Mathématique: The Set of All You Don't Know
Volker’s bones speak in ice.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Sci-fi-induced extreme mental stressors. Allusions to torture. PTSD. People not sharing reference frames but doing their best anyway.
Additional notes: Oh kids.
The Set of All You Don’t Know
So, Dale Volker is a guy who wears leather now.
It’s not even his leather. It’s used leather, originally owned by a small collection of dead people. That’s where he’s at. Sporting dead-people leather on a defaced Goa’uld ship equipped with stolen cloaking tech in geosynchronous orbit above Boston.
He looks out the forward view. God, Boston is beautiful. Beautiful and glittering and sitting on the Eastern Seaboard he knows so well that he could draw it on the walls, if he wanted to. It’s close. It’s right there.
He rubs the Sixth House tracking device, implanted beneath the skin of his forearm after a ritual initiation so awful that he can’t fully remember it.
He feels tears well up and spill over.
No big deal. The crying. It’s been happening a lot, lately. So he leaks, now. There are worse things. Tears are just part of him, like the muscle he’s put on or the way he can’t quite hold his thoughts together. His brain has turned disorganized and unruly and he tries to give it pep talks, but it doesn’t want to listen. Not any more. Not since—
“Ugh, what’s wrong with me?” he whispers, voice thick.
“Nothing,” says his imaginary friend, so gently that it seems to make whatever internal walls Dale Volker used to have break more and break faster. “Absolutely nothing is wrong with you.”
He sits back, looking to the stars instead of to Boston, wiping away tears as they fall.
“Thanks man,” he whispers, glancing over at the pilot seat.
An imaginary version of Nicholas Rush looks back at him, with obvious sympathy.
The guy had shown up under pretty spectacular, extremely high-stress circumstances, on the day that Volker’s brain had lost whatever grip it had on itself. He’d been standing, barefoot, in a creepy stone pool in a creepy underground lab, at the business end of about fifteen stolen Lucian Alliance space guns, watching David Telford, his only friend in the Space Pirate World, about to throw the lever that was supposed to, somehow, augment or change Volker’s cognition.
“Well,” Rush had said, appearing out of nowhere, wearing Earth jeans, a Lantean jacket, and no shoes. “You’re a rare variant, aren’t you?”
“Um,” Dale had said, listening to the charge mount in concealed capacitors.
“This will be terrible.” Rush looked at him with a blend of sympathy and stoicism. “Unfortunately, there’s no way around it I can see. It’s already underway.”
“Kinda getting that,” Volker had whispered, looking at the gold detailing on the walls, the high-arched vault of the chamber above.
“There’s a saying amongst our people.” Rush pulled a cigarette out of nowhere, lighting it with a silver lighter. “I’d advise you to think about its meaning for as long as your consciousness endures.”
Overhead, part of the circuitry in the walls flashed, then blew out in a shower of arcing, falling sparks.
“In one blink of an eye, you’ve missed seeing.”
He'd woken up days later with a with a propensity for weeping, an affinity for Ancient tech, and the ability to, somehow, hear crystalline arrays.
They sound like song.
He’s not sure why his imaginary friend is a version of the famous Scottish cryptographer he’d met a grand total of once in his life, and who really hadn’t been all that nice to him. But honestly? There are a lot of mysteries that Dale Volker is facing, and this one ranks pretty low on his list of priorities.
At present, Rush is wearing dark jeans, a crisp white shirt, and his very fashionable shoes are propped on the locked command console. The fringe of his hair is resting on the frames of his glasses. His fingers are steepled in front of him, as though he’s troubled by something. As Volker watches, the folded edges of his dress shirt blur into a different cut, with subtle embroidery that looks like a 2D rendering of spacetime, fluxing.
Volker wipes his eyes again.
“This isn’t your fault,” Rush says. “It comes from what they’ve done to you. Epigenetic changes affecting human and Lantean genes.”
“I wish you were real so that I could believe you,” Volker whispers, his voice cracking.
“You fixate too much on the ‘real’.” Rush’s tone takes on the hint of an edge. “If you can’t accept what I say, then at least consider adopting it as a working hypothesis. You hold what you don’t know in such splendid fucking isolation that I find it very difficult to converse with you, Dale. You’re an intractable mix of skepticism and imprecision.”
“That’s what science is all about,” Volker sniffs. “Identifying what you don’t know. Then figuring out how to know it.”
“Yes well,” Rush looks at him with equal parts exasperation and fondness. “I can work with that, I suppose. Just—all right. So. Let’s take, collectively, all that you don’t know.”
“Um? All that I don’t know? Even what think I know, but don’t actually know?”
“Yes. Let’s consider all you don’t know as a formal mathematical set.”
“You bring up set theory a lot. It makes me think I was paying way more attention in college than I realized. I never used set theory a day in my life.” Volker feels faintly cheered by the idea that his subconscious, in addition to causing him all kinds of stress and anxiety and inconvenient tears, also likes to toss some set theory into the mix sometimes. That’s fun.
The human mind is such a weird, cool thing. Even when it’s struggling.
“The Set of All You Don’t Know,” his imaginary friend repeats dryly, Special Capitalization now Obvious in his Tone. “I accept that, as a set, you think this worthy of particular delineation. Even preservation. You keep it in the forefront of your mind and you speak around it, vaguely.”
“You can’t know that,” Volker points out, running fingers over his mostly dry cheeks.
Rush looks at the ceiling, as though praying for patience. “I know I can’t know that, Dale. But I’ve adopted it as a working model. Can y’not jus’ fuckin’ go with me here?” He looks over at Volker, smiling faintly.
“Yeah,” Volker says. “Sorry, just wanted to be clear about premises. You skip over them a lot, which is sloppy. Intellectually. I wouldn’t let my graduate students get away with it. Not sure I should let you slide either.”
Rush gives him an incredulous look.
“It’s because I care about you,” Volker explains, enjoying this, a little bit.
Rush takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and dredges up some inner patience. “The Set of All You Don’t Know,” he repeats, pointedly. “I suspected it would cause you trouble. Which is why I suggested the eleventh hour meditative practice I did during your—transformation.”
In one blink of an eye you have missed seeing, Volker thinks, desperately, as Telford holds him under and he tries not to struggle. Maybe this isn’t what it looks like. That’s what the quote is about. In one blink of an eye you have missed seeing. You could have seen. But you didn’t. In one blink of an eye—
“Can y’not just partition it? Put it behind a firewall? Allow yourself to make some assumptions, remembering that they are, indeed, assumptions, as you make them? Is that too much to ask? The device you were exposed to boosts intuitive power. It, in a literal way, lowers membrane potentials. Neurons fire easily. They fire more. You’ve spent a lifetime shutting down the creative parts of yourself in favor of the analytic. It’s no wonder that this is so profoundly upsetting to you.”
“I make assumptions,” Volker says, bewildered. “I go with them. Everyone does that.”
Rush sighs, pressing two fingers against his temple. “And you can’t even see it.”
“Well give me an example then,” Volker fires back.
“An example? Certainly. Why are you always giving me such a hard time about everything I say?” Rush asks, breaking the bridge of his fingers in a frustrated, open-handed plea.
“Oh, I don’t know, probably because you’re imaginary? I’m just trying to have a dialogue with myself, since I assume that’s what this is. There’s an assumption for you. Sorry I’m annoying you.”
“You’re not annoying me.” Rush breathes in slowly through his nose and looks up at the ceiling, like a guy who is definitely, one hundred percent annoyed. “I’ve never been good at talking to you. But I’m trying to figure it out, since you’re looking like you might become a colleague. You could do me the same courtesy you know. Your genetic status and your current electrophysiology puts you in a unique class. You and I can converse without drawing the wrong kind of attention.”
Volker crosses his arms. “Less than half of what you say makes sense. I have to five-step backwards engineer every one of your insights just to make sure they track logically and aren’t the misfirings of a brain that’s been pushed way, way beyond where human brains are supposed to go.”
And, all of a sudden, he’s crying again, remembering that electroconductive gel, how it had seemed to seep into him, how it had gotten everywhere, even into his lungs, in the end.
“And yet,” Imaginary Rush says, gently, “you can hear crystals.”
“Yeah. That’s nice.” His vocal cords don’t want to cooperate, but he makes them.
“It is. There’s an example of something you don’t need to resist. You’ve always loved music. Its harmonies. Its counterpoints. Its moments of drama.”
“Okay,” Volker whispers, wiping his eyes. “Yeah. And I can see you. I guess that’s nice too. I can lean into that. What are you doing here, anyway?”
Every time he asks the question, Rush either dodges it or gives him a varying, interesting answer. He hopes he’ll get lucky today.
“I’m indulging my better half,” Rush replies, dryly.
“Me?” Volker asks.
Rush laughs out loud at that one, then looks obliquely over at Volker. “Only very very rarely,” he says, making a steeple of those fingers again.
“I made a working model just there,” Volker points out.
“I noticed. Well done.”
“Which, again, is what I always do. I don’t know why you don’t see it.”
“Well, it’s possible you’ve cast aspersions on my sanity too many times for me to easily get past my native defensiveness.”
Volker frowns, trying to think back. Nothing particularly egregious comes to mind. “Well, sorry about that. I don’t think you’re crazy. Not sure you’re real, but I guess that’s different. If it helps, you can think of it as me casting aspersions on my own sanity, since I’m pretty sure that the weird gel didn’t do me any favors. And, y’know. I have no real evidence that you aren’t me. Somehow. In a way.”
“Hmm,” Rush gives him a vaguely disapproving look, then, abruptly, vanishes.
Behind Volker, the door to the forward cabin swishes open and David Telford strides in.
“Hey,” Telford says, managing to give off a surprisingly friendly vibe for a guy dressed head-to-toe in fitted black leather. “Talking to yourself again?”
“Just a little.” Volker shrugs, hating how unsteady his voice sounds.
Telford nods, like Volker’s the most reasonable guy he knows.
Volker nods back.
He likes Telford. He does. And sure, there’s probably a little Stockholm Syndrome happening, but what can he do about it? The man had basically rescued him from the Sixth House initiation ritual he’d been borderline failing and then glued him back together afterward. The thing with the gel had been a little hard to get past, but, even there, it wasn’t like Telford had a lot of choices, surrounded by a unit of Kiva’s forces, heavily armed and very determined.
Telford slides into the seat that Rush had been occupying. “Dale,” he says. “We need to talk.”
“Yeah,” Volker rubs his face in what he hopes is an exhaustedly masculine way. His cheeks are still a little wet. “Sure.”
“How close are you to zeroing in on that naquadria-rich planet?” Telford asks.
“Getting there,” Volker replies. “Days, if I push it. A week and some change if I don’t.”
Telford nods, looking out the forward view. He unlocks the controls and makes a minor adjustment to their position, firing thrusters to switch their geosynchronous orbit from above Boston to above New York City. He locks the controls again.
“You’re a scientist,” Telford says, quietly. “A real one. A good one.”
“Thanks,” Volker whispers.
“I know this is a nightmare for you.” Telford stares stubbornly out that forward view. “I’m sorry about everything that’s happened. I didn’t want this. Not for you. Not for me. I didn’t want any of this.”
Volker nods, not trusting himself to speak.
“I just got some intel from Varro,” Telford says. “It could change a lot of things. It gives us—you and me—an opportunity.”
“What kind of opportunity?”
“One that won’t come again,” Telford says quietly. “But we’d have to be in agreement about it. So—I want to lay it out for you.”
“Okay.” Volker crosses his arms and watches Telford watch the stars.
“The Air Force and the Lucian Alliance are both trying, very hard, to unlock a new destination via the gate network,” Telford says. “They want the same thing. A new frontier. A possible advantage in the fight against the Ori.”
“You’re talking about the nine-chevron address,” Volker says, putting a working model together, like always. He hopes Imaginary Rush takes note. “The one you think has something to do with ascension.”
“Yeah,” Telford says. “I’ve played both sides—by choice and by chance—trying to make it happen. I don’t like the Air Force, with their rigid bureaucracy that does more harm than good, the way they’ve built themselves around the work of Daniel Fucking Jackson, who talks a great game but who pushes boundaries in a way that I—” Telford breaks off, clenching his jaw, pausing to take a long breath. “I don’t like the Air Force. But I hate the Alliance. With their drugs and their distortions and their lies and their fucking psychotropic corn and the way that they cut themselves off at the knees, like idiots, demanding blind loyalty and destroying their best thinkers—” he breaks off again.
“Yeah,” Volker says quietly. “I’m not gonna last long.”
“I know,” Telford whispers, like a guy at the end of his rope. “We need a third option. You, especially, need a third option. And, I think, now, we might have one.”
Volker feels a terrible chill.
It comes straight from the marrow of his bones and ripples outward, cooling his blood, freezing his muscles, raising the little hairs on the back of his neck. His body already knows what Telford’s going to say. Something, deep in his mind, must know. But he can’t let it up. He can’t, yet, let it into his awareness.
Maybe Imaginary Rush has a point after all.
“Tell me,” he says.
“If you and I, as independent agents, were to dial the address? If we beat either side to the destination? We could leave all of this behind. We’d be temporarily out of their reach, and if either side managed to follow us—well, we’d have the advantage.”
There’s a long pause.
“We just—” Telford says, not looking at him, cutting a dark outline against a backdrop of stars and space debris. “We just need one more person.”
Volker shivers. He waits for his mind to hear what his bones already know.
“Nicholas Rush has been located.”
He’s not sure what to do, he’s not sure what to think—he’s having too many thoughts at once. Why is his imaginary friend taking the form of the exact guy who might be Dale Volker’s ticket out of the hellscape he’s staring down on a daily basis? Had he known somehow, from the moment his feet touched that gel, that this was going to happen?
The device boosts intuitive power, Imaginary Rush had said.
Well, yeah. Turned out the guy himself was a case in freaking point.
“He’s in New York,” Telford continues. “He’s been given the Top Tier Recruitment Cocktail but escaped before he got anything else. He has no personal memories, and we know exactly where he is.”
Volker stays quiet, fighting the chill in his bones and the excitement in his brain.
“In four hours, Kiva will have a strike team assembled. I’ve already been asked to lead it. But—” Telford breaks off. “There’s nothing stopping you and me from cutting out our trackers, leaving them on the ship, beaming down there right now, and just—asking him.”
“Asking him what?” Volker whispers raggedly.
“Asking him if he wants to come with us. Asking him if he wants to unlock the nine-chevron address. Independent of the Air Force. Independent of the Lucian Alliance. Just the three of us. You, me, and him.”
Volker crosses his arms, listening for the crystal harmonics of their cannibalized hyperdrive engines. They’re not being used, but still, very softly, they sing.
“What if he says no?” Volker asks.
“Then I’ll still have to lead the strike team. We’ll be in the same position we are now. But if he says yes—we leave everything with a transponder in geosynchronous orbit and park ourselves somewhere out of the way. Power down. You find the right planet. He decodes the last chevron. And then we go. We dial.”
Imaginary Rush appears from nowhere, perched on the central console between them. It’s a lot to take in a small space, and Volker flinches.
“Becoming more singular all the time, I see,” Rush says, looking at Volker. The embroidery on his white dress shirt has turned blue-green and impossibly intricate. Like it’s not embroidery at all.
“You okay?” Telford asks.
Volker can’t help it. He looks Imaginary Rush dead in the eyes, all his questions on his face.
“You could do it, I think,” Imaginary Rush tells him. “It could be you who unlocks the address. And what’s beyond.”
Not helpful. Maybe he could do it. But that wasn’t what he’d been silently asking. The question on his face had been: “What do you have to say about this, Imaginary Representation of a Guy With No Memories About to Be Offered a Deal He Can’t Understand?”
Then again, it’s not like Imaginary Rush can speak for the real guy. They’re different people. With different metaphysical statuses.
“Dale? You okay?” Telford asks again.
“Yeah,” he says. “Sorry, just thinking.”
“What are your hesitations?”
“Well, Dr. Rush, for one,” Volker says. “I don’t know that he really has the ability to make an informed choice about what we’d be offering.”
Telford nods, once, his eyes on New York. “Would it help if I told you I genuinely believed that this would be the best thing for him? His wife just died of cancer. He’s got no kids. No family he keeps in touch with. He’s been under house arrest for half a year, throwing himself against this cypher set. He’s supposedly been under the protection of the Air Force, but they haven’t done a great job. Before I almost recruited him he was completely miserable, and now? He’s lost all his personal memories. I know for a fact that the Air Force has no way of restoring them safely. There’s not a lot left for him, on Earth.”
“Hmm,” Imaginary Rush says, looking amused. “Debatable.”
“Do we have the ability to restore his memories?”
“No,” Telford admits. “But we’re not gonna promise him that.”
Telford regards him steadily. “And you. What did you have, really, before the LA took you? Anything? Anything more than graduate students you missed, a cat you loved, and a girl that you never asked out?”
“Seems like enough,” Volker whispers.
“Maybe for most people,” Telford shoots back. “But not you. You’re the kind of guy who can make it through the LA’s initiation ritual and a genetic modification bath while still holding onto his sanity and his astrophysics PhD. You’re the kind of guy who can learn to fight. Who gained twenty pounds of muscle and a mean right hook. You think just anyone can do that? You’re special, Dale. You’ve been overlooked your whole life. But not anymore. You and me? We can do this. We can break away from the LA. We can break away from the Air Force. We can open up a new frontier.”
“I can hear it,” Imaginary Rush says, his eyes sad, his gaze directed up toward the ceiling, a bit to his left. “Even at this distance.”
“What do you mean?” Volker asks, unable to help himself.
“Your ‘frontier’,” Rush says, abruptly dry, air quotes in his tone.
“Are you talking to me?” Telford asks.
“Sorry, no,” Volker admits. “Imaginary friend.”
Imaginary Rush winces at this. “God, we make a terrible pair,” he mutters to Volker. “Don’t tell him more than that, please? For both our sakes? You have a special status. He, most certainly, does not. And he’s too clever by half.”
Telford looks at Volker, and then at the place where Rush is sitting with a contemplative expression. Then he says mildly, “Well, uh, what does your imaginary friend think?”
“He hasn’t declared himself either way,” Volker replies.
“And, to be clear, I don’t plan on doing so,” Imaginary Rush says. “I’m just an observer. The loophole being, of course, that observation itself can effect change. That’s the nature of reality, y’know.”
They cut out their transmitters and beam down into the middle of a crowd. Times Square. It seems like a terrible idea to Volker, but Telford promises him it will work. And it does. No one notices them, materializing in the press of all these people.
They start forward together, weaving through the tourists, dressed in street clothes. Volker’s wearing the same thing he used to wear to work every day when he was at Caltech. Jeans. A button-down shirt. They don’t fit him well, with the weight he’s lost, the muscle he’s gained, but they feel like home. He can hear snippets of all kinds of inane conversations. He gets jostled. The day is cold, with a brisk wind. They’re not quite dressed for it.
“C’mere,” Telford says, dragging him toward the center of Times Square, which is definitely not the way they need to go. He leads Volker up the set of red steps, covered by tourists, until they’re all the way at the top. They lean against the back rail together, looking at the city’s giant glass walls of moving color.
It’s a goodbye.
It has to be.
Volker feels his eyes burn. His mind tries to take the hit for his heart, but it’s not working. His mind and his heart are fused. They’ve been fused ever since he was submerged in that gel. And maybe this is normal. Totally explainable human PTSD. Or maybe it’s something else. Some semi-alien problem with his mind or his genes or their state of meythlation.
But the broken open places in him—they’re the places that hear the songs of crystals now.
He’s crying, and he can’t hide it. He can’t help it. He feels this farewell like it’s an ice blade, taken straight to the chest.
Telford wraps an arm around his shoulders. “I could try, you know,” he says quietly. “Return you to the SGC. The LA might not find you.”
Volker shakes his head.
It’s not possible.
He’s one of them now. He’s a member of the Sixth House. He was inducted. And even if Volker did go back to his old life, nothing about his mind or heart would change. Even if they could try to reverse whatever Anubis’s device had done to him—he’s not sure he’d want it.
Because of the crystals. Because of their songs. Because, as sensitive as he is now—as much as everything hurts—there’s a depth to life he hadn’t appreciated. Hadn’t even noticed, before he went into that horrible gel. And even if that depth is now driven home too hard, he still values it.
“Everything is so raw,” he admits to Telford, staring up at the moving advertisements. “Since the device—it’s like my emotional circuitry and my analytic circuitry were fused. I feel so much more. So much more acutely. It’s impossible to keep a grip on all of it.”
“Most of your problems derive from trying to maintain that grip,” Imaginary Rush says, suddenly right next to him, on the steps, wearing jeans and black jacket, cut in the Lantean style. His hands are in his pockets and the wind is in his hair.
Telford nods. “I’ve noticed you’ve developed an instinct for on the fly course adjustments. For ballistic trajectories. I’m guessing that’s not all you have an instinct for, now?”
“No,” Volker admits.
“Ballistic trajectories? Just arcs, made by gravity,” Imaginary Rush whispers, like a truth of the universe. And, to be sure, it is.
They watch the city in silence.
They enter Au Coeur like they belong there. It’s early afternoon, and no one is standing at the Maître d’ station. They take the elevator up to the level of the restaurant. It feels strange to enter a building in street clothes, without weapons, through the front door. Telford feels it as much as Volker does. More, probably. His hands keep reaching for the zat that’s not strapped to his thigh.
The elevator doors open on the main space of the restaurant, which has a strange aesthetic: old-school French Impressionism with Modernism erupting through it. Volker can see disruption in the cut of the lights, the lines of the decor, and the art on the walls. He looks at a painting of Monet’s water lilies split down the center to incompletely reveal a 1930s newspaper article about the construction of the Empire State Building.
Someone is playing a piano.
Nope, not someone.
Nicholas Rush is playing a piano. The real Nicholas Rush. He looks different, subtly, from his imaginary counterpart. His hair is darker. It has a different cut. His glasses aren’t the same. He’s wearing clothes that don’t shift with his mood.
It’s been months since Volker has heard classical music. He adores it. He’s missed it. Like a limb he hadn’t known was gone.
Rush is good.
Really good, actually.
Nope, turns out he’s shockingly good.
Okay, it’s official. He’s spectacular.
Volker grabs Telford’s arm to prevent him from moving forward. They stand, perfectly still, just outside the elevator doors.
They’re not alone in the room. There’s a girl with an explosion of dark curls sitting at the table closest to Rush, watching him play. There’s an exhausted-looking man in an apron a table away from her, looking at his phone. And, in the back of the room, near the elevators, sits Volker’s imaginary friend, his chair pushed back just enough to allow him to prop his feet on the immaculate white table cloth. Across from him, the other chair is pulled away from the edge of the table, as though someone else is sitting with him.
But the chair is empty.
Volker leads Telford forward, sliding into a seat at the nearest table, placing himself directly next to Imaginary Rush.Telford trails him, hesitating, then sits.
Volker watches Rush play. It takes him some time to place the piece—achingly familiar, startlingly different—but yes, it comes to him. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20. First movement. Without the orchestra. He shuts his eyes and lets the sound of it soak into him.
When he opens his eyes again, during a particularly impressive scalar flourish, Imaginary Rush is watching Actual Rush with his arms crossed over his chest. His entire outfit has turned Lantean—a gray white base with blue-green detailing. He’s adopted a contemplative, faintly uncomfortable expression. Like he finds this experience to be a weird one.
Volker feels a thrill of unease; his bones speak in ice. It strikes him, in that moment, what a complex inner life his imaginary friend seems to have.
It’s occurred to him before.
But it hits him full force now.
“Not much you can do about it now,” Imaginary Rush murmurs, looking across the table, as though responding to someone Volker can’t see. He shakes his hair back, out of his eyes, and returns to watching his piano-playing counterpart. “I suppose I’ll always feel inferior, in some poorly defined way.”
“Well, you are imaginary,” Volker whispers, in what he hopes is a comforting manner.
Imaginary Rush looks straight at him, startled and amused and pained, like Volker just unexpectedly stabbed him with something. “Some things change,” he says. “And some things fucking never do.” He gives the empty chair across from him a significant look.
Volker is pretty sure that his imaginary friend might have an imaginary friend of his own.
Does that make sense?
Yeah. Probably it does. It’s only fair.
“Dale,” Telford whispers, shaking his head.
Across the room, Actual Rush blends the unaccompanied Mozart concerto into Beethoven’s Moonlight. And, god, Volker loves this one. He’s always loved it. But now? He loves it more, with all the newly cracked open parts of his self. Left hand octaves and right hand triplets. Rush moves through it slowly.
And, as Volker listens, he’s sure, he’s absolutely positive, that he could turn the real man into an actual friend. A good one. Maybe his brain had picked up on something in that short and unpleasant hallway conversation at the SGC, and turned it into a really elaborate construct, half yearning and half promise, then had given it life.
Because anyone who plays this piece in this manner knows what it is to be alive. How much life pours in, and how much runs out.
“He would help you,” Imaginary Rush says quietly. “If you allow David to take him, he would, certainly, help you. Personally. Intellectually and emotionally. But. There would be costs. Steep ones. Plus,” Imaginary Rush looks at him, his eyes serious. “There’s only one chevron left to unlock. And it’s tonal. The crystal harmonics of a DHD would show it to you. I suspect that in your current state you could crack it. Crack it in real time, even. At the moment of your dialing. For the Ancients, the last safeguard is always song.”
The last safeguard is song.
He knows that.
He knows it in his bones. He can hear it. He shuts his eyes. Behind closed lids he can see faint colors that come with the notes. The colors of the crystals. Each tone a hue. Each chord a pastel firework, played out in stone.
The first movement ends.
Volker opens wet eyes.
He looks at the man at the piano. He wants a friend. He wants someone who would understand him in a way that Telford can’t. He wants Rush with them as they unlock the outer edge of human knowledge. He wants it so badly that his heart aches with it.
The second movement begins.
“What if we don’t take him?” he asks Imaginary Rush.
Across from him, Telford watches him, his eyes calculating.
“That,” Imaginary Rush says, smiling faintly, “is when things get really interesting. If you and Telford dial without him, you turn singular.” He pauses, lifting his brows. “As I’ve said. There’s a small chance we could become colleagues. Do me a favor, Dale. Pull something out of the Set of All You Don’t Know.”
He already has.
Because—“colleagues.” It’s not the first time Rush has said it.
His bones have known this for a really long time. Probably from the very first moment that Rush appeared to him in that pool of gel.
This version of Rush?
The one talking to him, right now?
He’s definitely not imaginary.
He’s a member of the ascended. He has to be.
Whether he’s Rush or not, Volker doesn’t really care. He’s been here. With him. For him. This whole time since the gel. Months of dropping in on Volker’s darkest moments with his changeable outfits and his witticisms and his attention, and—and—Volker must have some kind of real destiny if someone from a higher plane of existence is taking this much of an interest in him.
He takes a deep breath. Then another. He nods. Then he looks at Telford.
Telford is staring back at him, his face a neutral mask. “Dale,” he says, gently. “Who are you talking to?”
“Myself,” Volker replies, wiping his eyes. then he leans forward, motioning Telford in close. “We don’t need him.” He can, surprisingly, hear steel and a blue-green crystal harmonic in his own voice.
Telford looked looks back at him, eyebrows raised.
“I can do it,” Volker says, his voice low, his tone fierce. “I know I can. You said we have eight of the nine? Let’s go. Let’s run. Let’s do it now. Forget the strike team. Let’s just go.”
Across the room, the mathematician detonates the opening of the third movement, slamming down on those repeating chords.
Telford leans across the table. “If it’s not me who leads the strike team, it will be Kiva,” he whispers. “That will be worse. More people will die. And if they get him, they’ll really have him. He won’t be with us. We won’t be there.”
“As arguments go, it’s not bad,” Ascended Rush says, looking at Telford skeptically. “And yet.”
“Your motivations fall within the Set of Things I Don’t Know,” Volker says, looking at Telford, his eyes as hard as he can make them. As hard as they’ll ever get.
“Motivations?” Telford shoots back, beneath the ferocious third movement, “I see a barrier, I want to break it. I see a boundary, I want to cross it. I see a mountain, I want to climb it. I’m a pretty simple guy at the end of the day, Dale.”
Imaginary Rush rolls his eyes. “Simple? That I’ll never believe. But the drive to crash ahead? Fair sure that’s real.”
Volker looks at Telford. “Tell me something I don’t know. Something that cuts down on my set.”
“The Set of Things You Don’t Know?” Telford raises his voice to be heard over the hammering fortissimo passage, smiling faintly.
“Yeah,” Volker says.
“Okay,” Telford replies, looking over at the version of Rush he can see. “The reason I want to lead the strike force is that I put him here. Where he is, right now, without his memories, getting by on frankly absurd musical abilities he pretended he didn’t have. That was me. I abducted him from Stargate Command. But I botched the job, so now he’s in the wind. I don’t want him in the wind. That man,” he says, his voice filing an edge into itself, “shouldn’t be in the wind. So if we don’t take him, I want to make sure he gets back to the SGC. I won’t accept an outcome where he’s appropriated by the LA, without protection. I can’t leave him. I won’t.”
“If you lead the strike force,” Volker whispers, “and we end up with him, rather than the Air Force, Kiva will force our hand.”
“Yeah, but it’ll be our hand,” Telford replies.
“I don’t want to take him,” Volker says. “I don’t want him coming with us.”
“Why?” Telford asks.
“Look at him,” Volker says, as Rush launches into another virtuosic, scalar passage, his hands running the range of the piano, fast and sure. “Despite everything you said—he still has the ability to belong here. We don’t.”
David Telford looks at Dale Volker, piercing and long and hard and with his whole self. “You and I both have secrets,” Telford says.
“Yeah,” Volker confirms. “I know. But that guy over there?” He indicates the pianist at the front of the room. “Doesn’t have a single one. You have to have memories to have secrets. He doesn’t belong with us. Look at him. We’d tear him apart.”
Telford doesn’t look at Rush. He continues to watch Volker with a contemplative expression. Like he’s never seen him before. Maybe he hasn’t.
“I’m all in,” Volker says. “And I can get us to the nine-chevron address. But the terms are that we don’t take Rush. If the LA ends up with him, we return him to the SGC and you and I go without him.”
“You really think you can get us there?” Telford asks. “Ahead of either side?”
“I do,” Volker confirms.
“All right,” Telford says, leaning back in his chair, opening a hand.
Across the room, Actual Rush enters another virtuosic passage. Ascended Rush pulls out a cigarette lighter, and spins it fluidly through his fingers, flicking the flame into and out of existence.
“Think he does math like this?” Volker asks.
“I know he does,” Telford replies.
The end of Beethoven’s third movement blends straight into another piece, one that Volker doesn’t recognize. As he listens, he decides that it has to be Mozart, just by the way it sounds. A piano sonata. An adagio. A beautiful one. It’s going to haunt him, not knowing what it is.
Where he’s going, he’ll never be able to find out. This might be the last piece of classical music he ever hears.
“What piece is this?”
“No idea,” Telford says, a little wistfully, like he’s thinking the same thing.
“Sonata fourteen,” Ascended Rush looks over at him. “Second movement. It was written in October. 1784.”
It’s October now. How much will October mean to Dale Volker, moving forward?
Maybe very little. Maybe, for the rest of his days, it will be only an abstraction. Only memory. New York, cold wind, blowing leaves, the Red Stair in Times Square. A French restaurant at which he’ll never eat. A Mozart Sonata he’ll never hear again.
By unspoken accord, Dale Volker and David Telford linger, watching Nicholas Rush play the piano, stretching this moment out into an infinite tonal mosaic, the melody evoking a landscape of crystal in Volker’s damaged, cracked open mind. In a few hours, they’ll be back here. They’ll come with a strike team that Telford commands, but can never control.
Chance and choice will determine what happens.
As they stand to go, Rush lights a cigarette. “Don’t get sentimental, now.” His voice is quiet. He’s speaking, Volker’s sure, to his own invisible friend.