Mathématique: Chapter 51
“Ugh,” Eli said, zipping up his jacket and eyeing the sheeting rain, lit to orange in the glow of streetlights. “It’s like you’re the responsible straight man in the zany romantic comedy of your own life, dude, where your love interest is your past self!"
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Grief. Depersonalization.
Additional notes: None.
Rush shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket, looked up at the gray of the early morning sky, and willed away the coming rain. It didn’t look like it had much of a mind to be banished, but at least it had the decency to hold off really chucking it down until he’d reached the bright and erudite interior of Cambridge’s most literary coffee shop.
The downpour began around midmorning; a cold, drenching, determined rain, blown into sheets by gusts of wind. Jennifer, who was working the register for the third time this week, kept a fascinated eye on the storm outside. Eventually she switched the streaming music from alternative pop to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. Rush made her an Engels Espresso in a wordless expression of gratitude.
Business picked up as students, professors, and itinerant hipsters ducked inside to escape the downpour. Rush watched the progression of the storm as he worked his way through an afternoon of Chaucer Chais and Machiavellian Macchiatos. He didn't relish the coming walk to his subpar room in his subpar neighborhood. Perhaps Jennifer would let him to pull a double shift.
His head ached, and felt the dragging mental inertia of the events of the previous evening. The terrible, crushing presence of that D-minor chord hadn’t left him, even after a night’s sleep and a day’s shift. Beethoven’s Sixth seemed to be driving the worst of it from his head, seeping its slow way into the places where the tone had been, erasing the strange sense of summons that the thing had left behind.
He was more tempted than ever to put an end to these weeks of uncertainty, to call the real David Telford and ask the man to clarify what the bloody hell had happened to Nicholas Rush.
Why had he been left to make his way through Cambridge, Massachusetts, of all places?
What was wrong with his mind that—without a set of metal devices creating an electric field within the confines of his skull—he couldn’t function, possibly couldn’t even survive?
On the plus side, Jennifer okayed the double shift.
When a rain-soaked day had faded into a rain-soaked night, Eli slipped into the coffee shop, his blue jacket drenched to black, his hair plastered to his head. He ordered a Classic Cappuccino from Jennifer before edging down the counter to watch Rush pour a flawless rosette pattern.
“Hey,” he said, the word quiet and anxious. “Dave. Nice latte art. How’s it going?” He made a show of brushing rainwater off the top of the backpack he’d slung over one shoulder.
“Fine,” Rush replied, adding a dusting of cinnamon to Eli’s coffee for purely aesthetic reasons before placing the cup on its saucer. “You appear somewhat stressed.”
“Oh, er, do I?” Eli asked, with an unconvincing smile. “Nah.”
Rush shot him an incisive glance over the tops of his glasses. This, paradoxically, seemed to reassure Eli, who stopped fidgeting and fixed him with an eloquent look in return. The lad was fair dripping with some undisclosed idea. And rainwater. Rush cocked his head and raised his eyebrows in a silent and, admittedly, somewhat amused invitation to spit the thing out, but Eli shook his head.
“When does your shift end?” he asked.
“Half an hour,” Rush said.
“Great.” Eli looked relieved. “I’ll wait. I’ll give you a ride home. My car’s a block away, believe it or not. It’s pouring, dude. Wrath of God style.”
Rush spent the next thirty minutes watching Eli switch from phone to laptop to sandwich menu and back again, never settling on any one activity. Something had set him on edge. Rush tried to prevent any premature speculation, but it was a vain effort. By the end of his shift, he had himself fair convinced that Rob was cooling his heels in military prison and MIT’s campus was locked down.
After making saying his goodnights to the staff, he approached Eli’s table. “Shall we?”
“Um, no,” Eli said. “Why don’t we hang out here for a little while?”
Rush shot him a skeptical look.
“Sit down,” Eli hissed.
Rush sat, bridged his hands, and looked Eli straight in the eye. “Will you please. Calm. Down. You look like you just robbed a bank, if you want to know.”
“Ha,” Eli said dryly. “I’m calm. Who’s not calm? Because it’s not me. I’m not not calm. I’m the King of Calm, dude. Now. Anything new with you? Because I have about a novel’s worth of stuff to report. But you go first.”
“Nothing,” Rush said, shrugging.
“Nothing? Work with me here, please, Dave. Do you feel okay? Is your brain normal? Are all your IQ points still on their shelves and in their frames?”
Rush rolled his eyes. “Yes, I believe so. I’m experiencing no lasting sequelae from last night, if that’s what you’re driving at. No suspicious, uniformed personnel have been hanging about, placing incompetent coffee orders. I have a headache. But I seem to have a headache frequently, so I don’t believe it merits any special significance. Thank you for your concern.”
“Okay. Great,” Eli said. They looked at one another over the scored and splitting wood of a rustic coffee table before Eli finally managed to martial his resolve and continue. “Pretty much all night I was thinking about what happened. Like, this is definitely the weirdest, creepiest, awesomest thing that’s ever occurred in my life, so I’m stoked, but also—I think it’s getting a little more serious. Weird electrodes? Signals boosting in EM bands in the middle of the night? Like, the stakes have been jacked. Last night jacked the stakes.”
“Agreed,” Rush said.
“Yes,” Eli said. “Yes. Okay good. So I couldn’t really sleep. I got up at six in the AM, I told my mom I was driving to Worcester for a job interview, but I actually went to MIT to stake out the Physics Lab.”
“Naturally.” Rush watched a pair of students track a small river of water across the floor as they entered the coffee shop. He glanced sympathetically at Jennifer.
“It wasn’t hard, right? Like, I totally look like I go to MIT. I mean, people there still know me. I know where to hang. And so I watched.”
“Did the Air Force show up, then?”
“No,” Eli said, lowering his voice, leaning forward. “Well, maybe? Somebody showed up. Two somebodies. A man and a woman. They were, eh, maybe in their thirties to forties? Leather jackets and pants. They just didn’t look like they belonged, you know? They were casing the place. Just like I was. At first they seemed a little awkward. Just sitting on a bench, eyeing the building, looking kinda corporate punk-rock. But watching them—it was amazing. First, the woman gets, up, right? And she stops a girl and asks her a question. I was way too far away to hear anything. The girl says something, and then the woman leaves. She comes back about half an hour later and she looks totally different. She’s wearing jeans and an MIT sweatshirt and her hair looks like shit. I mean, before this, she was dressed to the nines, right? Like lethal, badass nines. And then she comes back looking like an undergrad hung over from a hackathon or something, dude, it was unreal.”
“Hmm,” Rush said.
“Yeah. And then the guy gets up—same thing. He comes back half an hour later in a hipster flannel shirt and skinny jeans. And then, only then do they go into the building. They time it just right so that they snag the door behind someone.” Eli sat back, raising his eyebrows.
Rush grimaced. “Eli,” he began.
“No. No,” Eli hissed. “Whatever you’re about to say—just no. Those two were looking for you, dude. And I seriously do not think they were the Air Force, okay? They seemed much less scary and much more creepy all at the same time, okay? So look, I made a command decision.”
“Meaning—” Rush said, already dreading the answer.
“I called Rob, and I brought him in on the stakeout operation.”
Rush braced his elbows against the table, dropped his forehead into the bridge of his hands, and stared down at several years worth of graffiti carved into unvarnished wood.
“Dude, you can’t stake out a building with one person. Especially if that building has multiple exits. I had to tell him a little something about the whole situation.”
“Eli—” Rush said, into his hands. “Is Rob a legal adult?”
“Yes, man. And relax. I didn’t tell him the real story. I’m not totally without foresight. I told him the premise of Count Zero, by William Gibson.”
Rush freed a hand and waved it in a loose circle.
“What’s that. That hand thing. Is that you being at a loss for words? Look, it’s a very plausible story, okay? I told Rob that you were actually a genius programmer, employed by the same company that makes Astria Porta, which is why you know so much about the game. I told him that you’d gotten in over your head field-testing a prototype virtual reality software and you were trying to escape your current company and defect to a rival gaming company with the software that you invented, by the way, in your own free time. They’re trying to steal it from you, those bastards. So you’re taking your software and you’re jumping ship. Jumping ship and never looking back. Only one prototype exists. The one on your head. Rob noticed those things by the way. Literally everyone does. They’re super obvious. Anyway, you took the prototype with you when you escaped their surveillance net. You’re trying to stay below the grid, but after you left you realized that—”
“I wish I’d never met you,” Rush said, finally looking up. “I’m calling the Air Force. I’m doing it today.”
“What? No! This is going to work. Wait. Stop. Do not get up.”
Rush, halfway out of his seat, slid back down into a seated position. “Why,” he hissed, with as much viciousness as he could muster, “are you involving anyone else in this? How could you possibly think—”
“Think?” Eli hissed back. “Think? That’s all I’ve been doing, dude, and you know what? Unless your alien friend J’Shep comes through for you like a magical Deus Ex Machina Fairy Godmother, you are screwed. You are the guy who proved the proof that’s going to explode all existing world cryptosystems in about the next six months or so. The Air Force probably hates you. Something terrible and freaky happened to your brain and you have no resources. You need other people to help you figure it out. Fortunately I found you, but honestly, I’ve taken you about as far as I can take you on my own. But I know people. And so we are now going to have to start treating my connections like the assets they are because there are people looking for you now. Can they track you? I don’t know! In this rain, probably not, thank god. But when the air gets nice and crisp and clear and dry? Maybe. They’re already on the MIT campus—whomever they are. You have a limited amount of time to get this show on the road. So yeah. I told Rob a corporate espionage story so that he’d spend most of the day helping me keep tabs on the physics building because I literally couldn’t do it myself. It has two doors.”
“So?” Rush asked, defeated. “What did you find, then?”
“They never left,” Eli said. “Or, we never saw them leave. “Around four o’clock we went inside to try to find them. No dice.”
Rush pressed two fingers against the space between his eyebrows.
“Okay, so yeah, fine, we aren’t the best at surveillance, probably. But look. Having Rob on board is key for another reason. He can get us access to a piece of information that we desperately need.”
“Office hours,” Eli said. “Let’s go. Rob’s in the car and we have a neuroscience grad student to stalk.”
“What?” Rush said.
“It’s complicated. I’ll explain on the way. But I wanted to give you a heads up about what Rob knows. We’ll use the same story for everyone else. Corporate espionage? Everyone’s going to eat that up with a spoon dude. No problem.”
“Eli,” Rush protested, weakly.
“Ugh,” Eli said, zipping up his jacket and eyeing the sheeting rain, lit to orange in the glow of streetlights. “It’s like you’re the responsible straight man in the zany romantic comedy of your own life, dude, where your love interest is your past self! Forget your six weeks as a struggling hipster barista, okay? Man up and answer the Hero’s Call. Now let’s go poach some neuro knowledge from a quirky Dungeon Master who’s got it in spades.”
There was something about academia after hours that was, if not familiar to Rush, at least not foreign. He supposed he had spent no small amount of time in half-lit, half-deserted halls, where voices and footfalls echoed emptily without the sonic insulation provided by the daytime flux of students.
After a strained car ride in the company of Rob, Rush and Eli loitered at the end of a poorly-lit third floor corridor, idly watching the rain and keeping tabs on the dwindling cluster of students who had formed an impromptu queue outside the bright rectangle of an open doorway.
Rob had swiped them into the building at the appointed time, and, after wishing them luck, had absconded back to wherever it was he kept himself when not skipping his classes in favor of poorly advised "stake-outs."
Rush was dubious regarding Rob’s academic prospects, though they certainly seemed more promising than Eli’s. He couldn’t quite get a handle on Mr. Wallace himself. The lad was clearly intelligent, motivated, and possessed of a solid conceptual grounding in a wide array of quantitative subjects, not to mention the literature of science fiction. It was not at all clear why he was disinclined to put even a minimal amount of effort into obtaining a formal college education.
As they waited to solicit the help of yet another of Eli’s acquaintances, Rush pulled out his wallet and flipped through its contents, his shoulder resting against the cool planes of a window that looked out over the rain-soaked parking lot. He examined each card in turn, turning it over in the dim light, trying to prompt any attendant memory, no matter how small.
It was no use.
He snapped the thing shut.
His dreams were turning, perhaps, a little more helpful than his wallet.
Last night he’d dreamt of a man he didn’t know, dressed in a blue jacket, a Canadian flag on his sleeve, shouting about Fourier transforms. In the dream, something had been wrong with Rush himself. He’d had trouble standing, trouble feeling the—
Rush looked up to find Eli watching him.
“Can I see?” Eli eyed the wallet.
Rush shrugged, then passed it to him.
Eli pulled the cards out one after another, flipping them over, just as Rush had done. He snorted when he got to David Telford’s card. “Weird. This Air Force Colonel has the same name as you.”
“Clamp it,” Rush said dryly.
“I think you might have gotten with this flautist guy,” Eli said. “Victor. He called you ‘darling’.”
“It’s possible,” Rush said.
“Are you bi, do you think?” Eli asked.
“That’s a personal question."
“Sort of.” Eli rolled his eyes. “I’m curious though. Is that the kind of thing you remember, like you remember how to wash your hands? Or did you discover your bi-ness in the vicinity of hot dudes, or did you just kind of—know it all along?”
Rush grimaced. “Frankly, it’s somewhat difficult to say. I certainly discovered I was Scottish in a notably dramatic manner, but when it comes to preferences and skill sets—they’ve manifested themselves more subtly.”
“So,” Eli said, replacing the flautist’s card and moving on to the next, “it was less like, ‘oh my god, everyone’s hot, I’m confused,’ and more like ‘of course everyone’s hot why wouldn’t they be?’ and then you have to notice that you’re not quite towing the heteronormative line to intuit your unstated premise.”
“Hmm,” Rush said. “Yes. That was somewhat insightful.”
“Hey. I can do the empathy thing. Doing it kind of more and more the more I get to know you, actually. Speaking of which, I googled you,” Eli said, frowning at the archeologist’s card. “You were married, I think. To a woman named Gloria.”
Rush nodded. “The violinist.”
“Yeah,” Eli said, pale under the dim lights. “Do you remember her? At all?”
“I don’t remember anyone,” Rush replied.
“God,” Eli said, looking away, down the hallway toward the brightly lit doorway were a few students still waited. “This guy,” he said, shaking the wallet gently, glancing back at Rush. “He must seem like someone else. Like we’re going through another person’s stuff.”
“If you really care to know,” Rush said, pressing his shoulders against the cool glass of the window, “the separation between my current and past experience is so complete that he seems dead.”
“Who does?” Eli said, looking at Rush in incredulous, manufactured consternation.
Rush indicated the wallet with his eyes.
“Rush?” Eli hissed. “Nicholas Rush seems dead to you?”
Rush opened his hands and shrugged.
“Ugh, Dave. You are killing me here.” Eli sounded strained. “So—do you not feel curious? About your wife? About this flautist guy? About Vala Mal Doran, whom I definitely want to meet, FYI. What they’re doing? If they’re looking for you? If they miss you?”
“Of course I’m curious—but, I’d imagine I feel curious in the way that you feel curious. There’s a sense of detachment, I suppose. I don’t miss these people, at least, not in a conscious way. I don’t miss any aspect of my former life—because I don’t remember it. I confess I’ve been depressed these past weeks. That could be a left over chemical imbalance from my recent past, or a consequence of older structures within the mind that are immune to whatever amnestic effect this is, or—”
“Or the fact you’re living in a crack house,” Eli said.
“Former crack house, but yes. Correct. My circumstances could be better. I’m unquestionably existentially bereft.”
“Deep,” Eli said, returning Rush’s wallet. “So, other than staring into your wallet, how much searching have you done into your own past? Internet, or, whatever.”
“Some,” Rush said. “Enough to know that I was estranged from my family at some point, and that my wife had a medical condition for which I requested privacy from the press.”
“She’s dead,” Eli said quietly.
“I found out a few days ago,” Eli continued. “I wasn’t quite sure how to tell you. I dug her obituary out of a local paper from York. England. Took some doing. But it was bugging me. You know? Why she wasn’t looking for you.”
Rush nodded again. “I suspected something like that. I’m not wearing a ring.” He held up his left hand.
“God, dude, you were not kidding about him seeming like another guy to you,” Eli said.
“Well, not to be crass,” Rush said, “but how would you feel if I told you that your wife was dead?”
“But I don’t have a wife,” Eli said.
“Exactly,” Rush said.
“Ugh,” Eli said. “You’ve made your rhetorical point, I guess. At the cost of a quarter of both our souls, probably. I feel like I need to take a shower. Someone’s being wronged here. I think it’s you. Past you. Him. The guy who owns the wallet. Who is you. But in a weird, displaced way. Someone should write a postmodern novel about this.”
“Your schedule appears clear,” Rush said, as the last waiting student entered the brightly lit lab at the other end of the hall.
“Excuse me, I have a lexicon to learn and cypher set to solve, okay?”
“If only those were real tasks, rather than virtual ones,” Rush shot back. “Consider how interesting your life would be. You’d have to stop manufacturing quixotic quests for yourself.”
“I wouldn’t complain so much if I were you,” Eli said, “as you're the direct beneficiary of a quixotic quest. Since it seems like you’re not in the mood to unburden your existential torment to me right now, or ever, let’s go over our game plan.”
“I’ve memorized the plot of Count Zero, thank you,” Rush said.
“Dave. Hey. Let’s get serious, okay? This is not Rob we are about to see. This is not some twenty-something gamer with a gift for pulling code out of his ass in the final twenty-four hours before his final comp-sci project is due. This guy. Is different. Different league. Different circle. Different game. Different.”
“Oh yes?” Rush asked dryly. “And what does he play?”
“Portal. He plays Portal.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Okay. Let me um, pitch this to your level. You’ve heard of Romulus, right? The guy who founded Rome?”
“Yes. I’m terribly impressed that you’ve heard of—”
“Dave. Seriously. This is important. So, you know how Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf in the wilderness, so they were all tough and wolf-like?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?” Rush asked.
“Look, this guy is like that. But instead of being raised by wolves? He was raised by MIT. He came here when he was, like, five or eight or twelve or something and skipped like—all of undergrad for no reason that anyone understands. Just went straight to grad school. He has, like, too many PhDs. It’s stupid and ridiculous and weird and not okay at all. Who does that? What’s the point? Ugh whatever. I don’t care. He’s steeped in this place. Like a really bitter tea. I mean, talk about a post-modern novel; it’s this green haired nerd who spent his childhood as a grad student and somehow became the sickest DM on the Eastern Seaboard and started a band at the same time. He’s an MIT legend, practically. He is also? My nemesis.”
“What’s a DM?” Rush asked.
Eli rolled his eyes and opened his hands at the ceiling as if praying for divine intervention of some kind. “Dungeon. Master. You have to know this stuff, dude. You’re supposedly a gaming industry asset.”
“Mm hmm. And why is he your nemesis?” Rush asked politely.
“He was about to fail me out of Experimental Neuroscience, and I’m smarter than he is. That’s not okay. Also? He’s a poser. He pretends to hate the Man, but you can’t actually hate the Man if you literally grew up in academia and institutions of higher learning shower you with grant money and praise. I hate the Man. The Man screwed over my family,” Eli said, finishing with a heated breathlessness.
Rush raised his eyebrows.
“TMI. Sorry. Just—let me do the talking, okay?”
“I’m not sure that’s wise,” Rush said, eyeing the opposite end of the hallway. “I’m not sure any of this is wise. I—”
“Yeah. I know. You say it five times a day. You want to call the Air Force. Well? Why haven’t you done it, then?” Eli whispered aggressively.
Rush crossed his arms over his chest and looked away.
“Yeah. Exactly. Because it terrifies the crap out of you. Probably for good reason. It terrifies the crap out of me too, and I’m not even the guy with the empty bucket of personal memories and creepy technoswag wired into his head.”
Rush rolled his eyes.
“Giant institutions? They are not your friend in situations like this. Have you never read The Firm? Did you not see The Bourne Identity? How are you even contemplating ignoring your instincts? Your instincts about this are literally, literally all you’ve got to go on. There are people looking for you. Who the heck knows—maybe the defection story we made up is true. Don’t you want to figure it out yourself?”
“I do,” Rush said, “but that desire has its limits. I’m concerned that the trajectory of your life may be altered, and not for the better, as a direct consequence of your determination to help me.”
“Aw. Dave. That’s so nice. But have you taken a look at my life? Oh yeah. That’s right. It sucks. In fact, you constantly disparage—”
“Your choices,” Rush said pointedly. “Your choices. Never your potential.”
“Fine,” Eli said, with poor grace. “But those choices? They’re mine. I choose to learn a Promethean Lexicon and solve virtual cyphers because—because I choose to do those things.”
Rush opened both hands in a gesture of surrender.
“And, like, academia worked out so well for you, right?” Eli said.
“My time at UC Berkeley doesn’t seem to have been where the problem originated,” Rush replied.
“Yes, it was. It absolutely was. Your problem originated when you proved P equal to N freaking P. Even I know not to knock over half the world’s cryptosystems. The media is predicting a cyberapocalypse in six to eight months. Giant institutions with vaults of secrets to spill collectively hate your guts right now.”
Rush sighed, wondering if the impending collapse of global cryptosystems could genuinely be laid at his feet. Probably no more or less than any other historical inevitability. Having identified a door, all it took was a single, risk-tolerant person to open it.
He glanced down the dim hall toward the bright spill of light coming from the open lab. As he watched, the last student petitioner exited, clutching a textbook to her chest and exuding an air of unfocused intellectual triumph.
“So passes our cue?” Rush asked, watching her descend the stairs.
“Ugh,” Eli said in evident disgust, though at what, Rush couldn’t say. “Yeah, I guess.” He lifted his bag over one shoulder and turned to Rush. “Okay. Let’s keep our goals in our sights. What we want from this guy is his assessment of the tech, and, ideally for him to help us take a look at the code that’s running on the ‘chip’, though that’s plus or minus, because we don’t want to let him break it. Let me do the talking, you just—well, try to look intelligent and victimized. Play on his sympathies.”
“You want me to play on his sympathies. The sympathies of your ‘nemesis’,” Rush said, torn between disbelief and amusement. There was, possibly, a dash of despair in there as well.
“Yes,” Eli whispered, turning as they approached the open door. “That’s exactly what I want. And don’t mention the word ‘nemesis’ in front of him. Technically, he was my academic advisor, a little bit, kind of, so he might take the word ‘nemesis’ the wrong way.”
“What?” Rush whispered, but this was a wasted effort because Eli was looking determinedly away from him.
They entered the bright light of the neuroscience lab to see rows of benches crammed with labeled bottles holding clear liquids, graded measuring devices, notebooks, and boxes of disposable, single-use plasticware. Large instruments that Rush couldn’t name took up space near the ends of benches. Dark doorways honeycombed off the main floorspace into small rooms no doubt housing additional workspaces and machines.
Eli led him unerringly toward the only illuminated doorway. The lad had, apparently, been here before. They entered a small, shared office space containing four desks, each jammed into a corner of the room. At the most unkempt of the desks sat an equally unkempt graduate student, worn converse sneakers propped atop a copy of MATLAB for Neuroscientists, green streaked black hair in total disarray. He was watching the door, as though he’d been waiting for them.
Rush immediately identified him as the person he’d stopped on the streets of downtown Cambridge to ask for directions. It had been at the end of August, on the morning he’d awoken to a total lack of personal memory. Fortunately, it seemed that a change of hair color, wardrobe, and demeanor had served Rush well, because there was no recognition in the student’s expression.
“Eli,” The Nemesis said, dropping his feet and pulling his headphones out of his ears. “Hey. Rob told me you were coming. Good to see you, dude. This is your ‘friend’?” he asked, giving the final word of set of ostentatious air quotes.
“Ugh, what?” Eli said. “How much did Rob tell you. He wasn’t supposed to tell you anything.”
“Well,” The Nemesis said, sitting back with a smirk that somehow came across as both superior and fond, “I’m pretty sure Rob told me everything you told him, which was a poorly disguised version of the plot of Count Zero. So, hi,” he said, turning to Rush, extending his hand. “Who are you really?”
Rush glanced at Eli.
The lad looked back at him with a subtle widening of the eyes that clearly communicated he had nothing on deck.
Rush, possessed of a sudden and total inspiration, doing his best to grind his accent down to something more American, said, “David Telford. Eli’s uncle.”
“Newton Geiszler,” the man said, somehow turning Rush’s intended handshake into an elaborate slap, grab, and drag ritual that Rush managed to, mostly, follow. “Nice to meet ya. Everyone calls me Newt. Please tell me you’re here to help me talk some sense into this kid.”
“That is exactly why I’m here,” Rush said.
“I hate Rob so much,” Eli hissed.
“Dude,” Newt said, collapsing back into his chair, and motioning for Rush and Eli to sit. “Rob is, like, my self-professed minion. Meaning he literally refers to himself that way. Of course he emailed me the second you told him you wanted my office hours. You should have come to office hours when you were in my class, but my point is that you can relax about the whole thing, because he totally bought your cover story, okay? The guy hasn’t read much Gibson, apparently. He spends too much time in some MMORPG, storming temples or something. Your dignity is safe with me. I will tell no one that this ever happened.”
“And—what is it that you think is happening?” Eli asked slowly.
“You want me to write a letter on your behalf, in support of your reentry into the scholarship program,” Newt said the pace of his words slowing and his pitch rising as he turned a statement into a something more approximating a question. “Is that not what this is—”
“That’s correct,” Rush said, breaking in before Eli had a chance to speak. “Dr. Geiszler—”
“Newt,” Newt said.
“Newt,” Rush amended, managing, with extreme effort, to avoid an outrageously tempting eye roll. “Eli has done a truly atrocious job advocating for himself in the past—”
“Understatement,” Newt snapped in irritating annotation, bouncing the ball of one foot against the floor.
“—and so I’m not sure if you’re aware of some of the difficulties of his current situation,” Rush finished.
“Probably not, no,” Newt replied, raising his eyebrows and looking at Eli in open invitation.
“What?” Eli said. “I’m fine. Everything’s—”
“Eli’s mother has been quite ill,” Rush said, not looking at Eli, determined to wrest something out of this meeting. Eli’s primary objective had always been ridiculous to the point of disaster, but Rush felt certain he could salvage the situation—if not to his own advantage, then certainly to Eli’s. He had an instinct for academic norms and niceties, apparently; and while tales of corporate espionage struck him as increasingly ludicrous, surrounded as they were by the very real trappings of federally funded science, securing Eli some much needed mentorship was emerging as a far safer, far more pedestrian objective.
“Oh my god, dude,” Newt said, looking at Eli. “Why didn’t you say anything? Is she going to be okay?”
“Yes,” Eli said waspishly. “If she’d just—”
“She lost her insurance coverage recently,” Rush said, with perfect honesty, “and she and Eli have both been working two jobs to make ends meet, so that she can afford her medical care.”
“Eli—” Newt began, his expression communicating far more sympathy than nemeses were generally known to display, “why didn’t you ever mention any of this?”
“Because it didn’t matter,” Eli snapped defensively.
“My personal opinion is that it mattered quite a bit,” Rush said.
“I would agree—” Newt began.
“Hey,” Eli snapped. “Hey. I could have done the work. I just didn’t want to, okay? I don’t like pointless assignments. I don’t care about neuroanatomy, dude. I don’t care about the five layers of the cerebral cortex.”
“Um, it’s six, actually,” Newt said.
“Ugh! Whatever. I don’t care about memorizing lists and lists of biological jargon. None of that is interesting to me. I don’t want to do three problem sets per night for the sheer exercise of it. This stuff is boring when you’re not doing something with it. I don’t want to go back. There. I said it. I could have a free ride at MIT for the price of worshiping at the shrine of Nightly Homework but I’m not into it. People keep trying to strong-arm me into a glorious future and I’m tired of it. I want to do awesome things. Barring that, I want to live vicariously in an MMORPG where I get to pretend to do awesome things. That might actually be awesome. So screw you guys. Academia’s going to be dead in forty years anyway. You’ll be able to give yourself a PhD on YouTube. You guys are dying like dinosaurs in tar pits. Tar pits inside ivory towers.”
Newt rolled his eyes. “And I suppose YouTube will buy you a patch clamp apparatus and provide an infrastructure for ethical oversight in this coming halcyon, hypothetical house of heuristical cards you’re so excited to move into once institutions of higher learning implode into the concealed tar at their core?”
“Oh, hi, my name is Newt and I can think of so many words that start with ‘h’,” Eli said, doing a passable impression of Dr. Geiszler, punctuated with jazz hands of withering irony.
“I believe we’re getting sidetracked,” Rush said, before Newt could respond. “As you can see, I have had zero success in convincing my nephew of the value of the educational opportunity he is unwisely throwing away. I had hoped that you might have better luck.”
“Me?” Newt said, taken aback.
Rush shrugged, opening a hand. “He speaks quite highly of you.”
“No I don’t,” Eli said to Rush. “No I don’t,” he reiterated to Newt.
“Um,” Newt said, looking at Eli with a guarded expression. “Myeah, that’s the impression I’ve always had. I like you though, for the record. Still, I’m not about to force advice on you that you don’t want. So—in the interest of clarity—I guess I’ll just ask, because I’m slightly confused by all of this: do you want my advice?”
Eli glanced at Rush. Rush raised his eyebrows. Newt repropped his feet on MATLAB for Neuroscientists.
“Yeah,” Eli said, defeated. “I guess.”
“Calm down,” Newt said, with admirable self-possession. “Wouldn’t want anyone to think you’re excited.”
Rush crossed his arms over his chest and favored Eli with a disapproving look that he hoped suggested a long-standing frustration with his recalcitrant ‘nephew.’ He inclined his head toward Newt, an obvious prompt for Eli to resolicit in a more respectful manner.
“You want me to beg?” Eli snapped at them. “Fine. Please, Dr. Geiszler, shower me with your endless wisdom.”
Newt grinned. “Look kid. You’ve clearly thought this through, at least to a first approximation. This place—the real, actual, genuine grind of science—it’s not for everyone. So maybe it’s not for you. That’s fine. I guess the question is: do you slog through an undergrad degree here or don’t you? Pros would be increased future income, the panache of MIT on your CV, and the chance that you run across something that really revs your intellectual engine, so to speak. The cons are mainly you hating every single solitary second of it. Hating the people, hating the ethos, hating the process, disdaining the end goal, and suffering through icyass Massachusetts winters. Is it still raining out there? I bet it is. Anyway, that’s a pretty steep set of cons. So maybe you don’t slog through the degree. You’ll be fine. You’re smart. You’re smart as shit, dude, so you might not need someone to teach you how to learn. Move to Silicon Valley where the weather and people and buildings and ethos is beautiful and go work for some kind of gamification start-up where they turn everyday tasks into quests or something. I don’t know. Take your mom. California is, like, The Promised Land these days. That’s what I’d do, if I could live my life over. Just do something, dude. I know some people at Stanford who could maybe help you out, if you were interested. I would never admit to knowing anyone at Caltech, but,” he opened a hand. “Y’know. Maybe I know a guy who knows a guy.”
Eli rolled his eyes.
“But, for what it’s worth, I think your uncle is probably right when he says that external factors are playing a huge part in your success. Or, well, lack thereof. It seems kind of hopeless to try and take a full courseload and work two jobs. I’d probably give up too. So—even if you don’t see it that way—your mom being sick and you being burned the hell out aren’t really helpful. To you. And look, I don’t know the particulars of the situation, but there may be things that can be done to mitigate some of it. I mean, for one—work/study exists for a reason. Man a library desk, get paid, and do your math homework. Like, I didn’t even have to think about that one. It just came to me. I can be more inventive given time and impetus, I’m sure. Anyway, my point is, whether you decide to stay or go, I’ll help you either way.”
“Why?” Eli asked, with notably reduced hostility.
Rush rolled his eyes, rested his elbow on the arm of his chair, and pressed the heel of his hand into one eye.
“Why? What kind of question is that. I’m your academic advisor. That’s literally my job. Your uncle gets me. Look at his face. He totally gets me. Why are you so suspicious? I didn’t fail you in EX Neuro because I enjoyed doing it, dude, I failed you because you turned in zero out of fourteen lab reports and I kinda had to.”
“I don’t even go here anymore,” Eli pronounced, like an indictment.
“Meh,” Newt replied, unimpressed.
“I’ll think about it,” Eli replied. “I’ll let you know.”
Rush lifted his head to look over at Eli, who gave him a sour glare in return. He shifted his gaze to Newt and they shared a look of complete commiseration before the other man shifted his gaze to the devices at Rush’s temple and then quickly away.
“Good,” Newt said.
“Your intervention is much appreciated,” Rush told him. “By me, if not by Eli.”
Newt waved a hand, again surreptitiously studying Rush’s unusual technological accessories.
“We really ought to be going—” Rush began.
“Can I just—” Newt said, at the same time.
Rush raised his eyebrows.
“I’ve got to ask; I’m sure you get this all the time, I don’t mean to be insensitive, but what the heck are you wearing on your head?”
“An experimental device,” Rush said smoothly, acting on an emerging instinct he found vaguely disturbing, “developed by the company I work for. The idea behind it is—well. I really shouldn’t say.”
“Oh,” Newt replied, evidently impressed. “Can I just—um, does it—how is it attached?”
“Subdermal electrodes hold each piece in place,” Rush replied.
“What,” Newt snapped, yanking his feet off his desk and leaning forward.
“Eli mentioned to me that your area of expertise is neuromechanics, correct?” Rush could feel the intensity of Eli’s interest and did his best not to look in the lad’s direction.
“Yes,” Newt said, still leaning forward, looking at the devices in obvious fascination.
“If you don’t mind my asking—my company is looking for volunteers from the academic community to take a look at the hardware and software of units like this—primarily to evaluate—” Rush waved a hand, “software and hardware vulnerabilities. Is there anyone you might be able to recommend to me?”
“Um yes,” Newt snapped. “I’ll do it.”
Rush raised an explicitly skeptical eyebrow. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm—I’m afraid that we’re soliciting the opinions of established, independent investigators. Not to put too fine a point on it, we had hoped to find individuals—a bit more established than yourself.”
Newt regarded him with an expression of complete neutrality.
“Lame,” Eli commented, with passable aridity. “Predictable. But, Dave. Newt is not, like, your typical grad student.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Rush replied in overt condescention. “He seems very bright.”
This was too much for Newt to suffer in silence.
“Am I a grad student?” he began, with the rhetorical cadence of a natural didact. “Technically? Well, technically, yes. On paper yes, but that’s for bureaucratic and insurance reasons only. The department functionally considers me a senior post-doc, and I concomitantly hold an instructor position within the Department of Cell Biology, which is why I was assigned as Eli’s academic advisor in the first place.”
“So—I confess. I’m confused. Are you a graduate student, a post-doc, or an instructor?”
“Yes,” Newt said. “I’m all of those things. At the same time. I have three PhDs, this is my fourth one. I’m not technically employable as a post-doc for bureaucratic reasons related to the fact that I was an emancipated minor during, um well. I am, academically, operating at the level of a post-doc, but I have the health insurance of a graduate student and I simultaneously function as and earn the salary of an instructor.”
“I’ve never heard of such a situation,” Rush replied, crossing his arms, looking skeptically at Newt.
“Ehhhhhh,” Newt said. “It’s complicated. I can provide you with documentation verifying all of this.”
“How old are you?” Rush asked.
“I feel like I’m at least thirty,” Newt said.
“He’s seventeen,” Eli said flatly.
“Seventeen,” Rush repeated darkly, glaring at Eli. “He’s seventeen?”
“What?” Newt said, laughing. “That’s ridiculous. How could I possibly be seventeen? What are you on, kid?”
“Well how old are you then?” Eli asked.
“Older than seventeen, that’s for sure,” Newt replied, looking away, straightening some papers on his desk.
“Dr. Geiszler,” Rush began. “I’m sure you’re quite talented. But without further clarification we couldn’t possibly select you as one of our independent evaluators; we’re looking for scientists with unambiguous—”
“Dave, oh my god,” Eli said. “Why are you shooting yourself in the foot here? Gun? Foot.” Eli mimed sighting down a rifle at his own still-damp sneaker. “You’re not going to find anyone better than Newt for this.”
“It’s kind of true,” Newt added.
“Eli, I don’t think you understand the delicacy of the request,” Rush countered.
“And I don’t think you understand how much of a baller this guy is,” Eli said. “He’s like, the Mozart of neuromechanics. So he’s young. So he doesn’t have his own lab and his own letterhead right now. You said you wanted the best—or did you just mean the best CV.”
“My CV is hard to beat, actually,” Newt added. “If that helps.”
“You wouldn’t be paid,” Rush said, with a slow unwillingness that was in no way feigned. “The incentive would be an opportunity to interact with an emerging technology in a limited way.”
“I couldn’t be paid,” Newt said, with an exuberance that struck Rush as inexplicably tragic. “I don’t want any conflicts of interest.”
“I’ll need a copy of your CV.”
“No problem,” Newt replied, beginning to flip through a stack of papers on his desk.
“You would have to sign a non-disclosure agreement,” Rush continued. “My parent company would not be named in that agreement.”
“Thaaaaaat’s weird—” Newt began, slowing his desultory search for his CV.
“Oh whatever,” Eli said. “Who’s going to make beautiful, bleeding edge wearable tech, where even the prototypes look suave? Think about it for ten seconds. It starts with an A and ends with—”
“Eli,” Rush snapped.
“Well,” Newt said, clearly somewhat reassured, resuming his search for his CV.
“You would need to sign a pledge that you would make no attempt to reverse engineer anything you might encounter.”
“Dude, I’m swapping neuroscience for philosophy as soon as I get this last paper out. I’m the perfect candidate,” Newt said absently, finally yanking a set of papers free of the pile he’d been scanning.
“You’re going into philosophy?” Eli asked.
“Long story,” Newt said. “Very boring.”
“Are you having a midlife crisis?” Eli asked. “Sounds about right. The real Mozart died at 36 so you’re almost halfway there.”
“Hilarious,” Newt replied, handing Rush an unbelievably thick stack of paper.
“Does it have his birthday on it?” Eli asked, eyeing the document with evident interest.
“I’d appreciate it if you did not show my CV to your nephew,” Newt said, with maximum dignity.
“Of course,” Rush said smoothly. “Why don’t we meet again in a few days,” Rush suggested. “If my superiors are amenable, I’ll have the non-disclosure agreement for you then. You are, of course, free to withdraw at any point.”
“Sounds fair,” Newt said. “When do you want to get started?”
“Would tomorrow be too soon?” Rush suggested. “I’m on a bit of a short timetable.”
“Tomorrow’s no good,” Newt said. “I have a show.”
“Where? We’ll meet you there,” Eli said. “Get those papers signed. Maybe if I have time I can bring you my CV; you can take a look at it.”
“I’ll buy you a beer,” Eli said. “In fact, I’ll buy you beer all night long.”
“Done,” Newt said, leaning back in his chair and repropping his feet in evident self-satisfaction. “Camera Obscura. Eight o’clock.”
“Nice,” Eli said. “We’ll be there.”
“So—” Newt began, his gaze shifting from Rush to Eli and back again with the air of a man thinking things through a bit too critically, “was this actually a meeting about Eli or—”
“The primary purpose was certainly the continuance of his education,” Rush said, quite truthfully.
“And that story you told Rob,” Newt said slowly, his gaze shifting to Eli, “that was the premise of Count Zero, right, I mean—there’s not actually any corporate espionage happening here; because—”
“Ha, yeah,” Eli said. “Totally Count Zero. Think about it. Can you even imagine how awful my life would be if Rob knew I had an uncle who worked on the design team at A—”
“Eli,” Rush said, a smooth reminder. “Do not say it.”
“Just—don’t tell Rob about any of this,” Eli said. “Please. Student-mentor privilege. Unbreakable. Like with priests.”
“Any of what?” Newt replied archly, opening his hands.
“Exactly,” Eli said.
They left Newt to his academic pursuits and descended three flights of stairs without speaking. They ran through the downpour to reach Eli’s car. The parking lot was nearly empty, the rain glazed asphalt bright with the reflected glow of streetlights. They slammed the doors on the downpour, still not speaking, catching their breaths after the dash across the parking lot. Raindrops beat hard against the windshield.
“Holy shit, Dave,” Eli said finally. “That? That was genius.”
“I try,” Rush replied.
“For a minute there I was pissed, because I thought you were actually trying to Good Samaritan me, but then I realized that you were just setting up the bait half of the only bait and switch that would ever work on this guy.”
“I was genuinely attempting to help you, you overgrown child,” Rush snapped, irritated. “You should take him up on his offer to help you petition for reentry. Furthermore, the only reasons we were successful are: one—your so-called ‘nemesis’ genuinely wanted to help you, and two—he’s laudably and unfortunately curious about cutting edge technology.” Rush leaned his head back against his seat, wet and miserable.
“Whatever, man,” Eli replied. “We got what we needed, which, to be clear, was help for you. Not help for me.”
“You’re bringing him your CV tomorrow,” Rush informed him, with a dark determination.
“Oh am I? Gee. Thanks, Uncle Dave. And I suppose, in the tradition of dutiful nephews everywhere, I’m also creating a fake non-disclosure agreement?” Eli said.
“No.” Rush glared at Eli. “I’ll do that. I wouldn’t want you to overtax yourself.”
“Shut up. I’ll do it. You don’t have a computer yet.”
“And you can look up the definition of ‘nemesis’ while you’re at it,” Rush added, shutting his eyes
“Ugh, why are you so cranky? That was amazing.”
“Is he actually seventeen?” Rush asked. “Please tell me he’s not.”
“Well,” Eli said, “that’s Rob’s best guess. He’s definitely not old enough to buy beer. We know that much. Relax. We’ll keep him out of anything dangerous. We’ll get him to take one crack at it on a rainy night. When your signal will be most masked by atmospheric conditions.”
“Oh ‘we’ will, will we?” Rush snapped, shaking his hair out of his eyes. “I’m—”
“Calling the Air Force? No you’re not,” Eli replied cheerfully, starting the car engine. “Let’s go buy you a burner phone. Our recently hired tech help going to think it’s weird if ‘Uncle Dave’ the Neuromechanics Guru doesn’t have a number.”
Rush waved a hand in silent capitulation, as Eli pulled out onto the road.