Ad Noctum: Chapter 1
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Abduction. Anxiety. Panic. Purposefully insensitive discussion of mental health issues. Boundary problems. Intrapersonal manipulation.
Additional notes: Just know that I’m sporting a very complex facial expression right now.
The sky was clear and cloudless over Pasadena, California.
Dr. Dale Volker threaded his way past the dusty construction site of Caltech’s latest questionable decision in architectural design, jaywalked across California Boulevard, cut through a shadowed shortcut between close-set brick, and passed through the graceful, solid arches on the eastern side of the Planetary Sciences Building.
Once inside, he pulled off his sunglasses and dropped them into his shoulder bag before plunging a hand in after them to fish for his keys. His fingers passed over a nest of pens, his VGA adaptor, his iPod, the tangled wires of two sets of headphones, scraps of paper, and countless other little objects of no consequence that made their home next to the sheaf of final papers from “Topics in Advanced Astrophysics.”
He really needed a better system of shoulder bag organization.
He also needed the caffeine that was in the coffee that was in his hand to actually just be in his bloodstream right about now. That would be good.
Absently, he noted that the door to his lab was already open and looked at his watch. It was only half past nine, a little early for academia, granted, but, then again, the grad students always seemed to be more motivated right before the holidays. It was the general ambiance of the season, he supposed. That, or the bone-crunching fear that seemed to accompany committee meetings and qualifying exams, no matter how much he tried to reassure them.
After a good span of simultaneous walking and coffee-drinking and key-fishing, his hand emerged, victorious, with the key ring in question, which worked out well because it gave him just enough time to detangle said keys from his iPod headphones before he turned down the narrow hallway that led to his office.
There was someone waiting for him.
Someone that wasn’t a grad student.
That was weird.
“Hi,” Volker said, cocking his head to take in his visitor, wondering, with a surge of anxiety, whether it was his week to host the visiting speaker and—if it was, which he doubted—who the heck had he invited?
“Hello,” his visitor said. “Dr. Dale Volker?”
The guy was giving off the familiar, uber-intellectual, artistically unkempt, jacket-jeans-and-incongruously-fancy-shoes type look that came with apex predators of academia. His glasses pulled the whole look together, sharpening it up with the neat lines of their square frames.
“Yup,” Volker said, his hands full of coffee and keys. “That’s me. Hi. And you are?”
“My name is Starr. David Starr.” His voice was more than subtly accented. He sounded Scottish, but Volker wasn’t one hundred percent sure on that one.
“Nice to meet you,” Volker said, finally succeeding in getting his office door unlocked and then unstuck from its slowly warping frame. “You look familiar. Do I know you? Are you on staff here?”
“No,” Starr replied, giving Volker’s doorframe a vaguely displeased look. “I’m not. I’m a professor of mathematics from UC Berkeley. I was visiting one of my colleagues here and I thought I might stop in and see you, if you weren’t busy. I’d like to ask you about your work.”
Volker made his way around his desk and dumped his bag on the journal-article-obscured surface. He pulled his laptop out of his shoulder bag, deftly separating it from the stack of final papers he was supposed to be done grading.
“Yeah,” he said. “No trouble. I’ve got maybe an hour before I have to a committee meeting for one of my students. What’s your area?”
“Applied mathematics,” Starr said, his eyes flicking restlessly around Volker’s office. “With a heavy emphasis on computational modeling. Lately I’ve become quite interested in the cosmic background radiation. Amongst other things.”
“Neat,” Volker replied, still trying to wrap his mind around the reason the other man seemed so darn familiar.
“I’m looking to collaborate with someone who has access to raw data on low-frequency EM emissions across the observable sky.”
“Radio waves? I’m your guy, then.” Volker downed the dregs of his coffee.
“Fantastic,” the other man said, pulling out the word and breaking it off with an intensity that Volker found appealing and off-putting all at once.
“Okay,” Volker said, with a thrill of intellectual anticipation. “What’s this new model?”
“It relies on integer programming to model the topology of the universe based on input values from publicly available WMAP data.”
Volker stared at him.
“Integer programming?” he repeated, his brain a whirring mess of interconnecting ideas. Beneath them, however, he felt an echo of recognition and—something else.
“It’s not a popular approach,” Starr admitted. “And I’m afraid I can’t go into the details until we formally agree to collaborate.”
“I understand,” Volker said. “The topology of the universe is one of the most high profile questions in theoretical astrophysics.”
Starr looked at him, utterly expressionless. “I’m aware.”
“But—“ Volker said, slightly uncomfortable with the man’s demeanor, “maybe that’s not where you’re going with this?”
“Perhaps not,” Starr said, smiling faintly.
“But you want my data to plug into your model?” Volker clarified. “A superimposed map of radio waves and microwaves?”
“Yes,” Starr replied. “That would be ideal.”
“Authorship?” Volker asked.
“Joint,” Starr said.
“If I put one of my thesis students on this full time, they’re gonna need a first-author manuscript.”
“Not a problem,” Starr said, smiling faintly, opening his hands. “Whatever you prefer.”
“Okay then,” Volker said, surprised and slightly suspicious at how easy that had been. He was certain that he wasn’t yet getting the full story. “Want to see the lab? I’ll show you the remote feed to our radio array, then we can take a quick look at the database directly.”
For the briefest of moments, Starr looked wistful. “That sounds wonderful.”
They walked together across the hall and into the open lab.
“Caltech is renovating the majority of its lab space, I hear,” Starr said, as they passed between benches, loaded with cutting edge hardware.
“Yeah,” Volker said. “That’s the plan. Apparently, MIT is building some kind of new physical sciences center, so, you know how it goes. Can’t let the competition get ahead. I’m not complaining though. I’m hoping I’ll get an office that doesn’t flood when it rains.”
“Does it rain often?” Starr asked, faintly amused.
“No,” Volker replied. “Thank god.”
They made their way past the Faraday cages that the adjacent lab was constructing and rounded a corner to find Nupur, his third year graduate student, sitting in front of the live feed that monitored the desert radio array. She glanced up as they came in.
“Hey Dale,” she said, her eyes moving back to the feed. “They’ve got some kind of damage at the eastern end of the grid. We’re not getting any data at the moment. They’ve got some repair guys coming to fix—“ she broke off as she glanced up again, getting a good look at Starr.
“Nupur,” this is Professor Starr. He’ll likely be one of our collaborators—” Volker trailed off in the face of the intent stare that his thesis student had fixed his visitor with. “Um,” Volker said. “Do you guys—know each other or something?”
“I don’t think so,” Starr said, giving Nupur a cool look.
“Hi,” Nupur said, a little breathless, holding out her hand. “Hi. I’m so sorry. You must get this all the time—but you look exactly like that guy. Who disappeared? The mathematician? About six months ago?”
Starr cocked his head. “I’m afraid I don’t know to whom you’re referring.”
“The Fields Medal guy,” Nupur said. “Rush, I think his name was? Nicholas Rush? P=NP?”
Volker looked sharply at Starr, feeling again the same thrill of recognition that he’d felt when he first saw the man. He remembered the news stories at the time—his mind scrambled to latch on to any relevant detail.
“Yes of course,” Starr said, his expression entirely unconcerned. “Quite a loss for the international mathematics community, or so I hear.” He smiled faintly at Nupur. “I never met the man himself, but I hear he was insufferable.”
“Maybe. P=NP though, eh?”Nupur said, with an easy smile. “Cryptography will never be the same. Plus, the drama keeps the undergrads in Comp Sci 101 interested, so hey.”
Starr smiled back at her in a short, perfunctory way, his eyes flicking briefly toward Volker.
Volker looked away.
“You mentioned something about a database?” Starr asked smoothly. Despite his casual stance, with one thumb hooked though a belt loop of his darkwash denim jeans, there was something about him that suggested impatience.
“Yup,” Volker replied. “It’s on an encrypted server that backs up to an external site, but the nice part about it is that it can be accessed from anywhere on teh interwebs.”
Without looking at him, Nupur held up a hand, and Volker gave her a high five.
“Interwebs,” Starr repeated.
“Kids these days,” Volker said with a rueful shake of the head, recovering nicely.
Starr narrowed his eyes at Nupur again. “Quite,” he said dryly.
Volker turned and took a few steps to lean over the nearest keyboard. He navigated quickly to the server he was looking for. In his peripheral vision he could sense Starr go absolutely still. Volker spared him a quick glance while the data loaded.
Starr was watching the screen with a feverish, inappropriate intensity, as if maybe he thought he could light it on fire just by looking at it.
Volker fought down another surge of unease.
The guy was clearly really, really excited about science. Or math. Or both. And that was fine. Volker was excited about science too.
And speaking of which, there was something about the idea of ‘integer programming’ that was kicking around in the back of his brain, giving him a weird vibe.
He pulled up the database and offered Starr the chair that he’d been hovering over. “Check it out,” he said mildly.
Starr slid into position and clicked through menus like he’d laid their code down himself, ignoring the largely uninterpretable spreadsheets of raw data and going straight for the algorithms, drilling down into the VBA code, examining functions briefly before moving on, scanning through the entire thing with more rapidity and intensity than Volker had ever seen anyone apply to endless pages and subpages of matrices.
Abruptly, Starr stopped his rapid navigation through the dataset, his eyes fixed on the topological map of low frequency EM emissions that Volker had begun to assemble.
“How complete is this?” Starr whispered.
“Pretty darn complete,” Volker said, shifting his weight forward onto the balls of his feet, unable to completely conceal his pride in his work.
Nupur flashed him a quick smile.
“Yes,” Starr said quietly, finally turning to look up at him, fixing him with the same fiery gaze that he’d just applied to the data. “That’s what it looks like.”
“What do you think?” Volker asked. “Still interested in collaborating?”
“Very much so,” Starr said, getting to his feet. “Shall we work out the details?”
Volker looked at his watch. “Sure. We can talk after lunch if we don’t get everything hammered out by ten thirty.”
“Ah yes. Your committee meeting,” Starr said, with a smile that looked oddly amused. “Would you care to discuss this over coffee?”
“Sure,” Volker said. “You don’t want to keep looking at the—“
“Oh I’m quite satisfied that you’re the correct choice as far as potential collaborators go,” Starr said smoothly.
“You don’t mess around,” Volker said, smiling at him.
“Indeed not,” Starr said, his gaze uncomfortably intense.
They walked out into the hall and something in Starr’s pocket gave a soft electronic-sounding beep. The other man pulled a very odd looking phone out of his pocket.
“Terribly sorry,” Starr said. “I need to take this. I believe it may be my—transportation.”
“Sure,” Volker said. “I’ll meet you back in my office.”
Trying not to look like he was obviously hurrying, Volker walked back down the hallway and turned off at the narrow little corridor.
“David,” he heard the other man say into the device. “Yes. Yes, I understand that, but—”
Two guys named David? Well, it happened, he supposed.
As soon as he was out of Starr’s line of sight, Volker darted through the door to his office and slid into his chair. He bent down and quickly dug through the pile of textbooks at the base of his bookshelf. He slammed the one he had been looking for down on the surface of his desk and quickly flipped to the index, his finger rapidly scanning down the page.
In the hallway, Starr had stopped speaking.
He found the page and feverishly flipped to it.
“Don’t concern yourself with that,” Starr said, starting up again out in the hall, sounding irritated with David #2.
He scanned down the page, his eyes flicking from line to line until, finally, he found what he was looking for.
Integer programming is NP-hard.
Meaning, of course, that in order to effectively render the WMAP data using integer programming, the man would likely need a computational system that was fantastically sophisticated and predicated on the idea that P did indeed equal NP. Not just the simple proof. But the application of the principles behind it, which would render an intractable data-set in a manner that was amenable to computational manipulation in real time.
Volker opened his laptop, his heart racing; he should have done this first, god, what had he been thinking, going for the math instead of the man himself? He was in trouble. He was in trouble, probably, if this wasn’t Starr and instead it was some vanished mathematician—
“Yes,” Starr said from out in the hallway, his voice closer now. “You’ve made that very clear.”
He opened his browser and began to type the man’s name into the search engine, deciding to go with an image search first—
Starr appeared in the doorframe, and Volker looked up.
“Sure,” Volker replied, unable to keep the hesitation out of his voice.
Starr stepped forward, resting his bag on the edge of Volker’s desk.
“One moment,” Starr said, beginning to fish around in the bag. “I just need to locate my wallet. He pulled out a textbook and handed it to Volker, with a short, “Hold that, will you?”
Volker looked down at the book in his hands. “Textbook of Medical Physiology?” he asked, looking up at the other man.
“My interests are wide ranging,” Starr said, still digging through the bag.
“I guess they would be,” Volker said, eyeing him carefully, “if you’re capable of rendering large data sets with integer programming.”
For a brief moment, Starr’s hands stilled. After a pause, Starr looked up at him. They locked eyes.
“You’re not married?” Starr yanked the book out of Volker’s hand.
“Um,” Voker said. “No?”
“Children?” Starr snapped.
“Other than the grad students? No. I have a cat—” Volker trailed off.
“I’m afraid that’s not good enough,” Starr said, pulling something out of his bag.
“Good enough for what?” Volker asked.
“Catch,” Starr snapped, tossing him a small object that looked very much like a flashdrive. It had a small light at one end. Odd that it would be glowing when it wasn’t plugged in—
Without thinking, Volker reached out, his fingers closing around the little device. As they did so, the small blue light that had been visible on one end winked out of existence.
There was a strange, unfamiliar roaring in his ears and in his chest, in his head, in his hands. He felt as if he were being heated from the inside. His office faded to nothingness.
Or, perhaps, it was him that faded.
When he came back to himself, he had his eyes screwed shut. He opened them slowly, one at a time, and found himself standing in the cool semi-dark of a—
Actually, he had absolutely no idea where he was. He seemed to be in a small, mostly empty room? There was a strange vibration in the metal beneath his feet.
“Nick.” A voice came out of some kind of speaker system.
Volker stared at the ceiling, utterly disoriented.
“Nick. I don’t have all goddamn day.”
“Um,” Volker said, in the direction of the ceiling. It was—gold? His eyes flicked rapidly between the ceiling and the door in front of him. “Hello?” He took a few steps forward, noticing that a circular pattern had been etched into the floor. There were electronic controls of some kind on the wall.
The door hissed open, revealing a man dressed almost entirely in leather. His hair was dark and his eyes were dark, as if he had materialized out of the dimness.
They stared at each other.
“What the fuck?” the other man hissed.
“Yeah,” Volker said, trying to fight through a veil of shock. “I know how you feel.”
The other man stalked forward, gripping Volker’s wrist and prying the small device out of his hand. “Where is he?”
“Starr?” Volker asked.
“Starr. That’s great. That’s just great.” The man glared at him. “Yes. Starr.”
“Um,” Volker said.
His hands felt numb.
“Come with me,” the other man said, dragging Volker toward the door, one hand still closed around his wrist, one hand clamped around the back of his shirt.
“I think there’s been some sort of misunderstanding,” Volker said, rallying. “I’m not really sure what just happened or what you—”
“Where were you?” the other man demanded. “When I beamed you out?”
Beaming? Like in Star Trek? Volker half tripped over something left on the floor of the short, dark hallway but the other man steadied him, continuing to pull him forward.
“Um, I was in my office?” Volker blinked as he was dragged into a small room lined with instrumentation panels arrayed in front of windows covered by a metallic material. The place looked like a strange, futuristic cockpit that had somehow merged with the decorating aesthetic of King Tut.
The man shoved him down into a chair away from the main panel and, before Volker realized what was happening, he found both his hands cuffed and looped around the arm of the chair in such a way that he couldn’t get up.
“Hey—” he said, the reality of the cuffs around his wrists sending a pulse of adrenaline through his system, tearing briefly through the shocky feeling that clouded everything. “What the hell?”
“Don’t touch anything,” the other man said sharply. He sat down in front of the main panel and spoke into a small, odd-looking phone.
Yeah, or, actually, considering the day he was having, it seemed like maybe “phone,” was not the most correct way to describe whatever it was.
He was getting progressively more freaked out by the minute.
“Rush,” the other man said. “Come in.”
Well, it looked like he had a pretty good idea as to what had happened to “the Fields Medal Guy,” as Nupur had put it. Volker grimaced and clenched his teeth. Why had he not just trusted his instincts? Or, barring that, Nupur’s instincts?
“Rush,” the other man said again, clearly trying to keep a lid on his rising temper.
The other man shut his eyes and clenched his jaw.
Volker wrapped his fingers around the short chain of the cuffs and surreptitiously pulled up on the armrest of the chair, testing its durability. It didn’t take him long to give up on the clearly useless and slightly painful effort.
“Rush,” the dark haired man said, his voice betraying only a trace of the irritation that was in his face. “Come in, or I will beam down there and so help me I will drag you back to this fucking ship if I have to.”
“Um, did you just say ship?” Volker asked, with a polite incredulity that, in his current situation, seemed somehow wildly inappropriate.
The other man glanced at him in irritation, but otherwise ignored him.
“There’s no need for that, I assure you,” Starr’s voice—or, rather, Rush’s voice, projected quietly from the device that the other man carried. “If you can contain your impatience for a few moments while I demonstrate my utter mastery of quantum cryptography, I will join you shortly.”
“This. Was. Not. The. Plan.”
“Yes well, as usual, my plan is better.”
“Stop talking, please.”
Volker flinched as the other man threw the communications device across the small room in obvious frustration.
“Um, hi,” Volker began. “I think there’s been some kind of mistake. My name is—”
“I don’t care,” the other man said, spinning his chair around to fix Volker with a hard stare. “I don’t want to know your name, I don’t want you to know my name—fuck. Fuck.” He shot to his feet and paced out of the room.
“Okay,” Volker said, into the empty air.
He tried to take a deep breath, but found it wasn’t really working out for him. It seemed that he had been abducted by a previously-vanished-Fields-Medalist and a man wearing leather pants in what was, unarguably, a pretty impressive, high tech manner. He was also handcuffed to a chair.
It seemed pretty likely that he wouldn’t be making his committee meeting.
He swiveled his chair slightly and began to examine the displays in front of him. They were in a language he’d never encountered before, with letters and typography that were utterly unfamiliar.
There were a lot of multicolored triangles.
There really weren’t any keys, and everything seemed to be touch-screen based. There was a histogram display that had so many bins it approximated an analog style of monitoring—something. It was shifting moderately in real time. Power consumption maybe? There was also a schematic of something that looked like—well, okay. To be honest, it kind of looked like a ship.
Tempted though he was to chalk this entire experience up to too many episodes of The X-files in his formative years, the reality of the cuffs around his aching wrists said otherwise.
He needed to take a closer look at this system to try and figure out what the heck was going on. He swiveled his chair slightly, adjusting his hands, sliding one arm around and back through the looped metal armrest, trying to lengthen his reach as much as possible, his fingers stretching out, trying to get—
“What are you doing?”
Apparently, the guy in leather was back.
Volker jerked involuntarily in surprise.
“You people are all alike.” His voice was crisp and hard.
“Um?” Volker said. “You people?”
“Scientists. Scientists. God.” He turned away from Volker as he slid back into the seat he had vacated only a few minutes earlier. He pulled out the communications device that Volker had noted earlier. “Rush,” he hissed. “Do you have it?”
“Nearly,” Rush’s voice came again. “Even with the augmented rate of data transfer, there are exabytes of material here, David.”
David, or whoever he was, drummed his fingers on the console in front of him. He turned to Volker. “Is that true?”
“Is what true?” Volker asked, still off balance.
“Is your database, or whatever,” he said, spitting the word out with venomous precision, “really exabytes in size?”
“Um, yes, but I don’t think he can really be downloading it,” Volker said. “It’s encrypted and stored on a secure server. You can’t write it to any kind of—”
The other man rolled his eyes, turning back toward the monitors in front of him.
“Can you?” Volker asked. “Are you guys stealing my data?”
“Not just your data, apparently.” The man gave him a dark look.
“There’s no way that he’s going to be able to break my cipher without my key,” Volker insisted.
“Got it,” Rush’s voice came over the communications device. “Just give me thirty seconds to—”
“No,” the other man snapped. “Activating transport.” He viciously entered some kind of command on the touchscreen console.
“Transport?” Volker said.
Unsurprisingly, the other man didn't answer. Instead, he half-turned in his seat, staring at the closed door, which, sure enough, swished open as Rush strode into the room.
“So help me god, Rush,” the other man said through gritted teeth. “If you pull a stunt like that again—”
“You’ll what?” Rush said darkly.
“Oh no,” Rush said, making a sweeping hand gesture. “No. By all means, please continue.”
“Forget it. Let’s see it.”
Rush held up something that looked like an external hard drive.
“And what’s with this guy?”
“He’ll be useful,” Rush said.
“Excuse me, but what the hell?” Volker asked, yanking his cuffed hands against the seat for good measure.
“Him?” the dark haired man asked. “You’re kidding. And also no. Just—no.”
“I agree,” Volker said, looking at Rush. “You can just send me back. I have a meeting—”
“I’m quite serious,” Rush said, sliding gracefully into the seat next to Telford. “I need him. He’s intelligent.” He hit a combination of controls and the metal shield in front of the forward windows began to retract, revealing a breathtakingly sharp starscape with the planet spread out in blues and greens below them.
“This is a spaceship?” Volker breathed.
“Not very quick though,” Rush said. “Unfortunately. But you can’t have everything.”
“A fact that is driven home to me on a daily basis,” the dark haired man said, shooting Rush a pointed glare.
“Scintillating,’ Rush said dryly. “But I can’t fucking teach myself astrophysics within the requisite timetable. So. If you want this to proceed in an efficient manner—we need him.”
“Do I get a say in this?” Volker asked.
Rush looked over at him.
“Of course you do,” the mathematician replied, looking back at him with a solicitous expression. “You can choose to come with us, or you can go back to Caltech and watch the Lucian Alliance systematically murder your graduate students.”
“What?” Volker asked, horrified, feeling his heart rate increase. “Who is the Lucian Alliance?”
“Graduate students?” the dark haired man asked, looking at Rush. “Seriously? That’s the best you can do?”
“He’s somewhat of a loner,” Rush said, shrugging. “No family.”
“I have a family,” Volker said, bizarrely affronted. “I just don’t see them as often as I—look. That’s not the point. You can’t seriously be talking about kidnapping me. I’m a professor at Caltech for god’s sake. People are going to notice.”
“Indeed they will,” Rush said, pointedly, but he wasn’t looking at Volker, he was looking at the other man. “Perhaps someone will make a documentary about it.”
“I cannot believe you did this. I literally cannot believe it. You’re out of control, Rush. You can’t just—“ he broke off, his jaw visibly clenching. “He knows who you are. We can’t send him back—if we do, the SGC is going to somehow get wind of this, and they—”
“Why do you fucking think I fucking brought him, David?” Rush hissed, leaning forward. “He figured it out.”
Actually, Volker realized with a cold thrill of horror, it had been Nupur who had figured it out. He watched Rush fixedly, his hands curling into fists.
“Did anyone else see you?” the other man hissed back. “Does anyone else know?”
“No,” Rush said with matching intensity. “I spoke to no one else.”
Volker stayed quiet.
“Fuck,” the dark-haired man hissed, open hands smashing against the console in front of him. “I told you I should have gone.”
“And when you become a fucking expert in cryptography, I’ll happily cede such missions to you, but in the meantime,” Rush hissed. “I suggest you just accept this.”
“Guys, seriously,” Volker said, his hands clenched into fists. “What the hell?”
“He’s coming,” Rush said. “And that’s the end of it.”
“Rush, you are walking a god damned fine line.” The dark-haired man half turned, meeting Volker’s eyes. “This is a terrible fucking idea.”
“I agree?” Volker replied, trying not to appear as confused and intimidated as he currently felt.
“And I just want you to keep in mind that he got you into this. Not me.”
“Um, okay,” Volker said.
“Medical conditions?” the other man snapped.
“None. Er. Actually, hypertension?”
“Is that a question or an answer?”
“An answer.” Volker tried for irritation but his voice seemed to die in his throat.
The other man glared at him. “And I suppose you need medication for that.”
“Wonderful. And just how exactly are we supposed to get this medication of yours?”
“Beam into his fucking pharmacy, why don’t you?” Rush said airily. “It’s not exactly an unsolvable problem. But we probably should do this in a relatively expeditious manner.”
“Yes. I agree,” the other man said darkly. “How long before anyone notices you’re missing?”
Volker looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes. Look, I can’t just go off—wherever it is that you guys are going. I have a lab. I have a grant renewal coming up. I have graduate students.”
“Not anymore you don’t.” The leather-clad man looked back at the display in front of him.
“Yes,” Volker said insistently, trying to recapture his attention. “Yes I do. I’m not going to help you guys—”
“Yes you are,” the other man snapped. “Otherwise, your graduate students are going to be systematically hunted down and eliminated by members of an elite, far reaching galactic cabal, do you understand me?”
“Are you insane?” Volker asked.
“Me?” the other man said. “No.” He looked pointedly at Rush.
“Cast aspersions all fucking day, if you’d like,” Rush said unconcernedly. “But until you cease to need me for this wee cryptographic problem you seem to be having, you can damn well give me what I require.”
“You don’t get to ask for people,” the other man hissed.
“I don’t recall asking,” Rush said.
“Write down the name and dosage of the meds that you take.” The dark haired man snapped his fingers in Rush’s direction without looking, and the mathematician produced a pen and small notebook.
Volker wrote down the name of his medication with a shaking hand.
‘David’ ripped it away from him and spun his chair around, hitting a button on the console and then typing something in.
Volker watched Rush watching the other man with narrowed eyes, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Take him to get his stuff while I get his meds,” the dark haired man said, shoving the paper into his pocket and coming out with something small that fit in the palm of his hand. He was clearly trying to keep whatever it was out of Rush’s line of sight.
Rush frowned. “You would trust me to—”
Like a striking snake, the dark haired man reached over and fisted both hands in Rush’s shirt, dragging him bodily out of his chair and slamming him to the floor. Volker was too shocked to do anything but watch as the man shifted his weight forward, literally kneeling on the mathematician’s chest. He yanked Rush’s head to the side as the man struggled ineffectively, unable to get enough leverage to wrest away.
With a precision that Volker found horrifying, the leather clad man pressed the small device against Rush’s neck.
“Fuck you,” he hissed. “We discussed this.”
“And when you abduct people,” the other man said, managing to maintain a veneer of composure, “and when you go on missions that are supposed to take ten minutes and actually take almost an hour with no good explanation of exactly what you’re doing,” the other man broke off, adjusting his weight slightly as Rush made a sudden, heroic attempt to wrest out of his hold, “that reopens the door for negotiation.”
“This is not a ‘negotiation’.”
“Thanks for noticing,” the leather clad man whispered. “Now. If you want to survive this, hold still and don’t talk.”
There was a quiet, pneumatic hiss and the man pocketed the device before running his thumb over the place he had injected Rush with—something.
“Fuck. You.” Rush gasped.
“What the hell did you just do to him?” Volker half-shouted, his heart racing, as close to on his feet as he could get with his hands still cuffed.
“Try to cut it out of your goddamned neck, next time, why don’t you?” the other man hissed at Rush, giving the mathematician an unnecessary shake before backing off and turning to face Volker. He unlocked the cuffs.
Volker glared at him, rubbing his wrists.
“Hold out your arm,” the other man snapped.
Volker held his arm out.
He glanced Rush, who was still lying on the floor, rubbing his neck.
“This,” the other man said, holding up the device, “allows me to implant a transmitter beneath your skin. It means that wherever you are, wherever you are, you can be tracked and retrieved. You cut it out,” the other man said smoothly, “and next time, it goes in your neck. And if you successfully cut it out of your neck,” he said, half turning to take in Rush, who had levered himself up on one elbow and was shooting him a murderous glare, “then next time, I hire someone to put it in your eye.” He turned back to Volker. “Got it?”
“Yup,” Volker said shortly, feeling a sickening twinge as the device shot a small piece of metal beneath the skin of his forearm.
“What’s your name,” the other man said, backing off slightly.
“Volker. Dr. Dale Volker.”
“David,” the other man said, extending a hand. “Colonel David Telford.”
Volker did not shake his hand. “Colonel?”
“United States Air Force,” Rush explained with a subtle eye-roll, pushing himself off the floor to glare at Telford. “What if you’d missed, and hit a vein? You could have killed me.”
“Yeah. I’m really broken up about it,” Telford snapped at him.
“You’re with the military?”
“Yes,” Telford said.
“I've seen no evidence of that,” Rush commented.
“Shut up, Rush.”
“You fucking shut up.”
“It’s a complicated situation,” Telford said. “Which, unfortunately, you’re now involved in.”
“Yeah,” Volker replied, rubbing his forearm, his fingers searching out the borders of the implanted metal. “Apparently.”
Volker stood next to Rush, in the middle of his own sun-drenched living room.
Volker’s calico cat, Mendelssohn, watched them curiously.
Rush stared back at it, cocking his head.
“So the whole beaming thing works—how?”
“Well,” Rush said, his eyes quickly scanning over the contents of the room and the messy organizational style Volker had going. “It depends which of two stolen, AKA, ‘rightfully appropriated’ technologies you’re referring to. Fortunately, I've organized things in such a way that we have access to both.” Rush shook his hair back and paced forward, bending down to run his hand gently over the cat’s head. “And I could,” he continued, “instruct you ad nauseum in their appropriate uses and modes of action, but—I don’t particularly feel like it.”
Volker watched the previous year’s Fields Medalist, who he’d just seen get implanted with some kind of futuristic radio transponder, and who flew around in space ships, pet his cat.
“Please feel free to commence with the packing at any time,” Rush said, absently scratching behind Mendelssohn’s ears.
“Stop petting my cat,” Volker said, with pained incredulity. “You’re in the middle of abducting me.”
“The cat doesn’t know that,” Rush said, in a tone that suggested he thought he was being utterly reasonable.
“You are crazy.”
“Less talking,” Rush said, picking his cat up off the floor and settling it over his shoulder as he headed toward the kitchen. “More packing.”
“What the heck am I supposed to pack?” Volker asked, trying to fight through a helpless sense of absurdity to focus on what was actually taking place. He brought a hand to his head. “Where are we even going?”
“If it were me,” Rush said, brazenly rifling one-handed through Volker’s cupboards, “I’d prioritize shirts, shoes, coffee, books, all the pain killers you have, and cat food. Possibly also cat litter. And leather pants, if you have them. Wearing other people’s leather pants is less fun than you might think.”
“Leather pants?” Volker repeated to himself as he walked into his bedroom, making a face that no one could see. “Cat food?” he shouted at Rush from the bedroom, as he pulled out a shoulder bag. “You’re going to let me take my cat into space?”
“Well,” Rush said, sounding like he was throwing things onto the floor in Volker’s kitchen. “What else are you going to do with it?”
“A good question,” Volker said to himself, trying to break through the numbness that seemed to have enveloped him. He looked at his reflection in the full length mirror and barely recognized his own bloodless face.
He dragged his bag, half full of a random assortment of clothes, back out into the living room where he found Rush, cat still in hand, TV on, in the middle of drenching his living room floor with olive oil.
“Um?” Volker said, pausing momentarily in his frantic search for Reasonable Things to Take to Space.
Rush was paying no attention to him. He was watching the local news. Okay.
Volker ripped his computer charger out of the wall and shoved it in his bag.
“No outlets on a ship, Volker,” Rush said absently. “Use your fucking intellect in fucking polynomial time, will you?”
“So, I don’t really have a lot of experience with this sort of thing,” Volker said, running a hand through his hair, trying to steady himself. “Are all our conversations going to be like this?”
“Like what?” Rush snapped.
“Um, you just, I don’t know, harassing me about what I don’t know about space?” He did his best to conceal and steady the shaking of his hands, but he needn’t have bothered. Rush wasn’t looking at him.
“Only if you retain this pathetic demeanor and your poor choice permutations,” Rush snapped, dropping the empty bottle of olive oil on the floor and going back to petting his cat, who, Volker could hear, was traitorously purring away in his arms.
“I really don’t like you,” Volker snapped.
“Well,” Rush said philosophically, “you’re going to like me less shortly. Are you finished?”
“No, I—” Volker paused in the middle of shoving his boots into his bag to take in what it was, exactly, on the TV screen that had Rush so enthralled.
A building was on fire.
A very familiar looking building.
“Is that my lab?” Volker said, letting the half-filled bag fall to the floor.
“I believe that it is,” Rush said his voice affectedly smooth. He looked away.
“You—” Volker began helplessly. “I don’t believe this. God. God. Who are you?”
“It’s better for everyone this way,” Rush hissed, his voice icy. Mendelssohn jumped out of his arms.
“Better?” Volker said, unable to keep the shock out of his voice.
“Your students are alive. You are alive. You owe me.”
“I owe you? For what? For not telling the psychotic Air Force guy up there that my poor thesis student, who's now completely screwed because of you, by the way, was smart enough to figure out who you were, so that he doesn’t freaking murder her in her sleep?” Volker could feel his voice rising, his tone spiraling out of his control.
“In her sleep?” Rush said mildly. “That’s unreasonably optimistic.”
“What?” Volker breathed. “What do you mean—”
“Never bring that up again,” Rush snapped. “As far as I’m concerned I never met any of your fucking students.”
“Let’s go,” Rush snapped. “Your time is up. Find your fucking cat.”
Volker took a deep breath and then another, trying to feel the ground under his feet and cool planes of the first aid kit in his hands. He knelt next to his bag, zipping it shut, bracing his hands against its canvas outlines. “Colonel What’s-His-Name had better not kill my cat,” he said to Rush, trying to force a bravado he didn’t feel into his voice. “Otherwise—”
“David is not going to kill your cat,” Rush said derisively. “That would make no sense.”
“Yeah. Because this day has made so much sense so far,” Volker said as he crossed the room, glaring at Rush in a passably aggressive manner as he pulled a bag of cat litter out of the bottom of his pantry. “And ‘David’ seems like a really nice, reasonable guy. Where did you find him?”
Rush slipped a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and looked away. “He found me.”
Volker shut his eyes, pressing one hand against his mouth in the shadows of his disrupted kitchen.
He stayed like that for one second.
He turned. Rush had an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
“You really shouldn’t smoke in here,” Volker said, “with all this oil that you—”
Rush gave him a disdainful look.
“No,” Volker said. “No. You’re acting like I’m never—”
Rush’s expression hardened. “Like I said. Bright,” the mathematician murmured, “but not quick.” He turned, stalking away, toward the front door.
“Crap,” Volker murmured to himself, his voice breaking. “Can I at least call—” he began.
“No,” Rush snapped, looking edgily out of Volker’s front window.
“Okay,” Volker whispered to himself. “Okay.”
He crouched down and made a quiet clicking sound in Mendelssohn’s direction. The cat was hiding behind his bookshelf. “Come on buddy,” Volker said quietly, and, after a few seconds, the cat took a few hesitant steps toward him. “Did the—” he had to work to keep his voice steady. “Did the insane pyromaniac scare you?”
Mendelssohn meowed plaintively.
“Yeah,” Volker whispered. “Me too.”
He coaxed the cat into his arms and walked back towards Rush, who was fiddling absently with a book of matches. At Volker’s approach, he lit one with obvious satisfaction and offered it to Volker.
“You want me to burn my own house down?” Volker whispered, watching the flare and subsequent steadying of the little flame. He’d meant it to come out sarcastically, but, instead, his voice was utterly serious. Unsteady.
“It’s that, or watch me do it,” Rush said, his voice dark and inescapable.
Something about the immediacy of the light, the darkening of the wood, and the slow, steady progression of the fire down toward Rush’s fingertips tore through the fog of shock that had separated him from everything that had happened. No matter what he chose, whether he went with Rush or whether he tried to escape, whether he believed the threat to his graduate students or not—nothing would be the same. Everything he’d built, his papers, his lab, his contributions to stellar dynamics and galaxy formation, his work on the radio array—
“Within the span of twenty four hours,” Rush whispered, “the scope of your old life will seem unimaginably small.”
“I like my life,” Volker whispered.
“You liked it,” Rush said.
“Yeah.” Volker shivered. He shifted his grip on his cat and took the match, watching it for a moment before tossing it in a burning arc to land squarely on a slick of olive oil that now irregularly covered the first floor of his house.
Rush struck a second match and lit his cigarette before sending the matchstick in a flaming parabola toward a different section of the room.
They stood together in awkward silence.
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention to Telford that I set your lab on fire,” Rush said.
“Um, okay. Sure.”
“Or your house.”
“He prefers things to be a bit more,” Rush paused to take a long drag of his cigarette. “Low-profile than I do.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
They were silent, watching Volker’s living room begin to go up in flames as Rush smoked his cigarette.
Volker cleared his throat. “I don’t really—” he said, doing his best to keep his voice steady. “I don’t really need to watch this—so—” He made a helpless hand gesture in the direction of his ceiling. Mendelssohn was turning restive in his arms as the flames began to grow.
“Yes of course,” Rush said politely, flicking his mostly-finished cigarette towards a different portion of the room and coming to stand immediately next to Volker. He pulled a small remote out of his pocket and hit a button. The red-gold of the flames and the blackening of his carpet faded out in a flare of blue-white.
He found himself back in the same small, dark room that Telford had dragged him out of not half an hour earlier.
Volker looked at his watch.
It was half past ten in the morning, Pacific Time.
“Where should I put this stuff?” Volker asked.
“Wherever,” Rush responded over his shoulder, as he strode out of the room.
“Great,” Volker said, scratching behind his cat’s ears. He set Mendelssohn down and started dragging his stuff out of the center of the room, piling it against the wall. When he was finished, he dug a hand into his bag and pulled out Mendelssohn’s plastic water bowl, still wet from the water he’d dumped down the sink in his haste to finish his shoddy packing job.
He looked at the small pile of items against the wall for a moment before turning away.
Volker stepped into a hallway that, if he’d had to guess, seemed to run the length of the small ship. On the floor were miscellaneous pieces of equipment, a few crates, and a rather hefty textbook with a red cover, which was open. Volker suspected that this had been the item he'd tripped over earlier. To his right, the hallway ended in what he now recognized as the doorway that lead to the cockpit, or bridge, or whatever it was that they called it where he’d been handcuffed to a freaking chair not twenty minutes previous. Directly across from him was a closed door with an interesting keypad interface. To his left there were several other doors coming off the main hall, all closed. The hallway terminated in yet another closed door.
“Friendly place,” Volker murmured to his cat, his voice admirably steady.
For his part, Mendelssohn seemed unperturbed.
“So you’re taking this well,” Volker whispered. “Were you meant to be a space cat?”
Mendelssohn just purred in a steady rhythm.
“Let’s find you some space water,” Volker said quietly. “What do you say?” He cleared his throat. “Rush,” he called, into the apparently empty ship.
A door hissed open and a bright light spilled into the hallway.
“What?” Rush snapped, his voice echoing off planar surfaces.
“Um,” Volker said, hesitantly approaching the open door. To his relief, when he drew level with the small room, he could see it was a bathroom, and that Rush was in there, angling a small mirror, trying to get a good look at his neck, rubbing at the skin a few inches above his collar bone.
“Do you know much about human anatomy?” Rush asked absently.
“No,” Volker said, fighting down a wave of nausea at the memory of metal sliding its way beneath skin. “The neck has lots of important stuff in it though. I’m pretty sure about that.”
“I think I could cut it out,” Rush whispered. “If I had to.”
“Okay,” Volker said, striving for utter neutrality in both face and voice, trying not to imagine what that would look like. “I just need to get some water. For my cat.”
Rush glanced over at him and put the mirror down, stepping away from a broad, shallow gold basin that was clearly a sink, but with a design aesthetic that seemed kinda ostentatious for a space ship.
But yeah, maybe that was just him?
“There’s an awful lot of, um, gold detailing around here?” Volker waved a hand at the ornate sink.
“Ridiculous isn’t it?” Rush asked dryly as Volker flipped on the water. “That will be the Goa’uld influence,” he continued, “though, to be honest, the Lucian Alliance has a ridicule-worthy aesthetic all their own, as you’ll discover soon enough.”
“You realize,” Volker said, filling Mendelssohn’s small water bowl, “that I have no idea what you just said.”
“Does your cat have a name?”
“Mendelssohn,” Volker said.
Rush said nothing. He looked away, his shoulders tensing, his hands coming to grip the edge of the sink.
“Um,” Volker said uncertainly. “Is there something wrong with—”
“That’s a fucking terrible name for a cat,” Rush hissed, and brushed past him back into the dimness of the hall.
Volker said nothing. He set the bowl on the edge of the sink and turned off the water, then picked it up, maintaining his one-handed grip on his cat as he walked back into the hallway.
Rush was standing at the door at the end of the hall, his head bowed. At Volker’s approach, he pressed a button and the metal panel swished back.
“You can put your things in the cargo bay,” Rush said, not looking at him, and motioning vaguely at the room that had just opened. “I’d leave your cat in there for the time being. Give David some time to adjust to you before we tell him you brought a pet.”
“You said he would be fine with it,” Volker said uncertainly.
“No,” Rush clarified. “I said he wouldn’t kill it.”
“Rush,” Volker said, unable to keep the panicky rise out of his voice.
“He’s not going to fucking torture it either,” Rush said, rolling his eyes. “For fuck’s sake, Volker, try an' hold it together, will you?” Rush pointed to the small, glowing control panel. “Blue opens the door for a twenty second interval. Holding the button down until it lights up will lock the door in an open position. Shut it again by hitting the red button. Hold the red button down and it seals the door. Opening it again requires a CPU override or an eight-digit numeric command code, which I am not supposed to know. It’s 16180339.”
“You’re kidding,” Volker said uncertainly.
“No,” Rush said. “I suspect it’s purely a mathematical ostentation. The Goa’uld are heavily invested in iconography and semiotics and not so invested in effective cryptography. I suspect David has no idea of its significance, or he would have altered it by now.”
“So you just guessed the command code?”
“It lends itself to that, does it not?” Rush raised his eyebrows.
Volker wasn’t sure if that was a yes or a no, but before he could marshal his thoughts, Rush had turned and headed back toward the front of the ship.
Volker made short work of moving his things into the cargo bay. He spread a handful of cat food on the shiny metal floor next to the water dish, set up the litter box as fast as he could, and then stepped out of the cargo bay, shutting the door behind him while Mendelssohn was crunching on cat food.
He entered the bathroom, letting the door swish shut behind him, and turned on the water, splashing his face several times with cold water, trying to settle himself before venturing back out and heading in the direction of the bridge.
Rush was sitting in the same seat he’d slid into earlier, one foot propped on the control panel, tapping a pen against the pages of a small, handheld notebook.
Volker sat down in the chair he’d previously been handcuffed to. He took a deep breath and tried not to think about the fact that, miles below him, both his home and his lab were currently on fire.
“So,” he said after it became apparent that Rush was not going to talk to him without prompting. “Did you get, um, kidnapped as well?”
Rush gave him a withering look.
Volker really wasn’t sure how to interpret that. Was that a clear ‘yes’? A clear ‘no’? Was it supposed to convey disdain for his choice of conversational topic? An indicator that Rush had absolutely no interest in finding any kind of common ground between them? A demonstration that Rush had no interest in making small talk?
Volker had no idea.
“Okay,” he said, mainly to himself.
Rush wrote something down in his notebook.
“What are you working on?” he asked, trying a different tack.
“I’m waiting,” Rush said, unhelpfully.
Volker gave it up.
He returned his attention to examining the displays in front of him. In addition to the vacillating histogram and the schematic of the ship he had noticed earlier, there was a touch-screen based menu that featured blocks of text in different colors. Too bad he couldn’t read any of it.
He started to look for repeating characters and soon his eye became practiced at picking out the unfamiliar arrangement of lines that seemed to approximate letters. He began the attempt to name and count the symbols, trying to get a sense of whether the alphabet was phonetic or not, and, as he did so, he realized that some of the “letters” he was beginning to pick out looked like shapes—some of them vaguely suggestive of birds or eyes, almost as if they were stylized, streamlined versions of hieroglyphics.
“Huh,” Volker said under his breath.
With that observation under his belt, he started to notice repeated patterns. There was a “word” that appeared to be a header on the graph he’d tentatively decided was a representation of available power that also appeared on the touchscreen menu.
He touched it.
With a satisfying little trill, the display changed to a series of graphs that displayed in gradients of green and red, one of which matched the subtly fluttering histogram of the adjacent console.
He felt a thrill of excitement despite his current situation. There was a flatlined graph he guessed was probably total power consumption versus time, several more histograms that likely represented power reserves, and various smaller graphs with associated submenus, which, if he’d had to guess, he would have pegged as power consumption by different systems.
The word for “power” appeared all over the screen. Volker tried to fix it in his mind. Rectangle. Bird. Other bird. Feather. He also had the feeling that the word “time” was something like—rope, sail, birthday cake, feather.
It probably was not actually a birthday cake.
There had to be a way to get out of the power submenu and back to the main interface. He looked around for a likely looking set of symbols, but didn’t see one.
A colored triangle maybe?
He looked at them, chewing his lip.
“The purple one,” Rush murmured.
“Thanks,” Volker said, looking up at him.
Rush looked at him steadily. “Purple takes you up a level, yellow drills you down. Red terminates. Blue indicates movement ahead.”
Volker looked at him uncertainly.
There was a soft mechanized beep and Rush looked over at the console. He grimaced slightly and hit a button. “David,” he said.
“Rush.” Telford sounded like he was trying to speak quietly. “I’m having a problem with activating a remote beam out.”
“That’s odd,” Rush said, looking like he did not find it at all odd. His expression was intent and he shifted his gaze toward the floor on his right, drumming his fingers rapidly over the console.
“It is, isn’t it?” Telford hissed.
“Are you attempting to imply something, David?” Rush asked. “You know that subtle social cues aren’t my strong point.”
“Knock it off,” Telford said. “And beam me out.”
“Stand by,” Rush said. He leaned down and unhooked a device from the main panel, which looked like it had been cobbled together out of a circuit board and various connectors. Rush pulled a flashdrive out of a USB port that connected somehow to the tangle of wires and slipped it into his pocket. He put the device back on the floor and then pressed down on the touchscreen interface.
“What is that?” Volker asked.
“No USB ports on cannibalized Goa’uld vessels,” Rush said.
“But why do you—”
“Drop it,” Rush snapped.
“Fine,” Volker said, nearly silently.
Half a minute later, Telford stalked onto the bridge. He shot a fleeting glance in Volker’s direction. “Your meds are in the bathroom.”
“Thanks,” Volker said.
Rush rolled his eyes.
“You’re welcome.” Telford gave Rush a pointed look as he sat down next to the mathematician. “Get your shit off the bridge.”
“This,” Rush said, picking up the messy-looking circuit board, “is a mechanically sophisticated and ingeniously designed adapter that interfaces two technologies with essentially no commonalities beyond making use of the flow of charges. It cannot, in any way, be classified as ‘shit’.”
“Well it looks like shit,” Telford said, through a clenched jaw. He didn’t look at Rush.
Rush handed the device to Volker.
“Did you explain anything to him?” Telford asked, pulling up a display that turned the monitor in front of him into a set of three paired controls arranged in a radial manner.
“He can pick it up as he goes along,” Rush said. “There's no way to explain any of this in a time efficient manner.”
Telford sighed and then spun his chair to face Volker.
“This ought to be good,” Rush said, bracing one foot against the console. “Give him the three minute version, why don’t you?”
Volker watched Telford’s jaw clench and couldn’t help the slight jump in his own heart rate at being the focus of the other man’s attention.
“You’re in a space ship built by an alien race known as the Goa’uld,” Telford said. “They’re parasitic snakes that cut their way through the skin at the back of your throat and wrap around your spinal cord to attach to the base of your brain, which allows them complete control over your voluntary muscles.”
Volker really wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
“Apparently, they really liked Ancient Egypt or Ancient Egypt was based on their culture? Whatever. It’s not really my area. Anyway, the point is they’ve historically been the dominant power in this galaxy but within the past ten years we’ve pretty much destroyed their power base through a series of tactical and ideological victories. Unfortunately, that’s left a vacuum, which has subsequently been filled by an association known as the Lucian Alliance, an ambitious, powerful group of humans with the vision necessary to step in and provide the leadership that countless broken, damaged worlds require.”
Volker’s eyes flicked to Rush as he saw the other man bring his hand up, running his fingers absently over the subcutaneous tracking device implanted in his neck. The mathematician’s expression was pained.
Telford paused briefly, noting the trajectory of Volker’s gaze. “Or at least,” the other man amended, “that’s what they’d have the citizens of those worlds believe.”
“And you work for them?” Volker asked.
“No,” Telford said. “I’m infiltrating their organization as part of a covert operation launched by the USAF.”
“And Rush and I?” Volker asked.
“That’s a little more complicated,” Telford said, looking away. “Technically, I recruited Rush to do some work for the LA.”
“Recruited,” Volker said, trying for sarcasm but not quite making it there. “Is that what they’re calling it these days?”
“Shut up, both of you,” Rush snapped abruptly, pulling his foot off the console and sitting forward. “We have to break orbit now or we’re not going to make the fucking rendezvous to get your fucking precious intel.”
“Nick,” Telford said forcefully, swinging back to fix Rush with an intent look. “Fine. Just—stay calm.”
Something seemed to pass between them, and Rush looked away, his posture relaxing, his hands coming out to rest on the panel in front of him.
“Want to give me ten percent?” Telford asked quietly.
“You have it,” Rush said, his fingers playing over the touchscreen as though it were a musical instrument.
They began to slowly break orbit, their position rotating until the blues and greens of Earth were no longer visible. Telford controlled their axis deviation with the pressure of his fingers against the screen in front of him. Finally, they were oriented away from the planet, away from everything Volker had ever known, their trajectory taking them out of orbit, out of the solar system, into darkness.