Mathématique: Chapter 5

This was what had driven Schumann insane.

Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Grief. Physical injuries. Panic, described in such a way that it may trigger panic. The audio for this chapter is arguably more intense than the text. Don’t listen if you’re prone to panic attacks.

Text iteration: Midnightish.

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 5

He was hearing a continuous tone.

This wouldn’t end well.

All through the long hours between dinner and the gunshot, even as he’d started to code, he’d been making a list. He’d known always, always, even before he’d separated the thing into its component parts that it’d be reductive. Even if it contained inductive components, it’d be splitable. Like the chevrons themselves were discrete things.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

Oh fuck.


Oh God.

He’d been making a list.

A list that delineated eight items, but required nine (or ten).

“Do you wanna sit down, hotshot?”

He needed to make an effort. He needed to focus on Young. The problem was—

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“No,” he said. “I’m fine.”

He looked at Young. He focused on Young who was exhausted and alone and wary and who was still holding a glass of empty water and who was leaning against the counter and it occurred to him that it could not’ve been easy for Young to’ve done any of the things he’d done that night;Rush didn’t know what was wrong with the man, but something was, something had happened to him.


“Are you all right?” Rush asked.

“Yeah.” Young’s casual delivery was ruined by pain and by concern. “I’m good. Sorry about the water.”

Rush looked away. He nodded.

But he did not like the water.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“You were hyperventilating, hotshot.”

“I’m aware.”

He needed to do something. He needed to focus on Young. He needed a computer, possibly. Possibly that’d help him. (Possibly.) Four were complete. He’d get number five. The quantum one. It would take maybe, a week, once he got his computer back. Or a computer. He could code from anywhere but—he wanted his computer.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

This was what had driven Schumann insane. A continuous tone. A symphonic torturous extrapolation from a single tone.

He couldn’t breathe.


He needed to focus on Young. On Young. Not other things.

“Hey,” Young said, his hands moving and his hair short. “I get it. It’s fine. Everyone loses it little bit after they almost get abducted. Probably. I mean, I would. If I were a math professor, I would.”

Young was being too nice and too cautious. “There’s nothing special about being a professor of mathematics,” Rush pressed his forehead against the wood of the doorframe and tried not to think of the things he couldn’t think about. 

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“Are your ears ringing?” Rush asked, closing in on something resembling salience.

“Yeah,” Young said. “It’s the gunshot at close quarters.”

He nodded. (That was a normal thing to do. That was good. That was preferred.) He was standing here, not giving a hysterical, freeform lecture on argumentative theory. (That was also preferred.) His behavior, right now, was falling within normal parameters. Young thought he was afraid of being abducted which, while untrue, was also normal. He was just standing. Water in the face had interrupted his slow build toward whatever it was that the slow build was building toward.

Interrupted. Not stopped.

He did not like the water.

“How long do you think it’ll last?” He vibrated with the overtones of his own effort to hold himself together.

“Hard to say. Maybe a day at most.”

“A day.”

It’d been all right when he was doing something, when it was dark, and the adrenaline had elevated his heart rate, when he’d been listening for something else, but now—now—

“Yeah,” Young said the word slowly, so very slowly, so unnecessarily slowly.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

He knew what had been on his wall. His wall that he had painted over. And he knew why it had been there. He had a list of eight. He needed a list of nine (or ten). He was hearing a continuous tone. He was hearing a continuous tone.

“Do you, by any chance—” Young paused then proceeded. “Need anything from your apartment? Medication of some kind, as an example, maybe?”

“No. No—I just. I think I know—”


He couldn’t breathe.


“Yeah, let’s just, um, sit down, maybe?”

“That’s not necessary.”

“What do you think that you know?”

He wanted Young to help him. (He wanted anyone to help him.) He wished he were deaf. (He wished he had always been deaf.) One of two things would happen but he didn’t know which. He couldn’t stand the ringing; maybe if it’d been some other pitch some other note— 

“Whoa,” Young said. “Hey.”

This was going to be it. Him and this wooden doorframe and this clear tone and Gloria across the sea and under the ground and he would never never never never never be able to break a tonal cypher because that’d be the ninth one. The ninth key. That was the one. The one that was like staring future dissolution in the face. (The ninth ones were always like that.) He was hearing a chord now, multiple chords. They’d be linked to the dialing; linked to function. Was this what he’d realized three days ago? What had happened to him? He’d written them on his wall—not a sonata, just parallel lines with interspersed notes and intervals never discordant. Could she have helped him if he’d realized this while she was still alive? Probably. Possibly. And at least he wouldn’t have this problem, this inability to tolerate this ringing in his ears, this four hundred and forty hertz, this A, the sound of tuning, of instruments, of aligning. The frequency of sound waves before it would begin. And he knew what it would be.

Of course he knew.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

He was hearing a continuous tone and his mind was trying to turn it.

To turn it.

To turn it to something else. Something he hadn’t heard in a long time.

“Rush. Rush. What is wrong?”

One in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace.

“I’m fine. It’s fine. I’m just—I’m hearing a continuous tone.” He felt the words vibrate but they had no sound. (No sound over what was happening in his mind. If he screamed, would that cut through? He thought he knew.)

“Rush. Look at me. Look at me.”

He was staring at Young because Young had a grip on his jaw.

“You’re fine. It’s over. It’s over.”

The threat was internal and it would never be over until he was.

“Of course it is. I know that. Do you think I don’t know that?” He was shouting but he couldn’t hear himself. He was hearing a continuous tone. Could one be killed by a neuronal echo of a gunshot?

He was hearing a continuous tone.

A continuous tone.

A continuous one.

He tried to hold himself back and down with hands that were digging into Young’s shoulder and into the frame of the door. He tried to control his mind though force of will; this must be what’d happened before—he’d realized it was tonal, the ninth was tonal. And he’d panicked. And he’d lost three days.

“Rush, everything’s fine. You just need to talk to me, hotshot.”

It was going to turn.

Young looked at him from the other side of a sound barrier..

It was going to turn. 

He stopped breathing.

It faded down like a gathering, like the moments he’d spent waiting in the dark for her to begin. One of the reasons he liked the Mendelssohn was that it had begun, always and unconventionally, with her.

“Breathe,” Young said, very close to him.

He didn’t breathe.

It turned anyway.

The opening tore across his mind: all-consuming solo violin in E minor, rapidly descending, echoed, amplified by an orchestra that destroyed everything as it entered, his sense of self subsumed in ricochet arpeggios. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t think, his mind autoshredding through dynamic ranges as he reproduced an entire concerto at the expense of his own consciousness, bursting out of his mind as if it seethed there, as if he’d been the one who’d written it, as if it could pull him down alive.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“He said he was hearing a continuous tone.”

“A continuous tone?”

“Yeah. A continuous tone. That’s what he said.”

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“And then what happened?”

“He hyperventilated and passed out.”

“That’s twice in three days. That we know of.”

“Yup. I don’t think he’s okay.”

“A continuous tone, though?”

“Yeah. That’s what he said. A continuous tone. You think that means anything?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. Yes.”

They were talking about him.

Of course they were. 

It had been—the entire concerto. Had it proceeded in real time, or had he just perceived it that way? 

“I think it was the gunshot that set it off.”

“What gunshot?”

“I fired my gun. Right next to him. His ears were ringing.”

“Well, that’d be a continuous tone.”

Daniel Jackson was in the other room talking to Colonel Young. 

Rush was on the floor. On the floor of Young’s kitchen.

That was a good sign; it probably meant that the elapsed time interval hadn’t been long.

He opened his eyes. 

Vala Mal Doran sat next to him, her back against a kitchen cabinet. She’d pulled her hair over one shoulder and was idly fingering the ends of its dark strands. Rush caught her eye, and she blinked in surprise to see him looking at her. After peering over her shoulder at Young and Jackson, she extended a leg and caught the edge of the open kitchen door with the toe of her boot. With a flex of her foot, the door swung shut.

“Hello gorgeous,” she said. “Shit day?”

“Yes.” He was curled on his side, his head on his arm, as if he’d been placed that way.


“What happened?” Vala asked softly.

“Nothing good,” he rasped. “Is Daniel here?”

“Yes,” she said. “Just Daniel. Daniel and Colonel Young and you and me.”

He nodded.


She lay down on the floor next to him. The edge of her shoulder nearly touched his hand. She stared up at the ceiling.

“What are you doing?” Rush whispered.

“Waiting,” she murmured. “What are you doing?”

“I’m sure I don’t know.”

She said nothing.

He said nothing.

“I was thinking of making cocktails.” She turned to look at him. “What do you think?”

“Cocktails?” He spoke through something more viscous than air.

“I read about them a few weeks ago, and I’ve been experimenting.”

He was fair fuckin’ certain that alcohol wouldn’t help him.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“I’ve invented a fantastic cocktail, if I do say so myself. SG-1 loves it. Between you and me, they can be a critical bunch.”

She stood, and, somehow, that made it easier for him to sit and lean against the cabinets. He watched her fill two glasses with water. As far as mixed drinks went, he’d seen more auspicious beginnings.

“Fortunately for you, I did Colonel Young’s shopping. We have all the required ingredients.” She put the glasses of water in the microwave.

“Where are you from?” Rush asked, through the post-symphonic sludge in his thoughts.

“Why? Are you suspicious of my bartending credentials?” She dug through the pantry, hurt and coy and evading his question.

“Yes,” he admitted.

“Very forthright of you gorgeous; I respect that. But let me assure you that I’ve read a great deal of literature on the subject.” Vala put a box of chamomile tea on the counter. “In some of your most widely circulated publications.”

“Meaning?“ He tried for a dry delivery. Didn’t quite make it.

Cosmopolitan magazine.”

He tried to place it, but came up blank.

She a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels from a cupboard. “Yikes,” she murmured.

He presumed that her response indicated she felt Colonel Young had consumed an alarming amount of hard alcohol for one person in the span of time between her purchase of the bottle and the present.

Vala set the bottle on the counter. She opened the microwave before the timer sounded. Using the tips of her fingers, she lifted the glasses out by their rims and put a tea bag in each one.

“Y’really shouldn’t make tea in a microwave,” he informed her.

“So Daniel insists. But I adore microwaves.”

He was hearing a continuous tone. 

“Would you mind,” he asked, feeling somewhat breathless, “opening the window?”

“Awfully hot out there, gorgeous.”

“I know.”

She levered up the window.

“Thanks.” He shut his eyes. 

“No problem.”

He listened to her pour hot water from hot glass into another container. To the sound of opening drawers and shifting utensils. It went on.

Rush opened his eyes. “What are y’looking for?”

“One of those adorable little sets of graded spoons?”

“Measuring spoons. On your left.”

Her hand fell upon the correct drawer.

“That’s the one.”

She looked at him with an oh-is-now lift of her eyebrows.

He shrugged.

She found the measuring spoons, then poured a teaspoon of Jack Daniels into each glass of tea.

“That,” he said, “isn’t a cocktail. It’s a poorly advised variant of a—”

“Excuse me.” She turned with enough rapidity to flare her dark hair. “Does this look like a finished product to you?”

He made conciliatory hand gesture.

She went back to work.

He waited for her to ask him what was wrong with him.

But she didn’t.

He waited for the continuous tone to go away.

But it didn’t.

He was better able tolerate it, but he wondered how long that luck would last. He’d bought himself something of a reprieve after—yes well, after whatever that’d been, exactly. An all-consuming auditory hallucination. Of some kind. Possibly. He could pass a psych evaluation. He’d passed two of them. He could pass one right now. He was perfectly rational. That was the important thing.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

But his mind was too drained, too exhausted to turn it into anything else.

So. A tonal cypher. That’d be difficult. (That’d be upsetting.) He should save it until the end. It’d be a delicate balance, staying on his own, uninterfered with, long enough to clinch the remaining four. He was certain he could get eight of the ten.

But the ninth—

The curse of the ninth, someone dead whispered.

The ninth.

The tenth would be last. (If there was a tenth; but there had to be a tenth, didn’t there?)

Perhaps—perhaps that wasn’t his to solve.

He’d find out.

Outside, he heard cars and night insects.


“Take a seat, gorgeous.” Vala winked and slapped the counter as she turned to open a cupboard with another flare of hair.

With less coordination than usual, Rush boosted himself onto the counter and watched her fish through boxed pasta, cheap baking spices, and an assortment of little-used kitchen implements. “What are you looking for?”

Absently, he reached for his glasses, which could reliably be found hooked over some edge of his clothing, but came up empty. He couldn’t recall if he’d worn them when he’d driven to the base that morning. His life seemed far away. Difficult to recall. It might’ve been days since he’d needed to look at the world with any crispness.

“Salt,” she said.


“Yes, salt. Have you heard of it? Used to enhance flavor?”

“While true,” he began, “I think y’should reconsider.”

“Oh hush, gorgeous. We can’t list things I ought to reconsider; we’d be here all night.”

“Two cabinets to your left, bottom shelf.”

He watched her combine the tea/whiskey mixture with ice, crushed mint, and salt before she handed him a glass and boosted herself onto the counter next to him. 

“Cheers.” She touched her glass to his.

He tasted the lukewarm mixture. It was uniformly awful.

“That’s the stuff,” she said with satisfaction, sipping her own drink.

He was reasonably certain she wasn’t from Earth.

“What do you think?” she asked, with a shake of her glass.

“Not bad,” he lied.

“Can you believe they’re still talking out there?” she asked. “They must find you terribly interesting.”

He sighed and shut his eyes.

“So,” she said. “Math. What’s it good for? I mean, other than knowing how many cubits you’d like your monument to measure?”

He cracked his eyes and looked sideways at her.

“What? Any day now your little Stargate Program will go public and I’ll be a hero to humanity. I’m already planning my statue. I can’t decide. Hair pulled back?” She drew her hair away from her face and tipped her chin up. “Or down?” She dropped her hair, held her pose, then looked over at him. “Down is more romantic; but pulled back is more practical and sends the right sort of message about competency. That being said, I’m leaning toward down.”

“Down is nice,” he said.

“I’m glad you agree.” Her smile seemed, somehow, a little pained.

“Math is the ultimate abstraction,” he said. “The last, thin barrier between you and universal truth.”

“That sounds pretty good” she said, and this time, there was no mistaking the wistfulness in her face or voice, “Where do I sign up?”

He looked at the smooth planes of the walls and the ceilings. “There are any number of available introductory texts.”

“Are there any magazines?”

“Probably not the kind you’re thinking of. They’re quite specialized.”

“Ah yes. ‘Journals’. These are considered ‘fun reading’ for Colonel Carter and Daniel. Personally, I enjoy high quality romance novels.”

He took another sip of his atrocious cocktail. “Can’t say I have much experience with those.”

“Daniel is constantly despairing over my terrible taste in Tau’ri fiction, but I cannot tell you how many Epic of Gilgamesh-style wall carvings I’ve read over the course of my life. I get a bit tired of all the flooding and the divine wroth, you know?”

“I can extrapolate, I suppose.”


The door to the kitchen opened a few centimeters.

“Vala,” Jackson whispered.

“Yes,” she said, giving the word a circumflected pitch.

The wave of gratitude generated by her capacity to redefine the borders of normalcy with a single inflected word hit Rush like a slap. 


Jackson opened the door wider and peered around its edge.

“What on Earth are you doing creeping about like that?” Vala demanded.

“Oh.” Jackson slid into the kitchen, surprised to find the pair of them perched on Colonel Young’s counter, enjoying a mint and salt cocktail on a stifling summer night. “Hey. Hey guys.”

“Are you done having secret conferences?” Vala asked. “If so, I’ll be happy to make you a ‘Mal Doran’.” She shook her glass in what was likely intended to be a tempting manner.

“Um, no thanks. I’m good,” Jackson said. “Can I talk to Nick for a minute?”

Rush shut his eyes in an exaggerated blink and listened to tap of Vala’s feet against the linoleum as she gave up her seat. Jackson boosted himself onto the counter in Vala’s place.

She shut the door behind her.

“You don’t have to drink that,” Jackson whispered. “You can pour it down the sink. I’ll never tell.”

“It’s good.” Rush forced down another swallow. (It was, in no way, “good.”)

“Oh. Well. Glad you like it. She invented it maybe six weeks back? She was going through a rough time. For her. And we all—eh. You get the idea. She thinks we like them. The cocktail, I mean. It’s a problem. Why am I telling you this?”

“No idea,” Rush said. “I’m completely uninterested.”

“Uh huh,” Jackson replied.

They were silent.

“So.” Jackson stared at the stove. “What happened?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary. I’ve had a stressful evening.”





Jackson was going to wait him out.

Jackson was fuckin’ merciless about this kind of thing.

Rush had no intention of being any less merciless.




“Nick,” Jackson said. “I’m speaking from experience: when people panic and hyperventilate, they pass out and they regain consciousness. They don’t remain unresponsive for something like twenty minutes unless something else is going on.

“Speaking from experience,” Rush repeated, flat and dead and mostly without sound.

“Yeah.” Jackson sighed. “No matter what you say—I won’t—I wouldn’t—” he lost all forward momentum and looked at the stove like he was looking at something else.

“For a linguist you’re unusually inarticulate.”

“For a mathematician you’re annoyingly sesquipedalian.”

Rush smiled faintly.

“If you want me to bare my soul in regards to a few of my many many problems, I will. Specifically as it pertains to run-ins with Ancient technology and the psychiatric infrastructure of the SGC. But I doubt either of us are in the mood. So, c’mon. Tell me what happened.”

Rush, too, decided to stare at Young’s stove without seeing it. “I was—I am hearing a continuous tone.”

“Because of the gunshot?” Jackson asked.


There was a long silence. Above and below the 440 Hz note, Rush picked out the sound of night insects, traffic, Jackson’s breathing (coming a little too fast). Behind the closed door to the kitchen, Vala and Young spoke in an indistinct murmur.

“You wanna say more?” Jackson asked.

“That seems to sum it up,” Rush replied.

“Two thoughts,” Jackson said, “if you’re open to them.”

“You’re insufferable.” Rush’s throat tightened with the suspicion of what this little heart-to-heart was costing Jackson.

Jackson smiled. “So I’ve been told. I apologize. That wasn’t an answer, though.”

“Yes yes. Go ahead.”

“First thought. Your wife was a violinist.”

He hated Jackson. People opened to Jackson. People caved like improperly set arches. Rush was no exception and the truly maddening part was there was no bloody method; it was all intuitive bullshit and a steady blue gaze. Impossible to take and use. Impossible to replicate. Fuckin’ fucking fucking Jackson.

“She was.”

“Colonel Telford told me you’re something of a musician yourself.”


“No? He said you play piano. Very well.”

“Not anymore.”


They were silent.

“My point is you have a musical background,” Jackson continued. “And then, when you were in a situation where you were hearing a continuous tone—” he paused, leaving a rhetorical space that demanded to be filled.

“I found it difficult to tolerate.”

“Yup. Got that much. But why?”

Rush felt the enormity of what remained unsaid pressing on his mind. The immediacy of the concerto was difficult to escape. He grasped for a different way to express what’d happened. 

He came up with nothing.

After a long pause, Jackson said, “If I had to guess, I’d guess this: you’ve been working intensively on Ancient technology and something happened—some somatosensory experience you can’t explain. You’re learning their language. We know their language alone, its very structure, can change the human mind.”

Rush looked over at him.

“Have you read Snow Crash?” Jackson asked.

“Oh fuck off,” Rush said, with a ghost of a smile.

“Is that a yes or a no?” Jackson studied him. “I think it’s a yes. In any case, Ancient changes the electrochemical resonance of thought. You learned it faster than anyone I’ve ever met. And now—” Jackson trailed off. “

Rush glanced over at him, an eyebrow quirked. “Don’t stop there.”

“You heard something,” Jackson said, like he could read the truth of it straight from Rush’s mind. “What was it?”

“A concerto,” Rush admitted.

The relief on Jackson’s face was so intense that he couldn’t hide it, though he tried. He blew out a shaky breath. “A concerto.” He gave Rush a small smile. “A human concerto?”

Rush gave him a nonplussed look.

“Which one?”

“Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E minor.” Rush frowned, searching the other man’s face. “You were expecting—what?”

“Not a human concerto. A human concerto is okay. A human concerto is fine! Congratulations on how normal you are.”

“Ta,” Rush said dryly. “What—”

“I heard you got number four.” Jackson intentionally plowed over him, changing the subject with the momentum of a wrecking ball. “Sam said that Dr. Perry said that Dr. Volker said that Dr. Park said that you’d said that you’d gotten it.”

“Yes, it was a stream cypher.”

“Mmm, good.” Jackson smiled. “I have no idea what that means, but good.”

“There are six left,” Rush tried to cling to his exhaustion, tried to twist it into a shield that couldn’t be burned away by the tone.

That continuous, merciless tone.

“Wait, six? Since when? Why not five?”

“I think there are ten,” Rush murmured. “Not nine.”

“But there are nine chevrons.”

“I think there may are ten cyphers.”


“Why? I don’t fuckin’ know. Base ten math?

“Okay okay,” Jackson said. “Keep going. Sorry.”

“One is certainly, certainly quantum in nature. One has some indications of an Ancient-flavored cryptographic hash function,” he paused, counting off on his fingers, “one a variant of elliptic curve cryptography, and one a mathematical puzzle—I don’t know—it looks vaguely familiar to me, maybe some kind of computational representation of phase space.”

“So that would bring us to eight.”

“Yes,” Rush whispered. “To eight. And I was—I am—hearing a continuous tone.”


“And it occurred to me, or, rather, I remembered something that’d recently occurred to me.” He a sipped his bloody terrible drink. “I had an idea of what the ninth one—of what it might be. What it must be. What it certainly is.”

“What?” Jackson whispered, looking into empty air, as though there might be listeners there.

“It’s tonal,” Rush said. “It’s tonal in nature; has t’do with the crystal harmonics of the gate itself.”

“How do you know?”

“Their control crystals.” Rush couldn’t help matching Jackson’s hushed tones. “They resonate at unique frequencies.”

“Musical,” Jackson mouthed the word without speaking it aloud.

“Yes. And the ninth, I think, may ordinally come first.”

“It’s a song?” Jackson asked.

“In crystal. Possibly.”

“And you can—” Jackson stopped himself. He stared into nothingness, his blue eyes burning. “Nick—I understand what you haven’t said. And you’re right not to speak it aloud. The culture of the Ancients isn’t dead.”

Rush, unsettled, watched Jackson stare down the fabric of existence. He cleared his throat. “Yes, well. You may understand what I’m not saying, but I’m afraid the converse isn’t true?”

“I know.” Jackson met Rush’s eyes. “And I’m sorry. I’m working on that. In the meantime, I know Colonel Telford has been pushing you very hard to solve this.”

Rush looked away. “Not true.”

“Yes,” Jackson said darkly. “True. Solving the cyphers can wait. Take a break. Take some personal time.”

“And what,” Rush hissed, “would I do with ‘personal time’?”

“Sorry.” Jackson’s expression was pained. “Forget personal time. You could go to Atlantis.”

“Their gates,” Rush said, an edge in his voice, “don’t contain the cyphers.”

“I know. That’s kinda the point, Nick.”

Rush said nothing.

Jackson sighed in defeat. “All right. Fine. In the meantime, Colonel Young thinks you had a panic attack in his kitchen. So does Vala. I think that’s for the best.”

Rush raised his eyebrows. “And your view of the situation?”

“Is better left unsaid. But I think you should stay with me tonight.”

“Absolutely not.” Rush hesitated. “Unless you care to make a cogent argument regarding why you think that’s necessary?”

Jackson opened both hands. “As of right now, as ‘cogent arguments’ go, I’ve got nothing I can speak aloud. But—you do realize I’m trying to help you, right?”

Rush sipped his salt and mint cocktail. “Thanks for your concern. Very touching. I’m fine.”

“That’s bullshit, but okay.”

“Did y’just say ‘bullshit’?”  Rush asked.

“Yes. Yes I did. I’m trying to communicate with you in your native language. How’m I doing?”

“Not well. Embittered profanity doesn’t suit you.”

“I can inventively use profanity in more languages that you can.”

“I’ll give you that. In fact, I’ll give you that by an order of magnitude,” Rush lifted an eyebrow. “All the same, I’d recommend you stick to your strengths.”

“Trying.“ Jackson sighed. “Nick—you don’t have to solve it.”

“Don’t say that.” Rush brought a hand to his forehead and squeezed his eyes shut.

“You don’t.”

His eyes snapped open and his gaze bored into Jackson. “How can you say that to me?”

“With a sense of futility and irony,” Jackson’s voice was flat. “But someone needs to say it.”

“Fine. Consider it said.”

“I mean it though,” Jackson said dully. Jackson, who’d lost his wife. Jackson, who’d lost his sanity. Jackson, who’d died. Jackson, who talked to the empty air, who had a foot in a world no one else could see. Jackson was the kind of person the universe tried to tear down, to grind away, to destroy on every scale. Rush saw it because she’d been that way, trying to fix things and preserve things and breathe life into dead musical scores. In the end, she’d met with failure everywhere, even in her own body. 

But maybe everyone’s life could be described that way. Jackson just had a greater dynamic range.  

“I know you do,” Rush whispered. 

He was, it turned out, still hearing a continuous tone.

“Stop listening to Telford,” Jackson said.

“I happen t’like Colonel Telford.”

Jackson looked away. “Yeah. I know, but he’s very focused on something very dangerous to you.”

Rush studied the set of the other man’s shoulders, the angle of his head. Dread was written into every line of his frame. “Y’know something. Something I don’t. Why won’t you say it?”

Jackson brought his hands to his face and laughed a short, frustrated laugh. “I’m trying to figure out how, Nick.” He dropped his hands and looked at Rush, regret in his blue fire eyes. “Unfortunately, I think you may come to understand my position. Until then, I’m doing my best.”

“How long will that take?”

“My best?” Jackson seemed cheered by the question. “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it, believe it or not. How long does my best take? A while. But I’ve got a good track record and a few ideas.” He looked into the empty air again. His tone turned darker, quieter. “And I’m getting better at living this way.”

Rush regarded the other man cautiously. “So what am I t’do with this—metadata you’ve given me?”

Jackson looked away from the nothingness he’d been addressing. “Take it easy, work on the quantum cypher if you want, but seriously, definitely sleep. I don’t think Colonel Young can handle watching you work to the point that you trigger another ‘concerto.’ He doesn’t know what I know.” Jackson paused, looking at the semi-organized kitchen. “Maybe you can help him unpack his apartment?”

Right. Because he was so skilled in that area.

“Who am I?” Rush asked. “You?”

“He was badly injured.” Jackson shrugged.

“Obviously.” Rush didn’t bother to hide his irritation. “And what am I supposed to do about it?”

“One day,” Jackson said, sliding down from the counter, “I’ll catch you off guard and we’ll have a nice, normal conversation where you don’t feel the need to pretend you’re a horrible misanthrope.”

“Is that a threat?” Rush took another sip of his Mal Doran.

“Eh, more like a goal,” Jackson replied.

“Did Colonel Young ask you to bring me a computer, by any chance?”

“He did,” Jackson said, “and a computer was promptly volunteered, I called Sam and read off your tech specs. She said it would be fine. Full disclosure: the laptop is Vala’s. It’s new, though. She just got it a few days ago, so hopefully it’s not full of anything inappropriate. Yet.”

“Fantastic.” Rush took another sip of his drink, then followed Jackson out of the kitchen.

They emerged to find Vala in the middle of setting up a floor lamp, while Colonel Young watched her from the couch with a confused, exhausted expression.

“—so then I argued I should be the one who ended up with the ship, since, from a legal standpoint, I’d been the injured party! It was one of my more clever heists, I think.” She looked up at them. “Daniel, I was just telling Colonel Young—”

“Nope,” Jackson said, pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “If this is a description of another ‘extra-legal acquisition’ or—”

“No, the point—”

“Shhh. No.”

“Don’t you ‘shhh’ me! That is inappropriate.”


“No,” Vala said primly. “I demand an apology.”

“You want me to apologize to you for not wanting to hear about some example of your low ethical standards?”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence.

Vala finished screwing the pole of the lamp to its base. She clicked the light on and tipped her chin up, giving Young a small smile. She stood, then turned to face Jackson, her face composed. “Well, that’s me, darling,” she said, with an ironic variant of a curtsey—a defiant flick of the wrist, chin tipped up, eyes full of sparking flint. “Lowering ethical standards wherever I go.”

(Well fuckin’ executed.)

Rush hooked a hand over the back of his neck and pressed his fingers into the tense muscles there. 

Jackson stared at Vala, stricken. 

Young rubbed his jaw.

The room was quiet.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“Vala—” Jackson began.

“Oh come now,” Vala said, with a smile that was all gloss and no flame, “we all know it's a fair assessment; no need to compose a regretful soliloquy about it.” She turned to Rush. “You look much better, gorgeous. I see you liked my cocktail.”

He looked down at his mostly empty glass. “It’s inventive.”

“That’s what Colonel carter said.” Vala straightened the lampshade with a critical eye. “Normally it has more alcohol in it.”

“Are you, um, ready to go?” Jackson asked hesitantly.  

Vala dragged the lamp to one end of the couch. The light gleamed off her hair. “Yes,” she said. She winked at Rush. “Enjoy my computer, gorgeous.”

“Thank you,” Rush said, “and, it’s Nicholas.”

“Oh I know; I prefer gorgeous.”

It didn’t take long for Jackson and Vala to gather up keys and imprudently large shoulder bags and be on their way. When the door shut, Rush found Young watching him.

“Hey,” Young said. “You doin’ okay?”

“Yes,” he replied. “I’m fine.”

“It doesn’t carry much weight when you have a history of saying that and then hitting the deck less than three minutes later.”

“Yes well, point taken.”

“Y’know, I’ve worked with scientists before,” Young said.

“Have you? That’s nice.”

“There’s this whole intellectual machismo you guys have about driving yourselves to the point of physical collapse to solve some problem.”

Rush felt the hint of a smile in his expression.

“Which is stupid.” Young tried not to smile back.

“Mmm,” Rush said. “Right then. Your flawless reasoning and rhetorical mastery have convinced me. I’m turning over a new leaf.”

“So you’re gonna go to sleep on my couch?”

“Tomorrow,” Rush amended. “I’m turning over a new leaf tomorrow.”

“It’s past midnight, hotshot, and you just had some kinda breakdown in my kitchen.”

“While both those things are true,” Rush said, “neither prevents me from working.”

“What about this continuous tone thing?”

“It’s still there,” Rush said, “thanks for enquiring.”

Young sighed. “Fine. You wanna be difficult? Be difficult. Doesn’t bother me.”

“Clearly untrue.”

“I’ll be right back,” Young said. “Don’t leave, pass out, or do anything you shouldn’t be doing. Sit on that box for five minutes.” Young shifted gingerly on the couch, bracing himself to stand. 

Rush, reminded of their hallway tussle earlier in the evening, decided to make himself useful. He approached Young and extended a hand. 

Young looked at him skeptically, but let Rush pull him to his feet. “You’re not a good listener.”

“Not in the classical sense; I’ll grant y’that.” Rush steadied the man and stepped back. “You were planning on a shower before I—interfered?”


“Then do so. I’m perfectly fine.” Rush took another sip of his drink and scanned the room for Vala’s computer. He spotted it on a coffee table that’d been pushed out of the way during the earlier excitement.

“I’ll think about it.” Young limped in the direction of his bedroom. “It depends how you’re doing when I’m done brushing my teeth.”

Rush did his best not to be insulted by that comment (but it wasn’t easy). He picked up the computer, plugged it in, and sat on his favorite unpacked box.  

He opened the laptop.

He flexed his fingers.

The room was quiet.


He was hearing a continuous tone.

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