Ad Noctum: Chapter 2
Aren’t you an astrophysicist? Aren’t frames of reference fundamental to every waking moment of your professional life?
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Injuries. Mentions of pan-galactic slavery and sex work. Panic attacks. Purposefully insensitive discussion of mental health issues. Boundary problems. Interpersonal manipulation.
Additional notes: None.
Volker tried not to appear too impressed at the spectacular Neptune fly-by on their way out of the solar system, as neither Rush nor Telford seemed particularly interested in the gorgeous blue cast of its methane-rich atmosphere, or the shadows cast by ridges of high altitude clouds. The sight of the planet certainly contributed to the air of unreality that he found himself battling on minute-to-minute basis.
“What’s our current velocity?” Volker asked, unable to completely contain his curiosity.
“Relative to what?” Rush asked. “Aren’t you an astrophysicist? Aren’t frames of reference fucking fundamental to every waking moment of your professional life?”
“Um,” Volker said, taken aback. “Relative to whatever convention is used by space-faring people, okay? Or space-faring Goa’uld? I don’t know.”
“Our current velocity is ninety percent of the speed of light,” Telford said shortly. “What the hell did you bring him along for if you’re not going to tell him anything?”
“Ninety percent of the speed of light,” Rush said disdainfully. “That means fuck all to anyone.”
“It’s a universal constant,” Telford snapped back.
“You’re making some kind of subtle semantic argument that you’re not even going to bother to explain just because you’re pissed about the fact that I put a transmitter in your neck.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Displacement from a common source was implied,” Volker said mildly. “So almost 186,000 miles per second relative to the sun, probably.”
“Yes,” Rush said tersely. “Stars are generally chosen as the relevant point of reference.”
“So we should be experiencing relativistic effects,” Volker said, trying to sound confident. Because he was confident, at least when it came to relativistic physics.
“And we are,” Rush replied. “An unfortunate necessity when leaving the solar system. We’ll jump to hyperspace shortly, at which point the time dilation will cease.”
“Hyperspace?” Volker couldn’t help himself.
“Are you sure he’s going to be useful?” Telford asked.
“Hyperspace has been neither detected nor studied by terrestrial physicists,” Rush snapped at Telford. “Just because you spend most of your time there doesn’t put it or its properties inside the sphere of common knowledge.”
“Fine,” Telford said, managing to sound both offended and placating at the same time.
“So if our perceived time for transit from Earth to Neptune is a bit over five hours—” Volker trailed off, doing some mental math, “then time seen by a stationary observer would be a little less than ten hours.”
Rush sighed in a manner that suggested that something about Volker’s approximation had personally offended him.
“You think my math is wrong?” Volker asked.
Telford rolled his eyes.
Rush lifted his hands away from the controls, clenched them once, quickly, into fists and then opened them again, his expression frozen, as if he didn’t trust himself to respond. He shot to his feet and stalked away, his hand slamming against the door controls as he left.
“Change your fucking clothes,” Telford yelled after him.
“Um—can he just—” Volker began, trying to fight down the uncertainty in his own voice. “Walk out of here?”
“Ideally? No. But he already plotted our course.”
“Oh,” Volker said. “Do you need me to—” he wasn’t really sure how to continue, uncertainty warring with his natural tendency to offer help, warring with the fact that he didn’t particularly want to be helping Telford, “—do anything?”
Telford glanced back at him, his expression closed. He jerked his head, seeming to come to a decision. “Get up here.”
Volker slid into the seat Rush had vacated. The display in front of him was significantly more complicated than the one at the lateral station he’d been studying. He didn’t have much of a chance to examine the new readouts before Telford spoke.
“You’ll need to learn Goa’uld,” Telford said shortly. “And possibly Ancient as well.”
Telford sighed. “Look, there are a bunch of training videos that I illegally copied that you can watch, presuming Rush didn’t erase them or somehow convert them into some ridiculous piece of circuitry, but until then, just try to pick this stuff up as you go. You’re a smart guy, right? Or is he bullshitting about that as well?”
“Um, no,” Volker said, trying not to sound as utterly out of his depth as he felt. “I have a PhD in astrophysics.”
“Do you have any idea how many god damned astrophysicists I know?” Telford asked.
“None?” Volker guessed.
“At least fifty. That’s a low estimate. And only two of them are really outstanding.”
“Okay,” Volker said, not really sure where the other man was going with this.
“And you,” Telford said, “you had better be number three.”
“You abducted me, you know,” Volker felt compelled to point out.
“Wrong answer,” Telford snapped. “The correct answer, is ‘you’re damn right I’m number three.' And, as I explained, I didn’t abduct you. Rush did that.”
Volker stared out the forward window, his jaw locked.
“For what it’s worth,” Telford said, “I’m sorry you got dragged into all this. That was—not the plan. He was supposed to break into your office and take your data. Not talk to you. Not abduct you.”
“So why did he do it then?” Volker asked through clenched teeth. “Why destroy my life?”
“He needs your help, apparently,” Telford said, his expression guarded. “With one of the greatest mysteries—one of the greatest potential discoveries—that mankind has ever made. He’s attempting to unlock one of the last remaining frontiers that our species has yet to conquer.”
“Rush,” Volker said dubiously.
“Yes.” Telford said shortly. “Rush. Rush and I.”
“If you say so,” Volker replied, fighting to keep his face and his voice neutral.
Privately, he suspected that whatever Rush and Telford were up to, it was unlikely that the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake was their primary goal.
“You’re part of something greater than you could possibly imagine,” Telford said quietly. “Whether you realize that yet or not.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Volker replied, hearing some of his doubt creep into his tone.
His reply seemed to irritate Telford. The other man’s expression darkened and closed. “Tap the flashing text,” Telford said shortly, with a quick glance at the screen in front of Volker. “We’re beyond the range of terrestrial sensors. We won’t be detected if we engage our hyperdrive.”
Volker tapped the string of hieroglyphics. The mostly empty darkness of space in front of them blurred and brightened into linear streaks of what could only be starlight. He jerked in surprise, in spite of himself.
Telford pulled his hands away from the controls, hit a depressible part of the console and then turned to face Volker. “You’re going to need a new outfit. Which is a pain in the ass by the way.”
“So sorry to inconvenience you,” Volker said.
“Go put on whatever you have that looks as close to what I’m wearing as possible.”
Volker gave Telford a dubious look, eyeing the black boots, the black leather pants, the matching black leather jacket over a dark shirt of an unfamiliar cut. The overall aesthetic was—extremely intimidating.
“Um, it’s not going to be very—” Volker trailed off as Telford stood and walked away without giving him a second glance. The door to the bridge swished open and shut.
“—close,” Volker finished, in the empty room.
Four hours later found Volker eating a power bar as he sat alone in a room that seemed to be something between a workspace and—well, he wasn’t sure what. Plastic containers and crates were stacked, low and irregularly against the walls, leaving a clear space for a central table that was mostly covered with a variety of electronic equipment, a bottle of alcohol, several small notebooks, and what appeared to be a modified version of a terrestrial soldering gun.
Terrestrial. Yup. He was pretty sure he’d never needed to add that adjective to anything before.
It was difficult, with starlight streaking in a linear manner past the room’s only window, to keep his attention focused on this—training video. Or whatever the hell it was.
“—Shol’va. This is the Goa’uld word for ‘traitor,’ but in a broader cultural context it came to be applied not only to individuals, but to entire scientific, philosophical, and theological disciplines that defied Goa’uld convention. Methods to ensure conformity have historically been and currently are extreme. After failure of conventional methods, such as physical and psychological torture, the Goa’uld have been known to employ methods of coercive persuasion, more commonly referred to as ‘brainwashing’. Unfortunately, this technique spread cross-culturally and has been refined and adapted by other civilizations, most notably the Lucian Alliance.”
“You’re kidding,” Volker said to the image of Dr. Daniel Jackson, triple PhD, that he was watching on someone’s borrowed laptop.
“In order to gain a greater understanding into the physiology behind this technology, please refer to Dr. Carolyn Lam’s video, 'Recognizing Thought Control in its Various Manifestations,' Dr. Jackson continued. “The concept of Shol’va can be first traced back to Ra, who introduced the term in—”
Volker jumped as the door slid open. It was Telford.
“We’re going to drop out in a few minutes,” the other man said shortly. “Get ready.”
“For what?” Volker asked, but Telford had already disappeared.
He shut the laptop and looked down at himself critically. He was wearing black jeans, black dress shoes that Telford had done his best to beat the hell out of, a black T-shirt, and a black dress shirt that was unbuttoned and untucked, giving the vague impression of a jacket.
He did not look badass. In any way.
Volker wondered what the hell he should be doing to "get ready" to go to an alien world, but couldn’t think of anything in particular except to focus on the nervous sense of anticipation that seemed to flutter somewhere around his rapidly beating heart.
An alien planet.
An alien planet?
A brief sensation of deceleration and the suddenly stationary nature of the stars let him know that they had dropped out of hyperspace. Volker had a difficult time thinking of “hyperspace” as a real thing. Same problem with “hyperdrives,” and god forbid, “hyperspeed?” “Hypervelocity?”
He went to the window and looked out. Below him, closer than he’d been prepared to expect, and growing closer all the time, was a green and brown world, cloud covered, and very much, very much like Earth. It was hard to estimate the scale of the planet, as he didn’t have a good way of judging how far from it they were, but if he’d had to guess, he would have put it at maybe 1.3 times the size of the Earth. The refractive index of the clouds was such that he was fairly confident they were water vapor.
They began their descent through the atmosphere, with only a hint of any pressure against their ship by the airflow attack. That was cool. He wondered how that worked.
If there were clouds, and there were, most certainly, clouds, it seemed likely that the planet had a strong enough magnetic field to protect it from the solar wind of its parent star, which Volker could also see, shining a yellow-gold at a great distance away. If there was a magnetic field the core of the planet was likely still liquid and hot and rotating—
His mind continued to race, cataloguing as much information as it could during the descent, before the ship came to rest on a disappointingly normal looking patch of bare ground.
He left the room and stood for a moment in the central hallway, waiting for the other two to appear. Rush showed first, stepping out of a door next to the transporter room. Volker hadn’t seen him since he left the bridge four hours previously. The other man was dressed in a fashion similar to Telford—almost entirely in black leather, but he was wearing his glasses, which gave the entire picture a somewhat bizarre accent.
“You’re fucking kidding me,” Rush said, taking in Volker’s outfit.
“Yeah,” Volker said. “Nice to see you too.”
The door at the end of the hall hissed open and Telford stalked out.
“We’re powered down,” he said, “and cloaked.”
“Cloaking?” Volker echoed, as Telford brushed by him. “Seriously?”
“You couldn’t do any better that that?” Rush asked disdainfully, flinging a hand in Volker’s direction. “He looks terrible. By any standards.”
“You’re one to talk. Lose the fucking glasses, Nick.”
“Fuck off,” Rush said, but pulled his glasses off and tucked them carefully inside his jacket.
Telford said nothing, just glared at the pair of them as he jabbed the blue button on the door controls to the transporter room with one vicious finger.
“So,” Volker said. “Where are we?”
“Rolan,” Telford said shortly. “It’s a planet under the control of the Lucian Alliance.”
“And what are we doing here, exactly?”
“I am meeting my contact. You are going with Rush.”
“Great,” Volker said, eyeing the mathematician skeptically as they followed Telford to the circle etched into the floor. “And we’re supposed to do what, exactly?”
“Find you some clothes.”
“I’m unsure we can handle that level of danger and intrigue,” Rush said dryly.
“Do not,” Telford said, glaring at Rush. “Light anything on fire.”
“I would never,” Rush replied, managing to looking affronted.
“Didn’t you guys like—kidnap me to do astrophysics for you? Why are you taking me to a planet?” Volker asked, genuinely curious about their motivations. Despite his best efforts, he felt like the question came out more excited than suspicious.
“First of all,” Telford said, “we did not kidnap you. Rush recruited you. Welcome to the Lucian Alliance.”
“Oh. Thanks for clarifying that one,” Volker said.
“Second, I can’t just have some untrained Earth-based astrophysicist on my hands, so you’re going to need enough experience to pass for a member of the LA. At least at first glance.”
“For one,” Telford said shortly, “the initiation procedures for outsiders are—extreme.”
“Extreme.” Volker couldn’t help the sudden chill any more than he could help glancing at Rush. The mathematician’s expression was utterly neutral, his stance uncharacteristically still. He didn’t look back at Volker. He seemed to be studying empty air.
“So you need to be able to pass. Let’s leave it at that.” Telford hit a button on a small device he carried in his hand.
Volker had been expecting the blue-white flare of the beaming technology but he jerked in surprise as they were surrounded by a strange, rushing set of what looked like metal rings? His ears filled with a tone that was really more pure vibration than it was sound. The loops of metal—or whatever the hell they were—collapsed down and lifted back up. When they did so, he found himself squinting in the brightness of natural daylight.
The sky was white, obscured by a homogenous, low-lying cloud cover. It looked like it might rain at any moment. A cold wind sliced through the thin material of his shirt and tore at his hair. Ahead of them was a small settlement.
He looked straight above him at the overhanging hull of the ship, trying to figure out where the rings had gone. There was a circle etched into the metal above them.
“It’s a reverse platform built into the exterior hull,” Rush said, tracking the direction of Volker’s gaze.
“Go into town,” Telford said. “Buy him some clothes, and get the hell back here. Don’t talk to anyone you don’t need to talk to.” With that, the other man started away from the ship, heading away from the small town, out into what looked like endless fields of corn.
Rush watched Telford for the span of about twenty seconds, his expression tense and unhappy.
“Isn’t he worried that we’ll escape?” Volker asked, trying to resist the impulse to cross his arms against the cold wind.
“On a planet like this?” Rush asked, fixing Volker with an almost intolerable stare. “There’s nowhere to go.”
“Ah,” Volker said quietly.
“This is not going to work,” Rush said, still looking at him.
“Which part?” Volker asked.
Rush stepped forward and started ripping the small white buttons off Volker’s dress shirt and dropping them on the ground. Volker, getting the idea, tore them off the cuffs of his sleeves. When they had gotten rid of the buttons, Rush bent down and came up with two handfuls of loose, dusty earth, which he proceeded to smear over Volker’s shirt.
“What the hell?”
“You’re too clean,” Rush explained. “And this kind of material?” He yanked on the loose fabric at the shoulder of Volker’s shirt. “It's useless in this kind of environment and consequently is worn by people of the lowest rank. And no offense, but I think we’d have a hard time passing you off as a prostitute.”
“Um, thank you?” Volker said.
Rush rolled his eyes. “So we’ll go with liberated slave or other person of dubious origins.”
“Great,” Volker said. “Just when I thought my day couldn't get any worse.”
“I wouldn’t say that if I were you,” Rush replied, grinding dirt into Volker’s back.
The wind whistled around the corners of the ship.
Once Rush was satisfied, they set off toward the small town. Well, “town” was perhaps too ambitious a term for whatever this was. There couldn’t have been more than twenty or thirty buildings, and none of them were more than a single story. Gray dust clung to everything.
“How do they get the corn to grow?” Volker asked.
He was more thinking aloud than actually addressing Rush, but he got a glare in return.
“I’d imagine in the usual way,” Rush said testily.
“The soil just seems—really crappy,” Volker said mildly.
The mathematician’s irritation seemed to fade. He stopped, dragging the edge of his boot through the fine, dusty earth that lined the only road into the settlement.
“Agreed,” Rush said finally. The other man grimaced faintly.
“What?” Volker asked.
“It’s probably nothing,” Rush murmured, and began walking again.
“What’s probably nothing?” Volker asked pointedly.
“I doubt that’s ordinary corn.”
“Seeing as we’re on an alien planet, yeah, I’d agree.”
Rush shot him a glare. “You need to learn when to shut up and absorb information.”
“Well, you’re not the most communicative guy,” Volker said, frustrated. “So far all I know is that you think the corn on this planet is weird. Which, by the way, I pointed out to you.”
“The Lucian Alliance,” Rush said, hissing the words, “is very much invested in the idea of behavioral and thought control. Some of their food is genetically engineered to contain psychostimulants, or worse.”
“And you think this corn—”
“Creepy,” Volker said after a significant pause.
“Yes,” Rush whispered. “I recommend not letting anyone know that you have this information.”
“What about Telford?” Volker said.
“Especially not Colonel Telford,” Rush replied darkly.
They had nearly reached the edges of the settlement.
“Why not?” Volker whispered urgently. “What is going on with you guys?”
Rush just shook his head, and indicated the settlement with his eyes. The warning was clear enough, and Volker dropped his line of questioning with a frustrated sigh.
As they wound their way through the low buildings, Volker was surprised to see that the entire place seemed to be a bizarre mixture of high and low tech—with dirt roads trafficked by people on foot as well as by supplies loaded down on hovering platforms. They passed shops of various kinds until they came to an open-air market that clearly was the kind of place that would be selling the kind of outfit Rush was wearing.
They quickly perused the stalls, but there wasn’t much available. They managed to purchase a likely looking pair of leather pants from a raggedly attired, nearly emaciated man, but couldn’t find much else.
After they’d made a single pass, Rush put an end to their shopping with terse, “Let’s go.”
Volker peeled himself away from examining a small metal device of unknown function. To his surprise, they didn’t head back in the direction of the ship, but instead continued on, crossing the settlement almost completely, navigating away from highly trafficked areas.
“Rush,” Volker hissed, as they turned down a dubious-looking alleyway. “Where are we going?”
“There’s something I need to do,” Rush murmured.
Rush stopped and turned the full force of his furious gaze on him.
“You and I have a set of skills that Colonel Telford lacks,” Rush said, his voice low and dangerous. “And until such a time as he manages to acquire said skills or we, by some means, lose them, his power over us will always be limited by the fact that he requires us to perform certain tasks.”
“Um,” Volker said, holding up his hands as Rush stepped forward.
“Don’t allow him to dictate your agenda,” the mathematician murmured. “Develop one for yourself.”
“Kinda hard when—”
“It’s always hard.”
They stood, eyes locked, until Rush turned and continued down the narrow alley.
Volker tried to ignore the closeness of the buildings, they way they seemed to press in and down and heavy upon him. He held his leather pants to his chest. When they reached the end of the narrow passage, he was surprised to note that they had crossed the settlement entirely. Beyond the buildings was a dry empty patch of dust before a wall of the strange corn sprang up, dark and threatening against the sky.
“Stay here,” Rush whispered, pressing him back against the rough wood of a building at the end of the alleyway.
“But—” Volker wasn’t entirely sure whether he was protesting for his own sake or for Rush’s. In either case, splitting up did not seem like a good idea.
“I have to go alone,” Rush whispered. “I’ll be back shortly. If anything happens, go back to the ship.”
“What do you think is going to happen?” Volker whispered, the words tripping over each other in urgency.
“Probably nothing,” Rush whispered, his eyes flicking restively out into the empty space beyond the settlement, where the open swath of dusty land gave way to alien corn, where anything could be concealed.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Volker whispered.
“Neither do I,” Rush replied, giving him a half smile that looked more rueful than anything. He stepped back a pace and then turned, heading toward the dusty, windswept ground behind the buildings.
“Rush,” Volker whispered. “Rush.”
The other man didn't turn.
“Damn it,” he mouthed silently.
The wind was picking up, swirling the dust into small eddies. There was no one in sight.
He couldn’t just stand here, hoping Rush would come back. That much was clear. Peering around the edge of the building seemed unreasonably risky. He bit his lip, pressing back against the rough wood, trying to force his brain to come up with some kind of practical solution.
Too bad he didn’t have a mirror.
What did he have? A pair of leather pants, his own dirty outfit—and, in the pocket of his jeans, slipped in by habit, was his iPhone. Volker pulled it out. The black surface of the touchscreen reflected the gray-white of the sky.
Pressing himself back against the building, he angled his phone, extending it out past the corner. He could see Rush’s silhouette—an unmistakable energetic darkness against the sky. The mathematician was approaching another man, a lone, broad-shouldered outline.
Volker could hear the indistinct sound of their voices over the whistling of the wind. He couldn’t pick out any words.
Rush pulled something out of his jacket and held it up. Whatever it was, it was too small for Volker to make out.
The other man reached into his own jacket and removed what looked like an envelope.
Neither of them moved. They appeared to be talking. Volker glanced nervously to his right, down the deserted alleyway. He shivered at a particularly strong gust of wind.
A few raindrops began to fall, hitting the earth and beading in the dust.
On the screen of his phone, he watched Rush take a step back.
As if that had been some kind of catalyst, some kind of unspoken signal, the pair of them exploded into sudden, violent motion. The taller man drove forward, landing a glancing blow to Rush’s face as he ducked out of the way, using his momentum to half-avoid the punch and back away again, his hands open, as if he were trying to talk the other man down.
Something changed. Rush’s hands snapped shut.
Both combatants came forward at the same time, darkened silhouettes merging, locked together against the cold sky. Then, Rush was taken down. Hard.
Not surprising. The other guy must have at least four inches on him.
Volker bit his lip, uncertain. On the small, dark screen that he held, it was impossible to tell who had the upper hand. But in many ways, it didn’t really matter. Logically he knew there was no way, no way that Rush was going to win this fight.
The guy was a mathematician for goodness’ sake. And, arguably, Volker’s best chance for successfully navigating his new life as a Space Pirate. Or whatever it was that he was now.
He shoved his phone back into his pocket, dropped the leather pants, and flung himself around the corner.
They were only twenty feet away, struggling in the dust. The fight was immediate and intense and more vicious than Volker had been prepared to imagine. They were fighting over something. Something that flashed silver in the diffuse, gray-white light of the afternoon.
It was a knife. And Rush was already half pinned and that was the only thing Volker had time to think of before he was there and dragging the other man back, off of Rush with all his strength, dragging him up and away and—
Yeah. He really hadn’t thought this through very well.
The man turned on him with a furious roar, the knife coming down in a fast arc that Volker managed to dodge only partially.
He felt the blade slip along beneath his collarbone as he turned away from the full force of the blow, but the other man was turning too, pressing his advantage, driving the knife down into his outer shoulder. Volker’s eyes flicked to it, its edge glinting with an inappropriate immediacy in the soft light.
A shadow passed across the blade.
His attacker fell away, down into the dust.
Rush stood next to him, a flat, wide stone in his hand.
For a moment, there was no sound other than the labored gasps of both their breathing.
Rush dropped the rock.
“Don’t look,” he snapped.
Volker was having a difficult time focusing on anything except the sight of a knife buried in his shoulder.
“Volker,” Rush snapped. “I said don’t look.”
He looked at Rush.
“Better.” In one smooth motion, Rush stepped forward and carefully pulled the knife out of Volker’s shoulder, clamping a hand down over the injury as he did so.
That really hurt.
A warm gush of blood flowed down his arm, hot and wet and soaking through the filthy material of his shirt. Reflexively, he pressed his right hand down over Rush’s grip on his left shoulder.
“Got it?” Rush asked.
“Yeah,” Volker managed, feeling his pulse throb painfully beneath his hand.
“Good lad,” Rush said, withdrawing his hand and moving to lean over the man he’d hit with a rock.
“Did you kill him?” Volker asked.
“No,” Rush said, his fingers at the other man’s neck.
“Let’s get out of here,” Volker said, his entire body trembling with cold or with nerves or with shock.
“Thirty seconds,” Rush whispered. He was searching through the other man’s pockets. He pulled out an envelope and tucked it inside his jacket. His eyes flicked back and forth several times between Volker and the unconscious man.
“Rush,” Volker hissed insistently.
The scattered drops of rain began to fall faster.
Rush peeled the other man’s leather jacket off and stood to wrap it around Volker’s shoulders in a manner that was bizarrely solicitous.
“Thanks, but, uh, Rush, let’s go,” Volker murmured. “What if he wakes up?”
“I said thirty seconds,” Rush snapped, “and thirty seconds is what I meant.” He knelt and, unbelievably, began to unlace the other man’s boots.
“Rush you can’t take this guy’s boots.”
“He stabbed you,” Rush said. “And you also need boots. It’s just and practical.”
“Rush,” Volker hissed, trying not to sound as hysterical as he felt.
Rush cleaned the knife off on the fallen man’s shirt, then slipped it somewhere inside his own jacket. The mathematician picked up the boots and stood, his hand closing around Volker’s good arm. “Let’s go. We’ll keep to the outskirts.”
Volker had a hard time getting his feet moving.
Rush dragged him back toward the buildings. They stopped to retrieve the leather pants before taking a different, less trafficked route through the town.
It began raining in earnest.
“Do not pass out on me, Volker,” Rush snapped, giving him a barely perceptible shake as he stumbled. “I’m not particularly inclined to carry you back to the ship.”
“I” Volker said, despising the unsteadiness in his own voice, “really hate you.”
“Not unreasonable,” Rush said quietly. “But fucking hold yourself together, won’t you?”
Volker gritted his teeth and tried to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, working on staying steady as they walked through the increasing downpour, the dust of the road settling and turning to muck as they made their way back to the ship. It took them twice the amount of time it had taken them to walk into the small settlement.
“So no one cares that you hit that guy with a rock?” Volker asked, managing to shake himself out of a haze as they passed the boundary of the cloak and the ship became visible. The rain abated inside the invisible barrier.
“Well,” Rush said, “I would imagine he cares a great deal.”
“What kind of world is this?”
“One that has known very little other than rule by force.”
“We’re academics,” Volker said, as they staggered beneath the limited cover of the ship, aligning themselves with the rings. “We’re not meant for this sort of thing.”
“You’d be surprised.” Rush reached into his jacket, pulled out his glasses, and slipped them on.
“What did you take from him? What was in that envelope?” Volker asked, realizing belatedly that his window of opportunity to question Rush about what had just happened was rapidly closing.
“I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough,” Rush whispered. He hit a button on the small device he carried with him, and the rings descended. Finally, they were standing in the transport room.
Volker felt his knees begin to buckle.
“No,” Rush snapped. “Don’t you dare.”
Rush dragged him forward, hit the door controls, and pulled him into the hallway.
“Rush,” Volker heard Telford call from the bridge. “Where the hell have you been?”
“We ran into some trouble,” Rush called back evenly, dragging Volker toward the room with the laptops and crates.
“What kind of trouble?” Telford said, appearing in the doorframe.
“There was a minor disagreement over the reasonable price for a leather jacket and boots,” Rush said.
Volker was having a hard time keeping the floor from spinning inappropriately.
“You got him knifed?” Telford sounded like he was underwater.
“I hardly think your phrasing is accurate,” Rush snapped back. “Give me a hand here, will you?”
The blood was roaring in his ears.
“I cannot believe you got him fucking knifed. You are a disaster of a human being.”
His fingers were tingling.
“Fuck off. You’re not being constructive.”
His vision was fading out.
“Constructive. Constructive? You. You're talking to me about being constructive?”
Volker came to, lying on the same table that he’d been sitting at earlier.
“Well how long are we supposed to let the iodine sit?”
“I don’t know. How long does it say?”
“It doesn’t say. There aren’t any instructions, Rush.”
“Don’t you have an Air Force kit?”
“No. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, you have an Air Force uniform, do you not?”
“That’s not the same thing. I need that.”
“Well I need fucking instructions in my fucking first aid kits. I’m a doctor of mathematics, not medicine, David.”
“I think he needs stitches.”
Volker tried to sit, but immediately two pairs of hands were holding him down.
“Hold still,” Rush snapped.
“Are you all right?” Telford asked him, shooting a glare at Rush.
Volker tried to clear his head, gritting his teeth against the pain in his shoulder. “You tell me,” he said, trying to get a good look at his injury.
“You’re going to be okay,” Telford said. “You didn’t lose much blood. Fortunately. As stab wounds go, you got off pretty light.”
Volker could feel his expression warp briefly into utter incredulity.
“I’m sure it hurts like a bitch though,” the other man said.
“Yeah,” Volker said through clenched teeth.
“Rush,” Telford snapped. “Go sterilize the suturing equipment.”
“Oh no,” Volker said. “No, I don’t think that’s—”
“Yes it is,” Telford said. “Rush, go.”
The mathematician narrowed his eyes, but he picked up the instruments and the small bottle of alcohol and stalked toward the door.
“Don’t forget to heat them,” Telford called after him.
Volker pressed a hand over his eyes. He heard the door hiss open and then shut again as Rush left the room.
“Is he really reliable enough to be—oh, I don’t know, sterilizing things?”
“I hope so,” Telford said, his gaze fixed on the closed door. “At least lighting the alcohol on fire will put him in a better mood.”
“What happened?” Telford asked, looking down at him.
Volker chewed his lip.
“It’s okay,” Telford said. “You can tell me. I know what he’s like.”
Volker stopped chewing his lip.
He had seconds to decide on a course of action. Seconds, based on his limited experience with the pair of them, to determine whom he was going to side with.
He might as well play the middle for as long as he possibly could.
“There was an open air market,” Volker said, watching Telford carefully. “Rush and one of the vendors disagreed over a fair price for boots, a jacket, and a pair of pants. They started arguing.”
Telford’s expression was entirely neutral.
“Things were getting a little heated,” Volker said. “But then, this guy tackles Rush. I guess I just instinctively pulled him off, but he comes up with a knife and stabs me in the shoulder. Things got a bit hazy after that, but Rush ended up ah, knocking the other guy out—”
“Rush.” Telford was clearly skeptical.
“Yup,” Volker said shortly. “He used a rock.”
“I see,” Telford said, his expression still unreadable. Volker had no idea if the man believed him or not. It was certainly no coincidence that they were having this conversation when Rush was outside, flame-sterilizing the metal suturing equipment.
“He’s really, um, volatile?” Volker said, levering himself up on his good elbow.
“Yes,” Telford said shortly.
“What’s the deal with that, exactly?” Volker asked.
“I suggest you find a way to handle him,” Telford said, looking away. “Because I don’t see the current situation improving much.”
Volker said nothing. From the hallway, they heard the hiss of an opening door. Rush walked back into the room, gingerly holding a pair of forceps and something that looked like an oddly-designed pair of scissors but, from what Volker could see, was likely to actually function as more of a clamp of some kind.
“Where do you want these?” Rush asked.
“Just hold them until I find the sutures.” Telford was digging through the kit.
“You’re serious about this?” Volker asked, the pitch of his voice rising slightly. He had been pretty sure that the "sterilize these instruments" line had been an excuse for Telford to question him without Rush being in the room.
“Yeah,” Telford said shortly, emerging with a packet that contained surgical thread attached to a curved needle. “It’s not going to heal properly unless I stitch it up.” He looked over at Rush. “You’re going to have to hold him down.”
“Right,” Rush breathed, sounding like he didn’t relish the prospect any more than Volker did.
“Any time now,” Telford said dryly.
Volker tried not to wince as Rush carefully handed the instruments over to Telford and then leaned over him, pressing down, his hands braced on Volker’s good shoulder and the bicep of his injured arm.
“Try not to move,” Telford said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any local anesthetic.”
“You have a spaceship,” Volker said incredulously, “but not anesthetic?”
“Be glad we have sutures,” Telford replied. “I’ll be quick. This looks like it was a slash-and-stick, light on the slash, heavy on the stick. You’re going to need maybe three or four stitches in order for it to close up properly. I can be done in under two minutes.”
“They teach this kind of thing in the Air Force, do they?” Volker asked breathlessly.
“No,” Telford said. “Don’t talk.” He met Volker’s eyes. “Don’t look.”
Volker shut his eyes, grimacing.
He felt the full force of Rush’s weight pinning him to the table, and then came the nearly intolerable sensation of sensitive, abraded flesh being apposed by the metal of the small clamp, the fiery sting of a needle puncture, and the draw of the suture material through his injured skin, followed by a sharp pull as Telford tied off the knot.
“Breathe,” Rush snapped. “You’re going to pass out.”
Volker made an effort to try and breathe through the pain as the sensations repeated.
“Did you get that?” Telford asked quietly.
“Yes,” Rush replied, his voice tight.
“Pinch,” Telford murmured, “puncture, pull, twist, and tie.” There was a short jerk as he pulled to finish the knot. “Never touch the suture material itself with anything other than sterilized instruments.”
One more painful iteration, and it was over. Volker opened his eyes, blinking the reflexive moisture away. Rush rapidly backed off, and Telford began taping a bandage down over the stitching. “Take it easy with that shoulder,” he said.
“Yeah,” Volker said weakly.
“Good man,” Telford said, clapping him once on his uninjured arm before beginning to repack the first aid kit.
Slowly, Volker pushed himself into a sitting position. He felt weak and shaky. “I’m going to go find a shirt,” he said, half-dazed.
“That’s a fucking terrible idea,” Rush snapped, looking at him with crossed arms before spinning on his heel and leaving the room.
They stared after him until the door hissed shut automatically.
“Do you think he’s getting me a shirt?” Volker asked Telford.
“I’d say there’s a seventy percent chance that’s what he’s doing,” Telford said dryly. He finished packing up the first aid kit and turned, opening one of the plastic bins along the walls and pulling out a silver package, which he handed to Volker.
“What’s this?” Volker asked, fingering the packaging.
“The LA equivalent of an MRE.”
“What?” Volker asked.
“Food,” Telford said, rolling his eyes. “Don’t forget to drink water. You didn’t loose a dangerous amount of blood, I don’t think, but it’s always a good idea to stay hydrated.”
Volker stared at him.
“What?” Telford demanded.
“Sorry. You just sounded so—normal.”
“I am normal.”
“Um,” Volker said. “Yeah. Thanks for stitching me up.”
“You’re welcome,” Telford replied. “Look, there’s some intel I need to go over, so I’ll be on the bridge if you need me.” He headed toward the door. “Just tell Rush to go fuck himself if he starts harassing you.”
“Piss off, David. I heard that,” Rush said from the hallway, edging past Telford into the room, one of Volker’s shirts in hand.
“What?” Telford snapped. “You know how you are.”
Rush ignored him and walked forward to hand Volker a blue dress shirt. The door swished shut, sealing them in the room together. Volker started the awkward process of pulling the shirt on.
“Wrong,” Rush said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Wrong?” Volker asked.
“Injured side first,” Rush murmured.
Volker stopped and reoriented, pulling the shirt over his left arm and then reaching around behind to hook his right arm through the open sleeve.
“You have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, do you?” he asked Rush testily.
To his surprise, Rush looked away and said nothing.
“What is going on, Rush?” Volker whispered as his fingers looped buttons through holes with something less than his usual dexterity. “I’ve been on this ship for what?” he looked down at his watch, getting a painful stabbing sensation from his left shoulder as he raised and twisted his hand. “Ten hours? And how many times have I covered for you?”
“I’m not sure that I’d put it that way,” Rush said, eyebrows raised.
“Then how would you put it?” Volker asked.
“That you find yourself in the midst of a rather subtle conflict and have not yet declared yourself for one side or the other.”
They looked at each other.
“A course,” Rush murmured, “that I would pursue as long as possible, if I were you.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Volker said dubiously.
“Eat your dinner,” Rush said. “Drink some water. We start in thirty minutes.”
“Start what?” Volker murmured.
“Working,” Rush replied shortly.
Volker’s shoulder felt like it was on fire. The edges of the room were starting to melt and blur. He could never remember being this exhausted. He felt like he could barely maintain his grip on reality, let alone whatever the heck Rush was currently talking about.
“But what about the COBE map?” Rush snapped. “Even there, the quadrupole has a low amplitude compared to what you would predict. The WMAP data seems even more convincing on that front.”
Telford had gone to bed hours ago, following the announcement that Volker would have to find a place to sleep, as they only had two bunks. It looked like he’d be sleeping in the cargo bay.
If Rush ever let him leave.
“Volker. Volker. For fuck’s sake. Are you even paying attention?”
“Yes,” Volker said, feeling a panicky edge to his exhaustion. “A full Bayesian analysis—”
“You’re about to fucking start in on experimental error, aren’t you?” Rush snarled. “I don’t want to hear it. There are great-scale anisotropies. They’ve been cross-culturally observed.”
He wanted to take ten minutes to just sit. Sit and process everything that had happened to him in the past twelve hours. But before he did that, he wanted to sleep. Anywhere. Under any conditions. But the thing he wanted most of all? Was to get the hell away from Rush.
“Volker!” Rush threw his pen against the bulkhead wall.
“Fucking pay attention. I don’t have an unlimited amount of time here, and you’re not listening to what I’m saying. There are large scale anisotropies and that is a verifiable fact.”
Rush was shouting.
“I’m not interested in your opinion on whether these fucking anisotropies exist or not, I’m interested in their topological distribution, given that they do exist, and whether there are any patterns that can be identified by superimposing your radiometric map over the WMAP in order to identify planets that may contain naquadria deposits within the confines of this galaxy because they’re going to emit on a spectrum that will disrupt the CBR and give off EM radiation along every observable frequency, including radio waves—“
Volker was positive that he’d never, in his life, heard anyone pack that much informational content into one sentence. One sentence that still wasn’t over.
“—as high energy EM radiation passes through differential distances of the dense material that makes up the deposits themselves, not to mention the planetary crust; or maybe that’s utter shit, I don’t know, I’m not an astrophysicist, I’m just fucking telling you what’s been observed when one of these planets was studied.”
Finally, Rush paused.
“Naquadria?” Volker repeated.
Rush sighed in what could only be interpreted as disgust.
“Yeah, okay,” Volker said, managing to hold himself together with superhuman effort. “Forget this.” He got to his feet.
“What do you mean—”
“I mean forget this,” Volker said. “Leave me alone, Rush. I’m going to bed.”
Rush dug the heel of one hand into his temple, his expression tight, but he said nothing. Volker crossed the room, hit the door controls, and stepped into the cool, dim space of the hallway. He stopped off in the bathroom to take his meds and drink a glass of water before he made his way unsteadily to the cargo bay, hitting the door controls and stumbling through.
The lights were dim—dimmer than they’d been earlier in the day. He didn’t have the mental energy to puzzle through why that might be.
He heard a soft meow and saw Mendelssohn appear from behind a crate.
“Hey buddy,” he said, sliding down the wall next to the canvas bag he’d packed that morning.
The cat padded over towards him, meowing plaintively.
“Sorry,” Volker whispered. “Were you lonely?”
He reached into the bag of cat food and pulled out a handful, placing it on the floor next to the half-empty water dish.
The cat began to crunch his way through the dry pellets. Absently, Volker ran a hand over his back.
He knew he should make some kind of attempt to sort out the utterly untenable and wholly unbelievable situation he found himself in, but instead he found himself thinking of Nupur, who had, just this morning, been earnestly worried about the radio array, and of Brian, who’d probably had to cancel his committee meeting. Those things were tough to schedule.
Volker brought a shaky hand up to his face. He had no idea how to deal with any of this. In the span of one day, he’d been abducted, knifed, and almost continuously ridiculed. It was a lot to take.
He felt too stunned by all of it to respond in any kind of meaningful way.
He stared at his empty hands.
After finishing the cat food, Mendelssohn came and curled up in his lap.
Volker decided that this was as good a place as any to go to sleep. He tried slumping over his bag, but his shoulder was much too painful for that, so he just stayed where he was, with his cat in his lap.
“Volker.” Someone was speaking quietly. “Dale. Dale.”
He opened his eyes to find Rush crouching across from him, uncomfortably close in the dim light.
Volker jerked in spite of himself, startling Mendelssohn, who leapt out of his lap.
“What?” he asked. “What time is it?”
“It’s late,” Rush murmured. “Get up.”
“No. No. I’m not—“
“Just—” Rush cocked his head. “Just get up, will you?”
Something about the way the other man said it made him pull his feet beneath him and stand. Rush helped him to his feet and pulled him into the hallway, stopping in front of one of the rooms that Volker hadn’t entered. Rush hit the door controls, and the door swished open. It was nearly pitch dark in the room, but Rush pulled him forward, guiding him toward a low mattress.
“But—” Volker said.
“Shhh.” Rush pulled away, vanishing back into the hallway with the pneumatic hiss of the doors.
Volker relaxed into the thin, hard mattress, pulling the blankets up over him, trying to avoid jostling his shoulder. It took him less than a minute to fall asleep.