Ad Noctum: Chapter 9
Telford laughed aloud—half delight, half wild-edged despair—and, for a brief moment, under a setting, alien star, the guy was very close to likable.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Panic. Injuries. Medical procedures. Violence. Death wishes. Thought control. Purposefully insensitive discussion of mental health issues. Boundary problems. Interpersonal manipulation.
Additional notes: None.
Volker tried his best to merge with the wall of glowing Goa’uld script, body and soul. He tried to forget his pounding heart and his shaking hands and how just really hot he was right now. He tried to forget how close the walls were, how they pressed in, warm and dark and on more sides than a cube should have. The place where his neck met his shoulders felt like it could sense the threatening crush of all the earth and water above them.
On the floor, the only Fields Medalist Dale Volker would ever meet his whole life long was, probably, bleeding to death.
Yeah, so, things weren’t really going that well?
“Airlocks are built for transit,” Volker whispered, into the warm press of the dark. “They just are. That’s their whole point.”
Tapes Guy was on his side. Dr. Daniel Jackson (bless his soul and his home and everyone he’d ever loved) had helped him translate each glowing symbol on the dark wall that was way too close to his face.
Complete translation hadn’t gotten him anywhere.
And that was terrifying. For a lot of reasons.
“I’m thinking maybe you should just try something.” Telford was crouched over Rush, his head angled down.
“I have concerns about that,” Volker replied, trying to keep his voice even. “Actually—I have strong concerns about that. Looking at what these readouts say—remembering what Rush did—I.” His throat closed.
He had a building suspicion. He wasn’t sure if he should say it aloud. Probably not. But it was hard to be alone in his own head with this kind of hypothesis. His eyes burned. The symbols on the wall blurred. It was hard to swallow.
“Tell me,” Volker whispered, “everything you know about the connection between Goa’uld technology and Ancient technology.”
“Dale, we don’t have time for this,” Telford said. “He’s not gonna make it. You need to try something.”
The problem was, Volker had tried. The readouts on the wall were displays only. Not interfaces. And yet, somehow, Rush had navigated them. He’d swiped simultaneously across unrelated informational displays. Two arcs. Volker had spent the last fifteen minutes translating everything he could see. The area where Rush had swept his hands hands contained multiple readouts. Power. Time. Radiation. Total Refined Naquadria. Water Level Behind. Water Level Ahead.
They were not interactive.
“I know,” Volker said quietly. “But this is important. Behind every Goa’uld device—is there always buried Ancient tech?”
“Behind most,” Telford said, his tone neutral.
Telford was smart. Telford was probably going to understand where he was going with this.
Would that be so bad?
Telford levered himself into a standing position, ending up directly behind Volker. Too close. Way too close. He seemed to realize that the proximity was stressful, and did his best to lean against the back wall at an awkward angle, his feet spread over Rush, who was now flat on his back, with his knees bent and wedged against the wall. “What are we looking at here?” Telford asked.
“Power,” Volker said, pointing. “Time. Radiation. Total Refined Naquadria. Water Level Behind. Water Level Ahead. ”
“What happens when you touch Water Ahead?” Telford asked.
“Nothing,” Volker said, hitting the glyphs.
Telford pushed away from the wall and reached around him, trying a swipe of the fingers, mimicking Rush’s prior style. First clockwise, then counter-clockwise, then with both hands in opposed arcs. There was no discernible effect.
“He swiped across informational displays and opened the door,” Telford said, his voice flat in the darkness.
“Yup,” Volker whispered. He cleared his throat. “So. You’re going to need to tell me everything you know about what the heck he did on the way in, including but not limited to: all unexplainable interfacing you’ve ever seen him do, his relationship with crystal versus circuit-based tech, and any theories you have on why and how he can detect powered-up Ancient devices. Everything. Now.”
There was a long silence. The dark pressed down.
“I think it’s specifically the crystal component of Ancient technology that he can sense,” Telford said finally.
“Why do you think that?” Volker asked, glancing down at his A-corder, which was trying to show him Rush’s vitals with a worried insistence.
“He seems to like to rescue crystals,” Telford said, reluctantly.
“Wait, ‘rescue’ them?”
“Yeah,” Telford said. “He has a sort of chivalrous way about him when he does it. He’ll go out of his way to pull them out of walls. Ships. Control panels. Hand-held devices. Engines. DHDs. Hyperdrives. Transport platforms. He’s a little more rational about it now. In the beginning I used to have to drag him away from every control circuit we passed.”
In the beginning? It took all of Volker’s self control not to chase that tangent down. But now, in the close, dark, hot, and maybe dwindling air, was not the time.
“So he can sense them remotely. For sure. Do you know what kind of range he has? What’s the farthest he’s ever deviated to retrieve a crystal?”
“Fifty feet, maybe?”
“So he’s detecting them at a minimum range of fifty feet,” Volker murmured, “and presumably paneling is no obstacle.”
“What does that mean?”
Taken together, what it meant was that Rush could remotely detect certain power signatures and could induce current in crystalline arrays using his hands. If he could induce current, then he could alter the electroconductive properties of his skin surface, which in turn meant that he might be able able to alter the electroconductive properties of his entire body. If he could do that, he might be able to create electromagnetic fields. He might be able to warp existing field lines.
Volker was pretty sure that he shouldn’t say any of that to Telford.
“Have you seen him do anything like this before?” Volker asked.
“A cross-menu swipe is pretty subtle,” Telford said.
“As a physical action, yes,” Volker admitted. “But we should have realized what he was doing didn’t make sense. Any other instances where you’ve seen him shortcut through the usual laws of physics? Open doors he shouldn’t be able to open?”
Telford laughed once, and it was almost a sob.
Volker stared into the dark.
“I’ve never seen a door that could hold him,” Telford whispered.
“Okay,” Volker replied. He looked at his A-corder, dismissed the tenth notification about Rush’s vitals, seated the thing firmly in his palm, and wrapped his fingers around it. He placed his other hand flat on the wall, in the remembered center of the double arc Rush had traced out on their way down.
//Okay, little guy. I need you to help me talk to the array in the wall.//
Miraculously, on the small screen a schematic diagram appeared: crystal and circuitry. The crystals were bright nodes of glowing color. The circuitry was dark and linear, superimposed over the diffuse light. He saw the stylized coils of inductors, the plates of capacitors, the unidirectional arrows of diodes.
“HA,” Volker half-shouted. “Oh my god, that’s the wall!” He looked over his shoulder at Telford, pointing at the diagram in his hand. “That’s the wall!!! I love this thing.”
“Okay,” Telford said, a little life coming back into his voice. “So, does this mean you can get the hatch open?”
“Maybe?” Volker said. “I don’t know. It’s progress.”
Volker sent the A-corder a wave of pure gratitude.
It rainbowed at him, then tried to show him Rush’s vitals again.
//I know he’s in trouble, buddy. We’re trying to get out of here so we can fix him.//
The A-corder dismissed Rush’s vitals of its own accord, returning to the crystal and circuit diagram.
Carefully, trying to keep his mind as clear as possible, Volker pictured the tunnel ahead of the airlock. The way it would slope up from the door. The two down-branching side passages on either side of the hatch. That had to be where the water would drain. He tried to picture, very clearly, the water draining away, leaving the hatch clear.
The A-corder began showing what had to be a flow of charge—small blue particles transiting in a loop. Then it flashed an alternate pathway in a bright blue linear overlay.
“That seems promising,” Telford said, looking over his shoulder.
“It is, I think,” Volker said, encouraged. “Okay. So, I think it’s telling me that we need to interrupt the ongoing flow of current. Snap ourselves over into the other pattern. Presumably, that will clear the way ahead.”
Volker tried moving the hand he had in contact with the wall, sweeping it over the informational displays, watching the flow of charge.
Because he had a normal human hand and he was separated from the array by a layer of insulated paneling.
“You think we can maybe open up this wall?” he asked Telford.
“Doubtful,” the other man replied. “I don’t see any pieces to pry. This is one solid unit with the displays built in.”
“Well, that’s an OSHA violation,” Volker muttered.
“I’ll be sure to pass that along to the Fourth House leadership,” Telford replied.
//Can you help me, buddy?// He pressed the A-corder against the nearest display, and began to sweep the thing in a slow arc. //Can you induce some current in a sister-circuit?//
He saw a faint oscillation in the flow of charge on the screen. He slowed down, changed direction, arcing the device along the smooth planar surface of the wall, watching the charges interrupt, jump, reverse flow.
“This is gonna work,” Volker whispered, stunned. He zeroed in on the pattern he wanted, trying to strengthen it with small movements, until, with a bright, satisfying blaze, the new flow of charge established itself. He pulled the A-corder away from the wall, and watched, mouth open, as the number readouts for Water Ahead began to tick downward.
“Shit,” Telford whispered. “Did you just—” he broke off, one hand coming to the side of his head.
Volker felt the pain of changing pressure, deep in his ears.
The outer hatch unsealed with a loud crack.
“You did,” Telford whispered, genuine shock in his voice. He leaned over, cranking the door open. “Nice work.” When he swung the thing wide, water still streaming around its edges, a blast of cooler, fresher air hit like a life-preserver to the face.
Volker practically dove through the opening, his boots splashing in the few inches of the water that was still draining away to either side of the hatch.
He bent over, hands on knees, the A-corder trapped between his palm and his thigh, pulling in deep, aching breaths. His eyes burned with unshed tears.
//Thanks,// he thought in the direction of the little device, with all the gratitude and relief he could put into the word. Between his fingers he could see it cycle through the visible spectrum.
“How’s Rush?” Volker asked, looking back over his shoulder at Telford.
“Not great,” Telford said, kneeling inside the hatch, his ear pressed against the mathematician’s chest. “Small chance I took his lung down. It’s hard to hear over the sound of the water.”
“Oh. Great. Well. I know I’m new at this, but here’s a thought: maybe next time don’t shoot him,” Volker suggested, glaring back over his shoulder.
“Couldn’t risk him being taken as a host,” Telford said, grunting slightly as he pulled America’s Most Vanished Cryptographer into a fireman’s carry. “And he was practically asking for it.”
“Yeah. Thanks so much for choosing me instead,” Volker said. “In related news, this is mine now.” He held up the A-corder.
“Hazard pay?” Telford asked, staggering slightly as he balanced Rush’s weight across his shoulders. He clicked on his flashlight. “Seems fair.”
They emerged into a humid twilight. The local star, intensely red gold, was vanishing beneath the dark tree line. The standing water of the swamp was a deep gray-green in the fading light. The air was thick with moisture. Above them, alien bats dived in rapid arcs, hunting night insects.
Volker and Telford stopped on the threshold of the refinery, eyeing the path to the tel’tak.
“Maybe take a look with the ALD,” Telford said, breathing hard. His sweat-soaked hair was plastered to his forehead. He shifted his grip on Rush. “Make sure we’re in the clear—no surprises waiting on or around the ship.”
“Yeah, so we’re calling it an A-corder,” Volker said conversationally, looking down at the little device that hadn’t left his hand since the airlock. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes, trying to focus, mentally and visually, on what he wanted to see. “We’re clear,” he confirmed.
“Okay,” Telford said, staring forward through shallow water and tangled reeds. “Once we’re on board, I’m going to do an internal sensor sweep. You just—do your best with Rush until I confirm we don’t have any stowaways.”
“Do my best?” Volker echoed, slogging through mud that seemed determined to pull his boots off his feet. “I have zero medical training.”
“Yeah, well, statistically speaking you’ve probably watched at least one episode of either ER and/or Grey’s Anatomy.” Telford nearly lost his footing in the reed-laced muck. “That makes you more qualified than Cousin Dale of Sixth House.”
“Scrubs,” Volker admitted, reaching out help the guy rebalance Rush across his shoulders. “I watched Scrubs.”
Telford snorted. “Most accurate one, supposedly. Great. Also, keep in mind that if he dies, we’re probably not going to have a very long shelf life either, so—”
“Thanks,” Volker said. “Thank you so much. Y’really know how to ruin a nice sunset, I’ll give you that.”
Telford laughed aloud—half delight, half wild-edged despair—and, for a brief moment, under a setting, alien star, the guy was very close to likable.
They boarded the tel’tak, tracking mud and faintly radioactive water up the cargo bay ramp. Zats in hand, eyes watchful, they went straight to the work room. Volker swept the table, saving a laptop with one hand, before sending everything else to the floor in a clatter of nonessential devices and swirls of loose paper as Telford laid Rush out on the cleared surface.
“Med kit’s all the way in the corner.” Telford pointed at one of the crates. “I’m going to seal the door to this room until the internal scan is done. Keep your zat in reach.” With that, he was gone.
Volker looked at Rush, really looked at the guy, for the first time since they’d traversed the airlock.
The mathematician’s entire left side was covered with blood. There was a thin trail of the stuff over the floor between the door and the table. His skin was pale and had a troublingly grayish cast. Probably being carried through an underground chemical refinery slung over someone’s shoulder would be hard on anyone’s cardiovascular system, even if they didn’t have a gunshot wound.
The guy didn’t look good. He looked, in fact, really really bad.
Volker had never seen anyone die.
But it didn’t seem out of the question here.
First things first. Hand on zat, Volker did a quick inspection of the room, popping open the few crates that might have been large enough to fit a stowaway. Once he was satisfied the room was clear, Volker dragged the med kit within easy reach of the central table, then opened it.
It was fifty percent Alliance, fifty percent Air Force, and one hundred percent an overflowing, disorganized mess.
“Okay,” Volker whispered, pulling out clear winners—gauze, a suture kit, alcohol, and setting them on top of the rest of it. He found a stethoscope threaded around the edge of the kit’s interior, and he worked that free as well.
He turned back to Rush.
Next step was probably going to be exposing his shoulder so Telford could stitch it up. But. Getting the guy’s good arm out of a fitted leather jacket while he was totally unconscious while simultaneously not disrupting the crap bandaging job that was, maybe, keeping at least some blood where blood should be—seemed really hard.
“Um,” Volker whispered, thinking of the knife he had strapped to his left ankle. “How pissed would you be if I cut you out of this thing?”
Very pissed, probably.
Volker really didn’t want to take another trip to Rolan to get Rush a replacement outfit. He started trying to work the collar of the jacket up and over, toward Rush’s good side, without disrupting Telford’s belted bandaging job.
This was not easy.
A little more work indicated it was, in fact, impossible for one person, especially given that even minimal shifts in Rush’s position were exacerbating the bleeding.
“You know what? Forget it,” Volker muttered, pulling the knife out of his boot. “You don’t want your clothes sliced up? Maybe don’t take us on a field trip to meet murderous brain worms. Maybe don’t get shot. Maybe don’t spend fifteen minutes downloading a database and theorizing about radioactivity while you’re bleeding to death. Also, maybe don’t give me a knife.”
He sawed his way through the leather of Rush’s jacket sleeves and undershirt, then looked critically at the blood-soaked remains of his own shirt, held in place by Telford’s belt. Yeah. He wasn’t touching that until Telford was ready to go with the sutures, or whatever ‘Wilderness Medicine’ skills he had up his sleeve.
“I’m guessing,” Volker muttered, “that if you were awake right now, you’d be trying to get me to analyze this brand new data collection that you almost killed us all for.” He began searching the inner pockets of Rush’s ruined coat, coming up with an assortment of small crystals, a set of what looked like jeweler’s tools, and a sliver lighter before he hit the pocket with the solid state drive. Volker slipped it into his own jacket, then began looking for other problems to fix.
Rush’s skin temperature was way below normal. That didn’t seem good. He fished around in the first aid kit and found some Air Force issued heat-reflective blanket-equivalents and wrapped them around the guy as best he could.
He pulled out the A-corder.
//Okay buddy, anything to add?//
As though the device had been holding itself back with great difficulty, the display exploded into information, presumably about Rush. The heart rate was pretty easy to interpret. Way too fast. But the rest of it—totally unreadable.
“This is feeling a little aspirational,” Volker murmured. “I don’t know numbers, man. Or letters. Can you show me the problem graphically?”
What he got in response to that request was—weird.
Weird and beautiful.
It looked like a web of light. A rainbow network of nodes with an evolving wave function ghosting prismatically overtop it. As he watched, a central node went dark.
“I don’t know what this means,” Volker whispered.
In the central darkness, the small waveform of Rush’s too-fast heart beat appeared.
“Rush is the dark node?” Volker murmured, his brows knit. “He shouldn’t be dark, is maybe what you’re saying? Is this the Ancient equivalent of you trying to tell me that Little Timmy fell down a well? I totally know, man. We’re gonna fix him, as best we can.”
The doors hissed open.
“All right.” Telford strode into the room. “We’re clear. No new devices. No stowaways, no lifeforms in close proximity other than a flock of what I’m assuming are carnivorous flying monkeys, but I’m betting that if they could chew through metal they’d already have done it. So.”
“Oh,” Volker said weakly. “Great.”
“Shit,” Telford said, looking at Rush, reaching for the stethoscope. “He doesn’t look good. If you’re the praying type, now would be the time to pray he’s not bleeding into his pleural space.”
“Pleural space?” Volker echoed.
“The space between his lung and chest wall,” Telford said, sliding the earpieces of the stethoscope into place. He listened intently to Rush’s chest in multiple locations, his expression taking on an unmistakably relieved cast. He locked eyes with Volker. “He didn’t drop his lung. Thank god. Blood loss we can fix.”
“We can?” Volker asked.
“Yeah,” Telford replied, yanking the stethoscope off. “The LA has a synthetic blood substitute. Basically the equivalent of freeze dried red blood cells and the basic serum proteins. Hypoallergenic. In fact, it’s completely synthetic, so it works across all humanoid blood types. When it comes to biomedical engineering the LA is decades ahead of the Air Force. At least decades. Bottom of the kit. The maroon packaging.”
“How many?” Volker asked, kneeling to dig through the stacked mix of supplies.
“Let’s start with two,” Telford said. “The liquid and solid components are separated within the packaging. The whole thing is sterilized. Just separate the IV tubing, then break and shake. The faster the better.”
Volker came up with one of the maroon packages. He dragged it out of the kit and separated the capped needle and associated IV tubing from the opaque packaging, pulling it out and straightening it. The tubing weighed enough that Volker guessed it came preloaded with some kind of liquid. He stepped closer to Rush, standing across from Telford, letting the tubing trail down across the mathematician’s chest, where the other man could easily reach it. Within the sealed packaging, he could feel a bubble of liquid, surrounded by a fine powder. He pressed and twisted, breaking the internal capsule and mixing the components. He gently shook the contents, inverting the packet, making sure all the dry powder was uniformly suspended. To his surprise, as he mixed, the bag warmed in his hands.
“It’s exothermic?” Volker asked. “How is that possible? Shouldn’t we just be putting protein in suspension?”
“Never thought about it,” Telford said, swabbing the crook of Rush’s elbow with an Air Force issue alcohol wipe. “Maybe it’s the packaging itself?” He grabbed the tubing, uncapped the needle, inspected it, and expertly inserted into one of Rush’s veins.
“Something to investigate later,” Volker said, still holding the synthetic blood. “You do blood before stitching?”
Telford smiled faintly as he taped the LA needle in place.
“What?” Volker asked.
“Nothing,” Telford said. “You’d have done great on a gate team, is all. And yes. If someone’s actively dying from blood loss you start with blood before stitching. Ideally they’ll happen at the same time. Having two people is nice.” He opened a sterile suture tray. “You can put some manual pressure on the packaging to try to get it into his system faster.”
“What’s a gate team?” Volker asked, gently squeezing the packet, watching the the liquid run through the clear tubing. Disturbingly, it was mostly colorless, and, if anything, more violet than red.
“The Air Force sends exploratory teams through the stargate.” Telford’s voice was low, almost wistful. “Teams of four, usually.”
“You’re sure this is a human blood equivalent?” Volker asked skeptically, unable to tear his eyes away from the pale purple liquid flowing into Rush’s veins.
“Yes,” Telford said. “I’ve used it myself. On myself, I mean. The lack of color’s a bit unnerving, but it’s perfectly safe.”
“Perfectly safe?” Volker echoed. “The LA doesn’t really seem like the most science-forward organization.”
“It’s not,” Telford admitted. “At least—not at this point in its history. But this synthetic blood equivalent has been in use since before the US Constitution was penned, so,” Telford shrugged, “it’s got as good a track record as you’re gonna get without the FDA signing off.”
Telford moved quickly through cauterizing and stitching the entrance and exit wounds in Rush’s shoulder, talking through what he was doing, giving Volker a whole library of tips he hoped he’d never need, but, given his recent luck, he’d probably end up needing before next Tuesday, whenever the heck Tuesdays were.
He missed days of the week. He was going to start tracking these things, dang it.
Telford had just finished a professional quality bandaging job on Rush’s shoulder, and Volker had very nearly gotten a third unit of the synthetic blood into the guy when the mathematician finally showed some signs of coming around—shifting on the table, his eyelids fluttering.
“Hi,” Telford said, his tone friendly. “Nick. You with us?”
Rush blinked at him, then his eyes flicked over to Volker.
“Hey man,” Volker said. “How’s it going?”
Rush shot the pair of them an unimpressed look, then tried to sit.
“Nope,” Telford said, pushing him back. “Say words.”
“Fuck off,” Rush suggested, in a cracked whisper.
“More words,” Telford said dryly, pulling the IV line out of Rush’s arm and pressing a piece of gauze down over where it had been.
“Fuck off, David.”
Volker dropped the empty blood bag on the floor with the others, deciding dealing with uncapped contaminated needles was going to be a Problem for Later.
“Guess how Dale got us out of that hatch?” Telford asked.
“Logic?” Rush said, completely without energy.
“You must really feel like shit,” Telford murmured, his brow furrowing.
Rush used his good hand to drag a fluid checkmark through the air, then made another attempt to sit.
“No,” Telford said, his voice almost gentle, “you can’t go wedge yourself under the hyperdrive. You have to stay out here for at least twenty four hours.”
“That’s not how this works.”
“See you later,” Rush said, managing to fall off the table and land in a crouch.
Volker sighed. Yeah. That seemed about right.
“Oh my god,” Telford whispered, his hand over his eyes. “Do you have any idea how difficult it was to get you out of that death trap? And then volume-resuscitate you? Stitch up an exit wound?”
“Condolences,” Rush said.
“Don’t talk to me,” Rush said, shirtless and shivering, half his body covered with his own drying blood.
“Don’t talk to you?” Telford repeated. “Don’t talk to you? You just purposefully led us straight to an enemy operative—”
“So,” Volker said, trying to get in there before Rush and Telford ended up murdering each other. “In fairness? You just shot the guy. I think it’s pretty reasonable if he doesn’t want to hang out with you right now.”
“I shot him for his own good,” Telford said, with a pained indignance that came off as utterly bizarre.
“Well in that case, next time don’t shoot me,” Rush said, his tone irrationally rational. “Shoot Volker. I’m sure he would have shown you adequate appreciation.”
“Or next time maybe no one shoots anyone?” Volker suggested.
“Mmm,” Rush said, cocking his head and narrowing his eyes skeptically.
“For the last time. We’re calling him Dale,” Telford snapped.
“You’re calling him Dale,” Rush muttered, wrapping his good hand around his bad shoulder.
Telford pulled in a deep breath. Then another. “I’m going to go get us off this planet before our ship gets pulled into some kind of tar pit or swarmed by carnivorous wildlife. You—do what you want. Don’t bleed to death by yourself, please. For Dale’s sake, if not your own?”
Rush shot Telford a distinctly unimpressed look.
Telford looked at Volker. “Stay with him, if you can stand it.” Then he turned on his heel and left the room.
Volker braced both hands against the table, strewn with medical supplies and the cut-apart, bloody nest of Rush’s clothes.
He tried to gather himself.
He tried to remember who he was. Who he had been. Who he wanted to be. A big part of him wanted to leave Rush to his own devices. Go get his cat out of the bulkhead and sit in the dark with the A-corder, asking it questions, getting answers in light.
But. A slightly larger part of him—
He sighed, straightened, and walked around the table. He dropped into a cross legged position on the floor, next to Rush.
“Hey man,” he said. “You’re, like, covered with blood.”
“You want to maybe get some of it off you? Put on regular people clothes?”
Rush shook his head.
“Fuck off,” Rush whispered.
“No. Sorry. You don’t get to tell me to fuck off. You can tell Telford to fuck off. That’s fine. I’m guessing he deserves it somehow. But you abducted me, okay? I'd have happily been fucking off for eternity if you hadn’t interfered. So try again.”
“Don’t be nice to me,” Rush whispered.
“I’ll be nice to you if I want to be nice to you.” Volker lifted his eyebrows. “More or less, I classify you as a colleague. A really weird, scary colleague who ruined my life, lies to me on a regular basis, and leads me into radioactive death traps. All of this arguably falls within academic norms.”
Rush smiled faintly.
“So yeah. I’m not going to let you sit shirtless on the floor covered in your own blood. I’m just not. It’s not collegial. So let’s get you cleaned up and let’s find you some regular people clothes. You can pay me back by entertaining my cat.”
Volker offered Rush his hand.
Rush took it.
Volker pulled the guy carefully to his feet. Even though he kept the movement slow and predictable, Rush still had trouble staying steady, and he leaned heavily against Volker, struggling to reliably get his feet beneath him.
“Synthetic blood is not as good as regular blood,” Rush informed him.
“Yeah,” Volker said. “It looked pretty budget. But hey. You’re awake now. That’s definitely an improvement.”
“How did you get out of the airlock?” Rush whispered.
Volker didn’t say anything. He just started for the door, keeping his pace slow.
“Does Telford know?” Rush asked, looked, obliquely at him.
“Does he know you’re borderline magical?” Volker replied. “Yeah. I’d say he knows. But I’d also say that he doesn’t understand.”
Rush laughed, once. Short and sharp.
“Are you human?” Volker asked casually, as they moved through the hall.
“What a question,” Rush whispered. “But it seems increasingly unlikely. Don’t you think?”
“No idea.” Volker hit the door control for the bathroom. “You going to explain anything to me?”
“No,” Rush said, his eyes closed, like maybe he was trying not to cry.
“Why not?” Volker asked, helping Rush to sit on the closed toilet seat.
“Unanswerable,” Rush said.
“That’s already my least favorite word,” Volker said, pulling off Rush’s boots. “I’m guessing I’m really gonna start hating it pretty soon here. Why you won’t explain is unanswerable. Fine, tell me this—are there any related answerable questions?”
“Hmm,” Rush said, beginning the process of peeling off his leather pants. “Probably. You’ll have to find them though.”
Volker turned away, giving him some privacy, and flipped on the shower. “I don’t mind that, I guess. Unrelated note: we’re going to have to do our best to work around Telford’s bandaging job. I think the guy’s had about as much as he can take for the day.”
“That much seems clear,” Rush murmured, slowly getting to his feet, his good hand on the wall as he stepped into the shower.
“So are unanswerable questions always unanswerable?” Volker asked. “Or does answerability vary?”
“Hmm,” Rush said, surprised. “Insightful. It does vary. Unpredictably.”
“That’s pretty weird, man.” Volker tried to look at Rush without looking at him, and mostly ended up watching water tinged with an alarming amount of red swirl down the drain and into the recirculating system. “It also sounds like it’s not really in your control.”
“Yes well,” Rush swayed, but recovered on his own.
“You want your glasses off?”
“No,” Rush said evenly.
“Okay. The water’s running mostly clear. I’m going to get you a towel. Don’t fall over.” Volker opened the gold-handled cabinet beneath the sink, pulled out a towel, and got himself back in position just as Rush shut the water off.
Volker wrapped the towel around his waist.
“I don’t think you make good choices,” Rush said, leaning against him.
“Well,” Volker replied, trying to keep them both on their feet. “The feeling is mutual. You referring to anything in particular? Or just making conversation?”
Rush made a vague gesture with his good hand that seemed to encompass everything that was currently happening. Volker helped him sit again, then shut off the shower.
“I’m pretty curious as to what you expected when you abducted a nice, midwestern astrophysicist to find you a radioactive planet.”
“Not this,” Rush whispered, shivering. “You don’t ask the right questions.”
“Oh yeah? What questions should I be asking? I’ve got about a million. Help a guy make a ranked list, why don’t you.” Volker pulled a second towel from beneath the sink and used it to get some of the water out of the mathematician’s hair.
“Maybe—not why I came for you. But how.”
“That one might get you somewhere,” Rush whispered, his glasses completely fogged over.
“How? What do you mean how? You transported down and waited at my office,” Volker said, puzzled.
“Just when I begin to think you’re not completely hopeless,” Rush sighed.
“How you came for me?” Volker repeated.
“That’s what I said. Speaking of how-questions, how did you get out of the airlock?”
“I used the A-corder to alter the flow of charges of the control crystals in the wall.”
“Hmm,” Rush said, smiling faintly. “You must have asked it very nicely.”
“It was a combination of asking and changing its spatial orientation. Sort of a Jerry Maguire helping-it-help-me situation.”
“That’s either very interesting or completely untrue,” Rush replied.
“Weird,” Volker said, wrapping the second towel around Rush. “I have that exact same thought about most of the things you say.”
“Also, I’m keeping the A-corder. It’s mine now. Forever.”
“I see,” Rush said, managing to pull off superior and amused while shivering beneath two bath towels, both of which had seen better days. “How did it take that news?”
“Er, I haven’t told it yet.”
“Best of luck,” Rush said lightly.
“Ugh,” Volker replied, pulling the little device out of his pocket, and offering it to Rush. “Pretty sure it’s been worrying about you.” Rush and Volker looked at the screen, which was rainbowing with a yearning directional vector oriented toward Rush.
“Pathetic,” Rush said, smiling at it gently. He took it from Volker and the display exploded into a mess of multi-hued data packed so closely it was unreadable.
Volker sighed, with, yeah, maybe a touch of melodrama. “I’m going to go get you some clothes. Also let my cat out. Don’t go anywhere.”
He left the bathroom, trying to talk himself out of the semi-inappropriate sadness that came with the A-corder’s obvious preference for Rush. This was probably how Telford felt all the time, dealing with Ancient tech. Why would they have a genetic requirement anyway? It was weird. And why would they give what was, essentially, their version of an iPhone such a strong personality? Maybe the personality was just a reflection of whomever was holding it?
His head felt like it was about to implode with the pressure of everything he didn’t know.
Fluency with Goa’uld was still the number one goal. It had to be. If anything, the experience in the refinery highlighted this. What he’d known had helped him. What he hadn’t known—namely that Goa’uld hosts had naquadah in their blood—had nearly gotten him killed.
If the Goa’uld had built their culture overtop of Ancient underpinnings, the importance of learning more about Ancient culture, technology, and language started to make a serious argument for taking the top spot. The A-corder had helped him. So much. Without it, Rush certainly would have bled to death inside that airlock.
So. Ancient tech had to be number two on the priority list.
Most of this learning was going to have to come from trusted sources. Which did not include Rush, the guy with extremely questionable abilities with alien tech and a strange relationship to questions and answers. It also didn’t include Telford, who was pretty likable in an intense, scary way, but might actually be working for the LA instead of the Air Force, and who might be responsible for putting Rush in this situation in the first place.
So. Trusted sources. Volker could think of three.
- Dr. Daniel “Tapes Guy” Jackson. Tapes Guy was, for sure, Air Force. He was a huge nerd. He had about a million books and videos, all of which seemed to be genuinely geared toward building a knowledge base for people exactly like Volker—thrown into a scary, galactic-scale alien conflict where the risk of death was real and close and greater every day.
- The A-corder. The A-corder had already taught him a huge amount in the extremely high-stress half day that he’d been holding it. What it might be able to show him in the privacy of a quiet, dark cargo bay was—really really promising. He needed to get that thing back from Rush. Even if only for an afternoon. Or five.
- His own brain. He’d figured out Rush’s weird cross-panel current induction ability on his own, within a week of knowing the guy. Telford had been traveling with the mathematician for how long? Months. At least months. And he hadn’t noticed. Volker was pretty sure that he could come up with more, a lot more, if he redefined Rush as a system to study rather than a pure antagonist. That probably went for Telford as well.
He hit the controls to the cargo bay, and immediately went to the wall to let Mendelssohn out. The cat meowed at him reproachfully as Volker pulled the paneling back.
“I know,” Volker said, picking him up and settling him over his shoulder. “I’m sorry. But now you can have free run of the ship, buddy. Rush programmed all the doors for you, except the bridge and the bathroom, and, well, probably the engine room, but who knows. My point is, things are looking up in Space Cat Land.”
He pulled out a handful of cat food and set it on the floor. Mendelssohn looked at it disdainfully, and stayed in place on Volker’s shoulder, his claws digging delicately into the leather of his jacket.
“Okay, I get it. You can hang out with me for a while. No problem. Sorry about the day in the bulkhead. Didn’t want you to get eaten by a carnivorous flying monkey though.” He shut his eyes in pained disbelief at what had just come out of his mouth.
“So how do you think Nupur is doing?” Volker whispered, opening one of the bags he’d brought from Earth, and fishing around in it. “You think maybe she told the police about the P=NP Guy who stopped by suspiciously before my whole life got lit on fire? That’s a nice thought. Maybe it will get back to the Air Force, somehow.”
The cat meowed quietly.
“Oh yeah?” Volker replied, pulling out a t-shirt with a faded set of equations describing the foundations of electromagnetism, a pair of sweatpants, and a sweatshirt that zipped up the front.
“I can’t believe I’m giving this guy my clothes,” Volker muttered. “Though I guess he did fight a guy to get me my boots and jacket, which would kind of be fair, except for the whole abduction part of things.”
He left the cargo bay, Mendelssohn surveying the world from his shoulder. When he reentered the bathroom he found Rush, eyes, shut, cleaning the mist off his glasses with the edge of a towel.
“Hey,” Volker said, not wanting to startle the guy.
Rush opened his eyes, took in Volker, and flinched back, his good hand coming up as if to ward something off.
“Whoa,” Volker said. “Just me. Sorry.”
Rush quickly slid his glasses on, holding them in place with a trembling hand. Slowly his breathing evened out.
Volker deposited Mendelssohn in the gold bowl of the sink. The cat meowed hopefully at Rush.
“He doesn’t have any food for you,” Volker said. “He’s wearing a towel. Can’t hoard someone else’s cat food when you’re wearing a towel.” He gathered the T-shirt, and, starting with Rush’s bad arm, he got the thing over the man’s head without much difficulty.
“These are your clothes,” Rush said, looking down at the equations on the shirt.
“Well, I don’t know where you keep your clothes,” Volker said reasonably, pulling the bloodstained towel away from Rush and easing the first sweatshirt sleeve up and over the guy’s bad arm.
“I don’t like this,” Rush said. “I encourage you to keep in mind that you and I are best classified as enemies.”
“I know,” Volker said. “Is this making you feel guilty for burning my life down?”
“No,” Rush replied.
“Well, the more time I spend with you,” Volker said, kneeling to get the sweat pants around Rush’s ankles, “the more suspicious I am that you had a reason for doing what you did. What that reason is? How much sense it makes? Those are pretty up in the air.”
“I don’t think now is a very good time to speculate about that,” Rush whispered, delicately repositioning his glasses.
“I probably wouldn’t believe whatever you told me, anyway,” Volker said, helping the guy to his feet, pulling away the towel as Rush used his good hand to finish dressing himself.
“Dr. Volker,” Rush said, some genuine warmth in his tone. “I’m impressed. I think you’re finally catching on. And it’s been, what, a bit over a week? Seems terribly quick.”
“Shut up, Volker said.
Rush picked up the A-corder and offered it to him.
“We’re not gonna make it cry?” Volker asked, skeptically. “It obviously misses you when you’re gone.”
Rush looked straight at him, his gaze startled and open and searing, as though it was burning its way straight into Volker’s mind and heart. “So you understand?” he asked softly.
“Um,” Volker said, swallowing. “Not sure.”
“To create a machine that feels is a cruelty,” Rush whispered.
Volker’s mouth was dry. His eyes were burning. He looked at the little device in Rush’s hand.
“Do you know how long it was alone?” Rush asked.
“No,” Volker whispered.
“Ask it, sometime,” Rush murmured.
Gently, Volker picked up the device, his thoughts full of his own loneliest nights—in the cargo bay, at Caltech, in nearly silent observatories at the tops of mountains, where giant mirrors collected starlight under thin atmosphere.
In his hand, the display burst into the swirl of a spiral galaxy, the perspective rotating, drawing back, shifting, slow and rhythmic, as though following inaudible music.
“You sure you should give me this?” Volker asked quietly.
The man nodded silently.
Volker slid the little device into the inner pocket of his jacket, close to his heart. “Thank you,” he said.
They looked at one another. Slowly, mist condensed again on the lenses of Rush’s glasses. Volker stayed silent, hoping the other man would say something else.
Instead, Rush’s knees buckled.
Volker stepped in to steady him, pulling Rush’s good arm over his shoulder, taking his weight. He hit the door controls for the bathroom, letting in the cooler hallway air. “Okay,” Volker said. “You think you can make it to the engine room? I’m guessing that if I can vouch for the fact that you’re not bleeding to death Telford probably won’t drag you out of there.”
Rush nodded shortly.
Mendelssohn meowed plaintively from the gold bowl of the sink.
“Well, come on then,” Volker said. “You can get down. You’re a cat.” He started forward, pulling Rush in the direction of the engine room. After some hesitation, Mendelssohn leapt from the sink to the top of the toilet, then to the floor. He followed closely on their heels. When Volker hit the door controls, the cat darted inside, ahead of them.
“Guess I’m not the only one who’s been curious about this place,” Volker said.
“Mmm,” Rush said, short and neutral. Volker was pretty sure the guy was barely hanging on to consciousness.
They passed into a dim room, awash in soft stone light.
“Oh wow,” Volker breathed.
Pastel webs of crystal were affixed to the walls by delicate brackets of metal. Curtains of petal-shards—in green and violet and blue and gray and rose and amber—were networked so delicately that any one of them could be removed by hand. Picked out like a flower. Loose stones were piled in corners and around an illuminated pillar that was, certainly, the drive itself.
The central column was a multicolored glow made up by spiraling lines of crystal, surrounded by airy, skeletal supports. Diffuse patterns of light spiraled through the drive, random, non-repeating, representing a crystalline traverse of cosmic anisotropies.
This room—half sculpture, half hyperdrive engine—was the most intensely beautiful piece of intellectual and aesthetic labor that Volker had ever seen.
“Rush,” Volker whispered. “Did you—make this?”
The mathematician used his good hand, draped over Volker’s shoulder, to drag a fluid checkmark through the air.
Volker pulled him forward, toward the shrine-like hyperdrive, where a small collection of blankets had been spread neatly on the floor. He helped the guy lie down while Mendelssohn swirled through their ankles, batting at loose crystal on the floor.
“You okay?” Volker whispered, as Rush settled back against the blankets. “You’re not talking very much.”
Rush dragged a listless checkmark through the air.
Carefully, Volker lifted the sweatshirt and T-shirt to check Telford’s bandaging job. No sign of any bleeding. He pulled out the A-corder, doing his best to ask it about Rush. It showed him the rainbow network from earlier, Rush’s node bright and evolving with the rest of the light.
“The A-corder seems to think you’re okay,” Volker whispered. “I’d feel better if you said something, though.”
“Inside the central column,” Rush whispered, “at its base, there’s a crystal. Red. Pull it out, will you?”
“Um,” Volker said. “And what happens when I do that?”
“Nothing,” Rush said, smiling faintly. “I’ve not incorporated it into the drive.”
Volker shot him a skeptical look, but leaned over to inspect the array in the central column. Near the bottom was a translucent piece of red stone, its complex curves and planes suggesting a little flame, trapped within a crystal lattice. With great care, Volker reached in and gently pulled it free.
No immediately obvious disasters occurred.
He held it up for Rush’s inspection.
The mathematician nodded, and held out his hand. Volker placed it in his palm. Rush curled cool fingertips around its shaped surfaces. His hand dropped to the center of his chest.
It seemed like he just wanted to hold it.
Volker felt an intense, unwelcome wave of pure sympathy for the guy.
“How did Telford recruit you?” Volker whispered.
“I was at UC Berkeley,” Rush murmured, his eyes closed. “Beautiful day.”
“Sun and wind,” Volker offered. “Coming off the water. Love it when that happens.”
“Quite. He’d set up an informational table on the quad.”
“I signed on the dotted line. Got a leather outfit and personality disorder in return.”
Volker rolled his eyes. “Thanks man.”
“Stop looking for reasons to dislike Telford,” Rush whispered, cracking his eyelids, making more of an effort to put his sentences together. “It won’t work. He’s a very likable man. He managed to kill a Goa’uld barehanded before it could chew its way to your spine. Even I was impressed.”
“Umm,” Volker said diplomatically, looking up at the ceiling, which was the only surface in the room not awash with gentle light. “Yeah, that didn’t really win him all that many points with me.”
“Well there’s no accounting for taste,” Rush whispered, letting hie eyes fall closed.
“You don’t like Telford,” Volker murmured.
“‘Course I like ‘im. Haven’t vented him to space yet, have I?”
“I’m going to figure all this out,” Volker said, hearing a surprising note of steel in his own voice.
Rush cracked his eyelids. “You may, at that, Dr. Volker. But go far enough,” he murmured, “and it’ll remake you.”
Without thinking, Volker placed a hand over his A-corder.
“Exactly,” Rush whispered, awash in the light of countless crystals.