Force over Distance: The Bridge over the Rhine
Dale Volker misses his cat.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Extra boundary violations. References to suicide.
Text iteration: Witching hour.
Audio status: Theoretical.
Additional notes: None.
The Bridge over the Rhine
Dale Volker misses his cat.
Mendelssohn is just about the cutest, smartest, most adorable cat in the history of cats. Loves people. Pounces at snowflakes falling on the other side of a window. Won’t suffer a flowering plant to live. Pretty reliably purrs when Volker plays Impressionist Era composers like Debussy or Ravel. Very interested in the TV shows Volker likes, which are mostly from a decade or so back, full of cardboard rocks and bad special effects but great stories.
God he misses that cat.
He rubs his eyes and switches the display on the CI room monitors to the kino feed from the sealed corridor beyond the FTL drive. Atmosphere still holding. That’s good.
Sergeant Siler had offered to cat-sit for Volker during his time on Icarus. Siler’d been nice. Really good with Mendelssohn, excited about building him a custom cat tree for his (supposed) six-week stay. Last he’d heard his cat was happy, but Siler doesn’t exactly have a low-risk job.
Volker sighs, rubs his eyes, and hunches over the screen in front of him.
It’s for the best that Mendelssohn’s on Earth. Icarus had nightly geomagnetic storms and the Prince of Cats hates thunder. It would’ve been stressful, having him on an infinitely dangerous starship. Thinking about TJ’s baby had been bad enough—
Why does he do this to himself? Thoughts are bad. It’s better not to think them.
He readjusts his oh-so-comfortable backless stool of bare metal, turns to his laptop, and scrolls through his expanded music collection. Three cheers for the RSM. He’s made an hours-long playlist of all the new stuff. He queues that up, shuts his eyes, and presses the shuffle button.
He sits there, eyes shut, listening, trying to guess. Ooooh. Nothing early (unless it’s late Beethoven, that rascal). Could be Chopin? Could be Debussy. Except it sounds—ugh it sounds so familiar. And not familiar at all. What the heck? Usually he can nail down the composer in thirty seconds or less. He frowns. He cocks his head.
He’s got it.
This is a piano arrangement of Symphonie fantastique.
“Illegal!” he whispers, delighted. “Camile Wray, you little minx. Who’s got the balls to rearrange Berlioz?” He checks the playlist.
He snorts. Oh yeah. That tracks.
Camile and Dale are the Reigning Monarchs of Destiny’s Classical Buffs. Together, they’d made it through two years by pooling their joint collections. Volker’s had been pretty well-rounded, with all the essentials of the big three: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms (he goes NOWHERE without Brahms) plus a little more Elgar than anyone had any business carrying around on their iPod. Camile, bless her Impressionistic heart, had the complete works of Claude Debussy with her on Icarus, plus a handful of piano sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven. Lisa contributed the Amadeus soundtrack (SOLID GOLD) and a CD’s worth of Puccini arias (of course). Dunning had the soundtrack to Shawshank Redemption and, from that, they’d snagged Che soave zeffiretto. From Chloe’s dad they’d inherited an iPod full of Mahler. Go figure.
But now, god, now they have so much more.
He’s so happy he could cry.
And he has.
He wipes his nose.
It’s the little things. The Bartok at breakfast, the Liszt at lunch, the Dvorák at dinner. The opera at 11:00 AM on Saturdays with Camile and Lisa, just the way NPR used to do it. Just the way NPR still does it, a universe away.
Before the RSM, he’d spent an evening with Wray, brainstorming a list of every piece of classical music they might ever want, and, at the end of it, Volker’d confessed just how much he wished he could get an instrument. Any instrument. A violin would’ve been ideal; it’s what he’s best at, but god it’s so delicate. Pitched through the gate at highway speeds? What if it broke?
That’d be just his luck.
Wray’d suggested the clarinet. Offered to teach him. So, for his allotment of personal items, Volker requested one, packed in a lightweight, carbon case, with all the reeds the weight limit would allow.
As far as Volker knows, his clarinet is the only instrument on board, if you don’t count the walls of Destiny themselves.
Maybe one day they’ll get another resupply.
It’d be incredible if they had enough instruments for a string quartet. Chloe’d played the violin in high school. She’s a quick study; Volker could train her right up. Lisa’s got a little viola experience. Someone could learn cello. James, maybe? She’s up for most things. Wray could hop in for clarinet quintets. Rush could play piano. Schumann has a great piano quintet. Passionate and textured.
“But it’s perfect as it is.” He imitates Tom Hulce’s delivery from Amadeus, glossing it with Scottish. “I can’t rewrite what’s perfect.” He makes a face at no one.
Does Rush know Volker made a Mozart dig at him, two weeks in?
Nick Rush is a tragic character. Volker knows it. Rush knows Volker knows. It’s why the guy avoids him. Why he goes in for the attack every chance he gets, with an endless string of commentary on the “lexical accuracy” and “mathematical rigor” Volker supposedly lacks.
Back on the Icarus base, three years and a three lives back, Volker’d taken a wrong turn during one of the nightly geomagnetic storms. He’d wound up near the computer core, where someone, working late, had spilled fluorescent light and classical music into the hall.
He’ll never know who it was, but, all the same, he likes to think it was Lisa.
It’d been Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. A beautiful, haunting piece.
Volker’d approached the room, walking slowly, not paying attention to his surroundings. He’d practically been on top of Rush before he’d noticed the guy, dressed in shades of drab that matched the evening cement, one hand pressed to his chest, like he was in terrible pain.
Their eyes had met.
Rush’d seen something in Volker’s face he hadn’t liked. Sympathy, maybe? Someone moved by the storm, by the music, by the world’s best cryptographer throwing himself at a lock, day after day, night after night.
He wonders, sometimes, now that everyone’s talking about D-branes and “salt lines” and multiversal planes—whether maybe there’s a world where he’d caught Rush’s arm before he could blow past. Said: “Wait.” Said: “E minor’ll do that.” Said: “I named my cat after that guy.” Said anything, anything at all to break up whatever terrible story the man was spinning in his head.
But he’d said nothing. He’d let Rush go.
And the guy has hated him ever since.
After half a dozen rebuffed overtures relating to classical music, Volker’d almost talked himself into the idea that it wasn’t the Mendelssohn Concerto at all that had made the man hang onto his heart like someone was trying to rip it away.
But then, when Rush’d sat in the chair and unlocked the ship—the walls had been full of Mozart’s Sonata No. 8. In A minor. And gosh dang it could the guy play: a strong attack, delicate quaver chords, a passionate, troublingly physical musicality for a piece that was coming from the man’s head.
He has to play. He has to. The way he works the consoles all but guarantees it.
Why the heck is Rush so closed off about music? He slams laptops shut that are playing anything audible in shared spaces. He’d physically recoiled at the Volker’s offer to lend him his iPod. If he can play, if he can really play, if he knows what it is to turn the soul to wordless song—and he does, he must—why won’t he listen?
God knows. Volker’s never gonna find out. Not on this brane of the multiverse.
His playlist offers up Lucia di Lammermoor, playing the second scene of the third act aloud into the cold. Into the quiet.
Lisa’s into opera. She’d gotten a boatload of it in the resupply.
Lisa’s into so many cool things. Opera and piano and violin concertos and musical theatre and The Arcade Fire and reading and “reading” and plants and exoplanets that aren’t tidally locked and decaf tea and being a vegetarian and being an optimist and—Greer.
She’s really really into Greer.
Greer’s pretty darn great, he has to admit. The man gave him a frickin’ kidney? It’s kinda hard to resist a friendship hack of that magnitude. Still, no matter how much he likes Greer, it’s not going to keep him from noticing that Lisa is one of the only women on the ship who hasn’t run out of her perfume or body spray or whatever the prettiest girls use.
It smells like flowers.
He’s not thinking about that right now. He’s not. Nor is he thinking about how he’s cold, how he’s tired, how the new immunosuppressive drugs they got from Earth are making him feel nauseated and also worried that his decimated immune system is going to be taken down by the next contagion they come across?
“We’re not thinking about that,” he mutters to himself. “None of those things. We’re thinking about our shiny, new life support monitoring station. Always wanted one of those.”
Life support is key.
Behind him, the door mechanism spins. The panels swish open. He turns, squinting in the brighter light of the hallway.
Of course it is.
He’s nothing but a straight-shouldered silhouette, backlit by a blaze of night-spectrum blue.
His playlist shuffles to the first movement of Mozart’s twentieth piano concerto. Why not.
“Hey,” Volker says quietly, trying to break the tension that’s crystallizing in the air between them under the pressure of the music, of the dark, of Rush’s outline. “You want me to turn this off?”
“Volker,” Rush says, polite and careful, ignoring the music. “May I borrow your radio? Mine has run down.”
“Uh, sure,” Volker pulls his radio off his belt and holds it out.
Rush advances slowly. He’s walking without his crutch. He’s chalk-pale in the blue light, but his hair and his eyes are dark. His gaze isn’t tracking Volker. It’s tracking something else. Something in the center of the room.
The doors swish shut.
“D minor,” Rush says absently.
“Um, yeah.” Volker swallows. “Nice one. You can identify intervals, I guess? Or maybe you know the piece?”
Rush stays silent. His gaze is fixed on the center of the room.
“You okay, buddy?” Volker gets off his stool.
Rush says nothing. Probably that’s because he doesn’t answer to “buddy.”
“Rush,” Volker says. “Are you okay, man?”
“I don’t think so,” Rush whispers.
Welp. That’s a new one.
“Volker.” With effort, Rush focuses on him. “May I borrow your radio? Mine has run down.” The delivery and wording and cadence is almost exactly the same as the way he said it when he entered the room.
“I’m holding it out to you,” Volker says, worried as heck and trying to ignore a deep unease at the uncanny tilt of Rush’s head, the politeness of his words, and the way his attention is split—half here, half gone. “You want me to call someone for you? TJ maybe? Colonel Young?”
“No, thank you,” Rush whispers. “I just want to use your radio.”
Volker’s heart is racing. “Okay,” he says.
Still nothing happens. Rush doesn’t take his radio. His radio that he’s literally offering, arm outstretched.
Rush’s eyes are so dark and the Mozart is so surreal.
He moves the radio into Rush’s direct line of sight. “Right here.”
“Thanks.” Rush takes the radio. With an absent, methodical ease, he cracks it open, pulls the transmitter, drops it on the floor, and crushes it beneath boot.
Across the room, the bolt in the doors of the CI room drives itself home.
Rush snaps the radio’s casing back together and hands the useless device to Volker.
Volker clips it to his belt out of habit.
This is bad.
His fingers are numb. They tingle at their tips.
Rush walks to the nearest monitor bank.
“Hi, so, you’re, uh,” he swallows in a dry throat. “You’re really freaking me out, man.”
Rush doesn’t respond.
Volker taps his console, trying to message the bridge.
He’s locked out.
He takes a breath.
He’s not gonna panic.
Panicking is three-years-ago Dale.
Present-day Dale is fine.
Present-day Dale maybe needs a minute.
Present-day Dale freaks out silently, because this is bad, right? Really bad. Rush has been walking the fine sanity line for a while now. Anything could be wrong with him. Anything. He could be about to drop dead, he could be about to take the ship offline, he could be about to do some new and totally upsetting thing that Volker doesn’t even have the ability to envision.
Present-day Dale gets it together.
He approaches Rush, coming at him from a direction that’s in his line of sight, trying not to startle him. He edges closer, until they’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder, looking at the ship’s power grid.
“So,” Volker says. “How’s it going? You feeling okay?”
“I apologize for destroying your radio.” Rush is eerily polite.
Nick Rush Politeness, in Volker’s experience, means one of two things: the guy is trying to control a dangerous interpersonal dynamic OR he’s about three minutes from passing out. This politeness could go either way.
Volker does NOT want to be the guy standing between Nick Rush and some mutinous plan that Colonel Young is gonna hate and that has a ten percent chance of killing everyone. That’s more of a Greer-flavored problem. Volker ALSO does not want to be the guy locked in a room with an unconscious Nick Rush and no working radio. That’s more of an Eli-flavored problem.
“Do you wanna sit?” Volker asks hopefully.
“No,” Rush whispers, flexing his left foot against the floor.
Volker winces. “You said before that, uh, you don’t think you’re okay?”
Rush says nothing.
Lexical accuracy! Volker gives himself an internal pep-talk. Precision! He clears his throat. “What’s the, uh, specific reason that you don’t think you’re okay?”
“I’m actively hallucinating,” Rush replies.
“Oh yeah?” Volker says weakly.
“Yes.” A thin trickle of mostly-dried blood trails from behind Rush’s ear, partially obscured by his hair. “Bit boxed in, at the moment.”
“Boxed in?” Volker chokes on the question.
“Yes,” Rush whispers. “I’ve run into a complication.”
“Okay.” Volker wipes his hands on his pants. “You, uh, want some help?”
“Yes.” Rush stares at a point beyond the monitors.
Why’d you destroy my radio then, Volker heroically does NOT shout.
Rush’s gaze flicks laterally. “Y’should be so lucky,” he hisses at the empty air. “Stay out of it.”
“Um, hallucination?” Volker asks, trying to sound like this is all in a day’s work.
Volker is out of his depth. Volker is full fathoms five and sinking.
“I’ve deconvoluted the carrier wave that concealed the Nakai signal. I’ve isolated it from the CPU. I should be able to track it to its source.”
“Oh yeah?” Volker asks, encouraged. That actually doesn’t sound crazy, other than the part where Rush is probably implying he did it psychically. “Nice work, man. Uh, why are you hallucinating though?”
Rush flinches at something Volker can’t see. “I think it may be a defensive feature of the device itself.”
“You think the tracking device is messing with you?”
“I’m quite concerned that’s the case, yes,” Rush breathes, his fingers clamped on the monitor bank in front of them, his eyes locked on something Volker can’t see.
“Maybe we should tell the colonel about this,” he offers.
“I disagree,” Rush replies, terrifyingly courteous.
Volker squeezes his eyes shut, wastes no time cursing his life and his choices, and gets right on his game. “Why do you think it’s messing with you?”
“To prevent localization and removal,” Rush replies.
“So it’s intelligent?”
“To at least some degree, yes. I think so.”
“Yes,” Rush says, with the ghost of a smile. “‘Crap’.”
“Okay.” Volker’s panting with his own adrenaline. “Tell me everything you know.”
“I’ve suspected for days they planted it near life support,” Rush whispers. “The heart of the ship. I still don’t have a precise location. Near astrometrics, I think. Not in astrometrics.”
“Wait, we have an astrometrics lab?”
“Off the reclaimed corridor. The source is terribly hard to localize. I’m about to make an in-person attempt.”
“Wait, what? No. Rush. C’mon. We need the whole gang for this. Chloe’s incredible with Nakai tech. She was edgy all morning when we were in that territory; this is probably why.”
Rush turns to Volker and fixes him with an unnerving, unblinking gaze. “If I fail, do your best with Chloe and a spectrum analyzer. The carrier wave is blended into the narrow range between internal and external sensor bands. Even with an FFT, you’ll find the signal’s quite diffuse. D’you understand what’s required?”
“Rush!” Volker’s voice cracks.
“I can’t live with this,” Rush breathes, looking back to the center of the room. “It’s profoundly dangerous. I’ll localize it and make a neutralization attempt.”
“No. We wake everyone now,” Volker hisses. “Chloe. Eli. Lisa. Brody. We don’t have to involve James or Young. It’s the middle of the night. We can be done before they’re up. Like ‘oh hey guys, good morning, tracking device problem solved’!”
“No,” Rush whispers.
“Why?” Volker wants to shake the guy.
“It’s too dangerous,” Rush says.
“Yeah, okay, so you think it’s a good solo, middle-of-the-night job for the LEAST sane guy on the ship, then? BECAUSE THAT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE.”
Rush gives him an oblique glance that says, Thanks for nothing.
“Buddy.” Volker regroups. “No offense, but we’re past mincing words here. You’re full-on crazy. You’ve always been crazy? And, as crazy goes, it’s mostly great. I’m a fan. But this idea? This one? It’s a catastrophe. Do not. Go after. An intelligent, hostile, alien device by yourself. When it’s actively influencing your cognition. That is dumb. Okay? That is really really stupid. You’re not a stupid guy, right? And so you’re not gonna do that. We’re agreed. Right? We can agree on that?”
Rush stares at him, flat and cool. “D’you understand what you’re required t’do?”
“No,” Volker says, breathing hard.
Rush hooks a hand over his shoulder, a motion that, for a moment, tones down the eeriness of his demeanor. “Y’know, I find it very difficult to talk to you.”
Volker pulls in a slow breath. “Well, the feeling is mutual.”
“I can’t protect anyone else in this state,” Rush says. “I can’t shield Chloe, should she prove susceptible to the foreign band. Theoretically anyone with an Ancient gene may have sufficient sensitivity to allow for interference. James. Park. Greer. Scott. You. Even now, I can’t entirely shield the AI.”
“So take Brody,” Volker hisses. “Take Colonel Young.”
Rush stares into the center of the room. “Do you understand,” he says, quiet and crisp, “what you’re required to do?”
“No.” Volker holds his ground. “Why are you bleeding?” He touches the space behind his own ear, and Rush mirrors the gesture.
The scientist frowns at his bloodied fingertips. “I don’t think this is real.”
“It’s real,” Volker says grimly, and reaches for Rush’s hair. “Can I—”
Rush shies away so violently he nearly loses his balance. He staggers back, one hand on his chest, breathing shallowly, his expression disoriented. “Please don’t touch me,” he whispers, achingly polite, his eyes on the center of the room.
“Okay,” Volker says. “Sorry man. It’s just—you’re in bad shape.”
The music on Volker’s computer shifts. Rush’s eyes flick over to it.
It’s Schumann this time. His playlist can do no wrong tonight.
“A minor,” Rush says.
“Yeah,” Volker says, trying to lose his panic and his frustration, trying to replace them with patience instead. “Yeah, man. That’s right.” He does his best to sound encouraging. You play, don’t you?”
“No.” The word comes like Volker’s ripping it out of him.
“But you did,” Volker says gently. “Once. Right?”
“You like Schumann?” Volker whispers. “I love Schumann. Strength-trained his hands so hard he ruined his fingers. What a boss. It was terrible for his career as a performer, but great for the rest of us, because he turned to composing.”
Rush’s gaze is locked on nothing. “The Ghost Variations.”
“Yeah,” Volker’s heart is about ready to burst with hope and pity and terror. “I’ve got ‘em, actually.” He turns to his laptop and calls up the opening theme. “You know them? You know this piece?”
Rush looks at him, his expression bleak. “D’you understand what you’re required to do?”
“No,” Volker whispers.
“Someone will find you at the shift change,” Rush says. “Then you can begin.”
“Rush—I can’t let you do this. I can’t let you walk out of here. You know I can’t.”
Rush hooks a hand behind his shoulder, tipping his head forward, as if assailed from all sides. But when he looks up at Volker, his eyes are dark and dangerous. “An’ how will y’stop me, then?”
“Rush,” Volker says. “Please. If you won’t stay, then take me with you.”
“Take you,” Rush whispers, his head cocked, his expression almost fond. He steps in, lifts a hand, and cups Volker’s cheek.
Volker’s too stunned to do anything but stare directly into his eyes.
Rush’s fingers spread, slide into his hair, and lift the lid on his consciousness. Atop and beneath the Ghost Variations he hears a symphony of crystal, running the range of the EM spectrum. Rush is a gorgeous, dissonant melody woven into and atop the song of the ship. He can hear himself, pale and delicate in comparison, full of quiet harmonies. He can hear the FTL drive, and god, god he can hear the shields, the shields are incredible, the shields—
Rush pulls his hand away.
Volker gasps, trembling. The thin and lonely theme of the Ghost Variations continues to play.
“No,” Rush says gently. “I can’t take you.”
Made brave by music and by necessity, Volker tackles him.
They crash to the floor, a tangle of limbs. Volker takes an elbow in the face. His head cracks against the deck plates but he regroups. He rights himself. Rush scrambles to his feet. Volker dives for his ankle and catches it. Rush goes down hard. Volker crawls on top of him, trying to remember the hopeless pointers from the civilian boot camp. He goes for Rush’s arm, twisting it behind his back. Rush fights hard, trying to dislodge him, but Volker has a good forty pounds on the guy. Probably more.
Rush stills, out of breath against the warming deck plates.
“You okay?” Volker asks, his voice high and tight.
“I’ve thought about him quite a bit,” Rush gasps, no fight left in him.
“What?” Volker gasps. “Thought about who?”
He has no idea what the heck he’s gonna do next. He’s sitting on Rush’s back. He’s got the guy’s right wrist in his right hand. His left hand is pressing down on Rush’s shoulders. Rush’s left hand is free. That seems like a problem? He has no idea how to fix it.
“Schumann,” Rush says, breathless, exhausted.
Okay. So. They’re talking about Schumann again? Cool.
“Yes well,” Rush breathes. “Wouldn’t you? If you—” he breaks off, like he’s run out of air.
Crap. Volker’s sitting on his rib cage. “Sorry,” whispers, readjusting.
“If you were constantly hearing—” Rush pauses, breathing shallowly, “—constantly hearing. All I just. Opened for you?”
Volker squeezes his eyes shut riding out a wall of empathy he doesn’t really want, but that’s got his heart in a vise all the same. “Yeah,” he whispers. “Probably.”
“He died,” Rush says, “shortly after composing this. “D’you know the story?”
“I know it,” Volker says, his throat tight and his eyes wet.
“He tried to kill himself.” Rush isn’t really recovering, still breathing way too hard. “In a river.”
“The Rhine,” Volker says. “Maybe not the best conversation topic right now, am I right?”
“When I woke on Icarus, I thought of him,” Rush says.
“When you woke on Icarus?” Volker asks. “What do you mean when you ‘woke’ on Icarus?”
“Because I could hear the gate,” Rush says dreamily, like they’re sitting in a sun-drenched tea nook at Caltech, cups of tea in hand, talking about deep space radio signals. “Even then. Even that early.”
Volker can feel the guy working too hard for air. He shifts his weight back, trying to let up a little more on the pressure. “It’s great we’re bonding and all,” he begins.
“This is not my preferred method,” Rush says.
“Um, yeah. Me neither. That was sarcasm,” Volker replies. “What do you say we—”
Rush drives his left hand and left leg into the floor. With a surge of terrible energy, the man unseats him.
Volker can twist Rush’s arm further and dislocate his shoulder, or he can let go.
He lets go.
Rush lunges away. This time, when Volker reaches for him, a gold field flares across his vision, flash-blinding him in the dim light. His hand stings. He clutches it to his chest. His knees ache against the warm deck plating.
He blinks his vision clear.
On the other side of the force field, Rush is flat on his back, his hair fanned over the floor. His chest is heaving. His muscles are trembling. Volker can feel the floor heating at the field border, like the deck plates are desperate to help him.
“C’mon man,” Volker rasps. “Don’t throw yourself into the Rhine.”
Rush smiles faintly. He lifts a trembling hand and adjusts his glasses.
“Let’s aim for Schubert, okay? Not Schumann. Not Mozart. Just some nice, reliable Schubert. Little emo, underappreciated, died of something very normal. I hope.”
“Fever,” Rush rasps.
Rush sits. “D’you understand what you’re required to do?”
“Do not walk out that door, Rush. Don’t do it.”
“You’ll be all right.” Rush staggers to his feet. His eyes flick laterally. “C’mon, sweetheart. Don’ give us that look.” He crosses the floor. The door unbolts, and opens with a hiss. Rush turns to look at Volker. “Avoid the chair, if possible.”
“What?” Volker breathes, bewildered.
Rush passes into the hall, a dark silhouette.
The door swishes shut.
The bolt shoots home.
Volker draws his knees to his chest and stares at the vacant space in the middle of the room.
The force field falls.
It doesn’t matter. The door is still locked, as are all the consoles. There are no kinos hovering in the dark recesses of the ceiling.
He’s alone. Locked in.
He looks into the darkness.
There’s nothing there.
He can’t shake the memory of an EM spectrum, transposed into the range of human hearing. The cognitive symphony Nick Rush works through, all day, every day.
If the music of the ship exists, and he’s certain it does—
What’d Rush been looking at, in the center of this room?
He takes a shuddering breath.
In a minute, he’ll get up and start working the problem.
In a minute.