Mathématique: Chapter 32
Grief should be reductive, like everything else.
Revised Author’s Notes: This is a piece of fan fiction. It’s a trope-twisting, epic-length, crossover AU that spans all three series of Stargate. There’s a lot of science. A lot of plot. A lot of emotions. Timelines have been slightly altered so that season 4 of Stargate Atlantis (without Carter in command) occurs contemporaneously to season 10 of SG-1, which occurs in the year prior to season 1 of SGU.
Disclaimer: I’m not making money from this; please don’t repost to other sites.
Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Injuries.
The wind came from the west. Rush stood at his open window, looking into the quiet dark. The night spread out below and before him like a thing made liquid, shadows pooling in places where the sheen of streetlights didn’t penetrate. He rested his elbows on the narrow sill and reached back with one hand to thread fingers beneath the collared neck of his dress shirt. The pale glare of the material reflected and smoothed the stroboscopic tremor of the lights below. Even with the glow of edgeless light pollution, the stars were apparent. The central plane of the galaxy cut faintly through the emptiness of space like the specter of a road.
Somewhere, miles from here, the mountains were on fire. Young had told him that such things happened often in late summer, when rain had been infrequent and the wind was strong. Smoke-scented air flowed around and past him, creating turbulent eddies at the edges of dark corners in his spartan apartment. The breeze was dry and warm and troubled the ends of his over-long hair and the uncuffed edges of his shirt before stirring lightweight ephemera in the room behind him.
He had opened every window he possessed. The wind was something he could listen to.
The sound of the wind was like the sound of the sea, but it was possessed of a merciful irregularity that could not be completed or anticipated by his mind. He shut his eyes, blocking out the silvered glaze of streetlight and starlight, as he listened to the rush and ebb of the air interacting with the edges and curves of his room. It had cooled the wooden paneling beneath his bare feet.
The pressures of air were delicate and immaterial when compared to the coarser forces of water.
He didn’t like the water.
The air though was a different matter—volatile, so diffuse that it was invisible to the human visual system, scattering blue light, venerated as a classical element, studied by the alchemists who granted it an iconography derived from systems ancient and Ancient, until finally it had been parsed and studied and reclaimed for rationality by Black, by Priestly, by Cavendish, and by Lavoisier.
We must trust to nothing but facts.
He tried to work out the pain in his neck through the careful and limited application of one-handed pressure. It wouldn’t work. It never did. He’d had his current headache for a long time. It had been over a week since the meeting with Senator Armstrong and, he wasn’t certain, but he couldn’t remember shaking it at any point in the intervening interval of days.
He might finally banish it if only he could sleep—really sleep, rather than succumbing to short bursts of exhaustion that overtook him in the shaded hours of the morning.
But it wasn’t necessary. His current raging insomnia was comfortably classified as acceptable. Because he was nearly done.
On the wall near the window, the outline of his solution to the seventh cypher stood out in dark streaks of permanent ink atop a deformable surface of layered paint. It would take him less than a day to convert it into something Carter could give an empirical try.
The coding required for Mathématique had been laid out over the course of three careful days and nights. It was now finished and turned over to Perry, who had, in return, offered him a solution to the eighth cypher. The one he’d outsourced to her. And so. Academic dregs were all that stood between him and the ninth chevron.
The final piece.
He would gather those trailing threads of theory and thought and braid them into something practical, something that someone like Carter or Perry could unravel and reweave into the architecture of systems that he doubted he had the time or the security clearance to learn before his default affiliation was stripped from him in an abduction attempt that, if he was correctly interpreting the institutional policies of the SGC, seemed something just short of inevitable. But perhaps he was wrong about that.
He ran a hand through his hair, and looked out over the uninspired parking lot. This was not a place he had ever wanted to be, this suburban, unattractive waste of spatial resources built atop a dry and directionless landscape. Rush preferred San Francisco with an intensity that was identifiable to him only in retrospect. Spread out over hills in a glittering technological crescent that encompassed Berkeley and Stanford and Silicon Valley, it unfurled from the shore of the sea in the closest equivalent to Altera that humanity possessed.
It was where he had belonged—at the merging edge of the biological and the mechanical. He belonged there still.
Extending one hand into the darkness of the open air, he felt the wind pass cool and laminar over the plane of his palm. For the first time in a long time, he stopped fighting his subconscious.
She would have hated it here. Gloria. Perhaps that was why he hated it now.
There would have been nothing here for her, had they come here together, had she followed him, again. He wasn’t sure she would have. She hadn’t been happy in San Francisco, hadn’t been happy in America, hadn’t been happy so far from her family and from everyone she had known and almost everyone she had loved.
What was the most difficult part—the part that made it nearly impossible to do and think the thousand things that it was nearly impossible for him to do and think—what was it that infected the chopping of vegetables, the presence of a continuous tone, the torturous intolerability of music, the acquiescence to a daily routine—
What was it?
He’d like to know.
Grief should be reductive, like everything else. Grief should lend itself to parsimonious analysis. It was nothing but the biochemistry of separation coupled with a conscious understanding of loss and there was nothing, nothing so fucking mysterious about that—it was simply a heuristically hellish and meaningless state of mind that everyone said would get better with time.
There was no resolution to grief. No solution set, no moment of insight, no result at the end of grinding, miserable endurance. There was only a slow, inglorious fade, which was, itself, another kind of loss. He was uninterested in any such dénouement. Such a thing seemed, to him, disrespectful. It was best to continue. Truth was laid bare in the process of abstraction and that was a pursuit that did not end, that never would, that could not be taken from any inquiring mind by vagaries of circumstance.
He was certain that mathematics was the kindest fucking thing in the known universe.
She looks out into sheeting rain, lit up in a glittering curtain by reflected streetlights. Her hair is plastered to her forehead in self-organizing tendrils. The raincoat she wears is a pale blue. “It’s really chucking it down out there.” She glances at him and then away, into drenching darkness.
“Too fuckin’ right,” he says.
She raises an eyebrow with arresting, amused disdain, as if she has seen so much of the world that she can bin even what she doesn’t like with a detached, ironic affection.
“Too right,” he amends, catching her gaze and holding it, already climbing free of the bin she’s put him in.
She looks down and then back. “Are you a student?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says, remembering to give the word the crisp elocution it deserves. “You?”
She nods. “Magdalen,” she says.
“Floreat Magdalena,” he replies.
“Quite,” she says, and looks at him in evident expectation.
“New College,” he says in response to her unasked question.
“Manners Maykth Man,” she replies.
“Yes well, if only I had an umbrella to offer you.”
“You’re right round the corner,” she says. “You’ll be out of this mess in no time.” She looks again at the sheeting rain.
“I’m not going back,” he says.
They are silent for a moment, looking at one another.
“You realize that sounds terribly—“ she says.
“Somewhat dire, yes,” he finishes. “What I mean is, I’m already late for work.”
“Thank God,” she says. “I’m through with interventions for the night.”
He raises his eyebrows.
“Long story,” she says, looking at the rain, “featuring a rubbish pianist.”
“Typical,” he says.
“What is?” she asks. “Rubbish pianists?”
“Disappointment,” he says, giving her a crooked smile.
“You’ve an awfully nice smile for a cynic,” she says, smiling back at him.
“I prefer ‘pragmatist’,” he replies. “What’ve you got there, then?” he asks her, his eyes flashing toward the case strapped across her back.
“A violin,” she says.
“You study music?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Mmm,” he says.
“What,” she demands.
“Nothing,” he says, shrugging. “Seems a bit useless, that’s all.”
“Music is the final abstraction,” she snaps, “the last, thin, sensory barrier between you and universal truth.”
He smiles at her then, really smiles, and if there is a faintly predatory edge to it he cannot help it—it’s who he is. “No,” he says. “That would be maths. What’s your name?”
“Gloria,” she says.
Right then. Of course it is. Gloria.
“Nicholas Rush,” he says. “Tell me, is it terribly difficult to become a pianist?”
“Yes,” she says.
That settles it.
“I’m sure I could do it.”
“I’m sure you couldn’t.”
“You need a new one,” he says. “A new pianist.”
“I don’t,” she says, but she’s turning away, her mouth twisting with the smile she’s trying to hide. “I don’t.”
They look out at the coruscating curtain of rain.
“It’s not likely to get better,” she says. “I should head back.”
“I’m going your way,” he replies, even though he is not.
Rush pulled himself forcibly out of spreading memory, grounding himself in the press of a planar surface against his elbows braced atop the windowsill and in the heel of one hand dug into his eye socket as the wind flowed over and past him through his compartmentalized rooms.
He missed the rain. It hadn’t rained once during his tenure here. Not once.
Every day was the same. Hot and bright and merciless.
It was all right.
The problem was only that—
“I can see you working your way to spontaneous human combustion,” Gloria whispers in his ear, her hair finding its way inside his collar as her fingers close around his elbow. “I have six words for you, sweetheart.”
He doesn’t move, and they stand motionless in the midst of the fluxing knot of human boredom that ebbs and flows around them with varying tangential shear. “Last summer,” she says, her lips grazing the shell of his ear, “set theory, six hours.”
Well yes. She has a point. She usually does.
“Be charming,” she says, “or, failing that, go tell the man with the purple tie over there that you detest Brahms and see what happens.” She raises that damned eyebrow at him.
He flashes her a smile, quick and wild, as he acquires a flute of champagne from a passing tray with a deftness that surprises the circulating member of the wait staff. He looks back at her, readjusting his glasses. “I don’t detest Brahms,” he says archly.
“Yes you do,” she says, the words a melody of provocation. “Of course you do.”
She abandons him with a conspiratorial tightening of fingers before being swept into a hug by someone who is Russian and large and like as not plays the fucking bass.
He shakes his hair back, takes a sip of champagne, and sets his sights on the authoritative figure in the florid purple tie.
Biochemistry. That was all that this was—the biochemical sequelae of loss. He took a deep breath, trying to offer no resistance to the dry darkness of the air. Everyone died. That was the way of things. It was not an observation that carried any kind of material profundity.
Gloria was dead, and he would follow her. This was a fundamental truth of human existence.
Perhaps it had been different for the Ancients. For some of them.
If he had stayed on Altera, if he had joined with the presence that called to him from the center of the city—would that have been a death, or would it have been something else, some alternative pathway that preserved his wave function past the point of its physical dissolution?
He was grateful he’d had the cyphers these past weeks, grateful that David had shown them to him, grateful that he’d found another thing to anchor to the sphere of human knowledge, even if the ninth was the rock upon which he’d most likely scuttle his mind.
He examined the idea of holding nothing in reserve and found that it appealed to him. Removing onseself from the subjectivity of one’s own subjective experiences seemed ideal, if it could be managed. Subjectivity didn’t matter. That was what made it subjective.
Sheppard is dead on the floor, the center of a bloodied halation that never seems to dry. Rush will shortly join him. He looks at mirrored features, calm and unafraid, on the other side of a triple-bladed Ancient knife.
“I despise you,” he breathes against the blade. His hands have closed around a frame, a wrist, that is his own.
He tries to redirect the downward pressing edge.
“Well how could it be otherwise,” his doppelgänger asks, always reasonable, “when you despise yourself?”
“Your culture is a cruelty,” he gasps.
“And yours is not?”
“No,” he breathes.
“Liar,” his opponent says, and his eyes are dark. “What happened to your brother?”
He cannot speak against the blade.
He flinched in the night air, his hand coming halfway to his throat before falling away and returning to his shoulder as his wildly beating heart began to slow. Subjectivity didn’t matter. That was what made it subjective.
His logic was becoming circular. This was never a good sign.
What Gloria would have thought of this—what she would have thought of him here, caught in an impersonal set of clean white rooms with the trappings of a life he couldn’t bear to think of boxed behind a door he tried not to enter—was now immaterial.
What his brother might have thought was even more irrelevant.
One could not disappoint the dead. That was true. That was axiom.
The dead were beyond disappointment, or compassion, or fucking pity.
Because they were dead.
That was the point.
He chews, delicately, the tip of a pen, contemplating the spread of mathematics in front of him, trying to stay focused and quit smoking at the same time, which he finds mostly impossible. It’s never going to take; he knows it.
“Nick,” Gloria says.
He does not look up.
“Nicholas,” she says.
He still doesn’t look up.
“Sweetheart,” she says.
He still doesn’t look up.
She flicks an elastic hair band at him.
He flicks it back at her, keeping his eyes on the pages in front of him.
“Pay attention to me,” Gloria says, “you useless excuse for a spouse.”
“I’m busy,” he says around the pen in his teeth, doing an absolutely shite job at keeping a straight face. “Terribly, terribly occupied.”
“Oh,” she says, standing. “I see. Yes, you very much have the look of a man who’s turning information security on its head. I’ll just start supper, then, shall I?”
He catches her wrist as she walks past him, a fast and unerring closing of fingers around the fine knit of a pale blue jumper.
“Make something fair fucking pretentious, will you?” he says, shoving his chair back with the judicious press of his left foot and pulling her into his lap. “What do the American Intelligentsia eat?”
“I don’t think there are American Intelligentsia,” she says.
“Just try to think of them as the Scottish diaspora,” he replies.
“Not better,” she replies harassing the collar of his shirt under cover of straightening it.
“By all means,” he says, “crash ahead. Insult my people. See what effect such comments have on the remainder of your evening.”
“You have a firmly established track record of absolutely no follow through in the ‘nebulous threats’ department,” she pronounces.
“That’s it,” he snaps. “To the kitchen with you. I have maths to do.”
“But—“ she breaks off as he stands, forcing her to her feet in a reactive slide of displaced concert violinist.
“I expect something extremely impressive,” he says, sitting again, and readjusting his glasses.
“But—“ she says.
He points at the kitchen with his nicotineless pen.
She does not go to the kitchen. Instead, she steals his papers.
He chases her.
He leaned forward, pressing his elbow against the sill of the window, and drove his hand continuously into his eye as the wind created cool pathways over his skin and through his hair and under his shirt. He could tear himself apart against anything that suited him. And he would. Objectively, it did not matter. This was why it was time to begin to consider his visceral avoidance of music. This was why it was time to attempt some kind of recovery or, failing that, at least some kind of damage control. In order to attempt an untangling of the intricacies of Ancient crystal resonance frequencies, he was going to need his own, atypically considerable, grounding in the subject.
Sound and silence.
Melody and harmony.
Rhythm, dynamics, timber, and texture.
It had been a thing both closed and unknown, and so it had become a thing that he had wanted.
He’s not certain what proper audition protocol might be. More to the point, he’s not certain that there’s a protocol for attempting to usurp a position that is not technically open or advertised in any way. He’s also late.
These reasons, though there may be others, are probably why nearly everyone who is in the room when he arrives looks either fair fucking vexed or pure dead pitying, as if he has no idea that he’s about to get either his heart or his arse handed to him on a platter. He says nothing, because anything he says is just going to compound everything about this situation that’s inappropriate.
He stalks through the hostile room, sits down, and bursts into the opening of Shubert’s Impromptu in G-flat major, his left hand fluttering through broken triads and his right hand creating melodic space.
He’s not flawless but he likes to think there is some artistry in the way that he has circumnavigated portions of the piece that he didn’t have time to perfect and in the way he fades it straight into Beethoven, transitioning over with a bridge of his own design that seems to cause some stir in the room. Perhaps such things are frowned upon.
“Who are you, really,” is all Gloria says when he is done, in a way that implies she does not expect an answer.
“I expect I’m your new accompanist,” he says, answering her anyway.
“This is highly unconventional,” her tutor says.
Privately, Rush agrees. The medieval solution to a problem such as this would have been to break the accompanist’s hands. Oxford prides itself on its medieval roots. But he has no such nostalgia for bygone barbarism. “I heard there was a difference of opinion,” Rush says, “and I thought I might offer my services.”
“And I accept,” Gloria says, before any institutional interference can keep them apart.
The former accompanist leaves with poor grace as Gloria hands Rush the sheet music to Shubert’s Grand Duo. “An auspicious title,” he says.
“I’ve always thought so,” she replies.
She would have been able to help him, he reflected, leaning out his window as the wind tormented his unfastened shirtsleeves. She would have done it in two ways.
The first was the most crucial. If she hadn’t died, he wouldn’t find the idea of resonant frequencies mentally intolerable. For him, music had always been both desired and difficult to bear. He wasn’t wired for it, or that had been that’s what he had initially presumed. It had turned out that in fact his problem was the reverse. He was wired for it too well. If he’d begun the study of it when he’d begun his study of mathematics—well, there was no point in speculating. There had been no chance of that, because he’d been born in a place uglier than the one he’d clawed and charmed his way into, a place where the precocious were not given lessons, at least not of the musical variety. So, he’d started late. He’d begun to play at eighteen, and, as a consequence, everything he’d tied up to music was tied up to her. He hadn’t realized that. Neither had she. That might have been the thing that would have distressed her most about his current situation. That, or being an intergalactic abduction target. Yes well fine, she likely would have considered the latter to be more of a material concern. If she’d had concerns, which she didn’t, because she was dead.
The second way she would have helped him was obvious. Given a piano, he could reproduce Alteran chords and construct at least a part of Ancient musical theory from their intervals, but she would have been better. She would have been much better. They could have collaborated. She would have liked that.
He sits alone in the study at the front of the house, his eyes burning, staring at the screen of his laptop, meticulously unfolding his thoughts in a logical progression, waiting for the flash of lateral insight that accompanies such mental origami.
The logical base and the lateral step—both are equally important.
Relativizing, natural, and algebrizing proofs have, thus far, been insufficient. He finds the demonstration that IP=PSPACE somewhat heartening but he also agrees with the consensus in the field that arithmetization is not going to be workable when approaching the P=NP proof.
“One in E minor runs through my head,” Gloria whispers in his ear.
He startles so violently that a slow avalanche of scholarly miscellanea hits the floor in a protracted cascade of pens and paper that he doesn’t see, he only hears, because he has his eyes closed in valiant attempt to calm the fuck down.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she says, her voice no longer a whisper, now pitched as something overtly soothing. Her hands close over his shoulders as she manages to insert herself between him and the back of the chair, pressing herself against his back as she straddles the wood in a position that can’t be comfortable. “You just make it so easy.”
“Yes well,” he says, unable to mount any kind of verbal defense after having been so abruptly diverted from his train of thought. His attentional focus has its own inertia and, in the absence of considering computational complexity, it’s not entirely sure where it should direct itself.
“You would not survive as in a hunter-gatherer society,” she says, hooking her chin over his shoulder and wrapping her arms around him. “Some mastodon would come by and eat you while you were inventing the lever.”
“I don’t think mastodons ate primitive man,” he replies, looking at the disordered admixture of paper and writing implements on the floor next to him.
“True,” Gloria says. “You’re right of course. I’m sure primitive woman was much more delicious.”
“You know how I feel about factual errors.”
“Even when they’re made purposefully as a set-up for gender based witticisms?”
“Hmm,” he says disapprovingly.
“You realize you look a bit mental in here in the dark, don’t you?” she murmurs, her fingers smoothing through his disarrayed hair. “Why didn’t you turn the lights on when the sun went down?”
He looks up, and realizes that the only source of light in the room is the illumination of his laptop and the oblique glow from the hallway.
“I was busy,” he says.
“Make me supper, you ludicrous man.”
He can feel the weight of her hair over his shoulder.
“I’m going to need some kind of quid pro quo,” he replies.
“In return I offer you a devastatingly stylish and increasingly necessary haircut.”
“I fail to see how such a thing would benefit me. You’re the one who has to look at it.”
“I’m convinced that only your remarkable hair and notable wardrobe prevents you from completely sucking all will to live out of undergraduates with mathematical aspirations.”
He finds this suggestion completely ridiculous. “Regardless of the state of my hair,” he says dryly, “they’d do well to be revising, as they sit their Discrete Maths final tomorrow.”
“Then it is most assuredly time for a haircut,” Gloria pronounces.
He will have to do it alone. He will have to do it without her. He knows this. He has known it all along.
It will be easier with a piano. He’ll reproduce the chords. He could do it on paper, he could do it right now, but to mentally reproduce them with the required accuracy will require more concentration and sustained mental energy than he is capable of turning in the direction of anything tonal, if the unfortunate incident at the funeral and then the even more unfortunate incident in Young’s apartment were anything to judge by. If he can play the notes, perhaps he won’t have to think them, and that will be easier and so he needs a piano.
Once the chords are reproduced, he will extrapolate to the underpinnings of their musical theory and he will recreate the polyphonic textures that he heard on Altera, which is another thing he could do without a piano but prefers not to. With that as groundwork, he will look at the architecture of the code and he will try to map out the correspondence between software and hardware and then he will begin trying melodies and harmonies.
It will be easier with the piano. It has always been easier with the piano.
A-flat major and a triplet rhythm. Number eight in C minor. Opus thirteen. She sits next to him. Right there on the bench. She says nothing. Not until he finishes the second movement. Then she says, “I think we should discuss this,” before he can start the third.
“Yes,” he says, dropping his hands from the keys. “I agree.”
“Have you looked into any of the information that they provided?”
“No,” he says. “Not yet.”
“I—“ she says, looking at the blank expanse of the opposite wall.
He says nothing, looking at the piano.
“I don’t think you should read it,” she says.
“You don’t think I should read it?” he echoes.
“No,” she says. “I can tell you the bits you need to know. The clinical options aren’t difficult to navigate, they’re all algorithmically optimized.
“Really,” he says, trying to determine how this would be the case—every impression he’s ever gotten from medicine has been one of hopelessly muddled anecdotal evidence. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“That’s what they have randomized controlled clinical trials for, darling.”
Right. Usually death was an outcome in those trials. He doesn’t want her to be part of a dataset that determines the next round. But she will be, no matter how it goes. “Why don’t you want me to read anything?” he asks, his eyes narrowing slightly as he looks at her.
“Well, it’s just very straightforward,” Gloria says, her pose casual but her voice wavering, “and you’re very busy.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he says, hurt. His tone is scathing.
“That’s ridiculous,” he repeats, and he is abruptly, acutely afraid that it is not ridiculous.
She turns away from him. That’s—not ideal. She does that when she cries. He is being an unmitigated bastard. Mainly that’s because he is an unmitigated bastard. He wants to leave, so that he does not need to see the turned-away curve of her shoulders. But he does not leave. He can fucking hold himself together for this. For her. Probably. Probably he can. There is some probability that he can.
“I’m not—“ he begins, feeling inadequate and guilty. “I don’t want you to think that I—”
“Don’t read them,” she says, after he trails off into a morass of self-loathing. Her voice is high and tight and now he knows she’s crying. “Don’t read them,” she repeats, the words mangling even further. “I don’t want you to.”
The lateral press of foot to carpet slides him sideways so that they sit, shoulder to shoulder.
He faces the piano.
She faces the void of the room.
“Why not?” He says the thing he should have said the first time.
“Because, sweetheart,” she says, “it doesn’t look good.”
“Ah,” he says silently. It must look extremely bad.
“But those reports—well, they’re just numbers,” she whispers through tears.
He doesn’t trust himself to say anything in response to that.
“They don’t mean anything,” she says.
They mean something extraordinarily specific, actually, but he does not say this.
“Outcome data from other people don’t necessarily translate perfectly to an individual case,” she says.
“True,” he says.
This seems to reassure her. It in no way reassures him.
He twisted his fingers through his hair, trapping chunks of it in and around the closing of his fist as the wind tore past. He shut his eyes to block out the light that was, even at night, too bright for him. He was nearly done. His mind likely wouldn’t be the same following the cracking of the final chevron. He was fair certain of that. It would not be like it was now, this hellish confinement, broken only by his dinner plans with his lonely and damaged neighbor.
Perhaps Jackson was right. Perhaps once he solved it, perhaps then—
Perhaps he would be let go.
Perhaps the mathematics would let him go. Perhaps the SGC would let him go.
Jackson would help him.
Perhaps he could go to Atlantis. He could work with Sheppard. He liked Sheppard; with his quiet tenacity, his genuine joy in maths and his strange, sad love for a strange, sad city that Rush had never seen. Except in dreams.
Perhaps he could go wherever the Icarus project went. He could work with Telford. He liked Telford; with his savage drive and his hard eyes and his endless, boundless willpower.
He didn’t think he’d care to find out what employment opportunities were like with the Lucian Alliance.
If he solved it, then he would move on. To something else.
A-flat major and a triplet rhythm. Number eight in C minor. Opus thirteen. He is perseverating on a musical theme. He is trying to get it out of his head, but it will not go.
“You’ve been playing Beethoven lately,” Gloria says, from her position in the doorway, putting a mild gloss on six weeks of intense and unremitting obsession with the Sonata Pathétique. “I always get suspicious when that happens.”
“Suspicious?” he says.
“Extremely,” she says, but does not explain herself.
It is dark in the room and he doesn’t have to see how frail she’s become.
He continues to play.
Rush abandoned the window and he sank to the floor, his back against his too-painted wall, the newest cypher in black relief above him. He propped an elbow on his knee and pressed the heel of one hand against his temple as he looked up and out at the distant spread of stars. He listened to the wind. Sleep would not come easily, if it came at all. He could generally sleep in the morning, when the sun was on the other side of the building and the asphalt was the color of shade. Night was harder.
“Nick,” she says. “What happened to your brother?”
“Why do you want to know?” He looks out across white expanse of snow that blankets Rochester, Minnesota. It glitters beneath moonlight on the other side of the closed window. He doesn’t look at her; he doesn’t look at her hair, dark and unfamiliar and artificial, spread out across the pillow, but he can see it reflected in the window, a dark superimposition over the iced landscape. “It doesn’t matter.”
When she speaks, her voice is strained. “It matters to me. It matters to me very much.”
“Why?” he asks, not looking at her, already thinking of chevrons and things that are locked away from him. Thinking of cyphers and gates and the warping of spacetime and the things on the flash drive that David Telford had given him months ago.
“Because I don’t want to be like him,” she says.
He shuts his eyes. “Like who?” he asks, when he can speak.
“Never mind,” she whispers.
It’s a long time before he can turn away from the window. When he finally does, she’s watching him.
“Come on, sweetheart,” she says. “Let’s go down to the lobby and be unforgivably posh. You can replace the mediocre volunteer pianist.”
She cannot hide her fear from him, and it bothers him that she tries.
He steps forward, extending both hands, and pulls her out of her hospital bed.
He turned away from the window and faced his wall. After getting to his feet with dubious coordination, he drew a line beneath his previous work and he wrote ‘do not repaint,’ with an upward directed arrow, in case he forgot. Then he sat down again and swapped his marker for something with a finer tip.
He drew a series of five parallel lines along the wall at the level of his eyes and looked at them before setting his pen down. It was possible that he’d need to invent an alternative form of notation to indicate Ancient resonant frequencies.
That was something he’d need to consider.
He held his hands lightly over the floor near the wall.
He lies on his back, looking up at the dimly lit ceiling. It’s not dark here. It’s never dark here. It’s never quiet, and he doesn’t sleep. “You can take it off you know,” he murmurs against the smell of artificial hair. This thing.” He tugs gently on the smooth, even, brown lengths.
“I know,” she says, lying on top of him. “But I don’t like to.”
“Yes well,” he says, running his hands along the subtle, sinusoidal projections of her vertebrae, “you’ve always been terribly vain, sweetheart.”
“It comes with the profession,” she says, and he can feel the subtle changes in her facial muscles against his shoulder that indicate that she is smiling.
He feels like he is the one dying. And he wishes he were. “How do you feel?” he asks her.
“Fine,” she whispers. “Tomorrow I’ll feel wretched.”
“I know,” he says.
They’re quiet. She breathes so softly that it is difficult for him to tell if she is asleep. It has always been that way.
“Nick,” she whispers. “You haven’t forgotten him?”
He cannot control his facial expression, and he hopes she’s not looking at him. He doesn’t think she is. “No,” he says, when he can force sound past the locked gate of his vocal chords.
“You won’t forget me?” she whispers.
He cannot answer, but his hands tighten around her.
Needing a piano, but lacking one, and unable to sleep, he felt that there was only one option left to him. It would be a mistake, a drastic mistake to begin without control. Quietly, he whistled a C major scale as he played it out along his floor near the base of his wall, perfectly synchronizing pitch and finger movements.
This would be fine. This would be workable. He could transition into this in a slow and logical progression. He would get himself to the point where he could solve this cypher in careful increments. He could do this. It would be no problem.
With deliberation he began a C minor scale.
“Whistle me an A, darling, someone walked off with my tuner. That, or I lost it.”
“Admit it,” he says. “You married me for my ear.”
“You married me for my hair, I don’t see the difference.”
“I did not marry you for your hair,” he says, deeply enmeshed in trying to follow the logical progressions of a handful of struggling graduate students, but he complies and whistles for her.
“You’re a terrible liar, sweetheart,” Gloria says, leaning in the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest, her violin beneath one arm, unbelievably fragile looking with her dark hair and her dark sweater wrapped around her. She gives him a half smile. “You don’t like it at all.”
“I like it,” he says. “I do. It’s very, ah—fashionable?” He looks back down at the exams he’s grading.
“Now you’re just guessing. As if you have any idea what’s fashionable.”
“I resent that,” he says, not looking up, but smiling at her all the same. “I’m extremely informed about current trends in almost every arena.”
“You can’t consistently identify the difference between a dress and a skirt, let alone—”
“That was one time. Years ago. You’re just not going to let that one go, are you?”
“I’m not planning on it, no.”
He doesn’t look up, but he knows she’s still there, in the doorway watching him.
“It’s not that I don’t like the thing,” he says, wishing that he could look up at her, but knowing that he can’t, he can’t. “I just miss the blonde. That’s all.”
“It will grow back,” she says quietly. He can see her in his peripheral vision, fingering the strands of the wig she’s wearing.
“Of course,” he says. “Of course it will.”
He looks away for a moment, and, when he looks back, the doorway is dark and she is gone.
Through the night and into the early hours of the morning, he sat on the floor of his unpacked apartment, waiting until seven o’clock, at which point the parking lot was its usual uninspired gray, the distant mountains were a hopeless umber, and Young was likely to be awake.
He needed a piano.
Young could make that happen.
There must be fucking pianos in Colorado Springs.
After a blind and desultory attempt to order his hair, he stood and proceeded to Young’s apartment. He knocked on Young’s door for an interval longer than was typical. The door opened fractionally and then more completely.
“I thought we were doing brunch,” Young said, as he swung the door wide. “It’s—“ he stopped talking.
Rush noted he was dressed in a t-shirt and cotton pants with a subtle blue plaid pattern.“This is a bad time,” he concluded. “You were sleeping.” Perhaps it was the weekend.
“Why don’t you come in,” Young said.
“I don’t need to come in,” Rush clarified. “I need a piano.”
“Come in,” Young said again.
Rush stepped forward.