Mathématique: Chapter 54

“You feel like you know Mozart. Like, Mozart Mozart? Volfgahng Amadeus? The dead guy who you’ve definitely never met ever one time in your life. That Mozart.”

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. 

Additional notes: Mkay, so, here we go I guess.

Chapter 54

After a day dedicated to the pursuit of increasingly unparalleled latte art, Rush sat with Eli and Rob in the basement of Camera Obscura. The light in the room came from a collage of different sources: mismatched incandescent lamps, a cold cathode ray tube twisted to spell the word ‘BEER’ in pink neon, and a string of multicolored Christmas lights. Portraits of dead aristocrats standing with their horses or their dogs were jammed together on the walls, intermingled with what appeared to be abstract depictions of iconic singers from the 1980s. The overall effect was entirely bizarre but not without a certain eclectic charm. 

The room was currently infested with bespectacled young people in worn, eco-conscious clothing. The homogeneity of the bar’s patrons left him with a desire to roll his eyes. This impulse was counterbalanced by the relief he felt at successfully blending with the crowd. Rush’s thriftstore aesthetic seemed to align well with emerging fashion trends amongst American intellectuals.

The three of them sat in the middle of the room, blending into the shifting mix of undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, and other peripheral academic actors. Rush and Eli had appropriated their table hours ago, when they’d met Dr. Geiszler for the express purpose of effectively conning the man into signing a fake non-disclosure agreement for pure dead show.

Why Rush hadn’t left in the interim interval, he couldn’t quite say.

There was certainly no inducement to stay offered by the currently playing band. The group was onstage at the far end of the room, surrounded by dark towers of needlessly large amplifiers. Such a conceit was surely unnecessary in a room this size, but, Rush supposed, with a name like Cypberpunkocalypse!, gratuitous signal boosting was something of an aesthetic requisite.

“Maybe we should show Dave the third cypher,” Rob suggested to Eli, shouting to be heard above the so-called ‘music’ that was damaging eardrums around the room. “Mock it up, back-of-the-envelope style?”

Rush shook his head. “I’m going to call it a night.” He had no reason to stay and subject himself to hours of cathartic screaming in the guise of who knew what or whom.

His ‘objective,’ such as it was, had been achieved. He and Eli had arranged to meet Newt in a few days, at the graduate student’s convenience. They had fashed their way through a rough plan, which now consisted of three parts. 1) Newt would attempt to remotely interface with whatever it was that was attached to his head. 2) They would assess how easy or difficult it might be to alter device parameters. 3) Only then would Newt access the hardware of the device.

It wasn’t at all clear to Rush that they’d ever reach step three. Nevertheless, as the man was currently enmeshed in cutting edge neuromechanics, Rush had some hope that the program he’d designed to interface between neural tissue and the business end of a robotics set up would prove a potential gateway to some genuine answers.

“No way, man,” Rob said, leaning forward, looking at Rush. “Don’t leave. If you guys are on a tight timetable,” he broke off and gestured toward Rush’s temple, “you should stick around.”

“Not that I’m really arguing,” Eli shouted, leaning forward, “I was going to stay anyway. But—why?”

“Because you might be able to convince Newt to take a look tonight.”

“Seriously? It’s going to be—eleven thirty, at the earliest, that you guys are through your set? And then you’ve got to break everything down.”

Rob shrugged. “I’m just saying. Seven times out of ten you’ll get lucky and catch Newt in a post-Supercos science mood. He can get pretty pumped from this kind of thing. It’s annoying if you want to sleep, but if you want to get him to do something for you; post-show is a good time to ask.” Rob punctuated this pronouncement by determinedly knocking back what remained of his beer.

Eli shot Rush a significant look.

Rush sighed.

He supposed he didn’t have much else to occupy him in the late hours of the evening, aside from sleeping on a cold and minimalist pallet straight out of the Dickensian tradition.

“That was Slamhound,” the front man of Cyberpunkocalypse! shouted into the microphone with much too much verve. “Next up? Acid Pit.

Rush shot Eli and Rob look that he hoped was dripping with sarcastic import. “Ah yes. Acid Pit. Do you think the acid created the pit?” he asked, “or was it a preexisting pit that was, at some point after its creation, filled with acid? We’ll probably never unravel the metaphysical depths of such a teleological paradox.”

He wasn’t sure how much of that Eli had heard over the opening chords of Acid Pit, nor was he able to hear Eli’s response over the wall of sound that emerged from too many amps crammed into too small a space. He shook his head.

Eli rolled his eyes, leaned in, and shouted in Rush’s ear. “Go or stay?”

Rush opened a grudgingly acquiescent hand. Eli grinned at him, slapped his shoulder, and stood to get another beer from the bar upstairs. As soon as he left the table, Rob immediately bent his head over a torn piece of notebook paper and began paying studious attention to the gliding lines of his own pen.

Rush suspected that the lad might be slightly intimidated by ‘Dave.' Not that he’d ever be likely to admit as much.

Rush pulled out his pre-paid phone and texted Eli.

::If you intend to solicit assistance tonight, I would avoid any more alcohol::

::We don’t want to seem like we’re trying too hard:: Eli replied.

::That precludes YOUR involvement entirely:: Rush sent back.

::Do you think you had any friends in days of yore? You’re killing me here DAVE::

Rush looked up in surprise as Rob tapped him on his shoulder. “The first two were easy,” the lad shouted, over the nearly intolerable chords of Acid Pit. “For Eli they were, I guess. But this one—” he slid his crumpled paper toward Rush. “Harder,” he mouthed, making a fist and rapping the page as the front man of Cyberpunkocalypse! began screaming into the microphone, no doubt simulating death via acid pit.

Rush raised his eyebrows at the young man across from him.

Rob rubbed the back of his head in a manner that suggested embarrassment. He fiddled absently with his pen, flicked his eyes toward the band, then leaned forward and mouthed, “They’re kind of terrible. Unless you’re into Thrash Metal.”

Rush shrugged at Rob and looked down at the block of scribbled text that the lad had just laid out from memory. He sighed. They were terribly talented. Both of them—Rob and Eli. Perhaps they’d never received the lesson that more than sheer talent was required for academic success. Perhaps they were dubious about the value of academic success. Perhaps they had rejected a traditional puritanical work ethic for personal, psychological, or social reasons Rush didn’t yet fully understand.

It would have been one thing if they had simply lazed about—or at least, he could have understood such a proclivity, but they didn’t—they spent inordinate amounts of their free time on a worthless pursuit—a game, in fact. Pursuing virtual objectives with more passion than they pursued anything in their actual material lives.

“Why do you do this,” he shouted at Rob, his words inaudible beneath an elaborate guitar riff. “Why don’t you focus your attention on a real problem?”

“What’s not real about this?” Rob replied, again tapping the math with a closed fist.

Rush leaned in. “The mathematics itself is real enough I suppose, but this progresses you only in a virtual environment. There’s no benefit to you other than personal satisfaction.”

“I could say the same thing about watching Random Harvest for my Psych and Cinema class,” Rob shouted back. He flipped over his crumpled notebook paper, pulled out his pen, and drew a sloppy diagram, beginning with the word ‘life,’ and proceeding clockwise in a circle through ‘stylized representation of life,’ and back around to ‘life’ again. Then he drew an arrow curving away from ‘stylized representation of life’ to the words ‘critical analysis,’ and back again to ‘stylized representation of life.’  He then titled his diagram: The Humanities.  Mathématique,” he said, “goes right here.”  He tapped the words ‘stylized representation of life.’ “You dismiss the artistry of the game,” Rob said, leaning close enough to try and shout a complicated thought into Rush’s ear, “but there is no more complete representation of the world, than literally building that world out of code and making it virtually navigable. Gaming fuses science, narrative, visual art, and music. This is art in its purest form. So don’t think of us as useless, man, think of us as the leading edge of a coming movement.”

“You’ve put some thought into this I see,” Rush shouted.

“Whatever. You must know all of this already,” Rob said, tapping the page. “You were involved with game design. That’s what Eli said. You’d have to think this way. Don’t you think this way?”

“Reality is too unstable for me to be sure I even ‘think’ at all,” Rush said.

“Ugh, well, don’t say anything about that to Newt,” Rob shouted, “or he’ll talk your ear off for hours. He’s making a foray into metaphysics or something. I don’t know.”

Eli rejoined them, carrying a set of three glasses in two hands. He slid into the seat next to Rush and passed him his second beer of the evening, then stared down at Rob’s diagram, motioned for the pen, and scrawled “USELESS META,” across the entire span of the paper, smacked it, once, and turned it over. “Stop trying to get Rob to fly straight, and take a look at that problem,” Eli said, indicating the block of equations with his eyes. “You owe me—too many favors to count at this point.”

“Then I’ll thank you to stop buying me alcohol I don’t particularly want,” Rush said, taking the paper and spinning it for a better view.

“This place runs a special—three dollar PBRs on Supercos nights. So between you and Newt I’m out, like, ten bucks. I’ll sink ten bucks into this project. Ten more bucks. No problem. I’m holding my own on the tutoring front these days.”

Rush rested his chin on his hand and tried to concentrate over the sound of Thrash Metal. He traced the throughline of Rob’s logic, but the more he looked at the block of mathematical premises laid out in an unkempt scrawl, the more certain he was that there was something missing. Absently, he hooked a hand over his shoulder, trying to press away some of the strain accumulating as a direct result of to many hours spent on latte art.

“Last song of the night,” the frontman of Cyberpunkocalypse! announced, breaking Rush’s concentration. He looked up to see Newt slide into a vacant chair between himself and Rob. “Academic Excess,” the frontman continued, naming their final song while staring Newt down with a look of dry superiority.

Newt casually raised both middle fingers in wordless reply.

Cyberpunkocalypse! responded with a unified scream that appeared mostly good-natured. Newt stared them down with a look of bored neutrality for a good ten seconds or so, then shifted his gaze to Rob’s block of concepts and equations. “Are you coding in Latin?” He had to shout to be heard over the sound of Academic Excess.

“This?” Eli said, glaring at Newt as he reached over to snatch the scrap of notebook paper off the table. “Is not for you. Not your story. Not your field. Not any of them. Have a beer.” Eli slid Rush’s untouched Pabst Blue Ribbon over to Newt. “Leave the comp sci to the comp sci-entists.”

Newt made an ostentatious gestural flourish in Eli’s direction, appropriated Rush’s beer, then tapped Rob on the shoulder. “Time to go,” he shouted. Rob nodded, and they stood.

Rush watched as they crossed the room and began extracting instruments from a hopeless pile of gear stacked against the far wall in a dark tower.

“I am genuinely not certain I can take another hour of this,” Rush said, dropping his voice as Cyberpunkocalypse!’s final chord faded to an unpleasant ambient ring.

“It’s not going to be thrash metal,” Eli said, pressing tentative fingers against his ears, as if to ascertain they were still attached to his head. “It’s more Nerd Rock than anything, but it’s a little more serious, a little more science heavy than you usually get. They’ve got a little bit of a following. You might not hate it.”

Now that The Nemesis was out of the immediate vicinity, the lad smoothed Rob’s set of mathematics against the table and then returned it to Rush.

“Hmm,” Rush said, resuming his study of the paper, resisting the urge to chew on a pen that wasn’t his own. “Have you looked at this?”

“Yeah,” Eli said quietly, edging his chair slightly closer to Rush, his eyes on Rob, who was hooking up his electric bass. “I have.  I—I feel kind of weird about admitting this, but—”

“You’ve solved it,” Rush said, tuning out the high-pitched sound of auditory nerves in ringing extremis. 

“Nailed it,” Eli murmured. “Not sure why I haven’t told Rob, I just—I don’t know, man. I feel like your paranoia is rubbing off on me. That and the weird stake-out team at the physics building. If that’s what that was. I feel like the game is part of this. Part of whatever’s happening. Rob—I mean yeah. He’s a nerd, he loves Kirk, he’s into the game, really into it, respectably into it, but not—”

“Not like you,” Rush murmured.

“Rob is going to skate his way through CS and when he can’t skate anymore, he’s going to buckle down and do it, you know? He’ll always be good, but he’s not—he’s not a pure math guy. He hasn’t gotten a single cypher.”

“How many are there?” Rush asked.

“We’re actually not sure,” Eli replied.  “There are nine that are obvious, but there may actually be more than that.”

 “How many have you solved?” Rush asked.

“Three,” Eli said.  “Officially.”

“Meaning as far as Rob knows, I take it?” Rush said.

Eli nodded, looking away from the paper beneath Rush’s hands to watch Rob, Newt, and three other band members continue to set up in the space vacated by Cyberpunkocalypse!. “I’m ah—I’ve overtaken him a bit.”

“Have you,” Rush said quietly.  “How far are you?”

“I’ve gotten five of them,” Eli whispered.

“Including this one?” Rush asked, tapping the paper with his pen.

Eli nodded.

“Tell me,” Rush said.

“The mock-up within the game allows the player to provide an input to the cypher subroutine within any given porta that will give you back a 2n output. I was already thinking along the lines of crystal based computing for obvious reasons—but yeah. So started looking for crystals within the game.  I didn’t have to go far. The Directional Stele Device—they call them DSDs in the game—they house the panels that allow you to dial the Porta, and, hi, they use a crystal-based system. The DSDs themselves! I opened one up and got myself in the middle of some kind of data loop that was going back and forth between the Stele and the Porta. Every time I sat there watching the data, I could tell it was degrading. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I tried running a Shor code on the thing to correct for arbitrary single qbit errors—and hey. Jackpot. I mean, admittedly it wasn’t the first thing I tried, but—”

“Eli,” Rush said, not bothering to hide his admiration. “That was inspired.”

“Ha,” Eli said, blushing faintly. “What? Nah. You think so?”

“Yes,” Rush replied. “How long did it take you to parse all of this out?”

“About a week. Anyway. Not a big deal. Rob doesn’t know. But the next one is just killing me, dude. I have no idea where to even go with it. That’s the one we should be talking about. Not this one.“

Rush looked up at the sound of a piano.

Newton Geiszler’s band was halfway through their sound check. The man was sitting at a keyboard, playing what seemed to be an improvised rearrangement loosely based on an aria from Don Giovanni. 

“Mozart,” Rush said, absently.

“Do not encourage him,” Eli replied dryly.

“No,” Rush said, “I mean he’s playing Mozart. Don Giovanni. Act one. Scene four. An arrangement of an aria.”

“Wow. Okay. So, fun fact about you, turns out you’re a massive Opera fan,” Eli said. “Makes sense, I suppose. You married a concert violinist, so I guess you guys would have probably been pretty into dead composers and stuff.”

“I believe,” Rush said slowly, watching Newt put a quiet decorative flourish on the end of a musical phrase before turning it briefly to a rock beat and pounding out a fortissimo final chord, “that I play the piano. Quite well.”

“You just realized this?” Eli asked. “Right here, right now?”

“I—” Rush murmured. “Yes. Watching him, I can—anticipate some of his choices. I’m certain I must play. Or I must know quite a bit about piano arrangements of classical pieces for voice?”

Dude,” Eli said, “let’s find out. I’m sure Newt would let you mess around on his keyboard after the show, and, if you’re any good, you can probably make way more money playing swanky hotel parties than you can as a starving barista. Enough to buy that computer to message J’Shep.”

“I feel,” Rush said, still watching the piano somewhat covetously, and with an abrupt and sudden longing, “that I’m likely to be quite good.”

“It’s actually hard for me to picture you being bad at anything. Except for being fun-loving and carefree. I’m pretty sure you’re bad at that. I bet you’re terrible at full contact sports. Stand up comedy? Making friends.”

“I befriended you didn’t I?” Rush asked.

“Yeah, I guess, but it was more like vice versa. And it’s been a constant struggle. For me.”

Rush kept his eyes on the keyboard as Newt switched to guitar. Mozart’s piano sonatas, a set of them, arrived in his mind with a set of motor patterns that suddenly seemed to wake, itching in his fingers, in his muscles and tendons and ligaments, ready, waiting, able to lift free and live—a parting gift from the man whose life he’d unintentionally appropriated.

“You’re staring that keyboard down like nobody’s business,” Eli said quietly.

“I have an extensive musical repertoire of which I remember only a fraction,” Rush whispered. “It’s pure dead frustrating.”

“Ugh,” Eli said. “But—how do you know what’s in your repertoire if you can’t remember anything?”

“I have to first imagine a piece and only then can I determine whether my knowledge of it contains information regarding how it might be played.”

“So you have to, like, think: Mozart Piano Thing Number N. What does it sound like? Can I play that?”

Rush nodded.

“That’s annoying,” Eli said.

“Profoundly,” Rush replied.

“Guess we know what you’ll be doing when you finally wire your place for internet,” Eli said. “Lists and lists of musical pieces. Do you like Mozart? Can you tell? Do you think your preferences are the same as they were? Do you like Beethoven? Do you like one better? Can you determine relative rankings?  I’m so intrigued by this weird selective amnesia thing. Like what the heck, dude. It’s so interesting and biologically improbable.”

“Hello,” Newt said into the microphone onstage, before Rush could respond. “Er, how about another round of applause for the thrashiest thrash metal band in Cambridge Massachusetts?” 

There was a round of applause in which Rush participated only half-heartedly. His eyes were still on Newt’s keyboard, his thoughts retracing the man’s arrangement of the aria and then trying to fan organically into other things he might have played. Simple chords, melodically conjunct. Mozart’s Piano Concerto Number 20. Beethoven’s Eighth Piano Sonata. The one in C minor. That last one pulled something with it—almost, almost, almost

“We are The Superconducting Supercolliders,” Newt said, with a strangely anxious reserve, shattering Rush’s near revelation. A round of applause and catcalls erupted around them. Eli rolled his eyes, clapping sedately. “And we are sad that the Desertron is dead,” Newt finished with more confidence, settling the strap of his electric guitar over one shoulder. 

At the back of the stage, someone began strumming an acoustic chord, ringing, open, sustained. Initial feedback resolved as Newt signaled the soundwoman to back off the gain, a hand pressing slowly downward against the air. The vocals came in with the percussion, and then the whole band entered in unison, with two precise hits on the dominant.

Rush furrowed his brows, listening to the lyrics. “Is this—a song about particle accelerators?” he asked Eli.

Eli sighed. “Eh. Yes and no. Ask Rob about it. He could write you a treatise on the intersectionality of metaphysics, popular conceptions of American science, the fabric of the universe, the empirical versus the theoretical, and iconic irony versus sincere iconoclasm supercolliding with Dr. Newton Geiszler’s urge to play overdriven electric guitar while getting the crowd to sing the name of his own band in the structure of a musical round. What? Don’t give me that face. Nerd culture is my skillset. Arguably my only one.”

“That’s untrue,” Rush said.

“It’s a little bit true,” Eli replied, tapping his fingers in time with the driving percussion.

“It’s not even remotely true. If you’d like to castigate yourself for something, your skillsets are not your area of deficiency. If you would simply apply yourself in some direction, any direction that society values—”

“I,” Eli said, “am an artist. Of math. And of gaming. And, as I explained, I hate The Man. For real. Not for fake.”

Rush waved a dismissive hand. “Fine. You’ve made your point. Several times. A point with which I don’t happen to agree, but when it comes to confounding skills with choices, you can tie it a chuck.”

“What?” Eli said, grinning. “What does that even mean.” 

Rather than answer, Rush turned his attention to Dr. Geiszler’s comparatively unobjectionable band.

At the end of the show, Rush sat down at the electronic keyboard. He did it without permission, sliding into place on the minimalist, collapsible stool, his hands finding their way straight into the third movement of Mozart’s eleventh piano sonata.

Written in Paris, in the key of A major, the syncopated crash of fortissimo passages snapped next to the delicate rattle of intricate, rhythmic builds—it was fair fucking brilliant and pure dead Mozart.  Playing it felt like meeting someone he’d known; identifying someone, finally, after weeks and weeks alone, knowing him at a distance, recognizing him by his walk, by the tilt of his head, by the way he’d begun to flout convention, by the way he threw over the allegro that everyone would have expected for set of variations on a slow theme with unsetting right hand octaves, by the way he’d turned a second movement into a minuet, the way he’d turned the third movement from A minor back to A major at the end.

This was the closest he’d come to knowing anyone, and it was a dead person, a person who’d been dead for over two hundred years, but that didn’t matter because he knew this; he knew this work and he had—a sense of the man who’d written it. This piece, this dead musical prodigy, had been personally tied to huge swaths of whomever Rush had been.

He slammed his hands down on the double A chords that ended the movement, then looked, up, shaken, to a round of applause from the thinned out crowd. Eli caught his eye and grinned, but there was a note of wariness in his expression that he couldn’t quite conceal.

“Shit dude,” Newt said, his hands jammed into his pockets, standing at the center of a tight cluster of The Superconducting Supercolliders. “You are good.”

“So I knew you were going to be amazing,” Eli said, arms crossed, leaning against a locked door.  

Rob had keyed them into the building where Newt’s lab was located and they now stood in the dark hallway, waiting for the scientist to make an appearance. 

“I’m not creeped out by the amazingness of it. Well, okay, that’s not entirely accurate. I was creeped out by how amazing it was because you haven’t played a piano for at least—how long have we known each other? Seven or eight weeks or something, now? And I mean, sure, once you get to a certain level, playing an instrument is kind of like—okay well I don’t think it’s like riding a bike at all. It’s probably like coming back to calculus or something. Or maybe if you were a champion seamstress, you could just sit down and sew the crap out of a dress? My mom makes her own clothes, mostly. Anyway. Um? It was actually pretty incredible for a guy who hasn’t played in eight weeks or more. But beyond that—dude, you were like, into it into it, you know? More into it than I’ve ever seen you get into anything, including, like, your own life and your own future. That was the creepy aspect, I suppose.” Eli yawned. “This was a terrible idea. It’s one in the morning. I’m too tired to think straight. He’s not gonna show. Or, worse, he’s gonna show at, like, a quarter til three.”

“I suppose I feel like I know him,” Rush said, his ears still ringing faintly in the aftermath of Cyberpunkocalypse!.

“Newt?” Eli said, confused. “You guys both have a puritanical work ethic, that’s for sure. You probably got yours from Scotland. I have no idea where he got his.”

“No,” Rush said. “Not Dr. Geiszler. Mozart.”

“You feel like you know Mozart. Like, Mozart Mozart? Volfgahng Amadeus? That guy? The guy who made child stardom seem like a good idea when it definitely, definitely was not? The dead guy. The dead guy who you’ve definitely never met ever one time in your life. That Mozart.”

“Yes,” Rush said.

“And just when I thought it was literally impossible for you to get weirder,” Eli said philosophically, yawning again, “you go and prove me wrong. Ugh. Where is this guy. Seriously. Of the three of us, he probably has the craziest day tomorrow. We should not have let him out of our sight. Why did we listen to Rob. Never listen to Rob. That’s one of my cardinal rules, actually.”

“He said he’d meet us here,” Rush replied, “and I’m certain he will. He seemed quite enthusiastic.”

“He also has the attention span of a puppy,” Eli said. “I’m going to be pissed if—”

Eli broke off as Newt rounded a dim corner, silent in his converse sneakers, cutting an unremarkable profile against the dark. He had replaced his guitar with a messenger bag, its strap crossed over his chest.

“Hey,” Newt said, picking up his pace and jogging down the hall. “Sorry. I always underestimate the time it’s going to take me to unload my car. Well, load and then unload. Anyway, who are you people? Why do you want to do this now? Don’t tell me. I don’t care. I’m pumped. I can never get anyone to hang out with me at two in the morning. I hate sleeping. It’s a grinder. Just a slow horrible grind and regrind of your day, of the movie you wish you’d never seen or that postmodern novel it’s too late to haven’t have read, of awful memories, of the roots of weird phobias you’d rather forget. Shit no one needs. Ever. But nooooo. Science says sleep is ‘good.’ Science says that. Supposedly.” Newt unlocked the door of the lab and flipped on a light.

Rush and Eli eyed one another skeptically. “Ummmm,” Eli said, as they followed Newt over to what was, apparently, his bench space.

“Oh sure,” Newt replied, the words an ironic tee-up for a coming swing. “And you dream of what?”

“Math,” Eli said. “Astrophysics.”

“Eli. For the love. Come back to MIT. What are you doing dude?” To Rush, he said, “Please, have a seat.”

“No chairs for the dropouts, I see,” Eli observed.

Newt looked at Rush, pulling his messenger bag over his head. “Is he trying to pick a fight with me?” He flipped the bag open, pulled out his laptop, the long snake of an unwound power supply, a voice recorder, a phone, a pen, and a notebook. “I think he’s trying to pick a fight with me.”

“You may be correct,” Rush replied, “but I don’t presume to understand the inner workings of young Mr. Wallace’s mind.”

“I’m not picking a fight with you,” Eli said with a friendliness that had something of a forced aspect to it. “Why would I pick a fight with you?”

“We occupy the same sociological niche, and I am clearly the alpha nerd?” Newt suggested.

“We’ll see about that,’ Eli said.

“Boys,” Rush said dryly, “play nicely, if you would.”

“Well,” Newt said, staring at his laptop screen, “in the spirit of playing nicely, or not, your wearable hardware isn’t answering any over-the-air pings or declaring itself to my local network, so that’s great. You want to tell me how to interrogate this thing?”

“I’d rather you made the attempt first,” Rush replied. “I’d like to see if you’re capable of getting in on your own.”

“Well the answer to that is no. I’m a biologist, dude, not a hacker,” Newt replied. “I wouldn’t have the first clue about—”

“That’s why I brought Eli,” Rush said archly.

“Sweetness,” Eli said.

At half past three in the morning, Rush sat at Newt’s bench, chin in hand, thinking longingly of his cold, dangerous, unfurnished apartment. Eli, too, was showing signs of fatigue. Newt was dragging the pair of them along, powering the entire attempt with a well of depthless energy that had begun to strike Rush as potentially having some element of subtle pathology to it.

“Why did you type that?” Newt snapped, hovering next to Eli. “What are you trying to do? Are you trying get around the constraints of the software? I’ve never seen anyone come at it like this before. Obviously. Maybe you should write your own program. I can give you the hardware specs. We’d have to table this for now, but we might have better luck that way, rather than trying to brute force our way through code that wasn’t really designed to—”

“You’re sure your transmitter is working?” Eli snapped, clipped and irritated.

“It was working this morning,” Newt said. “Yesterday morning. Whatever. We can retest, again, for your peace of mind, but from a hardware standpoint we’re fine. From a wetware standpoint we are also fine. Ha. Software’s the problem. If you would spend literally two minutes explaining to me what it is you’re trying to do, I can probably—”

“I’m trying to interface remotely,” Eli said through politely gritted teeth. “I’m pretty sure it’s a transducer problem. Maybe if you wouldn’t use a 4GL program that makes debugging almost impossible—”

“What do you want from me?” Newt asked. “I’m not a computer scientist. You guys said you wanted a neuromechanics person to take a look. At no point was facility with a terminal window specified as a prerequisite. Why are you even involved at all?”

“I’m involved because you don’t have a prayer of getting yourself to the point where your expertise is going to actually be of any use—and the whole point of this is to subject this thing to high-level, over-the-air hackery using a combination of my ingenuity and your prefabbed neuromechanics control program. You—” 

“Now now,” Rush said mildly, before Eli could irrevocably insult his only hope of readmittance to MIT. “You’re both making an excellent effort I’m sure.” In response to this comment, they sent him identical glares of outraged indignation.

“I don’t understand why taking them off your head is off the table,” Newt said, addressing Rush this time. “This would be a lot easier if we didn’t have to ask these things for their data so politely.”

“For now, I’m afraid that’s non-negotiable,” Rush replied. “No direct mechanical interference and no dermal separation. The purpose of all of this—“ he waved a hand at the interface between Newt’s rig and his laptop “—is security. The idea is to ensure that our product is not amenable to even technologically sophisticated external influence.”

“Meh,” Newt said. “This would be a lot easier if you’d just give me more technical specs than the broadcast band.”

“But that’s not the point of the exercise,” Rush said.

“Oh I am gooooooood,” Eli said, his gaze still glued to Newt’s laptop. “You know, sometimes I amaze even myself.”

“That doesn’t sound too hard,” Newt replied tartly, crossing his arms.

“Thanks Leia,” Eli replied.

“Eli,” Rush said, trying to coerce himself into some semblance of alertness. “Are you in?”

“Yes and no,” Eli said. “I—transformed Newt’s output into something that plays nice with whatever transducer you’ve got in your technoswag. In other words? Newt’s setup is finally talking to your wearables. At this point, it should be user friendly enough even for a biologist to handle. So.” Eli turned to Newt. “Do whatever it is you do with your cute little MATLAB program.”

Newt pushed his glasses up, elbowed Eli aside, input a few commands, and then said, “Huh. This does not look like anything I’ve seen before. Nevertheless I—think I might have write privileges—oh, nope. Nope I do not. It’s letting me see a limited selection of code but not taking any input. What language is this? God, it’s got to be a weird one. Is this some kind of proprietary thing? This is clearly code but these are not—this—”

“Dave,” Eli said, looking over Newt’s shoulder. “Check it out.”

Rush leaned over to look at Newt’s screen, not particularly inclined to get out of his chair at the back of three in the morning. 

The display was covered with code written in Ancient. 

In Ancient, rather than any conventional coding language. 

He and Eli locked eyes. The lad was fair vibrating with excitement and unease. Rush tried to keep his own concerns off his face.

“May I?” he asked Newt, already pulling the laptop laterally, falling into this with the same ease he’d fallen into Mozart’s eleventh piano sonata. When faced with an Ancient prompt, he knew what to type to bypass the software wall that had locked Newt out and to dig down into the program itself.

Discovering his ability to code in Ancient was significantly more troubling than discovering his ability to play the piano. To be this facile with the computational language, he must have worked with this code intensively. Over a prolonged period of time. 

“What is this?” Newt snapped. The words had a worrying steel to them, and Rush glanced laterally at the neuroscientist to find the man staring straight back at him, with more than a trace of confrontation in his expression.

“A proprietary programing language,” Rush said, returning to scanning lines of code with a casual interest that hopefully didn’t look excessively forced. “You’ve done exceptionally well, Dr. Geiszler. Now that you made it in, I’ve—simply elected to streamline the process for you.” Rush looked up at him with an expression he hoped was entirely trustworthy. “I’d be very curious to know what you make of this.” He passed the computer back to Newt, who frowned at him, but began scanning lines of text.

“Not a whole lot,” Newt said, oblivious to the way Eli was practically vibrating over his shoulder as he watched him scroll. “I mean, this is a programming language I literally can’t read, do not know, have never seen. It doesn’t even use, like, letters I recognize. Numbers. But—” he broke off, and the rate of his scrolling increased and then doubled back on itself and slowed as he evidently made an effort to verify or test some working hypothesis. “Based on style conventions in the neuromechanics community, this looks like the core of the running program right here,” Newt said, identifying a section that Rush could read as a set of six equations. The graduate student studied the screen, his arms crossed over his chest. “This, I think, is going to be crackable  At least to some degree. Like this—this right here? this looks different from the rest of it. If I were basing this on cutting edge principles of neuromechanics right here is where—”

“Where what?” Eli asked, unable to contain himself.

“Well it’s weird, right—I could almost—I think I might be able to crack this thing. Translate it, to some extent. Because I think it might be partially based on a communally available program that’s been used to interface transduced electrical signals from the human motor cortex with, say, a robotic appendage. Clearly that’s not what your devices are doing, but this chunk, right here—this is a set of equations that drive the operations end of your technoswag.”

“You think you could crack it?” Eli asked, guarded. “As in—translate this stuff? No offense, but how?  Without a primer of some kind?”

“Maybe,” Newt said. “Then again, maybe not. Technically it’s not my area, but do you see these, er, popsicle shaped things that are partitioned into nine blocks? Or, rather, I guess it’s like, there’s sort of the popsicle frame which can be filled with up to nine blocks, making a complete popsicle-thing? That just seems like a base ten numeral system to me. Right off the bat. Like, this popsicle that’s missing one block is probably eight. The empty popsicle frame is probably zero—”

At this point, Rush stopped listening. He didn’t need a translation, he needed some kind of assessment as to what these six equations were actually doing. “Yes yes,” he said, breaking in over Newt’s free-form parsing of Ancient code. “I have no doubt, based on all you’ve said, that you would be more than capable of translating our internal code and parsing these equations. Very impressive. We may as well skip that step, then. Do you have a pen?”

Newt pulled a small black notebook from a back pocket and handed it to Rush, who made short work of transcribing the six equations on the screen. He studied them, attempting to determine what they were. He didn’t immediately recognize what their purpose might be. He angled Newt’s notebook so that they all could examine the mathematics.

“What the heck,” Eli said.

“Ha,” Newt said, and smacked the notebook with the back of two fingers. “Piezoelectric production of an EM field. They look weird but that’s what these are. I think. I’m pretty sure. Yeah, no, I’m positive.”

Rush looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Pardon me, but how do you—”

“Piezoelectrics are my jam. Literally I’ve made my own piezoelectric guitar pickups. I get my hands dirty a little bit. In the math. What can I say. I dabble. My best guess? Your proprietary wearables are powered by minor mechanical disruption that occurs naturally when you move. It uses that power to generate some kind of EM field in accordance with these six functions. Why? I have no idea. I think we could probably modify that field using my setup. But that seems a little pointless to me because you already know what the devices are doing. I mean.  Unless you want me to literally see if I can screw with them for reasons of—”

“No,” Rush said. “Not tonight. It’s quite late.”

“It’s early somewhere,” Newt said, studying his MATLAB interface.

“Who are you?” Eli asked.

“Future you?” Newt suggested.

Rush ripped the page out of Newt’s notebook, more than ready to call it a night. “I’m afraid I’ll have to keep this.”

“Same time tomorrow?” Newt asked.

“I’ll be in touch,” Rush said, evasively.

“Don’t call us,” Eli said, shouldering his bag. “We’ll call you.”

“Hey,” Newt snapped. “Where’s that CV?”

Eli sighed dramatically, but pulled a crumpled set of papers out of his bag and handed them over to Newt.

“Much appreciated, Dr. Geiszler,” Rush murmured.

They left the building in silence. Rush, who had been expecting a torrent of overexcited prose from Eli, was surprised to find the lad relatively subdued as they began the walk toward the car.

“It’s stopped raining,” Eli said quietly, looking up into the dark. “I think—um, given the kind of code your technoswag is running—we may want to rethink a few things.”

“Agreed,” Rush said.

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