Mathématique: Chapter 48
Mid-September in Harvard Square was a terrible time to embark on a career as an aspiring, amnestic, hipster barista.
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.
The afternoon sun was bright, reflecting mercilessly off windows, passing cars, computer screens, and the polished metal surfaces of refrigerators and coffee machines. Something inane and low-fi was playing overhead on invisible speakers. Rush shifted his grip on the cardboard cup he was holding as he burned his hand on the figuratively but not yet literally bloody milk frother for the fourth time that week. He shook his hand a few times in fluid vexation.
Mid-September in Harvard Square was a terrible time to embark on a career as an aspiring, amnestic, hipster barista.
Fortunately, since he couldn’t remember his life, he couldn’t be absolutely certain that being verbally harassed for imperfectly patterned latte art was a personal low. He suspected though, given he’d been the recipient of a Fields Medal and had solved a Millennium Prize problem, that this was, psychologically speaking, at least a local minimum in the function of his existence.
Then again, he thought, as he considered the extremely acceptable rosetta he currently pouring, he was much improved in the latte art department, even over the course of four days of employment at Rational Grounds, ostensibly a coffee shop but, in actuality, some kind of post-modern salon in the intellectual tradition of Denis Diderot, where the American Intelligentsia came to drink coffee and pretend to be socialists.
They were not actually socialists.
“One straight cappuccino, one Engels Espresso,” Jennifer called in his direction.
Rush couldn’t say that he was entirely committed to his incipient career in the coffee industry. However, as Eli had pointed out, winter in Boston was not a thing that should be taken lightly, especially by someone who was, in the technical sense of the word, currently homeless if one did not count the irregular nights he passed at the Wallace household.
He measured out an ounce of espresso grounds, emptied the grounds into the espresso machine, and then tamped them down.
Rush had vacillated for the span of a week before taking material steps toward creating a semi-sustainable existence for himself. On multiple occasions he had nearly convinced himself that it would be a reasonable course of action to simply call the Air Force, but when faced with the reality of doing so, he’d never been able to go through with it, as there was a low, but non-zero possibility that turning himself over to the United States military might result in an outcome that was extremely unfortunate. For him. And, possibly, for Eli.
He finished the ‘Engles’ Espresso with a drop of bitters and a twist of orange rind, and started on the cappuccino.
As it seemed that a trip to the undergraduate E&M lab space at MIT was likely to be shortly in the offing, and as it also seemed that such a trip had the prospect of revealing at least some information about the devices attached to his head, he had decided to continue to try his luck in Cambridge. This meant that he needed a job so that he could acquire an apartment before the temperatures dropped to the point that he would, eventually, freeze to death from exposure.
Such an outcome would be unfortunate.
He measured out a second ounce of espresso, loaded it into the machine, and then narrowed his eyes at the steam wand.
It had been Eli who had suggested this particular place, because of its reputation for being willing to pay part-time employees in cash and its distinctly literary as opposed to quantitative leanings, making it less likely that he’d be recognized. The coffee shop was winningly pretentious, offering ‘classic’ forms of caffeine-laced beverages along with edgier equivalents named for dead authors and philosophers, whose memorable quotes were chalked on the walls for the perusal of the bored and bookless.
He frothed the milk, pulled the espresso, let it go for half a minute, and then poured the foamed milk over the espresso shot in an entirely decent rosetta pattern.
“Straight iced coffee,” Jennifer said.
He finished pouring the thing and looked critically at the cappuccino. Not bad.
“Nice shirt.” A familiar voice caused him to look up. Eli was standing at the counter. He pulled down his shades. “Though, probably not the best choice for a guy in the service profession.”
Rush shot him a look over the tops of his glasses as he handed the cappuccino he had just crafted to some twenty-something who clearly had no interest in latte art. He then reflexively assessed his own, recently-acquired, black T-shirt upon which the word ‘no’ was printed in white, sans-serif font.
He shrugged. “I found it at a thrift store.”
“Strong work. Now you just need skinny jeans, headphones, a macbook air, and your journey towards the Dark Side will be complete.” Eli said, no doubt dramatically mimicking a film that Rush hadn’t seen.
“Then I’ll need a second job,” Rush replied, pulling a plastic cup from a stack of the things behind the counter.
“In this town? We can find you free skinny jeans. For sure. You know there’s a clothing co-op table on the other side of the square, next to the book exchange table? Maybe—”
“Fascinating,” Rush said, filling the cup with ice.
“Is that for my coffee?” Eli asked. “Because I could use less ice.”
Rush shot him a pointed look. “I am working,” he said. “You are interfering. Shouldn’t you be doing something useful? Tutoring shiftless young people? Reapplying to university?”
“I got you this job,” Eli said. “Basically. There’s no need to insult my life choices.”
“Kafkaesque Cappuccino,” Jennifer said, favoring him with a pointed look and an irked swish of her hair.
“You did not get me this job,” Rush replied, lowering his voice. He discarded a portion of the ice that Eli found so objectionable, and then opened a fridge, pulled out the obscenely expensive drip coffee, and poured it into the plastic cup.
“I was the one who told you to pretend you were an aspiring novelist,” Eli whispered, eyeing possibly-Jennifer with equal parts interest and fear. “They love that kind of thing here. Though, if you want to keep up appearances, you should probably stop chalking the walls with Sagan quotes.”
“Carl Sagan wrote a novel,” Rush said pointedly.
“I pay you for coffee, not for sass,” Eli replied.
“The sass comes gratis when you fail to tip,” Rush said, snapping a lid onto Eli’s coffee.
“Touché, Dave. Too freakin’ shay.”
“Is there a reason you’re here?”
“My mom’s working the midnight to eight AM shift, which means it’s alien game night.”
“Spectacular,” Rush replied.
“See you then?” Eli said.
“Yes yes,” Rush replied, trying to remember what differentiated the ‘Kafkaesque Cappuccino’ from the ‘Classic Cappuccino’ and deciding to hell with it. He began adding some Kahlua to the thing, realized that was a terrible idea from a liability standpoint, aborted mid pour, and added a shot of chocolate instead. Anyone who ordered a ‘Kafkaesque Cappuccino’ deserved some unpredictability in his or her beverage. That, or an insect. Because he was a man of principle. And literary justice. By which he meant he was a man that did justice to literature. With beverage composition and latte art.
Apparently. Maybe. Right now he was.
He sighed, shook his hair out of his eyes, and glanced up at the chalked menu on the wall behind him as a refresher on what exactly was in a ‘Kafkaesque Cappuccino’. The board read: cinnamon, chocolate, bureaucratic despair. Well. Who was he to say what bureaucratic despair tasted like? Probably, it tasted something like half a shot of Kahlua.
He sighed. He needed to get his old life back. Unfortunately, as that was indisputably a “long-term goal” as Eli had put it, right now he would settle for making enough money that he could start renting an apartment when the ground began freezing over at night.
He could call the Air Force at any time.
Rush spent the majority of his late-night bus ride contemplating the bright duplication of the vehicle’s illuminated interior, reflected in paned glass laid over rushing cityscape, changeable and aphotic.
Examining his own reflection felt like examining a stranger, and made him feel both uncomfortable and anticipatory, as if his doppelgänger might do something unexpected and outside his control. Despite the fascination and unease that considering his own image held for him, he found it difficult not to fall asleep, as he was exhausted; difficult not to touch the things attached to his head, as he was something of a masochist—scratch that, in his case schadenfreudist was certainly the more appropriate term; and difficult to resist pulling out his wallet to examine the drawing by J Shep as he’d become insatiably curious about the thing.
At night, he dreamed of a city on a sea. He dreamed of writing on glass with a light pen in a room full of scientists. In his dreams, always, he could feel the devices at his temples in a way he couldn’t while awake. They bothered him.
Just last night, he’d been sitting in a silver-gilt window, watching the sea and sky, scribbling on a pad of paper with the word “classfied” stamped across the top. But his hands hadn’t been his own, and his handwriting had matched the J Shep drawing.
Sighing, he pulled out his wallet, and looked again at the paper.
As soon as Rush had realized that the stylized drawing was accompanied by Ancient, he’d translated it the same night in the privacy of the pink and white tiled second floor bathroom of the Wallace household.
A word in the leftmost box said ‘you.’ An arrow connected that box to the next, in which there was a phonetic spelling of the English word for ‘server.’ The following arrow was labeled with the word ‘dialing’ and cut through a circle to point at a castle shape box labeled, ‘City of Awesome.’ The final box said, ‘me’.”
Beneath the drawing was a prefix that looked like it might belong in an SMTP header, followed by a numeric code. At the very bottom was written, “so call me maybe,” in Ancient.
The thing could be a coded message, meant to be found by him in his current state, but he doubted that. There was something both cavalier and intimate in the blocky lines of the castle-like ‘city.’ It looked more like an attempt to flirt with him that he had kept, because it was interesting, or because J Shep had meant something to him, or because he had planned to use the information contained in the thing.
The latter possibility seemed the most likely.
Contacting J Shep was risky. He’d have to do it in such a way that it couldn’t be easily traced, meaning he’d need to make use of proxy servers and he’d have to coordinate PGP encryption with this J Shep before any actual information was exchanged. Even that might not be sufficient. For all he knew, J Shep could be another Air Force colonel, with the resources and backing of the military at his disposal. But—he doubted it.
He didn’t really see an Air Force colonel as being the type to draw and annotate a witty, stylized representation of SMTP Authentication and use that as a vehicle for flirting.
He rolled his eyes at himself, and replaced the drawing in his wallet.
He’d been wandering around without a clear picture of who he was for three weeks, without contact or incident. Unless he was part of some social experiment in selective amnesia, which seemed like a disappointingly short-sighted waste of his intellectual resources, it seemed that he’d been left on his own. Nothing was going to reveal itself to resolve his situation. It was time, therefore, to make some material progress.
J Shep’s note, and the things attached to his head seemed likely starting points.
Rush stepped off the bus into the warm night air. Already he’d noticed the days getting shorter. He estimated he had maybe a week or so before he’d need to make a serious effort to find a relatively permanent housing solution; one that didn’t involve irregularly sleeping on Eli’s mother’s couch and making use of a disposable razor every three days or so.
He knocked quietly on Eli’s front door. Eli opened the thing, wearing a blue T-shirt that said, ’FICTIONAL CHARACTER,’ in bold white lettering.
“Nice shirt,” Rush said.
“Can you teach me how to do that?” Eli asked, as he swung the door wide.
“Turn a compliment into an insult without employing overt sarcasm.”
“Yes,” Rush said. “Make coffee for people for sixteen hours straight and then say anything. Anything at all, and the effect you’re looking for will manifest without effort.”
“Sixteen hours?” Eli said. “Sounds boring.”
“Lethally,” Rush confirmed, following him inside, toward the brightly lit kitchen.
“I ordered pizza,” Eli said. “Pineapple and pepperoni.”
“Ah,” Rush said, going for cavalier rather than ravenous. “How’s the—“ he waved a hand. “Temple of Darkness these days?”
“Ugh,” Eli said. “You sound like my mom when she’s trying to engage with the young people.”
Rush shrugged. “Away an’ play in traffic,” he offered, pulling a piece of mostly cold pizza out of the box on the kitchen table.
“There you go,” Eli said. “Be who you are, man. Approximately. Well, do your best. Speaking of which, figure anything else out about yourself?” he asked, dropping into a chair.
“I’m surprisingly well-read for a mathematician,” Rush said, “I have an evolving gift for latte art, I know more than I expected about coffee, and I do not speak Spanish.”
“Well,” Eli said. “No one’s perfect.”
“I need to send an email,” Rush said.
“To whom?” Eli asked guardedly.
Instead of answering, Rush pulled J Shep’s illustration out of his wallet and passed it over to Eli.
Eli studied it for a moment, while Rush set to work consuming the pizza in front of him. He hadn’t eaten since the previous night, when he’d taken some day-old muffins after Rational Grounds had closed.
“I want to meet this guy,” Eli said, absently. “‘Call me maybe?’ In Promethean? What a complete baller. But, like, in a cute way.”
“What makes you think J Shep is a ‘guy’?” Rush asked.
“Well, if this guy is a chick then I definitely want to meet him,” Eli said. “It just looks like a dude’s handwriting. I could be wrong. Seriously though, you’ve had this in your wallet the whole time?”
“Yes,” Rush said.
“And it just occurred to you to show this to me now?” Eli said.
“I wasn’t planning on showing it to you until I had decided to act on the information it contains,” Rush said. He took another bite of pizza.
“Yeah,” Eli said, pulling out the word, still studying the drawing. “Look, as much as this artwork appeals to my inner nerd, I’m not sure I like the idea of you emailing this J Shep character. I mean, who is this guy? Can he be trusted? Is he as adorable as his—” Eli broke off abruptly, still staring at the paper.
Rush continued eating his pizza, waiting for the inevitable flow of partially coherent words that was, no doubt, in the offing.
“Wait. Wait wait wait wait wait. This says ‘dialing’. It says ‘dialing’ and then there’s an arrow through a circle. Oh man.” Eli paused. “You don’t think—I mean, you don’t think that—” He looked up at Rush.
Rush raised his eyebrows and took another bite of pizza.
“What if the portae are real,” Eli whispered. “Even if they’re not physically real, they could represent, in the game—I mean, in real life? Maybe people can pass through them, maybe they can’t, either way, even if it was just—”
“Eli,” Rush said. “Please make an effort to communicate entire thoughts.”
A rhetorician, the lad was not, but Rush could already see the point his confused monologue was converging on. He didn’t like it.
“What if you’re not the alien,” Eli whispered, “but this ‘J Shep’ character is? This circle? Cut by this arrow that says ‘dialing’? That’s a clear reference to Astria Porta. You have to dial the portals. In the game you do. What if there’s a real world equivalent? What if J Shep is giving you the ability to tag your message for, like, the stars or something?”
“It’s a stylized SMTP header, Eli,” Rush said, unable to hide his uncertainty. The association linking the words ‘astria porta’ with a dark, circular, rotating arch were just as strong as any other connection present in his unmoored mind.
And then, of course, there were the dreams of a silver city, sitting on a sea.
“Yeah dude, which tags it to a server that dials the freaking ‘City of Awesome’. I take back everything I said. We’re so doing this. It’s going to be worth it. To the max. Also? I vote we start calling this guy J’Shep. Like a Vulcan.”
“No,” Rush said.
“J’Shep,” Eli said, with evident relish. “You’re gonna need a kickass VPN. And you’re going to need some sort of encryption protocol that—”
Rush raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah—so this is kind of like me explaining freedom to George Washington, isn’t it.”
“I am a cryptographer,” Rush said.
“More like the cryptographer,” Eli muttered.
“If you insist,” Rush replied, with an open hand and fluid shrug.
“And so modest,” Eli said.
“I have discovered that modesty is not one of my strengths,” Rush replied, finishing his current slice of pizza and eyeing the next.
“No,” Eli said, passing J Shep’s note back to him. “Really?”
“The question is,” Rush said, abandoning his dinner long enough to re-pocket the note, “what am I going to say to this J Shep person.”
“Duh,” Eli said. “I’ll tell you exactly what you say. You say: ‘Hey. I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my PGP key, so encrypted message me, maybe’.”
“No,” Rush said. “I’m not saying that.”
“Yes you are,” Eli said. “It’s perfect. What the heck are you going to say that’s better? ‘I have the highest IQ-to-income ratio on the eastern seaboard, so, tell me about myself, alien pen-pal, because I have selective amnesia’?”
Rush leveled a stare at Eli over the rims of his glasses.
“Think about it,” Eli said. “Also, that look only works if you wield power over someone’s GPA.”
“I’m sure I’ll come up with something appropriate,” Rush said.
Eli sighed. “Appropriate? Probably. Awesome? No. ‘Address to impress’, as my mom says.”
“And how has tha’ worked out for you?”
“Awesome, thanks for asking. Just awesome. Seriously though, can you tell me when you message this guy? And also what he says? I’m invested now. I also really want to know whether J’Shep is an alien.”
“I’ll keep you apprised,” Rush said.
“Sweet,” Eli said. “Also, are you eating? Like, regularly? Because I cannot help noticing that every time I feed you, you just destroy food that’s put in front of you. I think you’ve lost weight.”
“I get paid at the end of the week,” Rush said.
“Aw man,” Eli said. “In a hundred years when someone writes a biography about you, I’ll just be the inattentive Millennial that almost let the dispossessed mathematical rockstar starve during the time he was separated from his alien buddy, J’Shep.”
“If that is, indeed, your greatest accomplishment I will be extremely disappointed,” Rush replied. “Posthumously.”
“That might be the nicest thing you’ve said to me,” Eli replied, smiling faintly at him.
“Yeah well,” Rush said. “I’m sure you deserved it. Go to graduate school, why don’t you?”
“I think I have to go to undergraduate school first,” Eli said.
“Best crash ahead then,” Rush replied.
“Yeah,” Eli said, pulling out the word. “But until then, want to consult on the whole “locating the Temple of Darkness problem’? Rob is waiting.”
“Oh,” Rush said. “Well, why didn’t you say so. Rob. How could we possibly have kept Rob waiting at—”
“Rob,” Eli said archly, “just found out that he’s gonna TA for MIT’s Physics 8.01.”
“Good for him,” Rush said.
“Sister class to its spring semester counterpart, Physics 8.02,” Eli continued, “also known as Electricity and Magnetism, which is taught in the same lab space. To which he has a key.”
“I see,” Rush said, raising his eyebrows.
“And now how do you feel about Rob.”
“Significantly more interested,” Rush admitted.
“Let’s go put him in our debt,” Eli said. “Shall we? Bring the pizza.”
On the first of October, Rush stood in the center of Killian Court, his hands in his pockets, contemplating the illuminated colonnade of MIT’s Building 10. Students passed him, singly or in small clusters, ill-defined silhouettes in the darkness. Above him, the night sky was clear. He looked up at the faint and scattered stars, dimmed by ambient light pollution. The wind stripped the occasional leaf off the trees on either side of the open court. It was the back of nine in the evening.
Eli was late. He found this entirely unsurprising.
He pulled the black jacket that was a recent thrift store acquisition closer around his shoulders, adjusted his glasses, and gingerly ran his fingers over the piece of metal attached to his right temple. He hadn’t awoken next to the Charles River with expectations of any kind, either about himself, or the life he had left behind. But over the intervening weeks, expectations had coalesced out of the personality he was still mapping.
Whatever it was that had brought him from Berkeley to Cheyenne Mountain, and from Cheyenne Mountain to Massachusetts, had abandoned him on the shores of the Charles River. He hadn’t been certain that he’d been entirely yielded to the anonymity of Cambridge in the summer, and truthfully, he still couldn’t be positive that his current perceptions matched the objective truth of his situation, but, certainly, it felt like a desertion.
He hadn’t expected desertion.
What a charmingly original bastard he had turned out to be.
He rolled his eyes at himself.
Typically, one did not expect desertion. That was the point. If one expected desertion then one could take steps to mitigate the consequences, and, clearly, he had taken no steps, no steps at all, to prepare for waking up next to the Charles River without any memory of who he was. Implicit in the idea of ‘desertion,’ was the idea of betrayal.
Apparently, the rest of the world was proceeding along quite well in the absence of Nicholas Rush.
Apparently, no one he had known was concerned enough about him to raise any kind of alarm. To file a missing persons report at a minimum. He felt fairly certain that the unexplained disappearance of a relatively famous cryptographer would not go unnoticed by the popular press; he therefore concluded he had not been reported missing.
Was no one looking for him?
He had tried to discover what had happened to his wife, the concert violinist, but following her retirement from public performing two years previous, he had found no mention of her, other than a request from himself, during an interview, that the press respect her privacy. Eli had shown him the NOVA special on P=NP, and played him a selection of his NPR interviews. She wasn’t mentioned.
Perhaps it wasn’t so mysterious that he had no friends. He’d certainly had some kind of chip on his shoulder, circa eighteen months ago. Did he still have one? A phantom shoulder chip, the mental equivalent of phantom limb pain? He wasn’t sure.
Eli kept evincing an improbable willingness to help him, so he couldn’t be entirely unpleasant.
He sighed, and shook his hair back out of his eyes. This train of thought was unproductive, pointless, and more than a little depressing. It was better to focus on progressing his situation. To that end, in the past month, he’d acquired an apartment, and, if he could continue to subsist on his diet of day-old baked goods, in roughly two weeks he’d be able to afford the hardware required for his secure attempt to contact J Shep. At which point, perhaps, he would find some approximation of answers.
“Hey,” Eli said, his voice carrying over the sound of the wind in the trees. “Hey, Dave.”
Rush turned to see the young man coming toward him with a backpack slung sloppily over one shoulder, distorting the dark outline he cut against the lights lining the perimeter of Killian Court. He was accompanied by another young man, who was closer to Rush’s height and build than Eli’s. He had an instrument case slung across his back.
Presumably, this was ‘Rob’.
“Hello,” Rush replied.
“Dave, Rob. Rob, Dave,” Eli said.
He couldn’t see Rob’s features in the dark, but his grip was strong and his hand was damp. “Hey man,” Rob said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Ah,” Rush said.
“Is it true that you made the assault at Spirit Mountain solo, equipped with only the Shuriken of Sadness?” Rob asked, in a tone of overt challenge.
“Yes,” Rush said.
Eli kicked him.
“No,” Rush said.
Eli stepped on his foot.
“I don’t answer questions,” Rush said, and then, realizing he needed to do some damage control, he said, “an’ yet, I answer all of them.”
“Yeah,” Eli said, addressing Rob. “So Dave’s a little quirky. But he is a pretty sick Astria Porta player, and he did confirm that translation and so we stopped wasting our time at the Tower of Darkness. So we owe him. And he owes me. And you owe me, because the ‘Mace of the Mind’ should really be mine, so good times. After this, the tally sheet will be even.”
Rob hesitated, snapping his ID card against his palm in the near-darkness. “You guys aren’t going to be doing anything—weird, right?” Rob asked edgily, barely audible above the rising wind.
“Weird?” Eli said. “No dude. Like, what weird thing would we even do? I just need to interrogate my circuit board.” He pulled an object out of his pocket and switched on his phone light to illuminate a series of likely looking chips and wires soldered to a board. “Dave’s super handy with this kind of thing. I mean, he’s Scottish.”
“Och aye,” Rush said, in arid agreement.
Both the circuit and the Scotticism seemed to reassure Rob. “Come back to college already,” he said, handing over his ID.
“Yeah yeah,” Eli replied. “I’ll swing by your rehersal and drop off the card and key. You guys still practicing in the same space?”
“Yup,” Rob said. “We’ll go until ten or eleven. After that I’ll be back in my room.”
“This shouldn’t take more than an hour. I’ll swing by practice if we get done early. Say hi to my nemesis.”
“An hour tops,” Rob said, skeptically. “Right. Look, every fifteen minutes past midnight, you owe me fifty gold. And do not crash practice; we’re supposed to be learning a new song, not hosting Nerd-on-Nerd Power Hour. You know how he gets.”
Eli sighed. “Fine, fine” he said. “Now, hand over the key.”
Rob pulled unthreaded a heavy key from his key ring and passed it to Eli before retreating back into the darkness, presumably in the direction of ‘band practice’.
“Ugh,” Eli said, as they crossed Killian Court, the wind tearing at their hair. “As if there would be a Shuriken of Sadness. Have you even been paying attention on our game nights? He was testing you.”
“I fail to see why a ‘Shuriken of Sadness’ is any more ridiculous than a ‘Temple of Darkness’, or a ‘Lens of Illumination’, or a ‘Mace of the Mind’,” Rush said, as they climbed stone steps up to the door.
“Did I hear correctly that you have a nemesis?”
“Yes,” Eli said. He held Rob’s ID up to the RFID reader, and the locking mechanism disengaged with an audible click. “We do not speak his name. Unless we have to.”
“Why?” Rush said.
“Oh y’know. Tradition. Builds the mythos. He defeated me in an epic battle of grades. He was giving them, I was getting them; it wasn’t going well for me. Now I’m biding time before my inevitable comeback and ascendency. Speaking of mythos, nice jacket, by the way,” Eli said, squinting in the bright fluorescence that showered them. “You’re looking more like a film noir hipster barista every day.”
“You brough’ an actual circuit,” Rush said, resolutely ignoring any commentary on his steadily deteriorating and extremely limited wardrobe. “I like your initiative.”
“Well, we need something to do a test run on, man, because I’m thinking we should try not to break the only thing standing between you and your modern-day impersonation of Robert Schumann.”
A minor. A minor, with the savage descent that followed the strings and the timpani. A piano concerto.
“Witty,” Rush said absently, surprised by the number and quality of associations that the word ‘Schumann’ had dragged with it.
“I try,” Eli said, opening a door and leading the way into a brightly lit stairwell.
Vainly, Rush tried to pull anything personal at all out of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor that was making itself aurally available to him, but, as expected, he failed to extract anything from it other than facts about its structure and composition. After half a staircase, he gave up trying to wrest anything experiential from the dark wall that his thoughts vanished behind. “You know where we’re going, I take it,” Rush said, in the direction of Eli’s back.
“I did go here,” Eli said. “And I did take Intro Physics and the corresponding lab.”
“What happened?” Rush asked.
“Little balls got rolled down ramps. Periods of pendulums were precisely timed using photosensitive detectors. Springs were compressed—”
“I mean,” Rush said, leveling an over-the-glasses stare that was entirely wasted on the back of Eli’s gray sweatshirt, “why didn’t you continue with your studies.”
“I don’t pry into your personal life,” Eli said.
“Yes,” Rush replied, “you do. Constantly.”
“Well if you don’t remember it,” Eli said, “then it doesn’t count as prying.”
“It absolutely counts as prying. I’ll grant you that it may no’ count as ‘personal’.”
“Well,” Eli said, holding the door open for him as they emerged onto the second floor, “it’s going to get personal again. At some point. I mean, hopefully.” He shot Rush an uncharacteristic look of unveiled sympathy.
Rush looked away.
“Maybe tonight, a little bit,” Eli said.
“Possibly,” Rush replied.
They passed along a deserted hall, motion sensitive lights flicking on at their approach.
Eli stopped at an unassuming door opposite a bank of windows and slid Rob’s key into the lock. He turned on the light to reveal a relatively expansive room scored by rows of black, epoxy-resin topped lab benches. The walls were lined with cabinets and shelved equipment.
Eli pulled off his backpack and dumped it on the nearest bench. He unzipped it, pulled out an oversized laptop, placed it on the dark surface of the bench, and then moved to the nearest wall, visually scanning the shelved equipment.
Rush joined him, and together they began opening cabinets.
“Rob said it was a benchtop model,” Eli said, opening his third cabinet, “so it should be like, you know, roughly the size of a breadbox. How big is your typical breadbox, actually? I have no idea. My mom freezes extra bread.”
“I’d be surprised if it weighed more than fifteen kilograms,” Rush said, cocking his head, one hand on an open cabinet door as he considered a likely looking instrument in front of him that he couldn’t immediately identify.
“Jackpot,” Eli said, sliding what was, unmistakably, a spectrum analyzer out of a bottom cabinet and heading toward the nearest lab bench. “Grab my laptop, will you? There’s an outlet in the floor here.”
Rush returned to the bench near the door and picked up Eli’s oversized, underpowered, aging laptop, and his bag, which was surprisingly heavy.
Eli plugged in the instrument and flipped it on. The digital menu lit up. “Excellent,” he said. “It turns on. Now there’s gotta be a port here somewhere—I brought every adaptor I had, but I’m hoping it’s either something straightforward or the cable is already included—” he broke off, his fingers running a perimeter at the base of the device. “Sweetness,” he said, stopping at a point on the left side of the analyzer, and then pulling a cable out of his bag.
“You have a software interface that can interpret the output, I take it?” Rush asked.
“Yup, Rob hooked me up with l’software last week when I set up this raid. You may begin praising me at any point,” Eli said. “Actually, maybe you should hold off on that until we’re sure I’m not going to break your swag. Or this little guy here,” Eli said, running a thumb over the sticker that declared the maximum RF that the machine would tolerate. “So. Do you think that your swag has any DC voltage?”
“How would I know?” Rush replied, watching Eli position his test circuit.
“Well you know lots of stuff,” Eli said. “Promethean aka Ancient, trig, lots of fun stories about dead mathematicians and how they went insane that you seem to think are somehow motivating? But hopefully you see my point here, so I’m gonna say again, ‘does your swag have any DC voltage,’ and you’re gonna say—” he pulled out the final word like he’d hit some wall of infinite verbal potential.
“I have no idea,” Rush said.
Eli sighed. “Well, it was worth a shot. Whatevs, man, I brought a coaxial DC block for the input so we don’t fry the crap out of our analyzer. I figure even so, there’s a somewhere between a seventy and one hundred percent chance that we screw up the mixer in this thing before we’re done. But let’s be real. I’m sure some idiot undergrad has done the same thing with much less excuse.”
“Undoubtedly,” Rush said, his eyebrows lifting as he watched Eli set up the machine. “You seem to have learned an unexpected amount in a single semester at college.”
“I feel like you think that was a compliment,” Eli said.
“Wasn’t it?” Rush asked.
“Eh,” Eli said. “I’ve had better. I’ve even had better from you. Now. Let’s make sure this thing works.” He flipped a switch on his circuit board. “My test circuit should be transmitting right smack in the middle of the unlicensed ISM band.”
Rush shifted his gaze to examine the output of the spectrum analyzer, which was displaying a single peak in the center of the swath of frequencies that Eli had selected for his initial sweep.
“I am the master of circuits,” Eli said. “I am the Viscount of Voltage.”
“You’ll likely need to widen your sweep, when we interrogate the actual device” Rush said.
“I know. My plan was to do serial sweeps with overlapping windows. I’m guessing that your swag is going to be broadcasting in one of the restricted bandwidths, if it’s even radio. It’s almost got to be though, because I mean, it’s not like you’re going to have anything ionizing strapped to your head, right? Right. Ugh, I mean, hopefully. I’m thinking we start low frequency, go as high as we can, and hope we get lucky,” Eli said.
“Seems reasonable,” Rush replied.
They looked at each other for a moment.
“Want me to ah—” Eli began.
Rush didn’t reply, he just swept his hair out of the way and angled his head, giving Eli as much access as he could to the device at his temple without actually removing it. Eli wasted no time in peeling off the black electrical tape that they’d coated the devices with. He stuck the tape on the edge of the bench for later reapplication.
“So I know that you’re kind of on the fence about this, but I really don’t like the idea of you wearing this thing while we do this,” Eli said. “It’ll go faster, the interference will be less, and it will be less risky if you can tolerate having it off.”
“It’s a spectrum analyzer,” Rush said. “It should be perfectly benign.”
“Says the guy with no personal memories who’s got creepy crystal tech glued to his head.”
Rush looked at him, undecided.
“Come on,” Eli said. “Give it a shot. You said it was much worse when they were both off. I only need one. Worst-case scenario, we put it back on and do it the hard way. Even if we can get halfway through sweeping the spectrum, that would be helpful. Even if I can just hook the thing up with a little more freedom in terms of movement, that would cut down on the total time required.”
“All right,” Rush said.
“Awesome,” Eli replied. “Go when ready.”
Rush pressed against the small metal pieces at the lateral borders of the device and felt it release from his skin with a sickening sensation of deep withdrawal. It came free in his hand. He passed the device to Eli and pressed his fingers to his temple where it had been.
For a moment, he heard nothing. And then—a low chord, quiet and coming from behind him.
“You okay?” Eli asked.
“Just—get started,” Rush said, unable to prevent himself from looking back over his shoulder. Of course, there was nothing there.
“You’re hearing it?” Eli said uncertainly.
“Yes I’m hearing it. I told you I would hear it. Get started,” Rush repeated.
“We could abort—” Eli began.
“Start,” Rush said.
“Okay. Starting. You just—look a little more freaked than I was expecting, that’s all.”
“I’m fine,” Rush replied.
He watched Eli set up the inputs, using jeweler’s pliers to twirl a slender wire around something on the interior of the device before—
He would ignore it. The chord. What had he been thinking about? His train of thought seemed to dissolve under tonal pressure, but that was all right, he could ignore it, he could filter out a chord, continuous and loud and long, he could filter it out, of course he could. Anyone could. And so he could.
He watched Eli connect the device to his coaxial DC block before interfacing the entire setup with the input port on the spectrum analyzer.
It was getting louder. The chord.
“Hey,” Eli said.
Thinking was difficult, speaking was unworkable, so he nodded at Eli, making a sweeping hand gesture at the spectrum analyzer before pressing his fingers against his temple. It was a triad. It was a triad formed on a tonic note at once alien and familiar. The third interval a half step down from something major—or was it. Or was it. D-minor? Yes. D-minor. Interesting. He had perfect pitch. D-minor. He was ignoring it. D-minor. Or was it—
“Okay,” Eli said, drawing out the word “Nothing yet, and I’m already through the MF band.”
Was it D-minor?
Almost D-minor. Alternate D-minor. Variant D-minor. Ah. It was changing.
“Through the VHF band,” Eli said. “Still nothing. You doing okay, dude?”
Rush closed his fingers around the edge of the bench.
“Nothing in the HF band,” Eli said.
He shut his eyes, trying to hold something off that he could not identify.
“Hang in there, Eli said. “Nothing in the VHF band.”
He had to sit. He yielded in the direction of gravity, struggling against the slowly progressing tone in his mind.
The floor felt very hard.
“UHF,” Eli snapped. “It’s in UHF, and it’s in the military allocation band. No surprises there, but—oh crap, I think I’m jacking the signal. Yeah, yeah I’m boosting it, I’m boosting it, crap, or it’s boosting itself—this isn’t good, I hope no one is scanning for you right now, damn it. Okay, definitely time to shut this—oh. Dave? Okay, hang on, one second. Don’t pass out. How does this thing even—oh yikes.”
He couldn’t see.
“Dave?” Eli said. “Nick, maybe? Hey. You okay?”
“Nope,” Eli said, the word loud and very close to him. “That’s not an ‘okay’ face. Move your hand. Yeah okay, or don’t, I can work with this.”
Rush could feel his hand being pried away from his temple, a cool press, and a sickening reattach and then—
Everything was quiet.
He opened his eyes to find himself on the floor, his back pressed against the base of the lab bench they had appropriated, with Eli kneeling directly in front of him. “Holy crap,” Eli said, his face pale, his eyes excited.
“Are you okay?” Eli asked.
“So,” Eli said, “your swag is broadcasting in the UHF band, but as soon as we hit its frequency with our sweep, it jacked the signal up for about ten seconds before I realized what the heck was happening. It got super bright and it shorted out the entire setup. I am really glad that it was not attached to your head when we did that. Also? You were not joking about that whole I-hear-a-disembodied-chord thing being messed up.”
“What?” Rush asked.
“Yeah okay, this can wait,” Eli said, speaking more slowly. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he said.“Like, right now. Because we just advertised your location. And it’s a clear night.”
“A clear night?” Rush repeated.
“Ohhhhh crap. I hope I didn’t fry your brain. That would be a crime against math. Say something intelligent.”
“Eli,” Rush said, aiming for something in the range of a reprimand but falling far short.
“Poor showing, dude, but I’m going to interpret that as a compliment. Anyway, the frequency of the EM signal transmitted by your swag is particularly susceptible to atmospheric—you know what? Never mind. Let’s talk about this later when your brain is online, and we’re not at the coordinates from which we pretty much straight up broadcasted an over the air transmission on a restricted military band,” Eli said, grabbing Rush by both elbows and doing a slow pull. “Not too fast. Now sit,” he said, pushing Rush onto a stool.
Rush leaned forward, his elbows resting on the dark bench in front of him, his hands bridged over his eyes. His thoughts had the consistency of sludge. He—
“Okay,” Eli said, pulling him up by one elbow. “I’m done packing up. Let’s get out of here and find you some food. And some coffee. And maybe a nap.”
After a triple espresso at the same diner where Rush had first admitted to Eli that he was lacking a personal memory, he could feel his brain make an effort to actually reengage. He had a headache. He felt like his mind had been wrung out and left in a somewhat painful mess behind his eyes.
“Feeling better?” Eli asked. “At all?”
“Yeah,” Rush said. “Somewhat.”
“So—you were not kidding about that tonal thing being intense.”
“No,” Rush said.
“But you feel totally normal now?”
“Well,” Rush said, digging the heel of one hand into his eye, “I don’t hear anything, but I’m pure—” he felt tangled in a mess of possible sentence endings and decided to stop speaking.
“Yeah,” Eli whispered. “You look freaking terrible. Did it hurt? Because it kind of looked like it hurt to have it off.”
“No,” Rush said. “Not as such. It was more akin to sensory overload in the absence of sensory input.”
“Yeah,” Eli said. “In the absence of detectable input.”
“So, correct me if you feel like I’m wrong about this, but I’m not sure if those devices are causing your memory loss. At first, I straight up figured that they were, you know? It made sense, Occam’s Razor style. But—your swag is helping you. That is pretty clear at this point.”
“True,” Rush said, resting his chin on his hand. “But I don’t think that we can assume that ‘helping’ me is its sole function.”
“Agreed,” Eli said, dropping his voice to a whisper as a waitress passed. “I got a pretty good look at the structure of these things,” Eli said, glancing at the re-camouflaged piece of metal re-attached to Rush’s right temple. I’m not sure how well you’ve really been able to examine them, due to like, getting punched in the face with this mystery auditory phenomenon every time you take them off, so let me tell you about their architecture, because it’s maybe a little freakier than you might be anticipating. On the outer surface, the one we did the retaping job on, there’s an opening through which you can see a little bit of circuitry and the ‘indicator light,’ aka crystal. I’m pretty sure that the crystal and associated inputs are actually sitting on top of an enclosed panel of circuitry about an eighth of an inch thick. Most of the business end of the thing is packed into there, I’d bet. If I were to guess, I’d say whoever designed this thing put the crystal in a separate casing because a) it gives off a little bit of heat, and b) it’s not that compact. Are you following me, man? Because you look like you’re about to pass out.”
“Proceed,” Rush said.
“Okay so to sum up, we’ve got the casing,” Eli said, tracing a box in the air between them, “with the crystal compartment sitting inside on top, under the crystal are a whole mess of waterproof, element-proof, college student-proof electronics. Like if it’s a sandwich? That’s the middle.”
“Eli,” Rush said. “I understood you the first time. Proceed.”
“Okay well no offense, man, you just look kind of confused and semi-conscious.”
“I assure you,” Rush said, “tha’s not the case. Please continue.”
“Yeah. Sure. Okay so, I’m just guessing about the concealed, like, ‘meat’ of the sandwich? Because I couldn’t literally see that layer. But it’s the bottom layer of the thing that’s really, really freaky.”
Rush raised his eyebrows.
“The bottom layer,” Eli said, “is the—um, crap, let’s call this the human-interface layer. And that layer has two extremely small holes in it. And when you hold down those panels on the side of the device, guess what comes out of those holes.”
Rush opened a hand. “A chthonic vengeance deity straight out of the Greek tradition,” he said dryly.
“Poetic,” Eli said. “And a little more awake than I was expecting. And actually? Kind of close.”
“Electrodes. Four of them. Two pairs of two that are made of some really creepy, super ductile metal that kind of—unfurls. The two pairs are angled away from one another, and neither enters your skin at a ninety degree angle.”
“Ah,” Rush said, viscerally unsettled.
“Yeah. That creeped-out face you’re making right now is a slightly toned down version of the creeped-out face that I made when I saw it, and a really toned down version of the creeped-out face I made when I stuck it back on your head,” he said, his voice dropping down to a ragged whisper.
“Cheers,” Rush said.
“Yeah,” Eli replied. “Okay, so while you were trying really hard not to pass out, I got two pieces of information from the signal analyzer. One was that your swag is, for sure, transmitting a low power signal in the Ultra High Frequency Radio band, in the hertz range used by the military. Maybe not that surprising. The other thing I determined is that it doesn’t like being screwed around with, because it built up a pretty impressive voltage differential and then discharged, which, managed to short out our little system. This demonstrates that it’s capable of building and maintaining a charge.”
“Make some kind of legit observation, please, so I know you’re actually taking this in,” Eli said.
“Its activity likely depends on system input,” Rush said, as a waitress set plates in front of them. He started in on his club sandwich.
“Yeah, okay, true. Yes. Which is good, because that means it’s probably not going to electrocute you if it’s taking input from your brain, which I’m going to bet is exactly what it’s doing.” Eli hissed, his plate of onion rings going ignored in front of him. “Together, these two devices set up four terminals, two electrodes each. Probably? You’ve got an anode and a cathode pair at four different points on your skull. Does that suggest anything to you?”
“It suggests the establishment of an electric field that can vary with time. Applied across my head,” Rush said.
“Yes,” Eli said, very low. Very quiet. “Combine that with your UHF band signal, and you’ve got a system that’s affecting your brain and very possibly remotely modulatable.”
Rush dropped his sandwich. He pressed the heel of one hand against his eyesocket.
“With UHF, they’d probably have to be line-of-sight to influence you, and let’s be real, hopefully you’ve got some kind of security built into this thing, but whether the answer to that particular question is yes or no, I don’t think we want to be messing around trying to hack the thing attached to your brain with literal, creepy electrodes.”
Rush said nothing. It wasn’t that he hadn’t expected to hear something along these lines. He had. He just—felt extremely tired. And somewhat sick. It was difficult to take a deep breath. He couldn’t feel his fingertips.
“Don’t panic,” Eli said.
“I’m not panicking,” he said.
“Well you look a little bit like you’re panicking,” Eli said. “I get it. I do. I’d panic too if I were you. I’m kind of panicking for you over here. Sympathy panic.”
“I’m not panicking,” Rush said, trying to take a deep breath and failing. He clenched his hands and then opened them again.
“Okay,” Eli said drawing out the word, “Good. Drink some water maybe? You did just almost pass out and then you drank three shots of espresso, and you don’t really eat that regularly, so your blood sugar is probably super low and so really if you think about it, this is kind of like, worst case scenario for panic. I mean, no one wants to find out that they’re hackable, but you definitely don’t want to find out about it when you’re hypoglycemic, overcaffeinated, and just had some unfortunate mental event, I’m not even really sure what to call that.”
Rush drank some water. “I’m not panicking,” he said again.
“Nope,” Eli said. “Nope, no panicking here. You are taking this like a champ. Onion ring?”
Rush shook his head.
“Yeah, you’re not a stress eater. Anyone can see that.” Eli ate the onion ring he’d offered to Rush.
Rush took another sip of water. “What do you think,” he finally managed, “the purpose of this mi’ possibly be?”
“Well,” Eli said, “seeing that you’re not being actively pursued by anyone, seeing that, for all we can tell, you’re wandering around Cambridge, memoryless, hackable—”
“Can you please stop using that term?”
“Okay sorry. Memoryless, ports open, and entirely left to your own, semi-homeless devices, I can’t say that this makes any kind of rational sense to me. I mean, maybe this is some kind of experiment? But I really don’t think so. Because if I were going to choose someone to do a mysterious social experiment on? I would not choose a relatively well-known, misanthropic Fields Medalist and turn him loose in Boston, of all places. The thing though,” Eli said, pausing to eat another onion ring, “is that—well, without your swag, it kind of seems like you’d be screwed. Pretty much immediately. I mean, within minutes. What do you think would happen if you took those devices off and left them off?”
“I’m not sure,” Rush said.
“Well, as an outside observer, I’d say you were definitely on the verge of loosing consciousness when I reattached the device we interrogated. You were also shaking.”
“Was I?” Rush asked. “I don’t remember that.”
“Yeah, not much, but you were like—tightening up,” Eli said. “It did not look fun.”
Rush shut his eyes and shook his head.
“I don’t want to freak you out any more than you’re already freaking out, but I think it’s possible that you might run the risk of death without your swag,” Eli whispered. “I think it’s maybe important to put that on the table.”
“Yes,” Rush breathed. “I think you may be right about that.”
“You should really eat,” Eli said.
Rush nodded. “You said something in the lab,” he murmured, “about boosting the UHF signal?”
“Yeah,” Eli said. “I increased the amplitude of the thing about eighty fold, unfortunately. I think it was a transient effect.”
“You think?” Rush said, looking at him sharply.
“Well, I wasn’t going to sweep the UHF band again, was I?” Eli replied. “Power consumption visibly increased, as measured by, er, crystal glow brightness? For about ten seconds. So, if someone is looking for you, and they picked up that UHF emission, they’ll be able to trace your location. But, fortunately, Boston is a big city, and you’re probably not sending a super high-powered signal anymore. I’m not sure what the maximum detectable range is for your swag on its standard settings, but it’s not going to be super far, and it probably will depend some on atmospheric conditions, so hope for lots of thunderstorms, I guess.”
“We should keep an eye on what happens at that lab though,” Eli said. “And by ‘we’ I mean ‘me’. And by ‘me’ I mean ‘Rob’. And by ‘what happens’, I mean whether or not the Air Force shows up there.”
“You look awful,” Eli said. “Eat your sandwich, maybe.”
“I don’t think that’s going to solve anything,” Rush said.
“Um, no. Neither do I. But it’s kind of necessary. You have an apartment, at this point, right?” Eli asked.
“Yes,” Rush said. “Though, truth be told, it’s more like a room with a locking door adjacent to what appears to be a former crack house.”
“Um, yeah, maybe you should sleep at my place,” Eli said.
“No,” Rush said. “I could still be broadcasting an easily localizable signal.”
“Yeah, but you’re probably not,” Eli said.
“I’m not going to your house,” Rush said. “Not tonight. Not anymore.”
Eli sighed. “Ugh, I knew you cared.”
“But, speaking of terrible living situations, would you mind holding some cash for me?” Rush asked.
“So that when you get mugged you won’t lose all your resources?” Eli asked, grimacing.
Rush passed Eli several hundred dollars.
“I feel like you could afford a better place,” Eli said, “if you’re investing this much in the Bank of Wallace.”
“I’m trading physical safety for the eventual purchase of hardware.”
“You want a computer,” Eli said.
“No,” Rush replied. “I need a computer. Among other things.”
“I identify with that need,” Eli replied. “Is this for purposes of contacting J’Shep?”
“Well,” Eli said, “I’m all for that, especially in light of what we just found out, but I’d hold off for a few days. Play it cool, slave away at your latte art, and we can see what, if anything, comes of our physics lab broadcast. I have an angle that maybe we can work.”
“What kind of angle?” Rush asked.
“My nemesis,” Eli sighed.
Rush raised his eyebrows. “He of the unspoken name?”
“Yeah,” Eli said, dolefully. “He’s wicked smart. I mean, to be clear, not Eli Wallace Smart, but almost. He’s into neural robotics, to the extent that that’s a thing, which it’s not, really. This is the guy we want. The only problem is, he’s maybe a little too much of a full-blooded academic for us to get away with bullshitting him. But then again, maybe not. We’ll have to come up with something really good.”
“That may be difficult,” Rush said. “Frankly, I’m perpetually astounded that you gave any credence to my story. To me, it sounds totally preposterous.”
“That’s what saves it,” Eli replied. “Real things are always ridiculous. I mean, have you lived in the world?”
“Theoretically, yes,” Rush said. “Experientially, no.”
“Good point, Dave,” Eli said, eating another onion ring. “Good freaking point.”