Mathématique: Chapter 65

How terribly tragic life must be, for those who could remember it.

Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Dissociation, arguably. 

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 65

As he followed McKay into the Odyssey’s medical bay, Rush found that his adrenaline was leaving him and pulling a fair few of his cognitive resources with it as it went. He was making a real effort to avoid telegraphing the wariness he was feeling, but it was difficult to pinpoint the source of his unease, and, therefore, difficult to defend against it. Several rational candidate sources suggested themselves: the recent and rapid change in his circumstances, the firefight he’d escaped not two hours prior, the fact that his past self seemed to have thrown his lot in with the American military during a time of interstellar conflict, or, perhaps, Nick Rush simply didn’t care for medical settings?

His lack of personal continuity was, like as not, on the verge of turning substantially more inconvenient.

“It’ll be fine,” McKay said, with a truly depressing amount of reassurance.

Rush said nothing. So much for not telegraphing his wariness. Eli, he was certain, hadn’t been able to read him half so well as this lot. His former friends. His current friends? His new acquaintances? 

Ugh. This entire situation presented as pure dead hopeless.

McKay glanced over at him as they were waved through a small holding area. “Nick, you’re fine. They don’t do anything weird; it’s a formality. Everyone just wants to make sure you don’t have any parasitic aliens clamped to your spine. Y’know. That kind of thing.”

“Is that a—common problem?” Rush asked. 

“In this galaxy? Well, it’s a ‘known’ problem. Not sure I’d call it ‘common,’ but, yeah, it’s a concern. In Pegasus, not so much. But you can relax about it. You’d know if you had an eighteen-inch space worm in your vertebral column. I’d be the one—” McKay broke off as they passed through a second set of doors.

There was only one person in the small, bright room. She was standing at the end of an exam bed, her hands braced against the foot of the thing, waiting for them. Except. Her head was turned down and away from the door where they stood, as though she were trying to hide her face.

A simultaneous wave of sympathy and dismay hit Rush. The woman’s stance alone suggested the same overburdened grief that Everett Young and Rodney McKay filtered through their own personal prisms. And here, it seemed, was another way to split that same, sad light.

“Dr. Lam,” McKay began, his voice full of a confidence that didn’t match his countenance. “Everything—” the scientist lost momentum. “Everything okay?”

She nodded once, her face still angled away. Rush could see her square her narrow shoulders and draw in an uneven breath. When she turned to face them, her gaze was wet and raw, but her expression was controlled. She made no attempt to wipe her eyes.

How terribly tragic life must be, for those who could remember it.

“Dr. Rush,” she said, looking straight at him, her voice a surprising contralto—low in the register, strong and straightforward. “I’m Dr. Lam. It’s good to have you back.”

“Do you, uh, need a minute?” McKay asked. “Because we could take a walk.”

“Thank you, but no,” Lam said, giving McKay a small smile, she gestured to her eyes. “I’m fine. Allergies.”

“Oh yeah. I know all about those kinds of allergies. Space Allergies. But seriously if you need to, uh, go put in some Space Eyedrops? I can give this guy,” he pointed to Rush, “the obligatory Don’t Electrocute Yourself 101 talk. He needs it. Badly. I mean, look at him.”

“Sounds important,” Rush agreed mildly.

McKay and Lam both stared at him.

“Yeah, so, do you think you can fix this?” McKay asked, turning back to Lam, pointing a thumb in Rush’s direction. “He’s too agreeable. Where’s the defensiveness? I don’t like it.”

Lam shot McKay an unimpressed look, then spoke directly to Rush. “Tonight is for blood tests and pan scans to make sure you’re free of any xenobiological influences. Very low key. It’ll probably take about an hour to get through everything. Hopefully, by that point, someone will have figured out where you’re going to sleep. You look exhausted.”

“It’s been something of a day,” Rush admitted.

Lam nodded. Her eyes flicked to McKay. “You want to give us some time?”

“I do,” McKay said. “I really do. And yet, I kinda promised several colonels that I wouldn’t let him out of my sight.”

“Do you want him to stay?” Lam asked Rush.

Rush shrugged. “I’m not opposed.”

“Have a seat, then,” Lam said, indicating one of the beds built into the floor. It looked terribly sophisticated, possibly with built-in scanning capabilities. He studied it, experiencing the same strange mixture of impressed skepticism he’d felt when confronted with the transport platform. He took in what appeared to be a touchscreen display, with icons rather than text, trying to parse the meanings behind the symbols, finding he’d prefer to know exactly what this table was capable of before he sat on it.

“It’s not going to attack you,” McKay said, boosting himself onto the adjacent bed, then reaching down to casually flip open the colored display built into its edge, revealing circuits, nested around tiny crystalline chips. “It’s just a control panel. I hear this model runs ultrasound-based scans?”

“It does,” Lam said, leaning against the bed Rush was destined for, watching the pair of them with her still-wet eyes.

“Terribly twenty-third century.” Rush boosted himself onto the bed with considerably more caution than McKay had just displayed.

“Huh. So Nick Rush watches Star Trek.” McKay closed the panel with an adroit flip and a gentle press. “I always assumed you—I don’t know—existed in some kind of mathematical monastery somewhere, glaring everyone around you into silence.”

Rush wasn’t sure what conclusions might best be drawn from that particular observation. But then, McKay seemed to have some hyperbolic tendencies, so perhaps it was best to reserve any opinions. 

Lam smiled, as though charmed through her sadness and against her better judgment—though by whom, himself or McKay, it was impossible to say—then pulled her stethoscope from around her neck and held it up. “Do you mind?”

Rush shook his head, and she used it to listen to Rush’s heart and lungs.

“Very analog,” McKay whispered, eyeing Lam. “Old school. I heard that about her. I also heard she’s great, by the way. I mean, probably not on the level of Jennifer Keller, MD, but still. Y’know. Pretty good. Very good.”

Rush raised his eyebrows. “You two don’t know one another?” he asked, as Lam pulled back.

“Oh, we met about ten years back,” McKay said.

“By which he means yesterday.” Lam raised a brow at McKay as she settled her stethoscope back over her shoulders.

“That’s what I said,” McKay sighed dramatically. “Exactly. Yesterday. Ten years ago.”

“Yesterday,” Lam confirmed, her expression softening as she focused on Rush. “You and I, on the other hand, have known one another for several months.” Though her tone was low and brusque, her eyes were warm. “Hi. I’m Carolyn Lam. I’m the chief medical officer for the SGC. That’s Stargate Command. Usually, I’m stationed at the Cheyenne Mountain base.”

“Ah,” Rush said. “And what brings you to space, then?”

“You.” Lam gave him a small smile. “How’re you feeling?”

“Physically fine,” Rush replied. “Mentally fine, other than a complete lack of personal memories and the propensity to hallucinate a multi-octave D-minor chord when I take these off.” He tapped one of the devices at his temple.

“You took them off?” McKay and Lam snapped, in nearly identical, aggressively aggrieved tones. The pair of them glanced at one another and then back at Rush.

Rush raised both hands, defensively.

“For how long?” McKay, it seemed, could use his tone like a lathe when the mood took him.

“Seconds?” Rush guessed.

“God, you’re lucky,” McKay snapped. “Don’t do that again.”

“Do I take orders from you?” Rush said, stripping some of the politeness from his tone. He looked to Lam. “Do I take orders from anyone?”

“I’ve never seen it happen,” Lam said, moving to the wall and pressing on a panel, which popped open to reveal an array of medical supplies. “But all the same, I’d leave those things in place.”

“Yes well,” Rush shook his hair back. “I figured that out on my own, thanks.”

“Oh my god,” McKay whispered. “Piezoelectric circuitry. Wired to crystal. You said it. You said that not twenty minutes ago and I—” he broke off, looking down at his hands. Then he looked back up at Rush, frank astonishment on his face. “Did you hack your own technoswag?”

“Is that what we’re calling it now?” Lam asked, turning back, her hands full of tubes and sterile packaging. “Technoswag?”

“It has a nice ring,” McKay said conversationally, dropping his confrontational demeanor as he looked at her. “Don’t you think?”

“It does,” Lam replied.

“I disagree,” Rush offered.

You,” McKay said, summoning some ferocity back into his tone, “don’t get a vote. I can’t believe this. You hacked it. Did you open it? You must have, to know it runs on crystal. What were you thinking?”

“Good job not breaking it,” Lam said, looking over at Rush. “Roll up a sleeve for me, will you?”

“Good job not breaking it?” McKay repeated incredulously. “Did she just seriously say ‘good job not breaking it’? More like miraculous job not breaking it. What did you do to it? Are you sure it’s still working? You’re creepily good at the piano, that might not be an accident—”

“Fair sure that was always the case,” Rush broke in, using the force of his glare rather than raising his voice as he shrugged off his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt cuff for the second time that day.

The glare seemed to do its work, as McKay gave some ground, letting his indignation settle. “Fine. Be a closet piano prodigy. I don’t care. How did you interrogate it?” McKay asked. “We might want to beam Perry up here to give it a once over—”

“You seriously call it ‘beaming’?” Rush asked, with a cool snap to his tone and a subtle raise of his eyebrows

“We do.” Lam allowed herself a small, downward-directed smile at the array of glass tubes with colored stoppers, fanning like a rainbow in her hands.

“Well.” McKay adopted a more formal tone and straightened the lines of his suit jacket. “Some people prefer the word ‘transport,’ but, on Atlantis at least, we’ve more or less embraced the Star Trek culture and lexicon. But I digress. I digress because you digress. How did you hack your wearables?”

Rush began cuffing his sleeve, watching Lam don gloves and open a small packet containing an alcohol soaked pad. “The first time, we used a spectrum analyzer—”

“The first time? A spectrum analyzer? That you got where?” McKay asked, curiosity beginning to file the edge off his theatrical indignation.

“MIT,” Rush said, as Lam rubbed a small circle in the crook of his elbow with the alcohol swab.

“Did you—what, break into a lab?” McKay asked.

“Something like that.” Rush looked away as Lam slid a needle into his vein and started filling tubes of blood. “Using the spectrum analyzer, we determined the devices were broadcasting in the UHF band.”

“Which told you they were military and not much else."

“My associate got a look at their structure as well,” Rush said.

“Your ‘associate?’ You mean your little minion? Er. intern. I meant to say intern. Mathboy. You guys saw the crystals?”

Rush sighed, thinking of Eli, and the right mess he’d gotten the lad into. “Yes. My ‘intern.’ He was able to get a good look at the thing. Casing, crystal, and subdermal electrodes,” Rush said, sculpting the device architecture in the air with his free hand as he named each component.

Lam arched a brow at him.

Rush shrugged.

“I cannot believe you didn’t break it,” McKay said. “Especially since—hang on.” Frowning, the scientist slipped off the opposite bed and came to stand directly next to Lam. “Sorry,” he said, as Lam edged laterally, giving him space. “but can you just—” instead of explaining in words, he reached up to manually tilt Rush’s head, giving himself a better angle on one of the cortical suppressants. His brow furrowed. “Is that—what is that?”

“Oh, you mean the electrical tape?” Rush asked dryly.

McKay looked like a man experiencing substantial physical pain. “No no no no no,” he whispered, seemingly to himself, his gaze fixed on the cortical suppressant. “They were supposed to solder plates. We gave them the plates. Calibrate first, we said. Then solder it shut.” He looked away, into thin air, as though he expected to find something or someone to console himself with.

“That was the plan,” Lam offered apologetically, snapping a filled tube of blood free, and moving to the next. “And I still have the plates.”

“Well that’s something,” McKay rallied. “Because if we take him back to Atlantis with electrical tape on these things, Zelenka is going to have a small to moderate sized stroke. And he needs all the live brain tissue he can get.”

“Atlantis,” Lam echoed neutrally.

Atlantis. Again, the word echoed through Rush’s thoughts, as though linked to something deep. Very deep and very musical. As though, like the piano works of Romantic Era composers, whatever it was linked to might arrive—if not in his mind, then in his body. 

“Just a thought experiment,” McKay said, backing away, resuming his position on the opposite bed, his tone overly casual. “No big deal. But, we do have a doctor who’s triple boarded in internal medicine, neurology, and neurosurgery there, sooooo.” He looked away.

“Jennifer Keller?” Lam finished filling the last tube, then deftly pulled the needle out of Rush’s arm and pressed a wad of gauze against the place where it had been. “I’ve heard of her.”

“Oh, have you?” McKay eyes snapped to Lam, his tone overly casual.

“Yeah, well, you’ve mentioned her about ten times.” Lam wasn’t quite able to hide a small smile as she caught Rush’s eye. “Hold this here,” she said quietly, indicating the gauze, and Rush slid his fingers into place as she let up on the pressure. “I’ll be right back. I need to start running these samples.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” McKay asked. “She’s been integral to developing protocols that allow Colonel Sheppard to stay functional with his cortical suppressants in place. She requires mentioning.”

Lam simply arched a brow at him before gathering up her tubes of blood and heading to an adjacent room.

“You and Dr. Keller,” Rush began delicately, “are you—”

“No!” McKay said, reflexively. “Or. Yes. Maybe? No, actually. Probably not. Er, what were you going to ask?”

“I think I understand the situation,” Rush replied.

“You don’t,” McKay shot back. “You couldn’t possibly. I don’t. Believe me. My life is complicated enough that my personal problems could be distributed amongst three people and still be more than enough to keep them occupied.”

“Yes, well, that I don’t doubt,” Rush said.

“Stop distracting me. Because, seeing as we’re on the topic of things you may or may not understand, you didn’t get your insight into your technoswag from a spectrum analyzer. So where did it come from?”

“An over-the-air computational interrogative,” Rush said.

McKay huffed. “Shouldn’t be possible. But, you have some skill, I’ll grant that.”

Rush resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Generous of you.”

There was a short silence. McKay seemed to gather himself for something. “So. You can parse Ancient code?”

Rush nodded.

“And you can read Ancient text,” McKay pressed.

“Yes,” Rush said.

“And if I ask you what a ZPM is?”

“Sounds like an acronym.”

“Well done,” McKay said, dryly. “And if I tell you that ‘ZPM’ stands for Zero Point Module, do you know what it is? What it does?”

“Ex spatio, potentia venit,” Rush said.

“Oh boy,” McKay muttered under his breath, dropping his eyes. Just as quickly, he seemed to rally and looked back at Rush. “That was pithy. Okay. Question one—are you aware that you didn’t answer me in English?”

Rush hesitated. The truth of the matter was that he hadn’t been aware, even in the moment of his speaking, that the response he’d come up with was anything other than English. But, simultaneously, the revelation from McKay didn't surprise him. What had come out of his mouth had been the best match for what was in his mind—glowing crystal and a chorus in a key very near to D-minor.

“Don’t clam up on me,” McKay snapped. “Come on. I’m doing this for your benefit. And John’s, for that matter. Do you know what language you just spoke?”

“Ancient,” Rush admitted.

“Yeah,” McKay said. “Si loquor ‘Ancient,’ potestis intelligere me?”

“Vix,” Rush said, dryly. “Pronuntiatio tua est malum.”

“Est lingua mortua,” McKay shot back. “Non debes intelligere quid sonat.”

“Bonum punctum,” Rush admitted.

“So—you, the guy with no memories, has opinions on what Ancient should sound like when it’s spoken aloud,” McKay said. “Great. That doesn’t seem quietly ominous. Question two—do you know why you didn’t answer me in English when I asked you about the ZPM?”

“No,” Rush admitted.

“Try again,” McKay snapped.

“Yes?” Rush replied.

“No, Nick,” McKay rolled his eyes, managing to turn Rush’s name into an insult. “I mean, try again to tell me what a ZPM is in English.”

“Ah,” Rush said, furrowing his brow, annoyed with the necessity of wrestling down yet another bloody problem that turned out to be quantum mechanical in nature. “Rodney, I’m not a quantum physicist.”

“Aw, cry me a river why don’t you. Let’s go. Man up. Whatever you say is going to be instructive. Don’t think too much about it.”

Don’t think too much about it? Rush glared at McKay, his mind struggling to put words to the extraction of zero point energy from encapsulated, artificially distorted—ugh. What was it? It wasn’t spacetime. It was something else. “This is fair fucking irritating,” he said.

“Talk out loud,” McKay replied. “I already know what a ZPM is. What I really want to know is how you’re thinking about it.”

“Yes well, I picked that much up,” Rush snapped.

“I won’t—‘judge’ you,” McKay said, unconvincingly.

Rush shut his eyes in a protracted blink, trying to master his irritation and muster some resolve. “So—there’s a crystalline ring.” He held his hands to scale, as though he were holding the thing. “Or—cylinder. It had a cylindrical base. It’s not a cylinder. Sorry. It’s a fused cylindrical array. Within the confines of which a field is generated. That field has very unusual properties. It encloses—” Rush stared at the air between his hands. “The field is finite. Artificially warped back on itself. If you thought of it as a vector space—” he trailed off.

“A vector space,” McKay repeated neutrally. 

“Y’can get straight t’fuck, Rodney,” Rush snapped, dropping his hands.

“Already there, I suspect. In any case, you almost have it,” McKay said, now grudgingly encouraging. “Keep going. Represent spacetime as a vector space. Sure. Do that. Very mathematical of you. And then what does the field do?”

“It doesn’t do anything to spacetime,” Rush said.

“Correct.” McKay’s didactic tone made Rush want to dig in against it on instinct. He suspected he’d been irritated by iterations of that tone all his life. “So what does it act on?”

“A set of parameters from the vector space of spacetime.”

“Uh huh. And what would you call a subset of spacetime vectors?”


“In the tradition of linear algebra, yeah,” McKay said, his expression softening. “Also in the tradition of Star Trek, it turns out. You had it, you just—weren’t aware of the non-fictional existence of subspace and, I’m assuming, you were trying to explain it to yourself without an English word for it.”

“Ah,” Rush said.

“Which brings us to question three.” McKay sighed. “Why do you know what a ZPM is?”

“Why do I know what a stargate is?” Rush countered. “I could give you a freeform lecture on the trivial subspaces of vector space, a skill I didn’t know I had until about thirty seconds ago.”

“And it’s a good thing I’m not Zelenka,” McKay said dryly, “because he’d take you up on that in a heartbeat. My point with all of this is that it’s very unlikely you came across the concept a ZPM before your personal memory got wiped. Theoretically possible, I suppose, but unlikely, especially since you had to backwards engineer the concept of ‘subspace’ out of a foreign language and, like, whatever kinesthetic thing was happening there,” McKay said, mirroring Rush’s prior hand gestures. “You’ve got theoretical and procedural Ancient knowledge that’s transcending your mnemonic block.”

“Coming from where?” Rush asked.

“Probably the same place your D-minor chords are coming from,” McKay said grimly. “Namely, that impromptu visit you and Sheppard made to the Ancient home world. We’ll find the mission reports you guys filed, so you can read about it. What I’m driving at, though, is that you’ve got at least two layers of intensive mental trauma that are almost certainly interacting with one another. I wish I’d had the chance to talk to Vala before they’d restored her memories. I might have been able to sort some of this out. Then again, she might remember now what she did and didn’t remember then. So, maybe I can ask her.” He looked at Rush, his expression pained. “Y’know. Presuming she survives.”

Rush nodded and dropped his eyes, fully aware that he should be feeling something more than a vague sense of abstract concern. Fortunately, the reappearance of Carolyn Lam saved him from having to scrape together a comment. 

The quiet clicks of her low heels preceded her into the room. “The blood samples you provided are processing,” she said. “It should take them about half an hour to run.”

“What are you looking for?” Rush hooked a hand over his shoulder, absently trying to press the ache out of overworked muscles.

“Oh, all the usual things,” Lam said. “Electrolyte imbalances, abnormalities in cell counts, liver and renal function—plus multiplex screening for pretty much every toxin the SGC has ever encountered, heavy metals in the blood, chromosomal breakage that might indicate radiation exposure, nanites or other exogenous foreign circulating material, non-human DNA, modification of blood cells that might indicate exposure to mind altering drugs, antibodies against alien plagues, that kind of thing.

“Ah. So glad I asked.” Rush tried not to think too extensively about the inciting incidents that made each of these tests part of the standard battery for the SGC’s formal medical clearance.

“Oh my god,” McKay said. “Did we really need the full list? Look at his face.”

Lam shot McKay an unimpressed look. “Who says that was the full list?” she asked. Her gaze shifted to Rush, her expression softening. “My point with all the listing was that, while we do screen for threats to your health at these initial medical clearance appointments, the more important question is whether you pose a health risk to any of our personnel, or, more broadly, the planet.”

“Yes,” Rush said, trying to school his expression into something more neutral. “I picked up on that.”

“Tomorrow,” Lam said, quietly exhausted, “or, maybe, the next day—I’d like to meet with you again. Talk about what happened to you over the past nine weeks. Explain some of your personal medical history.”

Rush nodded.

“Maybe you should talk with—” McKay began,

“Jennifer Keller?” Lam broke in, without looking at McKay, the corner of her mouth lifting subtly. “I plan to.”

“Oh. Well, good.”

Rush felt the uneasy sweep of realization, as he looked at Carolyn Lam. As the chief medical officer of a governmental organization that interfaced with life on other worlds—she must be terribly, terribly important. She was clearly under unimaginable strain. And yet—she, personally, was making time for him. Not just tonight, but again, in the coming days?

Was I just a cryptographer? He wanted to ask her. Or was I something more?

“Do you mind lying back?” Lam asked, stepping in, one hand coming to rest on Rush’s shoulder. “These scans shouldn’t take long.”

The scans didn’t take long—identifying only some soft tissue inflammation resulting from an ungodly number of hours at the piano and substantial bruising over his left ribs and back—it was the bloodwork that dragged things out. While they waited, Rush sat on his Star Trek hospital bed, listening to McKay freeform monologue about various topics that he deemed important for Rush to know.

“—and, generally speaking, you can touch natively configured crystals, but you can’t touch wires. So if you’re popping panels off to mess around with things—okay this is the key thing to know: some crystals are meant to be touched. Usually those are the ones that are natively configured within either an intact piece of Ancient tech or a close reverse engineering job. It’s like, if there’s a depression, and a crystal is sitting in it, nine times out of ten that crystal is safe to touch. But if a crystal is an integrated part of a non-calibrated circuit, meaning significant measurable charge actively flows through it, then it’s not okay to touch. Most Goa’uld tech, which cribs Ancient control crystals left and right and then harnesses them into circuits, is NOT safe to touch—”

“Rodney,” Rush said, in an exhausted monotone, “I’ve no plans start ripping crystals out of walls.”

“Yeah, says the guy who hacked the device that’s keeping him alive. I’m gonna be real. I trust you zero. I hope you come to Atlantis, because, at least there, the city itself will look out for you. Also Zelenka. He’ll look out for you as well. Statistically speaking you’re much less likely to accidentally kill yourself on Atlantis.”

Rush rolled his eyes. “I’ve managed to survive this planet thus far.”

“Yeah. And based on my extensive knowledge of you, that’s dumb luck and pure accident. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes. Goa’uld tech? Bad. No touch. Ancient tech? Good. Mostly okay to touch. But how do you tell the difference? Well, it’s pretty simple really. Ancient tech—”

“What’s ‘Goa’uld’?” Rush asked.

McKay sighed theatrically. “Oh my god. The Goa’uld are the spine parasites. They’re a whole different culture. It’s really strange what you natively grasp and what you don’t. Like, you could come up with the name ‘zat’ when you saw one, but you have no mnemonic architecture that lets you place Goa’uld? That’s weird. Maybe you’ve used a zat. Have you?”

“Yes,” Rush said dryly. “Earlier tonight.”

“Before that, obviously.”

“No idea. The spine parasites have a culture?” Rush asked.

“Oh yeah. They’ve got culture in spades. Too much, if you ask me. They came later, relative to the Ancients. Arguably, they’re still active in this neck of the woods. They fly around in space pyramids. It’s completely ridiculous. But, then again, aerodynamics don’t really matter when there’s no air, as I keep trying to tell anyone who will listen. So, it’s only an aesthetically ridiculous conceit, not a physically ridiculous one. These kinds of distinctions matter to me. I can forgive aesthetic conceits. You know what we should do? We should find you some of those orientation videos that Dr. Jackson made. I’ll ask Carter about it. Colonel Samantha Carter? Has anyone mentioned her to you yet? Carter is going to be important for you to know. She and I—well, we have a bit of a history.” McKay smiled faintly at the empty air. “She built half the Gate Bridge you so inconsiderately hacked. I built the other half. No matter what anyone says, it’s always going to be one of the best pieces of human engineering ever performed. I mean, it’s a transgalactic bridge. Full stop. Even the Ancients—”

The doors to the medical bay swished open to reveal Colonel Sheppard, his head cocked, his hair in state of spiked disarray, looking rather roguishly disheveled in his torn suit. It seemed that the top secret briefing had been urgent enough that no one had bothered to hand the man a towel, because he still had dried blood crusted along his hairline. 

“Hi,” Sheppard said, zeroing in on Rush, with a low-key drape over a high-key intensity of focus.

“Hello,” Rush said.

“Ugh. Can we not with the Kirk Thing?” McKay asked, aggrieved. “He doesn’t need that from you right now. Look at him. He’s had a hard day.”

“I’m not doing the Kirk Thing,” Sheppard said, consolidating his casual tone as he looked at Rush. “I never do the Kirk Thing.”

“Your SHIRT is half off,” McKay fired back with a withering delivery that Rush was fair certain would have gotten the man quite far in academic circles. “Textbook Kirk. Open any textbook on Kirk, pick a page at random, and there he’ll be, with his shirt half torn off.”

“My jacket is slightly torn, yes,” Sheppard countered mildly, “but my shirt is totally intact. Will you stop? Go eat something. I’ll take over.”

“Go eat something?” McKay muttered. “Who does he think he is?”

Sheppard grinned at Rush as he approached. “Don’t listen to McKay. I never do.”

Privately, Rush was fair certain that statement wasn’t even remotely true, and he’d known the pair of them for, what, the span of an evening? Presuming one didn’t count the dreams. There really wasn’t much of a way to respond to Sheppard’s statement, so Rush angled his head at the pair of them, in a way he hoped subtly communicated that he wished them the absolute best in regards to their continued, infinite banter.

“How’d it go?” McKay asked.

“Good,” Sheppard said, giving McKay a significant look, then boosting himself into position next to the scientist. “Real good.”

“Ah,” McKay said, his eyes flicking to Rush. “Excellent.”

“Great job not getting abducted by the Lucian Alliance,” Sheppard said, looking at Rush but subtly elbowing McKay.

“Thank you,” Rush replied. “I take it you managed to hang onto your sidearm?”

Sheppard smirked at him, then opened his jacket to reveal the weapon, holstered beneath his arm.

“Where’s his colonel?” McKay asked.

“Everett’s on his way,” Sheppard replied. “He had to strategize with SG-1 about Jackson. The guy got himself infected with some kind of alien virus. Doesn’t sound like he’s doing all that well.”

“Wonderful,” McKay said, glancing toward the back hallway, where Lam had disappeared. “Actually, I am going to get some food, unless you want to clean up. But I’m guessing that’s a no.” McKay looked pointedly at Sheppard, then turned to Rush. “He likes to walk around for hours after fights, covered with blood, needlessly checking things out. For ‘safety’.”

“What?” Sheppard sputtered. “I don’t do that.”

“You’ve done that for literally the entire time I’ve known you. I, on the other hand, like to eat dinner after fights, like a normal person.” He looked at Rush. “When’s the last time you ate?”

“I’m fine,” Rush replied.

“Never waste an opportunity to eat Earth food.” McKay reached into an inner pocket of his suit jacket and tossed Rush a chocolate bar. “And in the meantime,” he said, sliding off the bed, “don’t let Sheppard convince you to start an armed rebellion against your governmental and/or cultural authorities using his good looks and charm.”

“Would that be the ‘Kirk Thing’?” Rush asked, one hundred percent certain that it was not, in fact, the Kirk Thing.

Sheppard rolled his eyes.

“Go ahead,” McKay shot back over his shoulder. “Ask him how many times it’s happened. I dare you.”

“No more than three,” Sheppard glared at McKay.

“Five and a half,” McKay said, backing out the door.

“Five and a half?” Rush echoed.

“Keep your wits about you,” McKay called from the hall, before the door swished shut.

“Uh, so, McKay is being very McKay right now,” Sheppard said, looking at the closed doors. “You’re getting his best/worst mix dialed way up, I think. I have started very few armed rebellions.”

“But not zero,” Rush said, tipping his head forward, eyeing Sheppard from under his brows and over his glasses.

“Not zero,” Sheppard admitted, with a small smile. 

They looked at one another, and the quiet of the infirmary took on its own weight.

“So,” Sheppard began awkwardly. “I’m really bad at this. But I’m just gonna tell you before someone, aka McKay, makes things weird—well, more weird, I guess, because everything is super weird right now—but the whole reason I gave you that diagram on how to dial Atlantis was mostly that I was hoping we could get to know one another better, which, I may have mentioned to a few people here and there. People that I didn’t think were ever going to meet you. But now—now they might. And you have no memories. Life is complicated, huh?”

“Yes it is, rather.”

“The thing is, dating a Fields Medalist has been on my bucket list.” Sheppard self-consciously ran a hand through his hair. “Which many people know. To be clear, it was on my bucket list before I ever met you. I happen to like math. But if it makes you feel better—it wasn’t—okay. There’s no way to say this and sound normal. But I have a sort of relationship with Atlantis? Meaning, uh, yeah, the actual city. It’s not really something that easily lends itself to words, but, after you and I spent a memorable day together, I had a feeling that you might be one of the few people who could understand what it means. What it’s like. The city, I mean. Ugh. Sorry. That’s why I gave you my number. This has to hit as pretty weird for you.”

“No,” Rush said delicately, pulling out the word. Unfortunately, as he had absolutely no follow-through, and the situation was, indeed, extremely odd, it faded into nothing. He tried to think of a clarifying question that wasn’t, Did you just tell me you’re in a serious relationship with an alien city? Alas, nothing suggested itself.

Sheppard laughed, looking away. “Ah, shit,” he said, pressing the cuff of his shirt to his split lip as, again, it began to bleed.

“Right, so it is fair fucking bizarre,” Rush admitted, his voice as kind as he could make it, “but it’s all of a piece.”

“Meaning that me giving you my top secret transgalactic phone number because I liked you is no more weird than the rest of it?” Sheppard asked pulling his sleeve away from his lip, inspecting it, then pressing it back again. 

“That part is a fair bit less weird than most of it,” Rush offered.

Sheppard gave him a small smile, his shirt sleeve still mostly in front of his mouth. “To be clear, I’m thinking we just do the friend thing for a while. At least until you get your memories back.”

“I understand that could take some time,” Rush said.

“Well,” Sheppard said, “if you get the urge to twist my arm about it, I guess maybe we can reopen negotiations. You should at least figure out if you’re dating anyone in the Milky Way.”

“I highly doubt it,” Rush replied. “My wife died in April.”

Sheppard froze, staring at him, that shirt sleeve still pressed against his mouth.

Rush needed to make a genuine effort at breaking his personal tragedies to his friends in a more sensitive manner. “Sorry,” he offered, somewhat belatedly.

“Gloria,” Sheppard said, like he was assembling a theory from disparate pieces. His face was closed, giving away nothing of his thoughts. “Was her name Gloria?”

“It was,” Rush replied, surprised. “I don’t seem to have told many people about her. But—I told you?”

“No,” Sheppard said, still intensely cautious. “You didn’t. But. I may have mentioned that you and I spent a notable day together?”

Rush nodded.

“Well, she came up. On that day. She was mentioned. Obliquely. I only knew her name. A few things about her. I didn’t know who she was to you. At the time. Not that you had been married. Only that she had been important. And that she—” Sheppard’s throat closed. “I also. On that same day. In that same context—”

Rush said nothing, feeling profoundly disconnected, in this moment, from everything he was. Everything he’d ever been. 

Sheppard turned his head away, his sleeve pressed to his face. “Sorry,” he whispered, raggedly. “Not sure where this is coming from.”

Rush cleared his throat delicately. “A ‘notable day’ seems to be a different kind of euphemism than I’d initially been picturing.”

“Yeah, it was a nightmare,” Sheppard confirmed, his voice hoarse, his head still turned away. “I’m glad you don’t remember it.”

Rush felt a flood of sympathy at that comment, if only because he was dead certain that Sheppard was lying. He might not be in touch with his past self, he might have no visceral connection to his own personal tragedies, but he could recognize profound loneliness when he saw it. And, whatever solace John Sheppard had gathered from working through a nightmarish experience with another person—well, he’d effectively been left alone with it. Rush had the strong suspicion that this was not an unusual scenario for him. 

“I wish I did,” Rush told him, quietly.

Sheppard glanced up at him, and then, just as quickly, dropped his eyes. “Well,” he said finally, clearing his throat. “Even if you don’t remember it, you’re still the same guy.”

“Am I?” Rush asked.

“Yeah,” Sheppard said, straightening, gingerly pulling his sleeve away from his lip. “I mean, who else are you gonna be?”

“How terribly straightforward of you,” Rush replied dryly. “I’ve been gathering that I present somewhat differently than my historical norm.”

“Nah,” Sheppard said, smiling faintly. “You’re a little more polite, maybe. Less arrogant. More approachable. But I chalk that up to the fact that we’re mostly strangers and you’re not neck deep in a set of barely solvable cyphers. All the rest of it’s the same.”

“You’re in the minority on that opinion I think,” Rush said.

“Yeah, but what’s your sample size?” Sheppard asked. “Can’t be more than, what, n=3? Me versus Everett and Rodney? Rodney you’ve gotta throw out because—well. You just gotta throw Rodney out. Trust me on that one. He’s biased for reasons I can’t get into. And Everett—” Sheppard shrugged. “You showed up for him at a time when he’d taken a hell of a lot of damage. Professionally and personally. Keeping you out of trouble was the only thing keeping him going for months. He’s a detail-oriented guy. Knowing him, he probably developed entire strategies for protecting you from the LA built around your personal quirks. Some of which you’ve probably now lost because you can’t remember you’re grieving and you’re not actively being tortured by math.”

“Do you think I was ‘tortured’ by math?” Rush asked, skeptically.

“Yep,” Sheppard said, smirking at him. “But I also think you like being tortured by math a little bit.” He shrugged. “Call it a hunch. I don’t mind it myself. Every so often I fight with an unsolved proof.”

“Do you really?” Rush raised his eyebrows.

“Oh yeah. I mean, I only brought one book to Atlantis and there’s no TV, so—” Sheppard shrugged.

“What book?”

“War and Peace,” Sheppard said. “I meant it to last the entire expedition. But I’ve been there five years now and had so many close calls that I’ve developed a phobia of finishing it. Will Prince Andrew and Natasha get together? Unclear. What’s Pierre up to? I have to stay alive to find out. It’s irrational. I know that. But it’s kept me going. So I needed a new hobby.”

“Hence the math,” Rush said, trying not to smile.

“Hence the math,” Sheppard confirmed.

“Speaking of, what do you know about quantum mechanics?” Rush asked.

“Less than Rodney,” Sheppard replied, “more than your average Air Force Colonel. Why?”

“I’ve developed a recent interest,” Rush said, giving in to the the ache in his back and neck, and lying down on the bed he’d been sitting on. “What’s the Air Force take on the nature of the universe?”

Sheppard laughed, short and delighted, and kicked back against his own infirmary bed, crossing his legs at the ankles, crossing his arms over his chest. “Well, first of all, there’s no consensus,” he said, looking at the ceiling.

“Why does that not surprise me?” Rush sighed.

“That being said,” Sheppard continued, unperturbed, “there are some classified observations that bring new insights to different interpretive models.”

“Start with Copenhagen,” Rush requested.

“You got it,” Sheppard said.

Rush didn’t recall falling asleep. Mostly what he recalled was waiting for bloodwork, while Sheppard, lying on the adjacent bed, had stared at the ceiling, free-associating his way around what he knew of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Sheppard’s monologue had struck Rush, for as long he’d bothered following it, as highly statistical, founded on a deep respect for complementarity, and far more mathematically grounded than he’d been prepared to expect.

He woke slowly, his higher cognitive processes dragging the rest of his mind back toward awareness.

“—Atlantis?” It was Colonel Young, who’d spoken the word.

“Not yet,” Sheppard said quietly. “Some other things came up.”



“I’ll ask him,” Young said. “Tomorrow. Why aren’t you asleep? You look exhausted.”

“Oh, lots of reasons.” Sheppard’s voice was quiet, sad, carrying with it the whisper of wind in alien grass. “You know how it is.”

“I know,” Young replied, as though his throat ached with everything he wouldn’t let himself speak.

Rush dragged his eyes open to see John Sheppard sitting on the opposite bed, an exhausted bend to his spine, the fingertips of one hand very nearly in contact with one of the cortical suppressors he wore, positioned as though he wanted nothing so much as to pry the thing off his head. Everett Young was leaning against the bed, leaning against his cane, his head tipped forward, his unruly hair catching and holding the fluorescent light. Without saying anything, Young reached out and pulled Sheppard’s hand out of the air, away from the device. The movement was slow—a half arc down, a purposeful release. 

“Yeah yeah,” Sheppard whispered, taking back his hand, bracing it against the bed. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“You ran a great op,” Young murmured. “Bold as hell.”


Rush shifted, intending to straighten his askew glasses. The movement was agonizing—he half aborted the effort, then struggled though it, only to drop his hand. “Everett?” 

“Yeah. Hi,” Young said, coming to stand next to him. “Sorry we woke you. You okay?”

It seemed, while he’d been sleeping, that his muscles had been replaced by acid. The ache in his ribs had matured into something a bit less content to be beaten back by adrenaline. But his neck, his shoulders, the muscles of his back and arms and hands—this was the consequence of the obsessive, endless hours he’d spent bent over Au Coeur’s Steinway piano.

Terribly inconvenient, that.

What had he been thinking?

He hadn’t been thinking.

“He got tackled pretty good at the beginning of the night,” Sheppard offered. “Right off a piano bench.”

“Sore?” Young asked.

“No,” Rush said, in a cracked whisper.

“Uh huh,” Young said, like he’d never made a habit of buying anything Rush was selling. “Come on, hotshot. It’s two in the morning. Let’s find you a real bed.”

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