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. Don’t listen if you’re prone to panic attacks.

Text Iteration: Midnight.

Audio status: Locked.

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 5

He was hearing a continuous tone.

This was not going to end well.

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

He was hearing a continuous tone.

Oh fuck.


Oh God.

He had been making a list.

A list that delineated eight items, but required ten.

“Do you want to sit down, hotshot?”

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

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“No,” he said. “I’m fine.”

He looked at Young. He focused on Young who looked 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 then that it could not have been easy for Young to have done any of the things that he had done that night and Rush didn’t even know what was wrong with the man, but something was; something had happened to him.


“Are you all right?” Rush asked.

“Yeah,” Young said, his perfectly casual delivery ruined by the way he couldn’t keep his face controlled as he said it. “I’m good. Sorry about the water.”

Rush nodded.

But he did not like the water.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“You were hyperventilating there, hotshot.”

“I’m aware.”

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

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 could not breathe.


This was not going to end well.


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

“Hey,” Young said, his hands moving and his hair short. “It’s okay. I get it. You’re not used to this kind of thing. 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 unquestionably too nice and too cautious. “There’s nothing special about being a professor of mathematics,” Rush replied. He pressed his forehead against the wood of the doorframe and tried not to think of the things that he could not think about. 

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“Are your ears ringing?” Rush asked, finally 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.

He did not like the water.

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

“Hard to say. Maybe a day at the most.”

“A day.”

It had been all right when he was doing something, when it was dark, and the adrenaline had been elevating his heart rate, when he had 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 ten. He was hearing a continuous tone. He was hearing a continuous tone.

“Do you, by any chance—” Young paused and then proceeded. “Need anything from your apartment? I don’t know—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 and talk about this.”

“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 was going to happen and he didn’t know which. He could not stand the ringing; maybe if it had 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 would be the ninth one. The ninth key. That was the one. The one that was like staring future dissolution in straight in the face. But the ninth ones were always like that and he was hearing a chord now, multiple chords. They would be linked to the dialing; linked to function. Was this what he had realized three days ago? What had happened to him then? He had 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 had realized this while she was still alive? Probably not but possibly. 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, this note that he was hearing, anticipation sustained without mercy, 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. I’m just—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 it? Or would that, too, have no sound? 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 could not 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 his hands that were digging into Young’s shoulder and into the frame of the door as he tried to control his mind though sheer force of will; this must be what had happened before—he had realized it was tonal, the ninth was tonal, and he had panicked and he had lost three days.

“Rush, everything is fine. You’re panicking. At least, I think you’re panicking. You just need to talk to me, hotshot.”

It was going to turn.

Young was looking at him.

It was going to turn. 

He stopped breathing.

It faded down like a gathering, like the moments he had 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, immediate, audible, and very close to him.

He did not breathe.

It turned anyway.

The opening tore across his mind, all-consuming, solo violin turning viciously to E minor, rapidly descending, echoed, amplified by the orchestra that destroyed everything as it continued, his sense of self subsumed in ricochet arpeggios. He could not move, he could not 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 had been the one who had 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 to the point that he passed out.”

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

“Yup. I really—don’t think he’s okay.”

“A continuous tone, though?”

“Yes. That’s what he said. A continuous tone. Do you think that means anything?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. Yes.”

They were talking about him.

Of course they were. 

He wondered what he had done. 

It had been—the entire concerto. He wondered if it had proceeded in real time, or he’d just perceived it that way. 

He was still hearing the continuous tone. He wished it would go away.

“I think it was the gunshot.”

“What gunshot?”

“I fired my gun. Right next to him. He mentioned his ears were ringing.”

“Well, that would be a continuous tone.”

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

Rush was lying 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 in relative terms.

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. She looked up and blinked in surprise. After glancing toward the other room, she extended one leg and caught the edge of the open kitchen door with the toe of her boot. She flexed her foot. The door swung shut.

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

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


“What happened?” she asked.

“Nothing good,” he replied in a cracked whisper. “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. But not quite. She looked up at the ceiling.

“What are you doing?” Rush whispered.

“Just waiting,” she murmured. “What are you doing?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” he whispered.

She said nothing.

He said nothing.

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

“Cocktails?” He was speaking 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 wasn’t going to help him.

He was hearing a continuous tone.

“I have invented a fantastic cocktail, if I do say so myself. SG-1 loves it. And, between you and me, they can be a very 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 therefore have all the required ingredients.” She put the glasses of water in the microwave.

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

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

“Yes,” he said. 

“I have read a great deal of literature on the subject,” Vala replied primly. She put a box of chamomile tea on the counter. “In some of your most widely circulated publications.”

“Meaning?“ He tried for a dry delivery, but didn’t quite make it.

Cosmopolitan magazine, amongst others.”

He tried to place it, but came up blank.

She pulled out a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels. “Yikes,” she murmured.

He presumed that her response indicated that she had bought the bottle and that, in her estimation, Colonel Young had consumed an alarming amount of hard alcohol for one person in the span of time between purchasing and cocktail construction. He might be wrong about his assumption regarding her assumption, but he doubted it.

Vala set the bottle on the counter.  She looked up and opened the microwave before the timer sounded.  Gingerly, she pulled the glasses out and put a tea bag in each one.

“You really should not make tea in a microwave,” he informed her.

“So Daniel insists. But I like microwaves.”

He was hearing a continuous tone. 

“Do you think,” he asked her, feeling somewhat breathless, “that you could open the window?”

“It’s awfully hot out there, gorgeous.”

“I know,” he said. 

She reached over to lever up the window.

“Thank you,” he said, shutting his eyes. 

“No problem.”

He listened to her pour hot water from one glass to another and dig around in drawers. 

He opened his eyes again. “What are you looking for?”

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

“Measuring spoons. To your left.”

Her hand fell upon the correct drawer and she looked at him with a subtle lift of her eyebrows.

He shrugged.

She poured a teaspoon of Jack Daniels into each of the glasses of tea.

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

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

He made a circular hand gesture to indicate that she should proceed.

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 more able tolerate it, but he wondered how long that luck would last. He’d bought himself something of a reprieve after—yes well, whatever that had been, exactly. An all-consuming auditory hallucination. Of some kind. Possibly. He could pass a psych evaluation. He had 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 would be difficult. It would be upsetting. He should save that one until the end. It would be a delicate balance, staying on his own, uninterfered with, long enough to get the remaining four. That would bring him to eight. 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. It would only reveal itself at the end.

Perhaps—perhaps that was not his to solve.

He’d find out.

Outside, he could hear cars and insects.


“Take a seat, gorgeous.” Vala winked at him and slapped the counter as she turned to open one of the cupboards above the stove with another flare of hair.

With less coordination than he was accustomed to, Rush boosted himself onto the counter and watched her fish through boxes. “What are you looking for?” he asked her. 

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. The entire experience seemed very far away. Difficult to recall.

“Salt,” she said.


“Yes, salt. It enhances flavor.”

“True,” he said, “nevertheless, I think you should reconsider.”

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

He watched her combine the tea/whiskey mixture with ice, mint, and salt before she handed him a glass and boosted herself up on 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 evident satisfaction, sipping her own drink.

He was reasonably certain she wasn’t from Earth.

“What do you think?” she asked him, with a subtle 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, exactly? I mean, other than knowing how many cubits you’d like your monument to measure?”

He looked over 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 or down? Down is more romantic, but pulled back is more practical and sends the right sort of message about competency. Personally, I’m leaning toward down.”

“Down is nice,” he said.

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

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

“Well,” she said, and this time, there was no mistaking the wistfulness beneath her smile, “that sounds pretty good. 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.”

“But are there any magazines?”

“Mmm, 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. “I 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 profound capacity to redefine the borders of what constituted acceptable behavior with a single inflected word hit Rush like a slap. 


Jackson opened the door a bit wider and peered around its edge.

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

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

“Hey yourself. Are you done having secret conferences? If so, I will be happy to make you a ‘Mal Doran’.” Vala 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 the quiet slide and tap of Vala’s feet hitting the linoleum as she eased off the counter top. Jackson boosted himself onto the counter in Vala’s place.

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

“It’s good,” Rush said. He forced himself to drink another swallow. It was, in no way, “good.”

“Oh. Well. Glad you like it. She invented it maybe six weeks back? It was a—well, it was a tough time.  For her. And we all—eh. You get the idea. Why am I even telling you this?”

“I’ve no idea,” Rush said dryly. “I’m completely uninterested.”

“Uh huh,” Jackson replied.

They were silent for a moment.

“So,” Jackson said, looking fixedly 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 fucking merciless about this kind of thing.

Rush had no intention of being any less merciless.




“Nick,” Jackson said. “I’m speaking from experience here. When people panic and hyperventilate, they pass out and then they regain consciousness. They don’t generally remain unresponsive for something like twenty minutes.”

“Have a lot experience with such things, do you?”

Jackson sighed. “Look, no matter what you say—I’m not going to—I wouldn’t—” Jackson lost all forward momentum. He looked at the stove like he was looking at something else.

“For a linguist you’re unusually inarticulate.”

“Well, 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 my run-ins with Ancient technology and the psychiatric personnel of the SGC. But I doubt either of us are really in the mood. So, c’mon. Just 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.

“Yes,” Rush whispered.

There was a long silence. Rush listened for the sound of night insects, traffic, Jackson’s breathing—just 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. “You want to hear 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.”

God, but he hated Jackson. People opened to Jackson. People caved like improperly set arches. There was nothing scientific about it; it was all intuitive bullshit and that steady blue gaze. Fucking fucking fucking Jackson.

“She was.”

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


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

“Not anymore.”


They were silent.

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

“I found it to be difficult to tolerate.”

“Yup. Got that much. But why?”

Rush felt the enormity of what remained unsaid pressing down on his mind. The immediacy of the concerto was difficult to escape. He grasped for a different way to express what had 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. You’re learning their language. We know that in some poorly defined way—even that alone can change the human mind. Maybe you had some kind of somatosensory experience or overload you can’t explain. I can’t explain it either. I can only tell you it’s happened to me.”

Rush glanced over at him, brows lifted.

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

“A concerto,” Rush admitted.

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

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

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

“Ta,” Rush said dryly. “What were—”

“I heard you got number four.” Jackson looked away, speaking over him. “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.” Daniel 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 are ten cyphers.”

“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.”

“Ah. Okay.”

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

“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.


“I think I understand what you’re not quite saying,” Jackson looked up into the nothingness of midair, blue eyes burning. “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 shifted his gaze from nothingness and met Rush’s eyes. “And I’m sorry. I’m working on it. In the meantime, I know that—that Colonel Telford has been pushing you very hard to solve this.”

Rush looked away. “Not true.”

“Yes,” Jackson said darkly. “True. But this can wait. If you need some personal time, or if you—”

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

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

“Their gates,” Rush said, an edge in his voice, “do not contain the cyphers.”

“I know,” Jackson replied. “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 personal 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 exactly 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. “Thank you for your concern. Very touching. But I’m fine.”

“That’s bullshit, but okay.”

“Did you just say bullshit?”  Rush asked.

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

“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 had lost his wife. Jackson, who had lost his sanity. Jackson, who had died himself. 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 that the universe tried unceasingly to tear down, to grind away, to destroy utterly on every scale. Rush understood that because she had been that way, trying to fix things and preserve things and meeting with failure everywhere, even in her own body. 

Maybe everyone’s life was like that. 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 to like Colonel Telford.”

Jackson looked away. “Yeah. I know, but I think—I think he’s very focused on something that is 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. “You know something. Something I don’t. Why won’t you just say it?”

Jackson brought his hands to his face, laughing a short, frustrated laugh. “I’m trying to figure out how, Nick.” Jackson looked over at him, regret in those blue fire eyes. “Unfortunately, I think one day you’ll understand my position. Until then, I’m doing my best.”

“How long is that going to 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, I think. 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. Better all the time.”

Rush regarded the other man cautiously. “So what am I supposed to do with this—metadata you’ve given me?”

Jackson looked away from the nothingness he’d been addressing. “Just—take it easy, work on the quantum cypher if you want to, 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 said, not bothering to hide his irritation. “And what am I supposed to do about it?”

“One day,” Jackson said, sliding down from the counter. “I’m going to catch you off guard and we’re going to 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 bring me a computer, by any chance?”

“He did,” Jackson said. “A computer was promptly volunteered, I called Sam and read off its tech specs. She said it would be fine. Full disclosure: it’s Vala’s. It’s new, though. She just got it a few weeks ago, so hopefully it’s not full of anything inappropriate. She’s also not emotionally attached to it. Yet.”

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

They emerged to see 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 said that if that really was the case, 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 some way that you unlawfully acquired something that didn’t belong to you—”

“No, the point was—”

“Shhh. No.”

“Don’t you ‘shhh’ me. This 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, performing a small curtsey. “Lowering ethical standards wherever I go.”

Rush hooked a hand over the back of his neck and pressed his fingers into the tense muscles there. He narrowed his eyes in Jackson’s direction. The man was staring 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, looking at Jackson, “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,” she said. “I see you liked my cocktail.”

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

“That’s what Sam said,” Vala remarked, straightening 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 intensely off her hair. “Yes,” she said. She winked at Rush. “Enjoy my computer, gorgeous.”

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

“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 doing okay?”

“Yes,” he replied. “I’m fine.”

“It doesn’t really 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 being able to drive yourselves to the point of physical collapse to solve some problem.”

Rush gave him a faint smile.

“Which is stupid,” Young said, “by the way.”

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

“Look, I can tell you’re being sarcastic, but it’s past midnight, hotshot, and you just had some kind of breakdown in my kitchen.”

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

“What about this continuous tone thing?”

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

Young sighed. “Fine. You want to be difficult, fine. Be difficult. It doesn’t bother me.”

“Clearly untrue.”

“I’ll be right back,” Young said. “Do not leave, pass out, or do any other thing that you shouldn’t be doing. Just sit on that box for five minutes.” Young shifted gingerly on the couch, bracing himself to stand. 

Rush, forcibly reminded of their tussle in the hallway earlier in the evening, decided he could 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.” Rush admitted. “I’ll grant you that. I believe you were planning on taking 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 had been pushed out of the way during the earlier excitement.

“I’ll think about it,” Young said, limping 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 down 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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