Mathématique: Chapter 46

“You think I fantasize about helping impolite Scottish guys with their hair while my mom is working the night shift?”

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. Injury. 

Chapter 46

The Cambridge Public Library was quiet, filled with indirect sunlight. Rush finished the agreed-upon scrawl of trigonometry over his borrowed, unlined paper more than fifteen minutes early, and so, for no reason other than that he felt doing so, he flipped a page in the book and kept going.

The last three days had been—well.

Significantly more challenging than he’d expected. For one thing, Massachusetts in August was climatologically unbearable. It was blanketed with a miserable, humid, suffocating, stagnant heat that, even at night, never fully relented. The temperature made it difficult to stay hydrated, difficult to stay clean, especially given the concomitant challenge of sleeping on carefully selected public benches.

It was difficult to remain on the socially acceptable side of dishevelment, and he was fairly certain that the only thing keeping him from being openly questioned by resident librarians was, one—the matched leather of his belt and shoes, and two—his glasses and the forbidding over-the-rim stare he coupled with them.

He felt fair sure he still was managing to look like a professor with a personality disorder rather than a vagrant, but this was going to be hard to maintain past day five of his bizarre exile from the unremembered life he’d left behind.

The slide of a found pencil over liberated printer paper and the spread of trigonometry that was unfolding as the minutes passed felt simultaneously familiar and revelatory. He looked at the clock. He then looked laterally at the unenterprising child, whose math homework he was doing.

The thirteen year old was deeply engrossed in some meaningless waste of time that seemed to involve staring intently at his phone. Rush wasn’t inclined to complain though, as he’d been promised twelve dollars in return for Timothy enjoying the dubious pleasure of not completing the math homework his parents were paying a tutor to assign him over the summer holidays.

Rush shook his head before turning back to continue the smooth trail of graphite across the surface of the paper in front of him, soothing the anxious rhythms of his thoughts, until—

“Hey,” someone whispered. “Creeper. That’s my trigonometry you’re poaching.”

He looked up to see a well-built young man with curly hair drop into the chair directly across the narrow table. This gave Rush an excellent view of a black T-shirt reading ‘inspiration’ where the letters ‘p’ and ‘i’ had been replaced with their Greek alphabet equivalent.

“I believe,” Rush said, with as much coolness as he could drape over a painful effort to enunciate clearly, “tha’ this is Timothy’s trigonometry, and he can do with it whatever he likes.”

They glanced in tandem at Timothy, who, having realized that something unlikely beneficial to himself was in the offing, had slouched slightly lower in his seat and was now studying a distant shelf of library books with a calculated nonchalance.

The young man across from Rush narrowed his eyes. Rush narrowed his own eyes right back. They stared at one another in overtly aggressive skepticism.

“You look familiar,” the young man said. “What’s your name?”

Fuck. He really should have anticipated eventually getting this question from someone. “David Telford,” he said, after a too-long hesitation.

“Eli Wallace.”

Rush said nothing.

Eli leaned forward, turning abruptly, suspiciously conspiratorial. “How much is he paying you?”

Rush saw no point in lying. “Twelve dollars an hour.”

“He gets forty bucks a week in allowance,” Eli said. “So I think you’re lowballing it a little bit. Just FYI.”

“What do you want,” Rush said, employing his over-the-rim stare to its maximum effect.

“Whatever he’s paying? I’ll double it,” Eli said, “and I won’t tell little Timmy’s mom that a creeper Scottish guy is hanging out at the local library soliciting teens for math if—” he trailed off, looking at Rush.

“If?” Rush was forced to ask, against his will.

“If you can do every problem I set in front of you,” Eli said.

“Done,” Rush replied, faintly amused, mildly curious, and entirely certain that there was no possible way that this overgrown child could have even a remote chance at besting him in a mathematical matching of wits, if everything he’d learned about himself was true.

“Wait here,” Eli said, appropriating Timothy’s textbook and completed assignment and transferring them to the child with some accompanying inaudible comments that were delivered with a vague and irregular approximation of sternness.

Rush waited, watching with eyebrows raised as Eli extracted a pen and twelve dollars from the child before allowing him to scamper off, either outside or to some other recess of the library. On his way back to the table, Eli swiped a short stack of blank paper from the nearest printer.

“All your base,” Eli said, as he sat and aligned his appropriated printer paper, “are belong to us.” 

Rush had no idea what that meant, but the tone in which it had been delivered was easy enough to interpret.

“Yeah well, we’ll see abou’ tha’,” he replied.

Eli slid him the twelve dollars, pulled out a pen, and began writing.

The first fifteen rounds were a straight-forward progression through applied mathematics, but right at the point he’d anticipated the switch from differential equations to something a bit more interesting, Eli pulled a sheet of graph paper that that had been folded into quarters out of a pocket in his pants.

The thing was covered with Eli’s sure, cramped hand, front and back.

“The twenty-four dollar problem?” Rush asked dryly.

“Almost,” Eli said, smoothing out the creases in the scrap in a movement that looked habitual. “You solve this one? I’ll show you the twenty-four dollar question.” When he finished copying out what he wanted along the top of a pristine sheet of unlined printer paper, he passed it over to Rush.

Across the top of the page, in black pen, was a string of symbols at once alien and uncomfortably familiar. He didn’t like looking at them. He thought of the paper in his wallet. The one from ‘J. Shep.’ He had the urge to pull them out and compare the two but knew he didn’t need to.

He looked up at Eli.

“What?” Eli asked, unsettled by something in his expression.

Rush said nothing, and looked back down at the paper. Very quietly, and only because he was listening for it, he could hear a dissonant chord that was not carried over the air. Whether it was a memory, or something else, he wasn’t sure. “Where did you get this?” he asked.

“Why?” Eli replied. “You know something about it?”

Rush shot him a look over the tops of his glasses.

“From a game,” Eli said. “From a computer game. It’s part of a task to unlock the Promethean Lexicon in Astria Porta so I can be ready for the release of the expansion pack. It comes out in a few weeks.”

From a game. At the vague interface where his factual knowledge faded into the depthless dark of personal experience the words ‘Astria Porta’ conjured up the image of a dark arch, a blue glow.

Astria Porta,” he said experimentally, but there was nothing more, and the words didn’t feel familiar in his mouth.

“Do you play?” Eli asked, his features lighting up and then clamping down beneath an artificial nonchalance.

“I don’t know,” Rush said.

“You don’t know?”

He glanced sharply at Eli.

“What?” Eli said. “That’s weird.”

Rush looked down at the paper in front of him, slashed a line through the series of symbols, separating the equation to be solved from the preceding primer that explained the relational meaning of the variables. Other than recognition that the primer existed and was separate from the equation, it was a simple solution, requiring only algebra. He spent a few moments parsing out the primer for Eli and then revolved the paper and slid it over to him.

Eli studied it briefly and then looked up at him. “Nice,” he said evenly. “Fast. Faster than me.”

“Is that unusual?” Rush replied dryly.

“Very,” Eli said, without looking up. “Did you—recognize those symbols from somewhere?”

“Not that I can recall,” Rush said, half-truthfully. “You said you had a final problem.”

“Yup,” Eli said. “This is the one that I’m really curious about.” He wrote what could only be a few letters before sliding the paper over to Rush.

P=NP, it said. Prove.

He looked at it, looked at Eli, and said coolly, “I’m afraid that’s outside the scope of my abilities.”

“Bullshit,” Eli whispered. “Dr. Rush.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“They made a NOVA special on you, dude,” Eli whispered. “They interviewed you on NPR, like, a bunch of times until you were a dick to the Monday Math guy. You can’t think you’re going to be able to hang out, unrecognized, doing pre-calc for cash, like, half a mile from both MIT and Harvard do you? Because, if so? What are you on.”

“I’m having some personal and professional difficulties at the moment,” Rush replied, “and I’ll thank you to—”

“Yeah, I’ll say, if you’ve been reduced to doing trigonometry for teenagers in neighborhoods with astronomical property taxes. Consulting for the Air Force not working out for you?” Without waiting for Rush to reply he continued with, “No. Surely you jest. No one would have seen that one coming. Look,” he said. “Nick. Can I call you Nick?”

“My name is David,” Rush said icily. “David Telford.”

“Okay,” Eli replied, “Dave. Even though I need all of my limited resources to support my unhealthy but-oh-so-totally-worth-it MMO addiction, I am willing to take you to dinner if you’re willing to give up some details.”

“Why?” Rush replied suspiciously.

“Because I’m curious, I’m not really a fan of the patriarchy, and I’m big on clan loyalty.”

“Clan loyalty?” Rush repeated.

“You’re Scottish. Like in Braveheart, but with math,” Eli explained. “You do math, I do math. Well, okay, technically I was thinking about a math major before I left college for personal reasons right before a total dickhead of a biology professor was about to flunk me out of a scholarship.”

“Oh yes? Well congratulations,” Rush said. “It shows.”

“Which part?” Eli asked, his eyes narrowing.

Rush shrugged.

“Do not insult the guy buying you dinner.”

“I believe you owe me twenty-four dollars,” Rush said, unperturbed.

“But I’m buying you dinner,” Eli reiterated.

“I’d rather have the money,” Rush replied. “In cash.”

Eli sighed and pulled out his wallet. “Okay, but for this? You get the dirt cheap diner, not the moderately cheap Indian place.”

Rush pocketed the proffered money and looked at Eli, undecided.

“You’re turning trigonometric tricks for cash,” Eli said. “You’re not going to say no to diner food.”

“No,” Rush replied. “I suppose I’m not.”

“Sweet,” Eli said, managing to do a passable job at suppressing a grin.

The diner was an unpretentious affair with laminated menus and red synthetic material covering cushioned booths. At five o’clock in the evening, the place was nearly deserted. Light entered, coming bright and angled through the windows as the sun began its decent into the west.

He tried to select a meal with the highest ratio of calories per dollar that wasn’t likely to also be entirely atrocious. He had absolutely no memory of preference for anything, so in the end, after an amount of deliberation that Eli seemed to find vaguely perplexing he had settled on the ‘club sandwich,’ which was, certainly, the best decision he could ever remember making because—

“Um, you are attacking that thing like you haven’t eaten in days,” Eli said, sounding partially impressed, partially uncomfortable.

Rush raised his eyebrows and made a concerted effort to slow down his consumption of the disturbingly delicious sandwich he was currently eating.

Eli was making considerably more sedate progress on his fried ravioli. “You have been eating, right?”

“Yes,” Rush said, defensively, putting down his sandwich and taking a sip of water.

Eli did not look convinced. He glanced around the mostly-empty diner. “Are you actually homeless? 

Am I accidentally feeding a homeless person right now? Because if so, I need to tell my mom about this—it will make her so happy. She serves the underserved.”

“No,” Rush said.

“Is that no you’re not homeless, or no I can’t tell my mom.”

“How old are you?” Rush asked.

Eli ignored his question, possibly out of conversational revenge. “You realize that, like, the chair of MIT’s Math Department would probably cry out of pure happiness if you showed up and asked to sleep on his couch right now? Right after he called the head of Caltech’s math department to brag about it.”

“I’m not who you think I am,” Rush said. “My name,” he said pointedly, “is Dave.”

“Yeah, and my name is HAL 9000.” Eli leaned forward over his plate of fried ravioli, squinting in the merciless brightness of the diner. “Get out of here, man, I watched all your interviews, plus the NOVA special where you talked to Neil deGrasse Tyson for, like, three minutes and you looked like you were actively being knifed in the back by someone off screen the entire time.”

Rush tried to remember any such interview. Unsurprisingly, he was unsuccessful.

“Are you on the run from the Air Force?” Eli asked, in what was likely intended as a quiet whisper, but in actuality was more of an exuberant, loud whisper.

Rush took a deliberate bite of his sandwich. It was still extremely delicious.

Eli dipped a piece of fried ravioli in its accompanying sauce and raised his eyebrows.

Rush said nothing.

“Or,” Eli said, “it’s cool. No need to tell me. You can just go back to trying to get teenagers to pay you to do their math homework. I’m sure you’ve got a whole handful of untapped resources you’re playing close to the chest.”

“Yes,” Rush said, in a whisper that was almost as quiet as it was acidic. “I’m on the run from the Air Force.”

“Why?” Eli mouthed, nearly silently.

He, of course, had no idea. He took another bite of his sandwich.

“Did you find out something you weren’t supposed to know? And you’re trying to do some kind of low-fi whistleblowing via your previous academic connections?”

Rush raised his eyebrows and took a sip of water.

“Are they trying to kill you? Is your brain too subversive to live?”

He tilted his head equivocally and finished his sandwich.

“Did you escape from them? Were they making you work against your will? Are they chasing you?” Eli looked uncomfortably around the interior of the diner.

Rush started on his chips.

“You’re just as much of a jerk in real life as you are in your interviews,” Eli whispered. “Did you know that?”

“No,” Rush said, smirking. “I didnae.”

Eli looked at him, speared another piece of ravioli, and chewed it in silent contemplation. “If you don’t want my help,” Eli said, “that’s fine. I’ve got plenty on my plate what with the two-timing Golden Tree with Growing Tree, not to mention the prep for the Astria Porta expansion pack, which is happening in something like, two weeks, so—“

Again—the image of a dark arch, a blue light, and the angular velocity of a rotating combination lock.

“—if you don’t want my help, then that’s fine with me. But this whole thing is just—too cinematically awesome for me to pass up without at least extending the offer. So, if you don’t need anything, just, stop poaching my trig students and we’ll go our separate ways.”

“How old are you?” Rush asked pointedly.

“Old enough to know that you won’t be able to hang out in the public library for too much longer without attracting attention. Smart enough to follow your P=NP proof and have a mathcrush on it. With it enough to know better than to ask you about the swag you’ve got glued to your head, which, in case you were wondering, is super obvious under lighting conditions like this. Are you seriously questioning my qualifications right now?” Eli asked. “You’ve been wearing the same clothes for at least three days and whoring out your trig for cash. And it shows.”

Rush swept his eyes over their utterly innocuous surroundings and then looked at Eli. The child had a point. He spent a moment trying to perform a cost/benefit analysis on involving a young person of above average intelligence and below average ambition in his current predicament, but, as he had no idea how serious his current predicament actually was, it was difficult to say what the potential costs to Eli Wallace might be.

“How old are you?” Rush asked. Again.

“Ohhhhh, I get it. Okay. Yes. I’m twenty-three,” Eli said. “Legally an adult and a certified superfan of mathematical rockstars, especially those that indirectly screw the patriarchy. So come on man. Spill.”

Rush swept a hand through his hair.

“You know you want to,” Eli said.

“I have,” Rush admitted, “no personal memories that extend before dawn three days ago, when I woke up on the banks of what I now know to be the Charles River.”

Eli stared at him.

Rush stared back.

“No really,” Eli said.

Rush said nothing.

“Seriously.” Eli said. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Rush confirmed.

“You’re messing with me.”

“I’m not.”

“But you can still do math.”

“I can still do maths,” Rush agreed, “I can still speak English. I can still read your t-shirt, which I despise, by the way.”

“Hey,” Eli said, pointing at the shirt. “This is the sign of our people. What mathematician despises pi? Oh. Duh. Hilarious. But, we digress. Look, you have to admit, this seems a little bit suspect, right? Biologically, I mean. Even presuming unlimited technological prowess how would anyone even go about achieving a demi-memory wipe that leaves skillsets intact but eliminates personal memories?”

Rush opened a hand and gestured vaguely at his right temple.

“Your swag is not your swag?” Eli asked.

“I’m no’ sure,” Rush replied.

“This is messed up,” Eli said.

“I’m aware.”

“How’s it attached? Have you taken it off?”

“I don’ know how it’s attached. The mechanism by which it affixes itself to the skin is concealed. When I tried removing it—“ he gestured vaguely at his temple and grimaced. “Something happened.”

“What kind of something?” Eli asked.

“Something—alarming,” Rush replied.

“‘Alarming’ can mean a lot of stuff,” Eli said, trailing off as one of the waitresses walked past them in a perfumed haze of blue and yellow.

“I heard a continuous tone,” Rush said, when she had passed. “A tone that I don’t believe was actually audible.”

“Okay,” Eli said, “on the zero to ten scale of ‘alarming’ where zero is a Disney princess movie—and ten is the drill and mirror scene from the movie Pi, I’m going to rate that about a three.”

“It was subjectively loud,” Rush said, “extremely disruptive, and unmistakably progressive. It vanished when I reapplied the devices.”

“Eh maybe that gets you to a four,’ Eli said. “Is it a reproducible effect?”

“I haven’t tried removing them since,” Rush said. “It was not a pleasant experience.”

“Huh,” Eli said, spearing another piece of fried ravioli, and staring into the sunlit air somewhere above Rush’s head. “Well, if we’re gonna do this, Dave, we’re gonna do it up right.”

“Meaning what?” Rush asked.

Eli raised his eyebrows in good-natured promise. “Well, as they say at Golden Tree Tutoring: Where Teaching Meets Learning, it’s important to have short term, intermediate term, and long term goals.”

“I need to find out what was done to me,” Rush said, “and who did it.”

“Yeah,” Eli said. “But seeing as you’re not likely to figure that out entirely on your own and without resources? You’re going to need to stop looking quite so much like the guy who made ‘polynomial time’ a household word. Two words. Phrase. Whatever. Someone’s going to recognize you. Maybe someone already has. Besides me.”

Rush pressed two fingers against the space between his eyebrows. “What do you suggest?” he asked.

After a bus ride and a drugstore trip, Rush stood shirtless in the pink-tiled, second-floor bathroom of the Wallace household, feeling extremely out of place beneath the bright warmth of incandescent lights. He wished he could remember the rest of his life, but even without that ability, he was fair certain that this was atypical.

“Okay,” Eli said, his eyebrows coming together as he read the fine print on the box he was holding. “We can do this. I mean, girls do it all the time. We can definitely do it.”

“You’re no’ a normal child,” Rush said.

“As I stated, I am not a ‘child’. I am twenty-three,” Eli replied, without looking up. “Furthermore, I bought you dinner and your ticket to anonymity so maybe you shouldn’t be insulting me.” He shook the box he was holding in a meaningful way in Rush’s general direction.

Rush wasn’t uniformly opposed to Eli’s plan, and didn’t particularly care to alienate his best hope of creating some kind of relatively sustainable living situation for himself while he worked out what he was going to do. Nevertheless, surrounded by the reality of the Wallace household, he felt nebulously guilty about drawing the young man into the situation in which he found himself, which, if not overtly dangerous at the precise moment, was certainly ill-defined with unambiguously sinister overtones.

“Have you done anything like this before?” Rush asked.

“Technically? No,” Eli said, staring at the box he held. “But it’s not exactly higher level math.”

“What I mean,” Rush clarified, crossing his arms over his chest, “is have you ever—“  He wasn’t sure exactly how to put what he wanted to say, and he cast his gaze around the room looking for inspiration or escape. He found himself instead looking at a picture of what was likely Eli, approximately age one, splashing happily in the kitchen sink, holding some kind of plastic toy. He thought it might be a duck. Possibly, a dragon. Either way, this did nothing for his state of mind.

“Evaded the Air Force?” Eli suggested. “Broken the law? Screwed the patriarchy?”

“This is a terrible idea,” Rush said, still looking at the picture. “I should go.”

“Well, your shirt is in my mom’s washing machine—I don’t really do the laundry, so we’ll see how that goes. The point is, you can’t go yet, so we might as well forge ahead.”

“You don’t do laundry? I only have one shirt.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Okay, it says you’re supposed to get your hair wet,” Eli said, opening the box.  “So, stick your head in the shower. I’m presuming you can get your technoswag wet? Let’s cross our fingers.”

“For all you know, I could be extremely dangerous,” Rush said, as he flipped on the shower and began the process of soaking his hair, gingerly at first, and then with increasing authority as there was no indication that water interfered with the devices affixed to his temples. “I could be a criminal of some kind.”

“I could take you in a fight,” Eli said, pulling two bottles out of the box he held. “For sure. Okay. Hair wet? Check.”

“I sincerely doubt tha’ you could ‘take me’ in a fight.”

“I don’t. Step two, it says we’re supposed to combine bottles A and B and shake.” Eli snapped the top off bottle A, and a strong chemical smell filled the room.

“Ugh,” Rush said, his eyes burning. “It must have occurred to you that I could get you into trouble by proxy.”

“Yeah, well, you know. YOLO.”  Eli snapped the top off bottle B, squirted the contents of bottle A into bottle B, and then shook bottle B vigorously.

“What?” Rush asked.

“You’re going to need to put this stuff in your hair,” Eli said.

Rush looked uncertainly at the bottle Eli was holding.

“It worked for the lady in Twelve Monkeys,” Eli said. “Kind of.”

“Is that a film?” Rush asked.

“It makes sense,” Eli snapped back. “Black is going to hide your cyborg accessories much better. Plus, it will make you look younger.”

“Charming,” Rush said, swiping the bottle out of Eli’s hand with a dark look.

“And less like yourself,” Eli continued, “which is the whole point. I wish we could give you a new haircut, but you’re gonna need to grow it out more to hide your technoswag.”

“I’m so glad that my current difficulties are a vehicle for you to play out your adolescent fantasies.”

“You think I fantasize about helping impolite Scottish guys with their hair while my mom is working the night shift? Maybe if you were younger. Maybe if you were a hot girl. Maybe if you were at least a hot alien, or a hot cyborg. Either way. I’m not that picky.”

“You live with your mother?” Rush asked, in the midst of soaking his hair with ‘Brutal Black’ dye.

“You think a college drop out could afford this place?” Eli shot back. “Put this on.” He passed Rush a plastic cap. “And leave it for five to thirty minutes, depending on desired results. I’m gonna say thirty.”

Rush shoved his hair up inside the cap, trying to avoid getting too much of the chemical on the devices attached to both temples.

“Can I look?” Eli asked.

“You can look,” Rush replied, tilting his head, squinting at the row of light bulbs above the mirror.

Eli stepped in and studied the device for a moment before he said, “there’s tape on there.”

“Yes,” Rush said.  “The tape is obscuring an indicator light.”

“Ghetto hack-ulous,” Eli said. “Also? I can’t believe you just stuck your hair in the shower. Can I take the tape off? I’ve got more. We can replace it. We definitely should replace it. I mean, it’s wet now.”

“I’ll do it,” Rush replied, glancing at the mirror and carefully peeling back the small square of tape.

“Holy crap,” Eli murmured, as the blue-white light was revealed. “Have you gotten a good look at the interior of this thing?”

“No,” Rush said. “D’you see anything notable?”

“You could say that,” Eli replied. “I can’t be entirely certain without opening the casing, but I don’t think that’s purely an indicator light. I think you might have a crystal-based chip in there.”

Rush angled his head try to see into the thing via the wall-mounted mirror, but couldn’t get a good view. Eli passed him a gold-rimmed hand mirror. He angled it, using both mirrors to get a clearer view of the thing affixed to his head. Within the device, only partially visible, were several small crystals, with delicate tendrils of wire arcing between them.

“Maybe you are an alien,” Eli said.

“I sincerely doubt it.”

“Okay, but when I see crystal-based tech, I think of one thing.”

“Extraterrestrial life?” Rush said absently, “How disappointing.”

“Quantum computing,” Eli snapped. “But that doesn’t look like anything I’ve either seen or read about. Practical, crystal-based quantum computing is a long way away. Hence? Aliens.”

“Do a lot of reading abou’ quantum computing, do you?” Rush asked.

“Hey. You don’t know me, Scottish Guy. You don’t even know yourself. You spent fifteen minutes staring at the menu in the diner, clearly trying to remember what the hell you like to eat and coming up blank.”

“Touché,” Rush replied, still studying the crystal array. “But even if these devices are quantum in nature, I certainly don’t think that the next logical step is that they’re extraterrestrial in origin.”

“Yeah yeah,” Eli said. “A guy can dream though, am I right?”

“I advise you to dream more sensibly.”

“This is about the least sensible thing that’s ever happened to me,” Eli said, “but speaking of rational plans, and us having them—”

“No one was speaking of that. You are to be as uninvolved in this as possible,” Rush said.

“Dude, you let me buy you boxed hair dye,” Eli said. “You’re standing in my bathroom with your shirt off.”

“I only have one shirt.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever. The point is? I’m already at this party. The bromance is happening. So. Back to the rational plans. If you want to figure out what the heck these things attached to your head are doing? We’re going to need more equipment than a pair of mirrors. And unless you have a secret plan regarding how you’re going to get access to that equipment, I think maybe you could benefit from knowing a guy who has friends that go to MIT.”

Rush set the hand mirror on the countertop and said nothing.

“You need to know what kind of signal that thing is putting out,” Eli said. “I say ‘what kind’ and not ‘whether,’ because it’s attached to your head and you have some kind of weird, selective amnesia. Which seems ominous. Ominous and also actively, currently bad.”

Rush grimaced.

“So unless you want to call up the Air Force hotline for lost experimental subjects, which I do not recommend, or find one of your comp sci groupies at Harvard or MIT and pray they won’t ask too many questions or secretly call the federal government, then you’re going to have to trust me. And I am awesome. Just so you know.”

“You’re an overgrown child,” Rush, already defeated.

“I’m sure everyone seems like a child to a superior, pretentious misanthrope,” Eli replied.

Rush smiled faintly. “Well, you’ve a point there.”

After half an hour of hair dyeing and speculation about how to best interrogate one of the devices without breaking it, or, ideally, removing it, Rush showered in the upstairs bathroom of the Wallace household, trying not to get the remnants of any black hair dye on the towels. 

This was, alas, impossible.

He re-dressed in his jeans and temporarily donned the white ‘Cambridge Junior High Math Team: Gettin’ Trig-y with It!’ T-shirt that Eli had leant him while his own shirt was being dried.

He combed his fingers through his now-black hair, put on his glasses, and went in search of Eli. 

Passing along the quiet hallway, he couldn’t help but notice the clustering of pictures of the boy and the woman Rush assumed must be his mother. He paused directly in front of a picture of Eli, much younger, in the center of a cluster of intolerably small children, holding some kind of trophy, which, based on the look of the bespectacled group upon which it had been bestowed, was likely for mathematics, chess, or something equally cerebral.

They did not look like a cricket team, he was fair sure on that point.

Hesitating in front of the photo, Rush pulled out his wallet and looked again at the business card of Colonel David Telford. He replaced the card and repocketed the wallet.

Rob,” he heard Eli say, from a not-too distant room. “You just triggered a respawn. Yes. Yes. When you opened that canopic jar. God. Yeah? Well, wrong jar, asshole.”

Rush rolled his eyes and started forward. He rounded the doorway to see Eli in the midst of what was clearly his bedroom, seated in front of a computer, the screen before him lit up in a high resolution rendering of crisp silver-blue walls and rooms, overlaid with—

“Yes you did,” Eli insisted, into a headset. “And are you set to bind on pickup you ass? That Lens of Illumination is mine. Don’t touch it.” 

—overlaid with angular symbols. Symbols that he could read but that were not English.



Experience Points.

Hit Points.

Knowing that he needed to search for a name, he found it. It came as easily to him as the word “English” had, once he realized that the symbols he had seen in Eli’s problem and in ‘J Shep’s’ picture were connected—that they were both fractured, decontextualized, stylized fragments of what was, in fact, a language. 

A language called ‘Ancient’.

He rand a hand through his damp hair and, deeply unsettled, stepped back a pace, unable to ask any of the thousands of follow-up questions that had already begun to press against his thoughts. “Eli,” he said.

“You done?” Eli replied, without looking at him, “because I wanted to ask you about—”

“Eli,” Rush repeated. “Where did you get that game?”

Something in his tone made Eli say, “be right back guys,” into his headset and freeze the display before turning to look at him.

“Where?” Rush repeated.

“Um, the normal place?” Eli said, his eyebrows coming together, his words at half tempo. “It goes with a popular franchise. Wormhole X-treme? Maybe you’ve heard of it. Though I’m not sure whether you’d remember if you had? I still don’t get this whole ‘I remember math and how to talk but not my life’ thing you have going. Anyway, the franchise, in general, is incredibly lame. Except for this one character who’s the ambassador of nerds everywhere and is basically a socially awkward, space-faring Indiana Jones mixed with like, I don’t know, some kind of martyr out of some religious tradition.  He always dies and never gets the ladies. Anyway though, the game? The game is kick ass. Why do you ask?”

“I can read that,” Rush said, pointing at a glowing block of text, emblazoned onto a futuristic looking silver wall that had been frozen in the center of Eli’s screen.

“What do you mean,” Eli said slowly, “you can read it.”

“I mean,” Rush replied, anxiety tightening up the lapses in his diction that no amount of concentration seemed to be able to reliably fix, “that it’s written in a language I can read.”

“What does it say, then?” Eli replied, in skeptical challenge, pulling a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket.

“It says, ‘if you would open a cyphered lock, you must demonstrate the skill to use that which it conceals. Take the lexicon to the ‘Temple of Darkness’ and—

“Whoa,” Eli said, holding up a hand, his eyes on his own scrawled paragraph as he scrambled for a pen. “Whoa. Take the lexicon where now?”

“The ‘Temple of Darkness.’  At which point you should ‘examine it beneath the only light that that will shine in the shadow of the false god’. The grammar in this thing is atrocious, by the way.”

“Temple? Are you sure it’s not Tower? Also, how are you getting ‘examine’ out of the verb—ah, that’s probably decorare? I mean, it’s a Latin variant, but it’s also definitely not Latin, so—”

“Eli,” Rush snapped. “I feel that you are missing the salient point here.”

“Right,” Eli said, putting down his pen. “So—yeah. You can read this how?”

Rush opened his hands.

“You must play,” Eli said. “Or. You must have played, before you had your Air Force run-in. That’s probably the best explanation. You must have played and found the Lexicon and cracked it and studied it to the point of relative fluency? Or you must be involved in game development.”

“Do I seem like the kind of person who would waste his time in any such manner?” Rush asked.

“It’s a pretty cerebral game,” Eli said, “but, well, when you put it like that, not really. But the other, far more awesome, explanation is that you picked this language up somewhere else, which, can I just say as an aside? Is unbelievably cool. Also, my motivation to win this game has only increased if such a thing is possible.”

“What is the name of this language, in the game?”

“Promethean,” Eli said. “Does that match what’s going on in your brain?”

“No,” Rush said.

“What do you think it should be called?”

“I’m not sure I should say,” Rush replied, controlling the desire to pace the short available stretch of floorspace in front of Eli’s closet.

“I can only help you to the extent that you trust me,” the young man said.

Rush looked at him skeptically.

“Dude. I am one of the highest ranked Astria Porta players. Ever. When it comes to this game, I am an international baller. And you happen to speak a language that was just revealed as part of a lexicon quest that’s a pre-req for one of the most anticipated expansion packs of the decade? I mean, I like to think that’s more than coincidence.”

“Yes,” Rush suggested dryly. “Maybe you’re having a psychotic break.”

“Like Fight Club,” Eli replied, “though I didn’t picture my alter ego as being some maladjusted Scottish guy. But whatever. Sounds awesome. I’m in. Pull up a chair, man, and let’s play this game to uncover more fun facets of your secret alien identity until my mom comes home and I have kick you out.”

“This does not reassure me that you’re serious,” Rush said dryly. “In any way. About any of this.”

“Well,” Eli said, “if I don’t, then this should.” He pointed at the computer screen, where glowing blue letters stood out in bright relief against a detailed silver wall. “You’ve made more progress toward figuring out what happened to you, and toward not starving to death in the six hours you’ve spent with me than you did over days on your own, where pretty much all you managed to do was google yourself, evade the Air Force, and steal my trigonometry students.”

This was, unfortunately, true.

“Ancient,” Rush said, running a hand through his drying hair. “It’s called Ancient.”

“Coolness,” Eli said. 

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