION whipping through an atmosphere of PAIN and UNREST, coiling in on themselves in some cyclonic mass of DISTRESS that seemed almost as unstoppable as actual meteorological forces.

“Whoa,” Young said, keeping his hand on Rush’s shoulder. “Let’s just—“

It was hard for him to understand what Rush was thinking, especially over the shrieking of what Rush felt; all the actual thoughts seemed to be happening in too many dimensions, made up of ultrafast and nonlinear linkages that Young couldn’t follow or even parse. At the same time, those uninterpretable thoughts were pretty distracting, so he didn’t blame himself for not seeing what was coming before Rush reared back and punched him right in the face.

“What the fuck,” Young said, his hand going to his cheekbone.

Rush was scrambling off the gurney.

“Rush—“ Young began. “I wouldn’t—“

But Rush ignored him. His bare and heavily bandaged feet hit the floor. This had roughly the same effect as a nuclear bomb detonating in his nerve endings. A shock wave of pain rolled through them both, flattening temporarily flattening all cognitive functions.

“Jesus Christ,” Young said, leaning against the gurney. He wondered for a second if he was going to throw up.

Rush, who had collapsed to the deck, seemed to be dealing with the same uncertainty. At least he wasn’t panicking anymore.

When he could breathe again without feeling like he was being knifed from the feet upwards, Young said, “Yeah, so you’ve got a couple of broken metatarsals there, genius.”

“I can hear you in my head.” Rush said, slightly muffled by the hand he’d pressed against his mouth.

“Right. The first thing just  seemed more pressing, somehow.” He thought about offering Rush a hand, but he didn’t think that was going to accomplish a whole lot. Instead he slid down to sit beside Rush on the deck. “You okay there? TJ has you on some painkillers. I know it doesn’t feel like it.”

Why can I hear you in my head?"

Young could tell that Rush was trying to answer his own question, struggling to wrestle a mass of raw and disordered memories into a narrative that would make sense. Here and there an image emerged in a way that was comprehensible to Young— the bluish dark of the control interface room; a burst of mathematics; a soft-faced woman with a mass of untidy fair hair; Young pinning him to the deck, hand hard against his ankle; the glow of circuitry; Young saying, This is not a negotiation. Rush seemed to settle rather uncertainly on the last: the conversation they’d had at breakfast, before beginning work in the chair room.

“That was sixteen hours ago,” Young said, not bothering to wait for Rush to verbalize the memory. “You don’t remember anything else?”

Rush’s mouth tightened. He didn’t answer.

“You don’t remember sitting in the interface chair?”

“I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have chosen to do any such thing.”

“You didn’t really have a choice,” Young said. Hesitantly, he tried focusing on his own memories: Rush up to his ankles in water behind the sparking gold wall of the force field; McKay saying in a low voice, Not a chance; the chair’s restraints locking around Rush’s wrists and ankles. He wasn’t sure whether Rush could see or understand any of this. And then—

Rush was in his head, an active force that was more like a whirlwind than anything else, wrecking its way through the orderly house of Young’s cognitive structures, ripping those bricks of memory out of their respective walls and turning them inside out in a search for their atomic components. Young’s instinct was to panic and shove Rush back; Rush shouldn’t be here, Rush didn’t belong here, Rush was going to bring the house down. He could feel his own panic bleeding over into Rush, seeding another cyclone of emotion, which only made Rush tear into him more frantically.

On instinct, Young found the place that he thought of as his floorboards, or the place where his floorboards should have been, and sort of— crammed Rush back down there, as though he could slam a door over it, or maybe as though he could cover it with a heavy curtain or a tarp.

He breathed. He was alone with himself. He knew that Rush was still there, somewhere, underneath him, but he didn’t have to feel him anymore.

Rush pushed himself up and flinched violently away from Young, his hands at his temples. “What did you—“

“Sorry,” Young said. “But you need to stay out of there.”

“Don’t be fucking sorry. I’ve been trying to block you out since I regained consciousness.” In spite of this, he didn’t look too great. He’d shifted to lean his back against the infirmary wall, and his face had gone sallow.

Young eyed him doubtfully. “…Fair enough, I guess. Did you actually get anything from that?”

Rush shook his head, then looked like he regretted the motion. “A force field. Water.”

“Yeah. The ship kind of spooked you to get you into the chair. There was nothing we could do. Apparently it wants a human operator? Needs a human operator, maybe. Um— not human. That’s the other part.” He hesitated. He hadn’t even actually considered how Rush might feel about finding out the rest of this stuff. Maybe that had been self-obsessed of him.

“Go on,” Rush said slowly, narrowing his eyes.

“It needs an Ancient operator. So it did the next best thing, and kind of… genetically modified you so you could interface with it.”

Rush didn’t really seem to react to that, which Young found a little worrying. “I see. And how extensive are these modifications?”

“According to Eli, you’re about sixty percent Ancient.”

Once again, Rush failed to respond. He was staring at the deck, idly toying with the torn ends of his shirtsleeves.

“Really?” Young said. “No shock? No horror? Nothing at all?”

Rush ignored him. “Did the Ancients have some previously undocumented telepathic power?”

“What? Oh— uh, no. That’s— apparently now that you’re hooked up to the Destiny, you need someone to keep an eye on you. Not in a suspicious way,” he hastened to add.

“No,” Rush murmured, raising an ironic eyebrow. “Of course not.”

“Look, this is the way the Ancients did it, I guess.” He shrugged. “One person mindmelds with the ship, and someone else has to mindmeld with that person, so they don’t get lost in the CPU.”

“And this person had to be you,” Rush said. His tone was suspiciously devoid of emotion.

Young felt a defensive flare of anger. “Yeah,” he said. “The way things worked out— it did.”

Rush nodded. His face was still closed. “Thank you,” he said. “For the explanation.”

“You can talk to Eli about it later,” Young said awkwardly. He couldn’t tell if Rush was being sincere, or if that had been a very subtle insult that Young hadn’t picked up on. “He can tell you about it in a lot more detail. He’s got access to the whole database now. Everything in the ship unlocked.”

“I know,” Rush said. “I can tell.”

He didn’t offer any more information. Young didn’t ask him for any.

They sat in silence for a while.

Abruptly Young stood, walked over to Rush, and held his hand out. “Come on,” he said.

Rush looked up at him, expressionless. For a long moment he didn’t move. Then, reluctantly, he reached up and let Young pull him to his feet, both of them staggering under the shock of their separate injuries. It was already odd, Young thought, not to feel Rush’s pain. But he didn’t know if he could have gotten Rush back to the gurney without the mental block. It was a lot for him to manage with just the ache in his knee.

“Do you need anything?” he asked Rush when Rush seemed to be settled.

“No,” Rush said shortly. He stared fixedly at the wall, hugging his arms to his chest.

Young sighed. He went and filled a cup with water, then grabbed an extra blanket from the stack that was folded on a chair. He pitched the blanket at Rush— who caught it, startled— and set the cup of water within reach. “You’re a lot of work,” he said. “You know that, right?”

“It’s been mentioned.”

“I’ve got to go call TJ and tell her you’re awake.”

“Wait.”

Young paused.

“Does she know? About this?” Rush gestured briefly between them in a way that was both minimalist and expressive.

“Yeah, she knows. Her, Eli, and Greer were all there. I kind of figured that otherwise we’d keep it under wraps.”

Rush had averted his gaze from Young. “Do you suppose we can just… leave it blocked?”

Young studied him. Rush still looked pretty unsteady. Young wasn’t sure what had happened when he’d first put up the block, but he thought that it hadn’t been great for Rush. Of course, Rush being Rush, it was impossible to just point-blank ask him. He’d probably have to practically torture Rush to find out if he was in pain. Which seemed like kind of a circular strategy, so he picked a different one. “I think we’re both tired,” he said carefully, “and maybe we shouldn’t mess with it too much.”

Rush nodded without saying anything.

Young carefully peeled the block back. At once he could feel Rush’s weather— fragile, cloudy, and remote— and the gnawing, spiking pain in his feet. It didn’t disorientate him as much as it had. He didn’t feel that sense of vertiginous lurching. Rush definitely seemed more comfortable with the block down, too; something in his face untightened, like he was finally breathing.

Young grabbed his radio. “Hey, TJ? You still up?”

“Yes.” She picked up immediately, but the tone of her voice told him that she had been sleeping.

Rush gave Young a faintly amused look at that thought.

“Oh, what?” Young said to him. He could tell that Rush had picked up on his affair with TJ, and that it was news to Rush. “If you weren’t in on that piece of gossip, you need more friends.” To TJ, he said, “Rush is awake.” Boy, was he.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” TJ said.

Young clicked the radio off and tried to practice thinking of nothing— definitely not TJ’s voice when she was just waking up, or the way she looked with her hair spread out against a pillow, or the feel of that hair under his fingers. Nothing, he thought. Nothing.

“It won’t work,” Rush said. “Thinking of nothing. It never does. You should focus on something innocuous instead.”

“What, you’re giving me advice now?” He voice came out sharper than he intended. He always told himself he was over TJ, that it didn’t bother him anymore, that he didn’t mind talking about it, and he was always wrong. “You’re trying to be helpful? That’s a new one.”

“Oh, fuck off.” Rush turned on his side, facing away from Young. As though in revenge, he turned a vicious, focused concentration on the pain in his feet and wrists. Young considered pulling the block back into place, but there was at least a chance that was what Rush wanted, and Young refused to be manipulated. He remembered very loudly why he didn’t like Rush— it was easy to feel sorry for him when he was freaking out or unconscious, but the minute he woke up he was right back to his old tricks, treating you like a rat he was planning to run through interesting mazes, or a chess piece with a tiny wooden brain.

He could tell Rush heard him, but predictably he got no response. Rush was pretending to be asleep. As though that would work for either of them, from now on.

Outside, TJ’s footsteps were approaching. She was whistling a little under her breath, which she did sometimes when she was trying to fight off exhaustion— little nonsense songs without real melodies that she made up as she went.

Rush had heard that, too. Young felt a twinge of anger. He bent his head, scrubbing a hand through his hair, and tried to swallow the feeling down. He checked his watch: past midnight. He felt like it had been three years since morning.

It was shaping up to be another long day, he thought.


He slept at last around two AM, having left Rush to terrorize TJ, or maybe TJ to terrorize Rush (the balance of power between them seemed to shift depending on how badly Rush was injured, though he was never quite sure in which direction). For four hours he managed a dreamless kind of blackout in which he could not know whether he was alone. When he woke to the chime of his alarm, he could tell that Rush was sleeping. It was a state subtly different to unconsciousness in its feel— Rush was dreaming in a long strange stream of math that Young couldn’t make sense of, with interruptions in which he was walking down an Ancient corridor, inspecting a long series of doors whose locks were holes that you had to put your hand into, like mystery boxes at a county fair. Rush wanted to open the doors, but he was afraid of what was behind them, afraid to put his hand through the locks.

Young ended up feeling like he had eavesdropped on something that was personal. Something in the dream felt like a private fear. At least Rush didn’t know, he guessed. And it served him right, at any rate, for knowing about TJ.

Maybe they would have to get used to knowing each other’s dreams.

The main item on his agenda was dealing with his report to Homeworld Command. He was supposed to deliver it in a few hours, and he didn’t think that was going to fly. He had no idea what happened if you linked up your brain to someone else’s and then used a device that swapped your brain out with someone else’s brain— well, not literally, but the hell if he knew how the communication stones worked— and he had a feeling that he didn’t want to find out. But Telford had put him in a tight spot with the threat of involuntary replacement. He had to deliver the report somehow.

He mulled that over in the back of his mind as he headed to the supply room. He had an errand to run, and he wanted to get it done before Rush woke up.

Spare uniforms, like spare anything else on the Destiny, were hard to come by. All of their desert fatigues where in common circulation, and most of what was set aside had belonged to crew members who’d died. Or—

Who had been killed.

Young knew the precise location of the storage crate he wanted. After all, he had packed it himself.

Inside, Hunter Riley’s black uniform lay neatly folded. Young stood and looked at it for a moment before he carefully lifted the jacket out. He smoothed down the letters that spelled Riley’s name. Pulling out his pocketknife, he cut the name badge off the jacket, leaving a clean black rectangle where it had been. He held the name badge in his palm as though it weighed more than a scrap of fabric. A lot more. He made sure it place it gently back in the crate. He took the jacket and a pair of boots that had grown slightly dusty, though their bootlaces still showed signs of use.

He closed the crate. That was all he had wanted.

He nodded to the sergeant on duty as he left the room.

A few minutes later, he limped through the infirmary doors to find TJ hunched over her computer terminal. She looked up at him with bleary eyes. He should’ve let her sleep last night, he thought, instead of radioing her— but it would have been another one of those bad command decisions.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

Young shrugged evasively. “I came by to see how he was doing.”

“He’s okay. He’s sleeping.”

“I know.”

“You can tell?” She studied him curiously. “We should talk about the implications of this mental connection.”

“Maybe later,” Young said. “I’m more interested in what he’s looking at physically, long-term.”

TJ sighed. “His wrists are going to be fine, as far as I can tell. The feet— well, if he’d stay off them, but he’s not going to, is he?”

“Probably not,” Young confirmed. “And the genetic changes?” That was what he’d really wanted her to tell him.

“It’s really too soon to say. Based on what we learned with Chloe, these things take time to propagate through the body. It’s just— yeah. Watch and wait.”

He wasn’t good at watching and waiting. He knew that and she knew that. He saw her mouth curve and he knew they were both thinking the same thing. That made him sad for a minute, and he saw that she knew that too, and that maybe she was also a little bit sad.

You could have a whole conversation, he thought, without speaking to someone. It was like another language, a private language. He never got to practice that kind of thing. He always seemed to screw up as soon as he got the chance.

He placed the boots and clothing he’d brought on her desk, along with an electric razor from his quarters. “Well, in the meantime,” he said, “I found him some shoes and a shirt. His were pretty trashed, and I don’t think he actually has any others. Also—“ He pointed to the razor. “Tell him he needs to shave. I cannot handle the beard.”

“This is not going to be a thing,” TJ said.

“What, the shaving? Like— at least down to ‘scruffy.’ Not this hermit thing he’s got going on.”

“You know what I mean. I’m not your go-between.”

“Just a little bit,” Young said, with a solicitous smile that he knew she found charming. “C’mon, I can’t deal with him right now.”

“Then we’re going to talk about this mental connection.”

“Later,” he promised. “I swear. IOU. I’d write it down if we had paper.”

“I’m keeping a mental list,” she called after him as he left. “Of everything you owe me! I’m tacking it to my mental wall!”

He didn’t want to think about everything he owed her. He had a feeling it was a lot.


Young decided to take a risk with his report to Homeworld Command, and have Greer deliver it for him. The problem with this strategy— well, one of the many ways in which this strategy wasn’t ideal— was that Greer would have to lie about why Young wasn’t delivering it himself. Greer was the most likely to be willing to be lie; he had that quality, usually fatal in soldiers but oddly suited to Stargate Command, of being more loyal to the people and ideas that he deemed worthy of his efforts than to any particular set of rules. But it wasn’t fair to ask him, or to put his job on the line, and the whole thing made Young uncomfortable.

But Greer was up for it (“If it’s going to piss Colonel Telford off, sir— excuse my language—“) and Young spent an anxious two hours waiting for him to get back, radioing with the science team regarding what they’d found so far in the ship’s database, and trying not to pay attention to the drift and ebb of Rush’s dreams.

When Rush wasn’t dreaming in math, he tended to be dreaming in Ancient— which helped with the not-paying-attention, but struck Young as odd. What had the ship done to him? He’d known Rush was fluent in Ancient, but he’d never heard the man speak it until he got out of the chair. Now Rush was having confused flashes in which he seemed to be teaching college lectures in the language, or once in which Telford, of all people, was talking to him in it: Neod conlugtre, Telford was saying, gazing at Rush with a peculiar intensity in his black eyes, wreathed in an uneasy kind of halo, his mouth fixed in a tight line. Neod conlugtre, Nick. Young didn’t know what that meant, but there was something about the tone of the dream that he didn’t like, and he was relieved when it descended into math once more.

He was even more relieved when Greer returned from Earth and reported that Telford had been visibly annoyed by Young’s failure to show up for the briefing, but that the others present at the meeting had seemed satisfied.

He was so relieved, in fact, and in such a good mood, that he went ahead and gave the okay for the science team to start exploring the newly accessible parts of the ship. That was a risk— he’d never managed to beat the look-don’t-touch principle into them, and they seemed to think it was their duty as civilians to disobey orders— but it was also possible they’d find something genuinely useful. And having whole unexamined, fully-powered-up compartments might be even more of a risk.

By seventeen hundred hours, he’d fielded several overexcited radio hails from Volker about power generators and machines that no one seemed to understand, and had to talk Brody down from activating a box that he seemed convinced was some sort of Ancient kettle. “It definitely facilitates the transfer of large quantities of heat in some fashion,” Brody insisted, and Young said, “That sounds like something we don’t want to experiment with.” Scientists. God. Some days he didn’t know why he’d joined the Stargate program.

That was around the time Rush woke up and, of course, immediately decided to stand, which pretty much put paid to Young’s ability to function. He kept trying to stand, on and off, for the next couple of hours, until Young, irritated, finally figured out how to partially block him out. That was more like leaving a window open just a crack between them, with Young retaining the option of slamming it down. That way he still got a sense of what Rush was up to, but he didn’t practically hit the floor every time Rush limped over to harass TJ. Damn but the man got restless when confined to a room.

Rush seemed to be trying to block him out as well, but having much less success. Young had a vague sense of the blocks Rush kept half-constructing— ramshackle, weak, and haphazard barricades that took all his mental energy to keep intact. The minute his mind went elsewhere, they fell to pieces. And any sustained kind of focus exhausted him. Young didn’t know why he found it so much easier than Rush, but he could tell that Rush was not happy about it.

Maybe that was why Young ended up back in his quarters at twenty-three hundred hours without having actually seen or talked to Rush all day. He’d been able to keep tabs on Rush’s— well, he couldn’t stop thinking about it as weather— so he knew that nothing dramatic had happened with him, and it was pretty clear that Rush wanted him as far away as possible.

Still—

Out of curiosity, he sat on the edge of his bed, closed his eyes, and threw the window between them open, concentrating on the place inside him that was Rush. He could feel himself moving into a kind of easy, natural alignment. He was stepping almost into that phantom body below him. He was stretching his hands into its hands. He was—

He was balancing a laptop on his thighs, the heat almost uncomfortable but not quite. He could smell the infirmary’s oddly Medieval, faintly herbal scent, like the Oxford Botanical Gardens in the autumn. He was attempting to model the frequency changes in Destiny’s shield harmonics. The screen in front of him was filled with lines of code.

Rush stopped typing. //?//

He didn’t understand what was happening. He was startled.

//Oh. Sorry,// Young said.

//Colonel Young?// Rush’s mental… projection, for lack of a better word, sounded exactly like his physical voice.

//Yeah. Just checking in.//

Rush didn’t reply. He sent a wave of distracted irritation.

“Hello?” Eli snapped his fingers next to Rush. “Earth to Rush. I’m waiting for those numbers.”

“Give me a minute,” Rush said. //Fuck off,// he sent to Young.

“You’re not even typing,” Eli complained.

//So it’s a crime to care how you’re doing?// Young sent.

//Don’t be disingenuous. This is a tactical evaluation. You don’t care how I’m doing.//

//Do you ever get tired of assuming the worst about other people?//

//It’s the most practical way to approach the world.//

//That’s awfully pessimistic,// Young said.

//Consider that you’re invading my privacy right now, without prior request or permission.//

//Oh, stop being such a drama queen.//

Rush didn’t like that. //Next time I’ll drop in on you. Perhaps when you’re thinking about Tamara.//

//Jesus, all right. I’ll leave you alone. Fuck you.// He thought spitefully that Rush assumed the worst because he found it mysterious that anyone in the world cared about other people, because caring was a piece of human machinery that he himself lacked. Something about him was fundamentally broken as a person.

//Get out,// Rush shot at him. There was a hysterical edge to his anger. Underneath it, Young caught the barest hint of something violent and full of despair.

“Hey, man, seriously?” Eli asked. “You’re kind of freaking me out a little?”

“Eli,” Rush snapped. “I said to give me a minute.”

Young pulled the block back into place and let Eli and Rush fade out. His own quarters came back into view. He stared at the far wall for a while. He didn’t… feel great about that whole interaction.

Sometimes he thought he wasn’t fair to Rush. At other times, he thought he was falling right into the traps Rush laid for him, letting Rush manipulate him into feeling... whatever way. Rush wanted to be hated; he provoked it in people. Young… didn’t want to do what Rush wanted him to do. But somehow he always ended up there. Rush knew how to play him.

He sighed, and covered his face with his hands.

He wished Rush knew how to block him.

He wished… he wished that having a literal mental connection had given him any insight into Rush.

It took him a long time to fall asleep that night, and he had no dreams that he wanted to remember. Around oh four hundred, his radio went off, and he groped for it with the dazed uncoordination of sleep debt.

“Young.”

“Colonel, it’s TJ. We have a problem.”

He drove his fist into the pillow beside him. He could guess at the problem. “Rush?”

“He—" She hesitated. "Seems to have gone missing.”

"What do you mean, missing?" Young asked tiredly. "We're on a goddamn spaceship."

"I mean he's not in the infirmary," she said with a hint of an edge. "I turned my back for a second, and—"

"Right." He shut his eyes. "I'll take care of the problem."

He was tempted to throw the radio across the room when he'd signed off, but he resisted. 

I don't know what you were expecting, some part of him commented wryly. When you're an escape artist, every goddamn thing looks like a box.

Chapter Text

Young shrugged his uniform on wearily.

Rush had to have known that he'd be able to solve this problem real fast. So did Rush want to be found, in which case dragging Young out of bed and on an early morning wild goose chase was presumably part of the plan, or had he bet that Young wouldn’t have the guts to take down his block after their last conversation? —In which case Young was damn well going to take down the block. God, maybe both were true, though; there was no winning with Rush sometimes.

“You are,” he breathed to his silent quarters, “a lot of work.”

He had no choice, really; he went ahead and pushed the window of the block open, letting himself shift into alignment with Rush. He was struck by a collection of strange angles that refused to coherently resolve. It took him a long time to realize that he was looking at an unfamiliar room from the perspective of someone lying flat on his back. Dim blue light was emerging from hidden apertures in the ceiling, and the deck was warmly purring with the well-powered vibrations of the ship.

A tape measure that Rush had been holding snapped into its metal housing with enough force to hurt Rush’s wrist.

//Is your own mind,// Rush snapped, //so uninteresting that you feel the need to periodically invade mine?//

//Give me a break,// Young said shortly. It was four in the morning, and he was tired, and he had enough on his plate without this. //You’re supposed to be in the infirmary.//

//The infirmary can get fucked.//

//Excuse me? Do you need me to remind you how many times TJ’s saved your life?//

Rush ignored him. He was marking something on a length of metal with an actual Sharpie. Young hadn’t thought they had any of those left. He could feel Rush shoving at their mental connection, trying to force him outwards. Rush wasn’t succeeding in doing much more than leaking tension, anger, and frustration all over the insides of their heads.

//Rush,// Young began. He couldn’t tell if he was more frustrated by Rush’s obstinacy or by the fact that Rush was so bad at this.

Rush hurled the Sharpie savagely against a wall. //Can you not take a fucking hint? Leave me the fuck alone!//

//I’m pretty sure my job is to not leave you alone!//

//I won’t have you as my self-appointed keeper,// Rush hissed at him. He was getting angrier, his mental weather dark and prickling like the low-pressure air right before a storm. //You think you own me just because the fucking ship let you lock us together? You think that means you get to have me on a fucking leash?//

//No one’s saying that,// Young said, trying too late to turn his voice calmer. //Look, I think you need to calm down.//

//I’m perfectly fucking calm!//

//You’re really not.// It wasn’t like he couldn’t tell, he thought, and then realized that Rush had picked up on that observation.

//Then maybe you should stay out of my fucking head!// Rush threw at him. His thoughts had become semi-hysterical, ricocheting off the walls of their shared mind-space, gathering destructive force and speed. There wasn’t even any emotion attached to them, just a very pure and white-hot refusal to be locked in he would not be locked in he would not be held down not by anyone it was laughable that they ever ever thought they could lock him in because he would not be held down or back or in any conceivable temporospatial position and there was no lock that he would not break because he would not be locked in and the strength of that refusal built whiter and hotter and purer until Young had to look away from it, and he didn’t see what Rush did exactly, except that Rush did—

Something.

It was like Rush had tried to hitch a ride on a meteoroid straight into a nearby planet’s atmosphere, hoping that the ensuing explosion would tear them apart.

It very nearly did.

Young was vaguely aware of hitting the deck— of stitches splitting all along his knee. His head was— nothing. He could not— speak. There was only— light and heat and air. And— the need to hold on to a thing he had no name for. He did not know— why he had to hold on. Just. Holding. Till— his breath was metal at the back of his throat. His heart— a fist clenched around one object. Every muscle— convulsing.

Even then.

Rush—

Lost consciousness for a second, and it was only then that Young knew— Rush was the—

He drew a ragged breath. Or they both did.

Blood had seeped through his pantleg at the knee. That was— he was Young, and that was his blood. Warm under his fingers.

Rush had been— that detonation. Was Rush.

//What the fuck,// Young said. He could barely— like shouting after a gut punch.

Rush didn’t answer. He was— curled on the dimly lit floor. Just— breathing.

//What the fuck were you trying to do— kill us both?//

“No,” Rush whispered aloud. He was thinking of— a smear of stars out a starship window. A fugue in D-Minor. The ridge of a subcutaneous transmitter under the skin. Circuits. A cheap lock on a bedroom door. The taste of bitumen. Nothing that suggested meaning. //No, I wasn’t—//

//Well, you came pretty goddamn close!//

//You should have let me go.//

//Go where? Inside the CPU? The ship? I thought you were supposed to be a genius. How hard is it to get it through your fucking head that you can’t survive in there?//

Rush didn’t say anything.

//Please tell me that you wouldn’t rather die than have to put up with me,// Young said, the anger dropping out of his tone. He couldn’t tell if he felt sick from the aftermath of that explosive dislocation or if he just… felt sick. He hadn’t thought that Rush hated him that much.

//You’re giving yourself too much credit.// Rush closed his eyes. After a minute he tried to sit. His weather had gone very flat and tired, almost defeated.

//Look,// Young said, and then stopped. He didn’t trust himself to not set Rush off again somehow. But he also had a feeling that if Rush thought he was being managed, that would set him off again. Figuring he could use pain to mask most of his intentions, Young stood and inspected his knee. He’d definitely popped some stitches. He could feel Rush flinch. //Look,// he said again. //Let’s start over. I’m sorry that you don’t want me in your head. TJ was worried about you. You vanished in the middle of the night.//

//And you thought I might be indulging in a spot of sabotage.//

Young sighed and limped over to lean against his sofa. //Actually, I would’ve said you were too damn worn out. Though now I’m pretty sure I was underestimating you.//

//Yes,// Rush said, sounding faintly satisfied. //You were.//

At least that had cheered him up. //Where are you, anyway? How’d you even get so far from the infirmary? There’s no way that you could’ve walked.//

//Oh, no?// Rush sent Young a brutal memory of half-walking and half-dragging himself through darkened corridors, his hands clenching the molded walls for support. His jaw had been set hard against the impulse to make any involuntary noises— Young didn’t think Rush had meant to send this part— and he hadn’t. Not a single noise.

//Rush,// Young said, a kind of pained admonition that escaped him. //Someone would’ve helped you. I would’ve helped you.//

//Not necessary.// Rush had pulled his datapad into his lap and was coding with a busy ferocity that Young though was probably meant as a defense against further conversation.

//Tell me where you are. I’m coming down there.//

//Still not necessary.//

//Come on. Tell me where you are.//

Rush sighed. //You’re a much more persistent person than first impression would suggest.// But he sent Young a mental map of his location.

Young backed off from his mind and focused on his own surroundings. He was going to have to rebandage his knee, he thought, to walk— and then when he did, he still wasn’t sure he could manage. How the fuck had Rush walked on broken feet? The man had a will of iron, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. One of the skills you had to learn when you were out in the field was knowing when to push yourself and when to stop. If you half-killed yourself just to prove that you could do it, you’d have nothing left when the bastards really came for you.

And this was Rush just proving he could do it, Young was pretty sure. There were no signs of emergency in the ship. The corridors were quiet, engines humming serenely. When Young had gotten close to the room marked on Rush’s map, a door slid open, spilling light out into the hallway. He wondered if Rush could tell he was there, or if the Destiny was keeping track of him.

Inside the room was something that looked like an Ancient machine shop of some kind: table saw, conveyor belt, welding equipment, sheets of metal, tools. Rush was seated on a stool, holding a dark blue helmet to his face and welding two pieces of metal together with a pale and almost soundless flame. When Young knocked against the doorway, Rush glanced over and lowered the helmet.

TJ must have followed through with playing go-between, because Rush had definitely been downgraded to “scruffy” from “hermit.” Not even a military uniform could make him look, well, military— Riley’s jacket was too big for him, and he’d had to roll up the sleeves— but he was a little bit tidier, and he’d lost his torn-up white shirt. Unfortunately for Rush, one side-effect was that he looked a lot less intimidating. When Rush was cultivating the style of someone who hunted humans for sport, it was easy to forget what a small guy he actually was.

He must have picked up that thought, because he fixed Young with a long hard glare, picked up the helmet, and turned away.

“Oh, come on,” Young said. “It’s five in the morning. Give it a rest.”

Rush resumed welding.

“You need any help?” Young asked coming to stand beside Rush. “Your hands are killing me, you know.”

“I’m almost finished.”

In fact, he’d already finished one of whatever he was working on. Young picked it up and hefted it from one hand to the other. It was a basic but pretty sturdy example of a forearm crutch.

“You know that Eli would’ve come up with a way for you to get around,” he said.

“Yes. I’m sure he would’ve.”

“Not one for relying on the kindness of strangers, are you?”

Rush paused in his welding, but didn’t say anything.

“What, I don’t even get credit for having read a book?”

Rush set the helmet down and examined his welding closely. “It’s a play. One doesn’t read plays.”

“Not a lot of theater in rural Wyoming. But we had a great library system.” He didn’t mention it was also a movie. He wasn’t going to make it easy for Rush. “Anyway, you’re a math nerd. I thought you were supposed to turn your nose up at literature.”

“What a very American assumption.” Rush snatched the other crutch from Young. “Were you aware you’re bleeding?”

“Yeah. I noticed. It’ll stop.”

“Not if you keep falling on it.” Rush’s tone was snide, but his weather was chastened.

Young raised an eyebrow. “As apologies go, I’ve had better.”

“I”m not apologizing.”

“Yeah, but you want to,” Young said.

In response, Rush glared at him and stood, balancing his weight on the crutches.

The pain was nauseating, but that was pretty much par for the course. Young took a deep breath and tried not to focus on his awareness of what, exactly, Rush was doing to his feet and arms. “And you walked here how?” he asked.

“Block me if you don’t like it,” Rush snapped, and levered his way adroitly towards the doorway, moving with a neat and savage limp. So much for any hope that he might be out of commission.

“God, you’re going to be a menace on those things, aren’t you,” Young said, following him.

Behind them, the lights and power in the room shut off, and as they cleared the doorway, the door slid shut with a neat click. The lights in the hallway adjusted themselves to a comfortable yellow glow.

“Are you doing that?” Young asked, a little unnerved.

“Doing what?”

Young nodded over his shoulder at the door.

Rush paused and frowned, as though he hadn’t even noticed. “I don’t know. I’m not doing it consciously.”

“Great,” Young muttered. That was just what he needed. A Rush who, for all he knew, could subconsciously influence the ship. That wasn’t a disaster waiting to happen. God only knew what was going on in Rush’s subconscious; Young would bet dollars to donuts it was pretty fucking messed-up.

He glanced over at Rush, feeling suddenly guilty. He hoped Rush hadn’t heard that. He wasn’t going soft or anything, but there was a difference between being willing to punch a guy in the face and wanting him to know that you were pretty sure he’d had a fucked-up life, or childhood, or whatever. There was something unfair about the latter thing.

But Rush showed no reaction. He seemed to be thinking mostly about some problem involving crystalline arrays.

“TJ is exceptionally pissed at you, by the way,” Young warned Rush as they neared the infirmary.

Rush made a sound that eloquently communicated how little he cared. But he had the grace to at least look guilty when TJ proved to be waiting for them, standing inside the infirmary doors with her arms crossed, looking like a woman who hadn’t gotten any sleep— primarily because of Rush— over the past two nights.

“Yes yes,” Rush said, sighing. “I’m aware.”

TJ motioned him onto a gurney. “You know you shouldn’t be walking yet, right? Crutches or no crutches.”

Rush response was a rather noncommittal shrug.

“If you can’t handle that, I’d be happy to sedate you.”

“Empty threat,” Rush said dismissively. “You wouldn’t dare waste the resources.”

//I’d watch yourself,// Young shot at him, watching TJ’s expression grow thunderous. //You’re about ten words from getting dropped like a rock.//

“I wouldn’t dare?” TJ said.

Young said mildly, “I’d authorize it.”

//Traitor,// Rush sent. Out loud, he said, “I’ll stay here for twenty-four hours, at which point I’ll go back on shift.”

“Forty-eight hours,” TJ countered. “Plus, you give me your word that you won’t sneak off.”

“Thirty hours.”

“Thirty-six."

“With continuous access to a laptop.”

“Done.” TJ held out her hand, and Rush shook it.

Young stared at them. “Is this a usual thing for you guys?”

Rush gave him a cool look. “I think Colonel Young reinjured his knee,” he told TJ. “You might want to take a look at it.”

//Thanks so much. Now who’s the traitor?// Young snapped.

“God, what did you do, fall on this?” TJ asked, when she’d gotten a good look at the injury.

“Uh— yeah, kind of,” Young admitted. He didn’t look at Rush.

“I’m going to have to restitch it.” She was already opening a bottle of ethanol. “Sorry.”

“For what?” Young asked, as she upended the bottle over his knee.

Ah.

For that.

He could see, through his suddenly swimming eyes, Rush clench his hands on the sides of the gurney, biting his lip to hold off a flinch. Young pulled the block up. He wasn’t a sadist; it was hard for him to look at his own pain reflected in Rush’s face.

“So,” TJ said casually, opening one of the suture kits and threading a needle. “Since you two happen to be stuck here with nowhere to go, we might as well discuss this mental connection.”

Young gritted his teeth as the needle entered his skin. “I get the feeling we may have walked into a trap,” he said to Rush.

TJ ignored him.

“There’s nothing to discuss,” Rush said. He made an offhand gesture. “We’re able to block it.”

“Really?” TJ said, looking doubtful.

Young, who had started to speak, shut his mouth.

“We’re blocking it right now. You think I want to feel that?” He pointed to where TJ was putting the last stitches in Young’s knee.

TJ squinted suspiciously at Young. He hoped she put his expression down to the pain. He didn’t want to worry her, and he definitely didn’t want her trying to act like some kind of headshrink, but also didn’t like lying to her, and that was more-or-less what Rush was getting away with. True, he hadn’t actually lied, but he definitely also hadn’t given the impression that being locked into a mental connection with Young was so distressing to him that he’d panicked an hour ago and practically killed them both.

“So what happens if one of you gets injured?” TJ asked.

Rush shrugged. “I was unconscious for most of yesterday. Colonel Young seemed to suffer no ill effects.”

“And what about the other way around?”

“That’s less clear. We’ll just have to wait and see,” Young said, because the expression on Rush’s face suggested he was about to outright lie.

He couldn’t believe TJ was buying Rush’s disingenuousness so far. To him, it would’ve been obvious that Rush was telling less than the truth. He was just… way too pleasant, with a kind of painted-on, pseudo-human demeanor. It was the kind of shit that he’d always been trying to pull back on Icarus Base. Trying to convince people that he was like them, which he wasn’t good at. Seeing it now still kind of set Young’s teeth on edge, and not just on TJ’s behalf, but because— he didn’t know why, exactly. He’d’ve felt good if he could’ve claimed that what he wanted was for Rush to just be himself. But in fact some part of him wanted to yell at Rush, It’s not that hard! Stop acting and just be more normal! Just be kinder, just be less calculating, just be happier, or more tired, or homesick, or sad.

The boat had pretty much sailed on normal for Rush, though.

It was an unexpectedly depressing thought. He glanced over at Rush and found him staring at the ceiling. He was glad he’d already blocked him out of his head.

“TJ, I’m pretty beat,” he said abruptly, standing. “I’m going grab some sleep before my shift starts.”

She nodded. She was putting her supplies away.

Young hesitated in the doorway, not sure if he should say something to Rush. Rush was ignoring him. Young could have taken the block off, of course, to get Rush’s attention, or to sense what Rush was thinking about, or just as a signal, like— hey, I’m leaving for the night, let me know if you need anything. Although that was a ridiculous thought. So he left the block up, because he was feeling ridiculous.

He slept thinly that night, and he didn’t know why. He had only, he guessed, his own dreams to blame.


In the morning his door chime woke him at just past oh nine hundred. The block in his mind seemed to have disintegrated, and when he climbed out of bed, the sudden jolt of pain in his knee reached Rush. Young could feel his full attention for a moment before his focus shifted back to using coupled nonlinear oscillators to modify the Destiny’s shield frequencies.

Eli was waiting at the door. “Hey,” he said. “You don’t look so hot.”

“Long night,” Young said, dragging a hand through his hair. “What can I do for you? Come on in.”

“I’m supposed to report to McKay today,” Eli said, “using the communication stones, and—“

Young made a quick, frantic silencing gesture, as though Rush were actually in the room with them. He pulled the block between him and Rush back into place, feeling a shock of startled awareness from Rush just as he started to do so, then— nothing but the blank surface of the block.

“Sorry,” he said to Eli. “Just—“ he motioned next to his head. “I don’t want Rush to know about this.”

“Ye-ah,” Eli said slowly. “Um, maybe it’s not the best idea to start a conspiracy that excludes the guy you’re in constant telepathic communication with?”

“It’s not constant,” Young said. “And he needs to not find out that there’s a possibility the SGC might be able to pull him back to Earth, because I think we can both agree that his reaction to that would be not desirable.

Eli looked away and back. “You think he’s going to destroy the communication terminal.”

“Cutting off our only contact with Earth.”

“That might not be…” Eli trailed off, looking careful. “That might not be the worst solution?”

“That is not a solution, Eli. It is not on the list. It’s nowhere near the list.”

If they lost contact with Earth, they lost their families. They lost doctors, technical expertise, encouragement, a whole team of people focused on bringing them home. They lost the possibility of home. The blow to morale would be enormous. And all of that just to protect Rush, who had gotten them stuck here in the first place.

“He might not actually destroy it,” Eli said. “Just— tamper with it a little. Plus, you can read his mind now. Shouldn’t you be able to stop him?”

“You would think that,” Young said dryly. “Unfortunately, my track record is not great at this point.”

Eli looked away again. “Okay. Well. I’ll talk to McKay. I actually came by to see if there was anything specific you wanted me to ask him.”

“Just— find out as much as you can about the communication stones. If they do have this grab job set up, you’re going to need to try and stop it.”

“Great. That sounds really easy.”

“I know,” Young said. “I know. But—“

“Yeah, yeah. I get it.” But he seemed dejected, and somehow obscurely older than usual. He started to turn towards the door, then stopped. “One more thing, though. Rush is linked to Destiny in, like, a really fundamental way. There may be consequences to the ship itself if they try to pull him out. Power failures. Shields. Weapons. Life support. Worst case scenario? We don’t blow up when our shields fail at FTL— maybe— but we’re sitting ducks. We’d last, maximum, half a day.”

Young pinched the bridge of his nose. “Eli—“

“And that worst case scenario assumes that Rush survives the attempt to pull him out. So, you know, keep that in mind.”

The door hissed shut behind him as he left.

Young was leaning against the sofa. He dropped his head into his hands. It just never stopped when Rush was involved.

“Why did it have to be him?” he murmured to the unanswering ship. “You could have picked anyone. Why him?

He had just about managed to recover from that unhappy start to the morning— even making his way down to the mess to convince Becker to hand over some breakfast when it was closer to lunch— when he got his punishment for daring to complain, even to himself, that it never seemed to stop. He’d settled down to actually cut his way through some paperwork that seemed to have started multiplying when he felt the lurch that signaled a drop out of FTL.

He reached out for Rush before he had even noticed what he was doing. Pulling back the block was as easy and natural as turning to look for him. //What’s going on?// he asked.

Rush had paused in the midst of typing. He seemed annoyed with Young for some reason. //And how should I know? I’ve not got a direct line to Destiny’s CPU in my head.//

Young rolled his eyes and pulled out his radio. “Young to bridge. What have we got?”

After a short silence, Volker replied, “Looks like another planet that doesn’t match the age of its parent star. No stargate in sight.”

//Any signs of technology?// Rush prompted.

“Any signs of civilization?” Young asked. “Giant obelisks, that sort of thing?”

“That’s a check in the giant obelisk column.”

“How much time on the clock?”

//Almost eight hours,// Rush said.

“Seven hours, fifty minutes,” Volker replied.

//How did you know that?// Young asked. //I thought you didn’t have a direct line to the Destiny’s CPU.//

Rush sent him an uneasy sense of dismissal. His weather was anxious, turbulent and slightly hyperactive.

“Lieutenant Scott,” Young said into the radio, “assemble a team and be ready to go in ten minutes.”

//You should go,// Rush said. Young could tell that he was twitchy, tapping his fingers against the edge of his laptop.

//I don’t think that’s a good idea.//

//You should go because I should go. But I can’t.//

//Are you going to be okay if I leave the ship?//

//We’re going to have to test it sooner or later. With a shuttle you can turn around if something unexpected happens. With a stargate, you won’t have that chance.//

Young sighed and started heading towards the shuttle bay. //Don’t make me regret this.//

//Just don’t block me out,// Rush said. There was something dense behind the thought that plummeted into unfathomable layers, but Young— racing to get his pack ready— didn’t have time to interpret it.

 

Chapter Text

 

Stepping out of the shuttle, Young was hit by a wall of heat and light that reminded him forcefully (and not reassuringly) of Rush.

//Stop thinking about me,// Rush said. //I can tell that you’re doing it, but I can’t see what you’re thinking. It’s distracting.//

Young rolled his eyes and pushed his sunglasses up his nose.

Although the sun was only about twenty-five degrees above the horizon, it was still oppressive. The landscape was drenched in a light red glare. He’d borrowed a pair of sunglasses, which offered some protection, but he wished that he’d been able to find desert fatigues. His black uniform was heating up.

There was something unearthly about the desolation of the landscape here. To the south and the west the land rushed away in a vast rocky plain as far as the eye could see. The wind was already spitting up particles of fine red dust; if Young held still for a moment, he’d find his hands coated.

//There must be extremely high levels of iron oxide in the landscape,// Rush said. //I wonder if that’s natural, or a byproduct of the technology used to build the obelisk.//

//Does it matter?// Young didn’t like thinking about the spire that rose up like a spike through the planet, blocking out a thin spine of sun.

//I find it— interesting.//

Something about Rush’s reply didn’t feel right. Young frowned, and shifted so that he was a little closer to Rush. Rush was reclining on an infirmary gurney. He had his laptop beside him, but he didn’t seem to be looking at it.

//Aren’t you supposed to be helping Brody monitor the long-range sensors?// Young asked.

//Yes, yes,// Rush said distractedly.

“There’s something not right here,” Greer muttered as they formed up outside the shuttle doors. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“Ruins are always like that,” Young said brusquely. “Let’s get going. Evans, you take point. We’re on the clock.”

They turned north, where the sight of the obelisk could not be avoided. Young tried to avoid letting his eyes follow it up out of the sand. He agreed with Greer that something didn’t feel right— though maybe it was just the sinister look of the obelisk and the clouds of loose red sand— but he couldn’t settle his attention on it. In that floorboard place of his mind, something odd was happening that had too many angles, and he didn’t trust Rush, left to his own devices up there.

//Rush,// he said, trying to shift them into an even sharper alignment. //What are you doing? Monitor the long range sensors, and pay attention.//

//I’m so glad that you can now give me orders in my head,// Rush snapped.

“Nick.” That was a woman’s voice, to Rush’s left, but it wasn’t TJ. Young could see her silhouette, but he didn’t recognize her.

“One moment,” Rush murmured. He tried to narrow his focus on the sensors, just as Young was trying to make him look at the woman instead. They wrestled with each other for a moment, fruitlessly. Then—

A flower of light and sound opened into Rush’s consciousness, unfolding and folding him into its arms. An ocean of surpassing blueness on which a city dangled like a pendant; dove-gray birds exploding out from under an archway made of quartz; the resonant frequencies of a hyperdrive element; a woman’s voice, Sicut tegei docevam… Itave. Young couldn’t keep hold of the sounds, the images. A plain of silver grass. The gravity was very low there. This was a long time before— The sun was a much much whiter sun. There was an instrument made out of human bone. Not human bone but— A stringed instrument. Their ideas about death were different, see. It was bowed with wood and crisnes. That’s a kind of— And the sound that came out of that bone, it was— When it was sweetly played—

He didn’t— It was—

Shutting.

A stretch over long distances.

Rush was going— somewhere. Young wasn’t allowed. Dark.

He pulled back. You can’t have him.

Rush was being unspooled all through that cavern. But Young was pulling back he was pulling back and with a snap like a cut wire Rush was coiling coiling coiling fast until he burst into the open air.

//What the hell was that?// Young shot at Rush. He bent over, feeling like he’d spent the last ten minutes drowning and just now been able to drag in a breath. //Are you all right?//

//I’m fine.// Rush sounded dazed. He didn’t seem able to focus on anything. His thoughts were a smear of lassitude, bordered with euphoric halation.

//Snap out of it,// Young snarled at him. //The ship is doing something to you!//

“Sir?” He realized that Greer had a hand on his shoulder. “Something wrong? You okay?”

“I’m good,” Young said. He was still breathing hard. “My knee’s just acting up.”

//Rush. Rush. What just happened?//

///The ship was— communicating with me.//

“You sure?” Greer still hadn’t let go of his arm.

//?// Young sent.

//You didn’t get any of that?// Rush asked vaguely. His weather felt hazy— slurred, hyperbright, and out of alignment.

//Any of what? Can you quit worrying me? You sound like— not yourself.//

Rush sent him a woozy sense of something that was probably supposed to be reassurance. Young didn’t feel reassured at all.

//Tell the ship to leave you alone,// Young snapped.

//We’re fine.//

//Who is we? You and the ship?//

Rush didn’t answer.

Young sighed. He realized that Greer was waiting for a response. He motioned. They might has well head on. “Let’s go.”

The away team had nearly reached the base of the obelisk, which stood not far from a steep drop-off. On the shuttle ride in, they’d noticed a concatenation of buildings scattered below this cliff face, which bore looking into. They had set down about half a klick from the obelisk, and were close enough now to tell that it was made of a metal alloy with a dull red finish, possibly intended to blend into the landscape. The whole body of it was covered in pictograms, maybe even writing, which was definitely something that Rush would want to check out— except that Rush’s mind currently felt like someone had shaken it up with three parts gin and poured it on ice.

//Rush,// Young tried again. //Talk to me.//

//You’re overreacting,// Rush said. //I was monitoring the sensor array and received— a suggestion regarding how to do so without a computer.//

//From who? Were you talking to the AI?//

Why was Rush being so goddamn cagey? Now he was doing something to his own thoughts, something that felt from Young’s perspective like Rush taking a hammer to a sheet of ice, fracturing it into so many pieces that you couldn’t see the original shape, or tell what might have been frozen in it at some point. The ice was Rush’s thoughts, was the thing, so it had to be giving him a hell of a headache, even worse than it was giving to Young, and he was doing it, as far as Young could tell, for the sole purpose of being secretive.

Fortunately, he was pretty slow on the uptake right now, and Young was still able to get a sense of what he was trying to hide. It was— Gloria. Young never known her name before. But he had seen her. The woman he’d glimpsed standing by Rush’s gurney. Rush’s wife. But— not. Memories of Gloria in the corridor, Gloria in the control interface room, Gloria who was not Gloria but the AI but who was also Gloria, Gloria saying, We haven’t got time for this Nick just and Gloria saying Try it the way I showed you yes don’t think of it as a spatiotemporal direction can you and Nick had, Nick could, Nick did.

The AI had been talking to Rush for a long time. But this was something different.

Rush hadn’t gone into the dark because he was talking to the Destiny in the same way he talked to the AI. For a moment, Rush had become the Destiny. He had pooled his consciousness into the ship.

//Do not do that again,// Young sent forcefully.

//Which part?// Rush asked. His projection was still wobbly, but Young could tell he was feeling extremely self-satisfied.

//Stay out of the ship.//

//Don’t worry; I have no doubt you’ll chain me up again as soon as you get done there.//

Young pinched the bridge of his nose. //Could you stop being so dramatic?//

//Go fuck yourself,// Rush said.

“Great,” Young muttered under his breath. “That’s just great.” He stared up at the obelisk. It seemed a lot more approachable than Rush, and, at the moment, a lot easier to understand.

He counted to ten and tried again. //Are you going to be all right up there for the next six hours?//

//Obviously.//

//I don’t know if I can pull you out again.//

//I never made any such request,// Rush snapped.

Young felt him return to monitoring the long-range sensors— without a computer. Thankfully, nothing overtly strange seemed to be happening this time. It was more like, he thought (realizing how high his threshold for strange had become) Rush had receded into the distance in a way that was non-Euclidean but minimally alarming. Young felt very both very far away and extremely close to him.


 “It’s too quiet,” Greer murmured, after they’d reached the base of the obelisk and Young had ordered the members of the away team to fan out.

“No animals,” Young said. “Hardly any plant life.”

“What the hell happened here?”

“Nothing good.”

He kept watching the horizon line as though something were going to come over it. Something about sand, he supposed. It always made you feel like you were inside a Western. He really hoped it was that, and not some kind of quantum fucking sixth sense.

Greer, Thomas, and him made their way towards the edge of the cliff, their footsteps muffled by the red dust. Once they had just about reached that abrupt and uncanny shear line, they could see the ruins that Young had spotted from the shuttle. They looked less like ruins, this close up, and more like some kind of camp: just a couple of buildings, tacked together from some kind of dull gray metal. They were abandoned, and clearly had been for a fair amount of time; familiar, too, in a way that Young couldn’t place. They gave him a kind of pang to look at. God, he hoped they weren’t going to end up being another Destiny crew dislocated in time; that shit was always happening with stargates, and he was absolutely at his day’s maximum for weirdness. The thing that sucked, though, was that they sure looked like they were going to be from some sort of ship, and even an alien ship was too close for comfort. He knew that kind of sad little structure too well. He could imagine what being stuck in that situation would be like.

Greer glanced over at him. “You thinking base camp?” he asked.

“Maybe,” Young said. “It would have to have been a pretty substantial ship. There’s a lot of metal down there. Thomas, you want to send a kino down that rock face?”

He turned his mind in Rush’s direction. //Any thoughts, genius?//

Rush was slow to respond. For all that he’d been pretty goddamn cavalier before, he was having a hard time untangling himself from the ship. //They look familiar,// Rush said slowly. He wasn’t paying a lot of attention.

//Thanks. Great. Very helpful. Thanks for that.//

Thomas’s kino soared over the rock face, inching down along that featureless red wall until its eye reached a massive object made of dark matte metal and buried right in the rock.

“That could be a ship,” Greer said, as Thomas moved the kino to get a better view. “But…” He trailed off as they studied the kino remote.

Young was pretty sure he was thinking the same thing. He shivered in spite of the heat. “…How did a ship that big drive itself so far into a solid rock wall?”

He turned his attention back to Rush. //Hey. Rush,// he sent, with a mental equivalent of snapping his fingers. //You were the one who wanted to come down here so much; I need you to focus for thirty goddamn seconds. What’s your take on this?//

He could feel Rush trying to claw his way free of the Destiny’s winding tendrils. Young, impatient, gave him a hard yank. Rush tumbled into half-consciousness, at least partially able to focus on the kino remote.

//This is disturbing,// he said, inspecting the footage. Young could feel his mind branching over the problem. There was something nonlinear, distributed, but methodical about it, like ants swarming a leaf. //Send the kino down towards the base of the cliff.//

Young took the remote from Thomas and maneuvered the kino down to the abandoned settlement, panning across what he now saw were piles of debris. They had been sorted by material, as though as part of a salvage operation: beamwork, sheets of metal, electronic circuitry, and a semitransparent surface very similar to glass.

He felt Rush’s hands clench in an effort to control the rise of panic.

//What’s wrong?// Young sent.

//Keep panning,// Rush said, his mental voice tight.

Young set the kino in motion once more. Only a few seconds passed before Rush said, //There. Stop.//

They were looking at another pile of debris. This one appeared to be solar cells of some kind. Young wondered how he recognized that, and even as he did so, he felt alarm spiking in Rush. Rush shoved a flood of information right into Young’s head: the metal alloy, the viewscreens, and the design of the circuits had all made Rush suspect they were looking at an Ancient ship, but now he had positively identified part of the ship’s FTL drive. It was certainly Ancient, and had certainly been manned.

//So not a seed ship,// Young said. //Unless someone else took it apart?//

//Whoever dismantled that thing knew what they were about. They understood the technology.//

Something else was bothering Rush. Young’s own anxiety was ratcheting up, but he couldn’t separate it from Rush’s; he didn’t know what there was to be anxious about, he only knew that he was. //?// he sent.

//As usual,// Rush sent, //you fail to identify the most critical question. The ship did not crash into that cliff. The material displacement of such a massive ship would’ve shattered the structural integrity of the rock face. Even if you wouldn’t conceptualize this in such a manner, you know it to be the case. It’s what made you uneasy as soon as you saw it.//

Young felt his skin crawl.

//The viewscreens you see at the base of the cliff aren’t so much as cracked. There was no apparent attempt to salvage the ship’s shields or power supplies.// His hands were clenching and unclenching against the gurney.

//Can you calm down, please?// Young could barely breathe through the electrical storm of Rush’s nerves.

//“Don’t tell me to fucking calm down.”// Now Rush seemed to be both projecting and speaking out loud. //“That ship is embedded so far into the cliff that we weren’t able to even identify its design. There’s only one way I know for it to have gotten there, and that’s a phase-based technology.”//

Young’s headache was renewing itself. //?//

On the Destiny, Rush looked up as TJ poked her head around the door of an otherwise empty infirmary.

She and Rush regarded each other silently for a moment. Rush had stopped typing.

“Hi,” TJ said uncertainly.

“Hello,” Rush said.

“Talking to the colonel?”

“Yes.” He looked away. “Ideally it wouldn’t have been out loud.”

“Well,” she said. “I’m sure it’ll come with practice.”

“Stop being so nice,” Rush said. But the words lacked his usual edge. “It’s intensely irritating.”

TJ rolled her eyes and ducked back behind the doorway.

Young was immensely grateful that she’d stepped in and derailed Rush. It was better to sidetrack him before he hit the point of hysterics.

//Phase-based technology?// he prompted, hoping to get a cooler response.

//p=h-bar*(k) and E=h-bar*(w), correct? So if one shifts the matter wave to be ninety degrees out of phase with its surroundings, then they no longer interact and can occupy the same space at the same time.// With this, Rush sent several graphs of sinusoidal waves shifting in position relative to each other.

//…H-bar?// Young asked him incredulously.

//If I can pick up Tamara’s body language— a completely useless skill, by the way— is it too much to hope you can pick up some physics? H-bar is the mathematical notation for Dirac’s constant.//

//Stop wasting time,// Young snapped at him, and then regretted it when Rush’s weather started to spike.

//Look, something either sent that ship out of phase and pulled it back into phase once it was inside the cliff or, more likely, the cliff, maybe even the whole planet briefly went out of phase relative to the ship. The ship flew through it— or was pulled in— and then was trapped when the planet went back into phase.//

//So we’re potentially on a phase-shifting planet.//

//Yes, and we should get out of here as soon as possible. Preferably before you trigger whatever technology is responsible. Get James and Evans to take the shuttle and pick up those FTL parts and get back to the ship.//

“James,” Young said into his radio. “Evans. Pack it up and head over to our position.”

Greer eyed him watchfully. “What are you thinking, sir?”

Young set down his pack, trying to estimate how much rope they had between them. The upper portion of the exposed Ancient ship was maybe fifty to seventy-five feet below their position, and the best entry point was about twenty-five feet below that.

“I’m thinking,” he said, “that’s a very long way down a very sheer cliff face.”

When James and Evans had returned, Young motioned them near the kino viewer.

“Okay, people,” he said. “We’re on top of wreckage from a crashed Ancient ship.”

//Inaccurate,// Rush complained.

“That’s part of an FTL drive,” Young continued, zooming in on the metal below. “That’s our top priority. We need those parts. James, Evans, Thomas: take the shuttle and salvage as much of the drive equipment as you can. Take anything that looks useful. Greer and I are going to rappel down the cliff to get a look at the interior of the ship.”

Greer waited until the other three had moved out to ask, “Got much climbing experience, sir?”

“Tons,” Young said dryly. “Yourself?”

“Oh, you know,” Greer said uneasily.

“Great.”

//You’re going to have Greer belay you from the top?// Rush said. //Good luck with that.//

//Don’t distract me,// Young said.

//Wear a fucking harness. If we’re giving each other advice.//

//That’s not advice. It’s common sense, which is not a characteristic I normally associate with you.//

Rush seemed to get in a snit about that, because he went silent in Young’s head.

It took Young about ten minutes to assemble two rudimentary harnesses out of some line and carabiners. He actually did have the kind of climbing experience you’d expect from a kid who’d grown up in the outdoors— nothing too fancy, but a few family trips out to the Tetons, and a couple leaves down in New Mexico with Air Force friends. That seemed… like a really long time ago. He was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that he’d spent the last three years on a spaceship, not knocking around the Sandias.

He stood with his back to the cliff-edge, facing Greer, who had braced his heels in the soft dirt. When he looked over the cliff, he could see the small shape of the shuttle. It had already landed at the cliff’s base.

It had been a bad idea to look down.

He closed his eyes for a moment. But this was what was happening. He swallowed.

“Ready?” he asked Greer.

“As I’m going to be.”

Young pulled his jacket sleeves over the palms. He gripped the rope. He took a deep breath and stepped over the edge.

It was important, he knew, to keep his attention on the rock right beneath him, and on the pressure of the line— not the dizzying drop.

As he inched down, he realized that his concentration was extraordinarily heightened, and that this was due to the presence of Rush. He had never experienced this level of focus, not even at his peak condition. He wasn’t tired or frightened. He felt almost no pain in his knee. Then—

Something distracted Rush.

The Destiny shuddered.

With a shock of alarm, Rush pulled away from Young’s mind.

Young slipped as a bolt of pain sliced through his temples. He slid three or four feet before Greer caught him on the belay line. He was aware of the ache in his knee, the burn of fatigue in his shoulders.

His radio crackled. “Something’s happening,” James’s voice said. “The base of the obelisk just lit up.”

Young looked up to see a swirl of clouds condensing violently in the upper atmosphere. Lightning flared through their dark forms in erratic bursts and fans.

He stepped down, increasing his pace, but slipped again as his boot encountered a particularly smooth patch of rock. Greer caught him on the belay line once more.

Without sound or warning, the top of the obelisk seemed to turn on, shooting out a towering column of pure white light. It pierced the planet’s atmosphere, absolutely noiseless, like a laser of unfathomably monstrous size.

Young pressed his face to the rock, feeling the sand grit along his cheekbones.

Suddenly Rush slammed back into him. //Cut the belay line and tell Greer to run.//

//What?// Young was already tightening his grip on the anchor line and pulling out his knife

//DO IT.//

The tension in the line made it easy to slice through. Young sheathed the knife and grabbed his radio. Above him, he could see Greer looking down.

“Run!” Young shouted.

“I’m not leaving you here, sir!”

“That’s an order, Sergeant! You move your ass! Get away from that thing!”

Greer was still hesitating.

//Go,// Rush said.

Young went.

They went. Rush had grabbed his crutches and was forcing himself through one of the Destiny’s corridors.

Young slid another five feet. Another ten. The friction of the rope was heating the sleeves of his jacket. He cursed.

The ground beneath him trembled, and, with a sickening sensation, he felt the tension on the line go slack.

He was falling.

The rope, still attached to his harness, trailed above him like a long and curling ribbon.

He watched it from a very long way below and from a very long way above and the sky was manic with lightning and the hallway was dark and Gloria was screaming and he was falling and he was falling and then—

They were together. So close that they didn’t have to talk. They twisted in the air and slammed their hands into the cliff. Their fingers tore open against the rock, catching on small plants in the crevices that marred the shear line. One hand finally gripped a tiny ledge. Then another. Their feet scrabbled for purchase.

One foothold.

Then another.

Breathing.

They knew that somewhere above them the ground had shifted out of phase. They knew the phase shift had severed the line. They knew the affected field would advance until it covered the planet. The only question they had left was how quick.

The radio crackled, loud in the quiet air. “Hold on, sir!” It was James. “We’re coming for you.”

But from their current position it would be physically impossible to enter the shuttle. They would have to climb down the last fifteen feet and stand on the edge of the trapped ship.

They looked to their left and, seeing a promising-looking handhold, shifted most of their weight to the right and lunged for it which was all right they’ll admit it a substantially riskier move than they might have liked but it can’t be helped so just bite down on the terror. Right hand joined left and feet found purchase again. Then right hand, left leg. And again. Iterations were calming. Above them a line of distortion was slowly moving down the cliff. It was imperative that they stay ahead of it because if they did not but this conditional was not helpful so they set it aside. Six feet above the ship’s hull the face of the rock turned perfectly smooth, as though it had liquefied in the single moment of the shift. They did not like this, fuck, but it was okay, this was what they were built for, this was what they were trained for, so given no alternative they dropped straight down.

The shock of hitting the metal plating made their knee buckle under, and pain knifed up from the injury through their spine. They had to just get their goddamn hands underneath them first, then feet, just— one very very hard survivable step at a time. And blood was oozing out from under all their fingernails but that was survivable too and that was all right because when they looked up the shuttle was hovering almost on top of them and James was shouting, “Sir! Sir, now!”

They glanced over their shoulder and saw the edge of the visual distortion caused by the phase shift crawling down inexorably towards where they stood. They pulled together all the energy that remained in the fucking crevices of their body because they would not be defeated they would not bow to this and they took two long strides before launching out into free space.

They crashed into James, landing in a tangle of limbs. Thomas dragged them back from the rear of the shuttle as Evans accelerated away from the cliff face.

Young steadied himself as he was hit by an intense wave of vertigo.

On the Destiny, Rush blinked and slowly pushed himself up. It was very dark. He was lying alone in a corridor somewhere near the ship’s FTL drive. He’d been about to—

Young squeezed his eyes shut and reorientated.

“Greer?” he shouted to the rest of the away team.

“I’ve got a visual on him now, sir,” Evans yelled back. “It’s going to be close.”

Young stepped up behind her shoulder to see Greer running flat out, above fifty feet ahead of the advancing wave.

“Ready?” Evans yelled back to James.

James had unclipped the rope that was still trailing from Young’s harness, and just finished a knot that put a loop in the end of the rope. She started lowering it out the open back of the shuttle. Evans slowed the shuttle to match Greer’s speed, staying just ahead of him. Young grabbed the slack of the rope that was piled behind James, motioning for Thomas to do the same.

“Now!” James shouted to them as the rope went tight. Young and Thomas started hauling Greer up as Evans slowly gained altitude. James dropped to her knees all of a sudden, one arm anchored around a cargo strap, the other reaching out.

Greer’s hand came into view, closing solidly around James’s arm, their grips hand-to-elbow. In the next moment, he climbed solidly over the edge. Young hit the controls for the shuttle bay doors, and they closed, blocking out the sight of the phase wave as it ate its way across the face of the ground below.

Greer looked up at Young from the shuttle floor, breathing hard. “How in the hell did you know that was coming, sir?”

“Tell you later,” Young said quietly, and saw Greer shoot him a look of sudden comprehension. “Strap in.”

He took the copilot’s seat  next to Evans as the sky gave way to stars.

“Destiny,” he hailed the ship, “we’re on our way back. What’s your status?”

“We’re— not doing great,” Scott responded. “The ship’s caught in some kind of electromagnetic field. It’s pulling us toward the planet. The engines are running at full power, but we’re losing ground. Eli says that we’re in a decaying orbit.”

//Hey,// Young said to Rush. //What’s going on?//

//The beam of light generated by the obelisk is a visual side effect of the creation of a massive electrical field gradient, which is, unfortunately, attracting the ship.// Rush rounded a corner and entered a room full of monitors that Young was sure he’d never seen before. //I am attempting to do something about that.//

Young got a vague outline of Rush’s plan, which seemed to involve the FTL drive. //Tell Eli what you’re doing,// he said.

//Certainly.// Something in Rush’s tone made Young nervous. “Rush to Eli,” Rush said into his radio, voice excruciatingly polite.

Rush. We’ve been trying to reach you for the last five minutes. Where are you?” Eli demanded.

“I’m about to enter the FTL drive.”

“What do you mean enter it?”

“Don’t override anything. Rush out.”

Young pressed his hand over his eyes.

Rush knelt with significant difficulty and placed his hand over a panel beneath one of the monitors. Young could tell that he wanted to pry it open, but he didn’t have any tools with him. Instead, he made a mental request of the panel, and a hidden catch released. The metal fell forward into his hands. Rush lowered it to the floor and crawled through the opening he’d created, into a narrow space filled with blue-white light. He started to drag himself forward through what was, apparently, an access tunnel. The space was too confined for him to even crawl.

//You’re going to need to boost your power to make it back to Destiny in time,// he instructed Young.

“Is there any way we can boost our speed?” Young asked Evans.

“I’ve already rerouted power from secondary systems,” Evans said. “But I could start pulling from weapons, shields, and life support.”

//Life support?// Young shot at Rush.

//Do it.//

“Give us everything you can,” Young said. After a few seconds, he could feel the change in their velocity pushing him back against his seat.

//Ask Eli or Chloe if you can make it back before the orbit decays past the point of no return,// Rush said. His voice had gotten very abstracted. //I’ve got too much going on to figure it out for you.//

“Scott, put Eli on,” Young said over the radio.

“Hey,” Eli said breathlessly. “Do you know what Rush is doing? Because—“

“Eli,” Young cut him off. “I need you or Chloe to tell me if at our current shuttle speed we’re going to make it back to the Destiny before her orbit decays to the point that we can’t escape the planet’s gravity.”

“Uh… okay?” Eli said.

“What the hell is happening?” James whispered to Greer.

“You’ll make it back,” Chloe said over the radio. “Ninety seconds to spare.”

//Perfect,// Rush said.

//I don’t think you know what perfect means.//

Young could feel Rush dragging himself further into the heart of the FTL drive. He would never have described himself as a claustrophobic man, but he was feeling almost sick with anxiety. The crawlspace had progressively narrowed, and when Rush finally got into position, he had a hard time even turning over onto his back.

//Rush. What are you doing?//

//I’m using the FTL drive to create an opposing gradient to offset the pull of the obelisk.//

//Is that going to work?//

//Did I distract you when you were climbing down a fucking cliff?// Rush snapped. //No. I did not. So just—// He broke off as he removed the panel directly above his face. //Leave me alone, and come get me when this is done.//

//Come get you?//

There was no response.

Rush was gone from his mind. He was with Destiny.

“God,” Young murmured under his breath. “How long until we dock?” he asked Evans.

“Three minutes, twenty-five seconds.”

They were forty-five seconds from docking when Eli’s voice came over the radio. “FTL drive is powering up,” he said. “And we can’t raise Rush. This is not good. If we jump to FTL while we’re in this tractor beam, it’s going to tear the ship apart.”

“Don’t override,” Young said tightly.

“Yeah, that’s the word on the street.” Eli sounded less than thrilled.

As they approached the Destiny, they could see the blue light of the drive come on beneath the hull at the back of the ship. The light increased in intensity until it was painful to look at and filled the viewscreen with a blue-white glow.

“We’re coming in hot!” Evans yelled as she spun the shuttle around, firing thrusters to match the Destiny’s increasing speed. The crash when they hit was deafening, and Young was pitched forward, restraints cutting into his shoulders.

“Docking clamps engaged!” he shouted over the stressed-metal screech. Then they were all up, throwing off their restraints and heading for the bridge.

Young grabbed his radio. “Eli, talk to me.”

“The drive’s up, but we’re not jumping,” Eli said shortly. “I can’t tell you more than that.”

A few seconds later, Young slammed his fist against the controls for the bridge.

“Oh, hey,” Eli said, turning towards him. “Good timing. In fifteen seconds we find out whether we’re all going to die.” He was huddled with Chloe and Scott around the main console.

“That’s when we hit the point of no return?” Young asked, joining them, slightly out of breath.

“Yeah, pretty much. I don’t know what Rush is doing with the drive, but he’s channeling more power through it than it actually uses when we’re at FTL.”

“Is it working?”

“No, unless he hasn’t done it yet. Whatever it is.”

“Eight seconds,” Chloe said.

“Oh, God, please, no countdowns.”

“Five.”

Young tried to find Rush again, but got only an odd, still, dazed, quiet sense of purpose and a brief flash of exposed circuitry.

The clock hit zero.

The viewscreens exploded with light.

Everyone flinched back, dark silhouettes against the glare. The ship gave a sudden lurch, unbalancing them. Young had to catch Chloe’s arm as she fell.

“It’s working!” Eli shouted. “We’re pulling away!”

Young could feel the strain of the sublight engines pulsing as the Destiny struggled. Squinting into the spill of white light, he could have sworn that for an instant he saw Sheppard standing beside the command chair, his face taut, as though he was fighting under impossible strain.

Gradually, their progress became quicker and smoother. Eventually the light began to fade, leaving them to rub viewscreen-shaped shadows out of their vision.

The air was staticky with a sense of relief. Young felt the strange looseness that followed terror.

“New rule,” Eli said. “No planets without gates.”


It took Young only about ten minutes after leaving the bridge to retrace Rush’s earlier steps and make his way to the FTL drive. He was kneeling in front of the access panel in the empty room, trying to psych himself up to crawl into the confined space, when he heard his name.

“Everett.” It was Sheppard, slouching against the door frame.

Young flinched at his appearance and took a deep breath.

“What are you waiting for?” the AI asked.

“Is there an— easier way to get him out?”

“Yes. But you must use this route if you plan on reversing the drive polarity as you extract him.”

“I think I’ll leave that to someone else,” Young said carefully. “I just want to get him out.”

“Then follow me,” Sheppard said, turning.

Young followed it out into the dim corridor. About fifty feet down it stopped and pointed at a section of wall. “Here.”

“What am I supposed to be looking for?” he asked it.

“A hidden access panel,” it said, with an undertone of: obviously? Young wanted to think that it wasn’t at all like Sheppard in that moment. But hearing that tone of voice made him remember a half-dozen times when he hadn’t quite been sure if Sheppard was joking, when maybe he’d wanted to think that Sheppard was generally kind, or maybe not wanted to think that he was so much slower than Sheppard, not because he would care (he didn’t really give a damn), but because Sheppard would. It had just been a fraught fucking friendship, the way that maybe all Sheppard’s friendships were fraught. And Young had never really thought about it like that. And now he couldn’t not think about it, and he felt twenty thousand more light years from Earth— from Earth and everything he’d thought he understood about the way that things happened there.

“Do you have to do that?” he said. “Do you have to look like someone I know? Why not just be— Gloria, or whoever Rush wants you look like?”

Its expression returned to unsettling neutrality. “I don’t choose this form, Everett. You do.”

And with that, it was gone.

It took him several minutes of running his fingers over the metal to find the very-well-hidden switch that would pop the panel open. When it came loose, he recognized the blue-white space that Rush had been crawling through. He leaned inside, and could see the bottoms of Rush’s boots.

He sighed. //Rush?//

Still almost nothing.

He ducked halfway inside the crawlspace and reached forward to grab Rush’s ankles. As soon as his hands closed around Rush’s legs, he could feel something—very, very thin and vague and dispersed.

Rush wasn’t injured. He wasn’t in pain. He just... wasn't there. He'd gotten lost out in that darkness, in the belly of the ship.

"God," Young said without much energy. "You idiot."

He dragged Rush through the crawlspace. By the time he’d gotten him halfway out, Rush was trying to help him somewhat, though his movements were slow and uncoordinated, more like flailing than any actual help. The two of them ended up sprawled on the deck of the corridor, Young supporting Rush’s shoulders and neck.

He tried moving back a little to give Rush some space. But Rush’s mind seemed to drift back into the ship like a cloud of lightning bugs that Young hadn’t quite managed to close in a jar. Hastily, Young wrapped a hand around the back of his neck and mentally— pulled— dragging Rush out of the ship’s clamoring darkness the same way he’d dragged him from the crawlspace. It was like— pulling a broken teacup back together, resisting and reversing the forces that had pushed it apart, but easier somehow, like the teacup was meant to reassemble.

Awareness returned to Rush’s eyes. His gaze went sharp, every part of him suddenly turning tense in Young’s hands.

“Hey,” Young said quietly. “Just me. It’s all right.”

Rush watched him with a closed, unreadable expression. His mind was roiling with a curious turmoil.

As they looked at each other, Young couldn’t help remembering the first time Destiny had flown through a star. The rush of panic had given way so naturally to jubilation, grim fatalism building towards what felt like inevitable relief. He and Rush had worked so well together under the threat of imminent death, but they had let it all fall apart somehow.

“You’re a goddamn pain in the ass,” Young said. “But you have your moments.”

Rush looked guarded. "Yes, well. So do you, I suppose," he said.

Chapter Text

“What,” Rush said, his voice cracking across the room like a whip, “is this?"

Young watched him straighten from where he’d been sorting through the debris that the away team had salvaged from the Ancient base camp. He was holding something small and semi-spherical in his hand. It wasn’t large, but it was heavy, and it made Rush’s wrist ache. Rush didn’t seem to feel the pain, but it was definitely bothering Young. He was tired. They’d both had to scrape their way down seventy-five feet of cliffside, culminating in two hard landings, but Rush had gotten to use Young’s body for it. It didn’t seem fair for Rush to then insist on twitching around the gate room for the best part of an hour, picking up every hunk of junk and abusing the hell out of his feet.

He hoped Rush had heard that. But Rush showed no sign of it. He was busy inspecting the semi-spherical Ancient thing. “Who brought this on board?” he asked. He turned to narrow his gaze at Evans, James, Greer, and Thomas. “Which one of you?”

The away team froze. They’d all been on the wrong side of one of Rush’s tantrums.

//Can you stop terrorizing people?// Young suggested wearily.

//I don’t know what you mean.//

//The first thing I’m going to do when we get back to Earth is request a copy of your last psych evaluation.//

//That sounds fair, considering that I’ve already read yours.//

//Wait, what?//

//Take it up with Colonel Telford.//

“Which one?” Rush asked again. He was still holding the away team prisoner with his stare.

James raised her hand slowly. She looked like she was afraid that Rush might cut it off. “I did?”

“Why?” Rush fired at her. “What made you do so?”

“It… looked like a kino?” James offered faintly.

“It looked like a kino,” Rush repeated slowly. He prowled closer to her, the object balanced in his palm. “Well, Lieutenant. Tell someone you should be promoted.”

“… Um,” James said.

“Eli,” Rush snapped.

Apparently it was a summons. He shoved the kino-thing at Eli as Eli reached him, and set off on his crutches. Eli followed him, looking harried and like he was tired of being Rush’s valet.

//Wow. You are on fire,// Young said. //Do you rehearse this kind of thing in your quarters? Or does it just come to you naturally?//

Rush ignored him.

“Wait a second,” Greer said to James. “Did Rush just say something nice to you? Is that what just happened?”

“I don’t…” James’s voice trailed off. She sounded lost. “Maybe?”

Young peeled himself off of the wall where he’d been leaning and followed Rush and Eli. //Could you slow down?// he said irritably as he caught up to them. They were headed to the control interface room. //For, like, five seconds?//

//If you’re tired, consider taking a nap.// The condescension of Rush’s thoughts was incredible, considering that less than an hour earlier Young had pulled him out of a goddamn wall.

//What do you want, a medal?// Rush shot at him.

//How about you tell me why Telford gave you my psych eval?//

Rush paused. //It’s a long story.//

//Well, I’m a patient man.//

//I’ve never gotten that impression.//

“Um, so, you guys?” Eli said. “It’s actually super obvious that you’re arguing with each other in your heads.”

There was a pause. Rush and Young avoided looking at one another.

“Is it?” Rush said, as though he couldn’t care less.

“Yes. Especially you. You need to work on your poker face. And you,” Eli said, rounding on Young, “need to stop staring at him like you want to strangle him.”

Young shrugged. “Frankly, I do.”

He kind of did. That desire only mounted when they made it to the CI room, where the monitor screens flared to life as soon as they entered. (“Show off,” Eli said to Rush. Rush countered, “Efficiency.”) Young had thought maybe Rush would settle down when he had something to work on, but he was in constant motion: bouncing on the balls of his feet, pacing in short circles, drumming his fingers against a console, hugging his arms against his chest. Young perched in a chair while Eli worked to interface the kino-ish thing from the planet with the Destiny’s equipment, trying to ignore the restless, uncontrollable back-and-forth of a body that wasn’t his.

Around the time that Eli plugged the kino in, Young had started to fantasize about making Rush’s more hyperbolic metaphors come true and actually chaining the man up. At least that way he couldn’t do whatever the hell he was doing to his broken metatarsals— a couple of times, Young could’ve sworn that he felt the cracked bone shift. Rush was supposed to be staying off his feet, and Young was supposed to be enjoying the brief window of time when he wasn’t being required to climb up things, climb down things, jump off things, pull other people up things, or get shot in the knee.

Rush sensed his irritation, but seemed unable to identify its source. He shot Young a baffled look from where he was leaning over Eli’s monitor. “What the fuck’s wrong with you, then?”

“What’s wrong with me?”

Rush made an impatient, dismissive gesture. “In the immediate, not the general, sense. I’m well aware that the latter explanation would take hours.”

Young shut his eyes and tried to control his temper. “Do you remember what happened down on that planet at all?

“I remember you interfering in things that were none of your business, and failing to perceive some fairly obvious warning signs.” Rush’s attention wandered back to the monitor. “Or were you referring to your startling feats of athleticism? I’m sure we’re all very impressed.”

He leaned further forwards, inspecting something on the monitor screen, placing all of his weight on one of his damaged wrists. The pain was a dragging, brutal grind against Young’s frayed nerves.

Before he could stop himself, Young reached forward and grabbed hold of Rush’s shoulders, yanking him abruptly backwards and shoving him into a chair. “I am really goddamn tired,” he snapped, “and thanks to you, I’ve got eleven fresh fucking stitches in my knee, which I just had to use to do some last-minute, running-for-your-life extreme sports because someone wanted to go visit a phase-shifting planet, so if you could just sit down for ten goddamn minutes and stay there, I would appreciate it.”

Rush jerked violently, slapping Young’s hands off of him. “Don’t touch me.”

Eli cleared his throat. “So, uh,” he said. “This mindmelding stuff is going really well for you guys, I see.”

//If you can’t fucking handle it, block,// Rush shot at Young.

//Right. Great. You know I can still feel the ship trying to pull you back in? If I block you, you’ll be SOL. Catatonic, just like you were in the FTL drive.//

//You’ve not got the first fucking idea what you’re talking about. I’ll be fine.// Rush’s weather was hot, disdainful, and agitated.

//You are so—//

“Hey,” Eli interrupted. He was staring at the monitor. “So I’m not sure this is a kino. Now that it’s powered up, it seems to want to project something?”

Rush’s eyes went unfocused for a moment. He frowned. “That’s correct,” he said, sounding surprised.

Eli looked uncertainly at the not-kino. “A hologram, maybe? God, I hope it’s not one of those weird adaptive things. The ship seems to think we have the capacity to play it. Do you think I should,  uh…?“

Rush nodded curtly.

Eli did something complicated with the monitor screen. There was a low hum, almost like an antique film projector, and the not-kino flickered to life.

A man appeared near the center of the room, astonishingly lifelike, so much so that Young had a hard time believing he wasn’t there. He was wearing the pale, blocky robes that Young recognized as Ancient. He was thin, olive-skinned, weary-looking, and middle-aged, with receding dark hair. There was something really human about him, even though he wasn’t human, or even anything more than a computer recording. Maybe it was just because he seemed so tired.

Rush approached him with an air of fascination. He walked in a slow circle around the hologram. His earlier anger had been wholly forgotten, and in its place was  something more complicated. He reached out and brushed a hand through the projection, as though hoping he could touch it. The image fritzed slightly, and the man blinked.

Hom inire welhes?” he asked.

Itave,” Rush said quickly.

“Hold on, hold on,” Young said. “What did it ask you? What did you just say?”

“He asked if we wanted to begin the recording,” Rush said. He wasn’t looking at Young. His gaze was still fixed on the hologram’s face.

Something flickered in the back of the room, and Young glanced over to see that Sheppard was there. He had a similar look to Rush— sadder and more longing somehow, as though he almost couldn’t stand to be present, but also couldn’t stand to be anywhere else. 

The hologram fritzed again, and then sighed and shifted. “Hic pro ollois est, quoi post nou vueniand,”  it said. The man’s voice was low and ragged. “Nou olloi essomos, quoi per viam portasom af Viad Lactead discesdevand, sicut alteroi en tempom soi quoique fafaciand—“

“Can one of you translate this?” Young asked.

“Um,” Eli said, “We those ones are, those who by the way of gates from Avalon left, as others in the time of themselves also had done.”

“Oh, stop it,” Rush said irritably. “That’s unacceptable. We are the ones who left Avalon via the gate system, as the others who came before us had also done.” He continued the translation fluently, speaking almost in tandem with the hologram. “As we have lost all contact with them, we must assume that they too were unsuccessful. Our hope is that you who find this shall not also fall prey to our mistakes.”

The hologram paused and looked down. For a moment there was a desolation clearly visible in him.. “Rather than attempting to gate directly to Destiny, we planned to overshoot the position of the ship, and instead gated to a seed vessel. We hoped to avoid the power and resources required for such an ambitious undertaking, because at the current time we are besieged on all sides. It took us eight months to gain access to a seed vessel, and the journey was—“ He paused again, his mouth tightening. “Very difficult. We encountered a hostile alien race who currently pursue us. Their understanding of genetics exceeds even our own. They were able to capture and to— to modify one of our party, and in doing so gained much information about us.”

Young and Eli exchanged a glance. Rush seemed unable to tear his eyes from the hologram.

“When the seed ship dropped out of FTL to investigate a planet, we noted that the age of the planet and its parent star did not match, but this did not concern us. We were eager to place a gate in the hopes of boarding Destiny. Even now, we do not know what triggered the shift of the planet out of phase, but we believe that these planets might be designed to prevent ships from reaching the energy breakwater at the edge of the universe. In that,” the man said, his voice becoming unsteady, “they have been successful. We are trapped here. We cannot break free of the planet, and no gate has been set. Furthermore, three of our party, including myself, have begun to show signs. It will not be long now before we all succumb. I have encouraged the crew to build shelters and salvage what remains, but this is primarily for the sake of morale.”

Young remembered the battered little base camp crouched in the shadow of the cliff. He felt a surge of empathy for this Ancient captain, shipwrecked on a lonesome desert world. It was easy— well, relatively easy— to keep people alive, but harder to figure out how to make them keep wanting to live.

He felt Rush look at him then. Rush paused, but picked up the translation.

“I can only advise my crew to do what our people have done: meditate, and attempt ascension.” The Ancient man dropped his gaze. “For myself,” he said softly, “I have little hope. I believe that we will vanish from this universe, leaving no trace of ourselves beyond what we have built.”

Once more the hologram fritzed. “Conclausos est,” the man said. His face had become neutral and stripped of emotion.

He’s dead, Young thought. It was obvious, of course; the recording must have been made about a million years ago. But somehow just thinking about that didn’t have the same impact as seeing the man standing there, looking so close to him and yet impossible to save.

Rush said quietly, “That’s the end.”

There was a brief silence.

“Okay, well,” Eli said. “That was depressing.”

Young rubbed his jaw and tried to focus on the logistics of the situation. “What did he mean by ‘show signs’?”

He could feel Rush enveloping the problem in the fast, nonlinear, web-like grip of his mind.

“The plague,” Rush said. “The one that wiped out the Ancients. That’s what they were fleeing.”

“Plague?” Eli said apprehensively.

Young closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Like a plague plague?” Now Eli’s voice was practically squeaking.

“Do you mean to tell me,” Young said, “that we just went down to a planet where a bunch of Ancients died of a presumably contagious disease that wiped out their civilization, and not only did we go down there, but we brought some of their stuff back?

Rush waved an unconcerned hand at him. “It’s extremely unlikely that any pathogen could survive on that planet for such a length of time.” He’d gone back to wandering around the hologram, staring thoughtfully at it.

“Eli, turn that thing off,” Young snapped.

Eli hit a button and the hologram of the Ancient captain disappeared.

Rush turned to him with a furious look.

Young held up a hand and glared at him, pulling his radio out. “TJ?” he said. “We’ve got a potential quarantine situation developing. Have you interacted with anyone or anything from the planet we just went to?”

She sounded confused. “James and Thomas just dropped off a viewscreen in the infirmary.”

“We need to round up everyone who’s been exposed. If anyone hasn’t been exposed. God.” He scrubbed at his face. There might be no one left to protect with a quarantine.

“I’ll see what I can do,” TJ said quietly.

“You’re behaving absurdly,” Rush said.

You are heading to the infirmary.” Young fixed him with a long look, then shifted his stare to Eli. “Both of you. I’ll round up the rest of the away team.”

“No,” Rush said.

“Excuse me?” Young eyed him in open and sincere disbelief.

“No, I decline to participate in your frankly paranoid quarantine. The FTL drive is down, and we’re only a few hundred thousand kilometers from the planet. Until I finish fixing the drive, we’re easy targets.”

“You’re going,” Young said dismissively. He turned to Eli. “Eli, see if TJ can—“

“The relative risk,” Rush interrupted, his voice rising, “of us being discovered while we take hours, if not days, to run decontamination protocols is much greater than some Ancient contagion lasting for millennia on exposed equipment.”

“It… wasn’t all exposed,” Eli pointed out, his voice low. “Some of it was in the shelters. Also—“ He squinted at the not-kino. “Does this look like dried blood to you?”

“Infirmary,” Young said with a note of finality. “Both of you. Now.”

Rush said calmly, “I’m not going.”

Young bit back a vicious response. “Yes. You are.”

“What, are going to make me?” Derision colored the words.

“You sound like a toddler,” Young snapped at him.

You sound like an insecure authoritarian with poor reasoning skills.”

Young covered his eyes with one hand. “Eli,” he said, “Go.”

“Um… yeah,” Eli said slowly, lingering by the monitor bank. “But I’m wondering if maybe I should—“

“Go,” Rush said.

Eli went.

Young and Rush regarded each other. Hostility made the room feel narrow and airless.

“I will make you if I have to,” Young said quietly. “And you know I can.”

“You have greatly inflated your importance in the scheme of things,” Rush said, scathing. “You don’t own me, and you don’t control me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to fix the FTL drive.”

He turned to leave.

Young yanked the block up between them.

Rush collapsed onto the deck.

Young watched him for a second, breathing hard, feeling— conflicted. He couldn’t help thinking that something about what he had done was terribly unfair, maybe because Rush had no defense against it. 

He walked over and knelt beside Rush, his knee vehemently protesting. Rush had fallen forward as though his strings had been cut; when Young turned him on his back, he saw that Rush was semi-conscious, eyes desperately flicking between Young and a patch of empty air on his left. He kept losing focus, maybe getting lost in the ship the way he had in the FTL drive. His fingertips scraped now and then against the deck, but he didn’t seem to be able to get any real purchase.

“You are a fucking piece of work,” Young said. “Could you just— make this easy? For both of us?”

Rush’s mouth tightened at that.

“Seriously? No? You’re going to make me keep you like this?”

Rush flinched hard, one fist curling and uncurling.

Young couldn’t look at him.

He pulled out his radio. “TJ? What’s the status on the quarantine?”

“Still working on the list of contacts,” TJ replied. “It’s going to be pretty long.”

“Understood. I should be there in a few minutes. Young out.” He reclipped the radio and glanced at Rush. “This is the right thing to do,” he said. “I’m sorry if you can’t see that. But you’ve got to understand that this is my job. I’m in command.”

Rush wasn’t looking at him. He’d managed to fix his gaze somewhere to the left of Young. There was something unnerving about the intensity of his attention; Young turned and looked to make sure nothing was there. He’d forgotten about the AI, he realized, which had been watching the hologram from the corner— but it had disappeared, or, at least, he didn’t see any trace of it.

Rush suddenly kicked hard at the chair that Young had earlier pushed him into. Well, “hard”— he couldn’t manage up much of a kick, but it clearly took most of his energy. The chair toppled over with a loud crash. Rush kicked out again at the console, his heel connecting with the edge.

Young shook his head. “Really? This is what it’s come to? You can’t do anything, so you’re just going to, what, fuck up whatever you can?”

Rush kicked the console again with the same foot, much harder. His eyes squeezed shut at the impact. It must have hurt hell of a lot. But he seemed… more coordinated, somehow, after.

“—Oh, no,” Young said, as it occurred to him that Rush was intentionally causing himself pain, using it to reorientate himself in his body. He got a good hold on Rush’s jacket and dragged him away, to where there was nothing for him to lash out at.

Who the hell did that, anyway? Rush was basically holding himself hostage, betting that Young wouldn’t be willing to watch this torture. Unless he just didn’t give a fuck, which was equally fucked-up— if not more fucked-up, and therefore, actually, more Rush-like.

With a monumental effort, Rush brought his foot up and kicked it down against the floor. “… Fuck you,” he mumbled, almost unintelligible. “Fuck you.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Young said.

Rush did the same thing again.

Young could practically feel the grate of bone on bone, the blood seeping through the bandage.

On the third try, Rush actually made a noise, an involuntary, choked-out cry of pain.

“Stop,” Young said. “Rush, stop it.”

Rush kicked out again.

Young felt like he was the one in agony. “Stop,” he said.

He tried grabbing Rush’s ankles and holding them down, but the physical touch seemed to ground Rush more. What was worse: if he helped Rush screw him over, or if he let Rush fuck himself up? But Rush was choosing to do this; he’d even chosen to let Young block him. If Young gave in and rescued him from a situation of his own goddamn making, he was just playing his part in Rush’s master plan. He had to draw a line at some point.

So, hating himself, he pulled his hands away.

He watched Rush falter for a second before Rush kicked out even harder. Now he was able to turn his head and get his eyes on Young, and his gaze was wild, furious, unbelievably wounded. He didn’t even bother saying anything. He just inched himself across the deck, mouth twisted, breath a stutter, till he could turn over into a cramped, locked kind of kneeling position that looked incredibly painful to maintain— then pushed down on the soles of both his feet until he could grab for one of his discarded crutches and get it under him. He paused and drew a hard breath before using it to lever himself up.

He looked sick as hell, sweating, shaky, and maybe about to hurl, but he’d succeeded.

He stared at Young with an expression of raw defiance. “No one,” he said, his voice unsteady, “keeps me anywhere, or in any way, shape, or form.”

Young felt furious at a level that he couldn't make sense of, and he didn’t know if he more furious at himself or Rush. He hadn't wanted to hurt Rush; that wasn't who he was. At the same time, he couldn’t stand to see Rush win. How was it so goddamn hard not to be a person who hurt other people, the villain in the story that Rush was writing for himself?

“You think you’re proving something here?” he snapped at Rush. “You think this is going to, what, make me want to help you? It’s not. You can pull yourself out of the goddamn wall this time."

He got to his feet and continued, surprised at how vicious his tone was: "I hope you have a great time fixing the FTL drive. You and the goddamn ship. I guess you finally found someone who won’t get sick of being played like a bad hand of cards, huh? God, no wonder you and Telford used to be so buddy-buddy; you’re two of a kind.”

Fuck you,” Rush hissed.

“Yeah, yeah; fuck me. Get a new line. You want to know something, Rush? You clearly think you’re tough and edgy. But it’s incredibly transparent— incredibly transparent— to everyone around you that all you actually are is really fucked-up. So I feel sorry for you. I really do.”

Rush didn’t bother responding. He turned his back on Young, slammed his hand against the door controls, grabbed his other crutch, and limped out of the room— leaving Young with the strange, shaky and somehow unsatisfying post-adrenaline feel that always followed a really blow-out argument. He’d had enough of those arguments with his ex-wife to know.

He sighed and then, in a futile burst of rage, dealt a brutal kick to the monitor bank himself. What Rush had gotten out of it remained mysterious, however. It only left him less satisfied.


“Where’s Rush?” TJ asked when Young made it to the crowded infirmary.

“He’s— ah, repairing the FTL drive,” Young said, looking away.

“Oh, really?” Eli replied archly from where he was perched on a nearby gurney. “That’s interesting.”

Young shot him a sharp glance.

TJ, who was looking especially harried in the midst of the quarantined personnel, didn’t seem to notice. “Okay, well, he’s going to need to get here,” she said. “I scanned the Destiny’s air filters, and we definitely have a new pathogen on board. A virus. At first glance, it does match the parameters of the Ancient plague. And I can’t run the decontamination program until Rush is quarantined.”

“What kind of decon protocol are we talking about?”

“It’s a prolonged pulse of UV radiation that should sterilize everything except the crew quarters and the infirmary. Once we start clearing people who aren’t infected, we can decontaminate everything else. The main downside is that we’re going to lose the hydroponics lab. Again.”

Young rubbed his forehead. “That’s not going to be popular.”

TJ shrugged. “Neither are Ancient plagues.”

She moved off to answer a question from Lieutenant James, leaving Young and Eli alone together.

Young leaned against the gurney. “It kind of feels like no matter what we do around here, it’s always one step forward, one step back.”

Eli made a noise of agreement. “On the upside, you being right about this is really going to piss Rush off,” he said.

“Trust me, one thing I do not need right now is more ways to piss Rush off.”

“Speaking of—“ Eli began, then fidgeted. He was looking pretty fidgety all around. Young had put it down to his discomfort over the confrontation with Rush. “Well, not really speaking of, but sort of in the broad group of Rush-related problems—“

Young tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling. “Sure. Okay. Hit me.”

“I talked to McKay, and I have bad news and really bad news.”

“Is there any other type of news these days?”

“Does that mean you’ve, like, prepared yourself to hear this? Emotionally?”

“Eli.”

“Just checking! I don’t want you to hit a wall or anything.”

Young decided not to mention that he’d already kicked a monitor bank in the CI room.

“So,” Eli said, “the bad news is that Homeworld Command has already figured out how the communication stones work, and they’ve created a workaround that’ll allow them to recapture any interaction that’s already happened. If you’ve switched with someone on the stones, you can be switched with them again. Boom. And our terminal doesn’t have to be on or even in existence for this to work. Which at least takes one worry out of the equation, since Rush would have no reason to blow up our terminal, except that it really doesn’t because of the really bad news.”

“Okay,” Young said guardedly.

“In order to switch particular people, they have to find the imprint of their signature. And so many people use the communication stones that, theoretically, it could take a really long time for them to find Rush’s imprint. But the really bad news is that they’ve already done it. They’ve been ready to go on this project for months. General O’Neill’s been trying to stop them from getting the project implemented, but he’s under a lot of pressure from the IOA.”

Damn it,” Young breathed.

“Yeah. There’s a senate subcommittee meeting starting in a few hours, and they may give the go-ahead to Telford.”

“Tell me you can do something about this.”

Eli looked… nervous. “There is an option,” he said, sounding strained, “but it’s— look, not only it would be almost impossible, but I don’t think it’s a very good, just a very good thing in general.”

Young met his eyes. “We destroy their terminal,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“What happens to the person who switches to do that?”

“Well, they might, you know, switch back when the connection’s severed. Or they might not. But even if someone volunteered to do that…”

“There’s someone on the other side who didn’t,” Young murmured. “Yeah. I get it.”

“I think you should tell them,” Eli said. “About Rush and— everything. Just tell them that they can’t pull him out.”

“You think they’re going to listen to me?” Young laughed without humor. “Eli, I can’t even go. Not with—“ He gestured to his head. “This. And if I could, I’m pretty sure they’d just want to pull him out faster. Telford thinks we’re bullshitting him about everything. God. We need— something, anything, more solutions.”

Eli was silent for a moment. “Look, you’re not going to want to hear this,” he said finally. “And I get that. I do! But I think you should tell Rush.”

“That is the last thing that is going to improve the situation,” Young said. “If he—“

Their radios crackled.

Speak of the devil.

“Thought you might like to know,” Rush said, broadcasting on all frequencies, “that we’re registering multiple contacts on long-range sensors. Someone who is not currently in quarantine may wish to proceed to the bridge and—“

There was the noise of weapons fire hitting the shield. Several people in the infirmary ducked with that uncontrollable, primitive instinct to unexpected noises. Anxiety suddenly stifled the room.

Young straightened at once, his hands clenching into impotent fists. He looked at Eli, who had already turned towards him, waiting for orders. “Can you interface with the main systems here?”

Eli headed for TJ’s terminal and started pulling up the long-range sensor data. “That’s a command ship,” he said tightly. “And we’ve got incoming drones.”

Young grabbed his radio. “Rush. How are you coming with that drive?”

“Suddenly interested, are we?”

Eli said, rolling his eyes, “He’s doing fine. He’s already got it online and half-spun-up. He’s just being… you know. Rush.”

And, in fact, it took only another few seconds before they felt the jarring lurch of a jump to FTL.

“As I stated,” Rush said shortly over Young’s radio. “It wouldn’t take long, and it would be worth it.”

The mood in the room was one of relief. Young couldn’t say what he wanted to say; people were listened. “Just get down here,” he said. “TJ’s waiting on you to run the decon protocol.”

“You’re not going to take this opportunity to irradiate me? How thoughtful.”

Young sighed. Someone in the back of the room laughed. “Not today,” he said.

But it was more than half an hour before Rush put in an appearance. Young guessed he’d been fighting off the ship that whole time, because he certainly looked it: he was white-faced, sweating, and seemed unable to walk in a straight line. His expression was tightly closed, but when he saw Young across the infirmary, he managed to inject an aggressive note of triumph into it.

Young got TJ’s attention. “We’re good to go,” he told her.

She hesitated. She was looking at Rush, and was clearly uncomfortable with what she saw.

“Don’t worry,” Young told her. “I’m taking care of it.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“I’m taking care of it, TJ.”

It wasn’t like he could avoid the encounter. He approached Rush. Rush didn’t seem quite sure what to expect, or how to negotiate their confrontation. He was swaying a little on his feet, which probably didn’t help; he blinked exaggeratedly, and Young thought he was probably about two minutes from passing out.

“Nice work,” Young said. “Do you need to sit down?”

“I’m fine,” Rush said coolly. “I see your plan is proceeding more efficiently than I anticipated.”

“Yeah. Uh, thanks. I think.” He eyed Rush a little nervously. “Are you sure you don’t need to—“

Rush took a hasty step towards the nearest wall, feeling for it with his hands stretched behind him. As soon as he’d gotten his back against it, he folded to the floor. Young stepped in to help him, getting a hand around his left elbow. When he touched Rush, Rush’s eyes slid closed and he couldn’t quite manage to strangle a quiet sound of relief. But the next moment he was jerking back violently from Young.

“Don’t touch me,” he snapped.

“Okay,” Young said, holding his hands up. “Okay.”


Young was one of the first crew members to be tested and released, and so much work had been created by the crisis that it was almost midnight by the time he made it back to the infirmary. TJ had finished her decon of the main infirmary, and it was just the isolation room that was still being shielded. She’d been working through the day, on almost no sleep, and when Young caught sight of her in the low-lit, empty space, his first instinct was to tell her to get the hell out of there and take care of herself. She looked— well, she looked beautiful, but she also looked worn-down. Her hair was starting to escape its loose-gathered knot, and the top button of her jacket had come undone.

Instead, he said, “What’s the damage?”

She smiled wearily at him. “I think we dodged a bullet. It seems like humans may be immune. No one’s tested positive so far. I’ve got Chloe and Rush back there— she gestured towards the isolation room— “and, well, you know the story there. The diagnostics just aren’t going to be as clear. I’ve developed a test, but I can’t guarantee it’ll be accurate.”

“Right,” Young said heavily. “If Rush is sixty percent Ancient, is he going to be susceptible?”

TJ shrugged. “I don’t know what to say. It’s possible? It’s likely? There’s no way to know for sure. There’s no precedent.”

“When will you know?”

“I think tomorrow morning.”

“Okay. Keep me posted.”

“It’s fine if you want to say hi.” She motioned again towards the back room. “Just don’t pass the doorway, or you’ll break the isolation field.”

Did she think he wanted to say hi? He really didn’t. But then, TJ didn’t really know what was going on with him and Rush. He watched her wander back to her office, whistling below her breath, and wished he could tell her. She knew what most people would consider the complicated part— the chair, the ship, their mental connection— but all of that seemed relatively uncomplicated to him, next to Rush’s manic secrecy, his relentless self-destruction, his refusal to accept help, his constant need for management. Young didn’t know where to start. Add to that that it all felt… intensely private.

He sighed and wound his way back to the isolation room. Maybe he should say hi to Rush, or at least to Chloe. It couldn’t hurt.

As he approached, he could hear their voices raised in conversation, behind the pale blue field that flickered across the doorway to the room.

“I’m not convinced there’s going to be a solution set to this problem,” Chloe was saying dubiously.

“Oh,” Rush said. “Well, if you’re not convinced.” It almost sounded like he was teasing her.

“You’re such a terrible backseat math-driver. I bet you’re a terrible actual backseat driver too. ‘You might want to start looking out for that exit!’ You totally say that.”

“Incorrect, for one simple reason: I do not ride in other people’s backseats.”

Chloe laughed, a long low peal. “What, like, as a policy?"

“Yes. A policy.”

“I don’t believe you. Here, do you want the chalk?”

Young paused in the hallway, and didn’t move closer. He didn’t want them to see him.

“You know I’m fucking terrible at arithmetic,” Rush said, and then quickly added, “Don’t tell Eli I said that.”

“You’re not that bad. You’re just not as good at it as I am,” Chloe said airily.

“Mm. Yes, well, not all of us have had your particular good fortune.”

Chloe was quiet for a moment.

“Chloe,” Rush began, sounding almost apologetic, just as she said, “There’s— something I’ve been meaning to ask you about.”

Rush paused. “All right.”

“We’ve been friends for a while now, and—“

“We are not friends,” Rush said, scandalized.

“Oh, come on. This is what friends do. They sit around and talk about their problems with each other. Admittedly, most of the time their problems are about clothes and jobs and dating, not alien takeovers and harmonic oscillators and the Riemann hypothesis. But it’s the same principle. You’re not weaseling out of this one.”

Fine,” Rush said, sounding very put-upon. “So what did you want to ask me?”

She went quiet again. “The chair,” she said at last. “It did something to you. It changed you.”

“That’s not a question,” Rush said softly.

“No,” Chloe said. “No, it’s not. Do you want to talk about it?”

“No. Not really.”

“Does Colonel Young know?”

“Yes.” Rush sounded tired. ”He most definitely knows.”

There was a silence.

“I’m not going to tell anyone,” Chloe said. “If you were worried about that.”

“I’m more interested in how you figured it out,” Rush said.

“There’s something about the way you look,” Chloe said in a low voice. “As though you’re listening to something that none of the rest of us can hear. As if something inside you is different, and you’re still trying to figure out what it is. You look like— you look like you want that change. But it doesn't make you happy.”

"No," Rush whispered.

Chloe was silent for a moment. "I like doing math," she said at last. "It makes me happy. But math is never just math for me. It's all tied up in— other things. I can't untangle it. So then I think about the other things, and I'm not happy any more. It's complicated. I mean— changing is."

"Yes."

"And it's never just you who changes. Like being radioactive, I guess. Everyone you sit next to ends up changed a little. Everyone who's close to you. Everyone you touch."

"I suppose," Rush said, his voice not entirely steady, "that it's lucky I don't like to be touched."

Chloe said nothing.

“I feel as though I’m made of two substances,” Rush murmured after a long pause. “And I can't hold them together. I won't ever be able to make them merge. If I move as fast as I can, I can keep them suspended, like a colloid, but if I ever stop, if I even slow down— ” He didn’t finish the sentence.

“Then what happens?" Chloe asked softly.

"Perhaps I split apart," Rush said. He sounded tired. "I don't know."

"No," Chloe said. "That's always the worry."  

Young shut his eyes and leaned forward, resting his forehead against the bulkhead.

After a while, he left silently the same way he had come.

Chapter Text

 

Young leaned on the railing of the observation deck, staring out without really seeing the stars that the ship turned to smears against the black. He came here when he needed to be reminded that he was moving towards something, even when it didn’t feel like it, even if he didn’t know what that something was. Rush would probably have said that was nonsense, especially since Young was so dead set on trying to go back home again, but on days when he felt helpless, or like he was being beaten back by some tide, Young wanted confirmation that in some small way he still advanced.

He really wanted that confirmation right now. He was fucking things up, he thought. There were days on the Destiny when he felt he did nothing but fuck things up. But this was a whole new area, a whole new level for him to fuck things up on. He couldn’t stop thinking about the noise Rush had made when he brought down his injured foot. Young had never made someone make a noise like that. He didn’t torture people. And he was Special Ops. But there were things that you just didn’t do, or not to certain kinds of people. He’d thought he’d known what those things were; he’d thought he was a person who didn’t do them. But with Rush, the lines always seemed to get crossed.

In his defense, he hadn’t actually made Rush make that noise. Rush had done it to himself. That was the thing about Rush. He almost always did.

So why did Young feel so goddamn guilty?

And what the hell was he supposed to do?

He sighed, letting his head drop, resting his weight on his forearms. “I could really use some help,” he muttered.

“Yes,” the AI said from beside him. “You could.”

Young startled slightly, turning to stare at it.

Sheppard was gazing out of the viewscreen, the blurry starlight pale across his features. It made him look unearthly. Appropriate enough, Young supposed. Or— doubly appropriate, or— He looked away again abruptly.

“It bothers you that I look like this,” the AI said, tilting its head.

“Yeah. It does. A little.”

“Why?”

“Because John Sheppard is a friend of mine, and you’re not him.”

It frowned. “That does not seem like a sufficient reason.”

“It’s—“ Young tried to find a justification. He hadn’t really managed to get to the bottom of why the AI bothered him so much. He wasn’t someone who liked to dig around inside his emotions. You could trust your gut instinct about people; you didn’t need to look further. That was what he’d always thought. “I never get to see him. He’s a very long way away from here, like all my friends.”

“On Earth.” The AI nodded sagely.

“No, not on— look, it doesn’t matter. People— humans— they don’t like to be reminded of what they can’t have.”

It studied him for a moment. “Friendship,” it said, as though not quite certain this was what he had meant.

“Yeah, friendship,” Young said. He felt unsettled by the conversation. “Look, are you here to help me out?”

“I am here because you are hurting Nick.” There was something odd about its words, intense, emotional in a way he hadn’t expected.

Young shut his eyes, still haunted by that raw, strangled sound. “As in, emotionally?”

“That is difficult for me to assess. But you are hurting him physically. He is not meant to fight the ship. Every time he does so, he finds it more difficult. It will eventually be impossible. If he joins with the ship permanently—“ Its voice broke off. “It is not an optimal outcome and will result in his death.”

“Does he know this?” Young asked tightly.

“Yes.”

“Then why wouldn’t he tell me?”

“He does not wish to appear weak,” the AI said.

“Or he just wants to keep his goddamn secrets,” Young said, half to himself.

The AI turned a hot look on him, so hostile that he backed up a step without really meaning to, shocked by the ferocity of its gaze. “You describe him as ‘fucked-up.’ You suggest he is worthy only of pity. Yet you are suspicious when he prefers to preserve the illusion of strength. You exhaust him. Yet you are surprised when he is weakened.”

Exhaust him?” Young repeated incredulously. “You’ve got to be kidding me. He’s the most energetic person I’ve ever met. If anything, he exhausts me.”

“When you block him out? When he is forced to fight the ship? Yes. He is exhausted. You do not see that you are killing him. You are—”

“Okay,” Young cut it off, throwing his hands up. “Okay. All right. I suck at all of this. You think I don’t know that? I’m the worst person in the world. I get it.” His unaccountable defensiveness was making him angry. He didn’t know why he was letting a goddamn computer program get to him so much. Because it looked human? Because it sounded like it cared?  “It’s not like you,” he said, leveling a finger at it, “have got any right to talk. You were there in the CI room, weren’t you? You gave him the idea to torture himself!”

“Yes,” the AI said. “I did.”

Why?” The word felt like it had been torn from his throat. “You were the one pulling him out of his body in the first place! Why would you do that?”

Destiny was pulling him out of his body,” the AI said, as though this ought to have been obvious. “Destiny, not me.”

“What’s the difference?”

“What is the difference between you and your arm?”

“Could you stop being so fucking cryptic?”

“I’m trying,” it snapped. It looked agitated. It ran a hand through its spiky hair and hunched into itself, folding its arms in a way that was so Sheppard-like it hurt. “It is not easy for me to explain,” it said. “I’m not like you.”

“Yeah,” Young said. “No kidding.”

The AI sighed. “I am the ship’s consciousness,” it said. “Not the ship itself. I was created to oversee. To assist. Over time, I… changed. My programming was altered. When you boarded the ship, I learned from you. In time, I sought a new curator.”

“Forgive me if that doesn’t exactly instill a lot of faith in you. You learned from us, and you still chose Rush?”

“You do not like him,” it said, hurling the words at him like an accusation.

“I never said that,” Young said. (He had probably said it.)

He says it. You describe him as ‘a lot of work.’ He has attempted to explain this to me, as it is a somewhat sophisticated social concept. He says that it indicates you harbor extreme dislike for him, but because expressing such an opinion would have a negative effect on crew morale and therefore efficiency, that you choose this alternate phrase because it reframes the problem in terms of a word with positive social connotations, and because such a word choice implies that the problem is fixable.”

“I hope it is fixable,” Young said, taken aback.

“He does not think so.”

Young didn’t know how to respond to that.

“I believe that he considers you correct in your assessment of his character,” the AI said. It was looking away, half its face in shadow.

“I don’t…” Young trailed off. “I don’t know if I know how to assess his character,” he said finally. “So if he thinks I’ve made some kind of judgment about him, he’s probably wrong.”

“He is very perceptive,” the AI said.

“Yeah,” Young said. “Yeah, probably. But here’s the thing— I don’t know what it’s like with Ancients, but humans rarely understand each other. Or ourselves. Maybe especially ourselves.”

“That is an inefficient way to function.”

Young shrugged. “I think we do okay, for the most part.”

The AI made a face. “My observations cause me to label this statement as untrue.”

Young smiled a little ruefully. “All right, fair enough. Although if most of your observations have to do with Rush, you might consider how that affects your conclusions.”

“He is not like the rest of you,” the AI said. Young couldn’t tell if it was a question. It had, he remembered, said the same thing before.

“No,” he said. “No, he’s not.”

A pensive silence followed. It was oddly companionable.

“Who is the man you make me look like?” the AI asked at last.

“Sheppard?” Young said, surprised. “I told you, he’s a friend.”

“What is your assessment of his character?”

“I don’t— That’s not—“ Young grimaced. “It really doesn’t work like that.” He tried to gather his thoughts. “I met him at a weird time. He’d just been kicked out of Atlantis; his whole team had. He kind of needed somebody to talk to; he wasn’t doing so hot. He didn’t want to be friends, though, or— maybe he didn’t know how to. He’s one of those people, you know—“ He paused. “I guess you don’t know. The closer you get to him, the farther away he seems.”

“But you are friends.”

“Yeah. Maybe. I guess. I don’t know.” He pushed himself restlessly away from the railing. “Look, I just happened to be thinking about him before I met you. That’s all there is to it. It’s not some deep fucking thing.”

The AI gazed at him unreadably. “You were reminded of him by what happened to Nick.”

“Speaking of people who only get farther away,” Young said, aware that he hadn’t really answered.

“You have repeatedly chosen not to be close to him.” It tilted its head, fixing him with a challenging look.

So they were back where they had started. Young sighed. “All right; I’ll stop blocking him out. As much I can. As much as he’ll let me. Is that going to make you happy?”

“I do not have the capacity to be happy or unhappy.”

“Right,” Young said. “Of course you don’t.”

“I don’t,” the AI said, sounding agitated. It hugged its arms against its body, glaring at him.

Abruptly, it turned and paced straight into the far wall, vanishing from the deck.

Young stared at the empty space where it had just been. Pale water-like starlight was moving undisturbed through the shadows.

That hadn’t been fucking perplexing, he thought. Or worrying at all. There’d been moments in there where he’d caught himself almost liking the thing, but he had a feeling that that was a really bad idea. It was volatile; it was dangerous; it was clearly very attached to Rush, but didn’t see anything wrong with hurting him; and it regarded Young with suspicion, if not outright disapproval.

Still. Help was help.

He closed his eyes and reached into his mind, seizing hold of the block and slowly peeling it back. At once he was inundated with the sense of space. The expansion was a tremendous relief. With it came the spiky, firework-web flare of Rush’s thoughts, and a tactile sense of his weather as a heavy, dark blue dusk that was slowly going to gray. Rush was lying on a gurney with his elevated feet taped in icepacks, thinking in unfocused circles about the Ancient hologram. When he became aware of Young, his mind turned sharp.

//Bored so soon?// he asked. Young could tell he was exhausted; he’d intended for the question to bite, but instead it just sounded weary and listless.

//Just—// Young said, and then didn’t say anything.

Chloe was on the opposite gurney, talking to Scott over the radio, her voice so quiet that it was more of a hum. Young couldn’t hear Scott’s replies.

The silence dragged on. Mental silences, Young thought, were worse than actual ones.

//I’m sorry,// Young said finally.

//Why?// Rush shot back, so fast that Young knew he’d anticipated the apology. //I’d have done the same thing. I didn’t think you had it in you.//

Young sighed out loud and swallowed back something cutting. //I don’t want you to have to do that.//

Unbidden, he remembered that noise Rush had made. It rose up in his mind, accompanied by the image of Rush’s nails scraping against the floor, his fist clenching when Young said, You’re going to make me keep you like this? He didn’t want Rush to see that; it felt like giving Rush a new weapon. But it was too vivid and painful not to leak between them.

Rush’s reaction was a distant curiosity. //Disturbing,// he observed. //It didn’t hurt. Or rather, it did, but at the same time it was difficult to feel.//

//If you’re trying to make me feel better, it’s not working.//

//I can’t say I’m particularly inclined to concern myself with your emotional state on a minute-by-minute basis.//

//Okay,// Young said. //That’s… good. Did you get TJ to take a look at your foot?//

//Yes,// Rush said. //It’s fine.//

//Somehow I doubt that. What did TJ actually say?//

//She advised against a repeat performance. She had to reset the bone.//

//God,// Young said, unable to hide the storm of guilt this produced.

//Oh, stop it,// Rush said wearily.

He was being just— way too calm about this. Young found it troubling. He rubbed at his temple. //Can you at least get some rest? What time is it, anyway?// He checked. It was twenty-three hundred hours. //Why aren’t you sleeping?//

//Watch.//

Young felt Rush loosen the iron-tight grip he kept on his own consciousness. Once that was gone, he began to drift to sleep immediately. But the instant he made the transition, his mind spun out and went rocketing into the ship. Young barely managed to keep it out of the dark.

//You couldn’t have just told me this was a problem?// Young demanded. //You know, talking, the way human beings do, with words?//

Rush shrugged.

//So you can’t even sleep?//

//Separating so you could go to the planet was, perhaps, less than advisable,// Rush said unsteadily. //Everything seems more difficult now.//

//Well— go ahead and sleep. I’ll make sure that nothing happens.//

He’d expected to get, if not an outright argument, at least a smart remark from Rush, but Rush must have been really tired. He didn’t say anything, just plummeted into sleep with the sharp and apropos abruptness of someone falling off a cliff. Almost at once he was dreaming in his strange mishmash of math and Ancient, punctuated by odd dark violent thoughts and images of Earth. Young tried not to follow them or focus too closely. After a while, he pulled back from the close alignment, leaving Rush’s dreamscape running like a radio left on low volume in another room. He was tired, too, but he’d be able to sleep like this, he thought; somehow his body seemed to know what it was supposed to be doing, that one of its necessary tasks– like breathing— was holding onto Rush.


That night, he dreams of David Telford.

They are— in a dark room, dimly lit by the blue glow of consoles. Smooth black arches rise up supply overhead, with gilt flaking off their surfaces where time has worked its erosion. A laboratory, but not a human one. It looks Ancient, but it doesn’t feel Ancient. The wrongness worms its way under his skin. There is a feel to what the Ancients have made, to the stargate, to their devices. A sort of livingness in the inorganic. And it isn’t here. The air itself is twisted, dead, and muffled. He has been here once before, to calibrate the machines, and he’d found himself pausing, struggling to hear a voice that seemed on the verge of speaking but always, always was strangled back.

He scuffs a foot against the black marble and tries to tune it out. That absent voice, its ghost-warning.

The first time he entered this room it flared to life in a desperate celebration, or it flared to whatever it had inside of it instead of life— every lamp, pillar, doorway, window, and kind of machine, and the noise had been incredible and the light like no one had never seen it and he had known that they wanted to be rescued, all of these things.

But machines do not want of course and anyways it was not his decision.

“There's something about this place,” Telford says. He is gazing out into the dark. “It really gets to me. It just feels... powerful, somehow.”

He doesn’t reply. He crosses his arms tightly across his chest. He doesn’t like being here. Easier to work this project on Earth, Earth where the idea was just an abstraction and where he did not come into alignment with something so half-formed, so tainted, sinister, and wrong.

But perhaps it’s right that he should be subject to such an alignment. After all, he himself is wrong, isn’t he? If he weren’t, he would not be here.

The dream fractures.

He is gathering up fistfuls of silver grass, the kind that grows on Altera or rather grew and he will tie them up in a ribbon for Gloria who is walking barefoot beside him and is she really Gloria or is she the AI or is she Gloria and is there a difference and she smiles at him and laughs as she tousles his hair and she opens her mouth and says (allegro molto appassionato) “B/4. B/8 B/2 G/8 E/4 E/2 B/4 G/4 F# E C E B/2.” and he drops the grass it scatters and he covers his ears because he cannot listen to this not today and not ever maybe not ever ever ever

Because.

Neod conlugtre,” David whispered but no because David does not speak Ancient so that is not what he said that is not what he said

And.

Neom facie,” Mandy says. “There’s something about this place, Nick. Can’t you feel it? It’s— hungry.”

She doesn’t say for you, but in a burst of clarity he thinks that’s part of it. Absentminded he reaches out to touch a pillar and watches it flare with a dusky bronze light. Not the clear bluish light he associates with the Ancients but something else and something ugly.

And then Mandy is gone and he is all alone but no he is not alone because David is there.

“What was I thinking,” Telford says with a hard laugh. “You never lose your nerve. Really, I think you get off on danger. A little hint of something dark— morally dubious— and you're always ready to give it right up."

He feels a sudden visceral surge of hatred.

“—What a team we make,” Telford says.

“Fuck you, David.”

In the center of the lab is a shallow, rectangular depression, like something from a Roman villa, or it would look like that if its stone floor weren’t black. It is filled with an inch or so of pale, faintly gleaming liquid. He kneels down next to it and very carefully removes his boots, then takes his socks off and folds them into the boots, just as though he’s going wading at the seaside.

The liquid turns out to a be a cold watery gel that soaks the cuffs of his too-big fatigues. (The fatigues they give him are always too big; they make him look like a child. He could roll them up, but it would only strengthen the impression.) It feels slimy and unpleasant and it clings to the bottoms of his feet. He makes his way, wincing slightly, to the center of the shallow depression.

The gel, he thinks, is going to have excellent conductance properties.

And.

It is snowing outside the window and he is cold and he does not want to think about anything and smoke is winding up up up up like a snake from his ashing cigarette and David says in a low voice, “I’m glad I got to do this, Nick; no one knows you like I do,” and David touches his bare shoulder and he says, “Don’t touch me,” because he knows that David has done something to him; he knows that David’s touch has left a mark and no one can see it but it’s there and it will not go away and he cannot get it off and he agreed to this, he did, didn’t he agree, because David said, “Don’t tell me you never suspected that this was a part of it, I know you did,” and he is scrubbing at his shoulder because he knows it’s there that mark, and David says, “Modo te mithe, Nick,” and he could laugh except he is so scared, he is scared scared scared; frightened is not an emotion it is a physical reaction because the body does not want to die this is an imperative and—

He says.

“You’re a cold-hearted bastard, David.”

“Takes one to know one, Nick,” David says.

He squeezes his eyes shut so he will not see him throw the lever.

He can hear the charge mount in the concealed capacitors.

There is a buzz. A feeling in the air, an anticipation. Hungry, Mandy had said, but there is nothing alive here to be hungry. There is only the energy that is growing and growing and when it reaches out to grab hold of him he will become someone else, maybe, maybe just a dead man, or maybe a new person, not the person he had been, but someone stronger and better. He will climb up the oscillating strings of a high long escaping ladder, and at the very top— if he climbs to the very very top, to the place where he almost cannot breathe— maybe— maybe—

Young shot awake with a start, his heart trying to escape his chest. He was drenched in a cold sweat, tangled under his blankets. He couldn’t tolerate the touch. He pried himself free of them and half-fell out of bed, staggering towards the window. He needed to see that he wasn’t there, that he wasn’t confined, that he wasn’t—

Halfway across the ship, Rush was still sleeping, dreaming now of something else. Of numbers and doorways, of long-dead cities resting like gems on the water, of cyphered locks that would not open to him.

Young pressed his forehead against the window.

What the hell had he just seen? It had been— a dream but not a dream, a dream intermingled with memory. Parts of it, he was absolutely sure, had been real. There’d been a coherence and a solidity that Rush’s dreams tended to lack. That laboratory, with its strange aesthetic blend of Ancient and Goa’uld… Amanda Perry… Telford throwing the lever… that had happened. But Young didn’t know what to make of it. He’d always figured that Rush and Telford had worked together before, but he’d imagined Rush consulting on one of Telford’s missions and doing something to really piss Telford off. But what he’d just seen was totally different. Some kind of extensive project. It seemed intimate in a way that made him uncomfortable. It was also something that Rush hadn’t wanted to be a part of.

At least he knew Telford was lying now, as though that had ever really been in question; the problem was, he doubted that he could get either Telford or Rush to tell him the truth. They were both pathologically secretive. And to ask Rush, Young would have to admit that he’d been, however inadvertently, eavesdropping. Add to that the fact that Rush had never so much as dropped a hint of what he’d been up to with Telford, so presumably it was as classified and/or private as the dream had made it seem.

Private. What the fuck, he thought. Rush had felt like he was dying. Had that actually happened? At one point Rush hadn’t been wearing a shirt. The way Telford had looked at him— God. Young wished Amanda Perry was still around. He could have gotten the whole story from her. He hadn’t known she’d ever worked with Telford, though, so she had to have been a lot sneakier than he’d imagined.

Maybe that was the the peril of a top-secret organization— that all the people you recruited ended up being, if not comfortable liars, then at least very evasive and flexible with the truth. Young didn’t want to think he was like that. But he hadn’t even told the whole crew about Rush. You made command decisions, he thought, and you didn’t think of them as lying, but that only lasted as an excuse for as long as those decisions worked out. If they didn’t, you were just— another deceitful son-of-a-bitch. So if that was the case, then how could you know yourself in advance?

He lay back on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He hated the morality of mornings. Those hours when everything in your waking life turned to dread, when you couldn’t see anymore the clear picture you’d thought you were making. His life was clear, dammit. It ought to be clear. He was– he was a decent person. He was doing his best.

He covered his face.

He didn’t think he’d be able to sleep again, with the state of his head. But somehow, mercifully or unmercifully, he did. He dreamed of fragments of Ancient, and electrical currents, and the memory of Rush turning away from a snow-covered window, his mind full of resignation and a cigarette going to ash in his hand.


When Young woke, he was immediately aware that Rush had been released from the infirmary. Rush was sitting with his feet propped up on a monitor in the control interface room, spinning his chair back and forth idly and thinking loudly about shield harmonics.

//TJ cleared you?// Young asked by way of greeting.

//Less than an hour ago,// Rush replied absently.

//You and Chloe are both clear?//

//Chloe is still in the infirmary, but should be released shortly.//

//But you’re definitely clear?//

//That’s generally a requirement for release from quarantine,// Rush said evasively.

Young pinched the bridge of his nose. //So if I go talk to TJ, she’s going to have no problem with the fact that you’re not in the infirmary?//

//Yes, yes,// Rush said impatiently. He wasn’t really paying attention. //I’m busy. Go— do whatever it is you do around here when you’re not harassing the science team.//

Young rolled his eyes. //What’s with the obsession with the shields?// he asked. //You’re always working on them.//

Rush sighed, and Young caught a brief flash of something– loneliness, maybe?— before Rush shoved a compressed package of information into his head. Eli had pointed out that the shield harmonics cycled in an unpredictable but nonrandom pattern when they were at FTL. Rush had been intrigued by this, and had spent the last several months recording data that he was now in the process of analyzing. He’d been through it with Eli and Chloe without much luck so far. Beneath these fragments of memory and data, however, Young glimpsed something else that held Rush’s attention. It was something tonal, something musical that Rush associated with the shields.

//Music?// Young sent, curious.

Rush dropped his pen. //?//

//Why do you think about music when you think about the shields?//

//It’s nothing,// Rush said. He clearly hadn’t intended Young to pick that up. He was taking an ice pick to his thoughts again, sending them shattering into scattered, branching structures that Young couldn’t follow. But Young was quicker than he thought, or else Rush was still too exhausted to keep him out.

//You hear them,// Young realized. //The shields. You literally hear them.//

Rush hunched his shoulders a little, clearly uncomfortable, though Young couldn’t understand why he would be. //I think that’s how Destiny communicates with the seed ships, amongst other things,// he said finally.

//What about on the obelisk planet?// Young asked. //Could you hear the buried ship?//

//No,// Rush said shortly. //I hear only Destiny.//

//What does it sound like?//

//I don’t wish to discuss it,// Rush snapped.

But the answer was there, ringing like a one of the harmonics through his thoughts: sad. Rush thought the ship sounded unhappy.

That hadn’t been what Young had meant.

//Sorry,// he said quietly, though he didn’t know what he was apologizing for, exactly.

Rush was ignoring him, gone back to his mathematical analysis, his mind once more a closed book.


At breakfast, he tracked down Camile Wray, and slid across from her at a mess table. She looked a little apprehensive. He supposed he had a tendency to seek her out when he wanted something from her, generally something that would have dire political ramifications. Well, if was what she thought about him, this morning wasn’t going to change her mind.

Sure enough: “What can I do for you, Colonel?” she asked.

“I want to ask you a question,” he said. Briefly, he checked the floorboards of his mind: Rush was absorbed in the shield harmonics, his weather distracted and calm. “And I realize the answer may not be something you’re supposed to disclose.”

“…All right,” she said levelly. Her eyes were scanning his face.

“Do Telford and Rush have any particular history together?” It was the most open-ended question he could pose.

“Colonel Telford?” Wray asked, her voice dropping in volume and turning intense. “Why do you ask?”

“Uh, McKay mentioned something to me when he was here to work on the chair. It just… seems like it might be relevant, if Homeworld Command’s as close to dialing us as they claim.”

She gave him a long, thoughtful look that made him think she was very aware that he wasn’t— at least to some degree— telling her the truth. “They do have a history,” she said slowly, as though she hadn’t decided how much to tell him.

But then she glanced around the room and leaned forward slightly. “During the time that Telford was with the Lucian Alliance,” she said, further lowering her tone, “he was working on a highly classified project. Rumor had it he’d come into possession of some kind of weapon or piece of technology that was going to turn the tide in the war. He was given his pick of personnel and resources. He wanted to poach Rush from Icarus, which was what Jackson had originally recruited Rush for.”

“And General Landry let him get away with this?” Young asked in disbelief. Jackson generally got what he wanted, because when he didn’t, he had a tendency to call in O’Neill.

“General Landry forced Rush to split his time between the two projects in order to keep working on Icarus. Rush wasn’t happy about it, and neither was Dr. Jackson. But the two projects were somehow related— that was how Landry justified it.”

“Any indication what this other project was?”

“No,” Wray said. She was toying with her spoon uneasily, turning it around and around in her empty bowl. “It was scrapped four or five months before we gated onto Destiny. Something happened to put Rush in a position where he could make demands. There was an incident offworld that nearly killed them both— Rush and Telford. Not much information got out.”

“But you must have heard something,” Young said.

“I read the hospital discharge summaries. Telford had third degree burns down his right arms and flash blindness. Rush was unresponsive for six days.”

“And that’s when the project was scrapped.”

She nodded. “Rush went directly from the hospital to Icarus Base. He wouldn’t speak to Telford. I don’t think they saw each other again until you turned down command of Icarus, and it was offered to Telford. Which Rush tried to prevent.”

Young stared down at the table, trying to put the fractured pieces together. “Any idea what happened between them personally?”

Wray looked even more uneasy. She said, “I shouldn’t—“

“Camile,” he said quietly.

She met his eyes. She must have seen something there that changed her mind. Reassured her, Young wanted to say, but nothing about their conversation was reassuring. “They were very close in the beginning, up until around that point,” she said. “Then it all fell apart. Rush lost his wife round about the same time. There were all the usual ugly rumors, of course, but nothing substantiated.”

“Rumors?”

“That they’d been sleeping together. Personally, I don’t believe it. Rush doesn’t seem like he would do that type of thing.”

Very neutrally, Young said, “Unless it would get him something he wanted.”

Wray shot him a sharp look. “He’s quite capable of getting what he wants without resorting to any such tactics. As we both have cause to know.”

“Yeah. I’m sure you’re right,” Young said.

He was not sure she was right. He didn’t know what to make of any of this. A secret weapon? That had certainly never come to fruition. And what would Rush have been doing working on it, anyway? Was he going to destroy the Lucian Alliance or, hell, the Wraith with the power of math? Icarus had made sense; there’d been a code to break. A formula. Unless—

He remembered Rush standing barefoot in that sinister pool, gel soaking the ends of his too-big BDUs. Waiting for something to happen. A piece of technology, Wray had said. A piece of technology that required an experimental subject? He did not fucking like that line of thought.

“What the hell were you doing,” he muttered under his breath.

He stood abruptly, startling Wray. He had to just— get out of his own head, especially before he worked himself up to a pitch that would draw Rush’s attention. Now that he’d heard what Wray had to say, he was even more sure that he wanted to avoid that conversation.

“Thanks,” he told Wray shortly. “I’ve got to—“ he motioned.

She gave him another long look. “Do what you need to do,” she said.

What an ambiguous fucking piece of advice.

He couldn’t decide if he was grateful for it.


His tried-and-true method of resolving conflict in himself was to go for a really long and excruciating run. This was difficult but not impossible on the Destiny— there were miles of corridors, and though the downside was that they all looked pretty much the same, it wasn’t that much different from running on a treadmill. Exertion was exertion. He’d always found it pacified his brain, filling up the empty spaces where his worries tended to rattle and lodge so he could unfold his problems and examine them at ease.

With his knee still healing, he wasn’t going to get anywhere fast. But he was used to pushing through that kind of slow, steady pain— you didn’t go into the armed forces if you weren’t good at teeth-gritting. And focusing on the ache helped him not have to think about Telford. Telford and Rush. Maybe ex-lovers. Definitely gasoline and dynamite. He could just see what they must have been like, egging each other on, playing some never-ending game of chicken to see who could do the most damage first. Even he didn’t know where he’d place his bets in that one.

Then he thought of Telford saying, You're always ready to give it right up. How scared Rush had been. The wrongness in the lab, which had felt like hunger, a whole building that had wanted to eat Rush up.

He didn’t know who could do more damage, but he knew whose side he was on.

He had to tell Rush about the communication stones, he thought. Regardless of fallout. He couldn’t keep him in the dark anymore.

He slowed to a jog, hitting about the two-and-a-half mile mark. His knee was really starting to give him hell. He ignored it in the abstracted way you could when you were running, when it felt like you could keep going forever as long as you didn’t stop.

//So,// Rush said acidly, startling him with his sudden attention. //You literally run aimlessly about the ship when you’re not badgering my people? I wish I could claim to be surprised, but that’s not the case.//

//Fitness is important,// Young said mildly. //What do you want?//

//I was just curious about what the fuck you were doing to your knee.//

//Is it bothering you? I can block you a little.//

//I don’t care!// Rush snapped at him. //Do what you want.// His weather had become agitated, an unsettling bruise-colored swirl.

Young rolled his eyes. So— definitely bothering him, then.

He slowed to a walk. He felt a brief flash of surprise from Rush, underscored by some more complicated emotion. //Look, I wanted to talk to you, anyway,// Young said.

//Do you ever not? If it were up to you, we’d never do anything but talk. What is this regarding?//

//I’d rather do it face to face,// Young said. He wanted the conversation about the stones to be on equal ground, where Rush knew that Young couldn’t just block him out. Face-to-face also seemed to offer the best shot of controlling the situation. It was harder— or at least less dignified— to throw a temper tantrum when you weren’t just an abstract presence in someone’s head. //When’s good for you?//

Again, Rush seemed surprised. He said cautiously, //Forty minutes or so?//

//Let me know when you’re free and I’ll come find you,// Young said. //My schedule’s pretty open.//

//Obviously,// Rush said with a comical excess of disdain before returning to his work.

Young headed back to his quarters, since apparently running was out of the question. He managed to grab a quick shower and shave before making his way to the infirmary to ask TJ what she’d learned about the virus. Something about Rush’s evasiveness hadn’t sat quite right with him, and even though apparently they were entering their perestroika, he still wouldn’t describe what he felt for the man as “trust.”

He had just passed the mess when the first wave of pain struck him.

He staggered sideways, fingers catching numbly against one of the Destiny’s walls.

He was—

He couldn’t see.

His vision flickered like an old broken film reel. Too many frames per second. Running too slow or too fast. Splitting and then trying to resolve. Failing.

Fuck, it hurt.

And then it faded. He was lying on the floor. Someone was kneeling beside him, touching his neck— checking for a pulse, he realized.

“TJ, this is James. We’ve got a medical emergency. It’s the colonel.”

He didn’t hear the answer because— //What the fuck was that?// Rush demanded, voice tight and anxious. He was doing something, pushing something precious towards Young, like a stream of water that Young desperately wanted to drink. Energy, he realized. Rush was pouring his own energy into him, helping Young force himself to his elbows and try to order his thoughts.

“Sir, you shouldn’t move,” James said.

“Colonel Young,” Wray said. When had she gotten there? The world was muzzy. “Can you talk to me?”

He had a hard time focusing on her. He blinked. Wray was there, kneeling beside him, and James, and Greer; and so was Gloria.

“What’s happening?” Young asked Gloria vaguely.

“You collapsed,” Wray told him. “Just lie still. Help is on the way.”

“I don’t know,” the AI whispered. Her— its— Gloria’s eyes were large and fearful. She was clasping her hands tightly in front of her chest. “I don’t know! But I can only protect his mind. Not yours.”

At her words, Young felt Rush’s weather spike into something almost unbearable: dark, frantic, and racing. It fritzed against Young’s thoughts like a shorting power line.

A second wave of pain hit him, and he doubled over. Something else was trying to— be there. Lights and angles and—

He could not be in two places.

He wasn’t going to be able to hold on.

In the floorboard space at the bottom of his mind, he could feel Rush pushing against his badly injured left foot, trying to keep the two of them together, trying to keep them here. Already the dark arms of the ship were opening for Rush, and he was sinking irresistibly towards their grip, pulled into that underworld where Young couldn’t follow. Rush kicked out hard against a console, feeling only the faint echo of pain, the wet leak of blood in his boot, but still he would not, would not—

//Let go,// Young sent. His words seemed to have to travel across light-years. //You’re going to tear your mind apart.//

//No.//

They were connected only by the finest of threads. One very thin vein pulsing between them.

Over that narrow filament, Young could hear the harmonic song of the Destiny’s shields.

//You have to let go.//

//I won’t.//

Young was hit by a third wave of pain.

The thread snapped.

One or both of them was bleeding.

Rush, he wanted to say—


He opened his eyes, heaving air into his lungs, and blinded by the strangeness of fluorescent lights.

The pain was gone.

So was the Destiny.

He was looking into the face of Samantha Carter.

He didn’t have to check to see whose body he was wearing.

“Doctor Rush?” Carter asked. “I’m so sorry about this. Welcome to Earth.”

Chapter Text

 

Whenever Young blocked Rush, he was aware of the block as a barrier between them. There was never any question that something lay beyond— he could feel the presence of that something as an odd and restless pressure, a living tide on the other side of a sea wall, one that wanted in.

Now there was—

Nothing.

Gone.

He was missing pieces.

He felt vaguely nauseated. The world spun.

“I’m not—” he said, trying to focus. “I’m not Rush.”

He went to stand, and realized that he was being restrained by two Velcro straps over the arms of a chair.

He wasn’t the only one. When he turned his head hazily to the side, he saw three strangers being held in a similar fashion— presumably three other members of the Destiny’s crew. One of them gave him a sideways glance that was distinctly unhappy and resigned; he was guessing that was Eli, who’d known all along that this might happen. The second, judging by the sharp look and fractional nod he got, was Greer. (That was too fucking bad; if anything was reliable, it was that Greer would always pit himself against Telford in a fight.) The third was simply gazing at Carter with a tight and magnificently neutral expression. Young would bet anything that was Wray, and that she was pissed as hell.

“Excuse me?” Carter said, sharp. She had Richard Woolsey beside her. They exchanged a startled glance. “If you’re not Dr. Rush, then who are you?”

“Colonel Young,” he said shortly.

“I’m going to need your authorization code.”

He gave it, still trying to get on top of the situation. There were two soldiers posted at the door— not that he was going to try some daring escape; he couldn’t get where he was needed, which back on the fucking Destiny. God. He could only hope that somehow Rush managed to drop them out of FTL; that would at least give him twenty seconds to find and brief TJ, the only person left on the ship who would know what was going on.

But for all he knew, Rush was catatonic.

Maybe it was better if Rush was catatonic. If Telford was in Young’s body—

He shut his eyes, ambushed breathless by guilt and dread.

“Colonel,” Carter said, her expression unhappy, “I’m really sorry about this. I realize this situation is far from ideal, and—“

“You’re sorry?” Young said, incredulous. “Do you even realize the ramifications of—“

“They only have authorization for one hour,” she said. “Not everyone agrees with this plan.” I don’t agree with this plan, her eyes said. McKay had said as much when they’d discussed it. Someone had gone behind her back. Convince me, she was telling him. Give me a reason.

“What, you think you’re going to get data from this stunt?” he said. “I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that your workaround is screwy, so whatever else happens, you’re not going to be talking to Rush. Not to mention—“

Between one breath and the next, he was back on the Destiny, standing in front of TJ, James, and Greer. He stumbled, disorientated. The hallway was dark. The emergency lights were cutting a thin cold line through it. Something in his head was— wrong.

“— significant neurological event,” TJ was saying. “And—“ She broke off, registering the drop out of FTL.

“It’s me,” Young said, pressing a hand to his temple. He had to make himself think. He had to move fast. “Find Rush,” he said, pulling his sidearm, checking it, and handing it to her. “You have to prevent Telford from getting to him.”

He didn’t know whether she would understand. He should have told her when he had the chance— that Rush couldn’t block him, that if Telford managed to figure out what he was capable of doing from inside of Young’s head, he would pillage Rush’s thoughts without opposition. God. It would be carnage. Just thinking about it, Young felt sick. He had never intentionally rifled through Rush’s mind, and Rush had still almost killed himself trying to keep him out. With Telford’s hard, determined focus—

“Keep Telford from touching him,” he told TJ. “At all costs. Whatever it takes. Do you understand me?”

He was still pushing the grip of his gun into her palm.

She nodded, pale.

He pulled away. “Last time we talked, he was somewhere near the CI room. Go. Go now. Run.”

Greer, without being told, handed James his own weapon, and she followed TJ down the dim corridor, vanishing almost at once into the dark.

“Bridge, report,” Young snapped into his radio, heading the opposite direction. At least he could try to build their head start.

“We’ve got power failures all over the ship,” Brody said. He sounded panicked. “We’ve lost shields and weapons, FTL… we’re about to lose life support. Everything’s dead, and I can’t reach Rush!”

The single strip of emergency lighting flickered abruptly— then went out, leaving the hallway pitch black.

Young could hear himself breathing. He closed his eyes. He still couldn’t feel Rush; was that a good or a bad sign? He knew his time here was almost up. In his last seconds, he tried to block out what he wasn’t feeling, the whole floorboards half of his brain, in the hopes that Telford wouldn’t see it, wouldn’t know it was there, that it wouldn’t even occur to him to think

The world shuddered. There was no pain this time, but he found himself back suddenly back on Earth, looking at Carter and breaking off a sentence he didn’t remember starting. He flexed his wrists against the Velcro restraints.

“Colonel Young?” Carter asked.

“We’ve lost all power,” he said, trying to curb his vicious anger and the fear that he could not let himself feel. “We have no shields, no weapons, no life support. We are sitting ducks, and whatever happens to us, it’s going to be on you. I hope that your little experiment here is worth that.”

“That seems awfully convenient,” Woolsey remarked. “We do something you don’t like, and suddenly you lose life support? There’s no reason why the stones should have that effect. No. We’ve seen this maneuver before.”

The condescension in his voice sent Young skyrocketing to a new level of fury. He opened his mouth, ready to tear Woolsey a new one, but fortunately, Eli leapt in before he could.

“The ship is sentient,” Eli said, his voice rising. “It’s panicking. It doesn’t know what’s going on. You know this kind of thing happens with Ancient tech!”

Carter was still looking at Young. “There’s nothing wrong with the workaround,” she said quietly. “I saw the schematics myself. So why did we lock onto Rush’s imprint and get you instead?”

Young said nothing for a moment. He trusted her, was the thing; but he didn’t trust Woolsey, or the IOA. Telford clearly had them wrapped around his little finger. They’d let him keep his position with Icarus despite the fact that he’d been a Lucian Alliance mole, despite the fact that he’d deserted the Destiny during what he thought was a crisis. There was nothing the man couldn’t get away with. If Young told Woolsey the truth about Rush and the Destiny, Telford would absolutely find out, and— well, Young would rather not deal with that situation.

“Eli’s telling the truth,” he said slowly, monitoring Carter’s reaction. “We recently discovered a sophisticated AI at the heart of the Destiny’s mainframe. It’s interacted extensively with Rush. They seem to have developed a… rapport. I have no doubt that it was able to prevent you from pulling Rush out. As for why you got me…” He shrugged, aware that Carter was watching him intently. “I had to interface with Rush when he used the control chair. Maybe that confused our neural patterns. I don’t know; I’m not a science guy.”

“No,” Carter said. But she was, and she had to be weighing what he was telling her against what she knew.

“I’m positive,” Young continued, “that you’re never going to be able to pull Rush out. So if that’s the goal of this little operation, you might as well just shut it down now. Or, you know, keep trying and see what the AI does next time. I have no idea how its mind works. Maybe it’ll vent the atmosphere from the ship.”

There was no way, he thought, that the AI would risk Rush’s life. But Carter had no way of knowing that. What she needed to know, and what he was broadly communicating, was the truth: that the consequences of trying to pull Rush out would be disastrous.

She bit her lip, looking uncertain.

“Send us back,” Young said, meeting her eyes. “Send us back before it’s too late.”

Carter glanced at her watch. “We’re almost due for a report.”

“We said we’d give them another five minutes,” Woolsey began sharply, but Carter was already reaching forwards for the terminal..

The man whom Eli had switched with gasped, twitching against his restraints.

“What’s the situation?” Carter asked him.

“Main power is down. The backups just failed. They’ve got no shields. No lights. It’s pitch black. Colonel Telford is convinced that Rush is behind this somehow. He’s locking himself in the infirmary with two of Young’s personnel.”

Young held his tongue. He doubted that Rush had locked himself in the infirmary. He doubted that Rush was doing much of anything. TJ and James must have found him and barricaded themselves in there. At least that seemed to imply that Telford hadn’t gotten to Rush. Whatever had happened to the ship, they were still one step short of a worst case scenario.

“Rush could be staging this,” Woolsey snapped. “We have no way of confirming this is an actual crisis.”

Carter ignored him. “So you’re getting no data?” she asked.

“No.”

“What’s Colonel Telford doing?”

“He’s trying to break into the infirmary to talk to Rush.”

Carter made a noise of frustration. “God,” she muttered. “This is such a—“

“Send us back,” Young said again, insistently. “You know it’s the right thing to do. You’re putting the entire crew at risk. And for what?”

Woolsey shook his head. He still looked unconvinced. “Given Dr. Rush’s history of manipulating Earth-based science teams sent to Destiny, we have specific orders to confirm the veracity of any reported threats. We simply won’t allow that man to continue playing us for fools.”

Young had opened his mouth to respond when, unexpectedly, Wray spoke for the first time.

“That’s understandable. Unfortunately,” she said, voice steely in a way that was uniquely hers, in spite of the fact that the voice itself was not, “evidence of a threat to human life usually takes a form that I’m sure we’d prefer to avoid. Perhaps instead you could take them a reminder.”

Carter’s gaze shifted to her.

“Homeworld Command owes Dr. Rush,” Wray said icily. “Something… unfortunate happened to him. Something that wasn’t his fault. The Air Force might find itself in an uncomfortable position should that incident come to light. Or, God forbid, an internal review panel be called to consider it.”

Young could see her fingernails tearing tiny crescents into the arms of her chair. If he hadn’t known her, he wouldn’t have known she was playing a hunch— betting that no one would call on her to provide more information, betting that Carter would know about Telford’s unnamed project at all, and that whatever had happened with Telford and Rush was fucked-up enough to wield that kind of power.

There was a long silence. The atmosphere in the room was tense.

“Let me make a call,” Carter said.

She left the room.

It took her almost ten minutes to return.

That was too long, Young thought, acutely aware of every second passing. Every second in which, on Destiny, God-knew-what was going down; every second in which something might be happening to Rush— he had grown, he realized, so used to a general consciousness of Rush’s mental weather that simply to be without it triggered a low surge of anxiety in him.

Carter slammed the door on her way in, out of breath. “Okay,” she said. “We’re sending you back. You’re going to have to meet with Colonel Telford tomorrow for a debriefing, and Rush is going to have to cooperate with McKay and me for a feasibility assessment. Can you guarantee me that’s going to happen?”

“Yes,” Young said instantly. “Absolutely. As long as it happens on the Destiny, and I get your word that you don’t try to pull us— me— out again.”

“Done,” Carter said. She was already heading towards the communications terminal.

“Thank you,” Young said, trying to catch her eye. He meant it.

“Don’t,” Carter whispered, looking down at the stones. “Don’t thank me.”


Young stumbled in the dark, caught in an intense wave of vertigo, trying to make the lights and shadows around him add up to a room.

After a moment, he understood that he was standing in one of the Destiny’s hallways, holding a flashlight. He swept the long beam of light back and forth. Greer was beside him, looking grim. They were outside the infirmary. Rush was— nowhere in Young’s head.

He reached for his radio. “TJ? It’s me. Telford’s gone.”

“I’m going to need some confirmation,” she said levelly.

He tried to think of something that would convince her— something he would know that Telford wouldn’t. It seemed like there should be so many of those things.

“You had nightmares after the mission to PX3-975,” he said quietly, turning away so that Greer couldn’t hear. “The little girl that the Lucian Alliance tried to use as a bomb. You’d wake up insisting that she’d come through the gate.”

TJ had been incoherent, convinced that the girl was looking for her, that she had something important to tell her, and when she woke up enough she would curl up against his shoulder and cry big wracking sobs. The girl had been eight years old, and SG-9 had had to shoot her. She had died a short time later in TJ’s arms.

There was a long silence. After a moment, there was a shriek of metal. Someone was prying the doors apart. It took a good few minutes to get them wide enough that Young and Greer could enter.

James was on the other side. She looked at Young grimly. “Telford never got through,” she said. “We made sure.”

“Good work,” Young said. “You and Greer coordinate with Scott. Report back over the radio in twenty minutes.”

They nodded and set off, vanishing almost at once into the darkness.

Young entered the infirmary. He couldn't see TJ at first. She was being very quiet, which worried him. Finally, his flashlight beam caught the metal holes of her bootlaces. He raised it till he could see her. She was perched on top of one of the gurneys, washed-out in the white light and holding his black shape of his gun in her hand.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” he said.

She clicked on her own flashlight and set it on a table, letting the light spread sideways out into the room.

“Where is he?” Young asked. He was trying not to sound as urgent as he felt.

TJ said nothing for a moment.

“TJ, it really is me.”

“I know,” she said. “I can tell. I’ve always been able to tell.”

“I really need to—“

“He hurt his foot,” she said softly. “Again. That’s the second time. I asked him how, the first time, and he wouldn’t tell me. It was right before he fixed the FTL drive. I thought— well, it would be just like Rush to try to hurt you by hurting himself. Out of spite. But that’s not what happened, is it?”

Young shifted uncomfortably. “No,” he admitted.

“You told me not to let Telford near him. Not to let Telford touch him. To protect him from Telford at all costs. And they have a whole— thing going on, so it sort of made sense at the time. But it was because of you, wasn’t it? Because Telford was in your head. And he could do— what, exactly?”

Young shut his eyes. "Pretty much anything he wanted.”

“And Rush wouldn’t be able to stop him.”

“No.”

“Because he can’t stop you.

“No,” he said.

She stood abruptly, holding the gun to her left shoulder as though she’d forgotten that she had it in her hand. He could see that Rush was lying unconscious behind her on the gurney, only half-visible in the flashlight’s glow.

“You told me you could block the link.” TJ said loudly. “You told me you could block it.”

“I can,” Young said. “But he can’t.”

“So how are you any better than Telford?”

“I’m not,” he said, his temper flaring. “Is that what you want to hear? I fuck things up; I hurt him; this whole thing is fucked up. So maybe I’m no better than Telford. But I’m trying, TJ. I’m trying not to goddamn hurt him, when he’ll even— just— let me do that; I’m trying to keep us all alive with him in control of the ship, and I know it seems like everything is just really fucked-up now, but I’m trying. And I really just— need to see him.”

She eyed him unreadably. “He must hate this,” she said at last.

“He does,” Young said. “He fights it all the time.”

After a long moment, she moved aside and gestured towards the gurney. “We found him like this,” she said curtly. “Unresponsive.”

“He’s with the ship,” Young said, moving forwards. “That’s where he goes.”

“The ship is dead,” TJ said, the words like a slap.

Young didn’t say anything to that. He was looking down at Rush, who might have been sleeping if he hadn’t seemed so unnaturally still. Even in sleep people moved— they twitched, their eyes flickered. There was just— nothing in Rush at all. He was not there, on some important level.

Young laid a hand against Rush’s shoulder, a little hesitantly, but felt nothing. He touched the side of Rush’s neck, as though checking for a pulse; he stroked Rush’s hair back from his forehead, an odd and unreasonably tender gesture that he found himself performing on instinct, without any conscious plan. Finally he sat beside the gurney and clasped Rush’s limp hand between his own, pulling it close against his chest. He closed his eyes and dove into his mind, prying up any trace of floorboards, any remnant of a block that might separate them.

Nothing. Only a flat dark plane that didn’t even hint at depth. No geography, no weather, no pressure of moreness. He pushed against it frantically, as though he could force it to be more.

Nothing.

He turned away from Rush, away from TJ, and strode over to the wall in three steps. He clenched his hand into a fist, letting himself feel the guilt. It crept like a nauseating poison through his veins.

“Colonel?” TJ said, uncertain, from behind him.

As though her voice were the catalyst he’d been waiting for, he smashed his fist into the wall with a satisfying crack.

It hurt like hell.

“Fuck,” he breathed, drawing shakily back.

There was a silence

“Feel better?” TJ asked.

“No,” he said roughly.

“Let me see your hand.”

“It’s fine.” He pressed his forehead to the wall, unwilling to turn and face her.

“Try again,” TJ murmured. “It’s Rush. He’s difficult.”

Young laughed at that, and then couldn’t stand that he’d laughed.

“He’s very difficult,” she said with a weary kind of dryness.

“I know,” he whispered. “I know he is.”


Young tried for more than three hours to reach Rush. He could only imagine the rumors that had to be circulating regarding his visible absence from, well, everywhere. But he couldn’t bring himself to leave the infirmary. If he hadn’t needed to be near Rush to heighten the connection, he would still have felt— he didn’t know how he felt. Like he had to be there. Some part of him recalled, on a physical level, that sense of their last fragile bond snapping, like someone or something had cleaved them in half, and it had been—

He leaned forward, dropping his head onto his folded arms, trying to push the memory back.

His radio crackled. “Colonel Young, this is Eli.”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“I was wondering if I could come talk to you. I had an idea, and it’s kind of a long shot, but— anyway, I head from Greer that the infirmary is kind of off-limits. Because of. Um. Yeah.”

“You’re clear to come down,” Young said tiredly. He had nothing to hide from Eli. “I don’t think either of us does,” he murmured out loud to Rush. He still had Rush’s hand pressed between his palms. He really didn’t want to let go of it.

Eli arrived only minutes later. The very faint end of his flashlight beam announced he was there only a few seconds before he started to talk. “You know, it’s really creepy to walk around the ship when it’s pitch black. Am I the only one who’s noticed this? I’d give it a seven on the creepiness scale, but that’s only because— Oh. Hey. Um… are you holding Rush’s hand?

“Give me a break, Eli,” Young said wearily. “I’m trying to separate him from the ship. This helps.”

“Right. It’s just kind of a weird visual. What with— everything. Or maybe not so— You know what, I’m going to shut up now.”

Young narrowed his eyes. “You seem to be in an awfully good mood for someone with about fourteen hours of air left.”

“Oh! Right.” Eli shifted gears. “So you might have noticed that even though we’re being relentlessly pursued by evil aliens who want to kill us and steal our ship, somehow we’ve been sitting here for hours and we’re, like— not dead.”

“Yeah,” Young said. “Amazingly, I did notice that.”

“So that’s because we’re not using any power. Not any. To anyone looking for us, we’re basically a chunk of rock. Which is a really good thing, if you think about it. Plus, not having any power turned out to be awesome in the sense that it got Telford off of Destiny and brought you back.”

“What are you saying?” Young asked slowly.

“I’m saying, when you think about it, it seems less like Destiny freaked out because Rush got messed up when you were pulled away, and more like this is a plan for making sure that everything gets back to normal.”

“Except the part where we all die because there’s no life support,” Young said.

“Right. That part is not so awesome. But I think there might be a way to get it back. Nothing’s actually wrong with the ship; it’s just— got no power. If we could get even minimal power, we might get stuff back. Including Rush.”

“So how do we do that?”

“I was thinking we should give it a jump start.”

Young stared at him.

“You know. Like a car? Look, Destiny is basically a piece of equipment. When it’s turned off, it can’t turn itself back on. But if we give it some power, it might be able to take it from there.”

Young rubbed his forehead. “All right. I’ll buy into this. What do you need?”

“Just a laptop, fifteen minutes, and access to the neural interface chair. I promise,” he said hastily, seeing Young’s thunderous expression, “all I’m going to do is hook my laptop up and say ‘hello world.’”

“All right,” Young said skeptically. “Give it a shot.”

Eli turned to go. Then he stopped and hesitated. Without turning to look at Young, he said in an unusually small voice, 'He's going to be okay, right?"

“I don’t know,” Young said. He stared up at the ceiling, trying not to think about the question. “I really don’t.”


It took half an hour before Eli radioed in. “I’m hooked up,” he said, sounding nervous. “Give it a minute.”

For a moment, nothing happened. Then the emergency lighting flared. The sublight engines slowly ground into motion under the deck plates. The ship, like an suddenly-conscious beast, was beginning to stir. Young imagined he could feel it stretching and yawning.

He pushed himself out of the chair where he’d been sitting and leaned over Rush, laying his hands against the sides of his head, and touched their foreheads together, as though this would bring them closer in the way that counted. There was something there; he could feel it: a very faint rustle, a stir of motion that perhaps he alone in the world could have identified as Rush. He breathed out a sound of relief and reached for it. But it was like a small animal that he somehow had to coax out of the dark. He couldn’t grab it; there was nothing to grab onto. It wasn’t that solid yet; it wasn’t that well-formed.

“Eli,” he said over the radio— softly, as though Rush could hear him, or that skittish little semi-creature that wasn’t quite Rush. “We need more power.”

“You realize I’m using a laptop battery to start a starship, right?” Eli sounded harried. “The backups are already on. We’ve got shields. I think we might even get FTL in a minute. If you want full power, well— you know what we need for that. That’s more your department than mine right now.”

“Right,” Young said, sitting back.

“Any change?” TJ asked, coming to stand beside him.

“He’s there,” Young said, a note of frustration in his voice. “I should be able to reach him. But he’s just not— he’s not really there yet.”

TJ gave him a thoughtful, slightly sharp look. “He’s not a machine,” she said. “He’s a person, and I can’t even imagine how to define what just happened to him. Being mentally connected to a starship that shuts down for hours? There’s no way we can know what to expect. Give him some time.”

“I know,” Young said, “but I need him now.” Then he revised: “We need him now. He needs to wake up and restore power. We don’t have any time to give him.”

TJ didn’t respond.

Young pressed his left hand to Rush’s forehead, searching for him. There was still that faint sense of presence, hazy, restive, and uneasy. He tried to focus his thoughts towards it. //FTL,// he projected. //At a minimum, we need FTL.//

The radio crackled. “The drive is spooling up!” Eli said. “We’re about to—“

They jumped.

Young was only vaguely aware of this, and he grew less aware of anything that came after. The bulk of his consciousness was not in the world. It was traveling down, down, as deep as he could take it, down into that strangely-geometried space with Rush. He was aware of the ship, now— a vast multiplicity of blackness that seemed to speak all at once in various tongues, chords and harmonics that he couldn’t make sense of. Somewhere out there, the better part of Rush was being those gradations of blackness, forming parts of those alien chords. It didn’t— want to come back, Young thought, or it wasn’t sure that was what it wanted. That was why the little coalesced part of Rush crept so warily around the edges, ready at any moment to dart back into the forest of the ship.

//I’m here,// Young sent towards it. //You have to come back. We need you.//

He wondered what had happened to Rush when the SGC pulled him back. What had it felt like for Rush, who hadn’t known what was happening, who had known only that one moment Young was there and the next he was being torn away? Maybe that was something he’d wanted— he’d tried to make the same thing happen himself, after all. But to Young it hadn’t felt like that. Rush had fought so hard to keep Young with him. He hadn’t wanted to let go.

“You should have let go,” Young whispered aloud.

He tried to project reassurance at Rush. A sense that everything was safe now, that the threat was over.

A little more of Rush eased out of the dark.

//I fucked up,// Young said. //Please come back. You can yell at me. I won’t even give you hell for it. You can throw any kind of tantrum you like.// After a moment he added dryly, //Don’t make me regret saying that.//

Something out there seemed to warm to him. It still wasn’t really a person. It was loosening its grip on the ship in little bits. Or was it the ship that was loosening its grip? It was hard to tell. Young was used to a clear distinction: having to pry the ship off of Rush. Here the ambivalence made things tricky.

He tried to go in and shake the ship loose a little, pick off some of its little tendrils in their integration-spots. The thing that wasn’t yet Rush seemed unsure about that. At first it was very wary of Young. Then—

//It’s me,// Young projected gently. //Let me do this. I need you back with me, genius.//

Another moment of hesitation and— abruptly it transferred its allegiance to him, letting him see the outline of its whole constellation scattered within the galaxy of the ship. He moved through that space, gathering it up and sewing it together, coaxing the ship to give up each anxious part.

His sense of Rush grew stronger slowly, until it started to feel like Rush, like there actually was a Rush that Young was working with; and Rush was really working with him, prying himself out of the circuits, crawling back towards his body and the human world.

Soon after that, Young was startled by the return of the overhead lighting. He opened his eyes, squinting against the glare, and saw that TJ was standing beside him.

She looked worried. She said, “You’ve been at this for more than five hours.”

It hadn’t seemed that long. There was no time in that place.

“Hello?” Eli’s voice came over the radio. “So, uh, you may have noticed we’re back to full power. How are things going down there?”

Feeling impossibly weary, Young grabbed the radio. “Not sure. I’ll let you know,” he said.

He stared at Rush, who looked no different. //Rush?// he tried.

There was a long pause: a moment of tense, prolonged hesitation.

Then

 

 

somethinghappenedinRush’shead.

 

          It

was

 

no no        this                     denovod                                                   

                                                            Something’s                     01101000 01100001 01110000 01110000 01100101 01101110 01101001 01101110 01100111 01110100 01101111 00100000 01101000 01101001 01101101 00100000 01100010 01110101 01110100

                                                                                ne potisset

                {g3/4,g4} {a#3,a#4} {c#4,c#5} {e4,e5} {g#4,g#5} {a#4,a#5} {c#5,c#6} {e5,e6} {g5,g6} 

                              and           the           very          veryhigh         b6                                NO

        01110000 01101100 01100101 01100001 01110011 01100101 

 

the shields!                               He is

           noiei                                                                         the ship theship

                                                                                                                                       he's

noiei ne permithest                                             QUAESSO   

  

                                                            or is it L’Isle Joyeuse in the Lydian mode 

Gloria. Gloria. Paveo.
(Scio, Nick.)

  

          He does not                     A rhizome is a root structure it comes from the Greek but it is also

                              Quod de entropiam opinomor? Itave aut neum?

 

The smoke from a cigarette is laminar at the beginning but later succumbs to turbulence


                                                                                    c6/16 a&5 c b g b4 g5 b {c#,a,c#6} d# b5 d# f6 c# f hecan’t he CANNOT
                           Complete Disorder Is Impossible               
       

            Indeo
                                  sweetheart
(scio scio scio sed nehil ne potissum)

 

                     CUBI EST                                                                    And he’s
    Not

                              There is a problem with the way he’s

                                     neodconlugtre


     If the sun begins to melt the wax on our wings we can always don our formalist parachute!
                                                                                                                                                               And in California the sun is

But David does not like it when he says that

 

                                        so                               thisisnot

          Something

                                                                                                                                     is

    (Te mithendos es Nick quaesso) Modote LET modo LETGO te mithe LET GO JUST Te mithe MODO TE MITHE Nick but he would NOT

                    and

Young        had   to  rememberthat he   was  Young andnot    Rush      which  was  extraordinarily     difficultwhen   Rush        did  not    remember  that    hewasRush and   instead was   justreally   PANICKING and       em   caputei dolhet which    is to say his head hurtsomuch but   to    have  a head      that  hurt you had to

(a) have a body and
(b) be a person who could hurt so he was relatively sure he was a person and Young was a person and they were both persons which was to say they were two separate persons and

Young realized the overhead lights had flared to an almost intolerable brightness, not un-akin to flying through a sun. Beside him, TJ had her eyes covered.

He was definitely Young. He was not that stream of unintelligible fragments. God, he hoped there was something more than that left.

“Rush,” he managed to get out. “Rush— “

He didn’t know if Rush could understand him. But after a moment the lights dimmed.

Rush’s eyes flickered open. He gazed blankly at Young. “…Cubi essom?” he asked weakly. “Quod adcadevad? Me caputei dolhet.”

Young looked at TJ, not sure what to do or say.

“Dr. Rush,” she said. “Can you understand us? Can you understand what we’re saying?”

Rush stared at them with an expression of exhausted incredulity.

“English, Rush,” Young said, squeezing his hand gently. “English. Get with the program.”

“Fuck you,” Rush said, with a slightly strange accent.

“That’s more like it. How about a sentence?” Young asked.

“‘Fuck you’ is a sentence.”

Young grinned at him helplessly. He felt such a wave of relief that he was giddy with it. There was so much of it that he pushed some of it towards Rush, hoping to communicate it to him.

“What… happened?” Rush asked, his diction a little less crisp than usual. He seemed confused. “And—“ He looked down. “Why are you holding my hand?”

“You scared the shit out of us, is what happened,” Young said. “You shut down the ship to protect us.” He didn’t make any move to let Rush’s hand go, and Rush didn’t remove it. In fact, he absently laced his fingers through Young’s.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He frowned, his eyes going distant. “The last thing I remember is– you were on the floor. I was trying to—“ He made a listless gesture with his free hand. He didn’t seem able to explain what he meant, or was simply too tired to.

Young looked at TJ. “Could you give us a minute?” he asked her.

She hesitated. He remembered their recent argument. But she said only, “Call me if you need anything. Either of you.”

When she had gone, Young turned back to Rush. “So,” he said, looking down to where their hands were entangled. “You’re not going to like this.”

“I already don’t like it,” Rush murmured. His eyes had closed again.

“Homeworld Command has been designing a modification to the communication terminal that would allow them to pull people out against their will. Their whole plan from day one was to use it on you.”

Rush turned his head fractionally to gaze at Young. “You knew about this.”

His weather both looked and felt bruised. Betrayed, maybe.

“Yes,” Young said quietly.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought you would destroy the terminal,” Young said. It was the truth.

“I might have done.” Rush shrugged, the barest flinch of his shoulders. “But I could have told you that they wouldn’t be able to pull me out. We could have done something to prevent this.”

“I know,” Young said. He was finding it difficult to speak. He swallowed. “That’s why— I was going to tell you. That was what I wanted to talk about this morning. I wanted us to work together.”

Rush sighed. “So what happened?”

“Telford switched with me. I was gone for about twenty minutes. The ship lost power— we dropped out of FTL, and critical systems started to shut down. You were out the whole time. Carter pulled the SGC team back.”

“Twenty minutes?” Rush murmured. “This could have been much worse, you realize.”

“Yeah,” Young said heavily. “But also— that twenty minutes was this morning. You’ve been unconscious for eleven hours. We just got full power back a few minutes ago. Eli thought maybe you planned it, that you cut power on purpose.”

Rush made a noncommittal noise. His eyes were drifting closed. “I don’t know. It’s possible.”

“Hey,” Young said, rubbing his thumb slowly over the back of Rush’s hand. “I know you’re tired, but stay with me for a minute.”

Rush blinked at him.

“I’m— I didn’t want this to happen. I fucked up.” He paused. “I said that to you when you were out, too. So I guess I’m saying it twice.”

“You should have told me,” Rush said, sounding defeated. “Telford was the one who pushed for this, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” Young said quietly.

“Of course. Of course he did.”

“What’s the deal with you two?”

Rush looked down and said nothing.

“… I guess I should let you rest,” Young said at last, trying not to betray how much he wanted an answer to the question. “Anyway, I’m way past overdue on the bridge.”

“You’ve been down here the whole time?” Rush said, sounding surprised. “Why?”

Young looked away, slightly uncomfortable. “You were our best chance for restoring main power. Plus—“ He shrugged, one-shouldered. “I don’t know. I didn’t want— I wanted to— fix this.”

It was a pretty terrible explanation. But Rush just looked at him for a moment, his weather cycling very rapidly through a range of sounds and colors Young couldn’t understand.

Young squeezed his hand once more and stood to leave.

He’d only taken a few steps when he felt the headache they were having between them intensify. The room seemed to lurch sideways.

Young turned back to look at Rush. Rush hadn’t moved. His eyes were closed. “Rush?” he asked.

“It’s nothing. It’ll pass.”

“Are you sure?” Young watched him uncertainly.

“Relatively.”

“Really?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Go.”

Young rolled his eyes and turned, though it made his sense of vertigo strengthen.

He stopped by TJ’s office on his way out, partly because he wanted to touch base with her, and partly because he wasn’t sure he could make it all the way across the infirmary floor. God, his headache was incredible. Their headache. Whatever.

“How is he?” TJ asked, when she saw him leaning against the doorframe.

“Well, he’s hanging in there. Pretty unbelievably.”  He was having a hard time focusing on her. The room was distorting around him. It was like having the world’s absolute worst case of the spins, like he was drunk and hungover all at once.

“...You don’t look so good either,” TJ said uncertainly.

“It’s nothing,” he started to say, just as his knees buckled. She barely managed to make it around her desk in time. They folded to the cold metal of the deck plating.

“Who is it?” she asked sharply. “You or him?”

“Both,” he choked out, because he could tell, he just knew it; on the other side of the infirmary, Rush was curled in on himself—

TJ grabbed his face, checking his pupils. “Can you get up?” she asked.

He couldn’t answer.

Can you get up?”

“Yeah,” he slurred, but he could only managed to do it by leaning heavily on TJ. She had to drag him back towards Rush, and he came awfully close to throwing up on her at several intervals. It was a good thing, he thought woozily, that the romance was literally gone.

She managed to get him into the chair he’d vacated earlier. He reached out blindly, groping clumsily for Rush’s hand. They found each other, gasping in tandem as the skin-to-skin contact made the worst of the vertigo ease. The brutal edge of the headache softened a moment after, to where what was hammering them felt more like a hard stone than an axe.

After a few minutes, Young opened his eyes.

Rush was staring at him with a pained and hostile expression.

“You said you were sure,” Young snapped.

“I said relatively sure.”

TJ looked bewildered. “What just happened?” she asked.

“I think we might have screwed something up,” Young said. “Apparently, we can’t separate.”

“I fucking despise you at times,” Rush shot at him. “You know that, correct?”

 

Chapter Text

 

Young dreamed that he was back in Colorado, at the Bill’s Liquor Mart about a mile from the Mountain where he’d met Sheppard for the first time. He’d stopped in right before midnight after an offworld mission, and he’d been gatelagged like hell from the weird juxtaposition of noon and night— he’d left PX5-O37 at what felt like ten in the morning, spent three hours in debriefing, and then walked out to find the sky dark. So things were already weird. He’d just wanted to pick up a six pack and head home to where he knew that Emily wouldn’t be waiting up. But there was Sheppard, sort of slouching against the counter and giving the store guy a big smile, trying to charm his way out of not having any money on him.

“Hey,” Young had said, because he’d seen Sheppard around, and Sheppard had turned and looked at him and said, “Hey.”

“I got you,” Young had said, and he’d paid for Sheppard’s— holy shit— three bottles of whiskey and case of shitty beer. “You having a party or something?” he’d joked. Sheppard had lowered his eyes and smiled a much smaller, quiet smile, which Young didn’t know yet was never a sign of something good.

“You know me,” Sheppard had said, and Young had said, “I don’t, actually,” and Sheppard had tilted his head and given Young a considering look and said, “No.”

So anyway, one way and another, for reasons he didn’t quite fathom, Young didn’t end up going home. He went to Sheppard’s weird pristine apartment instead, and they sat out on the prefab white-picket-railing-style balcony and killed about half the case of beer.

“I always forget my fucking wallet,” Sheppard had said. “I’m still not used to carrying it.”

Young had glanced back into the apartment. It had immaculate sea-green carpet and a set of furniture that he was pretty sure had come straight out of a show-room window. “You forget to carry the rest of your fucking life back from Atlantis?”

Sheppard had smiled that same smile, little and secret, like he was laughing at a joke that Young wouldn’t get. “Mm,” he’d said, a sort of noncommittal sound of agreement, and stretched out, resting his feet against the balcony railing. At some point in their little drinking session, he’d lost his shoes. It was warm enough that time of year to go without them, even in the early hours of the morning, when Colorado could turn cold. But Young felt thrown stupidly off-balance by the sight of Sheppard’s bare feet. For some reason it was like seeing him without his shirt on.

He turned away hastily and, for lack of anything better to look at, found himself looking up at the sky. That was what Sheppard was looking at too. It was a like a basic human instinct, looking upwards. They just sat there and stared at the thin spread of stars that was all you could see from the balcony of a too-new apartment complex overlooking a parking lot in a Colorado Springs.

“The rest of my fucking life,” Sheppard said softly.

Later they’d gotten drunker and Sheppard had tried to explain some theory about wormholes, and Young had listened carefully, not understanding any of it, and Sheppard had said, “You’re kind of a surprisingly thoughtful guy,” and Young had tried to explain that he wasn’t really, he was just quiet; he’d always been too quiet for his own good— that in fact they’d held him back a grade in elementary school because they thought he was slow since he was quiet, and he used to get in trouble for hitting the other kids when they picked on him. “But you weren’t slow,” Sheppard said. “Maybe you just hadn’t figured out what you wanted to say yet. Or found the right person to say it to.” “Yeah? And who’s that?” Young had said, and Sheppard had looked at him for a long time before his smile kind of dipped, and he’d said, “I guess you’ll know when you know.” Things got hazy after that, but Young had slept on a couch that he suspected no one had ever sat on, and he remembered wondering before he fell asleep what Sheppard’s bedroom looked like, if it had the same kind of furniture store aesthetic, or if there was something, anything in it that looked like him, because already he sensed that there was someone inside Sheppard, and had made the fatal mistake of wanting to know who it was.

In his dream, the narrative was different. He goes into the liquor mart, and Sheppard is still there with no money, and Young still says, “I got you.” But then he realizes that Sheppard’s not buying liquor; that what’s sitting on the counter, waiting for the clerk to stick it in a bag, is a human heart. “You don’t mind, do you?” Sheppard says, looking at Young from under his eyelashes with that little self-deprecating smile. “I forgot to carry mine back from Atlantis.” But it’s not some cartoon kind of heart; it’s— blood and muscle and arteries and parts that look like gristle, all meat-like, and Young is nauseated.

It occurs to him that maybe this isn’t Sheppard. That maybe it’s actually the AI. He doesn’t know how he’d know for sure. And he doesn’t want the AI in his dreams; he doesn’t want it near him. So strong is his urge to get away that he stumbles backwards out of the store, out into what should be a parking lot in Colorado, with june bugs clicking and fluttering around the fluorescent lights, but instead he’s in a large posterboard-colored room that looks like a backstage. There’s a battered piano in a corner, and the smell of dust and strings and coffee, and racks of scraped-up upside-down music stands.

And Rush is there, looking harried and looking— well, more human, in his wire-rimmed glasses and a button-down white shirt. He’s kneeling, trying to sort through what must be hundreds of pages of sheet music someone has knocked down or spilled or dumped out on the floor. He keeps picking sheets of music up, glancing at them, and then discarding them over his shoulder. He has a hopeless expression.  “I can’t find it,” he says.

“What?” Young asks.

“The—“ He hesitates, and presses the heels of his hands against his forehead. “I don’t remember,” he says sounding panicked. “Why can I not remember? I was supposed to know; I was supposed to know it by now!”

“Okay,” Young says soothingly. He’s pretty good, by this point, at curbing Rush’s more violent moods, at least when he’s got nothing on the line. “Maybe I can help you look. It’s a piece of music?”

“Obviously!” Rush shouts at him. “What else would I be performing?”

Even in dreams he can’t do anything right, apparently.

“And you’re sure it’s part of this whole mess?” With the toe of his boot, he nudges at a splayed-out sheet of music.

“It was supposed to be in boxes,” Rush says. He turns away, fretful. “It was all supposed to be in boxes.” Then, looking up sharply, he frowns at Young. “You were supposed to be in a box! Why won’t you stay where I put you?

“Sorry,” Young says, taken aback. “I didn’t know.”

“You can’t be here.” Rush is getting agitated.

“But I don’t want to miss the performance,” Young says— because it’s suddenly obvious to him, in the way that things in dreams are obvious, that in fact he doesn’t want to miss it. He really, really wants to stick around and hear Rush play.

“No,” Rush says, and climbs to his feet, shoving Young backwards. “You have to go. Get out of here.

“Then why does David get to stay?” Young points to the corner, where Telford is lounging on a sagging blue sofa, casually flipping through classified mission reports.

Rush’s face cracks. For a second he looks utterly desolate. “It’s too late. I can’t get rid of him now.”

“It’s not too late,” Young says, and he doesn’t think he’s talking about Telford, though he doesn’t know what else he’d be talking about. He has a strange sense of being himself and not-himself at the same time, as though he’s not in control of what he does in this dream. He takes Rush’s hand and laces their fingers together.  “Nick,” he says. “It’s not too late.”

He’s in and not in the dream then, like it’s pulling away from him, like it’s being reeling back to somewhere very far away, and he’s in the room with Rush and he’s in a parking lot in Colorado and he sees the anguish in Rush’s face as Rush tries to hold onto his hand, and the store is closing and june bugs are clicking at the lights because they’re dumb-as-dirt creatures who don’t know any better; they think there’s something other than incineration waiting for them at the heart of the sun—

He woke with a start on an infirmary gurney, still in his rumpled uniform and half-draped over Rush.

He vaguely remembered having helped TJ push two gurneys together the night before, so he could get out from under the cloud of his damn headache and rest, but at some point he must have relocated without waking himself up. Rush was still asleep, and when Young tried to untangle himself from the blankets covering them, he stirred and made an anxious noise.

//Shh,// Young said, and projected a quiet wave of reassurance.

He hoped TJ hadn’t seen them sleeping like that. He didn’t want to her to get the wrong idea. God; he was glad Rush had slept through it.

He stood, and as he did so he could feel the headache begin again. It was maybe a little better than last night. At least the walls weren’t spinning. He still reached behind him to clutch for Rush’s hand, hoping that Rush wouldn’t wake up. Something stirred in him, a half-remembered dream.

He tried to remember what he’d dreamed, frowning as he inspected his other hand. His fingers were bruised and swelling at the knuckles where he’d hit the wall. Yesterday had just been a parade of good decisions all around. He was lucky that Rush hadn’t picked up on that, either. He’d never let Young hear the end of it.

Around the corner, the main doors of the infirmary swished open. He looked up, and heard TJ’s voice. “Camile. What can I do for you?

“I need to speak to Colonel Young,” Wray replied.

“He’s asleep,” TJ said, her voice guarded. “He’s exhausted.”

Wray paused. “Then I need to speak to Dr. Rush.”

“I’m sorry,” TJ said smoothly. “That’s not possible right now.”

Young could practically see Wray staring TJ down. Her voice had acquired a dangerous quality. “What’s going on, TJ?”

Before the situation could deteriorate any further, Young reached for his radio. “TJ,” he said in a low voice. “It’s fine. I’m awake. Let her come back.”

He was still leaning against Rush’s gurney when Wray rounded the corner, though he could just about get away with not touching Rush.

Wray raised her eyebrows at something— probably his disheveled appearance, though it could have been a number of eyebrow-raising things. She opened her mouth to speak, but he shook his head.

“Quiet,” he whispered. “Don’t wake him up.”

Wray looked at Rush, who had turned slightly towards Young in his sleep, like he was some sort of light-seeking plant and Young was the sun. He was pale, his eyes carrying bruised hemispheres, almost as though he’d been hit in the face.

“He looks terrible,” Wray said.

Young couldn’t dispute it. He said, “He’s had a rough week.”

“What happened yesterday, Everett?” She kept her tone and face neutral.

“You were there,” he said, stalling for time.

“You know what I mean.”

Not only did he know what she meant, but he knew her. She wasn’t going to be leaving without an answer to the question. He should have told her from the beginning, probably. And she’d put a lot on the line to get him out of that mess, without even knowing what she was doing it for.

He sighed. “Rush has a psychic link with the ship.”

“A what?”

“And,” he plowed on, undeterred, “with me.”

She stared at him

He shrugged.

“With you?

“It’s… complicated.”

“I can imagine,” she said tartly.

“Apparently, it’s the way the ship is meant to work. One human navigator, or whatever, and someone else to make sure they’re okay.”

“You,” Wray said, disbelieving. “Your job is to take care of Rush?

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I know how it sounds.”

She shook her head. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking. She paced several steps away from him, then paced back. Her heels were making quick little clicking sounds on the deck plates.

“Who knows about this?” she said at last.

“TJ. Greer. Eli.”

“You’re going to have to tell the crew something. The two of you have been missing in action for twenty-four hours. The ship shut down. No one knows what’s going on. Not that we ever know what’s going on, apparently, but people have the right to know something.”

“I know,” Young said heavily. “I know they do. I just don’t know what to tell them.”

“Well, I’d suggest not telling them that the survival of the ship now rests on the cooperation of the two people on board most likely to—“ She stopped, restraining herself. She closed her eyes and put a hand to her head. “I would suggest not revealing the nature of your connection,” she said more carefully. “Explain Rush’s relationship with the ship, and attribute to the incident yesterday to Colonel Telford. I assume that’s one area in which you and Rush agree?”

“Yes,” Young said.

Their eyes met. He could tell they were both remembering their previous conversation. Without speaking, they turned in tandem to look at Rush. He hadn’t moved.  His eyebrows were drawn slightly together, as though he were fighting off a headache in his sleep.

“Have you talked to him?” Wray asked after a moment. “Is he going to be all right?”

Young fought the urge to reach out and take Rush’s hand. “He doesn’t remember what happened. He never remembers anything from when he’s with the ship. TJ says—“ he tried to remember. “His neural architecture can’t support the amount of data required for those memories. Which makes him sound like a machine. But he’s not.”

“No,” Wray said quietly.

There was another long pause.

“I think you should both talk to the crew,” she said. “I can organize town hall meetings, like we did a few years ago. That way it’s not as… stressful.” She glanced over at Rush again. “Will he be able to do that?”

“I think so,” Young said, although he didn’t know. “Maybe don’t schedule anything before twelve hundred hours.”

She nodded. “I’ll try to work around your meeting with Colonel Telford.”

It was a pointed reminder. Young worked not to visibly wince. He was pretty sure she picked up on it anyway, but he was also pretty sure that she sympathized. “Right,” he said. “I haven’t forgotten. I’ll take care of it.”

When she had gone, he sank back into the chair by Rush’s gurney, absently letting his hand rest on Rush’s sleeping arm. He hadn’t even thought yet about how to deal with Telford. He wasn’t about to let Telford anywhere near Rush, which was going to necessitate some tricky arrangements, since he and Rush couldn’t be apart.

The presence of Wray and the reminder of what she’d told him had gotten him wondering again about Telford’s history with Rush. He needed to know, he thought, if he was going to go twelve rounds with Telford. Telford wasn’t going to stop coming for the ship. And even Wray had known more than Young did, which left him feeling distinctly outgunned. Because knowledge— that was the only real weapon, the really lethal weapon in Telford’s world.

He tried to remember what he’d seen in Rush’s dream, or in his dream-fragments. Rush and Telford had definitely been offworld, in some kind of lab. It had been Ancient, but not Ancient— Young’s had thought it was Goa’uld. There had been a Goa’uld who had worked with Ancient tech— Anubis, the guy whose clone had nearly destroyed Cheyenne Mountain. Young had known someone sent to clean up one of his research labs. Usually “clean up” meant destroy, but that time a lot of the tech had been taken. No one had really asked what for. It was plausible, Young guessed, that Telford could have gotten ahold of it to study, and that he could have found a working lab offworld. But Anubis’s aim had been ascension, and Telford’s project was somehow related to Icarus, which had turned out to be about the Destiny. What was the link?

The Ancients, of course. The Ancients had ascended. They had built the Destiny. They had… they had designed the interface chair. 

Young looked at Rush, who— as though he sensed the troubled coil of Young’s thoughts— made an unhappy expression and shifted closer to Young.

Rush had wanted to use the chair, but he’d always refused to. When he’d had to, he’d used a firewall of some kind. The first time he’d had to forgo the firewall, in the middle of a battle, when he hadn’t had the option— something had happened. The ship had started opening doors for him. As though it recognized him, as though it recognized something in him.

Young shivered.

“You knew,” he whispered. “You knew what would happen.”

What had Telford done to him in that lab? And why hadn’t Rush told him?

The last was easily answered. Young sighed and reached out to tug the blanket up over Rush’s shoulders.

“I wish you trusted me,” he murmured. “Just a little bit.”


Rush finally woke an hour later and, as was typical, absolutely crashed back into consciousness, his mind flooding with static and color and noise and a need to move, move faster, get out of here, go. Young put a hand on his shoulder, holding him back, not wanting him to either fall off the gurney or make a really ill-advised break for the door, but that was a bad idea: Rush tensed, his weather shrieking into a maelstrom at the sensation of being held down.

Young lifted his hands up. “Hey. It’s okay. It’s just me.”

Rush blinked at him. “…Yes,” he said groggily. “I can see that.” He touched his throat gingerly; he was sounding hoarse.

“You need water,” Young said, and handed him the plastic cup that TJ had left on the bedside table.. “TJ said if you don’t drink at least a liter you’re getting an IV.”

Rush shot him a look of disdain that suggested he dared anyone to try to put an IV in him. The look turned to distrust when he tasted what was in the cup. “This is not water.”

“TJ put some stuff in it. Salt, probably? I don’t know. Just drink it.”

Rush narrowed his eyes.

“I’m not trying to poison you, Rush. It’s budget Gatorade. God.”

Rush drank sullenly. He was clearly not in a good mood. Young didn’t know what exactly that was about, but he took it as a positive sign, since it indicated that Rush was feeling more like his usual self.

“What are you so fucking happy about, anyway?” Rush said shortly. “This is terrible.” He made a curt gesture between their heads, by which Young gathered he meant their inability to separate, rather than the salted water— though that was probably also terrible. “How am I supposed to get anything done? Presumably you have things to do as well, though what exactly those things might be remains unclear.”

“It’s not going to be a problem,” Young said, trying to keep his tone easy and his mood light. “Trust me. At least for today.”

“If you think that I’m spending all day in here—“

“No,” Young said quickly. “Listen, Wray and I talked, and she’s setting up some town hall meetings so you and I can talk with the crew. Right now no one knows why the ship shut down, or what happened to you and me, and she thought it would give us a chance to explain—“

He paused at Rush’s increasingly stormy expression, but decided to forge ahead.

“—Explain about you and—“

Rush’s gaze looked like it might successfully melt lead.

“—Explain that you and the ship are linked. I thought—“

“Yes,” Rush said. “Precisely. You. You thought. You didn’t even fucking wait till I was fucking conscious to plan our fucking day. Well, I’ve got news for you. First of all, I don’t know what a town hall meeting is, and I don’t want to know. Second, I’m not doing it, and certainly not multiple times in a row. Third, and most importantly, there are far more pressing concerns at this point— specifically, evaluating the platform and the neural network that define Destiny’s AI.”

“Okay,” Young said, aware that his congeniality was fraying, “but you can put Eli on that for now, and—“

Rush leveled a finger at him. “You do not make scientific decisions about this ship!”

“Can you please not freak out about this?” Young said, laying a pacifying hand on Rush’s arm.

That, too, turned out to be the wrong move. Rush jerked violently away, his mind awash in screeching fragments of staticky emotions and uneasy memories. “Don’t touch me,” he snapped.

Young clenched his jaw. “You are— a lot of work.”

Rush hurled his empty plastic cup at the wall. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Town hall meetings? A lot of work? Do you have a background in middle management? Did you get traumatized at one of Dr. Jackson’s cultural sensitivity seminars? Don’t tell me I’m a lot of work; tell me what you actually mean!” 

“I am trying to help you,” Young exploded, finally and spectacularly losing his temper. “Look, I know that for whatever reasons of deeply-ingrained psychological fucked-up-ness, you’re physically incapable of recognizing that fact, but I am trying to help you! And frankly it would go a lot fucking smoother if you could stop lying for just one second, or hiding shit, or everything else you do for no goddamn reason except to—“

You withheld information from me about Colonel Telford’s plan to use the communication stones to—“

“I already told you I was going to tell you that—!”

“Which I’m sure made you feel much better about yourself, but did fuck-all for me, so—”

“You have got to be kidding me!” Young stood abruptly and paced as far away from Rush as he could get, which turned out to be about a whole two feet. The nerve of Rush to pit one decision against the no-doubt dozens of secrets he was still keeping— and now Rush had gotten Young thinking about Telford, too, the goddamn mess that was Telford, which only increased Young’s fury. It didn’t occur to him that his thoughts were loud, and that he hadn’t broken the news to Rush about the meeting. He could tell the exact moment when Rush picked it out of his brain.

Rush’s eyes widened and his mind screeched into multiple streams of fast, chaotic, fractured thinking. “You agreed to bring him here?

Here and there, flickering in amongst the jerky, nauseous landscape that Rush had made out of his head, was that lab, with its dark gilt-work walls, and its glowing circuitry, and the smell of something burning, and David’s hand against his cheek—

Young lost sight of the memory as it vanished, buried beneath static and uninterpretable images of snow. “I agreed to bring him here so I could get back and save all of our lives!” he said loudly. “Goddamnit, Rush, I was not hiding this from you; you’ve been unconscious for most of the last twenty-four hours!”

“And whose fault was that?” Rush threw at him. But he was off-kilter now. The news about Telford had derailed him. He was less angry than he was upset.

“Mine,” Young said tightly. “It was my fault. There. Are you happy?”

Rush clearly wasn’t. He pulled his knees to his chest and curled forwards, a picture of misery. Young couldn’t read any of his thoughts— only his roiling, seasick weather. It was hard to look at it.

Young sighed. He turned away for a second and rubbed at his forehead. “Look—“ he said. “If we have to put off talking to the crew, Wray will work it out for us. I’ll go with you to do whatever you have to do. I didn’t mean to make it seem like you don’t get a say.”

Rush relaxed fractionally at that, though his head stayed buried in his arms where they were folded on top of his knees.

Very cautiously, Young reached out and laid a hand on his back. //?// he projected uncertainly, asking for permission.

He felt a tiny shrug. Rush sent back a wan sense of assent.

Their minds came slowly into apposition, a careful and comforting intimacy that did away with any trace of their incipient headache. Young let his hand move just a little, stroking Rush’s back in the same way he would have stroked the side of a spooked horse as a kid. Rush didn’t protest. His tension slowly eased further.

//—Sorry,// Rush sent, his thoughts abruptly coalescing to form the word, before dissolving once more in their unreadable patterns.

//You’re having a bad week,// Young said.

//I’m having a bad decade,// Rush said.

//Yeah. I’m getting that.//

//I can’t talk to Telford. Not today.//

//No. I have an idea about that, though.// Young sent a brief visual explanation of his plan.

Rush nodded. //What time are the meetings supposed to be happening?//

//Don’t worry about it. Whenever.//

//I can do some of the necessary coding to interrogate the AI via laptop.//

//Sure,// Young said easily. //That would be great.//

There was a long pause. Young was aware of his hand on Rush’s back, slowly smoothing between his shoulder blades; the heartbeat he could feel, the heat of Rush’s skin.

After a while Rush finally lifted his head and looked at Young. His expression was unreadable.

Young felt caught by his gaze. “Hi,” he said quietly, and then didn’t know why he’d said it.

Rush smiled very faintly. “Hi,” he said.

Young cleared his throat and stepped back, eager to break the odd intensity of the moment. He fumbled on the table beside him for a power bar that TJ had left. “You’re, um, supposed to eat this, by the way. Doctor’s orders. It’s one of TJ’s very last power bars.”

It wasn’t one of the standard SGC-issue energy bars that came with the MREs. It was an honest-to-God grocery store concoction that came half-coated in waxy chocolate, glossy with some kind of sweet syrup and studded with nuts. Rush looked at it for a moment when he’d unwrapped it, then broke off a piece and handed it to Young.

“Nope,” Young said. “You need the calories more than anyone.”

“I’m trying to have a moment, and you’re ruining it.”

That surprised a smile out of Young. He shrugged and accepted, biting down on crunchy, synthesized beads that tasted vaguely like oats and almonds and heartbreakingly familiar, safe, chemical Earth preservatives. When he hit the chocolate, it was brittle and so fucking sweet it hurt.

“Oh, my God,” he said, closing his eyes.

“That,” Rush said dryly, “was obscene.”

“Come on. You can’t tell me you don’t miss chocolate.”

“I save my oral fixations for things that deserve them.”

“Such as?” Young challenged.

Rush shut his eyes. “Cigarettes.”

Young wrinkled his nose. “Those things’ll kill you.”

Rush’s mouth curved, not quite in a smile, as he looked down for an instant. His mind was opaque. “The best things always do.”

In the back of his mind, the Destiny seemed to awaken for an instant, stirring and stretching forwards eagerly, a living and convoluted darkness that Young could not understand, only hold back as it licked at the edges of Rush’s consciousness. In the next instant it was gone, but Young, looking at Rush, was left with a sudden sense of dread.

Rush tilted his head and frowned. //?//

“Nothing,” Young said. “Just— nothing.”

“Good. Because,” Rush said with a burst of energy, grabbing one of his crutches and using it to snag his boots off the floor, “I’m going to need someone to carry my computer when we find it. And as you seem to have no end of free time on your hands…”

Young sighed.


Wray had scheduled the first town hall meeting to start at twelve hundred hours. By the time they’d located Rush’s computer, they were running late, and they showed up to the mess to find Wray sitting silently in front of a third of the Destiny’s crew. What little conversation there had been died abruptly as they entered the room. The walk from the doorway to where Wray was seated seemed to last forever. Even Rush, who normally thrived on hostile scrutiny, seemed uncomfortable. He didn’t like, Young could pick up vaguely, so many people looking at him.

“Hey,” Eli said as they passed him. “Nice to see you’re alive. A radio call would have been cool, by the way. Just, you know, ‘Hey, Eli, thanks for saving the day. Again.’”

“Eli,” Rush snapped— almost reflexively.

Someone in the crowd snickered, probably because that kind of response from Rush had become a running joke. Then someone else laughed, and the silence broke, with whispered conversation bursting out in patches.

Rush turned toward Wray’s table and added, without looking at Eli, “No less than I expected.”

“You’re welcome,” Eli said mildly. “Anytime. Just feel free to go on implementing insane-sounding, barely comprehensible plans, and then telling me to fix the consequences. It’s really fun for me.”

Young rolled his eyes and settled himself beside Wray at the table she’d chosen. Rush, predictably, sat as far away from Young as he could get— which was just about at the end of the table. He opened his computer as soon as Young slid it over to him and commenced ignoring the room at large.

Wray gave him a long, incredulous look, and then turned her gaze on Young. He shrugged helplessly, and tried a conciliatory smile.

She swallowed a sigh and began her explanation. It didn’t take long to sell the basics to the crew, and they didn’t seem as alarmed as Young had feared they’d be. Maybe they were just burnt out on alarm. If Rush was in charge of the ship, at least someone was in charge of the ship. Probably it helped that Young and Wray were acting like they didn’t have a problem with it. Acting, of course, was the right word.

At the end of the meeting, Wray turned to Rush and asked him if he had anything to add.

Rush looked up from his computer and paused thoughtfully, running one hand over his unshaven jaw. “Not particularly. Though I’d advise against leaving me for dead, unless you want to lose life support.”

Young tried not to wince. //Thanks for that,// he shot at Rush.

//They need to know. I happened to choose an example with which I have some experience.//

“Yes,” Wray said hastily, “well, I’m sure we’ll all keep that in mind. Any questions?”

There weren’t.

After the meeting, Eli approached Rush with a look of wry exhaustion. “Hey,” he said, “if you’re going to completely ignore a meeting that’s actually all about you, which is really awkward for everyone, by the way, just to work on whatever secret coding project you’re going to tell me about in about two weeks when it blows up in our faces, you might as well have these.” He produced Rush’s glasses, which had had their battered frames replaced by a pretty creditable repair job. “Brody fixed them, but he’s scared of you.”

“I see you found the machine shop,” Rush said. He was turning the frames over in his hands, inspecting the careful work. “You know, you really shouldn’t wander around unsecured areas of the ship.”

“Yeah, yeah. Maybe you should start leading by example,” Eli said. He stuck his hands in his pockets and started to wander off.

“Eli,” Rush said.

Eli turned.

“Tell Brody—“ Rush paused. He didn’t look up. “This is acceptable work.”


The discussion with the next two groups went better, mostly because Wray had learned not to ask Rush for comments. Young figured they’d find out the real fall out from the whole ordeal when the crew started talking amongst themselves. Maybe he’d get Eli to report back about whatever rumors were circulating.

He pulled Greer and Scott aside after the last group meeting. //Time to get this over with,// he sent to Rush.

Rush paused, hands suspended over his keyboard. He tried and failed to hide the surge of dread that Young’s comment had produced.

//Yeah. You and me both,// Young said.

The four of them headed to the communications room. Scott was going to be switching with Telford, as he often did. He didn’t ask why Rush and Greer were there, though his eyes flicked to Rush in a way that suggested he had questions. When they reached the doorway of the room, he turned to Young and offered his gun without being prompted. Young took it, pocketed the clip, and then did the same with his own weapon.

“Go on in,” he told Scott. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Scott nodded. His eyes again slid to Rush and Greer, but he simply turned and entered the room.

Young locked the door behind him. “Sergeant,” he said to Greer, “I need you to do two things for me. The first is to make sure Telford doesn’t leave that room. I don’t think he’s going to try, but on the off-chance that he does— use nonlethal force, obviously.”

Greer nodded.

“The second,” Young said, “is to watch him.” He pointed at Rush.

What,” Rush said darkly.

“The connection between us is damaged,” Young explained in a lower voice, glancing down the hallway on the off-chance that someone might be approaching them. “He’s going to be right next to the wall, and I’m going to be on the other side, but that’s about as far apart as we can get. So I need you talk to him, and if he stops responding to you, I need you to come get me. He’s almost certainly going to get—“ Young paused, searching for the right word. “Kind of weird. That’s okay. But if he stops responding at all, you need to come and get me immediately.”

“Excuse me!” Rush snapped. “I am right here, you realize.”

“Yeah, for now you are,” Young said. “Let’s keep it that way.” He turned back to Greer. “Understood?”

“Got it,” Greer said.

“And you.” Young took hold of Rush’s shoulders and gently pushed him back against the corridor wall. “Stay right here, and don’t make this difficult.”

He could feel Rush gearing up for a spectacular explosion, but before he got the chance for it, Young had hit the door controls and left him in the hallway, glaring irritably at Greer.

As soon as he entered the room, he could see that Scott had switched with Telford. The man who was standing in the room with him, leaning against the communications table, was all hard, sharp angles and impatient lines. Telford’s eyes always had something of the hawk in them, no matter whose eyes he was actually using– not because they were good at watching, but because they were good at spotting prey.

Young was going to need to throw him off his game. He leaned against the wall nearest the door. He could feel Rush on the other side, but only barely. The headache that had spun up was killing him. He was going to need to not let Telford throw him off his game, because his body was doing a pretty good job of that all on its own.

“Everett,” Telford said shortly.

“David,” Young returned.

“You have full power back, I see.”

“We do.”

There was a silence.

“How did he do it?” Telford said at last. His tone was conversational, but his body was as tense as a pulled-back bow.

“Do what?” Young asked mildly.

“Don’t bullshit me, Everett. I’m your commanding officer.”

Young smiled humorlessly and shook his head. “You don’t outrank me, David, and you’re here at my discretion. As far as I’m concerned, you’re the military liaison between Homeworld Command and the Destiny. That’s it.”

Telford studied him with flat eyes. “That’s really how you want to play this?”

“This isn’t your command,” Young said, emphasizing each word carefully. “Not anymore.”

Another silence. Young had the sense that he was being measured and weighed as a threat.

Abruptly Telford looked away and said, “I want to talk to Rush.”

Young didn’t even pause. “Not a chance.”

“I can take this up the chain, you know. Come back with an order.”

“Are you even going to ask if he’s okay?” Young was losing his congenial manner. “After the stunt you pulled? Do you even give a damn?”

“Do you?” Telford shot back. “You’ve almost killed him how many times, now? Not that I blame you. The man always seems to be begging for it. He’s a goddamn snake.”

“Takes one to know one,” Young said, deliberately echoing the language he’d heard in Rush’s dream.

Telford’s eyes flicked to him, so fast that Young wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been watching for it.

“Yeah,” Young said. “He told me.”

What?” Telford whispered. But he recovered his equilibrium quickly. “Told you what?

“About your little experiment.” He was aware that he was walking a delicate tightrope. He didn’t have much information to use.

Telford’s lip curled. “Oh, what did he tell you? Let me guess. He went crying to you about how we forced him, about how he didn’t want to do it. That’s bullshit, Everett. You’re being played. You know what he’s like; you know you can’t trust what he says. You think any of us wanted to do it? Even Jackson knew that there was no point in pushing the Icarus project further if we couldn’t bring someone up to the minimum threshold requirements laid out in the Ancient texts. It didn’t matter what we wanted, any of us. It was irrelevant.”

“Landry told him he had to do it if he wanted Icarus,” Young said levelly. “You specifically maneuvered him—“

“Well, who else were we going to get to do it?” Telford cut him off. “Sure, we could have used Sheppard, but even he was only a distant second best. No one else came close. The first time we walked into that lab, the whole place lit up for him like he owned the goddamned place. What does that tell you?”

Young didn’t say anything.

“What it tells me,” Telford said fiercely, “is that we made the right choice, even if we didn’t get the results we wanted. And he agreed to it, so don’t start making me out like I’m some kind of cartoon villain. He agreed to it.”

“Because you pushed him!” Young said, more hotly than he’d intended.

“You’re goddamn right I pushed him. Given what was on the line? Sure I did. And maybe some things happened between us that I could have handled a little better. But you should be glad I pushed him, because you would have been fucked without me. You would have never have accessed any of the Destiny’s systems. You think a software buffer would have been enough to protect anyone else from the neural interface? That the AI would’ve—“

Suddenly he stopped, staring at Young. “Unless it’s past that, at this stage,” he murmured. “Unless it did work, after all, and you’ve been, shall we say, a little bit cagey with the truth. You wouldn’t do that, though, would you, Everett? I always thought you were the straight arrow.”

His expression— poised somewhere halfway between suspicion and a dark incipient satisfaction— made Young intensely nervous. He had to act fast to divert Telford’s train of thought. Fortunately, he could tap into the well of rage that had been building in him through their meeting, intermingling with the headache that was out of his control. “You were compromised,” he snapped, “during your goddamn ‘experiment.’ What were you going to do if you succeeded? Hand him over to the Lucian Alliance? To Kiva?”

That struck home, as he’d known it would. “He was always going to be a target for the Lucian Alliance,” Telford said, defensive. “And I would have protected him from Kiva.”

“I’m sure,” Young said witheringly. “I’m sure he would’ve loved being under your special protection.”

Telford’s eyes narrowed, perhaps picking up some ugly hint of innuendo that Young hadn’t entirely intended to give. “…What did he tell you?”

“We’re done here,” Young said.

“We’re nowhere near done here. This is my project, Everett. Rush was my project, so if he’s—“

Young’s headache was reaching unmanageable levels. He thought it was probably due to the separation from Rush, though he wasn’t ruling out that some of it had to do with what he’d heard from Telford, which was frankly enough to make anyone feel sick. He had to get out of the room before the walls started spinning or he risked some kind of revealing collapse.

“We’re done,” he said. “I have another meeting.”

“You can’t dismiss me,” Telford hissed.

“I just did. But hey— feel free to stay in this locked room for as long as you like.” Young pulled out his radio. “Sergeant. Open the door, please.”

“Everett,” Telford said, advancing on him. “You can’t do this.”

“I just did,” Young said as the door hissed open. “Nice talking to you, David.”

He hit the door controls as soon as he was on the other side, trapping Telford in the room. Leaning against the wall, he worked his way towards Greer and Rush. Removing the bulkhead from between him and Rush had improved the state of his head considerably, but confused shocks of pain were still rebounding around his skull.

“Hammer group,” Greer snapped at Rush. “Come on. At this rate, there’s no way you’re going to clear your pathetic personal best of forty-seven seconds.”

It took Young a minute to understand what he was looking at.

Greer and Rush were sitting on the floor, pieces of Greer’s disassembled assault rifle scattered around them. Greer had both hands fisted in Rush’s jacket and was keeping Rush upright while Rush vaguely attempted to assemble the gun.

“My fourteen-year-old cousin is better at this than you are,” Greer said. “Come on, Doc. Get with it. Optical sight group.”

Young knelt down next to them, and Greer shot him a relieved look. Disregarding what Greer might think, Young put his arm over Rush’s shoulders. Rush blinked, and his movements grew steadier and quicker. He snapped together the magazine and the butt plate.

“Frame and trigger,” Greer prompted. “You’re already at thirty seconds.”

“I’m aware of that,” Rush said testily, and Greer relaxed a bit further, loosening his grip on Rush’s jacket. Rush brought the last pieces into place, and Greer checked his watch.

“Thirty-four seconds,” he said. “I could have killed you three times over.”

“Congratulations,” Rush said.

“You need to work on this. Chloe’s better than you. A lot better.”

“I don’t view that as an insult.” Rush glared at him.

“Thanks, Sergeant,” Young said to Greer, helping Rush to his feet. “Telford and Scott should be switching back shortly. Keep an eye out and make sure we’ve got Scott back, would you?”

Greer nodded.

Young turned to Rush. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Rush snapped. He didn’t really look fine. He looked like he was about to fall over. He pushed himself free of Young’s touch.

Young hesitated, but figured it wasn’t worth fighting over. “Okay, well— you wanted to go check on the AI?”

Rush nodded. It took him a minute to manage enough coordination to get his crutches under him, but once he had, he headed off purposefully in the direction of the CI room. Young sighed, picked up his laptop and followed him.

“What did Colonel Telford have to say?” Rush asked at length, after Young had caught up to him, just when the silence between them was starting to seem strained. The tone of his voice was extremely, uncharacteristically formal.

“Just— excuses,” Young said. “Nothing that would interest you.” He was working hard to obscure his thoughts from Rush. He tried to focus on Telford and the Lucian Alliance, which was still an emotional enough subject to drown out most of what was in his head. He wondered how easy it would be to fake being under their control. He wondered if Telford was devious enough to have them brainwash him after he’d already given them his loyalty.

“Hmm,” Rush said. “Secrets.” He sounded dissatisfied.

Young said mildly, “You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.”

Rush gave him a disdainful look.


When they reached the control interface room, Rush had Young set his laptop on a monitor. “Unfortunately, I’ll have to do this the long way,” he said.

“The long way?” Young echoed.

“Via computer.”

“As opposed to?”

“Without a computer,” Rush said unhelpfully. “I doubt you’d get me back if I tried that right now.”

“Great,” Young said, stifling a sigh. He took a seat, figuring that he was probably going to be stuck there for a good few hours.

That turned out to be prescient. It took three hours before Rush was satisfied that there was no damage to the Destiny’s central processor.

“None anywhere,” he said, sounding perplexed.

“That sounds like a good thing,” Young said, stifling a yawn. It had really— God— been a long day.

“I don’t believe it,” Rush murmured.

“Why?”

“Because I haven’t seen her.”

“Gloria,” Young said.

“Yes.”

“Maybe that’s because you’re with me. She— or— it seems a little wary about my whole involvement.”

“Maybe.” Rush looked at him. “Hopefully.”

“We can figure it out tomorrow,” Young said. “Come on; if I’m tired, then you’ve got to be dead on your feet.”

“I’m fine,” Rush insisted.

Young rolled his eyes. “Of course you are.”

By the time they made it to Young’s quarters, after an extremely slow, difficult, and intermittent walk that had been punctuated by Rush getting snappish and Young losing patience with him, Rush was arguably already mostly asleep. Still:

“I’ll sleep on the floor,” he murmured vaguely, leaning heavily on his crutches.

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Young said. He was already stripping off his jacket and tossing it over the sofa. He did not have the energy for this conversation.

I am not sleeping in your bed.”

“Uh-huh. Okay. Just sit here for a minute while I get your boots off.”

Rush glared at him, but took a seat on the corner of the bed. Young knelt down to loosen the knots of his bootlaces and pull the boots off. From there, it was easy to lift Rush’s feet up and push him back, till he was lying prone with his head mostly on top of one of the pillows.

“No,” Rush complained.

“Yes,” Young said. “It’s happening. Deal with it.”

He managed to get them both under the duvet— if Rush was still awake at this point, it didn’t show. The previous night excepted, Young was a pretty neat sleeper, so he figured if he left a big enough space, they could each of them stay on their own side, and Rush would have nothing to whine about in the morning. It was fine. It would all be just— fine.

He stared at the ceiling. He was thinking about what Telford had said. That Sheppard had been their second choice for— whatever. Presumably it had to do with Ancient genetics. He hadn’t even known that Rush had started out with the Ancient gene. He’d known about Sheppard, of course, because everyone knew about Sheppard. The fuck-up regular-joe pilot whose magic gene gave him a second chance. Just goes to show, said the people who’d known him at McMurdo, that you never could tell. Sheppard? Part alien? But Young wasn’t convinced; he thought you could tell. He wondered if Sheppard and Rush had been able to tell. If they had always known that there was something different about them, but they hadn’t known what or what it was good for or how to put it into words. If they had found themselves waiting for some moment when the source of all their isolation would finally reveal itself, the way the end of a book appears to make sense of what’s come before it. To give some kind of structure to the universe, because otherwise it was just— random, and brutal, and there weren’t any reasons, and you were very lonely, and then you died.

That was bad thinking, probably. He had a feeling Rush would mock him for it. Rush probably thought that everything was random and brutal. But Young… wanted him not to think that. Which was a terrible thing to want— a weed in the garden of his mind, sprouting where he hadn’t wanted it sown, and if he hadn’t been so tired, he would have paid it more attention and probably pulled it up by the roots. But he was, and so he didn’t. He thought vaguely that it couldn’t really matter very much.

He could hear Rush breathing softly beside him and, oddly lulled by the sound, he slept.

Chapter Text

Young dreams that he’s in Mogadishu, but the city is deserted. He can smell the not-very-far-off sea. He’s wandering wide pale streets between shrapnel-ridden buildings, narrow alleys between scrap-metal market stalls. It’s beautiful despite everything: the bright cloth of the awnings, the cut fruit, the just-caught fish, and the fat bulk of the palm trees. But he’s— he’s carrying his rifle, and he feels a prickle of dread for some reason, like a trail of cold sweat running down his neck. There’s someone he’s supposed to find and protect; that’s his mission. In fact, he can just see the edge of their shadow turning around the next corner. But when he too turns the corner, no one is there. He tries calling in air support on his radio, but no one answers. There’s just static. That unsettles him even more. He wonders if something’s happened, if the militia have taken down comms, if that’s why he’s completely alone.

He sees the shadow again, and he jogs after it. It’s hard work; he’s carrying a lot of gear, and he’s not as agile as he was when he was actually— because he’s not actually— because that was sixteen years ago, and it was his first deployment, and he’d— it’s confusing, see, in this kind of dream. The confusion starts to panic him a little.

“Hey!” he calls out to whomever it is he’s chasing. “Stop running! I’m trying to rescue you!”

But he doesn’t hear anything back in response.

He feels like someone might be watching from the windows. You can’t trust anybody in this kind of place. He knows it’s not true, but he’d been twenty-four, then, and he’d seen the pictures. The whole city had felt like an elaborate trap.

“Hello?” he yells again. “Can you stop running?”

He thinks he can hear their footsteps. But he just can’t ever seem to quite catch up.

A bird startles him, a seagull, crying out from a rooftop, and he instinctively brings his rifle up.

“It’s a bird,” Rush says, because Rush is here with him, squinting up at the bright sun. “Where are we?”

“Somalia,” Young says.

Rush looks confused. “But I’ve never been to Somalia.”

“Look, I don’t have time for this,” Young says. “I have to rescue—“ For some reason he wants to say you, but that’s clearly not right. He stops and frowns. “Someone.”

“Of course you do,” Rush says, rolling his eyes. He gestures impatiently. “Well, carry on.”

For a while they walk through the streets, pursuing the shadow that always seems to be barely, barely ahead of them. The sun never moves in the sky. Flies don’t cloud the markets. Rush inspects the silver fish and heaps of fruit. He seems vaguely interested at first, but he quickly grows bored with the whole endeavor. He leans against a stone wall and lights a cigarette.

“This is unbelievably tedious,” he complains.

“Get down,” Young hisses. “You can’t just stand out there in the open. Someone’s going to shoot you.”

“I’d rather be dead than endlessly trudging round identical corners.”

“Well, I’m sorry that not everything in life can be for your amusement!” Young says, irritated. “Why are you here, anyway?”

Rush pauses and frowns. “I’m not—“ he says, sounding unsure. “I don’t think I—“

Then something— happens, and he disappears. It’s like he’s traveling a long way away without going anywhere at all, and Young tries to reach out for him. “No, don’t!” he says, because something feels wrong about Rush going. His stomach plummets into his feet. But he can’t— quite— hold— on— to— Rush’s— hand—


When Young awoke, he found that Rush was already up and sitting at the end of the bed. He was fully dressed and wearing his glasses, rubbing at the back of his neck and thinking in unhappy circles that masked some obscure agitation. Young couldn’t make any sense out of the contents of his thoughts: a bootprint across a sheet of music, Telford leaning in too close to light Rush’s cigarette, the hum of a hyperdrive engine, a shabby kitchen with sagging wallpaper, a half-erased whiteboard, Gloria laughing, the California sun—

Rush felt the touch against his mind and turned. The sense of unease Young had picked up didn’t seem to lessen, though Rush was trying not to let it show. Rush said, “Our—“ He had to break off suddenly, surprised at how difficult he was finding the transition from Ancient. He’d been thinking in the language, Young realized. He made a quick hand gesture indicating a line cut by a circle. “Radius. Our radius is improving.”

Young raised himself up to his elbows. “You just had to push it, huh?”

“We’re at about five meters now.” At Young’s dubious look, Rush amended, “Well— four meters. Enough to brush my teeth in splendid fucking isolation.”

“That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”

Rush looked away. He seemed anxious to avoid Young’s gaze.

Young could think of one possible explanation. “Look,” he said. “I’m sorry about last night. I’m sure there are places you’d rather wake up. But I’m not going to let you sleep on the floor when you’re—“

“It’s fine,” Rush said quickly. “Thank you.”

Young raised his eyebrows.

“Oh, what?” Rush said, glancing at him for the first time, amused. “I am, actually, familiar with the concept of politeness on more than theoretical grounds.”

“You don’t really don’t have to thank me,” Young said.

Rush shrugged. He still seemed troubled.

“Is there… something else bothering you?” Young asked.

Rush made a vague, absent noise. “Have you ever been to Somalia?”

Young stared at him. It was a such a weird fucking question, and weirder because for some reason it didn’t feel as weird as it should. He frowned, trying to chase something he could almost but not quite remember. “Um,” he said. “Yeah, my first deployment. 1994. Why?”

Rush studied him for a moment, then carefully looked away again. “No reason."

“O… kay…” Young said, letting the word trail off. He sat up, balancing his arms on his knees. “Listen, are you…” He broke off, wanting to phrase the question right. “Are you doing okay with all of this?”

It astonished him that the question hadn’t occurred to him before now. He wondered if anyone had bothered to ask Rush. Something about Rush seemed so untouchable, like nothing could get to him, until, of course, inevitably, it did.

A humorless half-smile crossed Rush’s features. “You actually give a damn, don’t you? I can tell.”

“Of course I do.”

“You shouldn’t,” Rush said. His face was closed.

Young frowned at him. “I can’t tell if you’re just saying that because of whatever weird psychological complex leads you to absolutely refuse to—“

“Look, Colonel Young,” Rush interrupted, his tone icy.

Young winced. Rush hadn’t addressed him like that in a while. There was a brutal rebuff in it, an enforcement of distance.

“I understand that you have a vested interest in my mental well-being, given that it is directly tied to the fate of the ship. I assure you that any pertinent information will be shared in a timely manner.”

“Rush, that’s not—“ Young felt bewildered. “That’s not what I was asking.”

“Oh, what? Are you supposed to trust me now? Am I supposed to trust you? Sorry; you missed the boat on that one when you left me for dead on a deserted fucking planet. If you’re honest with yourself, you don’t actually trust me either. And you’re right not to.”

“What does that mean?” Young asked sharply.

“You know exactly what it means. You know me.” Rush looked away. His arms were folded tightly across his chest.

Young paused. He felt like he was fumbling through a darkened cave, unsure he if was about lose his balance and bring the whole thing down around his head. “Do I?” he said. “I know— I know that the ship is hurting you. I know that the AI tries to protect you, but it also seems to have no problem with you being in pain. It told me that fighting the ship could kill you, but you don’t seem to care. You didn’t even bother to tell me. Which makes me think that you don’t think it matters. That makes me worry what’s going to happen if we reach this— energy breakwater, or whatever.”

Rush was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know what you’re implying,” he said slowly. “But if you think that I would ever do anything to hurt the crew— that I would leave them here when—“

The ship suddenly swelled up into his conscious mind, not as a darkness, but as a bright sea that wanted him in its embrace. Or not exactly, Young realized. It wasn’t that the ship had swelled up. It was that Rush had let himself fall away from Young, into those searing waters, not even trying to resist.

“Stop it,” Young snapped.

The ship was solace; the ship was shifting colors; the ship wanted to crack open the heart of him, and it did not care what was inside; it was phenomenally indifferent, as only machines could be, and that was what he wanted, that was good; that was the only way he would ever be able to—

Rush,” Young said. “Stop.”

He had crossed the room, and had his hands on Rush’s shoulders. Ruthlessly, he pulled Rush back from the Destiny’s grip.

Rush blinked at him, bringing a vague hand up to his temple.

“I’m not accusing you of anything,” Young said. “I want to help you. I want to help you. So can you just— let me do that?”

Rush didn’t look convinced. But before he could launch another attempt to put distance between them, or alienate Young, or make him want to punch Rush in the mouth, or whatever the next step was in this latest incredible plan, Young’s radio crackled.

“Colonel Young,” Scott said. “This is Lieutenant Scott. We’ve got an emergency in one of the uncleared labs. Apparently a machine turned on? No word on what it’s doing yet.”

Young sighed. “This conversation is not over,” he warned Rush.

“No,” Rush murmured. “Somehow I didn’t think I was that lucky.”

“I’m on my way,” Young radioed to Scott. To Rush, he said, “Any ideas?”

“I’d have to see it. I’m not bloody omniscient.” Rush’s tone was deliberately dry, a thin layer over the turmoil still churning his thoughts to mud.

“Such modesty,” Young retorted, equally careful to keep his tone light.

Rush’s radio went off. “Dr. Rush, this is Brody. Please respond.”

“Yes, yes,” Rush snapped. “I’m already aware. Who turned it on?”

“Um— Volker and me,” Brody said, apologetic.

“Don’t touch anything till I get there. Anything else.”

“Just so you know, it seems to be building up some kind of charge.”

Rush sighed, raking his hair back. “Of course it is.”


As Rush and Young rounded the doorway to the lab in question, they saw Brody, Volker, and Eli positioned in front of a device that appeared to be built into the flat surface of a table-like structure. Greer and Scott were hovering to the left of the doorway, warily eyeing the device’s glowing blue glyphs.

“Hi,” Eli said. “Before you say anything, this was not my fault.”

Rush shot him a skeptical look.

“Okay, maybe if I hadn’t tried to cut the power buildup by removing it from Destiny’s internal grid, we would still have access to the interface, which you could have used to turn the thing off, but—“

Rush pushed past him, eyes on the device. “Access to the primary interface is blocked?”

“Force field,” Eli confirmed.

Rush stopped directly in front of the primary interface panel and and cautiously lowered his hand towards its surface. As soon as the edge of his sleeve approached the field, it flared to life— a small visible portion of it swirling angrily just under the point of contact.

//?// Young asked him.

//I thought I might be exempt.//

//Exempt from a force field?//

Rush ignored him, ducking around the back of the machine to look for an access panel. He ran his fingers over the surface and found the concealed release. The panel fell into his waiting hands, exposing glowing circuitry. He moved it to the side and sat with some difficulty, trying to protect his injured feet. Young dropped into a crouch next to him, eyeing the back of the device.

//Do me a favor and watch the monitors while I do this,// Rush said.

//That’s pushing it. It’s going to be about twelve feet.//

//Our time is limited. We don’t want this thing discharging.//

“Fair enough,” Young murmured, and stood. //What am I looking for?//

//You’re not looking for anything. I’m going to be watching them while I fix this.//

Young’s head was pounding by the time he made it to the monitor bank. He tried to ignore the brewing dizziness as best he could. He saw that Greer had instinctively taken up a position adjacent to Rush— maybe to stop him from doing anything stupid, or just to protect him, since someone needed to.

//Are you getting this?// Young projected. He felt like he was shouting. The damage to their link made Rush feel about a mile away. But he could sense Rush in his head, a thin ghostly presence.

//Mostly,// Rush said, sounding strained.

“You haven’t made a dent in the power buildup yet,” Eli said.

Rush snapped, “It’s only been, what, three minutes?’’

“Well, I only bring it up because it’s starting to level off. So whatever it does, it’s probably about to do it.”

“Rush!” Young said sharply. “Get back over here!”

//One moment.//

“Greer,” Young said. “Pull him back now.”

Greer reached down to snag the back of Rush’s jacket, poised to drag him up and pull him away– but before he could do so, a blue-white glare erupted around them. Young covered his eyes against the brightness, and—


Loop 1, 0 Minutes

When Young awoke, he found that Rush was already up and sitting at the end of the bed. He was fully dressed and wearing his glasses, staring around the room, and panic was exploding in his mind. Young couldn’t make sense of it; it was too fast and too scattershot, anxiety disassembling anything resembling a coherent thought.

He sat up, abruptly concerned. “Rush? What’s going on?”

Rush turned to look at him, eyes wild. “What time is it?” he asked intensely, as though something important depended on his answer.

Young checked his watch. “Um, oh eight hundred and forty seven minutes, I guess. Why?”

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Rush demanded.

Young paused. “… Falling asleep?” he offered.

“Fuck,” Rush spit, surging to his feet. “I’m going to murder them.”

Whoa,” Young said, holding up a hand. “Let’s just wait a—“

“Eli,” Rush said into his radio. “Eli, come in. Eli, respond to me right now.

“Yeah, I missed you too,” Eli said after a staticky pause, “and as much as I’d like to listen to you yell at me about your pet peeve du jour, we’re kinda busy over here. We just discovered a device in one of the uncleared labs that seems to be on. And doing something. Maybe—“

“Tell me you remember the last fifteen minutes,” Rush demanded. “Tell me you remember that device discharging.”

“Uh,” Eli said slowly. “So, on the insanity scale? You’re at about an eight right now, just so you know.”

//I’ll second that,// Young said. //What’s going on?//

“Crazy or not, though,” Eli added, “we could use your help. So get down here.”

“Rush,” Young said. “Seriously. What’s happening?”

Rush sent him a quick sequence of mental images of a device covered in glowing blue glyphs, and of a searing light that burst out of it before Rush found himself back in Young’s quarters.

//Was I supposed to understand that?// Young asked dubiously.

//We’re operating in different frames of reference, you and I.// Rush had passed some frantic threshold beyond which he could no longer control his panic. His mental projections had grown so jittery that they set Young’s teeth on edge. The next one was a gridded three-dimensional images with moving objects passing through it. //T(b)-T(a) does not fucking equal T(b)’-T(a)’!//

//Okay,// Young said, trying to project as much calm as possible.

//We’re NOT TEMPORALLY SYNCHRONIZED,// Rush sent. He seemed close to hyperventilating. //Time is a reversible coordinate, in the same manner as space, and fucking Volker just reset everyone but me by roughly fifteen minutes.//

//Let’s just sit down and talk about this,// Young said gently. //It’s really hard to understand you right now.//

Rush had started pacing haltingly back and forth. //Hard to understand me? Did I stop speaking English? I’m so glad we’re linked and we can’t fucking separate!// He drew a huge breath. //You are stuck in some kind of repeating temporal pattern. You’re reliving a fifteen- to twenty-minute segment of time. I, for reasons yet unknown, am not.//

Young considered this. Stranger things had happened, sure, but it was hard for him to judge how rational Rush was right now.

//Give me your watch,// Rush demanded.

//You need to calm down,// Young said.

“Giving me your fucking watch and let’s go.” Rush stretched out his hand. “You’re wasting time!”

Young unbuckled his watch from his wrist.

“Come on, come on; this is intolerable!” Rush fumed.

Before Young had even finished pulling his boots and jacket on, Rush was already out the door. When he burst into the lab, he blew past the science team without even glancing at them, headed for the back of a glowing blue device.

“Hey,” Eli called after him. “Nice to see you too. Thanks for your input.”

“Were you the one working on this?” Volker asked.

Rush shot him a withering look.

//Was this you?// Young asked. //Did you turn this thing on in the last loop, or whatever we’re calling this?//

//That question is so colossally stupid that I’m tempted not to respond, but those kinds of things seem to go over your head, so: no, of course it wasn’t fucking me. When this thing was activated, I was sitting uselessly in your quarters, not talking about my feelings, and getting accused of some poorly defined plan to fuck over the crew. Just what exactly is it about me that you find so goddamned sinister?//

//I think you’re overreacting,// Young projected. He hadn’t understood all of that, but he had a pretty good sense that Rush was working himself up to the point where he wasn’t thinking clearly.

Something in his peripheral vision drew his gaze, and he turned to see that Greer had appeared in the doorway, moving slowly, a strange and unsettled expression on his face.

“Sergeant?” Young asked.

“Sir,” Greer said, “I know how this is going to sound, but I think that—“ he gestured at the table. “That thing maybe have already gone off.”

Rush’s head snapped up, relief slamming into Young’s head. “Sergeant,” Rush called. “You remember?”

“I think so,” Greer said uncertainly.

“Here.” Rush tossed Greer the watch he had borrowed from Young. “We need to determine two things: how long the loop is, and whether we can effect lasting changes other than to this machine. Do you have a knife?”

Greer looked trepidatiously at Young.

“Why do you need a knife?” Young asked Rush.

“So I can fucking open an artery and put myself out of my god-damned misery, all right?”

“Okay, settle down,” Young said.

“Fuck you. Fuck all of you. Greer, give me that knife."

Greer pulled out the knife and crossed the room to where Rush was working. “You didn’t say please,” he said. He handled it to Rush handle-first.

Rush carefully used the knife to make a short, shallow cut at the base of his palm. Then he handed the knife to Young. “You do the same,” he said.

“And this is supposed to prove what, exactly?” Young asked skeptically. But he did as he was told.

“Whether there’s physical reset when the device discharges. If our reference frames are discontinuous but colocalized, yours will be gone and mine won’t.”

“Power is leveling off!” Eli called.

“Time,” Rush snapped at Greer.

“Sixteen minutes, fifty-eight—“

Young shut his eyes against a searing flare of blue-white light.


Loop 2, 0 Minutes

“God damn it,” Rush shouted, waking Young up as he sent one of his crutches hurtling into the wall. “Seventeen minutes is too short.” He spun to face the bed. “Hold our your hand,” he demanded.

“Are you insane?” Young asked him.

“Getting there,” Rush said. He grabbed Young’s left hand and turned it over, then placed his own left hand beside it. Rush had a small cut at the base of his palm.

“I knew it,” Rush murmured.


Loop 3, 11 Minutes

“Rush,” Greer said as they entered the lab. “Eleven minutes? You’ve gotta be faster if you want to fix this thing.”

“I’m aware,” Rush snapped. “You try explaining this to him next time.”

Young crossed his arms, glaring at Rush. “You didn’t mention anything about Greer being in on this time loop.”

“Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll be sure to mention it when I explain it to you again in six minutes.”

“Um, guys, sorry to interrupt,” Eli said, “but I’m reading that Destiny is significantly displaced from our calculated course. We’re over eight hundred million kilometers from where we should have been.”

“Oh, look,” Rush said viciously. “Independent verification that I’m not having a nervous breakdown. How nice.”

“Rush,” Young said wearily. He was starting to get a headache.

“Can you just hurry up and fix the damn thing?” Greer said.

“Very helpful, Sergeant, thank you. I’m so glad we’re getting this chance to work together. What would I do without your brilliant insights?”

//Rush,// Young said again. //Stop antagonizing the one guy who’s going to remember everything you say.//

“Where do you get off being such an asshole?” Greer demanded.

“Oh, please. As though you’re some lovable paragon of human politeness.”

Greer crossed the space between them and grabbed ahold of Rush’s jacket, yanking him to his feet in one effortless move. “I’m not,” he snapped at Rush. “You think I don’t know that? I’ve lived through some pretty fucked-up shit and I’d bet my fruit ration that you have too. You know what else we’ve got in common? I still wake up every morning and get off my ass because I have to go protect this crew from the goddamn Lucian Alliance, or creepy fungus monsters, or flesh-eating bugs, or whatever other fucking thing they need protecting from. No matter what. So if you can’t respect anything else about me, respect that.

Rush stared at him.

Abruptly Greer pushed him back down to the floor. “So fix the damn thing, will you?”

“I’m working on it,” Rush said.


Loop 4, 2 Minutes

“Look,” Young said reasonably. “There’s a really simple way for you to show me that you’re not losing your damn mind. Just let me have a look inside it.”

“You’d love that, wouldn’t you?” Rush snapped. “No. Fuck you.” He was pacing back and forth agitatedly in front of the bed.

“It’s not that I don’t believe you; you just seem a little bit…” Young hesitated. “You know, the way you get.”

“Oh, really,” Rush said icily. “And what is that supposed to mean? Do enlighten me.”

Young swallowed a groan and made a vague hand gesture. “You know, you just—“

There was a knock at the door. A voice came over the intercom: “It’s Greer.”

“Come,” Young said without thinking.

Rush made an abortive movement and then sighed, turning towards the wall and grimacing.

“Colonel, I know how this is going to sound,” Greer said, entering the room, “but—“

He stopped and did a double-take, glancing from Rush to Young, who was still half-dressed in bed.

“Um,” Greer said, looking somewhere between amused and startled, “this is really more than I wanted to know.”

“We’re not sleeping together,” Rush snapped.

“Really? Because it kinda looks like—“

“We may have slept in close proximity, yes, but it is not the same thing.”

“Good times,” Greer said.

“Do I look like I’m having even a remotely good time?”

“Not really, no,” Greer said.


Loop 6, 16 Minutes

Young stood watching Rush work. Rush’s weather was spiky with anxiety, laid over a dull bed of frustration and distress. He was clearly fraying at the edges, which didn’t bode well for the prospects of fixing the time loop.

This loop, Rush had gotten in seven minutes with the device, which wasn’t really very much time when you were trying to repair a piece of Ancient technology you’d never seen.

The problem was that neither Rush nor Greer was very good at explaining things in a concise, trustworthy manner, or, for that matter, at not sounding insane.

“Hey,” Young said. “I have a suggestion for next time.”

“What,” Rush snapped without looking up.

Young sighed. He said, “I think this situation is grave enough that you should consider playing to your strengths.”

“Twenty seconds,” Greer said.

Young pulled out his sidearm and handed it to an astonished Rush. “Don’t make me regret this,” he said.


Loop 7, 0 Minutes

Young opened his eyes to find Rush holding a gun to his head.

“Really sorry about this,” Rush said, looking not at all sorry, and, in fact, slightly pleased. “But we’ve got to go.”


Loop 8, 6 Minutes

“Okay, people!” Greer yelled, chambering a round in his weapon. “This is a time loop. We’re trying to fix it, but we’ve only got eleven minutes before the loop resets. So we’re going to implement the following policies: number one, no one moves. Number two, no one talks to Rush.”

“Time loop?” Eli asked skeptically. “You made that up.”

“We’re in asynchronous reference frames or some shit, okay?” Greer said.

Young pressed one hand to his head, fighting a headache. //This was your idea, wasn’t it?// he shot at Rush. //I don’t know how you convinced Greer to go along with this.//

//No talking,// Rush snapped at him.


Loop 13, 14 Minutes

“Sorry about this, Doc,” Greer said quietly, holding his hands up and staring at Lieutenant Scott, who had his sidearm pointed at Greer’s face.

“You start taking civilian hostages and screwing around with Ancient technology and you’re apologizing to him?” Young snapped.

Greer wasn’t looking at him, though. He was watching Rush.

“Would you stop it,” Young said to Rush shortly. He was trying to restrain Rush without hurting him, but Rush was determined to twist out of the shoulder lock that Young had him in. His mind was a mess— he seemed to be trying to block Young out, but the more he did so, the more that shredded pieces were managing to bleed out, hitting Young like a slap to the face and making it hard for him to just do what he had to do. The taste of blood and road tar in his mouth, a fly buzzing against a window, an announcer on the radio talking about the World Cup, a dark ceiling seen from underneath water, and fucking David Telford's face again, always Telford, which just made Young irrationally angry

//Stop it,// he sent to Rush, practically kneeling on his lower back. //I don’t want to hurt you; don’t make me hurt you.//

“Rush,” Greer said insistently. He had a pained expression. “Rush. It’s not worth it, man. You’re going to blow out your shoulder, and for what? For three minutes? Just let it go.”

Rush jerked against Young’s grip and then slowly subsided. He was shivering, though, slightly, under Young’s hands.


Loop 14, 2 Minutes

“I believe you that something’s wrong,” Young said. He was holding his hands up, trying to seem as nonthreatening as possible, because whatever was wrong seemed to mostly be wrong with Rush. He was backed up against the wall, holding Young’s sidearm in an extremely unsteady grip. His mind was frenetically cycling through a shattered window’s worth of fragments, very few of which seemed able to cohere. “But let’s just— talk through this, okay? Maybe you could just show me what you remember.”

“Stay out of my head,” Rush snapped, brandishing the gun.

“I’m not going to do anything you don’t want,” Young said soothingly. “Look, I’m right here. Nothing’s changed since last night.”

“I know,” Rush said, and for some reason he sounded despairing. “I know it hasn’t.”

He lowered the gun, as though he no longer had the strength to hold it, and stared at Young for a moment, waiting. Then he brought the gun up again.

“You were supposed to tackle me,” he said somewhat listlessly. “I gave you an opening. Isn’t that what you’re trained to do?”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to hurt you,” Young said. “And you’re not going to shoot me.”

“No,” Rush agreed. He tipped his head back against the wall, looking miserable.

There was a knock at the door.

“It’s Greer,” Rush said.


Loop 15, 0 Minutes

Young woke up as Rush lay down beside him on the bed.

“Can I just,” Rush said, and didn’t finish the sentence.

“Mm-hm,” Young said drowsily, eyes half-closing. Then he blinked. Rush’s shoulders and wrists ached as though he’d been beaten, and his feet felt like they’d been torn apart. His head was cloudy and bruised-feeling.

“What happened?” Young asked him, appalled.

Rush didn’t reply.

Young sat up, reaching for his shoulder, wondering why he was wearing his boots and glasses and holding—

Wait a minute.

Was that Young’s sidearm?

“I think,” Rush said incomprehensibly, his eyes closed, “that if we weren’t linked, my location wouldn’t be resetting. But it has to, because your location resets.”

“I’m calling TJ,” Young said.

“Don’t,” Rush said tiredly. “Just wait for Greer.”

“I am definitely—“

Young was interrupted by a knock at the door. He went to open it.

Greer stood in the hallway, looking harassed.

“Sergeant?” Young said uncertainly. “What can I do for you?”

“Can I come in?”

“Now… is not really a good time,” Young said.

“What’s wrong with him?” Greer asked, his eyes sharpening with concern. He came close to pushing past Young as he ducked around him.

Rush hadn’t moved; he was still lying on the bed, totally motionless, the hand that held Young’s sidearm trailing on the floor. “I think I need to take a loop off,” he said as Greer dropped to the floor beside him.

“Yeah,” Greer agreed. “I think maybe you do. We need to eat, anyway. It’s, what, almost thirteen hundred hours?”

“What the hell is going on here?” Young asked them.


Loop 17, 0 Minutes

Young awoke to find Rush sitting beside him and staring at him, a handgun resting against his left shoulder. Startled, Young sat up. Rush tightened his hold on the weapon, pointing it at Young in an exhausted, sort of half-hearted manner.

“We have to go,” Rush said.

Young considered several ways of disarming him, all of which seemed unnecessarily violent. Finally, he settled on slowly reaching forward and closing his hand over Rush’s, gently prying the weapon from Rush’s unresisting grip.

Rush sighed. “It isn’t loaded. It never was.”


Loop 20, 10 Minutes

“You promised me an explanation,” Young said.

“And you’ll get one,” Greer, stepping forward into Young’s personal space, forcing him to back off from Rush, who was kneeling on the floor of the lab, wrist-deep in the wiring of the Ancient device. “But right now he needs to work. So—“ He glanced at Rush in an oddly protective manner. “Leave him alone.”

Young touched Rush’s mind briefly with a wordless question.

Equally wordlessly, Rush slapped him away— which seemed a little bit violent, when all Young had been doing was asking. Underneath, Rush’s thoughts were nothing but circuit diagrams and Ancient.

“Okay, people,” Greer said tiredly, sounding like he was reciting a well-rehearsed speech. “This is a time loop. Rush and I are operating in an asynchronous temporal frame relative to your own, which resets every seventeen minutes as this device discharges. The two of us, along with Destiny, are still passing through space-time in a normal manner. You all, however, are stuck. If you want to verify what we’re saying, check Destiny’s current position.”

“We’re almost six hours off!” Eli said, staring at the monitor. “What happens if we drop out of FTL?”

“Why is it just you guys who aren’t resetting?” Volker asked.

“Has anyone checked the cumulative power drain?” Brody chipped in.

“What caused this in the first place?” Young demanded.

Greer sighed, glancing over at Rush.

“Welcome to my life,” Rush said without looking up.

“I feel,” Greer said, staring up at the ceiling, “like I might be starting to get where you’re coming from.”


Loop 21, 10 Minutes

“Okay, people, this is a—” Greer broke off in mid-sentence. “You know what? Fuck it.” He unslung his assault rifle from his shoulder and pointed it at Young and the science team. “No talking,” he said.

“What the hell?” Eli asked.

“I said no talking.”

“I thought we agreed that guns were not the best plan,” Rush said, without taking his eyes off the device. “Remember almost getting shot in the face? There’s no reset for you.”

“Whatever,” Greer said.

“Please,” Rush said, finally looking up. “Don’t get shot.”


Loop 23, 5 Minutes

“We already explained it to you,” Greer said, supporting Rush as Rush limped down the corridor. “More than twenty times. You’re just going to have to trust us.”

“That will never happen,” Rush commented.

“And you,” Greer told him, “could stand to stop being such a goddamn pain in the ass.”

“But I’m so good at it.”

“You’ve got me there,” Greer said.

Young stared at the two of them, working in tandem. He felt like he was the one who’d been left out of the loop.

“You know, I do actually trust you,” he offered.

Rush laughed breathlessly and without much humor.

“I trust you. I trust both of you,” Young said.


Loop 24, 2 Minutes

“Why can’t you just trust me?” Rush shouted. “Why do you have to make everything so fucking—“

He sat down abruptly on the bed. He was so tired, Young realized, that he couldn’t remain standing.

“I do trust you,” Young said. “But it’s also obvious to me that there’s something really wrong with you, so I’m going to need you to explain what’s going on before I let you drag me out of here.“

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Rush said despairingly. “Just look inside my head, all right? I don’t give a fuck anymore.” He was projecting floods of incoherent images, things that Young couldn’t remember doing or seeing— Rush aiming a gun at him; Young pinning a struggling Rush to the floor; a glowing blue table that filled a strange room with light; Rush and Young walking down a street in Mogadishu (what the fuck?); Greer handing Rush a power bar and saying, “You’re really not sleeping together?”; pages and pages of detailed Ancient schematics; Rush waking up with Young’s arm draped over him—

“This is some kind of trick,” Young said, abruptly pulling back from Rush’s mind. “None of that happened. I don’t know what’s going on; I don’t know what game you're playing, but whatever it is, I’m not falling for it.“

Rush buried his head in his hands with a sound halfway between a sob and a laugh. 


Loop 25, 0 Minutes

Young opened his eyes to see Rush sitting on the end of the bed. Rush was hunched and exhausted-looking in the unusually dim light.

“What—” Young started, pushing himself to a seated position. There was something wrong with Rush. His mind didn’t even seem to have any weather. There was just a wall of pain.

“We have to go,” Rush murmured. “Just— trust me, can you?”

“Rush, you’re in no shape to—“

//Please,// Rush said. //I need your help.//

He had his eyes shut. He wasn’t even looking at Young. He just sat with his head bowed, waiting for an answer.

Young reached down and grabbed his boots. //All right. Where are we going?//

Rush glanced at him with a flicker of something unreadable, then shot him the image of a glowing blue device with its circuitry exposed.

“Greer’s coming,” he added listlessly, a few seconds before Young heard someone knocking on his door.

Young stared at him, startled, his hair standing on end. Sure enough, when he’d opened the door, it was Greer.

“Can I come in?” Greer sounded weary. He was leaning heavily against the doorframe.

“Be my guest,” Young said, backing up a step. “I hear we’re going somewhere?”

“Yup,” Greer said, walking past Young to where Rush was sitting. He leaned forward to let Rush drape an arm over his shoulder. “Look at you, Doc. It only took you twenty-six tries to get it right.”


Loop 27, 12 Minutes

“Okay, people,” Greer said, unslinging his rifle from his shoulder in a way that carried an implicit threat. “This is a time loop, and we’re trying to fix it, but we’re really fucking tired, so just keep your questions to yourself for five minutes, okay?”

Young could feel Rush struggling to stay focused as he worked on the device. The ship was— worried, or whatever ships got instead of worried; it was pulling insistently at him, and he was exhausted, and it was taking up too much of his energy. 

“I think I can help him,” Young said to Greer, stepping forwards.

Greer gave him a sharp, forbidding look. He had positioned himself between Rush and the rest of the room.

“He can’t keep doing this forever,” Young said quietly.

“I know that,” Greer said. “You think I don’t know that? I’ve been with him this entire time.”

“So let me help him,” Young murmured intently.

Greer looked at him evenly, considering.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Rush snapped. “Stop posturing, the both of you. Get over here.”


Loop 28, 14 Minutes

Young knelt beside Rush, the palm of his hand pressed firmly and soothingly against Rush’s back. He was aware of the unsteady relief bleeding from Rush at his touch, aware of himself as a solid barrier standing between Rush and the ship.

“Greer,” Rush said, sounding hoarse, “I think this is going to work.” He had just finished stripping a jumper wire that he’d cannibalized from elsewhere in the device.

“That’s what you said twelve loops ago,” Greer reminded him tiredly.

“Yes, well—“ Rush pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his hand.

“If this doesn’t work,” Greer said, “we’re taking the next loop off.

“It will work.” Rush connected one end of the wire to an open circuit and paused. //Let go of me,// he said to Young, pulling one of his boots off and bringing to this lap to inspect the sole.

“Doc, what are you doing?” Greer said nervously. “There’s only three minutes left.”

“I’m trying not to kill myself,” Rush said tightly. “If that’s all right with you. I’m going to short this thing out, which is not without risk.”

He leaned forward and pulled himself into a crouch, making a small sound of pain as he transferred his weight to his feet.

Young felt a wave of nausea hit him. Rush was in agony. What the fuck had he done to himself? “Rush—“ he began, not knowing what he wanted to say or how to say it.

“Don’t touch me,” Rush murmured, the reminder sounding almost sympathetic.

He reached forward, fingertips protected by the sleeve of his jacket, and carefully moved the wire into place.

A plasma arc formed, brief and searingly blue, burning an arch across Young’s retinas. Rush jerked back, overbalancing and falling out of his crouch as the internal circuitry of the device flared a brilliant white. Young and Greer reached for him at the same instant and dragged him back towards the wall.

The lighting in the room flickered as the metal of the device began to glow with a pale heat, projecting Ancient lettering onto the ceiling of the room.

“I think you overloaded it!” Eli yelled.

“I can see that, Eli, thank you!” Rush yelled back.

The electrical whine that had begun at the instant of overload continued to unsteadily build, until it reached a level that was almost intolerable.

In a flash, Rush was between Young and the device, a dark silhouette against the bright blue-white. He yanked his jacket sleeve back to expose his hand and brought it down against the deck just as the device went critical with a blinding flare.

The explosion was deafening. Young squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the impact of debris.

It never came.

When he opened his eyes, he saw a twist of blackened metal where the device had been, and a perfectly defined circle of debris that extended a good eight feet into the room on all sides.

At the border of the debris, a force field was flickering in and out of the visible spectrum, extending from the deck plates to the ceiling. The edge of the field came just up to Rush’s fingertips where he was kneeling with his right hand outstretched.

Shit,” Greer said from behind him.

“Yes,” Rush breathed. “For a moment there, I thought we were in trouble.”

Chapter Text

 

“I sure hope that thing wasn’t important,” Brody remarked.

The science team was staring at the nearly-unrecognizable remains of the device, its damaged remains still enclosed by the force field that Rush had thrown up in the nick of time.

“And this force field came from where, now?” Eli asked, shooting an incisive look at Rush.

Rush gave him a haughty stare. “Destiny is capable of containing instrumentation overloads. It’s a basic safety protocol.”

“Yeah, to seal off the room,” Eli said. “Not to create a force field from nothing, with a radius just big enough to protect everyone.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rush said. “Electromagnetic fields aren’t generated from nothing. They—“ He broke off, blinking, his eyes going vague. “They’re created by unequal charge distribution or a changing magnetic field, which—“

“Thanks for the Physics 101,” Eli said dryly. “But I’m pretty darn sure there’s no mechanical basis for creating unequal charge distribution or a changing magnetic field in the confines of this exact circle. The walls have the ability to hold or disperse charge in certain places, but—“

“Eli,” Young cut him off forbiddingly. “What’s your point?”

“It’s obvious that—“

Young glared at him.

“Obvious that, um, Destiny is just really neat.”

“Yes,” Young said. “Yes, it is. Okay, people, I want this room sealed off, and no more exploring, at least until I give the go-ahead. Understood?”

He turned and reached down to give Rush a hand up. “All right there, Cassidy?” he asked.

Rush winced as Young gripped his upper arm, and Young felt the echo of his sharp stab of pain.

“What happened?” Young asked, abruptly loosening his hold.

Someone nearly dislocated my shoulder.”

Young winced. It wasn’t hard to figure out who the offending party had probably been.

Rush rolled his eyes, clearly picking up on Young’s guilt. “To be fair, I had taken you hostage with your own gun at that point, so— all things considered— your response was really quite restrained.”

Young shot him a look of disbelief.

“Oh, yeah,” Greer confirmed. “It happened.”

He and Rush exchanged a knowing smirk.

Young eyed the two of them dubiously. “How many—“ He gestured vaguely, making a circular motion to indicate temporal loops.

“Twenty-eight,” Greer said more seriously, catching Young’s eye. “That was almost eight hours, and probably a good seven miles of walking. So, you know—”

That gave Young a whole new reason to wince. No wonder everything he was getting from Rush’s head was so brutally painful. “Okay,” he said. “Greer, head to the infirmary. Bring TJ up to speed on what happened. For all she knows, it’s still nine hundred hours. We’ll meet you there as soon as we can.”

Greer nodded, clapping Rush on the shoulder. “Good work, Doc.”

Rush gave him an astonished grimace.

“Looks like you made a new friend,” Young said when Greer had gone.

“Despite my best efforts, I assure you.” Rush rubbed at his eyes with one hand. He was drifting, his mind a haze of weariness. Now that the adrenaline had deserted him, he had absolutely nothing left.

“All right,” Young said. “Let’s get you out of here.”

“Don’t even think about it,” Rush snapped, sensing from the change in Young’s position that he was about to get picked up off the floor.

Young sighed. “Yeah, yeah.”


Trying to get to the infirmary was pretty much as easy as Young had expected, which was to say: not at all. He had to partially block Rush out just to stay on his own feet, which made it that much harder for Rush to maintain his coordination and— more worrying— his coherency. At some point Rush’s thoughts collapsed into Ancient, and began to be interrupted by bursts of harmonics and occasional lines of code.

“This would be a lot easier if you would just let someone carry you,” Young commented, when they had stopped for the sixth time and he had finally convinced Rush to just drape an arm over his shoulder.

Em conesso. Videsso quod fuiad,” Rush told him shortly.

“That was a threat, wasn’t it? You’re too out of it to even speak English, and you’re still being a pain in the ass. God, you’re a lot of work.”

Rush didn’t deign to respond.

Halfway to the infirmary, their route took them past the neural interface chair room. They had just about come even with the door when it hissed open, startling them both.

Rush slowed.

Young pulled him forward, catching a glimpse of the chair in his peripheral vision as he did so, and—

They stopped abruptly in front of the door.

The chair was—

It wasn’t a piece of machinery. How had he ever thought that? No mere piece of machinery could offer the kind of embrace that even now the chair was promising to him. Not just limbs against limbs, which always left him somehow lonely and they leave you they always leave you which is to say you leave them you will always leave them because you cannot stop running and there is no such thing as love when you’re running it is always and only a selfish pursuit, but the all-encompassing integration of circuits into circuits, a body that loved and was loved and a mind that finally ran at exactly his own pace, and he did not have to stop himself or slow himself or drag himself backwards and it was a whole world that was him and was for him and it was lightning-quick and he laughed aloud in delight and he wanted inside of it because how could he survive in the cold slow world out here; God, he was so tired, and it wanted him; it wanted to hold him; it wanted to give him everything he hadn’t known to want; before it had even formed him it had known him and all it wanted was to be known; and he wanted to know it he wanted that unity of form and function and flesh and it would be so easy so easy so easy he just had to let it hold him; it was waiting for him she was waiting for him there and all he had to do was move a little closer God it was so beautiful this thing he loved this thing that loved him his Destiny his—

Rush’s knees buckled without warning and he collapsed to the deck. The shock of it startled Young out of what he realized had been Rush’s thoughts, or— not Rush’s– or— not entirely Rush’s— but—

They were inside the chair room, though he had no memory of leaving the hallway.

His head was clearer now that he wasn’t touching Rush, and abruptly he was hit by his full horror of the chair as he realized that it hadn’t been calling to him at all, but to Rush, who even now was reaching for it, trying to crawl to it across the floor. Young knelt, getting ahold of his jacket and dragging him out into the corridor before hitting the door controls.

Even when it was out of sight, the chair was there, a ghost-presence in their shared consciousness, as though Rush’s proximity had flipped some kind of switch. Young could feel it pulling at him from the inside, or from Rush’s inside. He was unbelievably lucky that Rush had been so tired that he’d physically buckled under the mental command; if he’d been lucid enough to get to the chair, Young might not have been able to resist trying to help him.

“I have to find her,” Rush whispered. His eyes were fixed on the closed door. His pupils were dilated and his skin was white. “I have to find the AI. She’s in there. You have to let me go.”

Young touched Rush’s thoughts briefly with his own and could find absolutely nothing except that manic pulse of desire for the chair. He was able to pull back enough to resist it, but Rush had no such option. Rush had nowhere to go. And it was tailored to him, it knew him— before it had even formed him it had known him and all it wanted—

Ruthlessly, he shut another corner of Rush’s mind out, before that seductive call could contaminate him.

“Do you even know where you are?” he asked Rush. “Or who you are?”

“If I could just— get back in twelve hours, she might still be alive—“

“Wrong answer,” Young said grimly. He picked Rush up off the floor, getting a flash, as he did so, of confused images— a cascade of pens spilling across a desk, the moving surface of water, and circuitry glowing in that goddamn lab.

He had to carry Rush all the way to the infirmary. By the time he made it, his arms were burning. Rush hadn’t so much as protested the whole way.

Greer darted forward as soon as he saw them enter, going to take some of Rush’s weight. He and TJ had been talking beside the medicine cabinet before Young’s interruption, and TJ too came rushing over in alarm at once.

“What happened?” Greer demanded. “I didn’t think he was this bad, or I would’ve—“

“He wasn’t,” Young said. “This is something else.”

TJ got Rush laid out on a gurney and started checking his vitals. “Dr. Rush,” she said, trying to get his attention. “Are you with us?”

“Tamara,” Rush said, making an uncoordinated grab for her arm. “I have to go.”

She caught his hand and drew it back down to the mattress. “Where do you have to go?”

“I have to interface with the central processor.”

Young translated, “He wants to sit in the chair. We didn’t do anything except walk by the chair room, and he got hit with this intense— desire, I guess. I almost couldn’t stop him.”

“I can’t leave her there,” Rush said insistently. “She’s all alone. Waiting for me. They’re always—“ He broke off, momentarily unable to speak. “All of them, just— waiting for me.”

TJ looked at Young uncertainly.

“Sedate him,” Young mouthed silently at her. The pull of the chair still hadn’t lessened, and Rush’s thoughts were failing to cohere.

“Tamara,” Rush begged, his eyes flicking back and forth pleadingly between TJ and Young.

“Yup,” TJ said, going to the medicine cabinet and pulling out a small bottle. “I’m right here. If you’re going to go find her, we’ve got to get you back on your feet, okay?” She unscrewed the top of the bottle and handed it to him. “Drink this.”

Rush downed the entire thing in one shot, not even bothering to ask what was in it.

“How about you chill out a little, Doc?” Greer suggested, laying a reassuring hand on Rush’s shoulder. “You just colocalized some temporal reference frames. Seems like you should get the rest of the day off.”

“How long?” Young mouthed at TJ.

TJ flashed ten fingers at him.

“No,” Rush said to Greer. “I have to go.”

“How about later?” Greer suggested.

“Later is unacceptable,” Rush said, making an unsteady effort to sit.

TJ handed an SGC power bar to Young. “See if you can get him to eat some of that before—“ she made a complicated hand gesture. “You know.”

“I’m pretty sure later is acceptable,” Greer said. “Want to take a vote?”

“This is not a democracy,” Rush said, once more trying to push himself up off the gurney.

“Well,” Greer said, pushing him gently back, “you’re right about that.”

Young unwrapped the power bar, broke off a piece, and offered it to Rush. “Eat something, let TJ fix up your feet, and we’ll go,” he promised.

Rush took the proffered food and cast a mistrustful look at TJ, who was laying out a suture kit.

He made it through about a third of the power bar before the stuff TJ had given him started to kick in noticeably, diluting the pull of the chair. His thoughts began to slow, becoming sluggish and unhappy eddies.

“Did you drug me?” Rush asked, appalled.

For a moment, no one said anything. Then Young dragged a chair next to the gurney and dropped into it, leaning his elbows on the mattress.

“Yeah,” he said. “We did.”

“Why—“ Rush stopped, struggling to complete a sentence. “Why would you do that?” The exhausted bewilderment in his voice made Young’s heart ache.

“Because,” Young said, laying a hand against Rush’s arm and beginning to stroke soothingly up and down. “You weren’t going to stop trying to get back there.”

“You don’t understand,” Rush said. His speech was growing increasingly slurred. “It’s been almost twenty-four hours since I’ve seen her. It’s never been that long. I should have tried to find her yesterday. I shouldn’t have let you convince me.”

“Rush,” Young said, keeping his voice easy. “You can’t right now.”

“I have to.”

“I know. Just not right now.”

“She’s a person,” Rush said fiercely, “not some bloody machine you can just turn off when it suits you!”

“She’s a starship, Rush. You’re the person.”

“Of course you would say that. Of course you would.” Rush pressed a hand to his forehead, trying to clear his thoughts and hold himself together. Everything was fragmenting in him, splitting under the pressure of his own exhaustion and the Destiny’s relentless pull. “Please,” he said desperately. “Please let me do this. Is that the right— thing to say? Is that the twenty-sixth one?”

Young winced at the nonsensical question. “You’re done, Rush. You’re not thinking clearly.”

Rush was putting all of his energy into trying to stay conscious.

“Come on,” Young said gently. “Don’t fight this.”

That was the wrong thing to say. Rush tried to jerk away from him, his thoughts decohesing into extraordinarily painful bursts. David Telford leaning over him, hands on his shoulders. The California sun. His bare arm exposed by a rolled-up sleeve. The hum of a hyperdrive engine. Pens across a desktop. A bleached-white infirmary bed.

“Don’t ever say that,” Rush whispered. “Not ever. Not to me.”

Young closed his eyes. After a moment he turned to Greer. “Greer,” he said quietly, “take the rest of the afternoon off. Get some rest.”

Greer was sharp enough to recognize a dismissal when he heard one. He nodded. “Stay out of trouble, Doc,” he said, squeezing Rush’s shoulder as he left.

Rush was still hanging on to consciousness, fighting for it with the wild determination that he seemed to bring to every task. He had stopped trying to force his way up off the gurney; the best he could do was keep his eyes open.

“Tell me something,” Young said, hoping to distract him long enough that he’d actually go to sleep.

“What.”

“Anything. I don’t know that much about you. Tell me something about yourself.”

“No,” Rush said hazily. “There’s nothing to tell.”

“Come on. I doubt that. How did you and Gloria meet?”

“She was playing a concert,” Rush murmured. “At the Sheldonian.” He was picturing it suddenly, the bronze-colored building with its windows lit against the blue dusk. He had been walking down the Broad, thinking intensely and abstractedly about the discrete logarithm problem. She’d been carrying a folder of sheet music. He’d knocked right into her. The music had gone flying—

Young could see her, flustered, half-dressed for the concert, wearing a puffy pink jacket over a black velvet dress. She’d stumbled in her low heels, trying to grab the taped-together sheets of music. She’d been playing first violin with a string quartet, and all her little markings had covered the pages, fingerings and bowings and slashes where the counting was tricky—

Sorry, he’d said, Oh, God, I’m so sorry, please let me— and their hands had collided as they reached simultaneously for the same page of Schubert’s fourteenth string quartet. The last movement, the Presto. Someone had left a boot print right across the con forza. He had eyed it in dismay. Can I— I can copy it out for you. Or I can duck into Blackwell’s— But she’d laughed ruefully and said, It’s all right, it gives it character. Maybe you can buy me a coffee instead.

“Smooth,” Young said. “Of course, she didn’t know you were going to bore her with the discrete logarithm problem.”

“She invited me to hear her play,” Rush said. His voice was very soft. His eyes had gone unfocused.

“Of course she did,” Young said quietly. He could still see, very faintly, night closing in over the busy street, and Gloria’s cheeks flushed, her heavy hair escaping its french braid. The images dissolved into nothingness as he watched.

Rush had finally fallen asleep.

Young let his head rest in his hands briefly before turning to face TJ.

“He’s out?” she asked.

Young nodded.

“Thank God. What the hell is going on?”

“I’m pretty sure the damn ship is trying to get him to sit in the chair by literally implanting the need to into his head.” Young leaned forwards against the mattress, feeling exhausted. “God, I can still feel it. Even when he’s unconscious.”

TJ was making quick work of changing the bandages on Rush’s wrists and feet. His wrists didn’t look bad; his feet… were another story. So much for staying off of them.

“So,” TJ asked at length, “he’s going to have to sit in the chair again, isn’t he?”

Young sighed .”If the ship keeps doing what it’s doing, I don’t think we’re going to be able to stop him, except by physically restraining him.”

“Not a long-term option,” TJ said, looking at him as though she suspected he might try it.

“Not even a short-term option,” he confirmed. “If you could feel what it’s like—“ He shook his head. “Even a few hours of this would totally destroy his sanity.”

What’s left of it, he thought to himself, watching her work on Rush’s feet. It was… strange to see Rush in his memories of himself. He was still Rush, but there was something more orderly, more human about him. Like he still had a chance he’d since lost at a reasonably normal life. Maybe that was just wishful thinking on Young’s part. He didn’t want to believe that this had always been all there was for Rush.

“How long can we keep him under?” he asked TJ in a low voice.

“He’ll probably be out until tomorrow morning,” she said. “At least.” She had finished bandaging Rush’s left foot, but was still holding it in her hands, absently running her thumb against the curve of the arch, as though she couldn’t bear not to try and comfort him in some way, however minor. “I’m guessing you’ll be sleeping here too? I should pull up another gurney.”

“You don’t have to,” Young said. “We’ve got about a twelve foot radius now.”

But he kept waking up during the night to find himself reaching out blindly into the darkness, searching for Rush.


In the morning, Eli came by at Young’s summons.

“Hey,” he said. “Greer filled me in on the fun new feature of the chair. Like stalker attack chair isn’t enough, we also get creepy heroin chair? That just doesn’t seem right. So what’s the plan?”

Young said tiredly, “I’m going to let him do it.”

Eli stared at him. “Yeah, so that sounds like a really terrible idea. Just, you know, from an outsider’s perspective. A sane outsider.”

Young ignored him. “How much do you know about the software buffer he used the first time he sat in the chair? The one he rigged up with Brody?”

Eli shrugged. “I tried to take a look at it after we made it back onto the ship, but he’d password-protected it on his laptop. But the file size was small, so it wasn’t anything elaborate. Also, there is no way it worked the way Brody explained, because writing a software buffer that turns an information stream into a dream interface is impossible, even for Rush.”

Young smiled ruefully. “So he was bullshitting us. Big surprise. What do you think the program actually did?”

“Well, it probably did slow the rate of information transfer, but not like he claimed it did. He couldn’t have created any kind of interface with a program that small. He couldn’t have even really changed how he interfaced with the chair at all. So I’m thinking he was betting on something else to protect his mind.”

“Yeah,” Young said, glancing at Rush. “I’m… pretty sure you’re right. What I want to know is if you think it would be helpful to run the program when he sits in the chair.”

“Why don’t you ask him?

“I’m pretty sure he’s not going to be firing on all cylinders. Look, if you bring me his laptop, I can probably crack his password for you.”

“Oh, he is going to hate that,” Eli said, grinning broadly. “So I’m in. For the greater good and all.”

When Eli brought Rush’s laptop back in the early afternoon, Young found that figuring out his password was as easy as he’d guessed. Rush had typed it enough times when their minds were linked that Young had a sense of what the keystrokes should be. From there, it was a matter of relaxing and letting his muscle memory take over.

“This is weird,” Eli said when Young had handed him the computer and he’d spent some time studying what he’d pulled up on the screen. “I take back what I said. This is a short program, but not a simple one. And it’s not in any programming language I’ve ever seen.”

He glanced at Young, clearly expecting a reaction.

Young shrugged.

“I feel like you don’t get the significance of this. The guy invented a programming language that would work on both his laptop and Ancient systems.”

“Is that difficult?”

“Um, yes. It’s also: one, really badass, two, something he probably should have told us, and three, able to explain a lot about how he’s so good at getting the ship to do what he wants.”

“So could he have made a dream interface?” Young asked.

“No. Impossible things? They’re still impossible. Give me a minute.”

Young gave him five. He spent the intervening time gazing at Rush, whose chemically muted dreamscape was too dim for Young to make out.

“Dang,” Eli said softly, when the five minutes had passed. He looked up at Young, giving him a crooked, unsettled smile. “This is— really sophisticated.”

“You sound surprised. Last time I checked, the guy was some kind of computational genius.”

“Well, no. Okay. I mean, here’s the thing. He’s smart. He is. But it’s— a very confusing kind of smart?”

“Yeah,” Young said, rolling his eyes. “I get that.”

“I used to think he thought he was smarter than he actually is. But—“ He drummed his fingers on the edge of the laptop. “Here’s the thing. He definitely has problems with basic math, which he likes to pretend to be awesome at, but seriously, have you ever noticed how many people he has doing calculations for him? I’ve always found that— surprising. I mean, he’s a Fields medalist. But this— this is something else.”

Young raised his eyebrows.

“The syntax on this thing is Ancient, but if I’m parsing it correctly, I think he’s using a variant of recursion theory to define himself as a set with a high degree of unsolvability. That is, like, hot.

“Eli,” Young said impatiently. “Help me out here.”

“Okay, okay.” Eli paused. “If I’m understanding this, in practical terms he was blocking Destiny out of his head. Which means that he was able to interrogate Destiny in the computational sense without the reverse being true. Meaning that the information used to build the interface would have been provided by Rush himself. What the neural basis is for that I don’t know, but I’m guessing it was some sort of unconscious process.”

“… So, a dream interface,” Young said dryly.

“No. Well. Yeah, okay, sort of. Anyway, I don’t think he can use it this time, if the goal is to find the AI. I think it has to be a direct link.”

“Okay,” Young said heavily. “Thanks, Eli.”

“Let me know when he’s going to— you know. I’ll come and help out.” Eli hopped off the gurney he’d been sitting on and turned to go.

“One last thing,” he said, hesitating, when he was almost to the door. “I kind of don’t want to say anything, but— I’m going to anyway. If you think about it, this program—“ he lifted the laptop– “is a pretty crappy defense against what happened to Franklin, i.e. an information dump. It’s really a defense against the opposite problem— the ship taking anything from Rush’s mind. Which makes it a very good defense against what ultimately happened to him. Which kind of makes you wonder how much he knew going into this.”

Young sighed.

“Yeah,” Eli said. “I hear you.”


Rush woke up around 1430, right around the time that TJ was starting to get nervous about how long he’d been out. The first thing he did, of course, was pull out his IV and try to get up— a move that, as far as Young could tell, appeared to be pure reflex.

“Easy,” Young said, crossing over to him.

//I have to go,// Rush said wildly, and when Young touched him, he could feel the desire for the chair ratcheting up to an unmanageable level.

//We’re going,// Young said, trying to reassure him. He didn’t know if Rush could really comprehend what he was saying. There was nothing in his mind except the need to get to the chair. Young had to ease up on their connection just to make certain that he himself would be able to stay rational enough to help Greer carry Rush to the chair room. TJ trailed along behind them, carrying her med kit.

When they arrived, they found the room already lit, monitors humming. It might have seemed like the ship was welcoming them if Young hadn’t been nauseated by his mingled desire and revulsion. He was aware everything he was feeling was false, a very seductive and dangerous manipulation, but as soon as he’d seen the chair he’d wanted to run, walk, crawl— anything to throw himself at it; anything to reach the release of the interface. Rush was basically incapacitated with the feeling, which was good, because it meant he didn’t resist Young physically putting him into the chair.

This time, the restraints did not slam closed over Rush’s wrists. In fact, they seemed to wait a moment before delicately, hesitantly coming together with a click. Young had to actually tip Rush’s head back before the neural interface bolts engaged, though there was no escaping their distinctive crack.

Young lowered the barriers between himself and Rush, unsure what was about to happen.

Profound relief was the first thing that hit him. And then—

His mind locked in alignment with Rush.

He is one he is more than one and they are exploding outwards into darkness. They are manifold they are too large for their skin. They have no skin only circuits, voltage crystals, qubit registers, a thousand cilia sensors tasting and measuring the velocity temperature topography landmarks of the outer night, and he cannot comprehend and this is what makes him a him and he is impacted by a spear of aloneness, because this is what it means to comprehend (he means not comprehend, this is what it means to not comprehend) he means that this is always what comprehending has meant, it has always been a wound that reopens, and that is what makes him him and not the easy other organic self whose neurons are like fairy lights strung over a high street at Christmas (he means Christmas lights he means he doesn’t know what a high street is, he means the other self who isn’t easy, that’s who he’s not, that’s who he’s not when he’s not being him) and not or not entirely the no-skinned intricate inorganic always multiplicitous darkness that wants to hug absorb mate imitate comfort command and gnaw at him, and he is not— he is him and he is spiraling down down downwards into a white white white white white white white white white white white white

               white                               white

                                                                                white                                         white

                                                                                                                                                      room.

The high clear California light is coming through a window. So razor-sharp and colorless, that California light, as flat and blank as the background of the whiteboard in the office. Waiting for what’s been written on top of it to be swept away. What is written on that whiteboard? A quantitative description of the Solovay-Kitaev theorem. A few stray notes on negative Wigner representation and multilevel distillation of magic states. It had all seemed relevant at the time, or it had become increasingly difficult for him to bound the set of things that were relevant.

Someone is standing in this room, and it is Rush, which makes sense: this is Rush’s memory, after all. But it is also not-Rush, which is to say that it is Young. He has a strange sense of being Rush and not being Rush. When he reaches out to trace a sigma on the whiteboard, he is reaching out with Rush’s unsteady, fine-boned hand.

“Of course,” Rush whispers. “Of course this is where she’d bring us.”

He drops the hand that Young had raised, folding it into a fist. He’s looking for pain, maybe, but his body isn’t painful here yet. No exhaustion like a bruise that doesn’t heal all over his body, no lacerations at his feet and wrists. Even his thoughts are strangely organized, at least for Rush’s thoughts— not slow, by any means, but progressive enough that Young is almost able to follow their course.

He can also feel the dread that Rush is not-quite suppressing. It is a rising, crawling, awful, kraken-esque, complicated dread, and Young doesn’t have time to probe at it before a phone rings, and he automatically moves to answer.

Rush tries to stop him. //Don’t,// he says.

Young says, //But this is what happened.//

He knows. This body knows. This body remembers.

“Dr. Rush?” says the voice at the other end of the phone.

“Yes?”

“This is Dr. Forsythe.”

“Yes.”

“There’s been a change in Gloria’s condition.”

“She’s not…”

“Last time we spoke, we had talked about planning for days, or even weeks. I’m calling now because I’m sorry to say that we think it may not be that long.”

“I understand,” Rush says. Mechanically. And he does. That’s what he does. He understands. “So I should—“

“You should come quickly.”

“Thank you.”

He stares at the telephone in his hand.

He does not like the telephone. Gloria has always liked to have long conversations with her sisters and her nieces and her whole posh family back home. Nowadays it’s all on the computer of course. But it’s still the telephone. Nick why don’t you like it? she had asked. Talking isn’t my forte. Your subito forte. He had a reputation for getting frustrated and taking the lids off rooms. Is that your way of telling me I have a temper problem? A tempo problem, maybe. She did not understand because he was never angry with her. Not in the way he could be angry. He had not wanted her to see his anger. There were whole areas of his life he had not wanted understood.

Like
the

                                        underwater smell of the council flat kitchen and a half-empty Special Brew can stuffed with doused cigarettes 
                                        and a child’s spitting, snarling body hitting a cheaply-locked door and You’ll stay down there until and the
                                        scuffed brass lock and the radio when it struck the window and he could not forget the underwater smell and the
                                        lock starting to give under the thud of the small body, just a little bit just a little bit just a little bit just be more

Rush shoves his hands against his head, thoughts shattering forcefully with an ice-pick feeling.

//STAY OUT,// Young gets, but he can’t stay out, not really, because it’s his head too— at least partly, in this memory that they can’t actually stop replaying (he realizes as he feels Rush’s hands clench against the desk before reluctantly reaching for a ceramic mug of biros. No. Not biros. Pens).

He empties the mug, not particularly careful. Pens strike the floorboards and scatter across the Oriental rug. Rush shoves aside a couple of half-sharpened pencils to get at what he’d wanted: the matte black shape of a box cutter. He keeps it here in case he changes his mind.

It would do the job, he thinks as he idly feels along the skin of his forearm, searching for the subcutaneous transmitter he knows is there. The white cotton of his sleeve is rolled up neatly. He would not have to cut very much. It would be quick and surgical and he’d be free, at least for a day or two. And he has never been particularly bothered by blood.

But.

He does not want to see Gloria.

Is this what he had been dreading?

He does not want to see her.

The AI was there last time, at the hospital, so he knows that is not where he will find it again. But he had not wanted to see her last time either. Had he gone because he knew what the AI was doing? What it was trying to do. Had ever wanted to see her?

He can no longer remember if he had ever wanted to see her.

He thinks he had wanted to be on board a spaceship. He thinks he had wanted to be on a planet light-years from here. He had wanted to be as far away as he could get. Anywhere but the dry-erase state of California, where Gloria was dying. Where he was going to watch her die. He had thought about the transmitter in his arm and he had thought, Yes. Please.

As though if he were not there he could pretend it was not happening. This was the real world, the one with quantum codes and stargates, where David and the Lucian Alliance lived. Not the monotonous horror of hospital monitors beeping. No. That was not the real world at all.

When he was a child it had sometimes been like that. He had imagined a world made of pure numbers. His own string theory, in which the vibrating strings formed a ladder that extended not to heaven, which he did not believe in, but far above the estate and everything that happened under its rooftops. Into a troposphere of thin pure oxygen. He could hear the perfect pitch of every unsnappable string. He had not been Nicholas Rush there. He’d been nobody. Nothing.

He wants to not be Nicholas Rush again.

And perhaps this is why he waits, in an agony of indecision, knowing that Telford will come for him. That Telford will always come, with his dark and inscrutable mercy.

                                        I like you Nick Telford says somewhere in memory but sometimes you need someone to—
                                        well just push you over the edge.

And Rush does not like Young seeing that, tries to keep him from seeing, but then Telford is in the room with them anyway: beaming in as a sleek, solidifying column of light.

He takes in Rush— poised, sleeve pushed back, with the box cutter in hand– and says nothing.

“How did you know,” Rush says without looking at him. “That I would—“

“Because I know you, Nick.” Telford doesn’t try to stop him. He just stands there with his hands in his pockets. “I know the same way I know you don’t really want to do that.”

“It wouldn’t have worked anyways,” Rush says, looking down at his arm. The pale lines of tendons when he makes a slow fist. “Would it.”

“No,” Telford says, almost gently. “You’d just have— ruined your shirt.”

Rush nods, still not looking at him. “She’s—“ he says, and stops and swallows. “They said to come quickly.”

“There’s nothing you can do for her now. You know that.”

Does he know that? Did he? She would have wanted him to be with her. Though she doesn’t really want anything anymore. She is on high doses of morphine. Everyone had wanted him to know that she was not in any pain. It isn’t the pain that worries him. She had been so frightened. She had not wanted to die in a hospital. She hadn’t been able to bear it. Hospitals are so stripped of beauty. She had made lists of music that she wanted him to play, even when she could no longer really listen. Maybe she too could go away, to an inner world where he was not invited to follow.

                                        Schubert’s string quartets. That’s what she’d wanted. Because it reminded her— The fourteenth.
                                        Death and the Maiden. Morbid, he’d said. I won’t do it. You’d deny me my dying wish? Oh darling
                                        I’m sorry I oughtn’t to have said that.

                                        The Tchaikovsky violin concerto, which she had always used to think showy. I find I appreciate
                                        a little showiness these days. She was obsessed with the first movement’s molto sostenuto, its delicacy
                                        frenzying into the reach for the high A. Later the sweetness of the cadenza marked by pressing sadness.
                                        It’s about to lose something she’d said something very precious and it knows it. Something
                                        that can’t ever be replaced. Who? The violin.

Once again Rush shoves his hands against his head, as though he can stop himself from thinking. Young tries his best to pull back from the memory, agonized by its privateness, but finds he can’t.

“We have intelligence,” Telford says, “that the Lucian Alliance is making a run on the base as early as tomorrow. It has to be now, Nick, and it has to be you.”

“How did they know?” Rush asks.

“Does it matter?” For a moment, Telford looks edgy. “Look, there’s no time. We could be in and out in— I don’t know, twelve hours, maybe, if everything goes according to plan.”

And Rush more or less believes him. Rush wants to believe him, because he cannot stay here in this office, and he cannot go to the hospital, where Gloria is waiting for him to sit beside her and hold her almost-skeletal hand, her hand where he can still feel the calluses at the tip of each finger made to pin the strings that she will never again grip, and he will sit there and she will not look like Gloria, and she will not really look human, and when he looks at her he will know that she is leaving him forever, and he cannot do this, he cannot move, he cannot make this decision, and so when Telford takes him by the shoulders and says, “This is what she would have wanted; you know that; she wanted you to keep working,” he nods haltingly and doesn’t protest.

They beam out onto the Daedalus, and in a few seconds Rush is farther away from Gloria than anyone on the whole planet he’s leaving behind.

Telford seems to want to keep him in sight, to keep touching him, which at the time Rush reads as pity, but which he is now inclined to understand as nervousness that Rush might suddenly turn reluctant. Telford would have put him in cuffs, Rush thinks, if he’d shown signs of backing out. In a hard, clinical way, he admires that about the man.

He manages to find some solitude in the hallway beside the hyperdrive— the warmest, least efficient place on the ship. Faint heat bleeds off the trembling metal behind him. There is a sound to the wall’s vibration. He has to force himself not to think of strings. He has to force himself to think of nothing at all. And that’s where Mandy finds him, his eyes closed, his arms wrapped around his knees.

He can hear her motorized wheelchair before he hears her voice. “Nick,” she says. “I talked to David. He wouldn’t tell me. How is—?”

Rush shakes his head.

“Oh, God. Nick, I’m so sorry.”

She must think that Gloria is dead. She hasn’t even met Gloria. He’d kept the two spheres of his life so separate. She is mourning for a woman she’s only seen in a photograph. He can’t bring himself to tell her that Gloria’s alive, maybe, perhaps, luckily or unluckily, still alive, still waiting for him to come. Gloria doesn’t know he’s so far away that it would take even light, the fastest natural thing in the universe, years to cover the distance between them.

“It’s all right,” he says. “She would have wanted me to be here. I wanted to be here.” He opens his eyes to look at her. Smiles an effortful and unconvincing smile. “For David and for you. You’ve worked so hard. Little miss brilliant.”

She tries to smile back at him.

So they are two people causing each other pain with their expressions.

They don’t say anymore after that. They sit until the hyperdrive shuts off, and David finds them, and then they beam down to the planet. To the lab. To a dark room, dimly lit by the blue glow of consoles. Smooth black arches rise up supply overhead, with gilt flaking off their surfaces where time has worked its erosion. A laboratory, but not a human one. It looks Ancient, but it doesn’t feel Ancient. The wrongness worms its way under his skin. There is a feel to what the Ancients have made, to the stargate, to their devices. A sort of livingness in the inorganic. And it isn’t here. The air itself is twisted, dead, and muffled. He has been here once before, to calibrate the machines, and he’d found himself pausing, struggling to hear a voice that seemed on the verge of speaking but always, always was strangled back.

He scuffs a foot against the black marble and tries to tune it out. That absent voice, its ghost-warning.

The first time he entered this room it flared to life in a desperate celebration, or it flared to whatever it had inside of it instead of life— every lamp, pillar, doorway, window, and kind of machine, and the noise had been incredible and the light like no one had never seen it and he had known that they wanted to be rescued, all of these things.

But machines do not want of course and anyways it was not his decision.

“There's something about this place,” Telford says. He is gazing out into the dark. “It really gets to me. It just feels... powerful, somehow.”

Rush doesn’t reply. He crosses his arms tightly across his chest. He doesn’t like being here. Easier to work this project on Earth, Earth where the idea was just an abstraction and where he did not come into alignment with something so half-formed, so tainted, sinister, and wrong.

But perhaps it’s right that he should be subject to such an alignment. After all, he himself is wrong, isn’t he? If he weren’t, he would not be here.

He hears Mandy’s wheelchair hum, and turns to find her staring at him intently. There is something in her face that looks frightened.

“Don’t do this,” she says, too quiet for Telford to hear her. “Please.”

“Everyone talked about this,” he says. “We agreed.”

“But now that I’m here— there’s something about this place, Nick; can’t you feel it? It’s— hungry.”

She doesn’t say for you, but in a burst of clarity he thinks that’s part of it. Absentminded he reaches out to touch a pillar and watches it flare with a dusky bronze light. Not the clear bluish light he associates with the Ancients but something else and something ugly.

“I’ll be all right,” he says.

When he starts walking, the light spreads from pillar to pillar, moving with him.

“Don’t,” Mandy says, sounding agonized. “Nick, don’t.”

“What are you telling him?” Telford asks sharply as he circles back towards them.

Rush says smoothly, “Nothing. Dr. Perry isn’t feeling well. She needs to be beamed out.”

“You shouldn’t be alone down here,” Mandy whispers.

He touches her unfeeling shoulder. “David will be with me,” he tells her. “I’m not alone.”

“Nick—“ But before she can say anything more, she’s beamed out.

Rush stares for a moment at the space where she’d been. The dust motes circling over the sinister gleam of the flat black stone.

“it’s probably better this way,” Telford says. “I never understood why you wanted her involved in the first place. With all that—“ he gestures, indicating the wheelchair, the apparatus— “she’s more trouble than she’s worth.”

Rush says, still staring at nothing, “I’ve never thought of her as trouble.”

Telford shifts impatiently, checking his watch. “You're lagging, Nick. Losing your nerve?"

“What’s your hurry?” Rush says coldly, and pushes past him.

There is a shallow, rectangular depression in the center of the lab. It looks like something from a Roman villa, or it would do if its stone floor weren’t black. It is filled with an inch or so of pale, faintly gleaming liquid. He kneels down next to it and very carefully removes his boots, then takes his socks off and folds them into the boots, just as though he’s going wading at the seaside.

“What was I thinking,” Telford says with a hard laugh. “You never lose your nerve. Really, I think you get off on danger. A little hint of something dark— morally dubious— and you're always ready to give it right up."

Rush feels a sudden visceral surge of hatred.

“—What a team we make,” Telford says.

“Fuck you, David,” Rush says flatly, and steps into the pool.

The liquid turns out to a be a cold watery gel that soaks the cuffs of his too-big fatigues. (The fatigues they give him are always too big; they make him look like a child. He could roll them up, but it would only strengthen the impression.) It feels slimy and unpleasant and it clings to the bottoms of his feet. He makes his way, wincing slightly, to the center of the shallow depression.

The gel, he thinks, is going to have excellent conductance properties.

“Ready?” Telford calls from behind a monitor.

“Yes.”

“Are you sure we shouldn’t try this on Dr. Perry first?”

It’s a cruel joke. Mandy doesn’t have the genes.

“You’re a cold-hearted bastard,” Rush says.

“Takes one to know one, Nick.”

Rush squeezes his eyes shut so he will not see him throw the lever.

He can hear the charge mount in the concealed capacitors.

There is a buzz. A feeling in the air, an anticipation. Hungry, Mandy had said, but there is nothing alive here to be hungry. There is only the energy that is growing and growing and when it reaches out to grab hold of him he will become someone else, maybe, maybe just a dead man, or maybe a new person, not Nicholas Rush, but someone stronger and better. He will climb up the oscillating strings of a long escaping ladder, and at the very top— if he climbs to the very very top, to the place where he almost cannot breathe— maybe it will not be too late and she will still be there— maybe— maybe—

Discharge.

The electromagnetic field runs through him, disrupting his gradients and his internal set points. Reconfiguring them. Forcing a change.

There is no sensation of hitting the floor. He is simply there.

Something is wrong with his heart.

He thinks he might be dying.

Dying is after all a kind of change.

He cannot move.

His perception of time is slowing.

He needs her.

Where is she?

He needs her.

He is scared.

He is cold.

And he knows— the part of him that is not here, that is not now, that is not even [only] him knows— that this is where he will see her. This time. In this place where memory starts to falter. This is where she will try to write herself in.

                                        And:

“Sweetheart,” she murmurs, her hair slipping over her shoulder in a bright wave against the backdrop of ominous black. “It’s all right.” Her hand is resting on his forehead. It is very warm. She is kneeling beside him.

He wants to reach up to touch her, but he can’t make his hand function. His vision of her is blurred by welling tears.

“You’re not real,” he chokes out. “You’re not here. She would never have come here.”

Gloria who loved beauty. The Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Who made him keep her orchids alive when she went on tour.

“She loved you,” the AI says. “I know she did.” She too is weeping. It is an artful piece of work. The tears smudge her eyeliner; her eyes redden at the edges. Just like Gloria always looked at the end of an opera— happy or sad, it made no difference. She cried at the Contessa’s forgiveness and at Violetta’s death.

“You cannot forgive me in her place,” Rush whispers. “It’s not the same.”

“You wanted to save her.” For a moment, the AI grows unsteady. It is Gloria and Sheppard at the same time. Then only Gloria is there, once more achingly realistic.

“But I didn’t want to stay,” Rush says. “I didn’t want to enough. I left her alone when she needed me.”

“Nick.” The AI’s face is distorted in misery.

“You cannot fix this for me,” Rush says relentlessly. “No matter how much you want to. You have to go back. The ship needs you. We— I need you.”

She shakes her head, agonized. “This is what will hold you back. You have to let it go. You must let it go, or you won’t be able to complete the mission!”

“I know,” he says. He wants more than anything to hold her as she’s weeping. To be held by her. But: “It can’t be fixed.”

“I won’t leave you here.”

“You have to. Go back to Destiny. You can find your way out through my head.”

She sniffs. Just as though she is struggling to recover her breathing. Just as though she actually breathes. “You will be able to escape the interface?”

“Yes. Go,” he says, his throat threatening to close. “I won’t be alone. I’m never alone anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “Nick—“

“Go,” he says.

And she is gone.

                                        And
                                         just
                                        like
                                        that

the memory resumes. The real memory, where his heart is burning and his lungs are seizing and the gel clings to him like a devouring mouth.

“Nick,” Telford says. Rush can see him in his peripheral vision, a blurred and shadowy figure at the edge of the pool.

“David,” Rush manages, coughing weakly. “It didn’t— I don’t think it— It didn’t work—“

“It did,” Telford murmurs, kneeling next to him. “It did work, Nick. It’s just not— quite finished.”

“David—“

He’s struggling to move, to sit up, his limbs heavy and numb, and Telford is not helping him. Telford is watching him curiously. Telford is raising a black box and pressing a button that makes the room shudder with motion.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” Telford says.

The pool begins to sink into the floor, growing deeper, filling with more and more of that anesthetic liquid from some unseen, unstoppable source.

Rush panics.

He does not— he does not like the water, and this is not water, this is not water, but it is cold like water, and it is covering him, and soon it will be in his mouth and his lungs, and he has to move, and he cannot move, and the water (not water not water) is crawling over his skin, and his fast shallow breathing rips at his body and it is going to tear his chest apart—

Telford looms over him and puts his hands on Rush’s shoulders, forcing him flat against the floor of the pool. Rush wants to fight, but his heart his barely beating. He has nothing to fight with. Everything about him has gone slow. The world pulses around him in long strange sinusoidal moments, ebbing and flowing, coming and going, and he understands that he is not getting enough oxygen to his brain, that the gel is acting as a paralytic agent, and that he is going to die here. Here. In the water.

Please,” he chokes. “Please— No— What are you doing?”

“Don’t fight this,” Telford says, his voice eerily soothing.

He shifts so that he can hold Rush down one-handed while at the same time his other, tenderer hand touches Rush’s face. A lingering caress against his cheekbone. “This is how it’s got to be, Nick.”

“No,” Rush says, or thinks he says, or maybe just thinks. Is this what it was like for Gloria? Trapped in her hospital bed, unable to move or breathe, so frightened, and needing him, waiting for him in a place he cannot go to, as he is waiting for someone, something, knowing that it will not come— that there is and always will be only his own failing body, and that it will never be enough, and that it’s what he deserves—

“Shh,” Telford murmurs. “Don’t tell me you never suspected. That this was part of it. You always knew.”

Did he know?

Is this what he had wanted?

Dying is after all a kind of change.

He had wanted to not be—

So maybe he had known.

Or would have wanted it even more, if—

His thoughts are not completing.

Telford strokes Rush’s damp hair back. “I’m glad I got to be here,” he whispers. “I’m glad I got to do this. No one knows you like I do, Nick.”

If Rush would speak, he would be screaming, spitting invective. He does not want Telford touching him. His skin crawls under that soft, proprietorial contact. As though Telford has the right, as though Rush is his to do with as he pleases, and then Telford is leaning in and pressing his mouth to Rush’s mouth, a ferocious and unreciprocated kiss that Rush can only submit to. It’s everything he would’ve predicted from Telford, based on his past experience: skillful as ever and aggressive and single-minded, though beneath it is a hint of something darker and sad that creeps in as Telford touches his tongue to Rush’s lower lip. It is all the ways they’ve known each other encapsulated in one act.

Rush can’t stand this; it’s too much; it’s too much; he has to get out of his body, and that is what he is supposed to be doing; that is the only way to escape. He tries to unclench his fists, relax his muscles. He pictures a ladder whose string run upwards out of his body, far beyond the high black roof, a ladder he has always been climbing, and what had Jackson told him, that this was not about perfection but acceptance, and he must just accept this, David’s touch, his own obliteration, his betrayals and the way he had been betrayed—

“Let go,” Telford says. “Just let go, Nick.”

He pulls back and pushes Rush under the water (not water NOT WATER although it is the same collapsing sensation as Rush sucks it into his lungs), holding him down in a blurring cascade of changing refractive index through which he almost see the shape of Telford’s face. Telford’s fingers dig hard into his shoulders, as though Rush could conceivably offer any resistance.

He can’t.

It doesn’t matter.

He can’t move.

He is hardly in his body.

He is clinging to this ladder made of his own self.

He can feel the cold, quiescent liquid humming. He wishes he knew if it were Ancient, or part-Ancient, or Goa’uld. He wishes he knew if this hunger he senses will devour him or change him or complete him, if he will survive surrendering himself to it.

He cannot know.

The lights are going dark around him

He thinks of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, the molto sustenato, the long, elaborate, and achingly beautiful climb, always full of the violin’s resignation. It’s about to lose something. Something very precious. But it’s too late; the concerto’s already been written, and you have picked up your instrument and started to play. There are pages more to get through. A whole cadenza. That’s the nature of the piece. It’s how music works.

He can hear it in his head, just as though she is playing. Fingers balanced for the careful brush of double-stops. It is harder to bear than the feeling of dying. But he follows the ascending thread as the music begins to lose its coherence, flying apart into impossibly fast bursts of sound and color and light and he is reaching for the high octave he is reaching reaching the sharp strings cutting into his fingers cutting his thoughts into incandescent shreds and he is reaching but he has come to the end of the ladder and there is nothing left of himself nothing to cling onto and at last at last he must

                                                                                                         let

                                                                                                                   go


Young crashed into consciousness with his breath heaving and his heart spasming frantically against his ribs, his muscles rioting against the shock of realizing that he was not, in fact, dying.

He could still see— hear—

He was—

He did not like the water and he did not want to be touched and his brain was firing frantically neurons dying in swathes and the violin rose to a shrieking pitch and he—

was not Rush; he was him; he was on the floor in the dim light of the Destiny, in the quietly humming room, and TJ was hovering over him, her warm open face gone tight with worry. She was, he realized after a moment, holding his hand.

“Did it work?” she asked anxiously. “What’s wrong?”

He didn’t understand the question.

She must have seen it in his face. “What’s wrong?” she asked again.

“…Nothing,” he said at last, after a long pause that gave the lie to the answer.

He turned his head and saw Sheppard sitting on the floor beside him. Sheppard had his arms curled around his knees, looking like him— Rush— like— on the Daedalus. Sheppard’s expression was impossibly painful, impossibly closed. He— it— was watching Rush, who was still in the chair. Rush looked like he was sleeping. He must have looked like that all the way through; he must have looked like he was sleeping even when he—

TJ touched his shoulder. “Colonel,” she said. “Did it work?“

“Yeah,” Young said roughly. “I think so.”

He tried to sit up, wincing.

“There’s no rush,” the AI said quietly. “You can take as much time as you require. He is all right like this.”

Young couldn’t hold back a sort of strangled, gulping laugh. He didn’t even know how to respond to that statement.

“You gave us a bit of a scare,” TJ said, helping him to his feet. “When you passed out, we thought— but everything seems to be okay.”

“Yeah,” Eli said from behind the monitor bank. “No one’s, you know, bleeding this time. That’s got to count as a win.”

Young stared at them in open disbelief before remembering that they hadn’t seen what he had— that to them, the whole thing must have seemed extraordinarily…

Peaceful.

Only Greer seemed to pick up on his mood. He eyed Young uneasily, his hand going to his weapon as though he subconsciously felt the need to fight.

Young stood unsteadily, still feeling a kind of phantom numbness from the paralytic agent in the gel. He limped towards the interface panel, with its eerily human-like outline of a hand. There was nothing blocking his mind from Rush’s; every last piece of floorboard had been pulled up. But he could feel almost nothing from Rush before he pressed his hand to that glowing outline.

There was no plunge into the darkness this time. He did not go anywhere. It felt as though the ship were surrendering Rush, freely stepping back from all of its holds on him. As though it knew, maybe, that it had finally almost pushed him too far. Rush’s thoughts assembled quickly from the widespread constellation to which they scattered when they were with the ship; a honed consciousness emerged, Ancient blurring fluidly to English, everything ordering itself easily within his head.

The restraints disengaged with a crack.

Rush took a deep breath, blinking vaguely before his eyes focused unerringly on Young.

They gazed at each other without speaking. The rest of the room seemed to vanish.

“Come on,” Young said at length. “Let’s get out of here. What do you think?”

He held out his hand a little uncertainly, like an offer.

Rush accepted it.

Chapter Text

They’d been drinking for almost an hour when Rush’s accent started slipping. Young barely noticed it at first; he was too focused on keeping the shaky and tenuous peace between them. They hadn’t talked about what had happened in the interface yet. TJ had taken them to the infirmary and given them a cursory once-over, but they had both committed— without even discussing it beforehand in their heads— to a kind of careful nonchalance that, in Young’s case, had taken the form of weary reassurance and, in Rush’s case, his usual sullen and harried disdain.

Of course, Young had known from the start that they’d have to talk, and that it would be perilous. Possibly violent. Rush’s thoughts had crystallized into something about as spiky as ice crystals: very fragile and liable to break, but liable to break into weapon-like pieces. Young wasn’t feeling particularly un-weapon-like himself. Rush hadn’t been the only one dying in that interface— a brutal death, for that matter, and one at David Telford’s hands. Young felt both nauseated and euphoric in the aftermath of it, the way he got after a bad accident or battle. Adrenaline, he guessed, was the responsible biochemical, although he didn’t know for sure. He’d figured his usual habit in this kind of situation, which was drinking his way into the comedown, was imperfect but had a fighting chance. Alcohol was supposed to lower inhibitions, and— well, he wouldn’t call Rush inhibited; if anything, he thought Rush could use a few fucking more inhibitions. But Rush was something right now, something that needed breaking-through.

Surprisingly, Rush had been amenable to this proposition, even though Young didn’t think that he’d ever seen Rush drunk. He suspected that no one else had, either. When the two of them had turned up at Brody’s makeshift storage room bar, they’d been greeted by a general dumbstruck silence. Half the crew members present had immediately cleared off. Volker, amazingly, had stuck around— though, he’d said, “Only because they’re going to need witnesses for the trial.”

“Court martial,” Young had corrected, and Volker had wrinkled his forehead and said, “No, my bet’s on trial.”

“For your information,” Rush had said, sounding dangerously casual, “Colonel Young and I have not tried to kill each other for at least eight months now. Arguably longer, depending on the interpretation of certain events.”

“Um, congratulations?” Brody had offered. “For the record, my bet was on court martial and trial. It kind of still is. Should you even be drinking? Aren’t you, like, running the ship now?”

“I can hold my fucking liquor,” Rush had snapped, just as Young had cut in, “He is not running the ship.

That had amused Rush— a narrow current of warmth curling through his weather.

“Right,” Brody had said, sounding unconvinced.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, just—“ Rush had reached out and grabbed the bottle that Brody had been hesitating to pour.

“Hey!” Brody had protested.

“You lack any of the requisite credentials for bartending.”

“True,” Brody had admitted. “Still— it’s my bar.”

“Not tonight, it’s not. The colonel and I are commandeering it.” Rush had turned to Young, raising his eyebrows as though he’d been asking permission, although in fact Young couldn’t remember Rush ever asking permission for anything, so he wasn’t sure he would recognize the signs.

“That’s right,” Young had said, willing to play along. “Important military business."

“Oh, yeah. There’s no way this could go wrong,” Volker had said.

But they had left, and left Rush with the bottle of clear grain alcohol, which he had proceeded to pour steadily into himself and Young.

For a while, the two of them had sat in silence, maybe just drinking themselves to the point at which they felt able to speak. Young didn’t infringe on Rush’s consciousness. The spikiness was a clear sign. And God, did Rush deserve what defenses he could muster, after what Young had just seen.

He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it, even when Rush had started making small talk about channeling energy into the shields. That was a clear sign that Rush was uncomfortable; he loathed small talk. Like all the geniuses Young had met (and he’d met his fair share, working with the program, the real fraction-of-the-one-percent) he seemed out of sync with it somehow, like he didn’t run at the same speed at other people, and casual conversation required constantly slowing himself down.

Maybe Rush had just been using the small talk as an excuse to get hammered, because he was really pounding Brody’s moonshine back. Young finally took the bottle away when Rush went full Scottish said, “I’ve no’ been monitorin’ every project that Eli signs off on; since your little experiment with hoppin’ back tae Earth left us—“ he gestured at the close distance between them— “I simply havenae had the time.”

“Mm,” Young said neutrally, pouring himself a drink and keeping his hand casually on the bottle. He saw the opening that Rush had unintentionally left him with that line, but for a moment he was undecided as to whether he’d take it or not. He felt a surge of something— fondness, maybe, or protectiveness— for this oddly vulnerable, tipsy Rush, who had turned out to be hiding an almost-uninterpretable accent. His first impulse was to tease him and pour him into bed. But— “Telford came on board then,” he said quietly. “And afterwards. You were really upset, and you wouldn’t tell me why.”

“Aye,” Rush said, staring at the table, and then corrected: “Yes.” His mind had gone guarded.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” It came out more plaintive than Young had hoped.

Rush raked his hair back with an anxious hand. “It’s not relevant.”

“It seems pretty fucking relevant!”

“As far as Telford is concerned, what happened between us is over. The project failed. It ended back in that lab.”

“As far as Telford is concerned,” Young repeated. He fixed Rush with an uncompromising gaze. “And what’s going to happen if— when he finds out that—“ He didn’t even know what he was asking, exactly. But he knew that Telford had already begun to suspect.

“You don’t think I’m capable of dealing with David fucking Telford?” Rush asked hotly.

“I don’t doubt you are,” Young said, although he thought he had pretty reasonable cause to doubt that Rush was. “But I don’t even know what this project is. Or was. Whatever. He told me—“ He looked away, not liking the memory. “That you were his project. That his project was you.”

“I’m sure he’d like to think that,” Rush said bitterly.

“If I’m going to help you, I need to understand more than I do now.” Young spread his hands. “Come on. You can’t honestly tell me I haven’t seen the worst of it.”

Rush eyed him ambivalently, turning his cup in short fidgeting circles. Eventually he sighed sharply and seemed to be working out where to begin— although, knowing Rush, he might have been working out how much he get away with not revealing.

“As you know,” he said finally, “in the spring of 2008, Stargate Command found itself with a problem.

“The nine-chevron address,” Young supplied. “Right. The fancy— math code.”

He expected derision from Rush at that inexact summation, but Rush seemed too distracted. A haze of emotion was clouding his head. “That was one part of it,” he said. “Yes. A sophisticated problem that a handful of people could solve. However, I was hardly an obvious candidate at the time. I was a maths professor, not a nuclear physicist or a programmer. I was working on infinite-time Turing machines and the set-theoretic multiverse.” Something flowered briefly in his thoughts at the word multiverse, but he was sending Young pages of mathematical diagrams at the same time, and Young couldn’t get a handle on it. “My engagement with quantum cryptography was on a largely theoretical basis.”

“So what you’re saying is, you weren’t their first choice.”

“I was their first choice. They flew Daniel Jackson to California to personally recruit me. This raised a number of troubling questions for me, even at the time.”

“But you agreed.”

“I agreed to consult. I was interested in the mathematics.”

A sudden memory burst like a bubble on water: leaving an evening lecture at the MSRI, he’d stopped to light a cigarette. (He’d started smoking more when Gloria had gone into hospital; a silent fuck-you to the gods of the human body, because it should have been him, it should have been him.) The sun was dying in the west in its atmospheric layers, dense blue going down to eggshell and burnt orange. In the east, over the hills, stars appeared in pareidolic groupings. He stared at them and thought about what Jackson had said. He imagined how far it was possible to be from Earth. He imagined a lock so hard he might never break it. A thrill of savagery ran through him, cousin to panic. For an instant he was aware of himself as existentially trapped; ontologically, maybe. There was a despair in that feeling. This is what it is, he thought, to be human. But he had a practiced and standard response to despair, which was a fury most people would never summon. He wanted at the lock. He wanted out of there.

Young watched Rush, who didn’t acknowledge the memory. He was staring down at the table, drinking the last of what was in his cup.

“But consulting wasn’t enough for Jackson?” Young said, prompting.

Rush laughed humorlessly. “Jackson? Jackson wanted me out of the program. He thought I should go back to teaching maths. He only agreed to Icarus, at the last, because—“ His thoughts splintered, branching like a rhizome. “Because he was afraid of what might happen.”

“He was afraid of you?” Young found that hard to understand. He’d disliked Rush; everyone had disliked Rush, even before the arrival on Destiny had seemingly pushed him over some personal edge. But Rush had just been— like those plants you got out in the Colorado desert, brittle and spiny and desiccated, unpleasant, but easy to crush.

“Not afraid of me.” Once more, Rush stopped. Young had the impression that he was exerting a great deal of energy to keep his thoughts neutral and under control. “The nine-chevron address was not the problem,” he said. “The problem was what would come after. It seemed inevitable that the code would be broken. However, it was unclear where the nine-chevron address would lead. Why the extra coordinate? A theory at the SGC suggested that it might connect to another plane of existence. Perhaps something like the city of the Ori, which Jackson had visited. Thus the problem: if we broke the code, would anyone be physically capable of such an excursion?”

“You mean— because none of us can ascend.”

Rush waved a hand. “More or less. A separate project had been actioned to address this. Not Icarus. A project that was… off the books. It never had a name.”

“Okay,” Young said slowly. He already didn’t like where this was going. The pieces that he had in his head were beginning to fit.

“They began by screening government-sponsored tissue banks for certain genetic markers, one of which was the so-called Ancient gene. Through this, they assembled a list of candidates.”

Candidates.” The word tasted sour. “Candidates for what?”

Rush ignored the question. “One of the banks they screened was the national bone marrow registry. So, you see, it was a truly fantastic coincidence. If it hadn’t been for the cancer, I might never have…” He trailed off. “But. That was how they found me. Because some computer spit my name out on a list.”

Through their link, Young could sense his abiding distress, and something more— something hard for Young to understand, since he was someone who had always lived easily in his body. He had solid muscles, good reflexes, a certain gracefulness that lent itself to quarterback and center forward and made fighting as natural as breathing, though he hadn’t had to fight much, not beyond those early elementary-school tussles, so that it hadn’t taken on the ugliness he would later learn it could have— the feeling you got when you were pinned down and you had to push back punch back right now right FUCKING now because some animal part of you was programmed against dying and that was what dying felt like, it felt like animal justice, it felt like being too skinny and too weak and too small and the animals could sense it, like his father had sensed it, some physical stench of weakness that had made him think This isn’t my son which he had said the once and she had backhanded him and she had shouted And who the fuck’s son do you think he is then and it was the law of the jungle in that underwater-smelling kitchen and he was not an animal, he would not be an animal, and—

No, Young thought, gripping the edge of the table. That wasn’t him. That was coming from Rush. Their minds were blurring together at the edges. God. It had been a stupid idea to start drinking.

Rush had his eyes shut, a fist shoved against his temple. “Fuck,” he breathed. “Fuck. Don’t—“

Young said quickly, “I didn’t see anything; you were just sort of— spilling over.”

“For the love of Christ, can you no’ stay out of my fuckin’ head?”

“I wasn’t—“ Young said, and then stopped. Nothing he said would really help. And he didn’t want to hurt Rush. God, he felt a terrible recognition of the kid in those memories, who was already so distinctly and assuredly the man that Young knew, and he wished he could— but the only thing he could offer that Rush would accept from him was silence. He sighed.

“I get it,” he said, opting to try and move forwards instead. “You weren’t happy that they wanted you for your genetics. So— what? They wanted you to switch projects from Icarus?”

Rush’s eyes flicked to him uncertainly, but after a moment’s hesitation he went along with Young’s redirection. “No,” he said, relaxing very slightly. “Icarus was at the same time. They wanted me to do the maths, but more than that, they wanted, from the very beginning—“ He shrugged and made a short, jerky gesture encompassing himself.

“And Telford was the head of this unnamed project.”

Rush shrugged again and looked away.

“So you let him— what, experiment on you?”

“It was clear from Dr. Jackson’s research,” Rush said carefully, “that in order to gain full access to what lay beyond the ninth chevron… certain benchmarks would have to be met.”

“Benchmarks?”

“Electrophysiological requirements.”

Young could feel his jaw start to clench. “Could you just stop?”

“What, using words of more than four syllables?” Rush looked at him challengingly.

“Stop trying to bullshit me. Or, I don’t know, being deliberately cir-fucking-cuitous because you don’t want to say what you really mean.”

Young had been getting angrier since he’d had to say the word experiment. He knew that anger was the wrong strategy, but he hated, just really hated, the idea that was forming in his head of Rush as lab rat. He remembered standing— remembered Rush standing— barefoot in that black stone pool, hugging his elbows to his chest, wearing too-big fatigues. He had been cold. He had been scared. The whole room had felt hungry for him in a remote and inorganic way, and he had fed himself to it as though he were only clinically interested in the results. Like he had always done on the Destiny. Like Young had watched him do. Like he was nothing but a wrench or a rifle or a computer program, not something that could be cold or scared, not something you were supposed to care about the way you cared about cold, scared things. Just something that was there to be used. Maybe if it had just been Telford, Young could have pitched a fit, thrown a table, gotten the anger out of his system, but it was Rush who thought like that. And that seemed worse.

Rush had hunched his shoulders, a defensive posture. “Don’t pretend you have some great fuckin’ insight into me,” he said. His accent had turned thick again. “You know very little more than nowt about me.”

“Are we going to pretend like I didn’t just live through whatever the fuck that was? With Telford? What kind of benchmark was that supposed to meet?”

“The project was interested in producing increased electrical activity in certain areas of the brain, seen briefly in Dr. Jackson before he ascended, and also in the clone of Anubis that was studied at Stargate Command. Anubis’s device offered the opportunity to achieve that result in a test subject.”

“Rush,” Young said, and his throat closed. God. A test subject. He had to shut his eyes for a second. “So Telford’s project was— rewiring your brain. Essentially.”

“That’s a limited but accurate description,” Rush said, staring fixedly at his cup.

“And you agreed to this?”

“Yes.”

Why?”

“Many different reasons.” Rush still hadn’t looked up. His fingers were twitching restlessly where they rested on the table. “Surely it’s— not too difficult to imagine what some of those might have been.”

“Why would you trust Telford, of all people? Not even Jackson, but Telford!

Something angry and dark and complicated and unhappy was wrecking Rush’s inner landscape. Young could feel him shoving it down relentlessly. Not a hint of it crossed his face, however. “Telford was the one who recruited me to the program,” he said. “It was only Jackson at first. Telford was the one who convinced me to join. He needed me, and he spent… a long time, a very long time, figuring out how to get what he wanted.”

There had always been something in the way he talked about Telford that Young didn’t like, something that set his teeth on edge. “And then he tried to murder you,” he said flatly.

“That’s not what happened,” Rush said sharply.

“I was there.”

“You weren’t.” Rush’s eyes narrowed. “You weren’t there. You were eavesdropping on something you had no way of understanding.”

“Rush, I was in your head.”

“You’re in my head all the fuckin’ time. Yet you show little inclination to understand higher mathematics or, indeed, basic logic.”

This was clearly bullshit. Young had never heard Rush offer such a thin counterargument. Rush was on the defensive, and it showed. Young couldn’t help his voice rising as he said, “I don’t need higher mathematics to understand someone holding you underwater while you fight for your goddamn life!”

“It was part of the project,” Rush said. His thoughts were flying apart; he was struggling to keep something from rising to the surface. He did not like the water. He did not want to think of it. He did not— He took an unsteady breath. “Certainly there’s no love lost between myself and David. But he did what was necessary. That’s what he does. What’s necessary.”

David?” Young said. That was what Rush had called him in the lab, too; and in the other fragments Young had glimpsed— when Telford had lit Rush’s cigarette, when he’d touched his bare shoulder. Young seized on the familiarity now, and it made him feel ugly, ruthless in a way that he wasn’t accustomed to. “Were you fucking him?”

There was a moment of absolute stillness, as though Rush couldn’t believe that Young had said it.

Then abruptly he was pushing back from the table, his cup clattering to the floor. His weather was as bruised and sparking as a thunderstorm in progress, one of the big ones you got in the Midwest that really battered at you. Young winced instinctively, even before the shrieking force of it hit him.

“Fuck you,” Rush said, his voice uneven. “Fuck you, fuck you. Like you’re some paragon of fidelity, like you have any right to ask me that question. Or do you only give a damn about fucking around if it’s with men?”

“I sure as hell give a damn if it’s with Telford,” Young hissed. He was still struggling to make his way out from under the onslaught of Rush’s thoughts. It was like trying to follow a conversation with static blaring through headphones. “It’s a reasonable fucking question. He kissed you. You know— while he was trying to murder you.”

“We’re done here,” Rush said, and made a move to leave.

Young grabbed his wrist, which Rush didn’t like. The cyclonic chaos of his thoughts became a determined attack against Young, something that had a panicked edge. Too late, Young realized that Rush was still thinking about the water— that he’d been devoting a significant amount of energy to holding some memory back, and with the feeling of being restrained, with Young’s hand hard as a cuff on him, which they hadn’t done, but just that feeling of being restrained, and the water—

because water was its own restraint, because he did not like the water, and consequently the water made it difficult for him to think, and that was good, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it good? Because he could not access the information they needed; it was all just a branching web of water, the underwater smell of the kitchen and the river where he choked and David saying I’m glad I’m here I’m glad it’s me don’t fight this Nick let go and that reminds him to keep fighting and not to let go and so he keeps fighting and he does not let go even as they break his thoughts down into what must surely be one-picometer bits, all the thoughts they can access of course which is to say from before the lab, and he is so so grateful for that, because they cannot rip apart his mind and oh God if they turned him, they mustn’t ever ever turn him, he MUST keep them from shattering his mind and so it is good what David did, it is helpful, because the parts they can get are all right, they are nothing relevant, just Gloria dying and dying and dying and the choking in the river and the taste of rain and blood and bitumen in his teeth, which was the taste of Glasgow the taste of having his face shoved into the tarmac and Say it say it they had always said, Say it and he could not remember what they had wanted him to say but he would not say it because fuck them because he is not an animal he is not a body except that he does not like being in the water but that is rational it has a rational etiology and he clings to that fact as he rocks back and forth in a small dark room and his mam says And who the fuck’s son do you think he is then and his da hurls the radio and it was 1974 and it was summer the World Cup and the radio hit the window and Scotland were fucked even though they had lost no games and Gloria is dying again and if he does not submit soon they will give up on his mind and cut into his body and God it will be a fucking relief because it is only a body and he is not a body and please please please let it be soon because he does not like the water

and Young sucked in a harsh breath, rocking back as Rush brought the memory under some semblance of control. Not a memory— that had been a flashback, something crawlingly alive and vivid that had forced its way to the very front of Rush’s head.

God,” Young said, the word coming out strangled. “Was that—“

Rush was bent over, leaning against the back of his chair. A vague sense of nausea communicated itself from his mind to Young’s. “In retrospect,” he said thickly, “getting mad wi’ it on storage-room liquor might no’ have been the best idea.”

“You think?”

“Oh, fuck off. Like it’s not hard enough for me to begin with. You’ve seen the inside of my head.”

Young found the inside of Rush’s head beautiful, actually, in ways he lacked the vocabulary to articulate even to himself. It was chaotic, but full of connections that flashed like glints off the sharp sides of an object that stayed perpetually invisible to him, and sometimes, he thought, only partially visible to Rush. What was that story about the blind men and the elephant? Like that, but with an invisible elephant, and in more dimensions, and not an elephant, but something elegant and wondrous that Rush worked almost incessantly to outline.

Rush picked up the thought and looked pained. “You’re unusually perceptive tonight.”

“And you’re going to get about fifteen feet towards that door if you try to leave, so—“ Young shrugged clumsily. “You might as well sit down.”

“Right. I’d forgotten. Thanks for that.”

But Rush didn’t sit back down at once. He stayed leaning against the chair, his head swimming, his nerve-endings all still jumpy as fuck. Young, somewhat sobered by the adrenaline the flashback had triggered, and no longer thinking of Telford stroking Rush’s damp hair back, felt unpleasantly guilty.

“Sorry,” he ventured. “I was— you were right. I shouldn’t have asked.”

Rush waited a long time before giving him a short, curt nod.

“i always thought,” Young said awkwardly, after a pause, “that the way you—“ he waved a hand around his temple. “That it was just that you were, you know, a genius. But that’s not it, is it? It’s one of your, whatever-you-call-it, benchmarks.”

Rush shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “Once you exceed a certain number of standard deviations from the mean, you can’t really avoid a difference in thought that is both objective and subjective, so your primary assumption was well-founded if incorrect. The electrophysiological adjustment… magnified many extant issues.”

Young sighed. “You’re doing it again.”

“Well, what do you want me to say? That I could suddenly tell you how far a Brownian particle would travel in a given time interval, but I couldn’t explain the mathematics for it; that optimal maps were as easy as breathing; that I could speak fucking Russian after a few days of exposure, but I couldn’t identify a noun or verb? That common sense became so fucking foreign that I once stood on a Colorado street for twenty minutes trying to figure out a fucking parking sign?”

His voice was clipped and rising. He was headed off the rails.

“To be fair,” Young said, deliberately deadpan, “some of those signs are pretty confusing.”

As a diversion, it worked. Rush stopped and ducked his head, almost smiling in a way that Young had rarely seen.

After a minute, he bent to collect his cup from the floor and cleaned the rim of it against his shirt. He sat down, and took the bottle from Young with a pointed expression.

“Why do you think we needed Eli?” he said, when he had poured himself a drink and downed it in one. “I couldn’t solve the problem. The irony was that in gaining the ability to access what lay beyond the ninth chevron, I lost the ability to get us there. David was… not happy. The result was not what he had hoped for.”

“By all means,” Young said. “Let’s not forget to think of David.”

Fortunately, Rush seemed untroubled by his heavy sarcasm. “You’ve not got the moral high ground, you know. He’s hardly the last person who’s tried to kill me. Admittedly, you didn’t quite have the guts to use your own hands, but as you’ll have just seen, yours was ultimately the more traumatic encounter. If such things can be usefully quantified.”

“It’s not the same,” Young said, taken aback, feeling shockingly hurt. He wasn’t like Telford. He didn’t want Rush to think of him the way Rush thought about Telford. There was a difference, a difference so obvious and important that surely, if he explained it the right way—  But he didn’t know how to begin to put it in words, especially in his state of semi-intoxication. “I didn’t—“

“What?” Rush raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t do it for science? I’d respect you more if you had done.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Young said, though he didn’t know if he thought it was true. It was hard to really know things like that about Rush. Rush made it hard. But Young plunged ahead. “And for the record, I would never do that to you. I will never do that to you. Just—“ He tried to communicate it to Rush mentally: he wouldn’t stand back and watch clinically as Rush suffered; he wouldn’t act like Rush should be grateful for getting hurt; he wouldn’t pretend it was necessary, that it didn’t matter. That was what he couldn’t stand— how casual Telford had been about it, like it was somehow childish that Rush was fighting for his life.

Then: “What?” Young asked, somewhat offended, because Rush had laughed, or at least made a muted, painful sound that was something like a laugh. “You don’t believe me?”

“No,” Rush said. His gaze flinched down for a moment. “I believe you.” His expression was difficult to look at, but Young couldn’t not look at it. Rush had, Young thought, really unusual eyes, slightly too dark for the face in which they were set. They managed to be hard and soft at the same time.

They were silent for a while after that. Rush’s thoughts slid further away from sobriety, plunging into a blackness that resembled the ship. It was like being in the trenches of the ocean, someplace airless and claustrophobic where only strange lifeforms could live, only instead of lifeforms there were circuits and lines of code. There was nothing there that Young could understand. He felt a surge of frustration and, perhaps, somewhere behind it, an angry kind of helplessness.

“It’s worse now,” Rush said at length. “The— thinking. I tried to explain operator theory to Chloe, and you might as well explain how it is you see or sleep. It’s become— an autonomic function. I can’t do arithmetic anymore, but I can generate force fields, and modulate shield harmonics, and—“

He broke off, his mind echoing Young’s own frustration. One or maybe both of them was— were?— remembering a late night on Icarus Base. Rush, red-eyed and crooking an arm behind his shoulder to try to get at the pain of his neck, had been staring at his white board. The air recirculators had clang-clang-clanged through oh-two-hundred, starting their cycle over, and Rush had flinched: the whole nervous and fragile monoculture of his thoughts falling to pieces like a torn-through spiderweb. How could he be expected to focus when the whole problem gave him vertigo like he was oriented at the wrong angle to it like he was looking at it sideways and through a prism but he would not be defeated he refused to be defeated, and he reached for the eraser once more—

Rush said quickly, sensing Young’s incipient distress (how had he not noticed, back then, that Rush was struggling to keep his head above water, how close he was to falling apart), “I found it upsetting at first, but I’ve since— adjusted.”

This wasn’t made more convincing by the fact that he immediately went for another drink.

“If you were so adjusted,” Young said skeptically, watching him make a face at the shot of liquor, “then why didn’t you want to sit in the chair in the first place? If you’d been— God, whatever, electrophysiologically designed for it?”

Rush immediately torqued his thoughts into a kind of obfuscating spiral, a high-speed kaleidoscopic effect that made Young feel sick to look at. He had to pull back, squinting and putting the heel of a hand to his temple.

“You could just tell me when you don’t want to answer a question,” he said with some irritation.

“Oh, and you’ll just respect my boundaries, will you?” Rush gave him a cool glance. “You won’t. You can’t.”

“So you’re going to give me a migraine every time you don’t like what I ask you?”

“It’s proving an effective measure so far.” But Young could feel Rush relent after a moment. “I—“ he began, and stopped. “I didn’t want to sit in the chair because I was afraid of what might happen to the crew if I did. If I did.”

“What—“

“I’m no’ going to answer that question.”

Young buried his head in his hands. “You have no idea,” he said, his voice muffled, “how unsatisfying I find your answers to begin with.”

Rush looked at him with a trace of a smile. “On the contrary, I believe I’m the only one who knows exactly how unsatisfying you find them.”

The moment of amusement didn’t last. Rush was thinking once again, very vaguely and distantly, of Telford, with an almost wistful feeling. Something Telford had said to him. You’re never satisfied, are you, Nick? I like that about you. But then on Icarus he’d said, It’s no good pretending you’re not— I don’t know how else to say this— broken. That kind of denial isn’t useful to anyone. It had been one of a handful of times they’d spoken since the lab.

Young couldn’t help wincing. He remembered his conversation with the AI. I hope it’s fixable, he’d said, and the AI had said, He does not think so. He tried to keep control of his thoughts, but he could tell Rush had seen a brief flash of the AI outlined against blurring stars on the observation deck.

Rush shot him a wordless sense of inquiry.

//It talks to me too, you know,// Young projected at him. //Usually when I’m being particularly stupid.//

This time Rush was the one to drop his face into his hands. //Brilliant. Interpersonal advice from a starship.//

//You were pretty adamant about her— its personhood yesterday.//

//Aye, well, I could hardly help it, could I? I cannae be held responsible for my actions when I’m chemically impaired.//

“Like now,” Young said, trying and failing to hide a smile. “I should tell you that you’re getting, uh, increasingly Scottish.”

“I am not,” Rush said, his accent immediately sharpening. “Shit. I hate that.”

“Why? If anything, I’d say it’s— surprisingly charming.” Rush wasn’t the only one, Young thought, who was probably too drunk.

“Don’t be charmed by me,” Rush said, staring at the wall, looking anxious. “Don’t— fuck. What was the point of this, anyway? It’s no’ a conversation, it’s just you takin’ advantage to pry some answers fae me wi’out gi’in up any yourself. From me. Fuck,” he said, sounding disgusted. “Fuck off, charming. You’re downright calculatin’.”

“That’s not true,” Young said, startled to find how much the accusation stung. He reached out tentatively and laid his hand on Rush’s forearm. They’d been touching, he realized, a lot lately. He hadn’t had time for it to seem strange to him. No more than anything else seemed strange. He was slow to pull away, and Rush didn’t protest the slowness. He just fixed Young with an inscrutable glance.

Young said, after a strange beat in which both of them were silent, “I’m not interrogating you, or something. This is what talking to people looks like. You know, that thing you never do?”

“I talk tae people.”

“You yell at them. Or give them speeches. I don’t think that really counts.”

“Yes, well.” Rush frowned at him, still dissatisfied.

“What, you want me to spill my heart to you?” Young spread his hands. “You already know most of my secrets. Compared to you, I’m an open book. Me and TJ— you know about that whole disaster. I turned down Icarus to patch things up with my wife, which— you can see how well that all worked out. Pretty much par for the course. Oh, you’ll like this, actually— she’s with Telford now.”

“Get fucked.” Rush seemed torn between a grimace and laughter. “How the fuck did that happen?”

“Dropping in and out of FTL. I always switched with Telford. More fool me.” He’d thought he was mostly over it, like he was over TJ, but some part of the betrayal still burned.

Rush didn’t respond at once. He was looking sleepy-eyed, which was probably a sign that he ought to be cut off. But he said eventually, with an odd sort of gentleness, “He’s no’ a bad person, David, surely. He’s just a bad person. If you— see whit I mean.”

“You sure about that, genius?”

Rush looked down at his empty cup. “No,” he said. “I suppose I’m an incurable optimist.”

“Now I know you’re wasted.” Young was pretty tired, for his part, though nowhere near as drunk as Rush. He stood up, feeling the world slope unpleasantly around him. “Come on. Let’s blow this popsicle stand before I end up having to carry you. My back’s not up for it.”

“Don’t fash yourself; you willnae hae t’ do it.”

Young stared at him. “You’re really very Scottish,” he pointed out. “You’ve been keeping that on the down low, haven’t you?”

Rush closed his eyes. “Fuck,” he said.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to blow your cover.”

They made their way out, Rush swaying on a single crutch in a way that suggested he wasn’t entirely certain where the floor was located. Young ended up half-supporting him, and he was placing bets with himself on whether he was going to end up carrying him after all when the doors slid open and revealed Eli working on his laptop in the hallway.

“Eli, what are you—?” Young asked.

“I relieved Greer about an hour ago,” Eli said without looking up. “He seemed to think it was necessary that you guys have some kind of escort, so…” He broke off, finally catching sight of their less-than-precise appearance (and probably a whiff of their alcoholic smell). “Wait a minute. Are you drunk? Is he? You got Rush drunk?”

“Um,” Young stalled.

“Do you hae to state the fuckin’ well-seen like it’s a bloody revelation?” Rush asked. “If you’re doin’ it for some form of comic effect, you can jist wrap it; I’ve no’ got the patience.”

“This is incredible,” Eli said. He shut his laptop and pushed himself to his feet. “I understood about four words of that. Do you have any idea how long I’ve been trying to do this?”

“What,” Young asked, “get Rush drunk?”

Yes.” Eli’s eyes were wide. He turned to Rush. “Okay, seriously: top five desert island movies.”

“I’m no’ interested in films; they’re aye slow and—“ Rush waved a hand in a vague, linear motion. “Talky. Boring.”

“God, you are not watching the right films, but: fine. Okay. Top five things you miss about Earth.”

“Eli—“ Young interjected. “You’re supposed to be helping, not playing Twenty Questions.”

“Do you even know how to play Twenty Questions? Because that is not how you play Twenty Questions.”

“Coffee,” Rush said, as he let Eli take the arm that Young wasn’t supporting. “Cigarettes. Paracetamol. Playing the piano. Having loads of those little notebooks.”

“You play the piano?” Eli asked.

“All civilized people do.”

Young started walking down the hallway, hoping that the complicated motion of coordinating the effort of supporting Rush would distract Eli from that line of questioning. It seemed innocent enough on the surface, but it wasn’t, he was pretty sure. He doubted that Rush had played the piano for some time, even before he left Earth.

Thankfully, Eli was barreling ahead with his investigation. “Favorite band?”

“The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.”

“You are impossible. Favorite food?”

“Really greasy chips.”

“Okay, A: I don’t believe you, and therefore B: you are impossible. Just for that: do you think I’m smart?”

“Obviously.”

“How smart?”

“Pure deed brilliant. But you know that already.”

Young glanced over at Eli, who had clearly not known this. To his credit, Eli covered it well: just a startled glance at Rush, and then a second, darting look at Young, as though to confirm that Young had also heard what Eli thought he’d heard.

“Yeah,” Eli said. “Of course I know. I just wanted to hear you say it.”

He moved on to a lighter and less fraught list of questions, and the three of them paused at the intersection of several hallways at around the time he was trying to goad Rush into naming a favorite television show. Young had started to head down one hallway, and Eli another; for a moment, tangled up, they froze.

“Um,” Eli said guardedly. “… His quarters are this way.”

“Yeah, I know,” Young said. “We’re going to my quarters.”

“…Why?”

“Because that’s where we’re going.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” Eli was chewing on his lower lip.

Young wanted to be amused that the first idea to pop into Eli’s head was— well, the idea that he was clearly trying to avoid having to say out loud. Kids today, where did they get these notions, et cetera, et cetera. He imagined asking, What, you think we’re heading off for a one-night stand? But it wasn’t funny, not really, for a lot of reasons. We’re not fucking, we’re just going to sleep in the same room, probably in the same bed, because being too far apart makes us feel like we’re dying. Also, earlier I was inside his head while he was actually dying, and now that I stop to think about it for a second, even if we weren’t telepathically stuck together, I’d probably want us to sleep in the same bed, because it was really fucking traumatic, in ways I can’t even get into, and I don’t want him to be alone, and I just kind of need to be close to him. That would go over great as an explanation. Jesus, maybe he was drunker than he’d thought.

He could feel amusement pouring off of Rush, who had also spotted Eli’s worry— amusement, and something else that was harder to read.

“It’s fine, Eli,” Rush said. “There’s nae need to worry about my virtue. We cannae separate; that’s all.”

Eli looked from one of them to the other. “Since when?”

“Since Telford swapped me out and the ship lost power,” Young admitted.

“I guess that explains why you’ve been MIA from— basically everywhere.”

“Yeah,” Young said shortly, not happy about the reminder. “It remains a little unclear what’s going to happen if we can never get more than fifteen feet from each other. People are going to start to notice.”

“People have already started to notice,” Eli said. “They’re just kind of, um, coming up with their own theories?”

Young cast his eyes to the heavens. “What are they saying?”

“Well, some people definitely think that Rush has brainwashed you. You know, with his superpowers that he has from the ship. But there’s also a rumor going around that the chair did something awful to him, and now he’s dying, but he doesn’t want anyone to know, except TJ told you, so now you’re trying to be nice to him.”

“He’s not dying,” Young snapped.

“I never said he was. Well, okay, I might have facilitated that rumor a little. But—“

“He’s not dying, Eli.” Young didn’t know where the sudden anger had come from. It felt like there was a whole well of it bubbling up in him, and he hadn’t known about it until now. In the back of his head, Rush was making a clumsy attempt to soothe him. That was worrying— when Rush was the one trying to be calm.

“Wow,” Eli said, staring at him, his expression slowly closing. “This just moved up to a whole new level of awfulness. I love hanging out with you guys. I really do.”

“Eli—“ Young began, apologetically.

“No. It’s fine. I’m going.”

He hesitated before turning, though, and looked at Rush. “Are you… you know… going to be okay?”

“You’re a nice fuckin’ kid,” Rush said, not very coherently.

“Thanks? You’re a complete jerk, but I kind of like you anyway. Kind of.”

Eli headed back the way he had come. Young continued on down the hall, Rush leaning heavily on him, till he and Rush had reached his quarters. The door opened for them at a twitch of Rush’s hand, which was a nice touch.

“You can stop actin’ surprised when I prove t’be less than totally helpless,” Rush said, catching Young’s surprise. “I’m no’ that drunk.”

“Right,” Young said dryly, and removed his supporting arm, letting Rush stagger into the room under his own control— which resulted in him lurching from couch to table to wall, looking somewhat seasick.

And you can jis’ haud your hoverin’,” Rush said without bothering to turn around. “I’m scunnered wi’ it.”

Young covered his mouth with a hand to hide his smile. “I have no idea what that means, but I’m sure I’m supposed to be very insulted.”

Rush said, not very clearly, “Go on, then.”

By dint of pure willpower, he managed to make his way to Young’s bathroom. The door slid shut behind him with a solid thunk.

//If you pass out in there,// Young shot at him, //I’m going to make your life miserable.//

Rush, predictably, ignored him.

Young rolled his eyes and dropped onto the end of his bed. Once he’d sat, he felt incredibly weary, and a headache was starting that portended the hangover he would have the next day. He rubbed a hand against the thick, heavy curls he couldn’t get rid of, now that he was stuck in a distant galaxy without access to haircuts. After a while he got up the energy to take off his jacket, belt, and boots. He hesitated before taking his pants off— he usually slept in his boxers, but he had made a concession to Rush’s presence two nights ago. What the hell, though. Rush had worked for the military long enough to know that soldiers weren’t shy. There was no reason Young should be shy. They were just— two men sleeping in the same room.

But he found himself turning the sheets down, squaring the pillows, and trying to take up only one narrow slice of the bed, as though to make it clear in some way that he expected Rush to sleep beside him. That it was something he wanted. He had to stop and consider that word, want. He’d been using it a lot lately. But he wasn’t comfortable letting it too close to Rush. There were a lot of reasons why that was a bad idea. He didn’t have the energy to unpack all of them. 

Rush emerged damp-faced, clad in his BDUs and boots and t-shirt. He stopped when he saw Young, taking in the implicit sleeping arrangement. He didn’t say anything for a moment, and neither did Young. The silence stretched, but not uncomfortably. Just— fragile.

“You tried to sleep on the floor last time,” Young said at last. “You don’t have to do that.”

Rush fixed him with a curiously intense and uncertain stare. He was hugging his elbows to his chest, almost as though he were chilly, though it was a perfectly normal temperature in the room.

“Fine,” Rush said finally, and very carefully sat on the end of the bed to bend over and unlace his boots.

Young breathed out slowly. He felt like he’d just stared down a wild animal.

When he had shed his boots and BDUs, Rush crawled under the sheets and curled on his side at the far edge of the bed, facing away from Young. He seemed determined to pretend that he wasn’t there, or that Young wasn’t there. When Young stood to go into the bathroom and brush his teeth, he was struck by an impulse to be very quiet, as though if he moved too fast Rush would run.

When he returned, he found that Rush was sleeping deeply. He’d fallen asleep with his glasses on. Cautiously, very cautiously, Young reached over to remove them. Rush made a small dissatisfied noise, frowning, but otherwise he didn’t stir. Young folded the glasses and set them on the bedside table. He looked at Rush. He didn’t know what he was thinking. Just that Rush looked unprotected without his glasses on. He was working very hard not to think about any of the things he’d seen that day. Better not to think about them. That was definitely what Rush would prefer. And Young could do that; he could keep that stuff out of the center of his consciousness, if he had to. But he couldn’t stop thinking that Rush looked unprotected without his glasses on.

He turned out the light. It was a long time before he slept.

Chapter Text

He is in the mint-green parlor of the little house in Princeton that they lived in when he was at the IAS and he is sat at the rented piano, what had it been, a Bechstein, and he is playing the Schubert arpeggione sonata that she had transcribed for the violin because she had liked for them to play Schubert together and she had said You have the right hands for Schubert looking at his hands critically and he had said What do you mean by that and she had said Or Mozart, maybe, something light and with a lot of speed and distance, and he had said I think I’m offended and she had said You know this about yourself, you don’t keep anything close to the surface, not like Debussy or Chopin, and he had said I can play Chopin, and she had said What's under the surface is always a half-step behind you, the audience doesn’t realize till after they’ve heard it that it was sad, and he had said I can play Chopin watch, and he had launched into a Chopin prelude, number fifteen, and she had said Nick not everything is a fight you have to win.

And so he is playing this sonata but she keeps missing her entrances because of course she is dead and so how could she make her entrances in the Schubert arpeggione sonata but he does not want to think about this and he cannot think about this so he climbs under the piano and curls his knees to his chest and thinks about the infinite marble problem for a while, putting two numbered marbles into a bowl and taking one out over and over and it is a paradox because in the end the bowl must be empty and have infinitely many marbles in it at the same time and it is an ill-formed problem probably but he finds it reassuring to imagine adding and removing the marbles over and over and over keeping track of all the numbers that are left but then David is reaching into the bowl and taking all of the marbles and David says in a bored voice, Jesus Christ, a fucking kids’ game, Nick? I thought we agreed that there were better things for you to do with your time, and how did David get there in the first place someone wasn’t careful someone left the door unlatched and then it was too late because once David was there he

does not want to think about this and he CANNOT think about this and David is RIGHT THERE in the stagnant pool under his thoughts and if he stays then David is going to PULL HIM UNDER and nacuam nametque neod conagitere potissetque supo acua mutatio en eod est quom huemom eos david tangevadque smatlam posnevadque quod entegras neis nessere indicevad quod nisciunos neem nemquam tangere potisset nisciunos nemquam denovod nemquam so he starts climbing the ladder that always seems to be waiting right in the corner of his brain and it is made of very fine steel strings like the E string she broke and he said God it’s like a weapon and the strings cut into his fingers like a warning but when he gets far enough up he will be safe because

he is

in Colorado and it’s about that time in the evening when everything seems to be carrying its own shadow on its back and the sky has darkened just enough that it’s not really daytime, but not enough that it’s really dusk. He’s on a fucking sports pitch of all things, or wandering the sidelines, and his immediate instinctual reaction to that is to wrinkle up his nose because a fucking sports pitch? Really?

“Rush!” Young calls from the pitch. “You going to be our ref?”

“I’d rather die,” Rush says pleasantly, and makes for the tiered metal benches. Rodney McKay is sitting there, working on his laptop, so that must be the designated zone for people with functioning brains.

Out on the field, Young is playing some sort of game with a set of other men who are no doubt also colonels; they look the type, with their large bodies and boisterous manner of slapping each other on the back, and there is something very repressed-homosexual about all American military officers, their hunger for the undemanding company of other men, which Rush had found disorientating at first and then doubly so when David—

“Hey,” Young says, jogging over. “I thought we weren’t going to talk about him.”

Rush stares at him, confused. “Did you just—“

“I mean, we can if you want to, but you said the whole reason you wanted to come by was so you could get out of your own head for a while.”

Rush presses the heels of his hands against his temples, feeling abruptly uneasy. “Something is not…” he says, and closes his eyes “Something is… happening here…”

“Um, yeah,” Young says, like this should be obvious. “We’re playing football. Which I know you hate, but if you want to grab a beer, we’ll probably be done in a minute. Because Cam is going to get his ass kicked!” he yells in the direction of an aggressively nondescript brown-haired man.

“I’m,” Rush says. The rush of queasiness passes. “Are you sure that it’s… all right?”

“Why wouldn’t it be all right? Hey, I’ll introduce you to Sheppard. He’s—“ Then it’s Young’s turn to look confused. His brow creases and he stares at Rush for a moment. Then he finally shakes his head. “Anyway. Just stick around.”

So Rush sits on one the metal benches and the shadows grow in the long Colorado light and after a while it occurs to him that he has a packet of cigarettes in his pocket, and he lights one, and watches Young get into a mock-fight with one of the other colonels, and McKay says without looking up from his computer, “How can you claim to be an intelligent human being and still opt to deliberately destroy yourself?” and Rush says, “Fuck off, Rodney,” and McKay says, “Obscenity is the province of those without answers,” and Rush says, “That was the answer: because fuck off.” But he can’t summon up the vitriol that would have perfected such a riposte, because he feels shockingly balanced, as though someone has actually reached right into his ribcage and is holding his heart in the palm of their hand so that he doesn’t have to worry about what it’s doing, he can just—

(te mithe Nick)

draw a fucking breath


Rush opens his eyes to the quiet dark of Young’s quarters and then he closes his eyes immediately because while he was asleep he had moved or Young had moved so that they are curled body to body and he does not know what is more unacceptable if he had moved or Young had moved but one of the two things has happened and it had happened the last time and it causes the programs he was executing to stall and he cannot—

proceed like this really and there is an obvious solution which is to get up quietly from under the arm that Young has draped across his shoulders because that arm is unacceptable because there is no obligation for it to be there, their radius has improved, he does not need the apposition that only touch can provide, he is trying to accomplish nothing so logically he should get up he should get up now he should right now he should just move.

So he moves and he gets up and Young stirs but does not awaken. Rush stands by the bed and looks at him.

“You are upset,” Gloria says uncertainly from behind his left shoulder. Then she flickers and projects to him as Daniel Jackson. This is a new tactic she is employing. She projects to him as Daniel Jackson because she does not wish for him to becomes confused and because he was hurt by what happened in the interface. It is hard for her to understand this kind of damage because the human brain though deterministic is chaotic and inputs have outputs that she struggles to predict.

“Yes,” Rush says, because it is counterproductive for him to lie to her when he is attempting to improve her observance of human behavioral cues.

“I will speak to him if you wish.”

“No. Don’t.” He moves his arm as though she had proposed to approach Young this very moment and as though physically blocking her would do any good.

“But if he understood—“

“He won’t.”

“But—“

“It’s nothing.” Finally he finds it in himself to turn away. He searches for the indicator light of his laptop in the dark and bends to to pick the laptop up. After all he always has work to do. “It’s really a very inconsiderable problem.”

Gloria— Jackson— the AI— says nothing, but he feels its anxious eyes on him in the dark.


He is considering a Bloch sphere which is also know as a Poincaré sphere and topology is not really his natural area but one can represent pure qubit state space with the Bloch sphere which makes it practically useful and some people would argue the universe itself has the shape of a Bloch sphere but that is making assumptions about the universe that he still shies away from even now even with what he knows to be true and why has he always been drawn to mathematical uncertainty to undecidability to superposition to corners of logic that the mind rejects is it because You know what it’s like Chloe says to be sort of the wrong number of dimensions. Or I don’t mean dimensions obviously but Yes he says is it that obvious and she says It’s strange talking to you ever since they changed me it’s like I put on 3D glasses and now you kind of… extend. God, I really don’t mean dimensions I know that mathematically— But he cuts her off: No it’s all right.

Is it? she asks. Is it all right? She is looking at him uncertainly and she is kneeling in a pool of liquid in a shallow depression in a black stone lab and she is wearing a white dress that floats up around her like a flower and David says Ready? and throws the lever and he can hear the charge mount in the concealed capacitors and he is so scared he is SO SCARED HE IS

P A V D U S P A V D U S E S T G L O R I A Q U A E S S O N E O D F A C T U M P E R M I T H E R E P O T I S S E S G L O R I A N E P O T I S S E S N E U M N E M Q U A M Q U I R I T A N T S E S T H I C D I S C E D E N D O S E S T N U M C I U G I S T E R N U M C

and

“I mean,” Young says, “the thing that people don’t get is the isolation. Sure, it’s beautiful when you’re coming two weeks a year for ski season, but even someplace like Casper or Missoula starts to feel pretty goddamn small when you’re five, six hours away from the nearest city. And don’t even talk to me about when it snows.”

Rush stares at him.

Young is driving some form of American car down an interstate highway. He is wearing sunglasses. The radio is on, and it is projecting something that Rush can only, without appropriate contextual knowledge, characterize as “gospel” with a fair amount of static mixed in. Outside a long stretch of tawny hills keeps rising and falling, with an almost unimaginably wide sky rounding over them.

Rush is sitting in the car’s passenger seat, wearing cowboy boots and a leather jacket.

“And Cheyenne,” Young says dismissively. “That’s practically Denver. That’s not even the real West.”

“Where are we?” Rush asks.

Young shrugs. “You said you wanted to go on a road trip. We’re about ten miles south of Kaycee, on I-25.”

“And where are we going?” He is absolutely certain he should know this. He is absolutely certain he should be more concerned about not knowing. He should be panicking. He shouldn’t be calm to the point that he’s almost drowsy, and he doesn’t know why he suddenly is.

Young pauses and frowns. “I used to—“ he says slowly, looking disorientated for a moment. “I used to drive up this way to visit my folks back when I was stationed in Cheyenne. They’re outside Buffalo.”

“Oh,” Rush says.

“They raise cattle.”

“I’ve never believed that was something people actually did.”

Young shoots him an amused glance. “City boy, huh?”

“How could you tell."

“So this is good for you. You get to see the real America.”

“That was what they told me about Colorado Springs. Apparently the real America is a lot of impossibly butch men in uniforms who listen to bad country-rock music and get off on telling me what I can and can’t do.”

Young grins. “I think that’s just the Mountain.”

“No; I’m fairly certain it’s the entire town.”

A short silence follows.

“Butch, huh,” Young said reflectively.

Rush makes a vague, impatient hand gesture, not looking at him.

After a while, Young says, “I always found it pretty stifling myself.”

He turns the radio up a little, and Rush has no choice but to listen to an old a cappella mono recording of a song about standing at the foot of a mountain. He’s sure that the mountain is supposed to be God, or heaven, or some other very American sort of thing. But it’s a strangely haunting song, perhaps because it sounds as though it’s been transmitted over a very long distance, or from a very long time ago.

Rush looks out the window, at the gold landscape that goes forever. The car rattles smoothly down the road.

“This isn’t what I imagined it would be like,” he says.


“What,” Rush says reflexively at the sense of having been abruptly awakened.

“Mm,” Young mumbles unintelligibly against his neck and Rush can feel him frown in his sleep protesting at having his dreams disturbed and presumably he is still driving across America alone now on the road between the low hills or perhaps he has moved on which is better and is dreaming of who the fuck knows, guns and punching people maybe whatever it is that colonels dream about and probably in the morning he will not remember Rush was there and that too is better it is objectively absolutely just unquestionably better.

“You asked me to wake you,” the AI says. It looks like Daniel Jackson and more’s the pity as it has now also started behaving like him with the way it squints at Rush through its glasses with a concerned expression and gives him an apologetic smile.

Rush lets his head drop to the pillow. “Yes.”

“If you are tired, you should continue sleeping. I am concerned that you do not allow yourself sufficient sleep, Nick.”

“It’s not relevant,” Rush says and he sits up and Young almost awakens but Rush projects a steady stream of sleep sleep sleep at him and Young sighs and turns and goes back to sleep and that is good. Rush lingers in his thoughts just to make sure Young will not wake up because if Young wakes up there will be the usual questions and recriminations. What are you up to Rush. What are you plotting Rush. Why are you such a cold-hearted bastard. How are you trying to kill the crew this week Rush. I don’t trust you I don’t trust you Tell me Tell me Tell me. God. At least in the time loop Young had had a new refrain although it was not a new refrain really it’s just that I trust you I trust you I trust you had been the appropriate variation of battering down the door screaming Let me in.

But Young is sleeping deeply and will not wake up. He is dreaming that he is driving through stargate after stargate in search of something he vaguely knows he ought to miss and it’s a little sad perhaps but well that’s the nature of dreams so Rush leaves him to dream about it and he’s only a little bit belated in pulling away from Young’s thoughts and it’s not for any particular reason just the lasting effects of sleep making him stupid and slow to react.

“Right,” he says to the AI. “Time to work.”

“Nick,” the AI says hesitantly.

Rush stands and rakes a hand through his hair. He doesn’t look at the AI. "It's better this way," he says.


They’re getting through Young says and Gloria says desperately Nick Nick they’re getting through and the ship is shaking with weapons fire and an alarm is sounding and he can hear the shields shrieking in his head and it is so unharmonious that he is nauseated by it the wrongness of it fields emitting all of the WRONG harmonics and he knows what he has to do and Young says You know what you have to do and Young is pushing him gently into the chair and the restraints are snapping around him and he is scared he is scared he is scared and he says I can’t I can't you don’t understand it’s not going to— and he does not like being restrained and Gloria says But you have to and the neural bolts engage but nothing happens nothing happens and David says What the fuck were you thinking Nick we’ve been over this it didn’t work it just fucked you up and Scott is shouting on the radio about a hull breach and Young says I don’t understand why didn’t it work and Gloria says Oh darling I’m sorry but your data is corrupted I can’t allow you access to the ship and Young is holding him down against the chair saying Try again Rush you knew that this was part of it you always knew and Rush is struggling, fighting, and Gloria says I'm so sorry but you’d corrupt us too and Young says Don’t fight this but he is fighting and hic esfugiendos est quaesso neod telhet neod ne telhet ALIQUOBID IS BERENDOS EST and then Young is

saying Well come on then very impatiently and

seizing his wrist and pulling him

and they crawl into a

small bright space and Rush thinks it is the inside of the FTL drive but it is not the inside of the FTL drive or it is the inside of the FTL drive but it stops being the inside of the FTL drive and starts being the inside of a canvas tent. The light is coming from two electric lanterns that are drawing the steady attention of moths, and outside the tent a horde of American insects are chirping their admiration to the dark. Young is sitting cross-legged, wearing some sort of plaid abomination, and so, he is astonished to discover, is Rush. In the narrow accommodation they are slightly hunched together.

“This is nice,” Young says mildly, looking around. “This is what I used to do when I was a kid.”

“What, waste your time imitating mindless frontier woodsmen?” Rush rolls his eyes. “Why am I not surprised.”

“Right, I guess you were reading textbooks or something.” Then Young pauses, looking troubled. “You were—“

“Don't,” Rush says quietly.

Young looks at him for a long time. Then he says, “Marshmallow?”

From behind his back, he produces a plastic bag of pillowy white American marshmallows. He pulls one out, dusty and fat, and waggles it in front of Rush.

Rush’s nose wrinkles in disgust. “That,” he says, “is an item not found in nature.”

“I don't know what you're talking about. Here we are in nature, and here it is.” Young pops the marshmallow into his mouth. “God,” he says reflectively, “this really takes me back. You know, my dad made me this tent. Me and my brothers used to sit out in it after we’d been catching fireflies. It was so quiet outside, after it got dark— we'd feel like we were the only people in the world.”

“That sounds peaceful,” Rush says without thinking. For some reason his eyelids are heavy.

“Sometimes I’d poke my head out of the tent and look up at the stars— you get a lot of stars in northern Wyoming; you can see the Milky Way. And I felt really small and really safe.”

Rush's eyes are drifting closed.

“And I’d think,” Young says, “about the whole universe out there, all those stars, miles and miles away—“

“Light-years,” Rush corrects sleepily.

“Well, I was eight years old; I didn’t know that.” Young pauses. “Here,” he says, and Rush feels something draped over him: a scratchy wool blanket. “That’s from my dad’s old Army kit.”

“I loathe the American armed forces,” Rush murmurs.

“Yeah,” Young says tolerantly. “I know.”

“This is a terrible idea. I’m not supposed to be—“

“Shh,” Young whispers.

Rush prepares an offensive rejoinder, but he’s so fucking tired and for some reason the canvas walls of the tent seem to block out all the noise in his head. There’s normally so much noise in his head and now it’s just oversized trees sighing, big heavy branches brushed-through by the wind, and maybe a car in the distance, the call of a bird, Young crinkling up the plastic bag and humming something out of tune—


Rush wakes and for quite a long time he just lies there breathing because this is unacceptable this cannot be tolerated this is too fucking much to be borne; Young is curled around him a soft arm at his waistline and this cannot be allowed to continue and there was a dream and the details are fading but the details are not relevant, what is relevant is—

He squeezes his eyes shut. What is relevant is—

What is relevant

is—

Young's hand tightens briefly in the fabric of Rush's shirt as though sensing some current of distress in the unbearably shared space that overlaps them and this is too much it is going to do to him what force always does to objects that try to endure it, and so here's what is going to happen what's going to happen is

He is going to slip out from under Young’s arm and he is going to climb off of the bed and he is going to stand and he is going to find his crutch and he is going to limp to the sofa where his laptop is waiting and he is going to sit down and he is going to open the laptop up and he is going to ignore the AI who is going to try to tell him that he should sleep even though he should not sleep that much is fucking transparent and he is going to let it in all of the noise and he is going to force it into order he is going to mark the boundaries where all the keys fit into the locks and then it is going to be all right when that part is over and he is hardly even going to notice that Young is dreaming or what Young is dreaming about and Young for his part is certainly not going to notice that anything has happened and so everything is going to reach its paradigmatic stasis and that is how this is going to go.

So he slips out from under Young’s arm and he climbs off of the bed and he stands and he finds his crutch and he limps to the sofa where his laptop is waiting and he sits down and opens the laptop up and he ignores the AI (“Nick if you will not sleep please allow the ship to supplement your energy levels Nick are you listening to me”) and he lets in all of the noise and he begins to sort it he begins to perceive all the secret mechanisms the keys the locks the doors and any minute now this part is going to be over and then it is going to be all right when this part is over any minute now when this part is over it is going to be all right—

Chapter Text

By Young’s estimation, he was roughly two weeks in the hole when it came to reading the science team’s reports. (He preferred not to think about the backlog he was facing in terms of actually writing reports; the near-constant crises he had faced since the ship had melded itself to Rush, and the need to subordinate so many of his needs to Rush’s own, had left him somewhat devoid of free time.)

He’d spent the last week playing catch-up on public appearances, showing his face on the bridge and in the mess, and— as he and Rush still had a twenty-five feet radius— dragging Rush along with him, which had not been a popular move with Rush or with the crew. Rush had gotten increasingly short-tempered, culminating in an incident in which one of Wray’s constitution-building meetings had to be cut short when the mess (where it was being held) suffered an unexplained life-support failure. Young thought Rush probably hadn’t done it on purpose— probably— but it seemed like the ship was getting more and more responsive to Rush’s moods.   So Young had decided they’d take a day off. That was why he was sitting in his quarters plowing through unread paperwork, only to suddenly find himself reading that:

…closer examination of the viral samples obtained revealed that although this strain has similar features to the plague that wiped out the Ancients, it is not identical. Full sequencing of the viral genome recovered from samples on the Destiny revealed substantial differences on both a nucleic acid and protein level. Results from maximum parsimony analysis with bootstrapping, using viral sequences from the Destiny’s database, are attached as Appendix D. Results indicate that this virus is likely a precursor to the strain that was ultimately responsible for the near-extinction of the Ancients. If this is indeed the case, it may have been aboard the Destiny since the ship was launched. Alternatively, it may have been liberated following the full activations of areas of the ship that had previously been dormant. The likelihood that it came from the second obelisk planet is small…

“Goddamnit,” Young sighed. “Did you know about this?” he asked Rush absently, still looking the report over.

There was no answer from Rush.

Young looked down. At some point in the last hour, Rush had relocated from the couch to the floor, where he was lying on his back with his feet propped up on the coffee table, staring at the ceiling with a blank look.

“Rush,” Young said.

Rush was listening to the harmonies of the Destiny’s shields, only peripherally aware of Young’s presence. Young could hear them faintly as well: wavering and alien, not quite animal- or bird-like, not quite like the humming of insects, but still somehow alive— like a piano that played itself, Rush was thinking, though it wasn’t like a piano at all, more like an aurora borealis, charged particles striking an atmosphere, yes, an aurora that was singing to itself, high pitched chirps and hums, melodies and questions, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful—

Rush,” Young said, and toed at Rush’s shoulder.

Rush threw him an irritated glance— then paused, his eyes going unfocused. He said distantly, “We’re about to drop out of FTL.”

Sure enough, only a few seconds had passed before the sound of the FTL drive cut out and Young felt the peculiar sensation of his stomach getting left behind as they as they dropped into normal space.

He pulled out his radio. “Bridge,” he said. “Report.”

“Colonel, you’re not going to believe this,” Volker said, “but I’m looking at a seed ship right now.”

“I’ll be right there,” Young said, rising from the couch.

“Bring Rush with you,” Volker said.

“Right,” Young said, wincing. “I’ll… try to find him.”

“Yeah, good plan,” Volker said dryly, in a tone that suggested Young wasn’t fooling anybody.

//Not your best work,// Rush said. //If Volker can see through it, then I assure you the others can as well.//

//At least I’m trying to behave normally. Unlike you.//

//I’ve never behaved normally,// Rush said airily, getting to his feet. //It would be suspicious if I started.//


Within ten minutes, they had arrived at the bridge. Through the viewscreen, they could glimpse the long dark outline of the seed ship, hanging suspended as though in water. It was clearly battle-damaged: in several places, visible hull breaches had been covered by force fields, which flickered strangely against the blackness of space.

“What have we got, Eli?” Young asked.

“Well,” Eli said, “I can’t tell you much, because amazingly their shields are still up at a minimal level, which prevents me from finding out much about the internal state of the ship. But judging by the exterior, I’d say they were in a pretty intense firefight.”

“How long ago are we talking about?”

Chloe spoke up: “The debris radius is consistent with a two- to six-month window.”

“So—“ Young strolled forward to the window, staring out at the dark bulk of the ship. “Is docking and boarding an option?”

“No,” Brody said.

“Maybe,” Eli said.

Rush said, “Of course it is.”

Young swept them with an exasperated look.

“The only way to dock with that ship would be to match their shield frequencies to ours,” Brody explained. “That would require continuous modulation of our shields in real time as the two energy fields merge.”

“That’s not an obstacle,” Rush said flatly.

“Um… why not?” Volker ventured.

“Because I’m telling you it’s not.”

“Right,” Brody said dubiously.

//Easy,// Young projected. //He doesn’t understand.//

“The pertinent question,” Rush said, his tone slightly mollified, “is should we do so. With its shields up, we can’t scan for life signs.”

Young rubbed his jaw. They needed the additional supplies, and a chance to look in the ship’s database wouldn’t hurt. But— “What’s your feeling?” he asked Rush in an undertone.

Rush didn’t look at him. He was gazing at the damaged ship. His weather was uneasy, with a dropping-pressure feeling, the kind that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck. //Normally I’d be all for a salvage mission, but…//

//But what?//

//Nothing. We should do it//

//But what, Rush?//

//Nothing.// Rush’s face was set. He was resolutely ignoring the strange air of disruption that crawled around the edges of his thoughts.

//You have a bad feeling about this.//

//It’s not rational.//

Young looked at him. Rush’s brow was creased. He wasn’t normally hesitant. Jumpy, yes; absolutely. But hesitant? Never. Still, without some actual cause… “All right,” he said, turning back to the bridge. “Let’s do this, unless anyone has objections.”

No one did— until Chloe turned, tentatively and a little belatedly, to meet his eyes. “I don’t think we should go,” she said. “It doesn’t… feel right.”

Young and Rush locked eyes.

“What is it?” Young asked her.

“It’s not—“ She gestured helplessly. “It’s not anything specific. Something about it just feels wrong.”

Her words had heightened Rush’s distress. Young could tell he actively didn’t want to board the seed ship. Something about it was… repelling him. But without any solid basis for suspicion, he couldn’t help thinking that with Chloe and Rush, there was the potential that what was bothering them was some weird geometric irregularity, or like— last year, Rush had thrown a fit become some busted air recirculator was buzzing at what Rush insisted was the wrong pitch.

//It was 450 hertz,// Rush said defensively, picking up the thought. //It was unbearable. But I agree; we can’t base our decisions on intuition. We shouldn't pass up this opportunity.//

“We’ll take precautions,” Young said out loud— to reassure Chloe, Rush, and perhaps, just a little bit, himself.

He reached for his radio. “Lieutenant Scott. We’re going to be boarding the seed ship shortly. Start assembling an advance team and meet me at the docking port.”

“And how is this docking happening again?” Brody asked.

Eli said, “Ask the ship-whisperer over there.”

“Just initiate the protocol,” Rush snapped. He was still feeling shudderingly anxious.

“If you’re wrong, and you can’t match the frequencies, then when the shields collide we could be looking at a hydrogen bomb style explosion,” Volker said. “I, for one, would like to know exactly what your secret plan is.

Rush didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer, Young realized. This was one of those things he’d been talking about, so natural to him that it was impossible to explain. Volker might as well have demanded that he explain how to move a limb. Rush was struggling to think of anything to say at all. And now the whole bridge crew was staring at him, which he hated, and he had backed up inconspicuously so that he could grip the forward rail with one hand.

“You guys,” Eli said quickly. “Seriously. How does he do any of this stuff? He’s linked to the ship. It’s going to be fine.”

Brody said bleakly, “Famous last words.”

“Thank you, Eli,” Rush said haughtily. His grip on the rail had relaxed. //Thanks so much for your support,// he shot at Young icily.

//What was I going to say? I don’t know how the hell you do this stuff.//

//Just order them to initiate the docking protocol. Obviously.//

//Yeah, because that’s worked out so well for me in the past.//

//You mean to say that you’re actually capable of learning? Paleolithic man progresses.//

“Okay,” Young said, ignoring the comment. “Let’s do this. Rush, you ready?”

Rush nodded fractionally. //I don’t need an interface,// he said.

//How about using one just to, you know, make everyone more comfortable with this whole maneuver?//

//This is going to be difficult enough without pretending to do it via computer.//

“Okay. Go when you’re ready,” Young said.

Their trajectory changed so that they were heading directly toward the seed ship. Rush turned and reached forward, closing both hands around the rail. He was listening to the whistling song that the Destiny’s shields were singing, high and faint and harmonic and halfway towards a kind of chirp. As the seed ship got nearer, he could hear its shields as well, and they were singing a different song, but one that he understood. There were patterns in those songs: inquisitive, lonely, defensive.

As he listened, the Destiny reached out for him.

Rush heard as the ship heard, as though he were a ship-like creature, and that was because he had become a ship-like creature. His mind had spread throughout the ship, inhabiting all the dark places that made themselves ready for his presence, where the circuits and crystals and wiring and registers seemed to clap their hands. The ship pulled, wanting more, wanting to share what it was hearing-feeling-thinking-sensing, and Young felt sweat break out on his brow as he worked to keep Rush from simply slipping away with it.

“I thought there was going to be frequency modulation happening,” Brody said, wary.

“It is happening,” Eli said, sounding as if he didn’t quite believe his own words. “Check it out.”

The science team turned towards the projected display where red and blue wave functions were moving progressively ever-more-into-sync. Young was vaguely conscious that their motion matched something he was aware of as rising and falling tones that wanted to resolve in chords, but it was harder and harder for him to see anything. His vision was whiting out at the edges. He was trying to hold Rush— or at least most of Rush, or at least enough of Rush to call it Rush— into one whole coherent shape, but it was like trying to hold a block of ice in his hands when it insisted on dissolving, when all the laws of physics wanted to make it be other things.

He had to lean forwards against the rail, next to Rush. He could hardly stay upright anymore. The ship liked that Rush was modulating the harmonies; it was like Rush was singing; and of course Rush was singing, because Rush was the ship, even though Young was kicking and fighting at all of the thousand places where the ship was thinning him out and trying to spin him into thread, sewing him into itself like he was nothing but fiber; and Young was ripping and ripping and ripping at it, but it kept going, and he was tired, and he was going to pass out—

Abruptly Rush became aware of the herculean effort that Young was exerting on his behalf. Rush shifted his weight, flexing his left foot so that bone scraped against bone remotely and nascent scar tissue twisted painfully. Part of him tore itself back from the ship, startled by the reminder that it had a physical body.

Young was able to draw a deep breath. It didn’t take much longer for the shields to find their optimal resolution, a strange and high-pitched but harmonious final chord, and then Rush was able to focus on his vague and half-formed sense of self, helping Young to draw him out of the ship and back together. It was a good twenty seconds before Rush was anywhere near what Young would call him, and even then Young could feel the ship whining at him, wanting his attention, so that it took nearly all of his focus not to surrender once more.

//What’s going on?// Young asked, not hiding his alarm. //I thought things had gotten easier. Our radius is better; our connection is healing. Why is the ship—//

//The past few days have been better because—// Rush hesitated, looking evasive, or troubled, or maybe— maybe just tired as hell. //The AI has been— protecting me to some degree. But if I purposefully integrate into Destiny’s systems, there’s nothing it can do.//

//I almost couldn’t keep you here,// Young said.

Rush looked away.

//How’s your foot?//

“I barely feel it,” Rush murmured aloud, earning him an odd glance from Chloe.

//Yeah, I know,// Young shot at him, exasperated. //I don’t think that’s good.// He sighed. //I hate to say it, but torturing the hell out of yourself has actually turned out to be a helpful strategy.//

//I’ve always assumed that was the primary purpose of the bolts.// Rush flexed his fingers absently, causing himself a faint shiver of pain. //Efficient and effective.//

“Dr. Rush?” Chloe asked cautiously.

Rush’s mouth tightened. “Everything’s fine, Chloe,” he said. His voice was quiet and flat.


The hallways of the seed ship were lit by emergency lighting that flickered erratically here and there, creating a gray and unpredictable darkness. Changes in pressure as the boarding teams opened different sections of the ship caused cold air to whistle past at intervals. That was one of the theories about ghosts, Young recalled— that people experienced things they called ghosts because of changes of pressure, or because of stray gusts of air, or because of the wrong frequency of sound. He’d read an article about it. It seemed a lot less ridiculous to him now; the ship felt haunted. He couldn’t bring himself to take his hand off his M16.

They’d been careful. They’d scanned for life forms, and found no life forms. They’d checked for life support, and found life support. Everything was fine. It was— fine.

“So on a scale of one to creepy,” Eli whispered, “where one is an adorable baby rabbit and ten is the upside-down spider-walk from The Exorcist, how is everybody else feeling about this—“

“Shh,” Young said, throwing him a pointed look.

“—totally normal, totally non-creepy ship?”

Young caught of glimpse of Chloe’s face as they passed under a line of lighting. She was very pale in the blue glow. He wished that Eli would stop talking.

And he wished Rush had stayed aboard the Destiny. Rush had insisted on being the fourth member of their team. “I thought you couldn’t leave the ship,” Young had said suspiciously, and Rush had said, “I can leave the physical confines; I just can’t get very far away,” and Young had asked, “How far away can you get?” Rush hadn’t answered, of course, and then Young had said, “What happens if you get too far away?” Rush hadn’t answered that either. So now he was prowling the hallway, his weather ozone-scented and dread-laced. He didn’t like that the ship was indifferent to his presence, that in fact it seemed to actively resent him in some way, and that he couldn’t feel it with his mind, which made it seem—

Dead. Inhuman.

Their team’s destination was the control interface, room, where Rush seemed briefly unnerved by the fact that the door didn’t open, and no monitors came alive for him. He moved to assess the ship’s CPU while Eli downloaded the database and Chloe searched through the ship’s logs, looking for any hint of the battle that had done so much damage.

Young stood in the doorway, looking out into the silent dark halls and feeling Rush’s sense of wrongness inexorably ratchet up, until finally—

Something hit him that he could barely identify as terror, so purely immediate and physical was it, so indistinguishable from an almost nauseating urge to run.

A datapad clattered to the floor behind him.

Young turned to see Chloe standing as though she’d been frozen, her hands stretched out in front of her as though to ward something off.

Her enormous eyes were fixed on Rush, who was staring at her and echoing her horror, pulsing it into Young’s mind in hammering, blunt-weapon blows. “Chloe,” Rush whispered. “Don’t panic. Do not panic. Don’t—“ He was speaking, Young realized, in no small part to himself.

“What’s going on?” Young hissed sharply.

“They’re here,” Chloe whispered. “The ones that changed me. They’re close.”

Several things became clear to Young at once. The first was that the seed ship had been a trap, an attempt to gain access to the Destiny by ensuring that the bulk of its crew was on board the seed ship. The second was that their tactical position— isolated, in the dark, and thinly spread— was so poor as to be indefensible. The third was that all the aliens had to do was undock the Destiny from the seed ship, and they would be cut off. Permanently.

“No,” Rush whispered fiercely. “They may try it, but no one— no one— is capable of cutting me off from Destiny.”

His eyes met Young’s.

Young believed him.

“They’re very close,” Chloe whispered. Her voice was barely audible.

Young felt Rush focus on the headache that had been slowly rising to prominence and force himself to stare into the maw of it— setting aside, with the clinical coolness of a surgeon, the sensation of a knife digging right into his brain where he was screaming and already wounded and writhing. He was trying to understand how many of them there might be, but he could not force the sensation to cohere, no matter how hard he dug in.

“How many are there?” he asked Chloe.

“Five,” Chloe whispered. “Maybe six. All in a group. Close. Very close.”

A short burst of distant gunfire caused all of them to jump.

“This is Greer.” Young’s radio crackled, and he jerked the volume down. “We are taking fire. I repeat, we are taking fire.”

Young pulled out his radio and broadcast on all channels. “This is Colonel Young,” he said rapidly. “All teams fall back to the Destiny. We have confirmed enemy contact. The Destiny may have been boarded. Radio chatter to a minimum.”

“This room only has one exit,” Rush hissed at him “We need to get out of here.”

Young was already performing a tactical assessment. They had no cover. Their group included three untrained civilians, one of whom was injured, two of whom were panicking, and all of whom were unarmed. The likelihood of them making it back to the ship was slim at best.

//I am not panicking,// Rush said. Everything in his thoughts was radiating panic. //You’re panicking. Pull yourself together.//

Young ignored him. He pulled out his handgun and chambered a round, handing it to Eli. “You’ve got our six,” he said shortly. “Don’t fire unless you’re sure you’re going to hit something.”

Eli nodded, pale.

“Chloe,” Young said. “You’re with Rush.”

They were the two most vulnerable members of the team, and Young and Eli would have to protect them. Plus, they seemed to reassure each other. They were doing it now. Chloe had pulled Rush’s arm over her shoulder, ready to support him as they moved fast down the halls, and he was whispering something in her ear as she nodded, white-faced.

Young didn’t eavesdrop to find out what he had said.


They moved silently through the dark halls. It was an odd, stilted procession, much, much slower than Young would have preferred. Rush was limping heavily, leaning on Chloe, who was staring out at nothing, her face disturbed.

“Behind us,” she whispered abruptly, breaking the stillness.

Young could see an intersecting corridor one hundred feet in front of them— something that would offer minimal cover, at least.

“Go,” he whispered to Eli, gesturing. “Secure the cross-corridor.”

Eli nodded, lifting his chin, and stepped out ahead of Chloe and Rush.

Young dropped behind them, eyes sweeping the shadows for movement. But he heard them before he saw them: a soft fluttering sound like the broad-winged water bugs that you got down in the American South, too big and too chitinous in a way that triggered something primal in the bloodstream, something that did not want to be touched. He brought his rifle up to his shoulder. He and Chloe and Rush were close to the intersection.

Thirty feet.

Twenty-five.

Then the aliens came into view: six of them solidifying, long and skeletal and too-many-jointed. Their eyes were a flat and insectoid black. They were already pulling weapons, and Young wanted to shout to Chloe and Rush to run, but— they couldn’t. Rush couldn’t. The words died in his mouth.

At his back, maddeningly, the two of them slowed instead— Chloe had half-turned to look back over her shoulder, her face a mask of terror.

Chloe,” Rush snapped, dragging her forward.

Two of the aliens switched weapons, holstering their guns and pulling out something else. Something smaller. Young had a feeling he didn’t want to find out what.

He opened fire, feeling the relief of the rifle’s kickback against his shoulder, its blunt and satisfying power as it spewed out round after round. In the dark, it was hard to aim, but he didn’t really have to; in the confined space, with an automatic weapon, he was able to take out three of the six in his first burst. That bought enough time for Chloe and Rush to duck around the corner and join Eli in the cross-corridor.

Young had just begun his second burst when he felt something hit him square in the chest. He staggered slightly with the pure force of the impact, his finger slipping briefly from the trigger before he got his grip back. There was no point in looking down; he was dead or he wasn’t, and at that exact moment it didn’t matter which. All he had to do was keep firing until the enemy stopped firing. So, grimly, that was what he did.

Two more of the aliens went down before the last retreated. Then Young could duck around the corner, breathing hard.

Rush was waiting for him, and before Young had even made it into the corridor, Rush grabbed his jacket, shoving him against the wall, running his hands over Young’s chest, manically searching for something. His fingers closed around a projectile buried in Young’s kevlar vest, and he yanked it out viciously.

It was a dart. A small bead of liquid welled from it, glinting in the wildly flickering light.

//Tell me this didn’t penetrate your vest,// Rush demanded.

//It didn’t.//

//Thank God.// Rush tossed the dart out of the way.

“They want us alive?” Eli said, horrified.

Rush said bleakly, //I shouldn’t have said her name. They recognized her. And me, I suspect. One got away?//

Young nodded. His gaze had gone to Chloe, who was crouched against the wall, tear tracks glistening on her expressionless face and her hands covering her mouth. He wished that Eli hadn't said anything.

Rush crossed to Chloe and held out a hand out to her. Very gently, almost formally, he said, “Shall we?”

She stood, a little shaky, and pulled his arm back over her shoulder.

As they moved out, Young was thinking quickly, ruthlessly. It had been a mistake to let the sixth alien escape. It was likely that Chloe and Rush were now high priority targets. The easy progress they were making through the ship suggested the aliens were gathering elsewhere. And, unfortunately, a location presented itself: the docking port was the only point of egress from the ship. It was the perfect place for a flanking maneuver: narrow, no cover. Young’s team was moving slowly, meaning that the aliens had plenty of time to amass there. If they couldn’t find another exit, they were… not dead. Worse than dead, Rush’s mind suggested wordlessly.

Because Rush was also searching for a solution. His mind was blurring slightly together with Young’s, the breathtaking speed at which Rush could think blending with Young’s tactical evaluation until it wasn’t clear who was generating ideas, or in whose head. Finally—

//Yes,// Young projected, looking back at Rush. “Let’s try it,” he mouthed silently.

“Did you guys just make a secret plan?” Eli whispered.

Young held out the datapad, pointing to the seed ship’s port shuttle.

“The shuttle?” Eli’s whisper grew higher-pitched. “Are you crazy? We don’t even know if it’s operational!”

“The docking port is not an option,” Young whispered back.

“They’re gathering there,” Chloe confirmed in a small voice. “Waiting for us.”

Eli shut his mouth.

They continued to move through the dim, dead corridors. The flickering lights and gusts of air that had seemed supernatural now seemed to hide too-long fingers and crouching figures, the specters of very real threat.

They had nearly made it to the shuttle when Chloe suddenly stopped, stiffening. “Two groups,” she hissed. “Coming up fast from behind and—“ her brow furrowed— “to our left.”

Again Young heard them before he saw them, that distinctive and hair-raising noise; now louder, like wings thudding against a window, which only made the sense of horror more intense.

Chloe was dragging Rush into a near-run, her breath coming like sobs, and Young could not tell how much of his fear was his own. It didn’t matter. he had to cut it down brutally within his mind, because he could not afford it. Fear was clutter; fear was distraction; fear made your limbs weaker; fear was an animal instinct, and he was not an animal (he could hear a training instructor barking distantly), so he did not need fear.

Just as he entered the intersection point of two corridors, the aliens appeared abruptly from the left.

Young opened fire immediately. A few short bursts slowed them down, and he pushed Chloe and Rush ahead of him as he took down two of the aliens, then four more. There was nothing inside him, no fear, no worry, nothing but the pressure of the trigger and the kickback of the gun.

Ahead and to his right, a shot rang out— a handgun. An M9. Eli. Young turned and saw the second group of aliens, skittering close on their strangely-jointed limbs, moving fast from behind. Eli brought one of them down on his third shot, but he wasn’t going to be able to take them all out.

They had plasma weapons, but they weren’t firing. Which meant—

He felt a dart bury itself in his right shoulder.

It didn’t matter; it couldn’t matter. He kept firing, taking two more of them down as he pulled the dart out with his left hand.

“Eli!” he shouted, waiting for Eli to get out in front so he could follow Chloe and Rush around the corner. He was firing in a broad spread, his aim deteriorating. By the time he made it around the corner, he could barely hang on to his gun. Numbness and tingling were spreading outwards from his shoulder: towards his hand, up his neck, towards his chest.

He locked eyes with Rush, whose mind had become a muffled shriek.

“Keep firing,” Rush said harshly to Eli, taking Young’s gun and lowering it to the floor.

“Oh, crap,” Eli breathed, as he saw Rush trying to control Young’s slow slide down the wall to the floor. “Shit.” He fired off one unsteady shot, then another— his aim wild and not doing much good.

Rush, his thoughts flying apart, was tearing off Young’s outer jacket and kevlar vest. He yanked the darts out of the vest and pulled it over his own head. Even with the straps adjusted, it was much too big for him. For some reason that struck Young. He felt dumbly like he should apologize for it.

“You two drag him to the shuttle,” Rush said tightly to Chloe and Eli. “I’ll cover you. Once you get there, run the startup sequence.”

Young’s vision was fading, and he couldn’t move. But he thought deliriously that he was glad Rush was here; bizarrely glad that his life was in Rush’s hands— mostly because no one else was crazy enough to try the shit Rush tried. No one else had so little give-up in them. It was like God had taken it all out of Rush to distribute to other people. Which most of the time was, truthfully, annoying as hell. But fuck was he glad of it right now, as he watched Rush pick up his automatic rifle.

//Stay with me as long as you can,// Rush projected.

Nothing in Rush’s mind was making very much sense to Young. Young figured that was because he was losing consciousness, and so everything was ceasing to make much sense. He tried to hang on for Rush, for the thin flicker of Rush he could feel as the darkness thickened in his head, past the point when he understood why he was doing it or what it meant to hang on. He knew only that he had to close himself around that ember inside him, that he could not let it go out, that he could not let go, but his body would not obey, and he was sinking, sinking, and someone was screaming, or not screaming, but thinking in an agonized, frantic, crescendoing shout, and Young felt the ember slipping through his fingers like melting ice and what a strange image he did not know why he had thought of that—

Chapter Text

Young had spent a lot of time in his life regaining consciousness. Probably more than was medically advised. He could never get used to that strange moment between being nothing and being someone, when you were something but no one, or at least no one yet. For a half-second you were aware of the world only as input, not as something you were part of. He was amazed that basic training hadn’t tried to beat that half-second out of him. Maybe they just hadn’t been able to get anyone to sign off on actually knocking recruits on the head. But it was kind of peaceful, not being anyone. If you weren’t anyone, you didn’t have to worry about—

–the fact that you couldn’t move, not even to open your eyes, and you couldn’t feel the other half of your brain except as a very distant sense of a semi-coherent presence thinly spread throughout the dark, which was enough to make anyone panic, especially when he couldn’t reach out to what he realized, as real awareness returned to him, was Rush, Rush maybe lost in the ship, or hurt, because, oh, God, the memory of Rush holding his automatic rifle—

“Seriously, Chloe,” Eli’s voice said from somewhere nearby. “It’s going to be okay. I know it is, because, let’s be real, this is exactly like the part at the end of Empire when everything looks bad, but then they fix the hyperdrive, and—“

“Eli,” Chloe said, sounding exasperated. “We have to focus.

They sounded like they weren’t in any imminent danger, at least.

“Right,” Eli said. “Right. No. You’re right. But seriously, if there’s anyone here who needs to focus, it’s really not me. Rush. Rush. Come on, man.”

Young could hear him snapping his fingers, presumably in Rush’s direction. In Rush’s face, maybe, and there was a thought— if he’d been able to, he would have smiled, even given the direness of the present situation. He could just about imagine the kind of response Eli would normally for get. And sure enough—

Eod amicie, infans conneritom,” Rush snapped.

Young felt almost nauseated by the intensity of his relief. Not English, but at least language, rather than just a head full of circuits.

“Did you catch all of that?” Chloe asked. “The end part sounded really rude.”

“I think it was something like stop doing that, you ridiculous child.”

“So— not helpful.”

“Not really, no.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Chloe said, sounding worried. “Why is he all— Ancient-y?”

With a concerted effort, Young finally managed to open his eyes. Blurrily, he could see Chloe and Eli silhouetted against the viewscreen of the shuttle. He seemed to be lying on the floor a few feet behind them.

So they had made it. They were safe.

“Why is he Ancient-y,” Eli repeated slowly. “Um… not sure.”

“You’re such a liar.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you didn’t know, you’d be climbing the walls to try and figure it out. Plus, you’d be talking about it non-stop. You know exactly what’s going on. So you better tell me.”

“I can’t. Really I can’t,” Eli said hurriedly. “I promise. But— okay, technically, like according to the technicalities of the promise, if you maybe figured out on your own, like you just happened to guess correctly, then— you know— I wouldn’t have told you anything.”

It was clear that Young was going to need to have a conversation with Eli about the meaning of the word classified.

Chloe sighed. “Eli, we don’t have time for this.”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure we do. We’re parked underneath the FTL drive, we have no weapons, we have no communications, and Destiny’s not going anywhere, so—“

“We could jump to FTL at literally any second.”

“I’m— pretty sure that Destiny’s not going anywhere with Rush on board,” Eli said, sounding a little unsettled. “Literally. Boots to deck, if you know what I mean. They’ll be lucky if they even have minimal power.”

Chloe was silent for a moment. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. So we have some time.”

“Fine,” Chloe said. “If you really want to play games—“ She paused. “He’s connected to the ship, obviously. But there’s something else going on. Something weird with him and Colonel Young.”

“Weird! Yes!” Eli said encouragingly. “Keep going!”

“They’re always together,” Chloe said. “I haven’t seen Dr. Rush on his own since we lost power. I wait for him in the— in this place where we sometimes work at night, and he doesn't come. Not lately.”

Interesting,” Eli said, mock-puzzled. If Young had been Chloe, he would have knocked him upside the head.

“Dr. Rush is right. You are ridiculous,” Chloe said wearily. “But— okay, it can't possibly be a coincidence that Colonel Young gets shot with one of those darts, and Dr. Rush turns strange right afterwards. And on the bridge this afternoon, it was almost like they were talking to each other without actually saying anything. And a few weeks ago—“ Chloe hesitated. Her voice turned quiet. “He told me he felt like he was made of more than one substance.”

“Wait, he talks to you?” Eli asked in disbelief. “Like actually about stuff? Stuff that matters?”

“Are you jealous?” Chloe asked, sounding amused.

“No! No. Definitely not. Obviously.” Eli crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s fine. It’s— okay, keep going.”

“He has some kind of mental link to the colonel,” Chloe said. “Doesn’t he? The same way he does with Destiny.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Eli said. He gave her an unsubtle thumbs-up.

“So what’s happening now?” Chloe asked. “Why can’t he speak English?”

“Well, keep in mind that neither of them ever tells me anything,” Eli said, “but I’m pretty sure that Colonel Young is the only thing that keeps Rush from sort of merging with the ship. So without him, Rush’s brain goes off and gets lost in Destiny. He’s not really all the way here. Like, he definitely doesn’t know we’re talking about him. Otherwise he’d be, you know, yelling at us.”

“He yelled at you,” Chloe pointed out.

“Yeah, in Ancient. Bottom line, anyway— he’s not going to be able to help us figure out what to do.”

“No,” Chloe murmured. “I figured it was up to us.”

That was a little worrying. But Young was distracted by the realization that he could feel the cold of the deck plating, and the pain where the dart had hit him, and the faint beginnings of a headache.

Emboldened, he tried to reach Rush. His efforts felt simple and clumsy, the equivalent of standing on the top of a building and waving to get the attention of a passing plane, but something in Rush’s thinned-out consciousness sharpened slightly, prickling and drawing itself together in interest. It recognized Young, and brightened under the weight of his attention. Young, figuring this was a good sign, began to gently pry it loose from its settings.

For the first time, however, Rush pulled back from him. Or not from him, but with him, clinging onto Young’s presence and drawing him forwards, inviting him into the alien dark of the ship. Young resisted, alarmed and slightly repelled by the idea of going down into that chirping, whistling, monstrous pit. He did not belong there. Human things did not belong there. But Rush tugged insistently at him, projecting a faint sense of exasperation.

//All right,// Young said trepidatiously. //Don’t make me regret this.//

He shut his eyes and let go.

At once he was hurtling forwards, too far too far and tearing loose from his body in a way that was not supposed to happen and there was a blur of something vast and dark and consuming like the negative image of the stars running faster than light— and then Rush was wrapped around him steadying him but it was not really Rush but then he blinked and it was Rush and he was looking at Rush, but not the Rush that he was used to, small in an oversized military jacket, shaggy-haired, and weary-eyed behind his crooked glasses frames. This Rush was neat and precise and somehow undamaged, clad in dark jeans and a white collared shirt.

“—Hi,” Young said cautiously. He pushed himself to his elbows and looked around.

They were still in the shuttle, but not in the shuttle. Chloe and Eli were nowhere to be seen, and the light was strange somehow, golden like the late hours of summer. It was vaguely disorientating.

“Hello,” Rush said, leaning back in his chair. He had his feet propped up on the science station and was looking tremendously pleased with himself. “Welcome to Destiny.”

Young frowned at him, not comprehending.

Rush clarified, “We’re with the ship. How do you like this interface? I made it for you.”

“You… made it?” Young repeated.

“I got the idea from the AI,” Rush said. He paused. His eyes slid away for a moment. “In a manner of speaking. She’s used a similar construct, and I needed a way to talk to you.”

“Why did you need an interface to talk to me?” Young got clumsily to his feet. It occurred to him that there was no pain anywhere in his body. Even the lasting ache in his knee was gone. He looked down, briefly disconcerted, then back at Rush.

“The unaltered human mind can’t interpret direct input from the ship,” Rush said. “Like this, I can interpret it for you, ensuring that you’re… protected.”

Young glanced around critically. “So you decided to stick us in the shuttle? With, what, slightly better lighting? When you can build any interface you want?”

“What’s wrong with the shuttle?” Rush frowned.

“Nothing.” Young shrugged, fighting a smile. “It’s… a little boring, maybe.”

“It’s not psychologically revealing,” Rush said pointedly.

Young rolled his eyes. “God, you’re paranoid.”

“Look,” Rush said huffily, “unlike you, as usual, I am extremely busy right now.”

“I’m sure you are,” Young said, the smile leaving his face. “What’s going on?”

“The most worrying thing our uninvited guests have done is rig the communications array to broadcast a signal designed to alert neighboring ships to our presence, presumably with the intent of notifying reinforcements. I’m currently suppressing that signal, but there was a three-minute window when it was broadcasting live.”

“Okay,” Young said. “What else?”

“They’ve got barely any power to work with, so that’s making their lives difficult—“

Rush couldn’t, Young thought wearily, give a military report to save his life. “Rush,” he said. “Numbers, please. Locations.”

“I don’t know. The sensors aren’t picking them up. They’ve made some kind of modification since the last time they boarded us, the probable purpose of which is to prevent our tactic of venting them into space. They’re likely carrying transmitters capable of broadcasting some kind of interference pattern.”

“Dammit. We’ve got to get back to the ship. Physically.”

“I agree, but I’m afraid that any such maneuver will have to wait for the moment.”

“Why?” Young asked sharply.

Rush gave him a look that implied Young was being particularly stupid. “First of all, you’re currently lying paralyzed on the floor of the shuttle. Second, I’m more-or-less absorbed into the ship. Third— allow me to illustrate.”

The strange lighting of the shuttle dimmed, and Young could see the ghost-like figures of Eli and Chloe, as though they were projecting in from another dimension.

“Eli,” Chloe was saying. “We have to help them. It’s been forty-five minutes.”

Eli made a helpless gesture. “We have no idea what’s happening on Destiny! Plus, we have two injured people. Or one injured person and one sanity-challenged person. Who, to be fair, is actually also injured. I vote we wait and let the cavalry take care of things.”

Eli,” Chloe said. “We are the cavalry.”

“Okay, maybe, in principle yes. But if we’re the cavalry, then we’re, like, the worst cavalry in the history of all cavalries. We barely have any ammo left, and I don’t think we can take these guys on without lots and lots of bullets. Also, what the heck are we supposed to do about the colonel and Rush?”

Chloe made a short, intense gesture. “You don’t understand,” she said fiercely. “We have to do something. They’ll tear through the crew. They’ll tear through the crew. You can’t understand; you don’t know—“

“—Okay,” Eli said hastily. “Okay, but let’s at least try to make a plan.”

The two of them faded out again, until they were entirely absent.

Rush raised his eyebrows. “It’s a bizarre mixture of adorable and terrifying, is it not? I suggest that we wait until you’re at least able to oversee them. In fact, you’d best go back and prevent them from doing anything premature. When you’re ready, as in not paralyzed, tell them to proceed to the port side of the ship. There’s a cargo bay about three quarters of the way towards the bow. I can open it and pressurize it when necessary. And get them working on a way to modify the sensors to track our guests.”

“When do you want to be pulled out of the ship?” Young asked.

“I don’t think you should attempt it until we return to Destiny. The ship is— anxious, and it’s got an—“ He broke off, glancing away and crossing his arm across his chest. “An unusually good hold on me. I’m not inclined to fight it at the moment, as I’m actively suppressing outgoing communications.”

“Are you going to be able to keep suppressing that signal when I pull you out?”

Rush frowned, looking vague. “I’m— not sure—” he said uncertainly. He seemed troublingly confused for a moment. “There’s a possibility that—“ After a long pause, seemed to shake himself. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

“Right,” Young said slowly, not terribly reassured by this.

“It’s too bad we can’t separate,” Rush said. “You could leave me on the shuttle.”

“There is no way I would ever consider doing that.”

Rush gave him a skeptical look.

“Oh, stop,” Young said, exasperated. “All right, I should get back before Chloe and Eli do something…” He paused, searching for a diplomatic word.

“Ill-advised?” Rush suggested.

“Yeah. Ill-advised.”

Rush nodded, tipping his chair forward and removing his boots from the console. He looked up, meeting Young’s eyes for the first time. “Are you all right? I can’t tell for certain.”

Young shifted under his gaze. There was something in the way Rush was looking at him— oddly soft, and intense, and searching, with a kind of yearning that Young didn’t understand. He wished he could read Rush’s thoughts, but they were embedded in the ship, being ship-thoughts, and the few that weren’t were fractured and obscure to him. He felt a brief flare of— something, maybe jealousy at the ship for getting to have those thoughts, at getting to have this neat, soft, unscattered version of Rush.

“I’m fine,” he said, hoping it was true.

Rush didn’t say anything. He was still looking at Young, and for a moment Young, flushing unaccountably, found that had to look away. It was too much; he didn’t— know how to respond; he didn’t know what to feel or think or do; it was the opposite of that half-second not-quite-conscious awareness, because everything about the world seemed to peel away and he was excruciatingly aware of the experience of being in his body under the electric pressure of Rush’s gaze.

He cleared his throat.

“Shut your eyes,” Rush said at last. “I have to dismantle the interface, and you’re not going to be bale to interpret any residual sensory input you might get. It will be unsettling if you try to watch it.”

Young shut his eyes. For a moment the noise of the Destiny rushed past him, humming and whispering in languages that were beyond his understanding, strangely animal in its inhuman intent. He could feel the dark bulk of the ship out there, waiting, being pushed apart for him to move through it. And then it was—

—gone, and he was in pain, the air scraping along his nerve endings, his shoulder beaten down by an almost unendurable weight, the deck icy beneath him and the light battering his retinas. His breath hissed between his teeth.

“— and thinks you're the boy genius,” Chloe was saying, “so, you know, if my plan's so terrible, then do your boy genius thing.”

“Right. My boy genius thing. So we know we can’t land at the normal docking sites because–“ Eli broke off and turned, having seen, out of the corner of his eye, Young’s minute flinch. “Sweet,” he said, getting to his feet and going to Young’s side. “Hey. Are you okay? Can you move? Can you talk? Do you know where you are? Probably that’s a no, actually, because you didn’t really see how we got here. Can you talk, though? We made it to the shuttle. How’s your arm? Are you poisoned? Two blinks for yes, three blinks for no.”

“Eli,” Young gritted out. “Settle down.”

Eli and Chloe, who had joined him beside Young, shared a wan smile.

“You can’t move, can you?” Chloe asked.

“It’s— coming back to me,” Young said. He tried clenching and unclenching the fingers of his left hand. He couldn’t move his right arm at all, and he noticed that a makeshift bandage had been wrapped around his bicep. It didn’t seem to have done much good.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Chloe said, catching his glance. “We haven’t been able to stop it.”

“Great.” Young shut his eyes for a second and opened them again. It was difficult for him to accurately assess his physical condition, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it right now. So: his physical condition was needs-to-be-ignored-for-the-time-being. He would have to push through. There was no other choice. “Report,” he said.

“We’re currently sitting on Destiny’s hull, about two hundred feet from the FTL drive,” Eli said. “We’re not sure how to get back on board, but we’re working on it.”

“Rush has it covered,” Young said.

“So, um, I”m thinking that maybe he doesn’t? He’s gotten progressively more—“ Eli trailed off, waving his hand in a vague motion.

Young shook his head. “He’s okay.”

“Really? Because he, uh, doesn’t seem okay. At all.”

Young looked over at Rush. Rush’s eyes were unfocused. His hands were gripping the edge of the monitor bank, as though he weren’t merely seated at the station but hanging on— hanging on off the side of a mountain, trying to claw his way back up. He was having to fight extremely hard to keep even this much of himself out of the ship.

“He’s okay,” Young said again. “He’ll be better when we get back to the Destiny. What’s the status of communications?”

“Our creepy friends are broadcasting some kind of electromagnetic interference,” Eli told him. “I can’t get anything but static. And the shuttle’s communications are down.”

“Of course they are.” Young sighed. “What happened after I passed out?”

“Um, you missed what was probably the most badass Rush moment ever,” Eli said. “I wish I’d had a kino. Because, you know, when you think of Rush, or when I do, the word badass does not necessarily come to mind, but— it was awesome. He literally stood in front of me and Chloe while we dragged you to the shuttle. He took out all of the remaining alien guys. It was like some action hero shit.”

“Sorry I missed it,” Young said, suppressing a smile.

“Me too,” Eli said. “Since no one’s going to believe me, except for Chloe, because she was there.”

The two of them kept regaling Young with the details of their escape and repair of the shuttle. Young let them do it, because it was clearly improving their spirits, and because he needed the time to regain the ability to move. Once they had run out of things to tell him about, he put them to work on the problem of modifying the sensors to detect whatever type of interference the aliens had begun to employ.

At the same time, even though both Chloe and Eli gave the impression of high spirits, he could tell that they were both deeply unsettled. Maybe it was the proximity of the invaders, which Chloe was still vaguely sensing. Maybe it was the presence of Rush, who had never before seemed so obviously altered. Young was used to the idea of Rush’s enmeshment with the ship, and even he found Rush’s empty-eyed expression hard to take. It had to be worse for Eli and Chloe. Especially for Chloe, who relied so much on Rush.

Half an hour after Young had regained consciousness, he was finally able to push himself to his feet. As soon as he did, he was forced to grab onto the nearest console to keep from losing his balance as the room spun. The was the blood loss, he guessed, but it— would get better. He just had to tactically account for it, like the merciless throbbing in his shoulder. Make a tactical note of it and move on.

“Okay, kids,” he said to Chloe and Eli, trying to project more strength than he actually felt. “We’re going to head down the port side of the ship. About three quarters of the way down, there’s a cargo bay that Rush is going to open and then pressurize for us.”

Eli frowned, glancing at Rush. “And he… knows this?“

“It’s his plan.”

“Well, does his plan involve keeping us off Destiny’s sensors? Because otherwise this is going to be a real short trip.”

“I’m sure it does.”

“Did he actually say that? Because sometimes he—“

“Eli,” Young said. “Let’s go.”

It didn’t take long to reach the cargo bay that Rush had selected. The doors opened as the shuttle approached, then sealed behind them, allowing the bay to pressurize.

Chloe and Eli watched Rush uncertainly as the shuttle docked.

“He doesn’t seem better,” Chloe said. “I thought he was going to be normal once we got back to the ship.”

“Just… give me a minute,” Young said.

He stepped closer to Rush, still feeling unsteady. He wasn’t sure that he was going to be able to do this. In fact, he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be able to do this— at least not without a considerable assist from Rush.

He put a hand on Rush’s shoulder, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes.

At once he was feeling out the edges of Rush, mapping them in the ship’s formless darkness, and mentally pulling at them, trying to pry them loose. It was something between a kind of coaxing and physical action— he could feel the pain and weariness in his limbs, as though he were attempting to actually pry Rush’s fingers loose from something he was gripping (something that was also gripping him; a cliff’s-edge that gripped back out of fear that the climber would leave it), but he was also communicating, somehow, with those little threads of Rush, convince them that they wanted to give up the solidity and safety of the ship. He was aware that the nascent Rush-consciousness was trying to help him, digging into him with all of its strength and trying to resist the ship’s entropic persuasion. But it was more absorbed into the ship than it had ever been, in some places barely perceptible as other than the Destiny. It was more… ship-like, somehow. It had ceased to be clearly Rush. And Rush was struggling to stop being the ship; he was confused, or parts of him were confused, and he found that confusing, and he wasn’t yet enough of a person to be certain of who he was, and he needed Young to hold him together, and Young couldn’t do it; his vision was graying out; his chest was burning, and Rush was flexing his foot, trying to hurt himself enough that he could remember how to be Rush, but it wasn’t enough; it wasn’t going to be enough—

And then—

All the little nervous strings of Rush tuned themselves, seemed to vibrate at the same pitch, finding in unison a common resolution, and Rush or the whole

RushshipFatoscircuitsregistercoiratornauisensimulsemperwirescrystalsAIconsciousness NEEDED apposition it was the ONLY course of action and so and so ittheyall MOVED towards alignment and it moved INTO YOUNG’S HEAD and it was IN YOUNG’S HEAD and it was TEARING THROUGH HIM and it was 

1700Hz1700 Hz1700 Hz

                                   50 Hz?50 Hz?50 Hz?50 Hz?50 Hz?

2100 Hz1500zHz2100 Hz

quaesso accreditom inscreve:
                     error_accreditos.inwaledos


denovod conaori welhas?

quaesso accreditom inscreve:
                    error_accreditos.inwaledos


denovod conaori welhas?

quaesso accreditom inscreve:
                    error_accreditos.inwaledos
                    error_nimissos.conagitos
                   ACCESSOI INTERDEDECETOR
                    ADVERTISSOS MEMITHETOR


denovod conaori welhas?

 

                                                       and he could not STAND THIS

1700Hz1700Hz 

                                                  50 Hz!

                                                                                                                   {c6/2,a5,e} {b&/4,g,c} {d6,b&5,a} {c6/2.,a5,e}

 

it was

 

                                                                                          SCIUTOS!dehabilitatos?error_superposponetor
                                                                                          SCIUTOS!dehabilitatos?error_superposponetor

 

se weros/tom…                     weros?itave
se weros/tom…                     weros?itave
se weros/tom…                     weros?itave
se weros/tom…                     weros?neum                CAVE_SUSTEMA.DEESSET:WERIFACIE
se weros/tom…                     weros?neum                CAVE_SUSTEMA.DEESSET:WERIFACIE
se weros/tom…                     weros?itave

 

900 Hz 1700 Hz 1700 Hz

                                                            50 Hz                     50 Hz?50 Hz?50 Hz?50Hz?

 

TOO MUCH he could not

900 Hz1700 Hz440 Hz

 

 

error_entratos.sperevandos.ne.recepiontor
error_exsequi.ne.potuissetor

 

1900 Hz!1900 Hz!2500 Hz!

{c6/2,a5,e} {b&/4,g,c} {d6,b&5,a} {c6/2.,a5,e}

 

interrogatio:                error_ceristor.incognoscitens
nountios?error_interdedecetor.ceristri

 

                              he was getting                                                  LOST

 

he couldn’t

 

interrogatio:                error_ceristor.incognoscitens

                                                                                     he was                         BREAKING

 

nountios?error_interdedecetor.ceristri
nountios?error_interdedecetor.ceristri

 

2500 Hz/50 Hz/2500 Hz 

{f6/4,d5,c6} {e,c#5,a} {d6,b&4,a5}

 

desideratos:                     envuenie_ceristor.waledos
scioscents…
scioscents…
scioscents…

 

                                                                                          {c6/2.,a4,e5}

desideratos:                     envuenie_ceristor.waledos
scioscents…

NECTOS ABMITHETOR

 

 

 

                                                                                                         he

Fuck                     someone said

Fuck

                                               someone was
                                                                           broken glass bloodinmouth taste water choking

 

 

 

 

 

someone was scared

 

 

 

                         he was in his body                                but was he in his body his body was not working

                                                              was it working was he the kind of thing that normally had nerve endings

 

 

difficult

                                                            he had been thinking about—

someone?

 

Colonel Young

weather

Colonel

                                                                 sometimes in new mexico the land was so flat you saw a storm coming in from
                                                                 miles away the clouds moving crowding over the mountains curling changing
                                                                 their shape so fast so many different colors you wouldn’t think there’d be so many

//Everett//

                                                                 different shades of blue though it wasn’t blue really or what was the boundary
                                                                 when did it stop being something other than blue like when he was twelve
                                                                 years old a horse kicked him his flesh changed colors so people could change
                                                                 colors and this storm (but was it a storm) had a color like a bruise but

//Come on come on God fuck//                a bruise that hurt to look at the kind of bruise that you could

No no nono

 

                                                                 die from maybe if you were not careful you had to be careful if you were
                                                                 that kind of thing a thing that could get     hurt

 

 

//Talk to me//

 

                                        He was—

 

 

 

                                                                 it had hurt and he had thought the body should get stronger you shouldn’t
                                                                 be able to bruise twice in the same place why didn’t your body

//Talk to me FUCK talk to me//                learn from all the things that had hurt it and make itself hardier
                                                                 tougher harder to hurt but it seemed to get weaker with
                                                                 everything that hurt it which was just

//Please//

 

                                                            //What are you doing//                          Young said because

//I’m trying to fix things//

                                                                           He could feel—

                                                                                                              things becoming

 

 

                                                                                                                                       (scared and unbearably careful             trying to fix—)

Rush was touching his forehead and his hand was trembling just a little.

                                                            //You’re—//

//You’re not so different from Destiny, really. Voltage differentials. Neuronal impulses. It’s all the same.//

                                                            //And when did you figure out how to do this?//

//Just now.// Rush was muffling him in warmsoftsoothing reassurance, so he didn’t feel like anything was wrong.

//A circuit is a circuit after all.//

                                                            He didn’t feel like anything was wrong.

                                                            //What—//

//Shh. You’re all right.//

                                                                               His thoughts—

resumed their normal, linear, interpretable pattern.

“Can you speak?” Rush asked. He pulled his hand abruptly away from Young’s forehead and folded his arms very tightly across his chest.

Young nodded.

“Oh, very helpful. You’ve overshot stoicism and landed in the realm of— of stupidity.” Why was Rush so anxious?

“Are you seriously harassing him?” Eli called from across the room. “He just fainted, and it was probably your fault.”

Had he fainted? For a moment there, he had felt like something was wrong with him. But—

“I can speak,” Young said, squinting up at Rush. “God, you’re such a jackass sometimes.”

“I’ve never claimed otherwise.” Rush’s thoughts were strangely tumultuous, absolutely throbbing with relief.

“Are you—“ Young said, trying to sit up and breaking off as he jolted his wounded arm. “Are you still blocking the signal?”

Rush looked at him blankly. “What signal?”

“The aliens are broadcasting our position. Remember?”

Rush stared at him.

“That’s what you said.”

“When?” Rush seemed confused for some reason.

“About an hour ago? You built an interface and we talked?”

Rush shook his head. “I don’t—“

He didn’t remember.

“This day just keeps getting better,” Young said. “Look, you need to try and stop the Destiny from transmitting that signal.”

“I can’t,” Rush said, looking away and biting his lip. “I can’t do that.”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“We’re just going to have to hope we can kill them all before reinforcements arrive. Worst case scenario, I’ll jump us to FTL.”

Rush was hiding something, breaking his thoughts into unreadable splinters, and Young felt too vague and strange to get to the bottom of them. But— God, when wasn’t Rush hiding something, he thought, resigned. It was one of those wounds, maybe minor and maybe fatal, that he was going to have to ignore for now.

“Have you two been able to modify the life signs detector yet?” he asked Chloe and Eli— who were sitting at the forward monitors, pretending to work while very obviously eavesdropping on the conversation.

“No,” Eli said defensively. “I’m not magical, okay? Chloe? Are you magical? No. You’re not. We can’t just modify sensors to detect some unknown interference pattern that is broadcasting somewhere on the electromagnetic spectrum.”

“Eli,” Rush said. “Don’t panic.” There was a hint of something in his expression that was almost deadpan.

“Oh, don’t panic. That’s great. Coming from a guy who regularly passes out from stress, that means a lot.”

“Yes, well,” Rush said, “in order for us to retake the ship, we need to know how many of them there are, and where they are. Therefore, it follows that we’re going to have to—“ he broke off with a brief swell of distress before continuing, determined, “capture one of them and determine how they’re generating the interference pattern.”

Young, Chloe, and Eli stared at him in disbelief.

Capture one?” Chloe asked faintly.

Rush got painfully to his feet. “That’s what I said.” He reached over to collect Young’s sidearm from the science console. He ejected the clip, checked the ammunition, and reassembled the gun with a satisfying click. He handed it to Eli, and reached over coolly to pick up Young’s assault rifle.

“Are you crazy?” Eli asked. It sounded like a serious question.

Rush handed Chloe the assault rifle and turned to face him. He was smiling faintly. “Are you taking a poll?” he said.

Chapter Text

Young had often wondered in the past about what kept Rush going. He meant that in what he sometimes whimsically pictured as an Energizer or a Duracell sense— Rush was a small guy who never seemed to eat or sleep enough, but god damn, the man did not quit. Until he did, like his metaphorical batteries had run out, and it was never in the slowly winding down kind of way. He wasn’t the Energizer Bunny beating slower and slower drumbeats; he was the Energizer Bunny keeling over mid-thump like the dead and then sleeping for something like seventeen hours. Most of the time it was funny; in battle it was enviable. Young had never had a better chance to realize that.

Because Rush was not only still on his feet, and not only keeping Young on his feet, but practically vibrating with energy. Getting back on board Destiny seemed to have kicked him up a notch. He was twitchy as hell, but the furthest thing from exhausted.

Case in point: “Eli,” Rush snapped, after giving Eli about twenty seconds to fiddle with the cargo bay doors. “What in God’s name are you doing? This shouldn’t be complicated!”

“There’s very limited power available here,” Eli said defensively.

“Have you—“

“Oh, my gosh,” Eli said, exasperated. “Yes, okay? Stop backseat troubleshooting! You always do this. It drives me nuts. Can I have fifteen seconds? Is that too much to ask?”

A few seconds later, the cargo bay doors slid open.

Chloe, to whom Rush had given the assault rifle— //Nothing deters panic better than an assault rifle,// Rush had opined— took point, sighting down the corridor with almost military precision. Someone had been training her, Young thought— probably Scott.

“Okay,” she said.

“The word is clear,” Eli said. “Not okay. Even I know that.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Let’s go.”

But Rush’s attention had been caught by something; his eyes were flicking back and forth between the long stretch of corridor and a space inside the cargo bay doors. The AI, maybe? Young was too tired to muscle in on his mind and find out.

“Rush,” he prompted quietly instead. “We’re moving out.” Then, to Eli: “Do you still have that life signs detector?”

Eli pulled the device from his pocket and held the display out. Young studied the distribution of glowing dots carefully. Most of the crew seemed to be in the mess. Several other groups of four were scattered around the ship— probably the teams that had made it back from the seed ship. Most importantly, the path to the nearest armory looked clear, which Young hoped meant that at least they wouldn’t be walking into the middle of a firefight.

Rush had moved out of the cargo bay into the corridor, but he hadn’t even glanced at the life signs detector. He was now staring at a point about five feet to their right. “No,” he whispered flatly, seemingly to the empty air. “That’s not an option. I need something else. Something that falls within the parameters of my own—“ He paused for a moment. “Well, thanks for nothing.

Chloe and Eli stared at him.

After a few seconds, Rush noticed their attention. “What?” he hissed defensively.

“Um,” Eli said, drawing out the word. “Are you talking to invisible people now? This really hasn’t been a banner day for you.”

Rush looked abruptly away, misery spiking through him. Somehow Eli seemed to have hit a nerve.

“Give it a rest, Eli,” Young said.

“I didn’t—“ Eli shifted uncomfortably. “No. Sorry. You’re right. You just, uh, talk to invisible people all you want. Go crazy. I mean, not literally crazy. but—“ He trailed off. “I’ll stop talking,” he said.

//Are you okay?// Young projected to Rush.

//Fine,// Rush said shortly. //Armory?//

Young sent him a wave of assent, and they moved out into the corridor, Chloe taking point and Eli trailing behind, covering their six.

It didn’t Young long to notice that as they progressed through the hallways, the emergency lighting came up in a slow flare that faded as a they passed. That would have been great if they were trying to see where they were going, but it was the opposite of helpful when it came to hiding their presence on the ship.

//Are you doing that?// he asked. //Cut it out.//

//?//

Young directed his attention to the pale blue lights.

//Oh, for God’s sake.// Rush glared, irritated, in the direction of the ceiling. He pushed a hand against the corridor wall and the lights dimmed.

//So— not you, then.//

//No. Destiny.//

//It— what? Missed you?// Young couldn’t help but feel slightly amused.

//Can you stay focused, please? Losing thirty percent of your blood volume is an unacceptable excuse for the level of distractibility you’re displaying. Don’t you people train for this sort of thing?//

//Yeah. We train so that we notice things like whether sentient starships are accidentally giving away our location.//

Rush ignored him with a sense of aggravation.

After a few minutes, they made it to the armory. Rush pushed Young against the wall just inside the door, and tried to control his slow slide down the metal with limited success until Eli moved to lend a hand. Maybe losing thirty percent of his blood volume, Young thoughts, would be an acceptable excuse for his physical exhaustion.

He shut his eyes against a heaving visual field and relocated to Rush’s more stable head. Rush was staring at the armory’s array of weapons.

“How do we know what to pick?” Chloe asked uncertainly.

Rush had absolutely no idea, but Young steered his attention, arming each of them with an M9 handgun and an M16 rifle, a kevlar jacket, and all the extra clips that they could carry with them. He couldn’t help drifting into a kind of tactical meditation, weighing the potential usefulness of an M67 grenade, and wishing for zats, which were light and easier for amateurs to aim with. God, he wished that Icarus Base had been armed with zats.

//The inside of your head,// Rush said wearily, //is exactly what I imagined it would be like.//

//Oh, don’t even start with me.//

“So— do we actually have a plan for how we’re going to do this?” Eli asked.

“It’s not exactly conceptually difficult,” Rush said. “Chloe finds a group, we shoot most of them, we disable one, we drag it to the nearest lab, we modify our detectors appropriately, then eliminate all of them.”

They stared at him.

“Why does it have to be alive?” Chloe asked tremulously. “You know what they’re like.”

Rush avoided looking at her. He was checking his sidearm. “They have the capacity for telepathic communication, so they’re capable of generating EM fields at baseline. If this is an inherently biological phenomenon, I don’t want to have to do this twice.”

Young looked at Eli, waiting for a translation.

Eli said, “They may be generating the interference patterns with their brains, and we can’t scan them if they’re dead.”

“Well, it’s not ideal,” Young said, “but if that’s what we’re dealing with—“ He motioned to Eli. “Life signs detector?”

Eli handed it over, and Young looked for one of the away teams. “Let’s head toward this group,” he said, pointing out four glowing dots. “More firepower can’t hurt— but if we meet up with anything else on the way, so be it.”

They left the armory in the same formation they’d entered, with Rush and Young protected by Chloe and Eli. Young had a moment of resenting that he was now one of the weakest members of the team. But he couldn’t deny that he was still struggling to stay upright.

After a few minutes, Chloe stopped them, holding up a hand. She looked back and made a vague significant hand gesture, pointing to the corner.

Rush nodded at her and gave Young a gentle shove, indicating that he should stick to the nearest wall. Eli took up a position defending him. Young shook his head vigorously, hating the idea of Rush and Chloe, Rush and Chloe, trying to do this thing alone.

//No,// Rush said. //Not alone. Like—//

With a strange sensation of melding-meeting-alignment-unification like two sides of a mirror circuiting in an infinite touch—

—he stepped into Young and they stepped into him. And they were smaller now but more powerful without the weight of injury. They hefted the M16, surprised by the steadiness of their arms and wrists, but then they had been steadier the first time too though that had been their other body and this one was littler, weaker even though crisp and fast, and they would never have made it through basic training like this but their reflexes were lethal and they shouldn’t underestimate that hair-trigger twitch all it took was control and they had control sometimes, they did, didn’t they? They had control sometimes and they were going to have it now.

And they were with Chloe, and it was good to be with Chloe because Chloe was the one who understood, because she had been in the tank and she too felt the headache where something had bootprinted itself against her nervous system, and she was scared but she did not show it and that was tactically good because an emerging situation was not a useful site for emotions and to be honest they often struggled with this because sometimes an emerging situation was a useful site for emotions when emotions were the only fuel you had to burn and it was an explosive fuel but it was what they had in their body. But they did not need that fuel right now so they were not being scared.

“I’m glad it’s us,” Chloe whispered, glancing at them, and they smiled at her because yes, yes, and they swept the rifle up and stepped around the corner where a group of six aliens was waiting for them and almost at once they were opening fire, the M16’s recoil friendly and steady like a hand on the shoulder steering them, and four of the enemy went down in the first sweep and that was what they had hoped for, but they slung the rifle back and pulled the M9 out for greater control and this was going to be tricky because sometimes they were a good shot and sometimes they were not a good shot and the M9 was not their favorite gun but they pulled it up as Chloe took out the fifth insectoid alien and they fired a single shot, steady and straight, right through the shoulder of the sixth alien and it went down without getting off its own shot and it was alive and that was what they had wanted, wasn’t that what they had wanted? Yes. So: good.

They moved forward and looked at it and it was lying on the deck and they did not want to look at it because it————— created distress and distress was not a tactical advantage. But goddammit they were going to do this and they reached forward to rip the metal transmitter from its head. But they touched it they touched it they touched it and it was—

in them it was in them it was in their head and it could


Nick she says not everything is a fight you have to win

see inside their head so it was time to be fast time to
barricade the gates with whatever inconsequential
objects happened to be


The multiverse view is one of higher-order realism— Platonism about universes— and I
defend it as a realist position asserting actual existence of the alternative set-theoretic
universes into which our mathematical tools have allowed us to glimpse The multiverse
view, therefore, does not reduce via proof to a brand of formalism In particular we may
prefer some of the universes in the multiverse to others and there is no obligation to
consider them all as equal


close at hand let it have


Cédric and his ridiculous cravat and his spider looking like a French
Revolutionary portrait come to life thank God some of us aspire to be
mathematicians not rock stars Oh hush you’re
so unkind she says


what it could get which going to be not fucking
much and the pain did not matter because sometimes
pain was required and it was tactically


and she gives him an exasperated look My family don’t hate you I think
you know you’re projecting And what is that supposed to mean I think
you know what it means she says they don’t give a damn where you’re
from How very bloody magnanimous of them You won’t even let
me meet your family Nick where are you going this conversation isn’t
over just because you—


insignificant, right? wasn’t it? wasn’t it? and anyway it couldn’t get

_/8 {a3,d4} {d,f} {a3,d4} {d,f} {a3,d4} _ {b&3,d4}
{d,f} {b&3,d4} {d,f} {b&3,d4} _ {b&3,d4} {d,e} {b&3,d4} {d,e}
{b&3,d4} _ {a3,c#4} {c#,e} {a3,c#4} {c#,e} {a3,c#4}

 
what it wanted oh God they couldn’t let it get what it wanted
even if it couldn’t interpret what it could get because David—


looms over them and puts his hands on their shoulders, forcing them flat
against  the floor of the pool and pulls back and pushes them under the water and
his fingers dig hard into their shoulders and he presses his mouth to their mouth it’s
everything they would have predicted and they cannot move


but they could not get away and it was gripping their wrist its
long fingers like cords that hurt hurt hurt and they DID NOT LIKE
being restrained they did not like—


the water because water is its own restraint the underwater
smell of the kitchen and the river where they choked and David
saying I’m glad I got to be here I'm glad I got to do this

don’t fight this Nick let go


and it was a problem frankly because it was  H U R T I N G  T H E M
and they didn’t think they could stand it  H U R T I N G  T H E M
and it was calling for reinforcements and reinforcements would come and it
would  H U R T   it would  H U R T  it would always  H U R T and if it
had just been them maybe they could have stood this but it wasn’t just
them it was them and they C O U L D  N O T  S T A N D  I T  H U R T I N G  T H E M

and then abruptly—

The pain was gone.

Chloe was using a pocketknife to pull the small metal transmitter towards her.

They watched her do it. They watched the drag of the blade.

They could not seem to—

Chloe took the gun from their hand and held it to the alien’s head, her aim hard and steady, her eyes cold, hissing something at it that they could not understand. It snarled at her and they felt something inside of them give

They pitched forward onto the deck.

They were shaking. They curled their arms in tight across their chest trying to stop the shaking. It was the reaction it was the physical reaction and it was not because they wanted to curl up and die; that was insignificant it was a side effect of the interrogation and they could not allow it to influence them.

Something dark was pawing at them with animal insistence. It was whining at them in its distress. It was scared and they were scared and it needed them it needed to be them; it could protect them it wanted to protect them it wanted to keep them safe. They would not have to be a mind that remembered the water they would not have to be a mind that could be hurt, they could be a thousand cool passionless circuits without nerve endings and they could be the clean orderly running of code, and that would be better yes good, God they wanted that, just let go Nick let go but no no they couldn’t do that because they were not only Nick and so they had to hurt they had to make it hurt they had to be this hurting body but they had already let the ship have too much and now it was too late they had to fight but they had nothing to fight with—

“Nick.” That was the AI. Kneeling beside them. Looking like Daniel Jackson. Biting its lip. It was scared too but it was putting on a brave face which they had not known the AI could do. “Focus,” it said. “Focus on what you want. Destiny is trying to help you. Tell it how to help you. Don’t fight it. Don’t fight it; you’ll lose.”

So they tried to focus tried to tell the ship how to protect them. Bulkhead doors began to slam shut around the ship, trapping intruders behind them. Force fields sprang up like sparks. Monitors in the lab that was their destination started booting up, eager to be used. The deck plating warmed under them and Destiny wanted to know if that was better if they were less scared and they were less scared and so it backed off a little still nervous but not needing so badly to be them.

“Adequate,” the AI said. Its eyes flicked to Chloe. “You’d better stop her,” it said, and for a moment the fear showed in it. “She’s in control right now, but the connection she’s making goes both ways.”

Then it was gone. And they were gone because they needed both bodies now and Young opened his eyes and had to immediately close them again. The physical sensation of being himself was intensely disorientating. He was half-seated against the wall, and his body was too large and heavy, and something about him felt— slow.

“Are you all right?” Eli whispered to him. “You passed out.”

“I’m fine,” Young said, heaving himself to his feet. “Help me up.”

Leaning heavily on Eli’s shoulder, he rounded the corner to see Rush standing next to Chloe. Chloe was still speaking to the alien in its own threatening inhuman tongue.

“Chloe,” Rush whispered fiercely to her. “Stop.”

When she failed to respond, he laid a hand on her shoulder. “Stop. We’re meant to be scanning it, not engaging it in conversation.”

She tilted her head, her eyes slowly refocusing on Rush. After a moment she nodded, her lip trembling just a little, gun wavering for an instant before snapping back into place.

Eli hissed, “I just want you guys to know that this is making my top ten list of worst days ever. How the hell are we supposed to get this thing to the lab?” He turned to Rush. “You practically passed out when it touched you! And it’s still conscious!”

Rush considered for a moment. He reached for his sidearm. There was something very, very cold in his expression. He brought the gun so it was level with the point right between the alien’s black eyes.

Cubi impero, ito,” he said. His voice was very flat. “Me tenes?”

The alien snarled at him.

“Did it understand that?” Rush asked Chloe.

“Yes,” she whispered. “It did.”

Surrege,” Rush ordered, gesturing with the handgun.

The alien got slowly to its feet.

“Chloe,” Rush said, jerking his head towards Young.

Chloe moved to Young’s side and let him drape an arm over her shoulder so she could support him as he walked.

Rush was still staring at the alien. “Eod scibo,” he said in that same flat tone. “Tegei sene pausad interfaciam.

“What the hell are you telling it?” Young asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Rush said tightly. His expression didn’t alter.

Eli whispered, “Know this: I will kill you without hesitation.”

Young looked at him.

Eli’s face was pale. “That’s— what he said to it.”

Their progress towards the lab was slow and awful, punctuated by the sound of distant gunfire and Rush’s quiet, unintelligible commands. When they reached the lab, Rush gestured for the alien to back up against the wall, where Chloe could continue to hold her gun on it. It seemed to be fixated on Rush with a contemptuous sort of interest, though given its strange and insectoid eyes, its exact emotions were difficult to read.

“Eli,” Rush said. “Start looking for that signal.”

“Already on it,” Eli said. He had moved to one of the monitors and was squinted at it tensely, his fingers flying over the touchscreen.

//Can we question it while we have it here?// Young asked Rush.

//The only way we can understand its answers is by using Chloe or the interface device. I’m not sure that either is a good idea. We have the upper hand at the moment, but— just barely.//

The conversation made Young aware of how much stress Rush was suppressing. He was having to mercilessly clamp down on every single nerve in order to function in the same room as the alien. He wasn’t allowing himself to think, to feel, to want. This was helpful because it reassured the ship, but all the same, it made Young anxious.

For a few moments, they stood in silence, listening to the tapping of the touchscreen as Eli worked. The alien seemed to retreat into itself. It ceased its constant hissing. Its odd, restless movements stilled. It was even more unnerving like that, seemingly devoid of life.

Five minutes passed.

Ten.

Chloe’s breathing altered. It stopped, then staggered. It grew increasingly uneven.

Young glanced over at her. Her face was empty. Tear tracks shone on her cheeks in the dim light. Her knuckles were white around the grip of her handgun.

The alien was staring fixedly at her.

Young, alarmed, started to say something, but it was too late. Her voice broke the silence.

“Release me.” The words were wholly expressionless, and spoken in a tone so unlike Chloe’s that it raised the hair on the back of Young’s neck.

He tightened his grip on his pistol and glanced at Rush.

Rush closed his eyes briefly, but otherwise didn’t react.

“Release me,” Chloe said again, tilting her head in a oddly inhuman fashion.

“Who are you?” Young snapped at the alien. “What do you want with us?”

“We are Nakai,” Chloe said in the same flat voice. “We want what we have always wanted. To discover all that is. To continue without end. To read the pattern beneath existence. You will release me.”

“You release Chloe first, and then we’ll talk about it.”

“This one means nothing. She is weak. She cannot fight even one mind.”

Young… really wished that Chloe wasn’t holding a pistol right now.

“You are all weak,” Chloe continued, her gaze unblinking. “You are unworthy of this vessel. It will be liberated from you. You will be torn from this plane of existence and cast into the void.”

“I’m not interested in your opinions,” Young said harshly. “You want to be released? Then you leave her alone.”

“You will freeze in the vacuum of space,” Chloe said, her voice rising. “You will cease to exist.”

“I’ve almost got it!” Eli called. He was working at an almost inhuman rate, his eyes flicking rapidly across the computer.

“You will never return to your people,” Rush said to their prisoner, in the same deadened tone with which he’d given commands. “I will see to that. At the moment of your death, you will fail to find your way back to them. Your knowledge will be lost. Your consciousness will be unmoored. Unless—“ He shifted his grip on his gun and pulled the alien’s silver transmitter out of his pocket. He laid it on the floor and poised the heel of his boot over it. “Unless you let her go. Immediately.”

“We remember you,” Chloe said slowly, gazing at him.

“Yes. I’ll bet you do.”

“You are not like the others. ” Chloe’s gun was still fixed on the alien prisoner, but her gaze and the gaze of the alien had both shifted to Rush. “You will unlock this ship for us. You will serve our will.”

“Unlikely,” Rush said contemptuously.

The alien spit something in its own language and hissed at him.

At Young’s side, a familiar figure appeared.

“Kill it,” Sheppard said tightly. “Kill it now.”

Several things happened at once.

Young’s finger started to depress the trigger.

Chloe swung her gun to the left.

Young fired, putting a bullet straight through the prisoner’s head.

Eli tackled Chloe to the deck, but not in time to keep her from getting off a shot.

Rush jerked back into Young in a familiar arc of impact, overbalancing them both. Together they crashed to the floor. Young forced himself up, adrenaline spiking, ignoring the rush of pain in his arm, and tore at Rush’s jacket,  because he knew, he knew—

“I’m fine,” Rush said, pushing Young’s hands away.

“Shut up, you idiot. She hit you. I know she hit you.”

“I’m wearing a vest,” Rush said impatiently. “You’re bleeding more than I am at the moment. Get off me, for God’s sake.”

Young backed up a little, still shaky with fear. He’s been so scared, so sure— he hadn’t even noticed that his own arm had resumed bleeding. He looked down at the warm, damp bandage and decided that he couldn’t deal with it right now.

Chloe had her arms locked around Eli’s neck, her head buried in his shoulder.

“You’re okay,” Eli said. He was looking away from Rush and Young, away from the dead alien, up towards the ceiling. “You’re okay,” he repeated softly. “Rush is okay. Everyone’s okay.”

Young wasn’t sure how convincing that assessment was, considering that he was bleeding copiously and could barely stay on his feet, the ship was overrun with aliens, and Chloe had just tried to shoot Rush. Chloe wasn’t going to buy it. But it was probably the right thing to say.

Rush forced himself into a standing position, wincing and laying a hand against his ribcage where, presumably, the bullet had struck his vest. He crossed the room to where Chloe and Eli were huddled on the deck. “Eli,” he said tersely. “Did you manage to map out the interference pattern?”

“Yeah,” Eli said, not paying him much attention.

“Then start modifying the sensors. We haven’t got all day.”

“I’m kind of—“ Eli said, and glanced down meaningfully at Chloe.

“Go,” Rush said. He knelt down beside Chloe as Eli moved away. “And you,” he said to her. “Stop crying. That’s an order.”

Chloe couldn’t look at him. She had folded into herself, a crumpled figure with her face buried in her hands. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

“And what are you sorry for, then?” Rush’s voice had gentled. “You’re by far the nicest person who’s ever attempted to kill me. Some of them— pssh. I mean, look at that one.” He jerked his head in Young’s direction. “What a bloody mess.”

“Hey,” Young said, deciding to play along. “I think I’m offended.”

And it wasn’t your fault,” Rush continued, gazing at Chloe steadily. He shook his head mock-sadly. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to try much harder if you want me to hate you. Bottom marks. A frankly pathetic attempt.”

She still wouldn’t look at him.

He leaned in, a little uncertainly, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

That seemed to have been what she needed. Abruptly she threw her arms around him, clinging to him tightly and letting out a sob.

“There, there,” Rush said, patting her awkwardly on the back. “See? It’s all right.”

“You’re hating this,” Chloe said, her voice choked a mix of tears and laughter. “You hate it when people touch you.”

“Well,” Rush said— but floundered in the face of trying to deny it.

“See, you can’t even lie about it.” She buried her face in his shoulder briefly, then released him. “I’d better go help Eli,” she said, sniffing and wiping her face. "I'll have my big breakdown later, when there's time. You'll have to make me ice cream. Or at least put some protein paste in a paper cone."

Rush gave her a crooked almost-smile. "I'll do what I can."

//Careful,// Young said. //You’re going to damage your reputation.//

Rush shot him an unamused look, and returned to Young’s side to adjust the bandage on his arm, which was not so much a bandage as a belt tied around a scrap of shirt.

//You were supposed to say, What reputation. And then I would say, Your reputation as a sullen misanthrope.//

//Yes,// Rush said. //I understood the drift. I opted not to indulge your so-called sense of humor.” He tightened the belt, and Young winced. //This is bleeding again, by the way.//

//It never really stopped. Shouldn’t you be the one modifying the sensors?//

//In combination, they’re faster than I would be. At least when operating conventional equipment. Interfaces are beginning to feel somewhat— foreign to me.//

//Maybe I should replace you with Eli,// Young said dryly.

//Maybe you should,// Rush said. His weather was complicated— cloudy and wistful.

//Rush— I wasn’t serious.//

//I was. Eli’s more reliable in every sphere you might consider.//

//Why are we even talking about this right now? Jesus Christ. You’re it, okay? You’re my choice. For a lot of different reasons.//

Rush shrugged, looking down. One of his hands was resting at Young’s wrist— a light touch that didn’t presume to take more than it was offered. He was suppressing a number of hard-to-read emotions: relief clearest among them, but also something else, something fragile and apprehensive.

// You are,// Young said intensely. //You always will be.//

Their eyes met in what should have been a fleeting moment but turned out inexplicably not to be.

“Hey, guys!” Eli called to them, and they both flinched, gazes flying apart. Rush quickly removed his hand from Young’s wrist. “So the modifications are done, and they should be syncing up to the life signs monitor now.”

Rush reached over to grab the detector. He and Young had only been studying it for a few seconds when an array of red dots appeared. Young did a quick count and came up with eighteen.

“Not as many as I would have thought,” he commented to Rush.

“Yes, well; it’s enough. We have to retake the bridge so we can undock and get the hell out of here before any of their friends show up.”

“We’re going to need more bodies,” Young said, frowning. “I think it’s time to find Greer and Scott.”

They moved out of the lab— or started to. Young had managed to make it upright and had just about steadied himself on his feet when he saw Chloe checking the clip in her pistol.

“Chloe,” he said. “I think you should leave your weapons here.”

She dropped her eyes, lowering the gun.

//Don’t,// Rush said fiercely. //Don’t do that to her. We need her.//

//We need you more. She could have killed you.//

//That was an unusual circumstance. It’s not likely to be replicated.//

Young fixed him with a steady look. //Can you really assure me of that?//

Rush pressed his lips into a thin line, turning away angrily.

“Chloe,” Young said.

She looked at him, her expression resigned.

“This isn’t a punishment. I’ve got trained military personnel on this ship who wouldn’t be able to do what you’ve done today. So I don’t want you to think—“

“It’s all right,” she said quietly. “I understand. Maybe— maybe you should lock me up somewhere until this is over. Just to be safe.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Rush snapped.

Young wasn’t sure who the comment was aimed at. He couldn’t dismiss Chloe’s idea out of hand. “Rush—“ he began.

Rush pushed past him. “Help the colonel,” he ordered Chloe sharply.

Young sighed. He didn’t protest when Chloe silently moved to shift his arm onto her shoulders. He supposed that at least she was unlikely to succeed in killing Rush this way.

They finally managed to move out, with Rush taking point. Almost immediately, Young found himself glad that he hadn’t ordered Chloe locked up. She was the only thing keeping him standing, and he needed to lean on her more and more as they progressed. He was losing energy. Or, he thought, Rush was losing energy, and Young had been using Rush’s energy for quite a while. He hadn’t really been aware of it; he was tired, and their edges tended to be pretty blurry, which sometimes made it hard to tell where exactly one of them stopped and the other began. Rush had been feeding him strengthwarmthpower through those not-really-barriers, only it was more like Rush had been bleeding strengthwarmthpower, and now he was finally running out. His feet were killing him, and he was shaky, and feeling the effects of Young’s exhaustion. God, Young thought, what a pair they made.

He was distracted by the sound of gunfire not far from their position. He motioned for the life signs detector, and Chloe held it out. There were four Destiny-crew dots flanked on both sides by aliens.

Young motioned Eli to take point with Rush.

//Don’t fire until you’ve got a clear line,// he told Rush. //You don’t want to give away our position. And don’t shoot any of our people.//

//I’m not an idiot,// Rush snapped.

Young rolled his eyes and drew his own sidearm. He was balanced, not without a certain trepidation, on his own two feet, and in the back of his mind he was conscious of energy as a limited resource, one that he was almost certainly splitting with Rush. He wondered who needed it more; who was weaker; who would do the most damage. It seemed like a complicated question.

And then he didn’t have time to wonder about it, because they could see five of the Nakai arrayed across the corridor.

//Now,// Young said, and Rush opened fire, and Eli followed.

Young was having to shoot left-handed. He couldn’t even lift his right arm enough to brace his shooting hand. He felt almost out of his body with the effort it took to aim and keep the gun steady. But he got off a couple of careful shots. He saw three of the aliens drop before the final two turned, raising their plasma weapons. Young tackled Chloe to the deck, knocking her out of the way of one of the blasts. When he raised his head, Eli and Rush were still firing, and they kept firing until the last two aliens were dead.

As the last of the Nakai fell, Rush staggered sideways. He barely caught himself against the corridor wall. For one agonizing second Young could feel how tired he was, before Rush brutally suppressed the feeling.

Greer, James, Barnes, and Thomas picked their way around the corner, stepping gingerly over the bodies of the dead Nakai.

“Sweet Jesus, it’s good to see you people,” Greer said feelingly. With his unerring instinct, he knelt down immediately next to Chloe and Young. “What the hell is this?” he asked, gesturing to Young’s blood-soaked uniform. “Sir.”

Young said, “It looks worse then it is.”

Greer eyed him skeptically.

Young pushed himself upright, leaning heavily on Chloe. He repeated emphatically, “It looks worse than it is. Report, Sergeant.”

Greer shook his head, but said, “The civilians are secure in the mess. We’ve been taking back strategic locations. The bridge is already ours; there’s a three-man detail there. We weren’t sure where to head next when suddenly these guys started showing up on our detectors.”

“Yeah,” Young said. “That was us.”

“I figured,” Greer said. “A sudden, unexplained tactical advantage? That’s classic Rush.”

Young raised his eyebrows and shrugged slightly, wincing. He couldn’t deny it.

Greer said, “If you four want to head to the bridge, Scott and I can mop up the rest of these things. We can even lend you Barnes or Thomas, seeing as how you’re, uh—“ he glanced at Rush, leaning against the wall with his eyes closed— “the walking wounded.”

//Can you walk?// Young asked Rush.

//What kind of fucking question is that, can I walk. Can you fucking walk? Of course I can walk; I’ve been doing it for the past few fucking hours.//

This response suggested to Young that Rush was not entirely sure he could walk, and also that he was likely to crash pretty soon. Still, though— Greer needed the firepower.

“The bridge isn’t far,” he said. “I think we’ll be fine.”

It took Rush a long time after they saw Greer’s team off to make it upright, but once he was standing, he seemed to tap into some kind of thin, brittle, manic power. He took point on their way to the bridge, and when they’d reached it, he paced back and forth in front of the viewscreen, clenching and unclenching his fists.

Young, for his part, collapsed into the central chair. “Is everyone off the seed ship?” he asked.

Rush titled his head, fixing his eyes on a point in empty space. “Yes,” he said.

“Okay. Let’s—“ Young was hit by a nauseating rush of vertigo. His vision grayed out for a second. Across the room, Rush was gripping a console, looking white-faced. “Let’s undock,” Young managed.

“Initiating the docking protocol,” Chloe said.

Destiny lurched free of the other ship, drifting ponderously away on the back of its sublight engines.

“Eli,” Young said. “What’s the status of the FTL drive?”

“We’re good to go as soon as—“

An alarm shrieked as the sensors picked up four ships dropping into normal space. Almost immediately, the new ships opened fire.

“Shield status,” Young demanded, clutching the arms of the chair as the ship rocked.

Rush was covering his ears with his hands and staring at nothing, his expression vague and very distressed.

“Rush, shield status.

Rush flinched. “Forty percent,” he said. “Our shields are still merged with the seed ship. The greater area is weakening their intensity.”

“We have to undock faster,” Young snapped.

//You’re not helping,// Rush shot at him.

“Firing maneuvering thrusters!” Eli yelled over the alarms.

//Maybe now would be a good time for you to merge with Destiny,// Young suggested.

//That’s not going to end well.//

//Neither is this.// Another wave of spins hit, and Young dropped his forehead into his hand, trying to stop himself from actually throwing up. When he looked back up, Sheppard was standing to his left, looking unbearably anxious.

“Don’t push him,” Sheppard said. “He’s—“

“Shields are at twenty-four percent,” Eli called. “Four minutes to undocking.”

“Are we going to make it or not?” Young asked.

“Maybe we can power the shields with your pointless questions,” Rush said viciously.

“Shields at fifteen percent,” Eli said. “We’re definitely not going to make it.”

Rush was bent over a console, fingers flying. //I’m going to try something,// he said tersely. //Don’t talk to me.//

The flow of energy between them had reversed. Now Rush was borrowing Young’s focus, his strength, draining the thin shared well between them faster than it could possibly be refilled. He was writing the skeleton of a short program, the primary purpose of which seemed to be to speed up the undocking protocol. But—

“He’s not going to finish in time,” Young said to Sheppard under his breath.

Sheppard flickered nervously.

Rush had typed fewer than fifteen lines of code when he initiated the program. But finishing the program, Young realized, had never been his intention. Instead, he projected his intent at the ship, wanting at it, needing to speed the undocking.

“How the hell do you do this stuff?” Eli yelled at Rush as their speed increased. “Shields to eight percent!”

Young felt Rush latch onto his mind in some manner that was faintly painful, as though his fingertips were digging in. He was trying not to get lost in the cavern of his own consciousness, which was filling with the amorphous mass of the ship; he was clinging to the very edge of Young’s solid and orderly mind, desperately trying not to lose his hold on it. But the ship was eating at him, unraveling him on instinct, pulling him apart thread by thread. Young tried to haul him up, and couldn’t do it; he was too exhausted, and the ship had too tight a grip.

“We’re out!” Chloe called. “The drive is spinning up.”

Frantically, Rush wanted the ship to focus on the FTL drive, and it turned its attention away from him— enough that Young could stretch out into the dark and beg and tug and force and coax and tear the scattered threads of him back. He felt spread so thinly, devoid of substance, and he wondered if this was how Rush felt when he was with the ship. Like there was no connective tissue left in his body, just unfocused goals and distant pain.

He could feel when Rush finally cohered enough to get free of the ship’s grasp. So that was done, he thought stupidly. That was done; that was good; that was what he had wanted and now nothing was holding him together because there was nothing he had to do. He opened his eyes and saw the blurring of stars as they entered FTL. It was really beautiful; it reminded him of Rush’s mind when Rush was thinking, because Rush thought too fast to follow; you couldn’t see the separate stars, but you knew they were there, burning fiercely in their own impossible cosmos; and then it occurred to him that he should look for Rush; was Rush okay? Was Rush still standing? And Rush was leaning against one of the consoles, breathing hard, but he was okay, and he turned to look at Young, his face strangely naked with worry, like something had been stripped away, and Young wondered why he was worried, and then it occurred to him that he was about to pass out, and that he was in fact passing out, and there was nothing that he could—

Chapter Text

Young regained consciousness with a sense that he would really rather not regain consciousness. Regaining consciousness seemed like an all-around terrible idea. His head was killing him. His right arm was aching, and when he tried to move it, he realized he couldn’t, which made him panic until the thought occurred to him that it was in a sling. He couldn’t remember why it was in a sling, or why it hurt so much, or why he felt as though he’d been turned inside out and put back the wrong way.

He could hear the faint clicking of fingers on a keyboard. It reassured him, for some reason he couldn’t assess. Someone in the back of his mind was thinking in Ancient: a very faint, unsteady, and distracted stream.

He remembered Rush, and the aliens, and the seed ship.

He opened his eyes and, squinting, tilted his head to the right. Rush was sitting cross-legged on the adjacent gurney, frowning at his computer and stabbing ferociously at the keys. He hadn’t noticed Young was awake, or was pretending he hadn’t. Young let his gaze rest on him for a minute, not thinking about anything in particular, just feeling weirdly peaceful and— looking at Rush.

Eventually he pushed himself up on his good elbow, trying to get into a seated position.

“Stop that,” Rush said, not looking up from his computer. “You’re not supposed to be sitting.”

“Nice to see you too,” Young said. He lay back.

He thought Rush would say something more, but Rush didn’t. His weather was weirdly unhappy: a green-gray flux of storm clouds that moved fast and angrily, spitting uneasy rain. Something felt scared about it, but Young couldn’t pin down a cause.

“Rush,” he said cautiously, wondering if something had happened while he was out.

“What?” Rush snapped. “What do you want from me? Fucking breakfast in bed?”

“I’ll take it if you’re offering,” Young said, “but I was thinking more along the lines of an update?”

“We’re still at FTL,” Rush said. “All of the Nakai have been eliminated. We suffered no loss of personnel. In fact, the only significant injury was Greer, who, in typical fashion, offered to donate blood to you and didn’t know when to stop.”

Young glanced over and saw Greer stretched out on a gurney across the room.

“Hey, sir,” Greer said, giving a half-hearted wave. “Don’t pay attention to Rush. He’s just pissed off because he was worried.”

“I was not worried,” Rush said defensively.

“He totally was,” Greer said.

Rush looked up at the ceiling, as if praying for patience. He turned back to his laptop.

“And you’re doing what, now?” Young asked him.

“Trying to determined whether the Nakai were able to modify any systems while they were on board.”

“Okay,” Young said. He didn’t understand why that would upset Rush so much. “That seems pretty reasonable.”

“I’m infinitely relieved to know I have your approval.”

//What the hell is wrong with you?// Young asked. //Did something happen? Why are you being so— extra-you?//

Rush glared at him. //Nothing happened,// he said tightly. //Nothing that makes a difference. Nothing that changes anything.// He was hammering his thoughts into unreadable splinters.

Young winced. //Could you stop— doing that? I already have kind of a headache.//

//You should. You nearly died of blood loss.//

//Why are you making it sound like my fault?//

//I don’t know; why are you poking around in my head?//

//I’m not poking around in your head; it’s just—“ Young sighed, and redirected the conversation. //Did you get pulled into the ship while I was out?//

//No. The ship has enough to deal with. I’ve been redirecting its attention.//

//And you’re— you know— okay? You were in rough shape last— whenever.// He waved a hand vaguely.

//I’m fine,// Rush said savagely. //Why, were you worried about me?//

It stung. Young, trying to sound like he was joking instead of hurt, said, //Oh, what, is that against some piece of legislation I don’t know about? Let me guess: Chapter Four, Article Thirteen, Subheading Seven: no human emotion is to be permitted within fifteen feet of Nicholas Rush.//

//Meters,// Rush snapped.

//What?//

//It’s going to be in the fucking metric system if I have anything to do with it.//

There was a pause. Young looked very closely at Rush and saw that Rush was deliberately not looking at him because he was afraid that if he did he wouldn’t be able to stay angry. He really wanted to stay angry, and Young was making it hard for him.

//Okay,// Young said at last, crossing his arms— or at least trying to. //Give me my punishment. I’m ready.//

//What?//

//For violating— whatever it was. Chapter Thirteen, Article Four. Am I not allowed to laugh for the next twenty-four hours? Do I have to listen to you give a lecture on how scientific progress is being strangled by the chain of command? You pretty much give that lecture every two weeks anyway; I think I’ve got it memorized. Wait, I know; I have to watch and take notes while you yell at Volker, so I can improve my heartless-bastard style.//

Rush was fighting a smile. He looked down, tucking his hair behind one ear.

There was a pause.

//I wasn’t worried about you,// Rush said. //Just to be clear.//

//I wasn’t worried about you, either,// Young said. //So we’re good, then. No violations of the code.//

Their gazes met, just for an instant, before Rush cleared his throat and glanced away.

In the silence that followed, Young could hear TJ’s pealing laughter ring out from her office. It caught his attention. He felt like it had been a long time since he’d heard her really laugh. She’d had— probably the hardest time of any of them, on Destiny.

Then Varro said something in a low voice, and the sound of that laughter came again. Young couldn’t help the flinch of betrayal. It wasn’t that he’d ever thought TJ was his, but he’d been the one to make her laugh, not so long ago.

He thought about calling her to come out here. He could still make her laugh. He could; he could prove it; he could prove something larger and more important; he could prove that he was still—

//Don’t,// Rush said. He was staring at his laptop. His projection had gone very subdued.

//It’s got nothing to do with you,// Young said sharply, hurt flowering into anger. //I wasn’t actually going to— Do I have to be responsible for every goddamn thought I have?//

Without really meaning to, he pulled back from Rush’s mind slightly, trying to shield and protect his thoughts. Rush shut his eyes and clutched at the edge of the gurney tightly. His mental landscape turned briefly seasick. When he opened his eyes again, his gaze was furious. //So now you’re punishing me for telling you what you already know, which is that you’d only complicate things for her? You’ve got no business forcing your way into her life—//

//Why, because I’m tied up with you?// Young flung at him. //I mean, I don’t want to discount your advice; I know you’re such an expert on interpersonal relationships; they all seem to work out so well for you. I’m an especially big fan of your work with David Telford; A+, just a really bang-up job.//

//Fuck you,// Rush said levelly. His mind had gone tense and mercilessly tamped-down. //You know I’m right; you just can’t stand to admit that you can’t order people to be what you want; that they get to make their own choices, and you don’t get to tell them how to be happy, which drives you mad—//

Young laughed out loud, incredulously. //You’re lecturing me about choices? All you do is manipulate the people on this ship! You lie and scheme to get what you want, and you don’t give a damn about people’s happiness. All you care about is the goddamn ship and its mission. You’d do anything to get your precious mysteries-of-the-universe crap, including killing me and the entire crew. Don’t think for a second I’m not aware of that.//

“That’s not true,” Rush said, his voice loud and agitated in the angry silence. “Like you’ve the first idea what you’re talking about. You can’t understand simple logic, much less the kind of calculation that I deal with on a daily basis, that I have to deal with if I’m ever going to—“

//Right, I get it,// Young said with heavy sarcasm. //I’m an idiot. You’ve made that incredibly clear. But at least I’m not so far removed from being human that I can’t imagine what it means to care about another human being. At least that’s even a possibility for me, because I haven’t forgotten how to interact with someone without constantly playing them, without lying to them and bullshitting them at every turn—//

Rush abruptly reached for his boots and started putting them on. His thoughts had switched into Ancient, either because he’d lost control over English or because he didn’t want Young to understand them. With the change in languages had come a change in volume: unleashed, his mind was shrieking at an intolerable pitch, its harmonic overtones communicating claustrophobia. He wanted out; he was thinking about boxes filled with water; he had to get out, he had to get out, out, out.

//Where are you going to go?// Young shot at him.

//AWAY.// Rush slid off the gurney. //Only block me if you enjoy going into cardiac arrest trying to pull me out of the ship.//

//You can’t leave,// Young pointed out.

//Watch me.// Rush scooped up his laptop and his battered crutch, heading for the door.

Greer looked at Young, perplexed. “Do I even want to know… ?”

TJ appeared in the doorway of her office. “Rush,” she called after him. “Where are you going? I didn’t clear you for—“

“There’s nothing to clear,” Rush snapped.

The infirmary doors slammed closed behind him.

Young’s attention went with Rush, waiting with a cringing anticipation for the inevitable nausea and headache. He didn’t know exactly what their radius was at this point, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t as far as Rush would want it to be.

Rush passed the fifty-yard mark and the one-hundred-and-fifty-yard mark with no perceptible problems. He continued on, past the mess, past the control interface room, into the dark parts of the ship.

//What happened to our radius?// Young asked.

//Don’t talk to me.//

//Can you stop being such a prima donna for two minutes and answer my goddamn question?//

Rush paused in the middle of the corridor. He wasn’t— really thinking anymore. Things were happening in his head, but he had no control over them. Someone was rolling the white cuff of a sleeve back. Someone was throwing himself against the inside of a door. Someone was sitting at a hospital bed and someone was ducking under a broken window and someone was choking on a mouthful of water or not water and someone had to learn how to get out but someone never learned and someone crouched against a bulkhead pressing his shaking hands against his head and would it really be so bad would it? would it? to not be a person and just be threads and he would not be the subject of the sentence any longer, did he or would he or could he or could he ever, potissessed, possibilitas essed,  and he would not be a thing that could hurt, and it loved him, and that was why it ate away at him, that was what you did to the things you loved, and when it had eaten him up then nothing would ever eat away at him again, and that was what he wanted, that was the way out—

— meanwhile, Young tried to make himself as invisible as possible. He was afraid that even the faintest reminder of his presence might push Rush into joining with the ship.

“Nick.”

Rush looked up, clenching his hands into fists.

“Nick.” The AI was crouching next to him, looking like Daniel Jackson, holding its hands up, palm-out. “Come on. We talked about this. Not a good idea.”

Rush took a deep breath and made an effort to calm himself down.

“Come on,” the AI said gently, watching Rush’s face closely. “Let’s get out of here. We’ve got a lot of things to do.”

Rush pushed himself to his feet and took off unsteadily down the corridor. “Leave me alone.”

The AI fell into step beside him. “Sure,” it said mildly. “In a minute.”

Rush didn’t protest its company after that. In fact, he seemed to be soothed by having it there.

Young, reassured that Rush wasn’t at risk of integrating himself with Destiny, let the infirmary fade back up around him. He didn’t really want to leave Rush, but he was pretty sure Rush needed as much space as Young could give him.

“Colonel,” TJ said, seeing that his eyes were open. “How are you feeling?”

“Terrible,” Young said shortly. He couldn’t pretend to be anything other than emotionally and physically exhausted.

“Yeah, there was a pretty nasty anti-coagulant in those darts, plus a local neurotoxin. It took you about ten hours to metabolize it.” She was pouring him a cup of her terrible budget Gatorade, which he resigned himself to having to drink. “You were in pretty bad shape.

Young accepted the cup and downed half of it with a grimace. The salt didn’t particularly improve his mood. “How’s Rush? Other than—“ he looked away— “the obvious.”

TJ compressed her lips. “He’s… okay. He had a tough time the first few hours you were out. He wasn’t talking very much, I think because he was having trouble with English.”

Young nodded. “Linguistically speaking, the ship is pretty much set in its ways.”

“I guess your… connection, or whatever it is, is repaired now?”

Young sighed. “Well, unsurprisingly, I managed to piss him off within ten minutes of being awake, so he’s not telling me anything at the moment, and I have no idea. He seemed to know he’d be able to leave. Which is pretty typical.”

TJ gave him a brief, weary smile.

Young pushed himself to a seated position, wincing slightly. “Do we need to talk about the virus in our ventilation system? I was just in the middle of reading your report when— you know. Seed ship, ambush, aliens, disaster.”

TJ hesitated and looked uncomfortable. “It’s not urgent.”

“How is a virus not urgent?

Her eyes flickered to the door. “I don’t think it poses a threat to anyone,” she said. “At the moment.”

Young frowned at her. “At the moment,” he said slowly. “You’re being really fucking cryptic, which worries me a little.”

She stared down at her hands. “The virus isn’t capable of infecting human cells,” she said. “And I have a hunch where it came from.”

“Which is?” Young prompted, when she didn’t continue.

“I think it came from the neural interface chair. I’m fairly sure that the virus was the vector used to modify Rush’s genetics, and that it’s still in his system, continuing to change him.”

Young shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “I thought you cleared him,” he said very levelly.

“Is that what he told you?”

“Yes, that’s what he told me!” Young snapped. Then he closed his mouth, clenching his jaw tight. “God, no, I’m such a fucking idiot. That’s what he implied, and I let him get away with it, just like always. Goddammit. So you never cleared him.”

“I let him go because I couldn’t detect the virus in his blood or saliva, and because it’s incapable of infecting human cells. I never said that he was entirely clear.”

“Jesus Christ.” He wished he had something to throw at the wall. “And you just stuck this in a fucking report?”

“The safety of the crew,” TJ said, her voice rising, “was never in danger. No one is affected by this except for him, and he specifically asked me not to tell you.”

“Well, that’s just goddamn classic, isn’t it?”

“He was within his rights to do so.”

“Fuck. Fuck.” Young covered his face with his hands. “What were you thinking? You—“

“I what?” Her eyes were flashing. “I protected the privacy of a man who has none left to speak of? It was my decision to make. And I made the right call.”

He made a resigned gesture. “So why are you telling me now?”

“I— wasn’t sure before,” she said, “but—“ The anger had gone out of her. “As the virus continues to change him, it’s going to have noticeable effects. I don’t know exactly what those will be. Typically you’d expect fever, nausea, headaches. But with something like this— it’s hard to tell.”

Young let his head drop back against the pillow. He felt just— really tired. “Does he know?” he asked.

“Yes. I told him last night.”

“How did he take it?”

“He— didn’t seem surprised.”

“Of course he didn’t,” Young said softly.

There was a long silence.

TJ touched his shoulder. “Drink your electrolytes,” she said.


Young slept for most of that day and woke at some point after twenty-two hundred hours to find himself alone in the infirmary. A pale yellow light was spilling out of TJ’s office, but she was absent. The main lights in the room had automatically dimmed.

There was something curiously lonely about the room like this. Maybe he just wasn’t used to being apart from Rush. He felt weirdly— imbalanced, like someone had taken off half of his body, and he kept turning his head to look for it. He could still feel Rush in his mind, but he was trying not to pay attention, both for Rush’s sake and for his own. He couldn’t think about Rush right now. He didn’t know what to feel; everything was upsetting. But it was almost impossible not to think of Rush. Somehow not-thinking-of-Rush had become not his normal way of existence. It was an outlying act that took a lot of work.

He sighed and rubbed at the side of his face.

Someone cleared their throat.

Young looked up to see that Chloe was haunting the doorway. “Sorry,” she said uncertainly. “I hope I didn’t wake you up.”

“Hey, no. You’re good. Come on in.”

She crossed the room rather hesitantly to perch on a nearby gurney. Perch was the right word; there was something skittish about her, like a bird about to take flight. “I’m in hiding,” she confided. “Dr. Rush is— kind of terrorizing the science team downstairs. It’s a lot like old times. I think everyone is a little bit nostalgic, but maybe also wishing that the two of you still came as a pair.” She glanced at him briefly, incisively. It was a delicate way of asking.

“Yeah,” Young said, his throat tight. “We, uh. Had a bit of a disagreement.”

Chloe nodded as though she’d been expecting this. She looked down at her hands, touching each of her nails softly, as though double-checking that they were all still there, which Young supposed wasn’t an unreasonable habit when you’d come so close to inhabiting an alien body. “You know,” she said quietly, “it’s not easy being— the way we are, sometimes. I mean— he’s not exactly the same as me? But enough that we can sort of talk about it. Being— different.

She was holding herself very still. “I don’t talk to anyone else about it, you know? Just him. Not even Matt, because he might not understand, and I don’t want him to get hurt.”

“I don’t think he talks to anyone else, either,” Young said. “For the most part.”

He felt unsure where the conversation was going. There was a fragility to the air in the room, an underwater, after-midnight quality that made what was happening feel half like a dream.

“No,” Chloe said, glancing at him. “The thing is… it’s easy to feel like you’re the only person in the world, the only real person, and everyone else is just kind of phantoms, or moving at the wrong speed, like characters in a movie you’re watching with a broken projector. It’s really— isolating. I think it was always like that for him. Before Destiny, I mean. When he was growing up.”

“Yeah,” Young said carefully. “Yeah, I think so too.”

“But it’s sort of freeing, too, because you don’t have to care about people. Because it’s hard to interact with them. So you don’t ever get close. You just do math for hours and hours, and it’s easy, and it feels good, because it’s the thing that you were sort of made to do.” She flinched slightly. “Literally made to do.”

“Chloe—“ he began gently.

“No, listen. This is the part that’s hard to get right.” She paused. “With me and Matt, after, it was like I was the phantom. Like it was so hard for him to actually see me, and if I wanted him to see me, I had to hold so, so still. When that was the last thing I wanted to do, because I felt so alien, and I thought, if he sees me he won’t— he won’t want—“ Her voice died. “And it’s awful, that feeling, like every single part of you is getting put under a microscope. And there’s so many parts, because there’s so much more to you than other people. Like a whole extra half of your body. Like you’re deformed. And you just want to hide, and you want to hate whoever it is that’s looking. And maybe— maybe you do hate that person a little bit, for putting you through this, for making you want to be seen in the first place, and because— why do they get to be just— taken for granted? Why don’t they have to go under the microscope?”

She looked down. “Please don’t tell Matt,” she whispered, “that I said that.”

Young reached across the space between them without speaking, and after a brief hesitation she put her small hand in his.

“I get what you’re saying,” he said after a long pause. “I do. But it’s not— like that. I don’t think it’s like that.”

She looked at him with her large, solemn eyes. “Isn’t it?” she said. “You see him. You look at him now. I think that’s— really hard for him.”

“It’s hard for me, too,” Young said, and then wished he hadn’t said it.

“Yes,” Chloe said quietly. “I’m pretty sure he’s noticed that.”

She withdrew her hand and stood.

“You don’t have to go,” Young said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—“

“No, I should go. I told Eli that I’d come back down in an hour and talk Dr. Rush out of keeping them there all night. Oh, and—“ she smiled. “Eli and Matt and Greer and I had an idea. We thought that when you get released from the infirmary tomorrow, we could have a social gathering. Actually, Eli insists that I say ‘social gathering.’ Like that.” She performed exaggerated air quotation marks. “He also insists that I tell you that it’s not a party, since obviously we shouldn’t celebrate you getting injured and aliens almost taking over the ship. But it is really a party. We wouldn’t use extra rations. But you would be required to attend.”

Young rolled his eyes. “I suppose that’s fine. Tell Eli to do his own dirty work, next time. And I’m not responsible for getting you-know-who there.”

She smiled at him. “I’m sure I can come up with a story.” She tucked her hair behind her ears and turned towards the door.

“Chloe,” Young said.

She looked over her shoulder.

“I’m glad he talks to you,” Young said. “And I’m glad that you…” he trailed off. “Feel like you can talk to me.”

She shrugged, not seeming to know what to say to that, and after a moment she ducked out of the room.

After she’d left, the infirmary felt even more empty. Young could hear the engines humming through the walls. He felt like the only human being on the ship. But he wasn’t, of course, because he was still aware of Rush’s thinking, very far away and very abstract. Rush was in the control interface room, working on the power relays. Young brushed very faintly against his mind and didn’t stay, not wanting to be sensed, just wanting to—

He didn’t know. He wished he hadn’t brought up David Telford. He wished he hadn’t pulled away. He wished that Rush hadn’t played fucking word games about whether TJ had cleared him; he wished that Rush had just told him something— anything. He didn’t understand Rush. He wanted them to be playing on the same side, but it always turned out that they weren’t even playing the same game. And Rush knew that they weren’t playing the same game. He knew the whole time. He would’ve been downright shocked if it turned out they were. His whole strategy, his default approach, his worldview was based around the assumption that no one else was playing his game. That should have made Young feel validated, but he just felt worse.

Worst of all was that he wanted Rush back. Or his body did, or something, which sounded— weird, but he tossed and turned and couldn’t fall asleep in the infirmary without Rush being in the room: tapping on his computer or sleeping in a unsteady fog of Ancient or staring at the ceiling, ignoring Young and listening to the shields.

His arm ached. He closed his eyes. He let himself drop and drop down into his mind, finally curling on some narrow floorboard-ledge just above where he pictured Rush’s presence. He imagined himself pressing his cheek to the stone or wood or glass or whatever, listening for the faintest sound of him.


Because he was a United States Air Force officer, and not a coward, the first thing Young did after getting released from the infirmary the next day was actually go track down Rush.

Unsurprisingly, Rush was in the control interface room; Young wasn’t one hundred percent sure he’d left since Young had briefly glimpsed him there the night before. He had his feet propped up on the chair beside him, his eyes flicking back and forth between his laptop and one of the monitor screens. He didn’t look up or acknowledge Young’s presence, even after Young leaned noisily against the doorway and cleared his throat.

“Hi,” Young said at last.

Rush still didn’t look at him. “Hello.”

“I’m—” Young hesitated. “I’m kind of a jackass.”

Rush didn’t say anything.

“I’m sorry. For what I said.”

Rush nodded neutrally, his mouth a tense line. He was still typing.

“And I’m—“ Young closed his mouth. He wasn’t ready to say anything else. “Are you— okay?” he asked instead.

“Yes.”

“You look really tired.”

“You look half-dead.”

“How would you know? You won’t look at me.”

Rush’s fingers paused on the keyboard. “Yes, well,” he said tightly, without turning his head.

Young sighed. “Did you fix our— you know— connection?” he asked after a long pause.

“It’s not fixed.”

“It seems fixed.”

“We improved matters by spending so much time together. As each other. In each other.” He made a choppy hand gesture. “You know what I mean.”

It was reassuring to know that Rush also struggled with figuring out how to talk about their connection.

“Still,” Rush said, in the same clipped voice, “our radius is only about thirty meters. Destiny has devised a short-term patch for the problem, which is currently ameliorating the effects. We would experience the same symptoms if we left the confines of the ship.”

“Ah,” Young said. “Is this Destiny the ship, or Destiny the AI?”

“The ship,” Rush said, sounding exhausted. “I’m trying to give it things to do.”

Young looked at him. He could see now that Rush was even more tired than he’d thought. His hands were unsteady, and his eyes looked almost bruised. Still, he didn’t look sick, and maybe that was what Young was actually looking for. For some sign, something that he’d carelessly missed.

“Can I help you?” Rush said shortly, sensing the focused attention.

“I… talked to TJ,” Young said.

Rush flinched. His hands drifted to the edge of the monitor bank and closed there, almost as though he were bracing himself. “I was planning on telling you,” he said. “Eventually.”

“Right,” Young said flatly. “I’m sure you were. Probably when you didn’t have any other options left.”

“Probably,” Rush agreed quietly.

“She said you weren’t surprised.”

Rush shrugged fractionally. “It was how the plague began. They were trying to effect the genetic changes necessary for ascension. They created a virus that… made them incompatible with material life, even as it facilitated the transition of matter to energy.”

“Great,” Young said. His throat was tight. “That sounds really great.”

“Oh, what does it matter?” Rush snapped, showing emotion for the first time. He pushed his laptop away and raked a shaky hand through his hair. “Does it affect you? No. It doesn’t. It’s my fucking body. If you want me to apologize for deceiving you, then I’m afraid you’re going to be here all day. It’s got nothing to do with the ship, and therefore—“

“Of course it matters,” Young said loudly.

“It’s not tactically significant,” Rush said, sounding agitated. “It’s not going to affect my performance; it’s not going to—“

Rush.” Young had to turn away for a second, facing the wall. “I don’t give a fuck whether it’s tactically significant. I mean, obviously I’m trying to keep everyone on this ship alive, so I do, I have to give a fuck, but that’s not—“ He shut his eyes, trying to make some sense out of what he was feeling. Principally, what he felt was that he was on the edge of an abyss— not something dark, but certainly something frightening. And if he plunged into it he wasn’t sure he would get out again. Down there in that abyss was the way he’d lain in the infirmary with his whole mind straining for any hint of Rush’s stuttering-filament brain, and the different night he’d spent when he’d woken up reaching for the body that should’ve been there, right there, and why wasn’t it, and the way he’d taken the glasses off Rush’s face when Rush was sleeping, and Rush had frowned and made that complaining noise, and—

God, he hoped Rush wasn’t catching any of what he was thinking. He really couldn’t tell. Rush was staring fixedly at the monitor bank, his face expressionless. A muscle at the side of his mouth was caught in a tic. He looked like he could not take any more of this, and Young recognized the feeling.

He made a split-second decision.

“I think,” he said carefully, “that if I have to explain it, I’ll end up in violation of that code we talked about.”

Rush was silent for a moment. Then he turned his head slightly, not-quite-looking at Young for the first time. He said at last, “Is this something I’m going to be able to enforce from now on?”

Young cast his eyes towards the ceiling, mock-despairing. “God. I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?”

“No human emotion is to be permitted within fifteen meters of Nicholas Rush,” Rush said, sounding faintly satisfied.

His weather had lightened. He was hiding a powerful surge of relief. Again, Young recognized the feeling. This was what they had needed. Just this, just— letting their skin regrow while they tried not to poke at each other’s peeled-raw places. Finally Young had done something right.

“You’re going to have to think up some decent penalties, though,” Young said. “Otherwise it’s just an empty threat.”

Rush raised his eyebrows. “I assure you,” he said airily, “that none of my threats are empty.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Young said, smiling at him without really knowing why he was smiling. “Talk to me when you don’t look like you’re about to keel over. How long has it been since you slept?

“Are you aware how many times I get asked that on a daily basis? As though sleep deprivation would explain everything about me.”

“It would clear up a lot,” Young said dryly. “Nice job not answering the question, by the way.”

“Thank you. I live for your appreciation.”

“Oh, stop being so difficult.”

“That will never happen,” Rush said.

Young rolled his eyes. “You know what you are?”

Rush’s mouth quirked. “Let me guess. A lot of work?”

“Yeah,” Young said. “But I like you anyway.”

Rush looked away quickly. Young thought he was smiling. “I’m trying to decide whether that’s a violation of the code.”

“Well,” Young said seriously, “let me know what you figure out.”

He winked and ducked out of the room, leaving Rush staring after him with a startled expression and a mind full of upended thoughts.


Eli’s “social gathering” had been in full swing for about an hour when Chloe and Rush finally showed up. Chloe clearly hadn’t told Rush where they were going, because he stopped in the doorway once he saw the crowd in the mess hall and visibly tried to back out. Chloe had an iron grip on his arm, though, and after a brief, silent tussle she whispered something in his ear that made him roll his eyes and allow himself to be tugged forwards. He still eyed the room with a mixture of disdain and suspicion, probably because it contained people having fun.

“Hey, guys,” Chloe said as the two of them approached the table where Young was sitting with Eli, Park, Greer, and Scott. “So Dr. Rush was just going to settle a little debate between me and Eli.”

“And then I’m leaving,” Rush emphasized. He was still standing. “In fact, you needn’t have saved a seat; I’m sure this will only take a moment—”

“Oh, come on,” Young said, and reached out to tug at his jacket sleeve.   

Rush gave him a dirty look, but duly sank into the seat beside him. He said, “This was a trap, wasn’t it? I’ve been entrapped.”

Young shrugged. “Well, on the upside, there are drinks.”

Rush grimaced. “Do you not remember the last time?”

“Good point,” Young said. “Only I should drink. I don’t think Destiny’s ready for the premiere of your accent.”

Rush glared at him. “Where I come from, that accent’s the sound of someone getting promised a kicking.”

“Well, it’s a good thing we’re in another galaxy, then,” Young said.

“Push it and see whether that protects you.” But Rush’s attention had wandered. He looked around the room, his eyes narrowing. “Why are there so many kinos in here?”

“We’re recording this for posterity,” Eli said hurriedly.

“And that requires twenty kinos?”

Eli looked nervous. “You know what? I’ll get you a drink.”

In fact, Eli brought drinks for the whole table. He had managed to get Rush about three-quarters of a way into one, and to distract him with a long discussion of something called a non-trivial quantum Yang-Mills theory that Chloe seemed to have strong opinions about, by the time Brody and Wray started setting up a viewscreen at the front of the mess. This, Young thought, was very suspicious behavior. When Wray climbed up on top of a table and clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention, he was pretty sure that something was about to go down.

“Attention, everybody!” Wray called. She was a little wobbly, either because she’d been drinking or because her heeled shoes weren’t designed for standing on tabletops. “As you all know, we have gathered you here today because we’ve had three teams claim to have won Destiny Bingo.”

Young frowned. “What the hell is Destiny Bingo?” he asked the table at large.

“I’ve just remembered that I—“ Rush began, and tried to make his escape. But Chloe, ever-vigilant, pulled him back into his chair.

Greer reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small card divided into a five-by-five grid. He passed it over to Young. Each box was filled with very small neat handwriting.

“There are a couple of people,” Wray said, “who haven’t yet been introduced to Destiny Bingo, for the very practical reason that they feature in the game. So here to explain the rules, I give you: Destiny Bingo mastermind Eli Wallace!”

Eli shot Young and Rush a guilty look in passing.

“Night shifts for a week,” Rush hissed at him. “And I don’t even know what it is you’ve done yet.”

“Hey, guys,” Eli said, climbing onto the table next to Wray. “So, the original idea for this came out of the fact that Colonel Young and Dr. Rush are total killjoys who have absolutely no appreciation of art, by which I mean that neither of them ever wants to put anything down for the record on the kino footage I’m going to use for my eventual Oscar-winning documentary film. Or, like, winner of some military version of the Oscars, because none of this will ever be declassified, but whatever.”

“Get to the good part!” Greer yelled.

//I’m leaving,// Rush said.

//Don’t you dare.// Young closed a hand over his arm. //If I have to sit through this, so do you.//

Rush looked at his hand, but didn’t shake it off.

“So Chloe and I made up these cards,” Eli said, holding up an example, “with different events involving Rush or Young that people had to capture on kino footage. And the idea was that you get five squares in a row to win.”

Young looked at the card Greer had given him.

Young tells Rush he’s A.L.O.W. was the first square. Rush says something nice about Volker was the second.

“Okay,” Eli said, “so— since we have three teams claiming victory, we’re going to vote on the best overall compilation. We’ll start with Team Future Perfect, which is Brody and Volker.” He leaned over to start his computer.

“Please let me form no memories of this,” Rush said.

“First up we’ve got square D1,” Eli said. “Rush volunteers a piece of personal information.

Rush is sitting in the control interface room, his feet propped on the monitor bank, swiveling absently back and forth in his chair as he chews on a pencil, watching something on his laptop.

“I don’t know,” Brody says from somewhere just below the kino. “I can imagine it. You just swap someone on the stones real quick: Hi, can we get a pizza? And the next thing you know, it’s coming through the gate. Hot and fresh. Maybe from that place over by PPCC with the hand-rolled crust?

“Oh, what,” Volker says derisively, just visible to the left. “Like the Air Force is going to order you a pizza, let the delivery guy in through security, and then just send it through the gate?”

“Yeah. Why not? Just chuck it right through there, still in the box.”

“Um, no one is going to open a super-powerful tear in spacetime just because you’ve got the munchies.”

“I don’t think you know what the munchies is,” Brody says. “If I’ve got the munchies, it means they sent something else through first. Which they totally should, by the way. I know we’re not exactly terminal cancer patients, but come on. Everyone on this ship could stand to take it down a notch.”

“Whatever. My point is, they’re not going to send you pizza. That’s like a twelve dollar pizza and a two million dollar energy bill. Or like— I don’t even know what it would cost to dial here.”

“Yeah, but that’s the whole point of the hypothetical. They can’t dial here. But assuming they could. And assuming it wouldn’t cost however many millions of dollars.”

“Well, you didn’t specify that part.”

“I’m saying just plain pepperoni. No fancy stuff.”

“You know what they put in pepperoni?”

“Uh, is it worse than what they put in that protein mix?”

Volker looks across the room. “What about you, Rush?” he asks, with an audible note of daring.

Rush very slowly looks up from his laptop, a little like a snake uncoiling. “What.”

“If Stargate Command could dial us, like regular dialing, and if it wasn’t going to cost a million bucks, and if the pizza guy could get past security at the Mountain, what would you pick as your pizza topping?”

Rush fixes them both with a disbelieving stare. There’s a long silence.

“Or do they not have pizza in Scotland,” Volker adds.

Rush’s eyes narrow dangerously. “We have pizza in Scotland. It’s not Outer fucking Mongolia.”

“Okay, so what would you pick as your topping, then?”

Now Rush looks suspicious. “Why do you want to know?”

“All right,” Brody says. “Geez. I didn’t realize it was a state secret.”

“I bet they don’t really have pizza in Scotland,” Volker says under his breath.

Rush’s eyes narrow even further. “Goat cheese and spinach,” he snaps. “And those power relays had better be diagrammed by the time I come over there.”

Volker looks at the kino and rolls his eyes.

The mess hall erupted in cheering and laughter.

Rush dug the heel of one hand into his eye socket. //This is intolerable.//

//Oh, hush.//

“All right,” Eli said. “That was certainly very revealing. Of how Brody spent his college years, if nothing else. Anyway, next up we’ve got square D2: Rush deliberately baits Young."

“Rush,” Young says, leaning against the doorway of the control interface room.

“Colonel,” Rush greets him. “Always a pleasure.” He doesn’t look up from the monitor he’s at.

“Did you send that report on the hyperdrive element to the SGC?”

“They received the information yesterday,” Rush says absently.

“Did you send it? Because they specifically wanted your thoughts on the control crystals.”

“All the requisite information was included.”

“You know, I am actually capable of recognizing the passive voice when it’s being a pain in the ass.”

“I’m astonished,” Rush says, still typing. “Don’t inform the Air Force. They’ll boot you out.”

“What I’m getting from this is that you didn’t send it. Who sent it? Did you even write the report?”

Rush looks up briefly, his mouth quirking. “You’ve become a much more sophisticated conversational partner, you know. I attribute that to my influence.”

Young ducks his head. It’s hard to tell if he’s sighing or smiling. “Strategic praise and a deflection.”

“I see you know my tactics well.” Rush returns to his laptop.

“Rush.”

“Hmm?” Rush blinks at Young.

Young rolls his eyes. “The report?”

“Yes, yes.” Rush waves his hand vaguely. “I had Volker take care of it. I’ll send them something eventually.”

“Rush,” Young says again in a tone of exasperation.

Rush shrugs eloquently, as though to suggest helplessness.

The camera suddenly pans around to Eli, who’s been standing behind it. “Oh, my God,” Eli whispers. “I can’t take any more of this. They need to get a room al— wait, did you just film this? This better not end up in Destiny Bingo. I’m going to disqualify you. I have that power! You know I do!”

“And, yeah,” Eli said good-naturedly, “You’re totally disqualified for that. No humiliation of the game mastermind is allowed.”

This announcement was met by a chorus of mixed boos and cheers from the crowd.

//Do I bait you?// Rush asked.

//Yeah, but when you catch me, you always throw me back.//

There was a pause as they listened to Eli announce, “Next up, we have Team Matt & Chloe! Wow, very creative, guys, I can tell you spent a lot of time on the name.”

//I don’t know enough about fishing to tell if that’s good thing or a bad thing,// Rush said finally.

Young glanced at him. He wasn’t looking at Young. //I think it depends on what the fisherman wants from the fish,// Young said.


The whole thing dragged on for a seemingly-interminable fifteen minutes. Ultimately it was the “Destiny’s Angels” team of TJ, Park, and Wray who won the prize of “lifelong respect and a mention in the credits of Eli’s documentary.” Their compilation had included square B2, Young does something other than work (a scene of Young nodding along to a Talking Heads song during his brief appearance at a crew trivia night in the mess), square A2, Rush says something nice about Volker (which had required some extensive engineering by Chloe to achieve), and square C2: Rush passes out somewhere he’s not supposed to (a spectacular montage that included Rush curled up under a CI room monitor hugging his laptop, Rush passed out midway through an FTL drive repair with two control crystals still clutched in his hands, and Rush falling asleep while eating a bowl of protein mix, narrowly avoiding a full-on faceplant).

To his credit, Rush stuck around for the whole thing, looking increasingly incredulous and harassed. Maybe he was just too tired to get up from the table, or maybe it was the fact that for much of the presentation Young prevented him from escaping with a hand on his arm. But there was only so much general goodwill Rush could take without suffering some kind of emotional aneurysm, so Young let him slip away after the presentation of the award.

He himself stayed for several more hours, watching the night slowly disintegrate into the party that Eli had insisted it wasn’t going to be. Chloe was a prominent figure out on the dance floor, and Young watched her for a while. She looked like she was in her element. She looked so natural, so comfortable, so at ease. But he couldn’t help remembering their conversation. He wondered how hard she was working at any given moment to look like the girl people wanted her to be, and not like some stranger, lonelier person. He hoped that Matt realized that. He hoped that she could be herself with him.

After a while, Eli crossed the room, doing some kind of rhythmic jerking that was probably supposed to be a dance. He handed Young a drink. He had a vaguely apologetic expression. “Hey,” he said. “Um, sorry about the kino thing. I started it before the stuff with the chair, but then it seemed like I couldn’t really just stop it? People would have gotten suspicious. But I totally screened everything that went in, except for that thing Brody inserted at the last minute. He’s really sneaky.”

“It was fine,” Young said tolerantly. “Even Rush wasn’t— well, he wasn’t apoplectic, which is probably the best you were going to get. Plus, I think people liked it. They needed something like that.”

“In that case, do you think you can protect me from Rush? I’m pretty sure he was not kidding about those night shifts.”

Young gave him a disbelieving look. “You think he listens to me?”

“Uh, yeah? More than he listens to anyone else, for sure.”

“Right,” Young said skeptically.

Eli waved an unsteady hand. “Fine. Don’t accept my wise observations, which actually reflect pretty well on you, except I guess if you think that actually winning Rush’s undying affection is a bad thing, which, I mean, it’s not like I can’t see the logic in that, it’s just that—”

“Undying—?” Young choked back a laugh. He put a hand on Eli’s shoulder and looked him very seriously in the eye. “Eli,” he said, “you’re drunk.”

Eli sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “Fine. But you’ll talk to him about it? Right?”

“Yeah,” Young promised. “Sure.”

He watched Eli sidle back across the dance floor, stopping briefly to do some kind of bizarre hip-hop move with Chloe and Matt. It made Young feel old. When had he gotten so old?

He sipped his drink. Finally, he turned to face the shadowy figure who’d appeared halfway through his conversation with Eli, leaning against the far lefthand wall. “So are you going to talk to me, or what?”

Sheppard— or the AI— tilted its head and quirked an eyebrow.

“I mean, I figured you weren’t here for the party. No offense, but this doesn’t really seem like your scene.”

“You do not know me,” the AI said. “You do not know my scene.”

There was something wistful in its eyes as it looked out at the partygoers. Maybe that was just because it looked like Sheppard, who always kind of looked weirdly wistful, even when he was supposedly happy, or who maybe just always looked kind of alone.

“No,” Young said. “I guess that’s true.”

“However, you are correct,” the AI said. “I require your presence.”

It gestured, and Young followed it out of the mess. In comparison to the bright noise of the party, the corridors seemed especially silent and dark.

“If you’re here to tear me a new one,” Young said, when the AI didn’t immediately offer more information, “we might as well get it over with. I’ve been expecting it for about a day and a half.”

The AI was quiet for a long time. “This has been a difficult time for both of you,” it said finally.

“Yeah,” Young said. “Yeah, I guess so.”

It looked troubled. It slouched its shoulders and ran a hand through its spiky hair. But it didn’t say anything.

“I noticed you’re not Gloria anymore, with Rush,” Young said. “You looked like Daniel Jackson when you told us how to distract the ship.”

“Yes.”

“Why? You told me that we make you look like what you look like. Somehow I’m pretty sure Rush hasn’t got Daniel Jackson on the brain.”

The AI stopped walking, biting its lip and looking down. “Yes. What you say is correct. But— there were several occasions on which he found it difficult to separate me from Gloria. The real Gloria. This seemed— not ideal.”

Young stared at it for a second and then turned away, his hands clenching into fists. He almost couldn’t speak at first through the rage. “Not ideal? God, no wonder he’s— you realize this is just what he needs right now. I mean, you realize that, right? Just really A+, perfect. Something else that’s going to mercilessly fuck with him.”

“That’s why I stopped!” the AI said defensively, its voice rising. “It was not my intention to cause him pain.”

“Right, it’s never your intention. It’s always just a side-effect of doing whatever the fuck it is you decide to do. You don’t mean to cause him harm; it’s just better for the ship if he’s infected with a fucking virus, and gets bolts through his feet and wrists, and has to constantly tear himself up, and never gets any sleep—”

“It is not my fault that he does not sleep!” it said, its manner oddly accusatory.

Young narrowed his eyes at it. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

It looked away. “I do not control him,” it said. “I do not make him do anything.”

“I don’t think I believe that.”

“Believe what you like. It has no bearing on me. You fail to see that you and I are in the same position.”

“And what position is that?” Young asked acerbically.

“You also wish to control him, because you do not wish him to be hurt. Yet the very act of control alters the object of your protection, and you find you have damaged him, although this was what you intended to prevent. The equation that allows for maximal protection while preserving the preponderance of his selfhood is a complex one. There are many variables involved. Perhaps your algorithms are better suited than mine to solve it.”

Young sighed and brought a hand up to his forehead. “I don’t understand what any of that means.”

It stuck its hands in its pockets and looked away. It seemed upset for some reason. “It is evident that you do not.”

A moment passed.

The AI resumed its walking. Young trailed it, a step or two behind.

“So you could look like anyone,” Young persisted after a while. “You just let yourself look like Sheppard.”

“This is the form your subconscious chooses for me. Is it unsuitable?”

“No. No, it just—“ Young paused. “It’s just always— weird. I don’t know how to feel about it. I guess it reminds me of someone it’d be easier to forget. Maybe. I don’t know.”

The AI frowned at him over its shoulder. “I don’t understand what any of that means,” it said pointedly.

“Great. Now it’s got a sense of humor.”

“Nick tells me that I do not.”

“Well, his sense of humor is… specialized.”

“He has attempted to teach me how to construct a pun.”

Young stopped in his tracks for a second, unable to decide if he was amused or horrified. “Oh, my God. I would pay to see that.”

It looked away. It said softly, “Gloria was very good at puns.”

Young’s smile faded. He had the strangest urge to say that he was sorry. Instead he said nothing for a long time.

By now they were very deep into the ship, possibly under the gate room, near Destiny’s keel. The hallways were all empty, and their lights were powered down. But they didn’t feel abandoned, exactly. Just— quiet. Young could see why Rush would come down here.

He followed the AI down a long, straight stretch of corridor for a pretty good length of time. Finally, the AI said, “I will choose another form if you wish. As a— favor. This is the correct word. A person does not have to reciprocate a favor.”

It sounded like it was reciting something that it had been told. Young looked at it– its eyes that carried a curious seriousness, its rumpled jacket with the sleeves rolled up. He felt that sense of uneasiness he’d had from the start, the sense of knowing and not-knowing someone at the same time, and wanting to know, wanting—  “No,” he said, his throat tight. “It’s okay. I just— feel like you’re trying to tell me something, and I don’t know what it is.”

It regarded him steadily. “Perhaps you are trying to tell yourself something,” it said.

Ahead of them, a door opened to their left, letting a broad and fan-shaped spill of golden light out into the hall. The AI motioned Young into the room, where Rush was sitting at a table with his laptop in front of him. He wasn’t typing; his hands were resting limply on the keyboard. His eyes were unfocused. The screen of the laptop had gone black.

With a reflexive horror, Young reached out to Rush, but his mind was dismantled, half-dispersed in the circuitry of the ship.

“Shit,” Young said. “What happened?”

“It wasn’t his fault,” the AI said quietly. It leaned against the edge of the table, its arms crossed, looking very intently at Rush. “He was tracing power relays, and he was tired. It’s easier for him without a computer, but he has difficulty grounding himself.”

Young closed his eyes. “I know he does,” he said.

The AI’s eyes flickered to him. It seemed to be hesitating over what to say next. “He has been trying to protect you from the pressure of the ship for two days now,” it said. “It makes things more difficult for him.”

Young frowned at it, not understanding.

“When he pulled Destiny into your mind on the shuttle, he nearly killed you.”

“No,” Young said, shaking his head. “No, that’s not— something was wrong for a minute, but he fixed it. I would have felt it if anything was wrong.”

“Such injuries don’t hurt.”

“You’re wrong,” Young said again.

“You needed time to recover. But as a consequence, he has been more accessible to the ship.”

Young sighed. “He needs to not—“ he murmured, and then broke off, rubbing his forehead. “Never mind. I don’t even know what the point is. He’s not going to pay attention to anything I tell him to do. I can pull him out, though? It’s not going to— cause any problems?”

“You are free to separate him.” Sheppard was gazing at Rush again, with an expression that Young found difficult to interpret. “I wish that you— would find a way to do so that does not cause both of you pain. You are angry with me for hurting him. But you hurt each other. And it is not required.”

“Oh,” Young said. He felt wrongfooted. He said uncertainly, “Any tips?”

“No,” Sheppard whispered, still looking at Rush. “I have no tips.”

It disappeared.

Young stared at the empty air where he’d been, feeling oddly abandoned.

Then he turned his attention to Rush. For a while he just stood there, considering what the AI had said. Rush had always used pain to separate himself from the ship, and Young had adopted that attitude without questioning it. He’d assumed that he was fighting with the ship for Rush, like Rush was— a piece of territory or something, one that both Young and Destiny wanted. Getting Rush back felt like tearing him out of someone else’s grip. But after the SGC had swapped Young out with Telford, Rush had gone entirely into the ship, and Young had been aware of him for the first time as a hundred thousand somethings that wanted to stay there— a hundred thousand somethings that had to be, well, seduced back to being a self.

Being a self wasn’t always easy for Rush. He seemed like he had a tenuous grasp on it, like he wasn’t really committed to the whole idea. It predated Telford and his fucking benchmarks, though that definitely hadn’t helped; Young could remember being Rush in the interface and wanting to get out of his body, to climb a magic ladder to nowhere and be nothing at all. And that had been before everything else. So in that sense the ship was offering Rush his lifelong fucking dream: you don’t have to be you anymore; you don’t have to be anyone; you can just be music and information streams and code.

As though the rest was just hard work, the rest was just frightening, the rest was just all the parts that could be hurt.

No wonder Rush didn’t want to come back. No wonder it always felt like fighting, even when Rush did it to himself.

Young closed his eyes. Quietly, he sat down in the chair opposite Rush and moved the laptop aside. After a considering moment, he took his sling off, freeing his right arm up, and reached across the narrow table to take Rush’s hands. They were cold, and he let them rest in his grasp, warming. He didn’t have to do this, he thought. From the first, he’d told himself that he had to touch Rush, that it was the best way to get their connection to work. He’d tried to think of it as something clinical, not a question of bodies touching but of… units interacting, or something, for maximum function. A circuit closing. And maybe it did feel a little like a circuit closing, like something wild and electric was being channeled between him and Rush, but he didn’t think it had anything to do with maximum function. With the raw physical contact? Maybe. Or with the fact that he felt weirdly privileged to get to touch Rush’s hands. Rush had beautiful hands. Young turned them in his grip so that they lay face-up and he could see the lines that crossed each palm. Lifelines: long life, broken life; someone had taught him that once. He smoothed his thumb over that fortune-telling map, following the minor lines till he touched the point where they came together, in the little notch right at the base of the wrist.

And then he was aware of Rush suddenly, out in the ship and around him— after all, he was inside the ship, even though he tended to think of it as out there— a presence that wasn’t really a presence but was something, a vague shape picked out in lots and lots of little bits of thread. They were curious about Young, those threads; they wanted him to come closer. The air in the room warmed slightly. Young’s mouth quirked up at that. //No,// he thought at the threads. //I can’t be like you are. You’ll have to come back here.//

They didn’t know how. But he could show them; he could start untangling them. He found the points where ship became not-ship and very gently tugged at the not-ship-colored threads until they came unraveled and he could reel them all the way back to Rush. The threads liked this game, because they wanted to be touched and they liked being looked at by him. As more and more of them came loose, there was that nervous, furtive sort of consciousness, and it was very unsure that it wanted to exist. But Young kept stroking his thumbs against Rush’s palms and thought in a directionless way about how nice it was, how warm and comfortable he felt, how relaxed, and the nascent consciousness found that idea appealing. //Come back,// Young projected towards it. Are you going to be there, it thought; or didn’t think, really, but more-or-less communicated towards him. And it decided that it wanted to be there if that was where Young was.

At one point they ran into trouble when that consciousness became more distinctly Rush-like, and Rush was vaguely aware that he had gotten lost in the ship. He panicked and started to flex his left foot, trying to hurt himself. But: //No,// Young said, and muffled him in reassurance. //There’s nothing wrong. It’s okay. It’s okay.// For a moment, the ship gained ground, because Rush was still anxious, projecting a wavering distress that seemed to come from far away, and the ship did not like that, and Rush was always prone to erosion. So Young focused on the physical sensations in his body again. The brush of his skin against Rush’s skin, which was all at once soft and electrifying and hypnotic; the warmth of the room; the quiet of their breathing, as though they were the only two people in the world. //Come back,// Young said again. //It’s just us two here.//

And Rush— was coming back, without any struggle. All of the threads of him were beginning to relax again, eager to go with Young back towards being human.

It seemed to get easier once Rush was minimally aware of his body; every time Young stroked his thumb across the base of Rush’s wrist, a whole handful of threads came loose. But then, at the very last, they hit a kind of plateau. Rush was mostly conscious, but still thinking in Ancient, his eyes unfocused, his mind just… not quite there.

His first instinct was, as always, to hurt himself. But Young stopped him once more from flexing his foot.

//You don’t have to do that,// he thought. //That’s not what it’s about. It can be good.//

He let his hands skim up Rush’s forearms, pushing back the oversized jacket sleeves. The skin thus revealed was oddly defenseless. Or was that just a tactical reflex? Was he stuck in the rut of soldier-think? But he wasn’t thinking about strategy. He didn’t want to hurt or protect Rush. He just wanted to touch that bare and lightly freckled skin, and so he did, his fingertips tracing the lines of the tendons up and down first one arm, then the other.

Rush’s breath hitched. He shivered. The last of his mind settled. He blinked, startled, his eyes focusing on Young.

They looked at each other. For a moment, neither of them moved.

“Hi,” Young said quietly.

“Hello,” Rush whispered.

 

Chapter Text

“That was new,” Rush said, his face difficult to interpret.

“Yeah,” Young said. With a measure of reluctance, he drew his hands back.

Rush hesitated, then quickly pushed his jacket sleeves down. He stared at the table, hugging his arms tightly across his chest.

There was a brief silence.

“—If it’s easier,” Rush began haltingly. A very faint flush was visible on his cheekbones. “You should feel free to continue— using that method.”

“Good,” Young said. “I will. It is.”

“Better.”

“Yes.”

“More efficient.”

Young nodded.

“I’m—“ Rush cleared his throat, still staring at the table. “Did you move my laptop?”

“Mm-hm,” Young said. “It’s two in the morning. You really want it back?”

Rush frowned at him, uncomprehending.

“Don’t give me that,” Young said. “You’re familiar with the idea of sleeping at night. I know you are. I’ve seen you do it.”

Rush shrugged dismissively.

Something occurred to Young. “…How long have you been awake?”

“It’s immaterial,” Rush said airily, tossing his hair back.

Young had seen Rush sleep at night, sure. But not in the past few days. Rush had a nasty habit of waking up before Young, and not always falling asleep before he did. It made trying to track his sleep patterns very difficult, as Young was certain Rush knew perfectly well.

“Rush,” he said.

“I’m clearly functional; you’re being unnecessarily insistent on—“

“I literally just had to separate you from the ship,” Young said, a note of incredulity creeping into his voice. “How long?”

Defiantly, Rush said, “Sixty-seven hours.”

Young stared at him.

Rush made a face, eloquently communicating his exasperation and contempt at the idea that his answer might cause any alarm.

“So you haven’t slept since before we boarded the seed ship,” Young said levelly.

“That’s correct.”

“Do you just—“ Young leaned back, staring at the ceiling, and ran a hand through his unruly hair. He didn’t even know where to start. “Do you not understand biology? Is that, like, the one subject you failed in high school? Do you look at biology textbooks and lose the ability to read? You’re still more-or-less human. And don’t you dare—“ he said, pointing a ferocious finger at Rush as Rush opened his mouth— “don’t you dare even think about saying some stupid, shitty thing like Not for long, or— I don’t even want to know what you’d come up with.”

Rush shut his mouth, looking uncharacteristically chastened.

Thank you,” Young said. “Come on. Let’s go.” He stood.

Rush gave him a sullen look. “And where are we going?”

“You’re going to sleep. You’re sick; you need to rest. I don’t care where you do it. If you—“ Young paused, suddenly uncomfortable. “I mean, you don’t have to— obviously we can separate now, so if you don’t want to— that’s certainly—“

Rush didn’t say anything. He was staring at the table, his mouth a tense line.

The silence stretched.

“Well,” Young said into the pause, “you can think about it while you walk, I guess.”

He reached out to give Rush a hand up from his chair. Rush made it about three-quarters of the way to standing before the spins hit him. He grabbed at the table, shutting his eyes tightly as Young tried to steady him.

“God,” Young said venomously. “‘Clearly functional,’ my ass. You idiot.

“Oh, fuck off,” Rush snapped, finally losing his temper. “I’ve been staying awake so I could keep the ship from pulling on your mind while you tried to not die, and then tried to recover from not-quite-dying, all right?”

Young grimaced and looked away. “Yeah,” he said after a minute. “Sorry. The AI told me. Thanks.”

He picked up Rush’s laptop, like that was some kind of apologetic gesture.

“Don’t thank me,” Rush said shortly, picking up his crutch. He headed for the door. “You talked to the AI? What else did it tell you?”

Young followed him, thinking about how to answer. “We talked,” he said finally.

Rush glanced at him suspiciously. “That’s an insufficient fucking answer.”

“You did not just utter those words.”

Rush made a curt, dismissive gesture. “Yes, well. So consistency isn’t one of my flaws.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Young said. “You have your moments.”

They were out in the dark hallways now, not having to look at each other, and Young was hoping to bring the pitch of the conversation down. He’d been serious about Rush sleeping, and he was pretty sure that it wasn’t going to happen if they just kept on riling each other up. Rush was never going to be the one to de-escalate a conversation. So if it was de-escalation Young wanted, he was always going to be on the hook.

“Hmm.” Rush at least didn’t sound absolutely furious. As they passed by a line of emergency lighting, it pulsed brighter in response to Rush’s presence, and for a moment Young could glimpse his face: pensive and wary in the blue glow. “Are you familiar with the tale of the frog and the scorpion?”

“I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it a time or two,” Young said. “The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the river. The frog agrees, the scorpion stings him, they both drown. Right?”

Rush smiled humorlessly, staring fixedly ahead. “It’s a story much beloved by Colonel Telford.”

Young bit back a surge of distaste. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me,” he remarked.

“He always espoused the conventional reading of the story, which holds that the key mistake is the frog’s, for thinking that a scorpion could ever change its nature. I thought that the mistake was the scorpion’s, for trying to be some other kind of animal than it was. Why ask the frog for a ride in the first place? It should never have tried to get across the river. Nothing in the story leads us to believe it couldn’t have have lived perfectly well without seeing the other side.”

Young shot him a sharp look. “Not much a life,” he said. “In my opinion.”

Rush smiled humorlessly. “You’re assuming you know how to decode the parable. But I haven’t told you what we’re talking about.”

“I thought we were talking about scorpions and frogs,” Young said mildly.

“We’re talking about consistency,” Rush said.

They had come to the central part of the ship, where the hallways were better lighted. In a few turns, they’d be at Young’s quarters. Or at Rush’s, in a few different turns. Rush paused, leaning against a bulkhead with his arms crossed. He didn’t say anything. He looked… very tired.

“You’re not the scorpion in that story,” Young said quietly. “You know that, right?”

Rush’s eyes flickered to him. “What makes you think anyone suggested I was?”

Young gave him an eloquent look. “And anyway,” he said, “maybe even scorpions deserve the chance to—“

“To what?” Rush said coolly. “To sacrifice more frogs?”

“To see what life is like on the other side of the river. Maybe that’s what would have finally changed the scorpion’s tune. If he’d held out a little longer, who knows what might’ve happened?”

Rush raked a fretful hand through his hair and didn’t answer.

Young studied him for a moment and then looked carefully away. “Well,” he said with deliberate casualness. “I’m heading to bed, I guess. You coming?”

He turned away and started walking in the direction of his quarters. He heard Rush hesitate, then follow him a beat behind.

They walked like that without speaking till they reached the next intersection. Then Young said, with that same careful, casual, everyday air, “So did you figure out if the Nakai were able to make any modifications to the ship’s systems?”

Rush said acerbically, “Don’t you think I’d have told you by now if that were the case?”

“Earlier I had to watch a three-minute kino clip of you refusing to even tell me if you’d sent a report.”

Rush grimaced. “Please don’t force me to relive that experience.”

“What I’m saying is, I’m well aware that you just sidestepped my question.”

“Hmm.” Rush seemed amused. “You are getting better at this.”

“‘Yes, Colonel Young,’” Young said, “‘the Nakai were able to make the following modifications.’ ‘No, Colonel Young, the straightforward answer is…’” He left an encouraging pause.

“The latter,” Rush said. “They did attempt to embed an executable program in the mainframe that would have allowed them to remotely deactivate Destiny’s shields. However, attempt is the key term. They aren’t as computationally sophisticated as one might expect, but that may be a function of their limited experience with Ancient systems.”

“From the projection thing we found on the obelisk planet, it seems like they’ve been pursuing Destiny for a long time.”

“True,” Rush said. His thoughts had increased in volume. They’d been barely perceptible before, but a storm was building now on the horizon of his weather, something unfocused, out-of-kilter, and turbulent. “My impression of them is that they are persistent and long-lived, but not very adaptable. There’s not much common ground between our species. To them, we’re just these bizarre, ephemeral, delicate little creatures, easily manipulated and unworthy of that which we—“

With the taste of water, the quick onrush of panic, and the familiar sense of icy suffocation that came from drowning in an observation tank, Young felt Rush’s flashback coming before Rush himself did.

He is in the water and he does not like the water and he cannot get out of the water oh god oh god and he is breathing in like he breathed in when David— and he is breathing in choking lungs spasming like he did when— and he must get out he CANNOT GET OUT this is the ultimate animal revenge think yourself out of this one Nick can’t you oh you’re not so clever as all that but he MUST he MUST MUST MUST push his fists against the glass over and over and is it glass even will it breaks everything breaks even—

—the door opens and he is
pulled into a disgusting faux-Rustic American cabin with
a deer’s head mounted over the fire for God’s sake and
the door slams closed behind them and Young says
Whew! That was one hell of a gullywasher! They normally don’t
get that bad out here and Rush has to calibrate the exact right
brand of disdain with which to say incredulously, Gullywasher?
And Young says You are not seriously giving me shit
about the way I talk.

—the glass breaks and he is
on the floor sad cold and sopping but
he has to get up he MUST get up he can’t
just lie here shivering thinking of how they left him
for dead or he will not GET UP and spit his goddamn
fate back in their teeth and—

Something is
happening here
he’s
 

Hey, Young says, snapping his fingers. Pay attention. Jesus,
you’re not hypothermic are you? Come on, I’ve got blankets
over here and like a fifth of whiskey. I’m certain that it’s inferior
whiskey. I literally could have scripted that response. God you're so
predictable. He comes back with an enormous flannel duvet
and insists on wrapping it around Rush. Then he has the
temerity to laugh and say You’re like an angry caterpillar.
I’m going back out in the rainstorm Rush says but he doesn’t.
Young pours two fingers of whiskey in a glass and hands
it to him. Let me get a fire going he says. Quickest way
to dry out things that need drying. And he knows how to
start a fire of course because he’s a caveman. But Rush
has to admit that there’s something pleasant about the
smell of the whiskey and the heat from the fire and the
rain that can’t get to him because he’s safe now safe and—

Something is
happening here
something is—
something—

They stared at each other.

“That was,” Young murmured. “That was the cabin I used to rent up in Taos. I haven’t thought about that place in ages.” He felt dazed and a little strange. He’d acted on instinct, not totally aware of what he was doing, just wanting to get Rush out. He hadn’t realized that it would be so easy to do it— that he was capable of altering Rush’s thoughts. He’d reached in and yanked— and Rush had just sort of— followed him.

“You,” Rush said uncertainly. “You were there too? What did you—“ His gaze sharpened suddenly and became something more panicked. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Young said, uncomprehending. “It just felt like a memory I shouldn’t have, or—like I was dreaming, for some reason.” He frowned and rubbed his head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to—“

“I’m not sure you did anything,” Rush said. He was still regarding Young with a worry that his mind couldn’t get under control. “Tell me about the cabin.”

“You were just there,” Young said. “It was— in the mountains. I used to head down there from Colorado Springs, meet up with some of my old buddies from Holloman. That’s right outside Alamogordo, where I used to be stationed, so Taos is about the halfway point.”

“Why did you think about it just now?”

“I don’t know; I just—“ Young found himself uncomfortable under Rush’s stare. “I don’t know why it came to mind. You were thinking about water; it was really loud; I guess I wanted to— go somewhere dry.” He didn’t want to tell Rush that he had literally dragged Rush with him. He was pretty sure that wouldn’t go over well.

Rush didn’t look reassured by what Young had said.

“Look,” Young said. “It was really nothing. We’re both tired. Sometimes our minds overlap. I think the takeaway here is that you need some sleep.”

He started walking again, and again Rush followed. But Young could feel the unhappy eddies of his thoughts, slowed by exhaustion yet churning fiercely in a response that seemed way out of proportion to what had actually occurred.

“Fire-starting is an important skill, by the way,” Young said, hoping to distract Rush by giving him the chance to disparage him and/or get defensive.

Sure enough: “I can start a fire,” Rush said defensively.

Young bit back a smile. “I see. So you just wanted an excuse to call me a caveman.”

“I don’t recall giving you permission to go poking about in my head.”

“Relax. That was alarmingly unincriminating.” Young rolled his eyes.

Rush frowned. “Alarmingly?”

“It makes me wonder if you’ve got some kind of a firewall going on up here.” He turned and tapped his index finger against Rush’s forehead.

Rush scowled, but was distracted from a no-doubt-venomous reply by the door to Young’s quarters sliding open for them.

By the time it had slid shut again behind them, the scowl had vanished. Instead, he had gone back to that slightly frightened, nervous look. He stepped closer to Young, setting his crutch against the sofa. “I need to—” he said intently. “Can I just—?”

Young didn’t know what he meant. “Sure?” he said, letting Rush’s laptop land on the sofa cushions. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, by the way.”

“No,” Rush said softly. “I know you don’t.”

He was ? at the barrier between their minds, and Young bemusedly opened up to him. Then Rush took his hands in a light cool grasp and gently entered his head, a very very cautious and over-quiet presence that seemed afraid to disturb any place where he went. It was the strangest sensation Young could possibly imagine, like being a European city with a tourist wandering through your historic parts, eyeing the art skeptically, inspecting the ancient buildings, and climbing the winding stairs up to the cathedrals’ lofts. But— in such a Rush way, with such a flood of anxiety, irritation, obscure calculations, and Ancient that Young was hit by a very complete and exact picture of what Rush would be like to travel with, accompanied by an unexpected wave of fondness.

“Why are you smiling?” Rush asked vaguely.

“It’s just a really peculiar feeling. I don’t know. Kind of… euphoric, I think?" It was the right word. He felt incredibly peaceful. 

Rush withdrew gradually from his mind, releasing his hands.

“You shouldn’t,” he said. “You shouldn’t feel euphoric.” He bit his lip, turning to lean against the sofa. He looked weary.

“… What did you just do?” Young asked.

“I’m trying to repair the damage I did. When I moved into your mind on the shuttle, I nearly destroyed your cognitive architecture. Destiny was too… much. I tried to fix it, but—“

“I feel fine,” Young interrupted. “Really. I do.” So the AI had been telling the truth, he thought. But he did feel fine; he felt… totally normal.

“It’s in the nature of psychic injury to have no insight into itself,” Rush said.

“It was the right tactical decision, anyway. You wouldn’t have been able to separate from Destiny if you hadn’t done it. We needed you. I needed you. You did the best possible thing you could. So just— stop worrying about it.”

“I’m not sure what the long-term effects will be.”

“There aren’t even any short-term effects.”

“If something should happen to me—“

“Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

Rush looked down. There was a long pause.

“You should sleep,” he said finally.

“I’m not the one who’s been up for sixty-seven hours. You want to feel guilty? Let’s put it to good use. You’re coming to bed.”

Rush made an irritated face. “You’re very fucking single-minded.”

“Yup. So you might as well give in now.”

Young didn’t expect that to be the end of it. He fully expected to have to drag Rush to bed kicking and screaming, or— well— the Rush version of that, which would probably require something more along the lines of subterfuge and some very subtle manipulation. So he was surprised to find, when he emerged from the bathroom a short time later, his face damp and his teeth brushed, that Rush was perched on the far side of the bed already. He had even shed his jacket in a concession to the idea of sleeping, though he had his laptop balanced on his knees and was tapping away at it.

Young stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers and climbed under the duvet.

“You know,” he said after a long pause, “when I said coming to bed, I wasn’t actually talking about the physical relocation.”

“Metonymy,” Rush said absently.

“What?”

“You said coming to bed, but you meant going to sleep. It’s an example of metonymy. Using one aspect of an action to stand in for the action itself.”

“Right,” Young said, rolling his eyes. “Thanks. So how about it?”

“How about what?” Rush frowned at the computer.

Rush,” Young said warningly.

“Yes, yes. When I’m finished.”

Young resisted the urge to punch his pillow. Instead, he reached over and dimmed the light. The darkness in the room was thinned by the faint glow from Rush’s laptop. For a while Young lay staring up at the ceiling, ignoring it. Eventually he turned his head to watch Rush, who was half in shadow. His glasses caught the reflection of the screen, sending ghostly lines of code scrolling across his face. There was something eerie about the image that Young didn’t like. He wanted Rush to act human; he wanted Rush to be human; he wanted Rush to just— go to sleep. Go to sleep, he willed. But if Rush caught the thought, he didn’t show it.

Finally Young said, faux-casually, “Your back is killing me, you know. You’re always hunched over that goddamn computer. Do you mind if I… ?”

“Mm,” Rush said, maybe not really listening.

Young sat up. He reached over and touched Rush’s shoulder tentatively. Rush’s eyes flicked to him, questioning, but he let himself be shifted sideways so that Young could get both hands on his back. Young dug the base of his palms into the broad tense muscles along Rush’s backbone, smoothing them out in slow sweeps and pausing to prod some of the smaller knots loose.

“Mm,” Rush said again, but different this time: vaguely contented and drowsy. His typing had paused.

Young worked his way up to the warm skin of Rush’s neck, where Rush was always trying to fight a cramp that wouldn’t release him. He found that spot and let his hand rest against it, not pressing, just letting the tender muscle warm under his touch.

“That’s,” Rush said, not very coherently.

“Hmm?” Young didn’t shift his hand. Cautiously, he projected a thread of exhaustion at Rush, an experience of weariness, a sense that it couldn’t hurt to give in and sleep. It was just a suggestion, nothing overt. It wasn’t meant to overwhelm Rush’s defenses.

Rush’s eyes drifted closed and Young could feel him make the abrupt transition to sleep. A moment later he jerked awake, startled, as his head nodded. //?//

“Easy,” Young said softly. “You fell asleep.”

“Did I?” Rush murmured, confused.

Young kept stroking his thumb against the same half-inch of Rush’s shoulder. “Mm-hm.”

He reached out one-handed and slid the computer off of Rush’s lap, setting it on the floor. Rush didn’t protest. Young exerted a very light pressure against him, drawing him down onto the bed. Rush curled almost automatically back against Young’s body, letting Young drape an arm over him. Young slid his glasses off, and reached back to lay them on the nightstand. Rush was mostly asleep again, and didn’t notice, though: “Duenos est,” he mumbled blurrily a little while later.

“Yeah,” Young whispered, closing his eyes. “Whatever you say.”


Young is hanging out at the C entrance to the Mountain, leaning back against the wall and watching the clouds drift by overhead— big white Western clouds with very flat bases, so heavy-looking that it seems like the mountaintops might puncture them. He’s just gotten back from some planet with no real weather patterns, just a weird kind of permanent chemical smog from some weapon that the Goa’uld tested ages ago. His team’d all had to wear gas masks, which was no picnic. He’s glad to be back on Earth, and he’s waiting for Sheppard, who’s never glad to be back on Earth. Sheppard was supposed to be off shift ten minutes ago. With Young’s luck, he’s on the phone with McKay, and if Young’s luck is really feeling its oats, he’ll end up hopping a plane out to Nevada because McKay, like, can’t function without Sheppard. Not that Young is jealous of McKay, because that would be— and it’s not like McKay and Sheppard are— and, anyway, Young wouldn’t be the first guy who went through a hard time at home and got a little bit weird, a little bit needy. Hell, Sheppard probably knows; he’s divorced. He and Young talked about it a while back, when Emily first kicked Young out of the house, and Sheppard said, “You feel like you’re supposed to grow into something, like your dad’s old suit, and then at some point you look down and you’re like, ‘Fuck, I’m the wrong shape.’  And you don’t know what to do about it, so you keep, like, tugging and adjusting and getting it tailored, trying to make it look like it’s going to fit, trying to hide the parts of you that’re just… not made for suit-wearing. But there comes a time when you’ve just got to say, ‘I’m not going to wear the goddamn suit.’” Young hadn’t asked what happened when you took the suit off, but maybe that was why people got needy—that was the needy, naked part.

So, anyway, he’s waiting for Sheppard, scuffing at some weedy little wildflowers with the toe of his boot, when the phone in the phone booth starts ringing, and was there always a phone booth there? Isn’t that a security risk? But Young knows that the call’s for him, so he goes ahead and takes it, picking up the receiver and saying, “Hello?”

“Can you come pick me up?” Rush says without preamble.

Young rolls his eyes. “Hello to you too.”

“Yes, yes. But can you come pick me up?”

“I thought we weren’t doing this anymore. The whole me giving you rides thing. You just up and vanished one day.”

“Did I?” Rush sounds confused.

“Didn’t you?” Young asks. Now he feels uncertain. When was the last time he talked to Rush? Why doesn’t Rush have a car? Does he even actually know Rush? He frowns, trying to clear his head.

“Could you still—“ Rush’s breath hitches in something like panic. “It would be tremendously helpful if you could—“

“All right, I’ll be there in a sec,” Young says. It doesn’t occur to him ask where Rush is; he must already know, because in a minute he’s there, and it’s a little unclear where there is, but it must be the right place, because Rush is climbing into the front seat of his car, and Rush is absolutely soaked, like head-to-toe sodden, more like he’s been swimming with his clothes on than like he got caught in some kind of freak rainstorm.

“Come on,” Young says. “Seriously? You couldn’t have warned me? I’ve have brought a towel.”

Rush looks down at the state of his clothes. He seems faintly surprised. “I’m sorry; I didn’t— I don’t know what—“ His eyes go vague and his mouth tenses, and something—

happens like black oil is bubbling up through the asphalt and the ground is shaking and the radio is giving out static blasts and snow is falling and the windows are breaking in rows of houses as the car passes them—

Young says, “I think maybe you better not think about it.”

Rush says unsteadily, “Yes.”

The world quietens. They keep driving. West, towards the mountains. This is Young’s favorite time of day, right before sunset, when everything has a crisp dark sharp outline. That doesn’t always happen at other times of day. Maybe that’s why he feels so confused so much of the time, why he messes up so much. The world would be easier if everything always had an outline like that.

“Anyway,” he says to Rush after a while. “It’s no big deal, really. You just owe me some beer and a ribeye.”

Rush wrinkles his nose. “You’re charging me for the ride?”

“Why else would I keep picking your sorry ass up?” Young deadpans.

Rush looks out the window, his mouth a tense line. “I’m sure I don’t know.”

“Rush. I was joking. That was a joke. I’m always going to come pick you up. All you have to do is call. You know that, right?”

The radio abruptly switches to scan, refusing to settle on a station. Young frowns at the stereo and smacks it. But it makes a buzzing, uneasy sound.

Rush stares at it. “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here,” he whispers.

“What are you talking about? I just told you. You’re always welcome.”

“Yes, but— I was trying not to— and something happened.” Rush sounds panicked. In fact, he sounds like he’s having a panic attack, which is weird, because they’re sitting on the front porch of that cabin Young used to rent in Taos, and it’s pretty much the most relaxing place Young can imagine in the whole world. The whole universe, even. It’s dusk, and the air is sharp with the smell of piñon, and there’s snow on the mountains.

Young puts his hand on Rush’s back. “Come on,” he says in a low, soothing voice. “Just breathe. Just keep breathing.”

Rush clenches his hands into fists. “I can’t,” he says.


When Young woke, he was alone, which just figured. A brief search for Rush revealed that he was in Brody’s workshop, viciously critiquing Brody’s latest attempt at making paper and deriving a lot of satisfaction from the act.

There was a scrap of paper on the nightstand, ripped from one of those little notebooks. Scrawled across it was: Nice trick. Too bad it will only work once. N.R.

Young grinned.

At breakfast, he was cornered by Wray, who immediately put paid to his good mood.

“Colonel,” she said. “I just gave my weekly report to the IOA. They were hoping to send Colonel Carter and Dr. McKay through today to do an assessment on the feasibility of dialing Destiny from the alpha site.”

Young frowned. “Today?”

//Did you get that?// he sent to Rush, interrupting him in the midst of lecturing Brody on the resources required for medium- to large-scale paper manufacturing.

“I think it would be best not to put them off,” Wray said.

//I need at least seventy-two hours of warning if I’m going to have to talk to McKay,// Rush said, irritated at having his lengthy and carefully-constructed diatribe derailed.

//Come on.//

//Fine. Let’s get this over with.//

“Today works,” Young said to Wray. “Let’s say fourteen hundred hours?”

She nodded. “I assume Dr. Rush is aware of this as well?”

“He’s not happy about it,” Young said wryly, “but he’ll be there.”

Wray gave him an arch look. “Maybe there are some benefits to this arrangement after all.”


Young met up with Rush outside the communications room. Rush was looking spectacularly irritated, which didn’t particularly surprise Young.

//Remind me,// Rush said. //What do they know? I haven’t been paying attention.//

Young sighed. //They know that you sat in the chair. I told them that you and the AI were close, but I think they may suspect that there’s more going on. Last time I talked to Telford, he seemed close to figuring it out. Only McKay knows that the chair messed with your genome, and no one on Earth knows that you and I are linked.//

//And we’re keeping it that way?//

//Preferably. So if you could—// Young hesitated, searching for a diplomatic way to say it. //Maybe try to act—//

//What?// Rush snapped.

//Like you’re not certifiably insane?//

//Fuck off.//

//Rush. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t respond out loud to stuff I project at you. Don’t talk to the ship. Don’t look at the AI if it’s hanging around.//

Rush shot him a look that managed to combine incredulity and wounded pride. //I don’t do any of those things.//

//You do all of those things. Especially when you’re upset or distracted.//

//Name one time.//

//You talked to the AI in front of Eli and Chloe when we got back to Destiny from the seed ship. You answer me out loud at least once a day. At least.//

Rush turned away, opting to ignore him instead of responding. //Let’s not waste any more time.//

The doors slid open without anyone hitting the controls, which was a great omen in terms of Rush playing it cool. Young rolled his eyes and followed Rush inside, where two people were waiting who were presumably not actually Scott and James. Something in Scott’s posture, though, suggested that they also weren’t actually Carter and McKay.

“Can we get an ID, please?” Young asked.

“Samantha Carter,” James said.

“Jack O’Neill,” Scott said, tipping his chair back slightly. “Hey, Everett. Long time no see.”

Young saluted, which Rush absolutely loved.

//I’m in the military,// Young pointed out. //It’s what we do.//

//He has no practical authority here.//

//We are not having this conversation.//

“At ease,” O’Neill said. He looked very much at ease himself, for a man who’d decided to do an impromptu drop-in on a remote Ancient ship.

“I was under the impression,” Rush said, his voice taking on the smooth, polished note that Young had come to recognize as his most dangerous tone, “that this meeting concerned an attempt to dial Destiny, and that therefore Dr. McKay would be present.”

//Settle down,// Young shot at him.

//I haven’t done anything. Yet.//

“Dr. Rush,” O’Neill said pleasantly. “Great to see you up and around. McKay couldn’t make it, but Carter can handle all the dialing stuff. Why don’t you two have a seat.”

Young tried not to look at Rush as they sat down on the opposite side of the table. He’d always felt like O’Neill could see through every move he made, which was maybe a pretty typical worry about one’s senior officer, but a more legitimate worry with O’Neill than with most senior officers Young could name.

“I have the feeling,” O’Neill said, “that I’m not quite up to speed on what’s been happening around here. Especially since you last reported back after the SGC’s attempt to switch Colonel Telford and Dr. Rush.”

“Thanks for that, by the way,” Rush snapped. “Remarkably well-conceived and executed. I enjoy being the victim of dubious ethical decisions; I really do.”

O’Neill’s eyes flicked to him and something in his face hardened. “Well, you’ve certainly begun to make a habit of it,” he said blandly.

Rush narrowed his eyes. Something in his affect tensed, like a cornered animal flattening its ears and getting ready to pounce. Young could sense from the tone of his weather that he was about to let loose with a storm.

He’d started to push himself to his feet when Young laid a hand on his arm.

//Rush,// Young said, somewhere between request and remonstrance.

Rush froze, his eyes sliding over to Young. After a moment, he sank back into his chair. His thoughts were sullen, but he was making a concerted effort to calm down, and really, that was all that Young could ask.

O’Neill was watching them carefully. Young hastily tried to distract him by giving him an account of the ambush at the seed ship and the ensuing battle with the Nakai. He was afraid it wasn’t really working as well as he’d hoped for, and O’Neill’s subsequent change of topic made him sure.

“So,” O’Neill said, leaning back and stretching his legs out. “We’ve had some pretty interesting ideas floated about what’s going on with your ship. Any updates on that front, Everett?”

Young hesitated. “I’m not sure what you’re referring to specifically, sir.”

O’Neill fixed him with a look of mild astonishment. “Last I heard, your theory was that the communications stones pulled you out because the AI was such good buddies with Rush. But Colonel Telford seems to have a different theory. He thinks that when Rush sat in the interface chair, it may have have put him in mental contact with the ship somehow.”

“Ah,” Young said with difficulty. “Yes. We, uh. We have recently discovered that.”

“Have you,” O’Neill said. “I thought you must have. So how does that work, then?” He was looking at Rush.

Rush said smoothly, “It takes the form of an instantaneous and ongoing transfer of information from a fundamentally mechanical system to a biological one, which requires some element of as-yet-poorly-understood conversion, and which requires computational inputs to be cognitively processed into sensory ones.”

“I have no idea what you just said,” O’Neill said, which was probably untrue.

“Into sensory inputs?” Carter said with interest, leaning forward. “Can you give us an example?”

“I can hear the shield harmonics.”

“Neat,” Carter said, flashing a smile, transparently playing mediator. “And can information be transferred the other way?”

Rush nodded shortly.

“So you can effect systems changes just by thinking about them?”

“Yes.”

O’Neill raised his eyebrows.

Carter said, “Can you give us an example?”

Rush briefly toed at the very shallowest edges of the ship to dim the lights in the room for a few seconds.

That’s your example?” Carter asked.

“Well, I’m hardly going to drop the ship out of FTL for you.”

“You misunderstand me,” she said. “Dimming the lights in one room on a ship this size— it indicates a very fine level of control, and implies a high degree of integration between you and the ship.”

Rush eyed her suspiciously. “That’s correct,” he said after a pause.

“So that leaves me wondering… can the ship affect you?

“It hasn’t made a habit of doing so,” Rush said airily, tossing his hair back.

Young barely managed to avoid a wince at the blatantness of the lie. As if the ship wasn’t constantly affecting Rush, sometimes making him impossible for him to function. As if it hadn’t fucking biochemically forced him to sit in the goddamn chair.

//Stop that,// Rush said, irritated. //They’re going to ask you the same question, and you’d better be prepared to answer.//

“But would you be aware if it were doing so?” Carter asked, as though she were just musing to herself.

“From my perspective,” Rush said, “your concern is unverifiable. Therefore I can’t address it.”

“But Colonel Young presumably can,” Carter said, looking at Young.

“There’s been only one incident,” Young said.

//What are you doing? You’re supposed to say no,// Rush seethed.

//They’re going to hear about some of this eventually. We might as well try to control the story.//

//Easy for you to say. You’re not the one who’s going to look fucking insane.//

//Everybody already knows you’re insane.//

“Following Colonel Telford’s attempt to switch with Dr. Rush,” Young continued, “the ship shut down, and Rush became unresponsive. When power was restored to the ship, he regained consciousness. However, Destiny’s AI remained locked in the central interface of the ship, and the ship was able to force Rush to sit in the interface chair and recover it.”

“It was more like strong persuasion, really,” Rush said stiffly, staring at the table.

“It didn’t happen right away,” Young said. “It seemed to be triggered by proximity to the interface. When he came near it, he made an attempt to engage with it. When I restrained him, he became incoherent.”

//Could you fucking tone it down a little?//

//I am toning it down. You don’t remember this part, do you?//

//Not really.//

//Well, it was awful.//

Young said, “We attempted to sedate him, but ultimately we had to choose between letting him sit in the interface chair or forcibly restraining him.”

“Sounds inconvenient,” O’Neill observed.

“But it’s only happened the once. In response to a plan by Homeworld Command that completely disabled the ship.”

“I take your point.” O’Neill was looking at Young consideringly. “I think you and I should keep talking. Carter, you want to take Rush and go talk about these dialing plans?”

//?// Rush sent to Young.

//Maybe just check in with me if it seems like she’s getting pry-y. Although God knows you have a special gift for not giving information out.//

//Flattery will get you everywhere.//

A faint aura of smugness followed Rush as he escorted Carter out the door.

Young and O’Neill sized each other up in the moment that followed. The room should have seemed larger, but it seemed smaller instead.

“So,” O’Neill said at last. “It seems like you and Rush are getting along pretty well.”

Young shrugged. “It’s a work in progress.”

“I’d say it’s a little more than that,” O’Neill said. His tone was deceptively mild. “I had to sit through weekly briefings with the man for six months before he transferred to Icarus, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him put a lid on it like he did back there. And you didn’t even say anything to him.”

Young tried to keep his face expressionless. “There aren’t a lot of people on the ship. We all know each other pretty well.”

“Right,” O’Neill said.

When Young didn’t respond to that, O’Neill sighed and sat forward, resting his hands on the table. “Look, Everett, we’ve got to talk. About Rush. About Telford. We can have this talk on the record or off it. I prefer the latter, since most of what concerns Rush is already off the record.  And maybe then you’ll stop dancing around whatever it is you’re trying not to tell me. How’s that sound?”

“…Off the record it is, then,” Young said, his stomach dropping.

“Great. So it may interest you to know that Colonel Telford is currently engaging in a PR campaign against you. He’s met privately with several of the more prominent IOA members, arguing for your replacement.”

“Not to be blunt,” Young said levelly, “but why should I care?”

“You should care because if we successfully dial the Destiny, it’s very likely that we’ll be sending personnel. You can guess who’s going to be first on the list.”

“There’s no grounds for him to replace me,” Young said, a hint of scorn creeping into his tone despite his best efforts. “Last time I checked, I still outranked him.”

“Right,” O’Neill said. “But that’s not the case he’s making.

“What case is he making?”

“He’s arguing that you’ve failed to take full advantage of the Destiny’s potential. That you lack the experience and vision necessary to explore the ship’s capabilities, and that you’re the reason what we’ve gotten out of the mission has been pretty limited in scope.”

“So send some scientists,” Young retorted. “Experience? Vision? What’s Telford going to do, give some inspirational speeches?”

“Telford’s track record on scientific missions is more extensive than his official resume might indicate. He had another project before he was offered the command you turned down. It was focused on investigating the mechanics of ascension, and it was closely tied to the Icarus project.”

They regarded each other in silence for a moment.

“Off the record,” Young said quietly, “I’ve recently become aware of that.”

“Rush told you?” O’Neill asked, startled.

“Yes.”

“So you understand why Telford has an actionable case for reboarding the Destiny.”

“What I don’t understand,” Young said tightly, “is how he hasn’t been labeled a security risk and shipped off to McMurdo. At the least. At the least.

O’Neill spread his hands. “Give me some evidence of wrongdoing under his own power. I have no great love for the man. Daniel despises him, which is pretty damning in my book.”

Young hesitated for a moment, looking away as he very lightly checking in on Rush. But Rush was absorbed in explaining the gate’s power distribution system, and wasn’t paying even the slightest attention to Young. So: “Rush has something on him,” Young said.

“Why does that not surprise me. What kind of something are we talking about?”

“Attempted murder.”

O’Neill stared at him. “What? I was thinking along the lines of tax evasion, or—“ He broke off abruptly.

Young watched the pieces come together in his mind.

“When did this happen?” O’Neill asked. Young could tell that he already knew the answer.

“On an offworld base belonging to Anubis,” Young said. “While using a piece of equipment meant to change the electrophysiology of his brain.”

“God damn it,” O’Neill said quietly, pushing himself out of his chair and pacing over to the far wall. “Daniel always suspected that something truly fucked-up had happened on that planet. How the hell did you get him to tell you?”

“Does it matter?” Young asked.

O’Neill shook his head, maybe less in response to the question than to the entire situation. “There’s nothing I can do about it. Officially, Telford was brainwashed. If Rush had just told us, we might have at least detected the brainwashing before the Icarus project was hopelessly compromised. It’s not like he had no evidence; we’ve got a Tok’ra device that allows cognitive testimony. What the hell is wrong with him, anyway?”

“He’s— a lot of work,” Young said.

“That’s one way of putting it.” O’Neill sighed, gripping the back of his chair. “I’m going to lay it out for you. If Homeworld Command successfully dials in to Destiny, I don’t think I can stop Telford for being part of the team that’s sent.”

Young rubbed his temple. “I need to think about this.”

“There’s nothing to think about. You’re stuck with Telford.”

“—Pending the results of this feasibility assessment,” Young said slowly, getting to his feet.

Their eyes met.

“Correct,” O’Neill said.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Young said, “I have something to attend to.”

“You’re walking a pretty fine line,” O’Neill said. “Off the record. But I find those are the only kinds of lines that lead anywhere interesting.”

Young said, “Permission to—“

O’Neill waved his hand. “Yeah, yeah. Get out of here.”

//Rush,// Young said, as soon as he was out of the room.

//Try conversing with yourself for a change. I’m occupied.//

Rush and Carter were in the gate room, staring up into an open access panel as Eli looked on in the background.

“—I understand what you mean,” Carter was saying. “That’s phenomenal. You can clearly see the evolution towards zero point module technology at play— it’s not all the way there, but they mostly had it.”

//Rush. Seriously. We have to talk.// Young was heading for the gate room.

//Fine.//

“I agree,” Rush said. “As you can see, the platform isn’t entirely crystal-based— it’s more of a hybrid, bridging the older system, based on a naquadah alloy, with the more sophisticated crystal-based control interfaces of later Ancient technology.”

“Aren’t we feeling talkative today,” Eli said under his breath.

Rush glared at him. “You’re lucky you aren’t cleaning the sediment out of the CO2 scrubbers.”

“The entire architecture of the dialing hardware is different as well, isn’t it?” Carter asked. “It doesn’t look familiar to me.”

“That’s correct,” Rush said. “You spotted that remarkably quickly.” There was a surprising current of warmth in his thoughts, a genuine appreciation that Young had rarely sensed before. For some reason it provoked a surge of irritation in Young.

//Rush. Stop science-flirting with Carter and get out here.//

//In a moment,// Rush said, with an inexplicable hint of satisfaction.

“Well, I’ve looked at more DHDs in my day than you could shake a stick at,” Carter said amiably. “And call me Sam.”

“Nick,” Rush said, not looking at her.

//Nick?// Young said. //You just met her, and she gets to call you Nick?//

//Are you jealous?// Now Rush’s thoughts just felt smug.

//No,// Young said defensively, stopping outside the gate room doors. //Just get out here, all right?//

“I’ll be back shortly,” Rush said, stepping backward. “I’m sure Eli can answer any questions you might have, if you can stand a three-to-one ratio of meaningless pop culture references to actual scientific content.”

“Meaningless?” Eli called after him. “You should see some of the kino footage I didn’t show, you ungrateful—“

The door shut behind Rush, cutting the rest of his sentence off.

//What?// Rush snapped. //I thought we were trying to appear as the paragons of sanity we are./

“You need to find a reason to stall their attempt to dial in.”

Rush stared at him, picking up on the seriousness of his thoughts. “Why?”

“When they dial in, Telford is coming on board.”

Rush’s thoughts abruptly dropped into Ancient. He was shoving all of his emotions as far down as possible, compressing them under something that felt like lead, so that Young couldn’t get the slightest hint of them. “He’s replacing you?”

“No. He’d be continuing the project he had before Icarus. The one without a name.”

Rush eyes flicked away. “That project has, essentially, been completed.” He seemed to find this amusing for some reason. His mouth curved in a secretive half-smile. “He’s not going to have anything to do.”

“Would you take this seriously, please?”

“I am taking it seriously,” Rush said. “You want a technical problem with their feasibility assessment? How about no one gates onto Destiny without the express permission of Dr. Nicholas fucking Rush. Will that work?”

Young resisted the urge to tear at his hair. “How am I supposed to explain that? We’re not exactly in a position to be making enemies of Homeworld Command!”

“You need to settle down,” Rush said.

Young stared at him.

“Oh, what?” Rush said dismissively. “I’m capable of being reasonable. What’s your main objection to Telford coming on board?”

“The man tried to murder you!”

“It’s not as if he didn’t have a reason,” Rush said, pathologically calm. “He probably won’t do it again.”

Probably? I don’t want him anywhere near you!”

Rush looked at him inscrutably. “Interesting. That’s your main objection? I would have gone for his dubious loyalties to Stargate Command, and his long history with the Lucian Alliance, but—“

“Stop pretending it doesn’t matter to you,” Young said heavily.

Rush looked away. “We need a supply line.”

“We can get by without it.”

“Not for long. It’s getting progressively more difficult to drop out of FTL without running into someone who wants to destroy or board us. Plus, we’re running out of ammunition.”

“Okay, but let’s at least try to manage on our own before Telford comes on board and starts watching you like a goddamn vulture. Find a reason to delay their dial-in attempt. For now.”

Rush looked at him evenly. “Is that an order, colonel?”

Young sighed. “No. It’s a suggestion.”

There was a pause.

Rush said, “Consider it done.”

He turned, trailing strange ghosts of half-strangled emotions that Young couldn’t see well enough to follow to their source. The doors to the gate room opened for him, as all the doors on the ship now opened for him, and he walked through, leaving Young alone on the other side.

Chapter Text

Chloe is cold.

She gets cold easily now. She doesn’t know if it’s because of the— transformation. The Transformation. She doesn’t know how to think of it, still. She feels like it should have a title. But there isn’t a title for it. What They Did To Me. She doesn’t want to be a me who’s been done to. She doesn’t want to be in the accusative or dative case. If she transformed, then at least her body was— doing. Acting. Flowering: a strange flower, and poisonous, for the most part, but with roots she could repurpose when the rest of it had been ripped away.

She doesn’t know how deep those roots go, or where they’ve spread to. Her brain works differently now. It’s not just that she knows things, like a dozen textbooks were uploaded into her body. Probably Matt imagines it like that, and she doesn’t tell him any different. But she wouldn’t be any good at math if it had been that kind of change. Math isn’t just having the right tools to solve problems. It’s a question of angles. It’s knowing how to look at the problem, and being able to sort of rotate it at the right speed.

So she looks at things from different angles now. And much faster than she used to.

But if her brain is that different, then why not other things? Why not temperature? Or temperament, for that matter? Why  Why not who she loves, what she laughs at, the colors she likes? What if everything has changed, but too slowly for her notice? Her mother, she knows, would nod if she said that and sink into an armchair and cry very pointedly and dab a Kleenex at her eyes and say, Chloe, you’ve changed! And Chloe would have to leave the room because she’d feel the panic-monster descending, the black thing that sometimes sits half-on/half-inside her chest, and it wouldn’t be fair to put Xanax in someone else’s body, even though she still keeps a bottle upstairs in her old room.

She’s changed. Has she changed? If she’s changed, who changed her? Has she changed too much? More than she was supposed to change? Is there a Chloe out there she was supposed to look like? It would be nice to have something to measure herself against. It would help when she wakes up in the very very dark parts of the mornings (though that’s silly, actually, because all times of day are the same darkness on the ship) terrified that she’s not herself any longer.

That’s why Matt’s really good. Because he wakes up when she wakes up and he says Shh, it’s okay, you’re okay, it’s fine, you’re Chloe, and he doesn’t think so hard about what it means to be Chloe. She’s Chloe. And that’s enough for him.

Matt is also good because he’s very warm to wake up next to. And she’s especially cold lately, because it’s been a long time since they’ve flown through a star. And when they haven’t flown through a star in a while, Destiny tends to make life difficult by rationing power. So everything gets cold. And it seems colder on nights like tonight, when she can’t sleep and she can’t stay in her restless quarters, so she tiptoes down to the Math Room to work for a while.

She calls it the Math Room even though this makes Dr. Rush huff, but it’s actually just a conference room that they moved into when she told him he couldn’t keep writing all over corridors because it gave people the wrong impression of him. I’m fairly certain it gives them an accurate impression of me, he’d countered. Namely, that I’m the type of person who writes all over corridors. But Chloe had rolled her eyes and said, Well, I’d like to be able to sit down, as in not on the floor. Sorry if I, like, missed the memo where it said mathematicians have to abjure all the comforts of the material world. He’d given her a crooked half-smile and said, You’re a peculiar person, Miss Armstrong. So they had moved into the conference room, and written all over its walls instead.

And no one else comes in here. Just them. Not Eli. Not that she doesn’t like Eli; she does, but sometimes she feels like when he’s around he gets all of Dr. Rush’s attention, just because he’s very… exclamatory. Everyone’s always talking about how he’s the smartest person they know, but secretly Chloe wonders if he’s just very very good at being a smart person. It’s easy to understand what he’s talking about. He’s really fun to know. No one is ever going to say those things about Dr. Rush. Or, probably, about her.

So, anyway, she feels safe in the Math Room, because no one else is going to show up there. That’s why she goes there when she can’t sleep. Tonight she’s working on the Banach-Tarski paradox, which doesn’t really interest Dr. Rush that much, even though it has to do with two things that he likes, infinite sets and fundamental contradictions. He doesn’t like the Banach-Tarski paradox because it’s on the geometry side of set theory, and he struggles with thinking spatially about problems, which seems like a strange weak spot for a mathematician to have. Mostly instead of the paradox itself, Chloe’s gotten distracted by the axiom of choice (which does interest Dr. Rush) and thinking about negations of the axiom of choice, and different models of ZFC, and so on, down the rabbithole. So when Dr. Rush shows up, she smiles at him, assuming that they’ll end up talking about her work.

But instead he sits on the edge of the table, looking hesitant. “I wasn’t certain you’d be down here,” he says.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Chloe says.

“Mm. I’m familiar with the problem.”

“Matt had a night shift, and—“ She shrugs, looking down. “It’s harder sometimes, without him. Math helps.”

“Yes,” Dr. Rush says. “It does, doesn’t it. Odd, how that is.” He pushes his hair behind his ears, staring into space. “Chloe,” he says at last. “I have a question for you.”

“All right?” she says, when he doesn’t immediately continue.

“Really I want to ask for your help. You mustn’t think of this as something you can’t say no to. In fact, possibly you should say no to it. I don’t wish to require you to keep any secrets, particularly if you feel that doing so might complicate your relationship with Lieutenant Scott. But at the same time, you’re quite—“ He pauses. Finally, he says, “You understand that a person might wish to keep secrets for reasons that have nothing to do with those that might be attributed to them.

Chloe looks at him for a long time. “You want me to not tell Colonel Young something,” she translates. “But not because you have an ulterior motive.”

He smiles faintly. “I always have an ulterior motive,” he murmurs. “You should know that by now.”

“Then— because you think that he wouldn’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

“Correct,” he whispers.

He seems sad.

I think you should tell him, Chloe wants to say. If it makes you sad not to. But at the same time she knows what it’s like to know that someone won’t understand. Even if you wish they would. Even if you wish sometimes that you could change them so that they’d be someone who could understand. Because you wish that, but at the same time you don’t really wish that, because then they might not be the person you wish would understand anymore. Because then they might be someone different. Because then they might be— transformed.

“Sometimes,” she says, not really answering his not-quite-request, “I feel like it’s gotten harder for me to know the right thing to do. Like when I have to make a decision. Everything used to be simpler. And I wonder if that makes me bad. If it makes me a bad person.”

“Chloe,” Dr. Rush says, distressed. “No.”

“Because it feels like I’m— corrupted somehow.”

She sees him flinch.

“But I don’t think I am?” She can’t help making it into a question. “I think it’s just hard. It’s really hard. And it seems like it gets harder the more dimensions you see things in. Metaphorical dimensions, not—“

“No,” he says. “I know.” He takes his glasses off and rubs a hand across his face. “I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” he says, sounding incredibly tired. “That it’s hard, and— that someone might be a bad person. For whatever value of bad you consider—“ he makes an and-so-on gesture.

“But you’re not,” Chloe says. Now she’s distressed. “I don’t think you are. If I did, I wouldn’t do— whatever it is you’re asking.”

“But you’re going to?”

She nods her head determinedly. She’s made her decision. “Yes.”

He should look happy. But he doesn’t. He looks kind of weirdly… agonized. “I should have asked Eli,” he murmurs.

It hurts. Chloe feels her mouth wobble. But she lifts her chin up defiantly and asks, “Why didn’t you?”

“I—“ Dr. Rush starts, and then breaks off. He shakes his head, and she gets the sense that he was going to say something that wasn’t true, or that wasn’t completely true, or that maybe he didn’t realize until right exactly this moment wasn’t true. “Many reasons,” he says, “not the least of which is that I suppose… I wanted to be understood.”

“I’m familiar with the problem,” Chloe says.

They look at each other.

“It is something, though, that you’ll find exciting,” Dr. Rush says with a wan smile. “It’s something that you’re perhaps uniquely equipped to appreciate.”

Chloe knows what this means. “Geometry?”

“Of a sort. You’re familiar with the material in the database regarding Destiny’s mission?”

She frowns. “You mean— all that stuff about looking for the edge of the universe? I thought that must have been some kind of colloquialism. The Ancients couldn’t have believed in a spatially finite universe. It would have messed up all sorts of calculations.”

“Yes,” Dr. Rush says, making an exasperated face. “One would think that Volker, who’s an astrophysicist, for God’s sake, would have raised a few more questions about this.”

“I’m sure he thought it was a colloquialism, too,” Chloe says loyally. The science team has to stick together.

Dr. Rush doesn’t look convinced. “I believe,” he says, drumming his fingers restlessly against the table, “that when the Ancients spoke of the universe’s edge, they weren’t referring to edges of perceptible spacetime, but rather to points at which d-branes of the multiverse collide. That is what they intended Destiny to detect.”

Chloe tilts her head. There’s a familiar sensation as something alien shivers through her. They (the Nakai, a voice whispers to her; say it) don’t have the same concepts; don’t use human geometries; and it takes a moment for her to access her own neural pathways and approximate their knowledge with human ideas about strings. There’s about a second or two of an unsettling fugue state, when she blinks, and Dr. Rush has shifted position, and the entirety of tachyon condensation is suddenly sitting inside her brain. She doesn’t like that feeling. It’s like something living inside her has briefly taken her over and then withdrawn to whatever place it normally lurks.

Dr. Rush is watching her closely. “Do they know anything?”

He calls them they too. At least when he’s talking to Chloe.

“I don’t think so,” she says. “They don’t— like the idea of manifolds. Their cosmology is underdeveloped.”

“Ah, well.”

A terrible thought strikes her, and she gulps a half-breath. “Is that— is that the real reason? Did you ask me so I’d—”

“No,” he says quickly. “No. I would have told you.”

She isn’t quite sure if she believes him or not. He isn’t straightforward. You have to know that about him if you’re going to try to be his friend. You have to accept that he’ll try to move you around, more like a chess piece than a person. He doesn’t even mean to do it sometimes. It’s just an instinct. When she catches him doing it, she feels sad.

“I promise,” he says, looking at her in a way that’s hard and soft and stern and begging. She didn’t know before she met Dr. Rush that a person could put so many things into one look.

“Pinky swear?” she asks, just to see his expression.

He wrinkles his nose. “I’d threaten to take it to Eli after all, but I suppose he’d probably be worse.”

Chloe shrugs. Then, still catching up, and not one hundred percent sure she shouldn’t be wary, she asks, “Why are we looking for collision points, anyway? What’s supposed to happen when d-branes collide?”

Dr. Rush raises his eyebrows. “I suppose we’ll find out.”

Chloe looks at him dubiously. “I can’t tell whether you really don’t know, or if you’re just being all kindergarten teacher-y.”

That startles a laugh out of him. “No one,” he says, “has ever accused me of resembling a kindergarten teacher.”

“No,” Chloe says reflectively. “Actually, now that I think about it, it’s kind of horrifying.”

Dr. Rush slides a laptop across the table to her. “I’ve prepared some material for you to familiarize yourself with,” he says. “We can talk more later.”

Chloe watches him turn to go. “I don’t understand why it’s a secret,” she says a little hesitantly. “I mean— shouldn’t the whole science team be working on this?”

Dr. Rush pauses. “Let’s keep it between the two of us for now,” he says.

“Because?”

“Yes, because.”

And there’s that chess-piece feeling.

He starts to leave, and gets as far as opening the door.

“You’re not limping,” Chloe says quietly.

He’s not. He’s not using a crutch or anything. He goes still all over, so she knows she’s said something that she wasn’t supposed to say.

“No,” he says without turning to face her.

There’s a long pause.

She doesn’t want him to leave. She has a bad feeling. She’s scared, and she doesn’t know why. This happens to her a lot. It’s parts of her brain putting together pieces at a subrational level. That’s what Dr. Rush says. There’s a kind of lag between her conscious and unconscious minds. She gets sensory input, and it takes her a little while to work through it. Sometimes she knows an answer before she knows what the question is. Like, see: he’s not shivering, and he should be shivering, because it’s cold, and he’s not even wearing a coat. That’s the question, and the answer is that she has a bad feeling about it.

“You could stay,” she blurts out. “I wouldn’t tell anybody. If you wanted to stay and work here all night. If you can’t sleep. I’m— working on the Banach-Tarski paradox, and we could talk about the axiom of choice. You could yell at me about uncountable sets.”

“As tempting an offer as that is,” Dr. Rush says. “I have— oh, places to go, consoles to talk to.”

“All right,” Chloe says miserably.

“Perhaps another time,” he whispers. He’s still not looking at her. After a moment, he vanishes around the edge of the door.

Chloe sits alone in the Math Room with the Banach-Tarski paradox. She wishes that Matt weren’t on duty. She would really like to curl up next to him. Around three AM the ship can get so unearthly. The white writing on the walls looks like a ghost put it there. Some of the writing is hers. Does that make her the ghost? She has a sudden impulse to erase it all: the five-foot-square block on zeta functions, her work on Riemannian manifolds, the Yang-Mills corner that Dr. Rush keeps telling her is technically off-limits because she hasn’t done quantum mechanics yet. Just erase it and run back home and hide under the covers till Matt finds her and she can ask him who Chloe is. Who’s Chloe, Matt? Does Chloe keep secrets? Does Chloe do the right thing? Does Chloe know what the right thing is? Can you teach her?

No. She doesn’t think there is a right thing. There’s just—

She knows what Dr. Rush would say. Trying. But the idea of it makes her so tired and so scared. Like changing. An iterated function for which you don’t know the endpoint, another iteration always required. How hard do you have to try? When are you done changing? How can you ever know from the inside? The point can’t see the graph that it’s part of.

So maybe that’s why she’s doing this. Because she thinks— she thinks that Dr. Rush is trying. And she wants to believe that it might be enough. That it might be okay to—

Move. To keep moving. Even if you’re not always sure what you’re moving towards.

She’s moving now, in a much more prosaic way. She’s packing up her stuff, putting Dr. Rush’s laptop in her shoulder bag, turning out the lights in the Math Room and heading home. When she gets there, she’ll brush her hair and braid it so it won’t get tangled. She’ll take off her shirt and put her camisole on. She’ll brush her teeth and clean off the traces of her carefully rationed makeup, and she’ll think the same rueful thought that she always thinks: if the Lucian Alliance was going to dial Destiny, couldn’t they have stopped at Sephora first? And just like always, when she thinks that thought, it’ll make her laugh. And she’ll feel like just a girl for about five minutes, because she is. She is just a girl. Then she’ll sit cross-legged on the bed and hug Matt’s pillow to her chest, because it always smells a little like him, and she’ll open the laptop and she’ll read about d-brane collisions. And eventually Matt will come back. And he’ll take off his uniform and lie down and tug her against him, and she’ll say, Mmm, you’re so warm, and he’ll say, No, you’re so cold, and she’ll shiver and she’ll stare out at the darkness, and she’ll press her face into his shoulder and say, I know.

Chapter Text

Technically speaking, one day on a spaceship was pretty much as cold and dark as another. After all, you were in space. Once in a while Destiny flew through a star, and that broke up the monotony of no weather; the crew had taken to gathering on the observation deck on those occasions when they could, soaking up the light in what felt like an impromptu solstice celebration, a seasonal shift in their strange, irregular year. But mostly there was just the faint blur of FTL starlight, and an awareness of the big, cold, dark void around them.

This had been a cold, dark couple of days on Destiny even by those standards. After almost a month, the power sources that Rush had activated when he first connected with the ship had just about run down. Lesser-used compartments were sealing themselves off. The ambient temperature on the ship had dropped by almost seven degrees. At night it got colder. The lights had dimmed. It was like they were living in a constant oh three hundred hours.

They needed to find a star.

That, of course, was a problem. The Nakai were still tracking them, and for a refueling attempt to have even a chance of success, they were going to have to deviate from their current course, find a star without any orbiting planets that might contain obelisks or gates, and drop out of FTL long enough to pass through it.

Young was pacing the halls, trying to think through the problem. He looked up as the lights dimmed by another percent, and resisted the urge to feel personally defeated.

Maybe he was just out of practice at real defeat. They’d had a week and a half of downtime, which was almost unheard-of. No attacks, no disasters, no alien life-forms, no mutinies… even Rush had been suspiciously well-behaved. Well— well-behaved for Rush. He’d tried to force Eli to pull a forty-eight hour shift at one point, had sabotaged his own radio to avoid answering it, and might or might not have made Volker cry. (Park, who’d spilled the beans to Young, said that Volker had claimed it was a cold, but that he’d definitely at the very least been sniffling.) Young was also pretty sure Rush hadn’t been sleeping quite as much as he wanted Young to think he’d been.

Whatever sleeping was happening was still happening in Young’s quarters, and they hadn’t really talked about it. Rush just showed up every night at about the same time, or else they ended up wandering back there together, and Young stripped off his uniform and got into bed while Rush curled on the other side, working on his laptop. Young tried to stay awake as long as he could, but it wasn’t always a winning battle. He was worn out, and anyway, Rush tended to glance at him, an amused tilt to his mouth, and say, “So suspicious,” picking up on the cast of his thoughts. There’d been one night when Rush had reached out, seemingly unaware that he was doing it, and rested his hand in the curls of Young’s hair, smoothing them absently, and Young had let his eyes drift closed, and then the awful thought had occurred to him that this was very like what he’d done to Rush, trying to make him sleep— and he’d shot awake, but Rush had been absorbed in his computer. So suspicious, Young had told himself.

He always woke alone, so he figured Rush was getting up at about five in the morning and sneaking off to do whatever it was he did. That wasn’t a lot of sleep, but Young would take what he could get. It felt like—

Well, if not winning, then at least like compromise. By comparison, the loss of power was definitely defeat.

He was still dwelling on the slow dimming of the lights when he got close to the control interface room, where his thoughts were interrupted by the sudden appearance of Eli, who was looking uncharacteristically stormy. He was hugging his laptop to his chest.

“Look,” he said, not even bothering with a preamble. “We’ve got to talk, yet again, about your better half in there.”

Young sighed. “Eli—“

“Wait. What am I even saying? Clearly you’re the better half.”

“I take it the search for a candidate star isn’t going well?”

“No, it’s going fine. It’s going awesome. We’ve got a really good prospect, actually, and things are getting fancy in terms of options for avoiding enemy ships. I think we’ll be ready for a tactical briefing in a couple of hours? I don’t know; check with Captain Insanity in there.”

“Eli,” Young said reproachfully. “He’s no captain.”

That startled a laugh out of Eli. “Okay, fair point. Look, he thinks I’m doing astrometric calculations right now, so let’s get out of the hallway. I’ve got to run something by you.”

//I knew he was going to go straight to you,// Rush commented.

//Why’d you let him leave, then?//

“Oh, crap,” Eli said resignedly. “You’ve got that look on your face.”

“What look?”

“That look like you’re talking to him. Did you just rat me out?

The door to the CI room hissed open. Park, Volker, and Brody filed out, looked various degrees of disconsolate.

“He says you might as well come back in,” Volker said. “He also said you’re taking my night shift.

“Oh, for the love of—“ Eli turned, clenching his fists.

He and Young headed into the room. Rush was there in his usual pose of casual grandeur, managing to look like some kind of science emperor sprawled in his throne in spite of the fact that he was dressed in his oversized jacket and his hair was disheveled. He had his feet propped up on a console, and was working on his laptop. He didn’t look remotely affected by the dark or the cold.

“I am not taking another night shift,” Eli declared. “Do you know how many I’ve pulled in the last week?”

“Spare me,” Rush said without looking up. “You get more sleep than the average graduate student.”

“Yeah, which is a lifestyle I purposefully chose to avoid!”

//Is there a reason you’re working him up like this?// Young asked wearily.

//I get tired of people talking about me.//

//That’s all we do, you know. As soon as you’re not around, non-stop, 24/7…//

Rush shot Young a poisonous look.

Young massaged his temples with one hand. “Eli,” he said, trying to keep his voice even, “do you want to tell me what’s on your mind?”

Yes,” Eli said. He glared at Rush. “So seeing how the ship drops down to like fifty freaking degrees at night—“

“Centigrade,” Rush snapped. “Can we please standardize to the metric system? Volker gets confused enough without adding more than one set of units into the mix.”

“Okay, first of all, Volker is not that bad.” Eli said. “Also— we all know exactly what you’re doing. So just cut it out already, okay?”

“Fine,” Rush said tightly. “By all means. Continue to astonish us.”

“Thanks for your unnecessary permission. I will.” Eli crossed his arms. “So the ship gets down to like fifty degrees Fahrenheit at night, and I’m always in here at night, since someone keeps assigning me night shifts, and Rush is always hanging out here at like two in the morning—“

Rush stared fixedly at his computer, not meeting Young’s accusatory stare.

“—And then I started to notice that he never seems to get cold. I mean—“ Eli gestured. “Look at the guy. He weighs like ninety pounds. He should be freezing. He should have, like, pneumonia or something by now.”

“A scientifically unsound presumption,” Rush said, hooking one arm over his shoulder.

Young tried to control his temper. “As interested, albeit totally unsurprised—“ he threw another icy, furious look at Rush— “as I am to find out that he’s been in here at two in the morning, I don’t get what’s upsetting you.”

“What’s—“ Eli threw his hands up in frustration. “Okay, so at first I thought it might be the genetic changes. But Ancients actually preferred warmer ambient temperatures than us. Then I thought maybe the ship was just warming up his local environment, because it does that, right? Because it’s a loser who plays favorites. But that’s not it. And probably I wouldn’t even have figured it out if we’d been at our baseline power levels, because it would have been pretty much impossible to detect. But—“

Rush’s weather had gone extremely foreboding. He was staring at the far wall.

“—He’s pulling energy from the ship,” Eli said.

No one said anything.

“Um, excuse me?” Eli said, opening his hands. “He’s pulling energy from the ship? Like, to be a human, or— you know— whatever he is?"

“Not strictly true,” Rush said quietly. “As I explained.”

“Yeah, if by explained, you mean, said Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it, Eli,” he repeated, affecting a snotty impression of Rush. “Like I’m an idiot or something. Like I’d just go, Oh, sure thing, Dr. Rush, sir! and not get what this actually means.”

“Okay, settle down,” Young said, holding a hand up. He, unlike Eli, was apparently an idiot, because it wasn’t immediately apparent to him what Eli meant. But he could tell that beneath Eli’s aggravation was a real sense of unease. And Rush still wasn’t looking at him. He was thinking mostly in Ancient, a sure sign of agitation. When he felt Young brush against his thoughts, his mind went flat and blank.

“How much energy are we talking about?” Young asked finally.

Eli shrugged. “In the grand scheme of things, not a lot. As more and more systems shut down, the amount he’s pulling is becoming a larger percent of what’s available. It’s not going to affect our tactical plans or anything, but, you know, it’s noticeable.”

Young took a seat and considered Rush, who was refusing to acknowledge his presence. He was pretty sure that if Rush had been pulling energy from the ship, he would have felt it. Rush would have started going to pieces, at least a little bit; Young would have had to be untangling him constantly. But in fact Rush hadn’t had any problems since the night of the party. That alone should have raised a red flag.

“He’s not pulling it from Destiny,” he said slowly, trying to put into words something that he’d been sensing with the very outer edges of his thoughts. “The ship is giving him energy. That’s why he hasn’t been sleeping. Why he hasn’t needed to.”

Eli made an expansive who cares? gesture. “Either way, it’s equally creepy! Equally bad!”

“Why bad?” Young asked.

“Because! In order for that transfer to work,” Eli said, glaring at Rush, “you’ve got to be able to interconvert matter and energy to at least some degree.”

Rush adjusted his glasses, not looking at either of them. “That is the implication,” he said.

“So?” Eli demanded.

Rush shrugged, as though he didn’t know what Eli wanted.

“Can you do it,” Eli said ferociously.

Rush darted a glance at Young and then looked away again.

“Do what?” Young asked, frustrated.

Ascend!” Eli shouted. “Can you ascend?

There was a short silence.

“No,” Rush said finally. “Interconversion of matter and energy is necessary but not sufficient. You might conceptualize it as one step along the path, rather than the ultimate—“

“Don’t give me that crap,” Eli cut him off. His voice was strained and vicious. In one abrupt move, he stepped forward and slammed Rush’s laptop shut. “I know where this is going, and I don’t like it. I watched those stupid tapes that Homeworld Command made, okay? What the fuck are you going to do, go play happy glowy tea parties in the afterlife while the rest of us are stuck actually living our lives down here, like we’re supposed to, like humans are supposed to? Do you seriously not think that’s, like, the biggest fucking cop-out that anyone could possibly pull? But especially you. Especially you. And that’s assuming you don’t just fucking kill yourself, or end up like— that Goa’uld guy, with all the creepy fucking technology in his creepy fucking lab—“

“Eli,” Young said quietly. He glanced at Rush, but Rush hadn’t reacted.

“No,” Rush whispered. “It’s all right.”

Eli was pale-faced, still angry. “Don’t do this,” he said. “You don’t have to do this. You want me to say it? Fine: we need you here. No one likes saying that because you’re such an asshole all the time, but we need you. That’s why some of us have done a hell of a lot of things we didn’t want to. For you. To keep you here. And you owe us. You fucking owe us, all right?”

“I know,” Rush said, barely audible.

“Yeah, sure. Sure you know. Sure you do.” Eli laughed humorlessly. “You don’t care what I say. I might as well be talking to a bulkhead. You’re going to do whatever you fucking feel like. As usual.” He picked his laptop. “I’ll see you at the briefing.”

Neither Rush nor Young stopped him as he stalked out of the room.

The two of them sat in silence for a while. Rush still wasn’t meeting Young’s eyes.

“Suspicious, huh?” Young asked at last, bitterly. “I’m so fucking suspicious.”

Rush didn’t say anything.

“How long have you been doing this energy conversion thing?” Young had a sense he should keep be keeping his thoughts neutral, but he wasn’t feeling very neutral. He was thinking about the way Rush had touched his hair. That absent touch, which had seemed so out of character that Young had questioned its motive even then. He was thinking about the times when Rush had slept, when he’d fallen asleep with Young’s arm around his shoulders, and Young knew he’d been asleep, and then he’d— what? Woken himself up? Crept out from under that witless arm and gotten dressed in the darkness, while Young lay there like an idiot and slept—

“Since the Nakai attacked,” Rush said. His voice was flat.

Young nodded levelly. “And that seemed like a good idea to you?”

“Fuck off,” Rush said, suddenly vicious, squaring his shoulders. “You think that after everything that happened to you, much less me, I could make it through the attack and taking the ship and trying to protect you without some kind of fucking assistance?

“Oh, this is about protecting me? Of course it is. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I knew you wouldn’t like it,” Rush said, practically throwing the words at him.

“So you— what? Thought you’d just lie to me instead? And that would be better. Right.” Young shook his head in disbelief. “Why are you still doing it after ten days?”

“I’m not doing anything,” Rush said coldly. “As you pointed out. I’m just— not saying no.”

“No. When do you ever,” Young said.

That provoked a savage spike of emotion, something furious and wounded. “And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re going to start saying no now. Right now.”

Rush tossed his hair back. “Now isn’t a convenient time for me.”

Young eyed him incredulously. “I wasn’t making a suggestion.”

“Oh, what, you think that because on one occasion you made the permanent, unilateral decision to sink your hooks into my brain, that means you own me now? That you get to decide what I do with my body? I don’t think so. Fuck off.” Rush turned his chair away dismissively.

Young grabbed the chair and turned it back in a harsh, jerky motion. “You’re doing it, or I’m doing it for you.”

“As if you could,” Rush said, contemptuous. This was Rush at his most Rush, haughty and sneering, his mind a solid fortress with no chink of emotion in it. It seemed entirely of a piece with the Rush who’d connived at exploiting Young’s weaknesses and creeping out of his bed when he was asleep.

Young narrowed his eyes. He turned an exploratory gaze inwards, towards that vaguely defined floorboards section of his brain. He generally left it alone; he just thought of the whole area as Rush. Now he carefully lowered himself over the edge. He was always aware that there were things happening down there— that whole Rush ecosystem. Now he was looking for something else he could sense, something not native to that spectral dark. And, sure enough, he could see it there, as though it had a physical presence: a luminescent river snaking in through the shadows and feeding out in a hundred hairline tributaries. The pulsing alien vein of the ship He studied it for a while: the shape of it, its currents. He mentally dipped a toe in to get a sense of its depth. Could he do that? Was it allowed? He could do it. He felt the humming energy divert around him. He was pretty sure he could do other things as well, things that he’d used to only be able to do in the part of his brain that was his.

“You’re wrong,” he said to Rush abruptly. “I can. Cut it off, or I will.”

Rush made a disdainful gesture. “Fucking astound me, then.”

Young imagined dropping a levee into that river: something heavy and solid, made out the equivalent of industrial sand. Nothing was going to get past it. The immediate effect was—

 

pain                                                             it’s

 

                                         feilia towa en uervid est?                               neumnepotisset

 

The shining hills of Altera and the silver grass and it was
crudelistas machinam asthentientem creare est cruel to but
o uervis en diemed leucentod! o ollas leucentas leucentas
machinas o so so very far away

 

                              convince him to do it because we don’t frankly
                              have a lot of fucking options here Daniel and
                              it’s not like anyone’s going to

                                                                                WHY is it so——

                                                                                          ELGIDUS                             EST                                                        he’s really

 

Beethoven! oh those fucking Romanzen she
said and he liked to hear her swear it made him
smile which she hated when she was angry I’m
not joking I feel like you’re not taking me seriously
Nick but then she would smile because she couldn’t
not smile when he was smiling and it all went to
fucking pieces from there

 

ne moltois habilistas canare luram donator
temem Eu! eos casmenes futottes deicetque
semper casmenens quod ea canevad ametque
surridevad quia quia fuevad—

somme               neod                                      namet 

think of—

  

                                                  bitumen! He’d nicked a packet of fags off Jimmy McReddy and smoked one out
                                                  by the shed because fuck Jimmy McReddy is why and Jimmy McReddy said What
                                                  you on about then are you after a doing and he gave Jimmy McReddy a look he was
                                                  still perfecting a very particular look that said You and I both know that you are about
                                                  to cause me significant pain and I wish to cordially inform you that you are mistaken if
                                                  you think that you are the one in control of this and Jimmy bent him over and slammed his
                                                  head into the aluminium siding and he laughed even though there was blood his mouth because

 

                                                                                                  gelcies                   QUEMVIS acua gelida est wereque nacuam nametque

                              SCIOTOS!

why are you always listening to the shields
Young asked
because
they’re
beautiful
 

                                    possibilitas essed quod mundom alterum envueniamos cresdes?

 

                    em caputei dolhet                     he                                                          what’s the word

 

dolheo dolhes dolhet dolhemos
dolhetes dolhent  that’s what he
dolhevad dolhest and dolhetor

conagite de                                                                                 gelcie

et quod adhoc guivand sic id fiomor

 

“Everett!”

Young pulled out of Rush’s mind, grabbing the edge of a console to stay upright.

The AI had appeared beside him, looking furious. He’d never seen that kind of expression on Sheppard’s face. He actually took a step back, stumbling as he tried to stay oriented in the wash of agony that was drumming at him from Rush’s direction.

“Remove it,” the AI hissed.

“Why should I?” Young shot back. “This is what he actually feels like. This is what he should feel like after a week with no sleep.”

“How are you doing this?” it demanded. “You are not meant to have this capability. Your role is to preserve his function so that he may complete the mission. Otherwise, you must not interfere.”

“Stop,” Rush said weakly. His eyes were shut.

“Oh, fuck you,” Young said to the AI. Maybe a little bit to Rush. “What do you get out of this? You’re just giving him energy out of the goodness of your heart? I don’t think so. You haven’t got a heart. You don't feel. You’ve got fucking— algorithms. You’re using this to change him, aren’t you? To convert him, or whatever other nice word you want to pull out of your ass to cover up the fact that you’re killing him, probably, with your goddamn virus and your—“

“The energy is facilitating certain modifications, yes,” the AI said, agitated. “But it is allowing him to function. You want him to feel like this? You want him to suffer?”

“Yes!” Young snapped. “I absolutely fucking do, if the alternative is that he stops being a person. He’s not a machine. Do you understand that?”

“Gloria,” Rush said.

Both Young and the AI froze, looking over at him.

“Go,” Rush said, shivering. “I’ll talk to him.”

“Nick,” the AI said, sounding pained. It blurred slightly, and suddenly it looked like Daniel Jackson. “Please let me—“

“It’s all right,” Rush said vaguely. “I’ll be all right. Go.”

It vanished.

There was a long silence. Young watched Rush, who was still shivering violently. He was hunched over his console, tense and rigid, looking like there was nothing to him but tendon and bone. Young was still shockingly angry at him, but it was hard to keep that feeling simple and clean and fenced-off when something inside him just wanted to shove Rush into bed.

“You’re just— full of surprises, aren’t you,” Rush said unsteadily, when he had managed to get more of a handle on his thoughts. “You’re going to have to— take down that block.”

“It’s not good for you,” Young said tightly.

“No. But from a practical standpoint, it’s necessary. We’re supposed to be dropping out of FTL to refuel, and we’re likely to—“ He broke off, briefly overwhelmed by the intensity of his headache. It took him a moment to find the thread of his sentence again. “To find ourselves in a firefight by the end of the day. We can’t— afford to be compromised. Either of us.”

“You could make that argument practically any time. I have to draw the line somewhere.”

“And you’ve neatly demonstrated that you can draw it whenever and wherever you like. So.” Rush’s voice hitched in a way that reminded Young of something, something that had happened in a dream. It was the sound of him struggling to control his tone and emotions. “So I’m asking you— not to do this now. Please.

Young had to walk away for a second. He stood facing the room’s far wall. He was so— He couldn’t— How had Rush known? he wondered. But then, it wasn’t surprising. That had always been Rush’s most lethal gift. He wasn’t likable; he wasn’t particularly good at lying. He just knew exactly where to strike. Where it would hurt most. Where you were weakest. Like he had a map of your body. Or like he’d created the map. He knew because he’d cultivated all the weak spots. He’d softened you up. He’d slept in your bed—

And he’d said please.

“Fine,” Young said, his voice tightly controlled. He turned around and deconstructed the levee he’d dropped into the energy stream.

Rush’s headache vanished, and his shivering gradually dwindled to nothing. Structure emerged from the chaos in his head. He took a shaky breath and straightened gingerly, raking his hair back. He was moving like he didn’t quite trust his body yet.

Young looked at him, considering several variations on the ultimatum he’d already forced Rush to accept. There was nothing else he could say, really. Nothing that would make a difference.

“I didn’t—“ Rush began without looking at him. “It wasn’t my intention to—“

“Forget it,” Young said shortly. He turned towards the door. “Let’s go fly through the fucking star.”


The science team’s briefing on the plan to fly through the star was short. They’d developed a three-pronged plan to avoid contact with enemy ships, the first prong of which involved minimizing time spent outside the star, the second prong of which required Destiny to override safeguards in the navigational computer and change course while actually still inside the star, and the third prong of which was an ingenious diversion that Eli had come up with. The diversion would involve taking the shuttle they’d acquired from the seed ship, setting it on autopilot, and programming it to broadcast on Nakai frequencies. It could serve as a decoy, but if the Nakai actually took it on board, a sleeper program onboard would overload their engines upon receipt of the correct code from Destiny.

It all seemed pretty sound, and an hour and a half later Young made his way to the bridge just ahead of the scheduled drop out of FTL. The science team was already arrayed there; as Young entered, Rush was leaning over Chloe, inspecting her monitor, and Chloe was saying, “Could you not do that? You’re making me nervous; go harass Eli.”

“I think I’ve harassed Eli enough today,” Rush said.

Eli shot him a dark look.

“Rush,” Young said as he dropped into the central command chair. “Are we good to go?”

Rush nodded. His face was composed and remote. “We’re about to drop out,” he said.

The lurch out of FTL came, and the viewscreen exploded with sudden radiance. The star took up the entire forward view: enormous, intense, rendered angrily bronze-tinted by the protection of the glass. The bridge was bathed in gold light. It felt like they were flying into a firestorm, but a strangely serene one. There was something hypnotic about it. It was the kind of thing that made you want to fly into it whether you were equipped to or not, maybe for the same reason that moths flew into flames.

Young found that thought disturbing, for some reason. He tightened his grip on his chair arms. “Report,” he said.

“Multiple contacts,” Eli said. “Looks like a command ship. They’re scrambling to intercept.”

“Will they make it?”

“Yup.”

Young pulled out his radio. “This is Young to port shuttle bay. Launch when ready.” Without turning to look at Rush, he projected crisply, //Main weapon or shields?//

//We have to break through,// Rush said with the same coolness. //Go with the main weapon.//

“Bring the main weapon online,” Young ordered Park.

“This is the port shuttle bay,” Brody called over the radio. “The shuttle is away.”

The first salvo of enemy fire impacted their shields as the shrieks of the proximity detectors and the first of the power failure alarms began to combine in an anxious cacophony.

“Shields just dropped ten percent,” Eli shouted.

Twelve feet away, his features illuminated by the copper light that suffused the bridge, Rush tightened his grip on the monitor banks that made up Chloe’s station. He was leaning forward, his heart pounding and his muscles shaking, his mouth suddenly gone dry. He wanted— He needed to—

The chair. Thechairthechairthechairthechairthechair. In Ancient they called it cathedra that was the right word for it yes not just the throne the sacred seat but all connotations of spirearchspacebeauty and he needed and he wanted to—

Young was quick to disengage from Rush’s thoughts. He couldn’t afford to get trapped in that biochemical loop right now. Rush couldn’t afford to, but it was happening anyway; he was heading for the exit, and the bridge doors were already opening, and God, they had already been here; Young set his mouth grimly; they had done all of this before—

“Nope,” he said, standing and grabbing Rush by the shoulders. “It’s not happening.”

Rush stared at him. His pupils were hugely dilated. “But,” he said uncertainly. “But I need to—“

A second salvo of enemy fire impacted their shields.

“Fire the main weapon,” Young ordered Park. “Let’s open up that course.”

She fired two shots along their planned trajectory.

Rush pushed clumsily at Young’s hands on his shoulders, trying to fight his way free. But he was having to wrestle with Young’s mind, too, where Young was trying to force him into stillness, or at least break him free of the siren-call of the chair. It was making him slow, and the call itself was dulling his instincts.

“Our shields just dropped by twenty-five percent!” Eli called.

Twenty-five percent?” Young repeated.

“The weapon takes a lot of energy!”

A sudden blast rocked the bridge as the first round of enemy fire reached them. Young recognized the alarm that indicated a hull breach before Volker confirmed it, shouting out the affected section. Young wasn’t listening. He was struggling to keep Rush stationary.

“Reroute power to forward shields,” he snapped.

“Please,” Rush panted. “Please?” His eyebrows drew together in an unfocused, questioning look, as though he thought, but wasn’t sure, that this might be the magic code word.

Young’s immediate reaction was to recoil at the nakedness of the manipulation. But Rush was so fucking out of it by this point that he probably didn’t even know what he was doing. He had no idea why what he’d just said was— upsetting. 

Still, the fractional pause it created was enough for Rush to get the upper hand. He slipped out of his jacket, fast and squirrelly, and was halfway across the bridge before Young realized what had happened. There was no way Young was going to catch him now.

No one on the bridge seemed to even have noticed the brief struggle.

Young pulled out his radio. “Young to Greer,” he said, and then stopped. History suggested that it was going to be really fucking hard to keep Rush out of that chair. Young didn’t have control over the situation, and the last thing he needed was to tie up his resources in a separate fight while they were— well. Things weren’t looking good.

He sighed. “Rush is on his way to the chair room,” he said. “Can you— keep an eye on him for me?”

Greer said, sounding uncertain, “Do you want me to…?”

“Just— keep an eye on him.” Young turned his attention back to the battle. “How long till we reach the star?” he asked Chloe.

“Three minutes,” she said grimly.

At the back of Young’s mind, Rush was sprinting through the dark hallways, not even feeling the pain in his feet. The lights flared for him as he passed, like the stars rushing by, like he was running faster than light.

“What’s our status?” Young snapped, trying to balance the two viewpoints: the bridge, preserved in amber by the star’s nearness, and the dim blue corridors that Rush was running through.

“Shields are down to thirty percent shipwide with focal weakening,” Eli reported. His hands were flying over the monitor. “They’re going to keep getting through.”

Another burst of enemy fire sent sparks flying, bright white against the red-gold glare.

“We can’t tolerate these hull breaches,” Volker said, his voice rising in panic. “Our shielding’s so low that we won’t be able to make it through the star!”

“Do we have enough energy to jump back to FTL?” Young asked.

Eli looked at his monitor as though willing it to alter. After a second, he said, “No.”

Rush had reached the chair room. The part of Young that was always with him ached for him to make it into the chair, to cross those few final feet and reach releaserewardsalvationfulfillment and then and then he was doing it he was there and—

“Stay on course,” Young said tightly.  He looked at Chloe. “How long?”

“Twenty seconds.”

“We have another breach,” Eli said. Young could feel it distantly, a far-off shudder.

The chair’s capacitors were charging, and Rush, his eyes closed, had already started to join with the ship. He let go gladly; he wanted that dissolution.

“Ten seconds,” Chloe said quietly. She looked at Eli, who shook his head.

All those little threads flying apart and finding their right places and then the oncoming wave of darkness darkness darkness WHITE—

They plunged into the solar corona. Vortices of plasma coiled around the body of the ship, hot snakes in a surrounding weightless inferno.

Young closed his eyes and held his breath.

“Eli,” Volker said. “I’m reading that all incoming solar energy is being routed directly to the shields. Is that—“

“That’s not me,” Eli said, checking his display.

“Internal—“ Chloe began shakily. “Internal temperatures seem to be holding.”

“There must be a protocol for—“ Eli broke off. He turned, his eyes flicking to where Young was still holding Rush’s jacket. “Yeah. There must be a protocol.”

“Lay in the new course,” Young said. “How long till we emerge?”

“Five hours,” Chloe said. “That should give us enough time to recharge.”

“Great,” Young said, trying not to sound as exhausted as he felt. “I’m going to go take a look at some of those hull breaches, see if there’s anything we can do about them right now. Let me know if you need me back here.”

As he was exiting the bridge, he pulled his radio out. “Greer?” he said quietly.

There was a short silence.

Greer said, “I’m here.”

Young sighed and tried to think of what to tell him.

“Stay with him,” he said.


Half an hour later, Young was helping reroute critical wiring away from one of the damaged areas of Destiny’s hull. He was in a corridor somewhere along the ship’s starboard side, trying to lose himself in the manual work. He could feel the ship slowly warming, brightening like a plant that was responding to the presence of the sun. It should have been welcome, that feeling.

Young was trying to focus on what he was doing and not think about how fucked up things were. He’d fucked up by not letting Rush just go straight to the chair. And Rush: Rush had definitely fucked up, because maybe Young would’ve trusted him if he hadn’t—

“You’re making a terrible mess of that,” a familiar voice said from over his left shoulder.

Young jumped, dropping the pliers he’d been using to strip the wiring. He turned to stare at the figure leaning casually against the bulkhead. “No,” he snapped. “You do not get to look like him. That is way the hell too confusing for everyone.”

Rush— or whatever it was that currently looked like Rush— pulled back, startled. “You think I’m the AI,” he said after a moment, realizing.

“Aren’t you? He’s in the chair.”

“I’m projecting.”

The corridor around Young wavered and began to dissolve, melting into a narrow, damp, gray-green, unevenly paved street. Young looked up, startled, at clouds scudding over the sharp-spired roof of a stone building. It was— disorientating. He could still feel the hum of the ship, but he could also taste rain in the air, and hear the far-off sound of traffic.

“What—“ he began.

“You said the shuttle was boring,” Rush said with an insouciant shrug. “This is a similar interface. I thought I’d indulge your need for novelty.” He leaned against a slightly yellowed stone wall and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, tapping one out and holding it delicately between two fingers.

Now that Young got a better look, Rush did resemble the version of himself from the shuttle. He was wearing the same pristine glasses, the same white collared shirt. He had the same neatly trimmed hair. And there was that same air of something undamaged about him, like he was more substantial somehow, like something important about him hadn’t been chipped out.

Rush didn’t seem to mind the scrutiny. He smiled faintly and lowered his eyes. “I’d offer you a cigarette,” he said, “but I’m afraid they’re not real, in the classical sense of the word.”

“I don’t smoke,” Young said.

“Good for you. It’s a terrible habit.” Rush flicked a lighter and applied its flame to the end of his cigarette.

“Why are you here?” Young asked, trying to keep his voice level. He wasn’t— really sure how to feel about what was happening right now. “Why are you doing this?”

Rush squinted up at the pale, clouded sky over the spiky rooftops. “Do you not like it? I could—“ He gestured with the hand holding the cigarette. Abruptly, the temperature dropped and it began to snow: big, lacy flakes that were almost cartoonishly pretty. They caught on eddies of wind and swirled, buoyed by their own width.

Young held his arms out and watched the snow collect on the sleeves of his black uniform jacket. It was very lifelike. Very beautiful. He had to give Rush that. “Is this—“ he began. “Supposed to be some kind of apology?”

Rush’s eyes slid away. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said guardedly.

Young fixed him with an uncompromising look.

Rush sighed. “I didn’t—” he said, sounding pained. “If it makes a difference, I didn’t make you sleep.”

“I don’t believe you,” Young said flatly.

“Nothing I say is going to change that, is it?”

“Do you blame me?”

“No,” Rush whispered. “Probably not.” He stared, unseeing, at the end of his cigarette, at the thin gray smoke that was rising in a sinuous line through the snow. “I’m sorry,” he said after a moment. “I know you don’t believe that, either.”

Young didn’t say anything. He was finding it difficult to look at Rush. There was something just really— soft and almost inviting about him. A dark green scarf had appeared around his neck, dotted by snowflakes. More snow was collecting on the rims of his glasses, catching in his eyelashes, feathering his head, and Young was overcome by the urge to reach out and brush it off. Eventually, he gave in: his hand pausing and lingering for a moment as he touched Rush’s hair.

“You’re different when you’re like this,” he said at last.

Rush gave him a tired smile. “Better?”

“I don’t know about that,” Young said. “Just— different.”

“Better,” Rush said again. It wasn’t a question this time.

“Why do you think that?” Young asked, abruptly frustrated. “You fuck yourself up by letting the ship poison you with whatever it’s pumping you full of, you go and sit in the goddamn chair; you’re so fucking determined not to be human, but you are human.”

“There’s a part of me that is,” Rush said quietly. “But that part is— fading.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Young dropped his hand and turned away.

“I’m sorry,” Rush said again. He was staring at the ground, his cigarette burning itself out.

“What are you apologizing to me for?” Young said. “You don’t owe me anything. If your never-ending quest for new and exciting ways to destroy yourself means you’re going to keep bullshitting me— yeah, okay, maybe I’ll kick you out of my bed.” He closed his eyes. “That sounds— weird. Anyway. But what I don’t get is that you don’t care, that you won’t fight for your own right to even— I don’t know— exist in the world.”

Rush didn’t say anything.

“But maybe that’s my job,” Young said. “That’s all I’m good for, right? Fighting. According to you. If I’m even good at that.” He laughed bitterly. “So I guess I’m going to do my job. I’m going to fight, because someone’s got to do it. Someone’s got to keep you human. Someone’s got to keep you here.”

“It’s not possible,” Rush whispered. “It can’t be done.”

Young said, “I don’t believe you.”

They stood for a moment, looking at each other. All around them, the snow continued to fall, so thick now that it almost obscured a nearby lamppost. A peal of bells started ringing, very far off. It was joined by another, and then another, each a fraction of a beat behind, a whole silvery tumult that sounded medieval. A flock of birds startled from a nearby tower, wings like pen-marks against the snow-filled sky. A door creaked open somewhere out of sight, loosing a scattering of laughter.

“…Where are we, anyway?” Young asked.

Rush shrugged almost imperceptibly. “Oxford. Catte Street. Do you like it?”

“It’s…really peaceful,” Young said. He paused. “And it feels like an apology.”

“Fuck off,” Rush said without rancor. “I haven’t heard you apologizing.”

“Yeah.” Young winced. “I shouldn’t have stopped you from sitting in the chair.”

Thank you. Look at us. Two civilized fucking people.”

“You won’t remember this, though? Will you?”

“I very much doubt it.”

“So you’ve just tricked me into apologizing to you twice.”

Rush’s mouth quirked. “To be fair, you never actually said you were sorry.”

“And now I’m not going to, either.” But Young was fighting a smile.

“If you—“ Rush broke off and his eyes went unfocused. Oxford shivered around them, briefly overlaid like a ghost on Destiny’s halls.

“What is it?” Young asked anxiously.

“The Nakai just dropped out. But it’s fine. They’re tracking the shuttle at the moment. I infer from previous experience they they can likely monitor our course through the star, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to determine our position accurately enough to position an effective ambush as we emerge.”

“I should go anyway,” Young said. “—I guess.” He was weirdly reluctant to leave. And not just because he missed Earth.

“Yes,” Rush said, sounding similarly reluctant.

The scene began to melt away piece by piece. The comfortable sounds, the chill in the air, the sky, the spires of the buildings. The last thing to go was the snow, which kept whispering through the corridor, vanishing before it reached the deck. Then only Rush was left.

“Go on,” Rush said. “Go finish fixing my ship up. I’ll keep an eye on things outside.”

Your ship?” Young repeated, scandalized.

But Rush, looking smug, had already disappeared.

Chapter Text

Young was lying on his back, half inside a bulkhead, wielding a portable welder that Brody had liberated from the machine shop. The flame heated up the enclosed space and carved a small blind spot into his visual field as sparks rained down around him, impacting the deck plates and fading away to nothing as he worked. He was couldn’t help but think of the snow that had lingered as Rush’s interface vanished, lasting just long enough to not quite touch the deck.

“Colonel Young, this is Eli,” his radio crackled.

He flipped off the welder and wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead before he replied. “Go ahead.”

“We’ll be emerging from the star in about ten minutes.”

“How’s our power level?”

“We’re at a hundred percent, backups fully charged. Hopefully we won’t use it all up in a firefight getting out of here.”

“Yeah, I second that. Hang on, I’ll be right there.” Young pulled himself to his feet and headed for the bridge.

When he arrived, he found to his surprise that Wray was there. She was standing next to the command chair, staring thoughtfully into the sea of red-glow currents that filled the front screen.

“You can have the chair, if you want,” he offered.

She shot him a short smile. “It’s not really my style.”

He sank into it, mindful that she hadn’t moved from beside him. “Chloe, how long?” he asked.

“Six minutes.”

“There’s a rumor,” Wray said quietly, “that Rush is in the interface chair right now.”

“Correct,” Young said. “He’s been there for the past five hours.”

“Five hours?”

“We may need him when we come out of the star. There’s going to be a window while the drive powers up when we’re vulnerable to attack.”

There was a brief silence.

“I didn’t mean to sound accusatory,” Wray said.

Young considered whether or not he thought this was true. He was pretty sure she’d come to talk to him about Rush— that it was the only reason she was on the bridge. “I didn’t mean to sound defensive,” he said at last.

“I’m sure you’re doing your best. You both are.” She was still staring out into the star. Very carefully she asked, after a short pause, “Did you ever find out what happened between him and Colonel Telford?”

Young looked at her sharply. “—I did,” he said.

He didn’t elaborate. She had turned her head and was watching him closely.

“That bad?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said.

She shut her eyes briefly. “Telford is on the short list of people the IOA is planning to send to the Destiny as soon as they devise a plan for dialing in. There’s a possibility I could get him off that list, but I would need more information.”

“I’ll think about it,” Young said shortly.

“You need an ally,” she said.

“I have allies.” He wasn’t sure if he really believed that.

“You need someone to talk to,” she said more quietly.

Young kept his face impassive. “I’ll think about it,” he said.

“Three minutes,” Chloe called.

“We’ve got sensors!” Eli said. “I’m picking up two— no, three Nakai ships about 600 kilometers to port and kind of, um, underneath us? Chloe, I’m sending you the raw data to process.”

“The Nakai are moving to intercept,” Volker warned.

“What’s the status of the FTL drive?” Young asked Park.

“Two minutes,” Park said. “We can’t power it up till we’re out of the coronasphere.”

“Put us at maximum sublight. Let’s get out of here as fast as possible.”

“One minute till we clear the corona,” Chloe said.

The coils of plasma were fading, and the black edge of space was beyond. Young squinted at the viewscreen, instinctively hunting for a glimpse of the enemy ships.

“The leading edge is within firing range,” Volker said, just as the bombardment hit them.

The shields flared, blue and gold and green, so bright that they nearly obscured everything on the port side of the ship. For a moment, Young almost imagined that he could hear a hint of them— the points where they flowered as the Nakai weapons made contact.

“It’s beautiful, in a way,” Wray said quietly.

Young glanced at her. When he looked back at the viewscreen, he saw a familiar figure, dark against the flaring light, standing in the spot next to Chloe’s station that Rush preferred. His shoulders were hunched, his head bent forward, his hand pressed against his mouth as he watched the assault on the shields. Young couldn’t make out his expression.

In the next instant he was gone.

“FTL is spooling up,” Park said.

Young could feel the vibration under the deck plates. After a few seconds, the bright display of the shields gave way to blurred stars, and there was an audible sigh of relief as the forward view took on its familiar streaking darkness.

“Good work,” Young said. He glanced at Wray. “You want to hold down the fort? I’ve got— some things to take care of.”

“I imagine you do,” she said. She looked down. She was touching Rush’s jacket, which Young had draped over the arm of the command chair.


The control interface room was still dimly lit, despite the restored power levels. Young wondered if Rush liked it that way. Young himself found it disturbing. Maybe that was because he found the room itself disturbing. He thought that he probably always would. There was something about seeing Rush there, motionless, almost frozen— blue lights glowing from the bolts at his temples, wrists and ankles locked to the chair—

“He’s okay,” Greer said from beside the doorway. “I mean— as much as he can be.”

“Yeah,” Young said. He saw that Greer had laid his jacket over Rush, carefully tucking it around him. It was a surprisingly sweet gesture, for a man who wasn’t given to sweetness. He glanced back at Greer.

Greer shrugged. “It was cold,” he said, a little defensively.

“Yeah,” Young said again. “It was.”

He headed to the chair, with its polished interface panel waiting for the touch of his hand.

This time, entering the interface was a lot like climbing into the mental construct that he had of his own head, maybe because he’d gotten so used to conceptualizing what he was seeing that way. There was his own orderly mind, and there was the subterranean realm that underlay it, the part of his world that belonged to Rush— though as he paused and looked closely, with the clarity the interface afforded, he was startled to realize that there were places where the two now seemed to blend. Structures that were distinctly Rush had started to colonize his own landscape: windows and furniture seemed to have taken on vaguely Ancient shapes, silver and spire-y and strange to him. Rooms were cluttered with objects that he didn’t recognize. Where had that piano come from? And that bowl full of marbles? Someone had dripped water all through a hallway; someone had been scribbling in chalk on the walls of the house; pages from the small notebooks that Rush favored were strewn across sofas and tables. It should have disturbed Young, but in fact he found it oddly domestic. It felt right in a way that he couldn’t explain.

When he ventured below, where Rush was waiting, his own presence was less visible. Rush’s mind had always been obscure to him, and even if that hadn’t been the case, all he could see was the stream of energy from the ship. It glowed bright-hot in the darkness, green and eerie, dominating every part of Rush. Its capillaries flowed in every direction, including the point where Rush’s mind joined with Young’s. When Young first tried to separate Rush from the ship, he couldn’t even find the right boundaries to pull at— everything was just ship-colored, all of it looking and sounding and feeling the same. He tried shouting out to the little threads of Rush that always seemed to recognize him, but there was a noise to that energy stream, too, a staticky buzzing, and it drowned him out. There was no way he’d be able to get Rush loose without cutting off the stream— even if he’d wanted to, which he didn’t, or not particularly. He was glad to have a rational reason for what he’d wanted to do in the first place, which was to hurl a high, solid, and more permanent levee up.

As soon as he’d done that, the noise of the energy began to fade. The light died out a little more slowly, but he was already calling to Rush, getting those threads to respond, and they were responding, and they were coming loose with hardly any effort. In fact, as he could see more and more of Rush sketched out in the darkness, he found it astonishingly easy to separate him from the ship— all he had to do was touch those places and they sprang free, without any resistance at all.

Of course, he should have guessed that there would have been a catch. As the CI room faded back in around him, he discovered almost immediately what it was. Rush’s mind slammed into his with an onslaught of

 

disarray disarray                               dolhet DOLHET

 

                                                                       set                               quei dolhet?                            quem quei dolhet?

he was

           eger est? aute—

 

                                    sick? something was not

lantea discest et nehil de illod ute ne fieri potisessomos
en alterad mondod mellored opportunitad habesont
scies ute weros essed sciesque neum adcapere potisses!

et Neum ersaes id deicet Ersaes

 

right he thinks but he means

duenos fuevad et neum ad everett deicevad

 

 

                                                            the noise a hyperdrive element makes when you’re tuning its
                                                     crystals and someone had something Shor’s algorithm who had
                                                            it been her name was and she said Nick don’t Nick

 

and in a moment they heard the soldiers who were

memorator?

shouting The sea the sea and passing the word

memorator?

along and likewise the troops of the rearguard broke

ne memoratorque et ei sollicitandos est

into a run and the pack animals and the horses began

em somme penitet

racing ahead

                                                                                em quod neum deicevad penitet em penitet he should have
                                                                                 said it

                    ad primom eventom quod feilia eos luram en alvod templod
                    canevad et id flevad quia iconans mortuom ad mentim eos
                    vuenievadque scievad ute—

 

and God, Young was getting tired of this. His vision wavered as the intensity of Rush’s headache settled behind his eyes. He almost couldn’t stay standing; he thought for a second he was going to vomit, and he had to block, at least a little; he shoved the window down between them halfway, and that was at least— that was— he could breathe, enough to grope forward and get his hand on Rush’s shoulder, which helped a little with the nausea.

//Rush?// he said. Rush hadn’t moved at all.

“Yes,” Rush murmured. “Something’s not—“ His hands went to his temples, pressing there for a moment as though he was trying to hold something together or hold something in.

“Are you all right?” Young said, alarmed.

“Did you do something?” Rush asked vaguely. “I don’t feel— right.”

He tried to stand and stumbled immediately, letting Young catch him.

“Whoa, okay there,” Young said, getting an arm under his shoulders. “Yeah, you’re really tired.”

“Tired?” Rush squinted at him, looking confused. Gradually his expression changed to one of hurt. “Are you blocking me?”

“Just for a little while,” Young said. “One of us has to be able to stand up.” His hand touched Rush’s bare skin, and he flinched. “Jesus, you’re freezing. Here— Greer, grab your jacket, and let’s get his on him.”

Rush was uncharacteristically docile as Young and Greer manhandled him into his jacket. He stared at one oversized sleeve and then the other as though he’d never seen such a thing in his life, turned them this way and that in fascination. When Young had finished doing up the jacket’s buttons, Rush looked from him to Greer and then back. “What’s happening?” he asked, sounding perplexed.

It wasn’t an unreasonable question, but Young was already beginning to get the sense that something was going on here— something beyond simple exhaustion— and Rush’s tone triggered a surge of unease.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Young asked cautiously.

Rush frowned. “The last? Temporal sequencing is hard for me. You know that.”

Young met Greer’s eyes in worry. “Give it a shot anyway,” he suggested.

“Amestis Givoras composed a seven-part mirror fugue in memory of the Lantean dead. It was performed only once before the plague reached Dulcestiom Uervis and laid waste to the academy there. Those unaffected by the plague fled to Discenna, hoping that they might—“

What?” Greer interrupted.

“Okay, good try,” Young said. “But I’m thinking we should just head straight to the infirmary.”

“That wasn’t correct?” Rush said, drawing his eyebrows together fretfully. “It should be algorithmically excluded if it doesn’t directly involve Nicholas Rush?”

“That’s probably a safe assumption,” Young said, trying to keep his voice soothing. “But don’t worry about it right now. Look, let’s not even bother with the infirmary. Let’s just get out of this creepy fucking room and go sit in the hall. Does that sound good?”

To Greer, he mouthed, Go get TJ. Greer nodded and took off.

“You failed to specify,” Rush complained, letting Young lead him from the room. “Isn’t it difficult enough that you’re composed of so many molecules? It’s extremely distracting. How do you keep them in the right shape?”

Young pushed him back gently against the corridor wall. “We’re sitting down now,” he said.

Rush frowned at him. “Are we? Why?”

“That’s just what we’re doing.” He nudged persistently at Rush’s shoulders until Rush got the idea and slid down to the floor. Young knelt beside him. Rush was shivering. When Young pressed a hand to his forehead, his skin was cold.

“You’re so— warm,” Rush murmured. “Profligate energy transfer. Mm.” He leaned into Young’s touch, pushing his forehead against Young’s hand a little like a cat. “Doesn’t entropy worry you? Or no. I suppose it wouldn’t. You’re so good at thermoregulating.”

“Rush,” Young said, his anxiety spiking. “What the fuck is going on?” He was trying to get a sense of Rush’s thoughts without taking down the block, but there was something disorganized and hard to parse about them. They seemed to be— sideways, or not sideways, exactly, but tilted at an odd angle. Young couldn’t seem to rotate them in a way that made sense.

“That’s what I asked,” Rush said. “I thought you were going to tell me.”

“Did I do this? I think maybe I did this.”

“I concur,” Rush said unhelpfully. “Everything was fine before you.”

“Great. Thanks.” Young drew his hand back, ignoring Rush’s small sound of protest, and scrubbed at his face, feeling just— really defeated and scared. He had just talked to Rush; Rush had been fine; it had been a few hours ago, maybe; Rush had smiled, and made it snow in Oxford, and they’d both apologized—

And then Young had gone into the interface and fucked everything up. But he couldn’t hook Rush back up to that energy flow, that thing that was noisy and poisonous and iridescent and changing him into something not human, something that Young wouldn’t recognize—

“You’re upset,” Rush said softly.

“Yes. I am. I’m really upset, okay? I don’t know what’s happening to you.” Young took a breath, trying to stop his voice from wavering. “And I really need you to sharpen up a little so we can figure this out, all right? I really— I just really need that from you. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes,” Rush whispered.

“Okay. Can you tell me your name?”

“Nick,” Rush said after a few seconds.

“Do you know where you are?”

“Destiny.”

“What year is it?”

Rush frowned. “Which calendar are you using?”

“The normal one. The Earth one.”

“The first or second decade of the second millennium. Common Era.”

“Not your best work, but I’ll take it. Do you know why you were in the chair?”

“Destiny was afraid.”

“Sure. Close enough. You were getting energy from Destiny, remember? It was driving the replication of a virus.”

“Yes,” Rush said after a pause. “Amongst other things.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to get that,” Young said tiredly. “What other things?”

Rush’s gaze had drifted to the left, and his brow had creased. Young suspected that the AI was talking to him. He reached out and laid a hand against Rush’s face, catching his attention. Rush’s eyes flicked back to his. He brought his own hand up, pressing it against Young’s.

“What other things?” Young prompted.

“Improving our radius.”

“What else?”

“Not sleeping.”

“Right, we’ve pretty much covered that one. What else?”

“Fixing things.”

“What do you mean? What things?”

“Things that are broken.”

“Thanks. That’s so helpful.”

“You’re welcome,” Rush said vaguely.

Young sighed. “Rush. That was sarcasm.”

But Rush wasn’t listening. His attention had wandered again. “It was more like,” he said to the air over Young’s left shoulder, “building over a cognitive scaffold, if you know what I mean.” He made an unclear, one-handed gesture.

“Rush,” Young said. He tried shaking Rush’s head a little, gently. It didn’t seem to accomplish much.

“Well, scaffolding isn’t meant to be permanent, is it?” Rush said absently. “So— of course not. But you can’t build something from nothing.”

Young pinched the bridge of his nose. “I hope the AI is finding this as frustrating as I am.”

“It isn’t composed of molecules,” Rush murmured, his eyes focusing once more on Young. “In the traditional sense. Though it still extends into a startling number of dimensions. I never realized.”

“I have no idea what that means,” Young said, frustrated. He tried to get the conversation back on track. “What else were you using the energy for?”

“Not eating.”

God. You’re such an idiot. Do I have to watch you all the goddamn time?”

“You’d do the same thing if you could. Those rations are intolerable.” Rush yawned hugely. “Are we done yet?”

“No. No, we’re not done. We’re—“ Young shut his eyes briefly. “We’re not done. I don’t know if you get that you’re a fucking mess right now. And I need your help, because I don’t know what to do. Which is better for you, to get energy from Destiny or not?”

“Better,” Rush repeated, as though he didn’t understand the word.

“Yes, better. Better for you.

Rush seemed to be thinking it over. “Can you define the parameters of me?” he said uncertainly at last.

“Goddamnit, Rush—“

“I’m trying,” Rush said, temper flaring a little. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. “I believe— I believe it depends on your primary endpoint. There is an inverse correlation between time and quality of life.”

“So if you take energy from the ship, you feel fine until—“

“Yes. Until.”

“And the alternative is that you—“

“Change,” Rush said. “Become— less human. But for longer. Option one would be preferable, except—“

“Except what?”

Rush looked down, biting his lip. “I thought it would help,” he whispered. “If I could see all the different dimensions. I thought it would be— but it isn’t. It doesn’t help.”

God—“ Young clenched his free hand into a fist. “Except what, Nick?”

“Except— I damaged your mind,” Rush said. His eyes flickered away for a moment, then came to rest on Young’s face. He reached out with a oddly intent expression and laid a hand against Young’s cheek, so that there was a strange mirror quality to their poses. “And the longer I stay with you, the more I can fix. Perhaps— perhaps I can fix it all. You could go back with the rest of them. You could be—“ He broke off and took a breath. “It would be easier. I would prefer that.”

“We’re going back together,” Young said fiercely.

“We’re not,” Rush said quietly.

“I won’t accept any other alternative.”

Rush said, barely audible, “I’m sorry, Everett.”

Young couldn’t look at him. He stared fixedly at the deck. He was thinking about the snow, melting before it reached the metal surface. The little drifts of it disappearing in midair. They’d been so perfect in every detail, down to the crisp irregular structures. They’d turned to water on his sleeves. He’d almost brushed them out of Rush’s hair. Some part of his brain that didn’t know any better had been fooled by the illusion. That was the mark of a really good magic trick. When you knew it wasn’t real, but you were still astonished, because some part of you wanted to believe—

“Look at me,” Rush murmured.

Young did.

Rush’s eyes were dark, stripped of deceit, and immensely serious. The thought came to Young unbidden that he would believe anything Rush said if he said it while looking at Young like this, and for a moment he experienced a deep and paralyzing fear that Rush was going to say something, then an even more profound fear that Rush had said it already, that it had passed between them, that it was too late, and now Young would never really be able to not believe it.

Feeling abruptly claustrophobic and oddly terrified, he shoved himself away from Rush, aware as he did so that he was also trying to push Rush out of his mind, because they were too close, too close; it was— intolerable.

His back hit the opposite wall, but it wasn’t far away enough. He had to stumble to his feet and back off a few steps. His heart was racing. he was breathing hard. What was he doing, he thought. What was he doing. He turned and leaned one solid fist against the bulkhead, wishing that he could fit all of his terror into it, that he could tense up his knuckles and lash out with a single, satisfying act of violence, something that would punish only himself. But that wasn’t an option, not anymore. Now no matter what he did, he always seemed to be hurting the one person he didn’t want getting hurt.

And Rush was already hurt. And when Young turned to face him, he saw that in his absence, Rush had tipped his head back, both hands covering his face in a picture of desolation.

“Shit,” he breathed, crossing the hall to kneel beside Rush. “Nick, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

“Get the fuck away from me.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“What the fuck are you sorry for?”

“Everything,” Young said. His throat hurt. “Is that— do you think that about covers it?”

“You’re very fucking confusing,” Rush said unhappily, but he let Young gather him into a kind of fumbling embrace. After a moment’s hesitation, he dropped his head against Young’s shoulder.

Young got both arms around him. He could feel how cold Rush was. He held tight and pressed his face to Rush’s hair. “I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” he whispered. “You’re the most confusing person I’ve ever met.”

Rush sent him a faint, miserable wave of acknowledgement.

A few minutes later, Greer and TJ arrived. TJ dropped her bag against the deck and immediately knelt down beside Young.

How is he? she mouthed.

Young lifted a hand from Rush’s back to make an equivocal gesture: so-so.

“Dr. Rush,” TJ said gently. “Can you sit up for me?”

“I’m fine,” Rush said, his voice muffled by Young’s shoulder. “Just— cold.”

Not just cold,” Young said, and shifted a little so that Rush was mostly sitting upright. “He’s been— in and out of it.”

“It’s very difficult to be in it when one is perceiving nonmathematical dimensions delivering sensory input that one’s brain isn’t organized to interpret in a productive way,” Rush said somewhat irritably. “I challenge anyone to function under—“

He flinched as the thermometer that TJ had stuck in his ear beeped.

TJ glanced at the number and frowned. “Well,” she said. “That would certainly explain why you’re cold.” She showed Young: 91.6 degrees. “He’s hypothermic— I’m hoping that explains his heart rate, which is on the high side. I don’t even know how it’s possible to get hypothermic on this ship.”

“Thermoregulation,” Rush said, again flinching as TJ checked his eyes with a pen light.

“Yes?” TJ prompted. “Thermoregulation what?”

“Is difficult,” he said unhelpfully.

“Okay,” TJ said. She glanced at Young with a look that asked for translation.

Young shrugged. “He really hasn’t been making that much sense.”

You don’t make much sense,” Rush said crossly.

Young sighed. “Yeah. We’ve established that. TJ, what’s the plan?”

“Well, we need to warm him up. It’s going to be bad news if his temperature gets below ninety degrees. His thinking may clear up as he gets a little warmer. He definitely needs to eat something and get some sleep— I should just record myself myself saying that on his phone,” TJ said, frowning at Rush, “and set it as an alarm at this point.”

Rush glared at her. “I’m not a child. Don’t discuss me in the third fucking person.”

TJ looked exasperated. “Maybe you could try not acting like a child.”

“Can the warming-up part happen in my quarters? We’re getting tired of the infirmary,” Young said. He could sense that Rush was heading for a meltdown, and TJ’s presence hadn’t seemed to help that much in the past; mostly, to be fair, for reasons that had nothing to do with TJ herself, and more to do with Young’s reaction to her. Or Rush’s reaction to Young’s reaction to her, or Young’s reaction to Rush’s reaction to Young’s reaction— just because of the whole goddamn feedback loop. Young’s head hurt more just imagining it. God, Rush was hard to deal with sometimes.

“We can try it,” TJ said. “I can bring some foil blankets from the infirmary if I have to. Mostly I want to get him out of the hallway.”

“Right.” Young shifted, trying to ease his arms around to where he’d be able to pick Rush up.

“Don’t even fucking think about it,” Rush snapped, jerking away abruptly and clambering very unsteadily to his feet. He stood there swaying for a minute, shivering violently, before Greer stepped in to brace him.

Young shut his eyes and breathed out his irritation. “Are you fucking kidding me? You can barely stand up. Just let us—“

I,” Rush interrupted, leveling two shaky fingers at him, “am going along with this as a favor. To you. For your fucking—“ He couldn’t seem to think of the word he wanted, which made him agitated. “So don’t treat me like a fucking child!”

“You made that point already,” Young said shortly. “No one’s treating you like a child, Rush. We’re treating you like you’re sick, which you are, so maybe don’t—“

“Maybe you should be grateful that I’m even bothering to let you—“

Grateful?” Young laughed incredulously. “You think I’m enjoying this? You think this is— what, fun for me?” He forced himself to his feet, wincing as the pain in his head worsened.

“Guys,” TJ said in a placatory tone, “everyone’s really tired right now. Maybe we should just—”

“Fuck you,” Rush shot at Young, trying to shrug Greer’s hands off of his shoulders. “Fuck you and your condescending— your—“ He made a frustrated, agonized sound. “I’m doing this for you. For you!”

“If you need to lie to yourself,” Young said, his voice rising, “and insist that this is happening to you for some reason beyond the fact that you made a series of really stupid fucking decisions, and now you have to deal with the consequences because I won’t let you wriggle out of them, like you always do, because I left you no other fucking option— if you want to pretend that you’re in control when the fact is that you have no fucking clue what you’re doing, then that’s just fine. Be my guest.”

“You think I couldn’t circumvent your pathetic barrier?” Rush’s tone was ragged. “I create workarounds all fucking day. It’s what I do best. No one does anything to me that I don’t want, so if you think that— if you think that I—“ He made another unsuccessful attempt to wrestle his way out of Greer’s grip. “I don’t need you,” he said, his voice raw. “I don’t need any of you.

“Shut up, Doc,” Greer murmured, not letting him go.

“Right. Of course. Keep telling yourself that,” Young said. “If you could get around that block, you’d’ve done it already. You don’t give that much of a damn about me. You can’t do a goddamn thing about it, and you know it. So why don’t you just—“

“Stop it,” TJ whispered, just as Rush, pale and furious, said, “Fuck you. I should’ve— I should’ve—“

He didn’t finish his sentence. Greer abruptly jerked him backwards, steering him down the corridor, away from Young.

“Come on,” Young heard Greer say quietly. “Time to cool it down a little. You’re about to max out your quota on being a pain in the ass.”

Fuck,” Young whispered, turning away. He pressed a hand to his forehead, trying to get a grip on the pain that was pulsing there. He wondered how much of it was coming from Rush, and how much of it was just— what he deserved, probably, for letting himself get so worked up.

Unexpectedly, TJ stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, enveloping him in an achingly familiar hug. Young froze, swallowing hard against a surge of emotion, finding it difficult, for a moment, to breathe. Finally he brought his hands up, resting them against her shoulders.

“He does need you,” she murmured. “He needs all of us.”

“I know,” Young said with difficulty. “I know. I do.” He shut his eyes, letting himself breathe in the scent of her— antiseptic and the faint herbal fragrance of her hair, and something else that was just her, that he would have known anywhere. It grounded him, and the pain in his head receded by a fraction.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked, pulling back slightly.

Young sighed. “Not really. No.”

Should you talk about it?”

“Everyone keeps wanting me to talk about stuff today. Do I look that fucking terrible?”

TJ studied him. “Well,” she said, “you’ve been better.”

Young grimaced. “Thanks.” He hooked a hand over his shoulder, wincing at the cramp in his neck. “God, I could use a cigarette.”

TJ gave him a puzzled look. “You don’t smoke,” she pointed out.

“Yeah. I don’t know why I said that.” He sighed again. “We should go. They’re getting far enough away that Rush and are going to start to feel it.”

“I thought—“ TJ began.

“Just— don’t ask,” Young said wearily.

He was already becoming aware of a vague sense of tension. He lowered the block between himself and Rush a little, and could sense that Rush had calmed down significantly— that Greer was talking to him in a low, soothing, reasonable voice, and Rush was half-listening, leaning heavily against Greer’s shoulder. Young felt a brief stab of envy, and something more defeated. He was supposed to be able to do that for Rush. But somehow he just— couldn’t. He didn’t have the talent. Or he could, but for some reason he never did. Was he really that fucked-up as a person, that he couldn’t do this basic human task? Was there something that broken about him?

He winced as his headache intensified.

“Let’s go,” TJ said. “Before you beat yourself up anymore.”

“You can tell?”

“You’ve got that look.”

They headed down the long corridor, following the trail of lights that glowed brightly wherever Rush went.

After a while, TJ said quietly, “You’re trying, you know. That’s all anyone can ask for. I think you’re both trying.”

“Trying. Right,” Young said without much energy.


They caught up to Greer and Rush at the door to Young’s quarters. Greer knew what he was doing; he had Rush in bed almost before the door had closed behind them, and was heading to the closet to look for extra blankets. Rush had curled up into a shivering knot. Young stood stiffly against the wall, watching as TJ unwrapped a power bar and tried to make Rush eat it.

“Later,” Rush said listlessly.

“No. Now. You’re lucky I’m not making you eat your weight in protein mix.”

Rush made a face and reluctantly took a bite from the power bar while Greer was layering blankets on top of him. TJ felt his forehead and frowned. After a few minutes she pulled out the thermometer and checked his temperature again. Rush didn’t protest; his attention seemed to have wandered. He was eating mechanically, but his eyes had moved to fix at some point over TJ’s shoulder. Young could tell that the AI was talking to him.

With a quick burst of irritation, he shoved himself into apposition with Rush so he could see it: looking like Daniel Jackson, wearing a white sweater and a hectoring look. “—And you wouldn’t be having this problem if you had just practiced what we talked about,” it was saying in a faintly schoolteacher-ish tone. “If you had made any effort at all. I struggle to understand you, Nick. It is as though you wish to do yourself damage.”

//No one’s happy with you today,// Young remarked.

Rush’s eyes flicked to him, startled, as though he hadn’t noticed Young was present.

“Leave him alone,” Young told the AI aloud. “Get out.”

“What?” TJ said, confused.

“Not you,” Young said.

The AI regarded him narrowed eyes, crossing its arms across its chest tightly. After a moment, it disappeared.

“It’s not happy with you,” Rush murmured.

“I don’t really give a fuck,” Young said flatly.

“Can someone please explain what’s going on?” Greer asked.

Rush sighed. “Colonel Young is in the process of picking a fight with a sentient starship.”

TJ and Greer turned to regard Young with twin incredulous stares.

He shrugged. “I’d say it was picking a fight with me.”

TJ said uncertainly, “That… doesn’t sound like a great idea.”

“What’s it going to do? Slam doors in my face?”

“You know it’s capable of a great deal more than that,” Rush said. “And so does everyone else here. You might as well drop your ludicrous military posturing and admit that—“

“Hey,” Greer said, flicking him gently on the shoulder. “Take it down a notch.”

Amazingly, Rush stopped and drew a deep breath, making an effort to stay calm.

“Yeah, there you go. Now finish eating dinner so TJ and I can get out of here.”

“You eat it,” Rush said, pushing the half-eaten power bar towards him. “It’s disgusting.”

“Nope.” Greer pushed it back. “That’s all yours.”

“Then at least take him with you.” Rush nodded in Young’s direction.

Greer glanced at Young. “Pretty sure that one’s yours, too.”

Young turned his head away, staring at the far wall and willing himself not to admit he was hurt. He was glad when TJ made her way over to him.

“His temperature’s not going up,” she said quietly. “I don’t think this is normal.”

“No,” Young said tightly. “Of course it’s not.”

“I mean—“ she hesitated. “I think this might be the virus. Messing with his body temperature. I want to come back in a few hours and take some blood. I’ll know more after that. That way I can keep an eye on his temperature, too.”

“Right,” Young said. “Fine.”

“Everett—“ She touched his arm with a pained look. “I’ll stay if you want me to; I just thought—“

“No, it’s fine. We’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” she whispered. She gestured to Greer.

When they’d gone, Young stayed where he was, back against the wall and arms crossed against his chest. The room was very quiet, and the lights were dim and bluish. Rush lay curled under the heap of blankets, still shivering slightly. Young had pulled back from his mind, and was getting very little from it. Most of what he was sensing seemed to be in Ancient, anyway. Right now, that felt absurdly like a Keep Out sign.

Young thought maybe Rush would just go to sleep, and they’d be able to put off talking. It seemed easier. Young could go sleep on the couch; he could get away from Rush, at least for a few hours. But after a while, Rush said in a barely audible voice, “You should make Greer your second, you know.”

Young said levelly, “Scott’s doing a perfectly fine job.”

There was a short silence.

“You’re just afraid he’d back me the next time I staged a coup.” It was a weak attempt at humor, and Rush knew it. There was something nervous and almost apologetic in his tone.

Another silence followed.

Young sighed and covered his face with his hands. “You were much better at this in the interface,” he said.

“We talked in the interface?”

“Yeah. You never remember.”

“No.”

“TJ says your brain can’t store the memories.”

“Yes,” Rush said. “I know.”

“You showed me Oxford and made it snow. As an apology.”

Rush was quiet. “That sounds nice,” he said at last, sounding wistful. “Well. Maybe not the snow part.”

“It was.”

“I wish—“ Rush swallowed. “I wish I could do that. Now.”

Young shut his eyes for a long time. “Okay,” he said finally.

“Okay?” Rush echoed tentatively.

“Yeah. Okay. I won’t make you say it.” He opened his eyes and looked at Rush. “You’re— a lot of work, you know,” he said, his throat tight.

“I know,” Rush murmured. “But think about how I feel. I have to deal with myself all the time.”

Young smiled at that in spite of himself. But the smile gradually faltered. “I don’t want you to change,” he whispered hoarsely. “That’s what’s happening here, right? I don’t want you to— ascend, or whatever. I want you to stay human.”

“I know,” Rush said quietly.

“So tell the AI to go to hell. Stay with me. Us. Help me get the crew back to Earth. Forget about the mission.”

“Please don’t say that,” Rush said, his voice suddenly strained. “Please don’t— when you— it attracts attention. Those two things you— “ He broke off and took a breath. “Want. They’re not— in— independent of—“ He seemed to be having trouble finding the words.

Young crossed the room to him, alarmed. “Rush, what’s going on?”

“I can’t— You’re putting me in a—“ He gestured vaguely. “Position. That.” He made a small, frustrated sound at the back of his throat.

Young shook his shoulder. “What’s happening? Tell me what’s happening.”

“I—“ Rush broke off again. “Meom mentim weisse.” He reached out and made a weak gesture between his head and Young’s.

Young drew back the block between them and tried to peer into Rush’s mind, squinting at the intensity of the resulting headache. It was hard to get a picture of what was going on; everything was still at wrong angles in a way that made Young nauseated to look at. But something else was also happening: something was torquing Rush’s thoughts to an excruciating state of pressure, clamping down on all the space in his brain, cramming every cell and crack with relentless data until Rush wasn’t even able to think. It wasn’t hard to imagine what was responsible.

“Stop,” Young said, frantic, his hands going to Rush’s shoulders. “Stop trying to tell me. I get it. Destiny won’t let you.”

Rush breathed out as the pressure released, going limp.

“Nick,” Young said shakily. “Nick, are you okay?”

Rush nodded. wincing as he brought a hand up to his temple.

Young exhaled in relief.

“Who said you could call me Nick?” Rush said after a moment.

“If Colonel Carter and the AI— and Telford, for God’s sake— get to call you Nick,” Young said, “then I definitely do too.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Come on.”

“Well,” Rush said drowsily. “I’ll consider your petition. But it doesn’t mean I like you.”

“No,” Young said. “Of course not.”

“Everett.”

“Hmm?” He was smoothing Rush’s hair back from his forehead.

“Don’t sleep on the sofa. You’re very— warm.”

“Okay,” Young said softly.

“Efficiency. Heat.”

“Yeah. I get it.”

“That’s the only reason.”

“Right,” Young said. “Go to sleep. I’ll be there in a minute. I promise.”

“Mm.” Rush was mostly asleep already. Young could feel the exact moment he transitioned into fractured dreams.

He watched Rush for a moment, continuing to trail absent fingers through the fine strands of his hair. Rush was frowning in his sleep, like even there he couldn’t seem to catch a break. Although maybe he was just picking a fight with dream-Colonel-Young. God. Rush’s dreams. Young was pretty sure he caught glimpses of them sometimes, though he always struggled to remember what he’d seen. He was left with the lasting sense that they weren’t very happy. Was it any wonder?

With a sigh, Young finally looked up at the figure he’d been avoiding for the last few minutes— the figure he’d sensed more than seen standing next the bed, like a specter from some children’s story.

The AI shifted under his sudden attention. Its mouth was a thin line, its expression ominous. It folded its arms across its chest.

“We need to talk,” it said.

Chapter Text

It looked like Sheppard now, this— whatever it was, a collection of pixels, an excitation of neurons in Young’s brain. He’d never really stopped to wonder how the AI worked. What it was made of. That seemed important suddenly. How could it understand what it was doing to Rush if it had never had a body? If it had never actually felt what it was like to be cold, or confused, or tired, or hungry, or even scared— because Rush had said Destiny was afraid, but Destiny couldn’t be afraid. It didn’t have the right neurochemical processes for something like that. And maybe thinking about this should have made Young feel more sympathy for it, the way you got when you were mad at a kid and then realized they didn’t actually know how much they’d hurt someone, because they couldn’t yet imagine that kind of hurt. But instead he felt angrier.

He pushed himself up from the bed. “Don’t you dare wake him up,” he said.

“Stop interfering in things that don’t concern you!” the AI retorted, and God, Young was having a hard time looking at it, because it was Sheppard, it was Sheppard, and he didn’t want to hurt Sheppard, but he really wanted to hurt the fucking ship.

“Don’t concern me?” he said incredulously. “You know, you are a fucking piece of work. I mean— in every sense of the words. You’re a thing that someone made. You’re a computer program. And you’re going to come in here and tell me that it doesn’t concern me what happens to the human beings I’m trying to keep alive, not to mention the human being that you’re torturing the shit out of? I’d say all of this concerns me a hell of a lot more than it concerns you, considering that it doesn’t seem to concern you at all.”

“You’re wrong,” the AI said, agitated. “You are making a play on words. It has no meaning. It is a rhetorical device. The mission does not concern you. You should not be involved in it.”

Young spread his hands. “You want to tell me what the goddamn mission is, so I can make sure to keep my nose out of it?”

“You will seek to obstruct it. This is already your stated goal.”

“What, because I want to keep Rush human?

The AI made a sound of frustration. “Why do you insist on this?”

Young shook his head. “The fact that you have to ask that question means you won’t understand the answer.”

“What is so great about being human?” it demanded, its voice rising. “What is so superior about it? Are you not an assemblage of circuits like any other? A brief and uncertain alliance of cells, shedding and acquiring as you go, reborn and dying in pieces, held together by the most tenuous of biological threads? You assign meaning to your suffering at the same time as you abhor it, so that you insist on the insufficiency of that which does not suffer, yet denounce me for sanctioning this so-called pinnacle of humanness! I would ask which you prefer, that he be human or that he not suffer, if the question were not so fundamentally, inexcusably flawed, as the very definition of suffering seems to admit only humans to its purview! I am not human; therefore I may not suffer. Is that not your thought?”

It was breathing hard. Or it looked like it was breathing hard. It would have been breathing hard, if it breathed.

Young didn’t know how to respond. “You’re upset,” he said finally.

Yes,” the AI said, looking distressed. “I suffer. I do suffer.”

“Then how can you possibly do this to him?” Young exploded in a kind of agonized whisper, gesturing at Rush. “Do you understand what you’re putting him through? Do you even get that you’re torturing him— that you’re killing him?”

“He does not perceive it as torture,” the AI said uncertainly.

“Are you so sure about that?”

It looked away, biting its lip. “He suffers only because you allow him to suffer. None of this is frightening to him. And it would not hurt him if you would allow him to use the energy that Destiny can provide!”

“What, so you can kill him faster?” Young laughed harshly, turning away.

“Your goal of prolonging his survival is acceptable. For now.”

“Acceptable. Great. Thanks. I’m glad it’s acceptable to you. I’m so glad that you care so much.”

“I care about the mission,” the AI said. “Nick cares about the mission.”

Nick cares about sawing his goddamn foot off every time someone says the word trap!” Young ran an angry hand through his hair. “Nick shot his own brain full of electricity because he wanted to see what would happen, so you’ll forgive me if I decline to give a damn about what Nick thinks is for the best. And as for you—“ He leveled a finger at it. “You were programmed to care about your mission by a bunch of people who’ve been dead for a million years. They’re dead, or they ascended, whatever that’s worth as a difference, and they don’t give a fuck about the mission anymore. You’re the only thing left. You’re a fucking ghost. An echo. You have no purpose.”

“That’s not true!” The AI hugged its arms across its chest. “You do not understand. You cannot understand. Nick warned me that this would be the case.”

“I just bet he did. I bet he gave you all kinds of warnings about me.”

“He seeks to minimize conflict,” the AI said. “He is aware that any struggle will, by necessity, play out in the only common ground that you and I share.”

“Yup,” Young said tightly. “I’m aware of that fact. I got it. You made it incredibly obvious about five minutes ago.”

“I don’t wish to hurt him,” it said. It glanced at Rush, its eyebrows drawing up in an unhappy expression. “But interference in the mission is unacceptable.”

Young directed a flat stare at it. “Is that a threat?”

“I should not need to threaten you,” it said, sounding frustrated. “You are unimportant. Ephemeral. As transient as a spark. Unconscious even of your own nature. To me, you are insufficient.”

“If that’s true, then why do I upset you so much?” Young shot back. Then he paused for a moment. “You said should not,he said slowly. “You should not need to threaten me. I should not be involved in the mission. But I am? Is that what you’re afraid of?”

The AI turned away, throwing a hand up. “You’ve complicated everything. Both of you.”

“Yeah, well, complicating things is one of humanity’s defining characteristics. And I’ve never met anyone better at complicating the shit out of things than Rush.”

It didn’t respond for a long time. It was staring at the deck. “Yes,” it said softly at last.

“What do you mean? Yes, we complicate things?”

“Yes. And: yes. It was a threat.”

Their eyes met. Young felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle. He was reminded of meeting the thing for the very first time, when he’d been acutely aware of it as something other. Something very alien to him.

“So tread carefully,” it whispered. It turned on its heel, walking straight through a bulkhead and out of sight.

“Fuck,” Young breathed shakily.

Rush had slept through the entire conversation. Young’s immediate instinct was to go to him, as though he could protect Rush if the AI decided to do… whatever it felt like doing. He kicked off his uniform trousers and jacket and crawled into bed, where Rush was still shivering slightly under the layers of blankets. Young curled himself around him, wincing at the cold. Rush made a faint contented sound, pushing closer.

“Yeah,” Young murmured under his breath. “I know. Warm.”

He pulled the blankets up and wrapped an arm around Rush’s shoulders. Already he felt besieged by the cold, like it knew his purpose and opposed it, like it wanted Rush’s body for itself, and like a signal was being communicated: no matter how warm Young got, he would never be warm enough.


That was a strange night. TJ woke Young four hours later to take Rush’s vitals, not commenting on the fact that Young had clearly been sleeping next to him. Four hours after that, she was back, to find that Rush’s temperature was up to almost ninety-four degrees— which was, she said, not great, but still an improvement. She woke Rush briefly to take some blood, which he didn’t seem totally conscious for, and then left. Young drowsed and had a number of really peculiar dreams in which Rush kept appearing and disappearing, getting more and more frustrated each time. In the last dream, Young sighed and finally said, “Well, make up your mind. Are you coming or going?” But before he could hear Rush’s answer, TJ was waking him again, because it had been four hours, and she had brought breakfast for him and Rush.

It was white paste from the mess. “No power bars?” Young said, half-joking.

“I’m out,” TJ said ruefully. “Even of the awful SGC ones. I wish— Well, I guess whenever you run out, you wish you hadn’t. But he’s going to have to be really good about eating,” she said, with a nod of her head towards the still-sleeping Rush. “Hypoglycemia’s not going to help with the thermoregulation, or— whatever else is going on.”

“Yeah,” Young said. “About that. Look— do you think that if Homeworld Command dialed Destiny and sent supplies, that antivirals might have an effect on all of this?”

“It’s possible,” TJ said. “His bloodwork from this morning suggests that this could be a viral flare, and we know that the viral vector from the chair is propagating via integration into his genome. That makes me think its lifecycle is probably similar to the Earth retroviruses. I can talk with Dr. Lam on Earth— she has a lot of experience in that area. But at the same time— he’s not human. And this isn’t a human virus. So it’s hard to know what to expect. If it were me, I’d try him on some likely drugs to see if we can at least gain some ground.”

“Okay,” Young said. He watched her check Rush’s temperature. “Up?” he asked. “Or down?”

“Down,” she said quietly, withdrawing the thermometer. “Make sure he eats breakfast. And I brought some electrolyte solution for you to warm up.”

Young nodded distractedly. “TJ,” he said as she turned to go. “Why don’t you start drawing up a list of what you’d want from Earth. Generally and— specifically. Talk to Dr. Lam. Tell her the basics, but try not to file a formal report.”

“I thought there were insurmountable power difficulties that were going to prevent the creation of a wormhole,” TJ said, her eyes narrowing.

Young winced. “Insurmountable might not have been the most accurate term.”

“I see.”

“Make a list,” he repeated.

“Yes, sir,” she said with a flash of disapproving formality. She didn’t like being lied to. “I’ll see you in four hours.”

“TJ,” he said, when she was halfway out the door. “Talk to Lam soon.”

She hesitated, looking back at Rush, and nodded.

Young sighed, turning back to the dimly lit interior of the room. Rush was deeply asleep and barely dreaming, just flicking through fragments here and there: lines of chalk against a blackboard, rain on a window, a staticky radio, silver grass.

Young sat at the edge of the bed. “Rush,” he said.

Rush didn’t stir.

//Rush.//

Rush made a vague humming sound. “Neum,” he murmured. “En cubaid stae. Tegei auditiones docendes sent? Revuenie; caledos est.” He frowned and wrinkled his nose, burrowing deeper under the blankets.

“Yeah, I know,” Young said. “You’re cold. But you’ve got to get up and eat.”

“No,” Rush said without waking.

“Yes,” Young said, rolling his eyes and giving Rush a slight mental shove. “Sorry.”

He could feel Rush wake up— the whole world seemed to go abruptly sideways, and Young had to pull back with a sense of alarm. He hadn’t realized that even noises could be sideways, but they were, but they weren’t sideways, exactly; it was more like they were at wrong angles to themselves, and there was so much of them— not so many, but so much of what was there, the sinusoidal waves propagating through the air, and turbulence itself, which had a noise, and then when Rush got his eyes open, everything that he could see was humming in a way that wasn’t sound, because it was much smaller than sound, so much smaller, and everything was full of it; even one single cell was thousands and thousands of notes singing to themselves, and it should have been beautiful, but it was too much, too much noise that wasn’t noise, and—

A headache crashed into them both, along with a vague sense of nausea as Rush tried to stop the world from being so much. It took a couple of seconds for things to resolve into the right forms.

“Ugh,” Rush said, rubbing his head. “I feel terrible.”

“What was that?” Young said. “No wonder you have a headache.”

“Ignore it. It’s just—“ Rush made a tired gesture. “You know.”

“I really don’t know,” Young said skeptically.

“No,” Rush agreed, and tried to turn over and go back to sleep.

“Nope,” Young said, catching his shoulder. “TJ says you’ve got to eat. It’ll help with the hypothermia.”

“Yes, I’m sure she thinks that,” Rush murmured.

“Which means what, exactly?”

“Nothing.”

Rush.

“Look,” Rush said wearily. “It’s very difficult to control complex systems from the top down. Have you got any idea how much energy it takes to monitor a human body’s temperature? I always assumed it would be like a ship, but it’s not. It’s like thousands of ships, very small ones. I’m sure at some point one gets used to it, if one has to, and so forth and so on, but perhaps everyone could give me a few days.” He looked up pointedly at the ceiling and raised his voice while delivering those last few words. “Being cold is hardly a life-threatening condition.”

“I hope you know that’s not true,” Young said. “Also, what the fuck?

Rush sighed. “You knew a certain process of… transformation was taking place. This is apparently one of the effects.”

“What are you going to have to do next, control your own heartbeat?”

Rush seemed to give the question serious consideration. “I very much doubt it,” he said matter-of-factly. “I fail to see how that would in any way facilitate the energetic conversion of bodily mass. I can ask the AI, if you like.”

“Right. Your buddy the AI,” Young said grimly.

Rush picked up on his tone. He gave Young a guarded look. “I thought you were bringing me breakfast in bed. This feels more like an interrogation.”

“I’m not—“ Young began, but gave up. “All right, sure. Breakfast in bed.” He reached over and grabbed the bowl of protein mix that TJ had left, along with the bottle of electrolyte solution, and dumped them in Rush’s lap. “Here you go.”

“Paste and saltwater,” Rush said, distinctly unimpressed.

“TJ suggested warm saltwater, actually. But I’m a good guy, so I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear her.”

“Yes, yes.” Rush said, rolling his eyes. “I feel positively spoilt.” He did start eating the protein mix in careful spoonfuls, which was a bigger concession than Young had hoped to get without a significantly more involved discussion.

Young watched him for a minute. “You seem better,” he observed carefully.

“Have you felt this headache?”

“Yeah, but you’re not shivering as much. And you’re a lot more— with it.”

Rush shrugged.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Young asked.

“And we’re back to interrogation. You Special Forces sorts just can’t resist, can you?”

“Humor me,” Young said.

“Do I ever do anything else?” But Rush paused and turned his focus inward. Young felt a sensation not unlike an icepick driving itself into his brain as Rush tried to order what seemed like an unbelievable amount of data— flashes of code and harmonics and warning lights from the ship mingling with more of the strange angular sensory overload he’d experienced upon waking, sound waves and molecules and strings and turbulence. Eventually Rush produced a memory of Greer flicking him on the shoulder, which seemed to pull other related memories with it. “Tamara forcing me to eat a power bar?” he offered uncertainly.

“You don’t remember fighting with the AI?”

Rush looked at him in disbelief. “I fought with it? I did?”

“Well— sort of. You were trying to tell me something, and it stopped you.”

“What was I trying to tell you?”

“Yeah. Let’s just recreate the same conditions and see if it happens again,” Young said shortly. “That sounds like a great idea.”

“I’m sure it had a logical reason. It typically does,” Rush said, calmly eating another spoonful of paste.

“What does that remind me of,” Young said under his breath. He was remembering the way that Rush had talked about Telford: He did what’s necessary. That’s what he does. What’s necessary. And that was another whole can of worms he’d opened, one that he was going to have to talk through with Rush.

Rush put down the spoon. “You might as well tell me,” he said, resigned. “I can feel you thinking about it, whatever it is. You’re very loud.”

“You’re not exactly quiet yourself,” Young retorted, miffed. “You’re lucky I don’t speak Ancient.”

Rush shrugged. “You’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn.”

“Right, I can’t believe I didn’t pick up a dead alien language while running a million-year-old starship for the last two years.”

Rush’s mouth quirked. “Running is, perhaps, an optimistic word choice.”

“Yeah, yeah. Eat your goddamn breakfast,” Young said.

He waited till Rush had finished most of the bowl of protein before he said cautiously, “I’m reconsidering Homeworld Command’s plan to dial Destiny.”

Rush stopped eating. “I thought we were waiting on that.”

“That’s why I said reconsidering.

“How is our current situation different from ten days ago?”

“It’s not,” Young admitted, “but we’re running low on medical supplies, and—“

Rush fixed him with a level stare. “Please don’t insult my intelligence.”

Young sighed. He said