Mathématique: Chapter 61

 Sheppard, party of nine?

Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds.

Additional notes: Everyone have their cocoa? Circle round.

Chapter 61

“Dave, you’re a machine,” Coral said, sliding onto the piano bench beside him. “It’s kinda worrisome.”

Rush squinted skeptically at her. The dining room of Au Coeur was almost intolerably bright, full of glassware that glittered in the late afternoon sun. 

“Don’t try to British me.” Coral looked at him, indignant and backlit. “I’m immune to tricks I invent. You’re going to be playing for hours tonight. You shouldn’t also play now.”

“I’m trying to recall more of my repertoire.” Rush moved through a few broken chords with protracted precision. “This Bach isn’t going to remember itself.”

“Buy some sheet music. That’s what the last guy used.” She tapped the piano’s empty music stand with a painted fingernail.

“Poor form,” Rush murmured.

Before she’d interrupted him, he’d been in the midst of digging the entire Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier out of his memory. It didn’t much want to come, and he suspected he’d only ever learned the thing because Gloria had played Gounod’s Ave Maria overtop it. As he worked out the melody, the absence of the violin was, itself, a presence.

“Question for you.” Coral watched his right hand ascend and descend through the components of each chord. “What are the things on your head? You said they were medical devices. But what are they for?”

“They’re—experimental,” Rush said.

“Part of a clinical trial?”

He hesitated. For all he knew, they could be. It wasn’t a bad idea. There must be a way to search for such things. And—yes. Of course there was. There was a national clinical trials database, searchable by the public. And he knew this—how? Why?

It seemed a terribly sad fact to have at one’s fingertips.

He sighed. “Go back to medical school. Maybe you’ll figure it out, if you’re so curious.”

“I can take a hint,” Coral said, “and I’m not trying to be a jerk. But here’s the thing. They just look—well, they don’t look very legit, man. There’s, like, tape on them. I’m concerned. This concerns me.”

“Your concerns have been noted,” Rush said archly, restarting the Prelude, moving fluidly through the opening. 

“But what’s the tape for?”

“Fuck if I know, Half-Doctor McClure. I’m a pianist. They came this way.”

“Okay, but they came that way from where?”

“Why did you leave medical school?” Rush shot back before he’d even had time to consider the counter-question.

What an interesting set of instincts he seemed to have when it came to interpersonal communication.

“Because it sucked,” Coral replied, staring out into a bright sea of glare on glassware. “The culture is horrible. Medical school is like a factory for taking nice people and destroying all their best qualities.”

“And yet there must be compensations. Maybe, if you’d stayed, you’d be able to name every medical device you see,” Rush said.

“Sometimes it’s not worth it, man.”

“Perhaps not,” Rush agreed, “though I am curious what you’ll do with your native curiosity and strong urge to be of assistance.”

“I don’t have an ‘urge to be of assistance’.” The girl fair bristled with indignation. “I have an independent streak and I care about people. That’s totally different than having an ‘urge to be of assistance’.”

Rush looked resolutely down at his hands, moving over the keyboard. He did his best not to appear even remotely amused. “Mmm hmm.”

“Hey. Just because I taught you how to be British, how to wait for tips, and how to get the best kitchen leftovers doesn’t mean I’d do that for anyone. Maybe I just have a soft spot for people who seem like they wandered in off the set of Sci-Fi Downton Abbey.”

“Ah,” Rush said, moving through the Prelude. “My mistake.”

Coral was quiet, all the way through the short piece.

When he’d completed it, he rolled his aching shoulders and looked up at the nearest painting, which happened to be Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, fractured by artificial lines of gold lacquer.

“Do you think they made it better?” Coral murmured, following the line of his gaze. “Or did they just ruin it?”

“The painting?” Rush asked quietly.

“Yeah,” Coral said, her voice cracking to a whisper, her eyes wet. “The painting. All those broken places.”

“I’m not sure I believe in ruination,” he said. “As a concept.”

“Hmm,” Coral wiped away a tear. “That sounds nice. But it’s hard to square with everything that can happen to the human body. The human mind. It’s all ruination. All day long. All life long.”

Absently, Rush began the Bach again. “Certainly,” he said, broken chords coming slow under his words, “things, people, civilizations, cultures, concepts—give way.”

“Give way,” Coral said hollowly. “Yeah. Being a doctor is just a whole life of endings.”

Rush nodded. “But the going out is as important as the coming in, I expect. Maybe more so. Even ruins have their own stories. Their own afterlives.”

“Maybe,” Coral said, as the piece drew, again, to a close. “I’ll think about it, Dave.”

Shortly before the first seating, Rush stood in the narrow hallway that connected the dining room and kitchen, glaring at his phone. He’d been keeping an eye on the thing all day. That morning he’d followed a string of hundreds of real-time texts from Eli, which had included, near the end, a photograph of an inscription in Physical Chemistry: A Molecular Approach that read:

Hey Nick, I’m back on Earth. Let’s use regular email.

J Shep had written his terrestrial email address below the short message, and then signed his name in the same style he’d used on the small drawing in Rush’s wallet. 

After sending the photo, Eli had sent a short burst of messages, which Rush had now looked at so many times he’d committed them to memory.

::OK, heading out::

::Lots to discuss but J Shep and his Canadian friend seem legit::

::Like legit legit::

::Will call soon::

Since that time, Rush had heard nothing. At all. He’d tried calling the lad around noon, but there’d been no answer. He’d tried again at half-past two. He navigated to his contacts and gave it another go, leaning back against the wall, listening to the clatter of dishes in the nearby kitchen beneath the unanswered ringing of Eli’s phone.

It went to voicemail. Again.

This was troubling.

More than troubling, he decided, as he began to search Amtrak timetables for trains between New York and Boston. They ran fairly frequently, and it seemed, if the last diners didn’t linger, he might be able to catch a train that very evening. Of course, what he’d do when he got to Boston and failed to find Eli was not at all clear to him.

“I told you not to engage,” Rush hissed, reopening his messaging app.

“What?” One of the passing waitstaff edged around him, carrying a stack of empty trays.

“Sorry, nothing,” Rush said absently. “Have they started seating yet?”

“Not yet,” the waiter called back over his shoulder. “You’ve got probably ten minutes. Weird vibe tonight. There’s a whole big group that’s early. They’re all downstairs in the lobby, wearing way more leather than anyone wants to see. Gotta be some kind of alt-fashion crowd.”

“Mmm, lovely.” Rush looked back at his messaging app, trying to glare it into producing something new.

::Eli, I’m extremely concerned. Please contact me as soon as possible::

He waited. But there was no response.

“I could use a superpositioned perspective,” he whispered into the quiet hallway.

Nothing was forthcoming.

“That tracks,” he muttered, pocketing his phone and sending a fiery look into empty air. 

As the first diners began to enter the dining room, Rush strode over to the piano, sat down, and launched straight into the Bach Prelude he’d been working up not an hour before. It went well, but didn’t last him long. He played it through twice, then transitioned straight into Schubert’s Impromptu in G-Flat Major.

His classical crossfade caught the attention of one of the diners seated at the nearest table. A blond man with an affable demeanor and an aggressive leather jacket gave him a subtle thumbs up. 

Rush smiled faintly at him.

The blond’s dinner companion brought a hand to his face, seemed to gather himself, then looked deliberately away from Rush, out at the rest of leather-clad clientele. The blond-haired man glanced at his companion, then back at Rush, and shrugged, as if in subtle apology.


Rush slowed the ending of the Impromptu to blend it into Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor, which earned him yet another thumbs up from the blond man, this time accompanied by an appreciative nod. 

The waitstaff began greeting the diners, offering them water and wine lists. The sommelier stepped onto the floor, beginning his rounds, as Rush played through the first half of the Fantasia. He kept the piece pensive and restrained, minimally intrusive, trying not to steal too much of the show too early in the night. He’d just reached the introduction of the second subject with its turn to the major, when the elevator chimed, on the far side of the room.

It was a bit late for anyone to be joining the first seating.

The doors drew back, revealing a large, striking, immaculately dressed party. There were nine of them. Their entire aesthetic screamed a challenge to the leather-clad group already seated.

The New York fashion scene was a fair sight more aggressive than he’d ever bothered to consider.

Four of the nine were women: a blonde with close-cropped hair, wearing a royal blue pant suit; a redhead, with piles of curls, in a dress that was short and green; a brunette, her hair pinned into an elegant french twist, wearing a chic black skirt with a tailored jacket; and a raven-haired woman, her long hair cascading down her back, dressed in a burgundy sheath and heeled boots. 

Five of the nine were men: dressed in form-fitting tailored suits; all of them well-built, strikingly attractive, and sporting determined facial expressions. They carried themselves well, with a wide streak of on-her-majesty’s-secret-service in their bearing.

The entire room turned to watch the Party of Nine as they moved forward, forming a loose cluster behind the man with spiked dark hair who was, of all of them, doing the best James Bond impression. He seemed like—their leader?

They approached the tables seriously. Silently.

There was nowhere for them to sit.

It was causing confusion among the waitstaff. Rush locked eyes with the sommelier and shrugged, uneasy, crashing ahead with the Mozart, ratcheting up the volume.

The entire thing was hitting as pure dead bizarre.

Following musical instincts not entirely under his own control, he saw an opportunity to melodically transition to Chopin’s first nocturne. The one in B-flat minor. He took it.

“Is he seriously playing Chopin right now?” The question was perfectly audible in the quiet of the dining room. It came from one of the men in the Party of Nine. He had short, brown hair and a face Rush recognized from dreams of a silver city on a sea without waves.

The man with spiked hair looked straight at Rush. “Nice,” he said, smiling.

Every window in Au Coeur exploded inward.

Military personnel in black fatigues crashed into the room in showers of glass. The Party of Nine scattered, weapons in hand, as, all around them, leather clad diners stood, kicking over chairs and tables as the room erupted in a lightning storm of electrical discharges.

The man with the spiked hair was making straight for Rush.

Rush wasn’t certain how to respond to this extremely unexpected turn of events.

Therefore? He kept playing the nocturne.

He kept playing the nocturne until he was tackled.

He went down, the piano bench coming with him, as the blond man from the nearest table crashed into him. “Hi,” the man breathed, pulling the bench away from Rush and sliding it between them and the in-progress firefight with one well placed application of his boot.

“Hello,” Rush replied numbly, watching his new acquaintance get a leather-clad shoulder beneath the piano and manage to tip the thing over with a dissonant crash. He ducked down behind it, crouching next to Rush, who was sprawled on the floor.

“Ugh,” the man whispered, eyeing the askew pedal box. “Just know that I feel really bad about doing that. It was a nice piano. But we need the cover.”

“Right,” Rush said numbly, staring at the underside of the instrument, its action and hammers visible through cracked wood.

“Yeah, I know,” the man replied sympathetically, kneeling next to him. He put a hand on Rush’s shoulder and tightened his fingers. “You okay? Firefights are kind of a lot. Is this your first one?”

“I’m—” Rush began. On the other side of the piano, he could hear shouting, crashing tables, breaking glassware, and the strangely familiar sound of discharging capacitors. “I’m not sure?”

“Yeah,” the man said, smiling down at him. “I know. Sorry. Anyway. Pro tip, probably next time stop playing the piano once it starts.”

“In retrospect—yes,” Rush said breathlessly. “I’m not sure why I did that. I—”

“Eh, don’t beat yourself up about it. These things happen when you get surprised. And hey. On the plus side, every time I get in a firefight, for the rest of my life, I’m gonna think about Chopin.” His blue eyes were warm. “So, thanks.”

Rush tried to slow his racing thoughts. He was finding it difficult, in large part because his—rescuer?—protector?—was conducting himself with such an absurd level of calm, especially given the chaos on the far side of the piano’s top board. “You’re welcome, I suppose.”

The other man grinned at him, then peered over the upper edge of the piano. “We’re gonna make a high profile break for the stairwell,” he said, “but I want people to see us do it, so we’ll have to pick our moment.”

Overhead, the lights flickered.

“Not sure I should be accompanying you,” Rush said, eyeing the man over the rims of his glasses.

“Oh man. That was, like, such a good piano pun,” the blond man said, grinning down at him. “Plus, you’re right. In more ways than one. My name’s Dale. Dale Volker, by the way.”

Rush scraped together a few more of his wits and shifted his position, drawing his legs beneath him into a balanced crouch. “Nicholas Rush.”

“I know, buddy. We’ve met.” Dale Volker smiled kindly at him.

“We have?”

“Yeah, before I became a Space Pirate.”

“Oh,” Rush said weakly, balancing on the balls of his feet and his fingertips. “You’re a—Space Pirate, then?”

“Well, no one calls it that but me. The rest of the Space Pirates don’t really like the term,” Dale said, peering out from behind the piano. “They call themselves the ‘Lucian Alliance.’ Sorry. I’m not great at this.”

“Space piracy?”

“Well, actually, I have a little bit of a talent for Space Piracy it turns out. No, by ‘not great at this’ I meant ‘the communicating with you’ part of things. We’re both at a real disadvantage right now.”

“I think you’re doing fine, given the circumstances,” Rush whispered shakily, hoping to encourage the man’s explanatory tendencies. “You might consider sharpening up your language. Space Pirates—well, as a term, it’s not terribly specific.”

“Inappropriate precision is just as misleading as vagueness. Sometimes more so.” Dale ducked back behind the piano and grinned at him. “And they really are an imprecise, piratical mess of an organization. From space. I gotta say though, it’s pretty hard to define them while they’re actively trying to abduct you.”

“Was that a specific case or a general case?”


“Are they trying to abduct me? Or are you speaking from personal experience? Or are you generalizing to a hypothetical ‘you’?”

“Oh, um, all three. But, to highlight what’s important, they’re definitely trying to abduct you. Right now. Actually, presuming you want to stay free and clear, there are two sets of people trying to abduct you. The Space Pirates and the Air Force. They’re the ones cosplaying as James Bond tonight. That’s fun.” Dale, peering out over the top of the piano, lifted his eyebrows, clearly impressed. “They look really good. I hope someone’s filming the Sheppard versus Telford fight that’s happening right now. It’s pretty epic.”

Sheppard. Telford. J Shep? David Telford? And finally, finally, Rush felt a working model fall into place. David Telford was part of the Air Force. He knew this, because he had the man’s business card. J Shep was almost certainly from space, given the dreams and the drawing and the fluency in an alien language. If J Shep was Sheppard— 

“Sheppard is a Space Pirate?”

“No, good try, but he’s Air Force. Telford is the Space Pirate.”

“David Telford?” Rush asked, his short-lived working model in pieces on the floor of his mind.

Dale looked down at him sharply. “You know him?”

“I have his business card in my wallet. It says Air Force.” Rush flinched as one of the overhanging chandeliers took a blast from an electrical weapon and shorted out in a shower of sparks. 

“Life is, like, super confusing sometimes,” Dale said philosophically, looking back out over the piano. “But, whether you want to come with me or not, no matter what side I’m on, we gotta get you out of this room alive. And there are just way too many guns in here for my taste. Agree?” 

Rush nodded at him shakily.

Dale peered over the top edge of the piano again. “We’re just waiting for the path to the far wall to be cleared and for a little break in the action. I want to make sure both sides see us go for the door.”

“If I’m the subject of this firefight, wont everyone just—follow us?”

“Nah, they won’t be able to. They’re pretty entrenched in their positions now. And there’s a lot of animosity in the air. People are shooting to shoot, just as much as they’re here for you.”

“Ugh,” Rush said, bringing one hand to his face.

“Don’t feel too bad about it. I think both sides are trying to minimize collateral deaths, and the Space Pirates managed to buy out a huge proportion of the seating tonight. Plus,” he scanned the room. “It’s mostly energy weapons in the mix.”

“What about the Maître d’?” Rush asked.

“Downstairs?” Dale glanced at him. “Intense hair? I’m sure she’s fine. The Air Force is holding the lower levels. They were a little late to the party; we have them on the back foot. They’re clearing floors of civilians as they go. That’s what they do. But it takes time to be responsible, so they sent the heavy hitters up in the elevator. And, er, through the windows, I guess. We just gotta get you down to the second floor without getting you killed.”

“But—isn’t that in Air Force territory?” Rush asked, confused, adjusting his glasses. “Aren’t you a Space Pirate?”

“Yeah. Sorry, this is super convoluted. Even though I’m a Space Pirate? I’m trying to get you to the Air Force. Somebody’s going to end up with you tonight, and the Air Force is definitely the best option.”

“Are they?” Rush asked, not at all certain. He’d been harboring a pro-J Shep and anti-Air Force bias for weeks; it was hard to let go in the midst of a mixed-signals firefight. And J Shep was from space, most likely. As were the space pirates. The Air Force was, presumably, terrestrial. None of this made sense.

“Yeah.” Dale looked down at Rush, his expression pained, his eyes terribly kind. “You ready? This is a good time to go.” He reached a hand down.

Lacking context, lacking viable options, Rush took it.

Dale pulled him up and pushed him forward, toward a door at the side of the room. He heard a collection of hard to decipher shouting beneath the sound of electrical discharges. A woman called his name, his real name, high and clear, but Dale was forcing him forward, through the door to the stair, and he couldn’t turn.

They emerged in a dim hallway, lit irregularly with dying fluorescent lighting. Mold and rust provided the pale cement with dark, irregular accents. He found himself faced with two leather-clad men, both brandishing sinuous silver weapons.

“Hey guys,” Dale said, in a placating manner, one of the sinuous weapons in his hand and pointed straight at Rush, like it had always been there. “Hey Dannic. It’s me. Dale. Hi. Cover us, okay? I’m taking him to the beam-out point.”

“There’s no beam-out point,” Dannic hissed. “Go from here.”

“Acoustic shadowing in the building superstructure is interfering with our signal,” Dale called back over one shoulder, already pulling Rush along. “Gotta get to a point next to an exterior wall. Below the troposphere. Should be no problem. Cover the door!”

They descended a flight of stairs, Dale anxiously looking up and back to check for signs of pursuit.

“Acoustic shadowing?” Rush asked, keeping his voice low. “Below the troposphere?”

“Oh yeah,” Dale whispered. “I totally made that up. As a culture, Space Pirates aren’t very science literate. Say a science word, then say ‘shadowing,’ and it works eighty-five percent of the time. Gravitational shadowing. Relativistic shadowing. Electromagnetic shadowing. Heck, tropospheric shadowing.”

“Ah,” Rush said, trying to catch his breath. 

“Technobabble won’t get us into Air Force territory though,” Dale said quietly, peering over the edge of the stairwell, looking toward the lower levels. “I think the best bet is to wait for the Air Force to break through. Either from above or below. Which they will. I’m pretty confident.”

“I don’t think I want to go with the Air Force,” Rush said. 

“Okay, let’s talk about it. But, in the meantime, take your blazer off.”

“My blazer?” Rush replied. “Why?”

“Well,” Dale said, his gaze shifting up and down the stairs, “if we’re going to be standing here, we need to look like we’re doing something useful, not just chit-chatting.”

“Something ‘useful’ being?” Rush asked, removing his jacket and dropping it on the cleanest looking patch of cement he could see.

“Me implanting you with a Space Pirate transponder. It’ll look legit to my side. It’ll make sense to your side.”

“I don’t have a side.”

“You do, buddy. It’s the Air Force. I get that probably seems weird and scary, especially since they dramatically crashed your piano party with guns and breaking glass,” Dale replied, fishing through a pocket of his jacket, “but they’re the way to go.”

“Well, what happens to you when the Air Force breaks through and sees you trying to implant me with a transponder?” Rush asked.

“Aw. Well, worst case scenario, the Air Force shoots me with a gun and I die. But they’ll probably use an electrical weapon, which will only stun me. And they usually shout something first. Like ‘back off’. They don’t just go straight for the kill shot. I’ll be fine. Mostly fine. Probably. Roll up your sleeve.”

“You’re rather cavalier about what seems like a substantial risk,” Rush said, beginning cuff the sleeve of his white dress shirt.

“Yeah, well, y’know. Space Pirate life will do that. Here we go.” He pulled a small pneumatic gun out of his pocket.

“Why are you helping me?” Rush whispered.

“The Space Pirate life chose me,” Dale said, not looking at him, checking the small gun in his hand. “Very aggressively. Like it’s trying to choose you. And it’s kinda terrible. Where by ‘kinda terrible’ I mean ‘mindblowingly intensely horrible.’ The Air Force, well, yeah. They have lots of problems. But they’re the best option.”

“That doesn’t answer the question,” Rush said, implacable. “Why are you helping me?”

Dale Volker looked at him, quiet in the dim light of the stairwell.

“I like helping,” he whispered. “It’s the only thing I’ve got left.”

“Not good enough,” Rush said.

The man smiled faintly, his eyes glittering. “The real answer won’t make sense to you. So let’s just say it’s for all the Chopin Firefights I’ll ever have. For this last day of October.”

“It’s not the last day of October.”

“It is for me,” Dale said, gently.

Rush shook his head, but before he could say anything, Dale spoke over him. “Hey, could you do me a favor? If you get back to the SGC, can you look up Lisa Park for me? She’s a scientist. L-I-S-A. P-A-R-K.”

“Lisa Park I can spell, thank you. What’s the SGC?”

“You’ll know it if you make it there. It’s under a mountain. Can you tell her that I think she’s super great?”

Rush looked at the other man, who was staring back at him with a fair fucking tragic amount of hope in his expression. The air smelled of damp cement and dust.

“You want me to tell Lisa Park that Dale the Space Pirate thinks she’s ‘super great’?” Rush whispered.

“Maybe just say Dale Volker. But otherwise, yeah.”

“Just seems like you might be able to do a bit better, mate,” Rush offered gently.

“Well,” Dale said, his voice turning hoarse, and a bit uneven. “What I really hope is that she adopted my cat. They’d be great together. She would cat-sit for me when I was away. She had a key to my place. I like to think that when I vanished one day? She noticed. And she decided to take my cat home with her. She was like that. That’s the kind of thing she was doing all the time. I bet my cat is having a great time right now. Her apartment was full of orchids. He’s probably always trying to chew on the leaves.”

And then, perhaps not unexpectedly, Dale Volker began weeping in the back stairwell of Au Coeur, his face turned away.

Tentatively, Rush placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Sorry,” Dale said, swiping at his cheeks with the back of a hand. “Sometimes it just hits me. I haven’t been a Space Pirate for all that long.”

“Can’t you—escape this life somehow?” Rush asked. “Defect to the Air Force?”

“Unfortunately, the Space Pirate life isn’t something you can just decide to leave,” Dale whispered. “If you do, they come after you. Unless you uproot everyone you care about and you all go somewhere they can never find you. Which is definitely never going to be your old life. So, at the end of the day, Space Piracy becomes one of those things that, when it happens to you, changes your life forever. In ways you don’t really want. Kind of like a medical condition you can’t control. One of those terrible costs of living. Genes and environment, man. That’s how it happened to me. That’s how it’s trying to happen to you.”

The sound of electrical discharges echoed from somewhere above them.

“I’ll find out what happened to your cat,” Rush said quietly. “Make sure it’s all right.”

Dale looked at him, his eyes wet. “Would you?”

Rush nodded.

“That’s—really nice of you, man.” Dale whispered, his voice and expression cracking. “He’s a male calico cat. They’re super rare. Like, the unicorn of cats. His name is Mendelssohn.”

“An excellent name,” Rush whispered.

“Thanks,” Dale said. “I knew you’d get it.”

There was a quiet scuffing sound on the cement stair above them.

Dale looked up, then reached across, gently closing his fingers around the wrist of Rush’s exposed forearm. “Okay, buddy. It’s been great.” He sniffed, giving Rush a watery smile. “Who knows. Maybe we meet again someday. Now. Let’s make a good show of this. Start struggling.”

“You seem like a better option than the Air Force,” Rush said, feeling extremely unsure of himself, weakly yanking against the other’ man’s half-hearted grip. “Is there no third path?”

“You’re making this really hard,” Dale whispered, resolutely pulling his arm up, and showily pressing a device to the exposed skin. “But the Air Force is the way to go. If anyone can get your memories back, it’ll be them.”

“How did you know—”

“Most people know more than you right now. That’s the nature of the drug you got. It leaves you everything but your context.”

“A drug caused this?” Rush hissed, struggling with more energy now.

“Yeah,” Dale whispered. “A Space Pirate drug. Telford calls it the TTRC, which stands for Top Tier Recruitment Cocktail, because he loves acronyms. Most of the Space Pirates won’t use its name, if they even know it. Most of them won’t even admit the drug exists. But when they do, they call it the Greeting.”

“The Greeting?” Rush repeated, sending a chill down his own spine.

“Back off!” 

Dale and Rush looked up to see two men descending the stair. Rush recognized them from their memorable entrance into the dining room. Both of them wore well-cut suits. In the lead was the man with spiked, dark hair, his cheekbone bruised, a cut at his hairline, his immaculate suit torn. He carried a sinuous metal weapon that flowed in a wave from his wrist to his hand.

You back off,” Dale snapped, yanking Rush’s forearm.

The man fired at Dale, who released Rush before the electrical discharge hit. Dale was knocked back by the energy blast. He hit the floor hard, and Rush followed him down, too late to break his fall, but kneeling next to him, pressing two fingers to his neck. He felt a pulse, steady and strong.

“I can’t believe you just fired,” the second man hissed, his gaze passing over Dale to settle on Rush. “What if he hadn’t let go? Humans are conductors, not insulators. Some people have highly sensitive EM fields applied over their cerebral cortex, modulating in real time. Some people might be uniquely susceptible to zat fire.”

“Some people were about to get abducted by the Lucian Alliance,” the man with the spiked hair said mildly, eyeing Rush over the top of his weapon, which was still trained on Dale. He licked the blood from his split lip, watching Rush slowly withdraw his fingers from Dale’s neck. “Hi, Nick. Whatcha doin’?”

Rush didn’t reply. His gaze flicked back and forth between the pair of them. Slowly, he got to his feet. “I know you,” Rush said, directing his words to the second man, the one with short brown hair. “You’re Canadian.”

“Er. True? Though I don’t think I ever told you that? And even if I had—” 

“Do you remember me?” the first man broke in. He grinned, reopening his split lip. “John Sheppard. Hi. One time we approximated magnetic reconnection by ripping Christmas lights out of an alien ceiling?”

“Sorry,” Rush said. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“No offense, but I don’t know if you have ringable bells,” the Canadian said, his voice tense. “Dr. Rodney McKay. Hi. Not really that nice to meet you. Again. Now that we’ve introduced ourselves, can we get the hell out of this stairway?” He had his silver weapon out, and his gaze was sighting along its curving barrel, in the direction of the upper levels.

“Sorry about McKay,” Sheppard said, shifting his stance to cover the stairs below them. He reached up, swiping a hand along his bleeding lip, then wiping it on his pants. The motion very nearly concealed the way he pulled a small device out of his pocket, similar to the one Dale had been theatrically brandishing. But not quite.

Rush stepped back just as Sheppard lunged forward. The backstep nearly sent him down the flight of stairs at his heels, but he managed to turn, to save it, and Sheppard, who’d been going for his forearm, was forced to rebalance, turning the lunge into a sloppy shoulder throw that Rush managed to torque to his own advantage. 

Both of of them hit the cement of the landing. Hard. 

The fight was vicious and short.

They paused, tangled together, breathing heavily, Sheppard with the device pressed to Rush’s left forearm, Rush with Sheppard’s sidearm held against Sheppard’s temple.

The stairwell was very quiet.

Distantly, they heard the sound of gunfire and electrical discharges. Rush stared straight into Sheppard’s eyes. Sheppard stared straight back into his. Neither of them moved.

“I cannot believe you,” McKay hissed.

“Thought I had it,” Sheppard said, his voice slow and even, holding Rush’s gaze.

“Well, you didn’t,” McKay snapped.

“I can see that, Rodney,” Sheppard replied.

“You know, you’re actually so insubordinate that you undermine even yourself? You just disobeyed your own primary mission directive. Has that occurred to you? I’m just picking up on this now but I bet if I go back and really think about it I could—”

“Any time you’d like to start paying attention would be fine with me,” Rush said, speaking over McKay, cocking the weapon he held.

Both Sheppard and McKay stopped talking. McKay, briefly, shifted his aim to Rush, rather than the staircase above.

“No,” both Sheppard and Rush said simultaneously, their gazes flicking toward him, then back to one another.

“Cute,” McKay muttered, shifting his aim back to the stairwell. “I hate you guys. Both of you. Individually, but also and especially in combination, in case you’re wondering.”

“Hey,” Sheppard said, meeting Rush’s eyes.

“Hey,” Rush echoed darkly.

They stared at one another in silence.

“I shouldn’t have tried that,” Sheppard said, his voice slow and controlled, his expression neutral.

“I agree,” Rush replied, evenly.

“I want to give you the device I’m holding,” Sheppard said. “Just take it and back away. Keep my gun. I’m not gonna try anything.”

Rush snatched the device and stepped back in one smooth motion, the gun trained directly at Sheppard’s left eye. 

“Okay,” Sheppard said, bringing both hands up. His lip was bleeding freely now. “Good. Let me start over. Hi. How’s it going?”

“John Sheppard,” Rush said. “J Shep?”

“Yup,” Sheppard said. “It’s me. The salve-ego-occurit-vobis-recens-et-hoc-est-insanus-sed-hic-est-numerus-meus-so-voca-me-fortasse guy. I wrote the note you probably kept in your wallet. We’re colleagues. Hell. We’re friends. We share dreams, I’m guessing. Or at least I share yours. Plus, we’ve got this in common.” Sheppard pointed to his temple and turned his head so Rush could see a small device, blending into the man’s hair. “I’ve got a lot of answers, Nick. About what happened to you.”

Rush glanced down at Dale, still unconscious on the floor of the landing.

“You’re with the Air Force?” Rush asked.

“Yeah,” Sheppard confirmed.

Rush readjusted his grip on the weapon, undecided, feeling his heart pound in his chest.

“Why do I feel like that was the wrong answer?” Sheppard's voice was low and even.

“He’s an amnestic cryptographer.” McKay glanced at Sheppard. “Dumped in Cambridge with only the clothes on his back. If he’s ever seen a movie in his life? Of course he’s gonna instinctively distrust the Air Force.”

Rush backed toward the opposite side of the stairwell. “Kick your—” he paused, “zat,” he said, the word offering itself to him as he glanced at the weapon. “Kick your zat over towards me.” 

“Don’t stun us behind Lucian Alliance lines,” McKay hissed. “We came here to rescue you, you absolute brat and a half. Mathematicians are the worst. How many times have I said it. What are you going to do? Run away? To where? Those guys in leather aren’t messing around. Think it through, Nick. Come on. We’re your best option.”

Rush glanced again at Dale, who hadn’t so much as moved this entire time. “Would a conversation be too much to ask?”

“Believe it or not, that was always my plan,” Sheppard replied calmly, using one boot to send his zat across the floor in a smooth slide. “But then Eli lost his phone, the Alliance made their move, and I found you in an unsecured stairwell in the middle of a firefight with your shirt sleeve conveniently rolled up and—well, can’t blame a guy for trying.”

“Eli,” Rush repeated evenly.

“Yup. Eli Wallace. Your intern. The Lucian Alliance tried to jump him in an alley after I met him at Rational Grounds. We stopped them. He’s okay. He’s totally fine. On an Air Force ship in high-Earth orbit right now. Worried about you. Worried about his mom. Nice kid.”

Rush fanned his fingers on the weapon, readjusting his stance.

“I recommend against shooting me. It’s going to complicate your life. A lot. We’re really not that bad. C’mon, Nick. Work with me here. What if I get Eli on the phone. He can tell you we’re the good guys.”

Above them, the door to the dining room slammed open.

“Damn it,” Sheppard said, licking his split lip, eyes flicking up. “Everett’s gonna kill me.”

Rush backed up a step.

“Okay,” Sheppard said, his gaze snapping back to Rush. “You go. We’ll cover you. That transponder is your ticket out of here. Just hold it against your forearm and press. I’ll buy you coffee on the other side.”

“Are you seriously doing this?” McKay asked. “This? This is your plan?”

Rush looked at Sheppard uncertainly.

“You want time to make up your mind? I’m giving it to you. You have my email.” Sheppard moved laterally to look down into the stairwell, the bruise across his cheekbone dark in the dim light. “This operation is a last-minute mess. On both sides. Holes in lines everywhere. Try cutting across the third floor. It’s the upper half of a two-story suite that the Air Force already secured. If we’re lucky, you can make it to one of the fire escapes and drop down into a back alley. Don’t get caught. Don’t get shot. And, if anyone grabs you, use that transponder. It’s programed to go live with a beam-out signal as soon as it’s injected.”

Rush kicked Sheppard’s zat back toward him, grabbed his blazer, and—hesitated.

“You wanna stay? We’ll protect you. You wanna go? We’ll cover you. Sorry I tried to get the jump on you. We really are friends. Use that email.” And, with that, Sheppard turned and began firing up at the group of descending the stair.

With one last look at Dale, Rush turned and fled, away from the firefight. He made the third floor exit just ahead of a group of Air Force personnel sprinting up from the second floor.

He slipped into the abandoned apartment and paused, his back to the door, his heart pounding wildly. A closed fist pressed to his mouth, he hesitated, intensely uncertain. 

This was intolerable.

He was making terrible choices.

Was he?

There was no way to know. 

No possible way. 

But the Air Force had Eli. Dale had said the Air Force was the best option. Sheppard had let him go. If he just had time to think it through—

He shut his eyes.

“I could really use some help,” Rush whispered, leaning back against the door, feeling the building rock with a blast that had come from a few floors above.

He opened his eyes.

No help was forthcoming.

“Right then.” He pushed away from the door, making his way through a set of empty rooms, in search of a fire escape.

He emerged into an October wind that tore at his hair and jacket. The setting sun turned the glass of Manhattan gold beneath the darkening sky. Around him, the city was beginning to ribbon itself with electric light.

He shoved the pneumatic gun Sheppard had given him into a pocket. He pointed the man’s sidearm away from him, carefully reapplying the safety, and then tucked the weapon into the back of his trousers. He began the climb down the fire escape, the brisk wind edging around his blazer and cutting straight through the thin material of his dress shirt. The ladder didn’t stretch all the way to the ground, so when he reached the end of it, he lowered himself as much as possible, then dropped the remaining distance to land on his feet with a painful jolt.

He straightened, steadying himself, breathing hard.

He looked up. No sign of pursuit. 

Rush shook his hair back, squared his shoulders, and straightened the lines of his blazer. He pulled the sidearm out of his trousers, not particularly inclined to store the thing there for any length of time.

Either end of the street was blocked by flashing lights.

That presented a problem.

He was alone in the alley.

Scratch that.

He was nearly alone in the alley.

Directly across the way, leaning against the brick wall of the opposite building, stood a familiar silhouette. Tangling brown curls; kind eyes. He wished, with a bone-deep longing, that he knew the man’s name.

Rush’s quantum mechanical visitor looked a bit worse for wear. He was dressed in civilian clothes, leaning on a cane. He was also looking at Rush with an expression of abject astonishment.

Yes well. He supposed he cut something of an unusual figure, descending a New York fire-escape at twilight, wearing his best outfit, lit by the last of the sun, carrying an Air-Force issued sidearm.

“I realize,” Rush offered, “that you have certain metaphysical laws by which you’re forced to abide—but would it be too much to ask for a practical suggestion regarding where I might responsibly leave this thing?” He held up the weapon, careful not to point it at the other man.

There was a long silence, broken only by the hissing of the wind, the sound of distant sirens.

The man with the tangled hair looked at him searchingly, his expression cracked-open. Raw. Full of hope and disbelief and subtler things that Rush hadn’t a prayer of parsing. He didn’t answer Rush’s question.

“Are you all right?” Rush asked him, slowly closing the distance between them.

The man stepped forward, pulling Rush into a hug so tight it seemed to run a serious risk of displacing one or two of his ribs. He could feel the terrible tension in the other man’s frame, the way half his back seemed to be a knot of contracted muscle. 

“Rough day in the quantum multiverse?” Rush asked, slowly wrapping his arms around the other man, returning the embrace with a bit more circumspection, given that he was holding a firearm and the man seemed to have suffered a significant injury.

“God, hotshot,” the other man said, his face buried in Rush’s shoulder, his voice cracking, “I forgot how weird you are. But it’s coming back to me. Real quick.”

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