Ad Noctum: Chapter 3
“It’s going to be a long, bad day,” Telford whispered.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Injuries. Panic attacks. Discussion of torture. References to suicide. Purposefully insensitive discussion of mental health issues. Boundary problems. Interpersonal manipulation.
Additional notes: None.
Volker woke with a start as Telford dropped off the upper berth and the lights in the room came up. He reached up, his good hand pressed to his bad shoulder, trying to ease away the pain of his sudden awakening. He watched Telford steady himself against the wall, then bring his hands to his face.
“You slept,” Telford said, shielding his eyes from the glare of the lights. “That’s a minor miracle—” He stopped, dropping his hands as he got a good look at Volker.
“Hi,” Volker said.
“Damn it.” Telford sighed. “I thought you were Rush.”
“Nope,” Volker said. “Still me.”
“How’s the shoulder?”
“Pretty painful, actually.”
Telford nodded. He continued to stand, clad only in boxers, one hand braced against the wall, as if the press of artificial gravity were something he had to fight against. “It’s going to be a long, bad day,” he whispered.
Something about the other man’s defeated stance killed the sarcastic comment that Volker had been about to make.
“Why?” Volker asked, the word almost soundless.
Telford shook his head. “Just—try to help him as much as you can, as efficiently as you can, for as long as you can stand it.”
“Okay,” Volker said, trying to suppress the dread that was already churning somewhere deep in his chest.
Telford shook himself, straightened, and started pulling on his shirt.
Volker sat up, trying not to jostle his shoulder too much as he did so. He’d been too exhausted to strip off his jeans and dress shirt from the previous day.
“Put on the leather stuff,” Telford said, stepping into his leather pants.
“Is there a shower on this—“ Volker made a loose hand gesture. “Ship?”
“It’s a tel’tak,” Telford said. “And yes. There’s a shower. But no showering until tonight. You already look too clean. If you brought any shaving gear, don’t use it. In about fourteen hours we’re going to have to pass you off as a low-ranking member of the LA.”
“Seriously?” Volker asked, feeling a spike in his anxiety.
“Yeah,” Telford said.
“There’s no way I can—”
“This is not an optional thing, Volker,” Telford snapped, kneeling to lace up his boots. “And believe me, I’m not happy about it. I’ve worked out a way to play this, I think. We’ll go over everything a few hours ahead of time.”
“Cut it out,” Telford said, pulling on his pants. “This is unavoidable. We’re going to have to deal with it as best we can. So. Get dressed. Help Rush.”
“He’s terrible at explaining things,” Volker said. “I still have no idea what he even wants from me.”
Telford paused midway through swinging his jacket over his shoulder, the motion fading and aborting down to nothing. “He wants you to help him find a planet,” Telford murmured, his eyes fixed on the floor. “A planet with so much fissible material that it itself could serve as an energy source to power a stargate.”
Stargates. Wormholes. The entire thing seemed too immense to believe.
“Why is this his job?”
“It shouldn’t be,” Telford whispered. “He’s supposed to be doing something else. We had a planet.”
“And what happened to it?” Volker asked, his voice hushed, though he didn’t fully understand why.
“Its location was given to Stargate Command,” Telford said. “By parties unknown. There was a pitched battle, and the LA lost control of the planet. Now we need a second one.”
“That doesn’t explain why this is his job.”
“Two reasons,” Telford said. “The first is that the Alliance doesn’t treat its scientists well. They have a habit of—ruining their minds. There aren’t any left who can do what Rush does. If any of them ever could have, which I doubt.”
“So glad I’m here,” Volker said, making a real effort to keep his voice steady.
“And number two,” Telford said, “is that he and I—individually or in conjunction—are suspected of leaking the location of the planet to Stargate Command.”
“Did you?” Volker asked.
Telford smiled faintly. “Don’t ask questions like that. They’ll only get you killed.” He settled his jacket over his shoulders and turned to hit the door controls.
“Right,” Volker mouthed at his back.
The door hissed open and Telford jerked back so rapidly that Volker flinched. He flung one hand in front of his face in anticipation of some horrific thing on the other side.
“What the fuck?” Telford said breathlessly, steadying himself on the doorframe. “Seriously. What. The fuck?”
As he edged backwards, Volker could see his cat looking up at Telford.
“Oh.” Volker said. “Yeah. That’s my cat.”
Telford turned, staring at Volker like he had just spoken a language other than English. He opened one hand, palm up, fingers spread, and looked toward the ceiling, as if asking for some kind of divine answer to a question he was unable to verbalize.
“Um,” Volker said.
“No. Don’t say anything,” Telford replied.
Mendelssohn meowed inquisitively.
Telford shut his eyes, took a deep breath, then edged past the cat and out into the hallway without speaking.
Mendelssohn watched him go before stalking into the room, his tail twitching slightly as he regarded Volker with something that looked vaguely like reproach.
In the hallway, the sound of Telford’s hand hitting the door controls was so loud that Volker suspected he’d actually punched them. “What the hell do you think you’re—” was the only thing he heard before both sets of doors shut with nearly synchronized swishes.
“Rush let you out, I suppose,” Volker said, eyeing the cat. “Didn’t he tell you to keep a low profile? Hmmm?”
Mendelssohn rubbed against his ankles.
“All right. Let’s go.” Volker picked up the cat, hit the door controls, and walked out into the hall, at which point the indistinct yelling clarified quite a bit.
“—are you trying to pull, Rush? Because you’re clearly trying to pull something. Bringing a cat on board? How the hell are we going to explain this? We’re in enough trouble as it is. Cats are not exactly common on Tel’taks unless you’re fucking Bastet, which isn’t really an excuse that we can fucking use—”
Volker entered the cargo bay and dropped to his knees to deposit Mendelssohn on the floor. The door swished shut, blocking out Telford’s tirade. Volker suppressed a sigh, and wrapped an arm around his chest to support his injured shoulder. He stared at the floor.
A long, bad day.
Mendelssohn meowed expectantly, and Volker roused himself enough to dig a hand down into the bag of catfood and spread a small amount out on the floor next to the water.
He stood unsteadily, then started to pull on his new clothes. The pants were tight, but he didn’t find that to be overly concerning—it didn’t look as if caloric excess was going to be a problem for him in the near future. The jacket was loose across his shoulders, but otherwise fit well.
“What do you think?” he asked Mendelssohn. “Do I look like a space-pirate?”
Mendelssohn didn’t pause in his methodical crunching of cat food.
“Oh I see how it is,” Volker said. “You don’t care as long as you’re getting fed. Is that right?”
The cat ignored him completely.
“Fine,” Volker said, tucking his shirt into his leather pants. He gave the cat a stern look. “But I’m warning you now, if you end up liking Rush better than me, I’m not going to forgive you.”
The cat continued to eat.
“Are we clear on that?” Volker knelt and ran a hand over his back.
The cat looked up, long enough to delicately sniff the sleeve of Volker’s new leather jacket before going back to his food.
“Good,” Volker said. He walked back into the central corridor, feeling a bit more confident in his new outfit. There was something about it that felt like armor.
He hit the controls to the workroom. The sound of Rush tearing into Telford rose about ten decibels in volume.
“—going on about. Explain to me in a rational manner why it is that you fucking hold to this, David. It’s not sustainable, it’s not logical, it’s going to ruin us both and, if you want to know, I’m more than a little concerned that—” Rush broke off as Volker entered the room.
They were standing very close, their weight shifted forward, their gazes locked. Something about his presence or his expression seemed to defuse the situation. Rush’s animated gesticulations faded down and decoupled as one hand came up to run through his hair. Telford stepped back, turning away from Rush and walking over to press a hand against the window that had been covered with equations with a fine-tipped marker at some point during the night.
The symbols stood out, dark against the streaking white lines of the stars.
Rush looked pale and exhausted and miserable, standing in the midst of the utter disaster he had made of the room over the course of the night. The main wallspace, immediately to the left of the door, was covered with pieces of tiny notebook paper that had been fastened to the metal. They created a pattern that was vaguely grid-like, probably a rough version of a matrix. Or maybe a matrix of matrices. The long central table was an utter mess of crumpled paper linked computers and—
Rush had rescued Volker's computer and brought it with him before he’d set fire to the lab!
That was a huge plus.
“You brought my laptop?” Volker said, awkwardly into the silence.
Rush looked at him, nodding tiredly before dropping back into his chair and, yeah, beginning to type on Volker’s laptop, as if he owned the thing. Maybe he thought he did. Or maybe he actually did, per Space Pirate law? If someone kidnapped you and stole your laptop at the same time, who did the laptop belong to?
On one of the linked laptops, a rasterized map was being assembled line by line. It looked like it was maybe thirty percent complete. Volker raised his eyebrows.
“Is that the superimposed data?” He dropped into the chair next to Rush, shooting Telford a nervous glance. The other man hadn’t moved.
Rush favored him with a look that seemed to be equal parts incredulity, annoyance, and disdain.
“Was that a ‘yes’?” Volker asked.
“Yes,” Rush replied. “It’s the superimposed data.”
“That’s incredible,” Volker said, angling the laptop screen to get a better look at the nascent heat map. “How did you—“
“Integer programming,” Rush said, leaning forward, burying his face in his hands.
“Were you up all night?” Volker asked.
“Why?” Volker asked.
Rush pulled one hand away from his face to make a fluid, circular gesture, the meaning of which was completely opaque to Volker.
“I’m really not sure what that means,” Volker said, shooting another edgy glance at Telford who was still standing at the window, his gaze locked on the linear streaks of hyperspace or on the fluid curves of Rush’s math; it was impossible to tell.
“For every point,” Rush said, speaking indistinctly into his hands, “that local anisotropies and radio emissions overlap, I want you to drill down into your data and look for evidence of a star system in the vicinity. Compile a list of candidates.”
“You want to find one of these naquadria-planets?” Volker asked hesitantly.
“So you were listening,” Rush said with a faint smile, pulling his hands away from his face.
“Well, you know. I try.”
They were quiet. Volker shot another glance at Telford.
“I don’t want to find one,” Rush murmured into the silence. “I need to find one.”
Something about the line of Telford’s shoulders seemed to harden. His head dropped.
“Yeah.” Volker bit his lip. “Get some sleep. I’ll get started on this.”
“Are you sure you can—”
“Rush. It’s my data.”
“Yes. I suppose it is.”
Telford pushed away from the window and walked over to take a seat at the table across from Rush.
“Nick,” he said quietly.
“No,” Rush shook his head. “I—”
Telford raised a hand. “It’s not about the damn cat. Or the knifing. Or the shipment of Kassa that you ‘inadvertently’ lit on fire.”
“What then?” Rush said, bringing a hand up to his forehead.
“Volker,” Telford said, stalling for time. “There’s food in the crates under the window if you want it.”
“Thanks,” he replied, standing and turning to open one of the crates and finding himself faced with an array of identical silver-wrapped packages.
“Look,” Rush said, his fingers coming to his forehead. “I’m fucking exhausted. I haven’t slept for two days.”
“I know,” Telford replied. “But—you’re going to want to hear this.”
“Does everything have to be so fucking ominous with you? Get to your point, if you have one.”
“Kiva called a meeting.”
“What?” Rush-half shouted, as the hand that had been at his temple slammed down onto the table.
Volker jerked in surprise, dropping his silver-clad breakfast.
“Don’t panic,” Telford said, smoothing his hands through the air, as though that might help.
“Who’s fucking panicking?” Rush snarled, surging to his feet and turning to pace a few steps away from the table, his hand running through his hair. “When?”
“I said don’t panic,” Telford replied.
“And I,” Rush said, gesturing at his own chest with one curved hand, “said when? Which I will fucking reiterate for you now. When. When is this meeting supposed to take place?”
“I don’t think you—”
“Yeah.” Telford crossed his arms. “Fourteen hours from now.”
Rush fisted a hand in his hair and turned away from Telford. “This is ridiculous. This is intolerable. Do you have any idea, any idea at all what kind of timetable this level of scientific or mathematical or technical progress requires? Do you? It takes years. Years, David. Not months. Not weeks. What they are asking is impossible to the point of farce. This is why they’re going to fucking fail as a galactic power—they have the patience of a pack of illiterate Visigoths.”
“Tell that to Kiva,” Telford said darkly.
“I did,” Rush said, looking like he was about to hyperventilate.
“And how did that go.” It wasn’t a question, and Rush didn’t answer it.
“I don’t have anything,” Rush said, his gaze locked on the middle distance.
“You have fourteen hours,” Telford said quietly.
“I’m not going to have anything after fourteen hours, either.”
Telford looked at him steadily, then got to his feet. “Maybe you’ll get lucky.” He turned and strode out of the room.
Rush pulled his glasses off. He stood, frozen, staring into the air in front of him, as if it could save him from whatever it was that was going to happen when he met Kiva. One hand came out to press against the nearest wall.
Volker had never seen anyone so clearly terrified. He couldn’t help the sympathetic thrill of horror that seemed to constrict like a band around his lungs and his throat. Rush didn’t seem like the kind of person who would scare easily.
“What—” the word was inaudible. He tried again. “What is this Kiva-person going to do to you?”
Rush didn't reply, just continued to stare into nothingness. Like there was something there he could see.
"Rush, Volker insisted. "What is she going to do to you?"
“I guess we’ll find out,” Rush said quietly, slipping his glasses back into place.
“You’ve met her before?” Volker asked.
“Yes,” Rush murmured.
“What are you afraid of?” Volker asked.
Rush shot him a look that he had a difficult time interpreting.
“Telford said that the LA ruins their scientists,” Volker murmured.
“Yes,” Rush confirmed. “They do.”
“What did he mean by that?”
“They’re finding that the nature of scientific inquiry does not mesh well with their governing philosophy.”
“But it ruins them? Ruins them?”
“They place a premium on loyalty,” Rush said. “And the means they use to achieve that loyalty—well. Suffice it to say that coercive persuasion does not allow for the conceptual latitude required for high-level scientific thought.”
“It constrains insight,” Rush murmured. “It cripples one’s capacity to construct and apply a logical framework—”
“Yeah okay,” Volker said, struggling to take a deep breath.
“It creates bias.” Rush’s hand curled into a fist against the wall.
“Yeah I get it.”
“It destroys any accurate estimation of uncertainty and, when used to its full extent, nearly obliterates understanding of uncertainty as a concept.”
“Rush. I get it.”
“It leaves personality intact but it tears away empirical instinct—”
Finally, Rush turned his head to look at him.
Volker wondered if his fear was written on his face. He tried not to think about what it would be like to have his thinking constrained, compartmentalized in a manner that wasn’t even observable to him—like missing a leg without the awareness or understanding of that loss—simply knowing that, for some reason, one could no longer walk across the room.
“Either they accept it,” Rush whispered, staring at Volker, “and they become part of the marginally productive LA science staff, which seems to be sufficient only to repair small scale technical problems, monitor sensors, complete calculations, or—they fail to accept it.”
“What happens then?”
“What do you think?” Rush murmured. “What would you do, if you knew it had happened to you?”
Volker looked away, down at his silver-wrapped breakfast. He found he didn’t much feel like eating it.
“Do you think they’re going to do it to you? Whatever it is that they do?” Volker whispered.
“I think they can barely fucking contain themselves,” Rush said with a humorless smile. “So perhaps we should make an attempt to identify some candidate star systems and maybe they’ll defer the destruction of my mind until next time.”
“Yeah,” Volker said. “Okay.”
Two hours before the scheduled meeting, Telford dragged Volker out of the workroom and onto the bridge for a “briefing.”
There was a dampness on Volker’s palms as he followed the other man onto the bridge. He tried wiping them on his leather pants, but that didn't seem to help much. The light was dim, and Volker supposed that meant it was technically "night," even though the local division of time was, by necessity, somewhat artificial now.
"Shouldn't Rush be in on this conversation?" Volker asked.
Telford dropped into his seat. "In a perfect world, yes. In the actual world, no. On his best day he doesn't have the patience for this kind of thing, and this is far from his best day.”
"Okay," Volker said.
"Look, I'm not going to lie to you, Volker. This is going to be rough.”
Telford shot him a sharp look. "If you can't pass for an insider, things are going to go south very quickly. For all of us. So. You need to bring every single god damned intellectual asset you have to bear on this situation, you understand? You have a PhD, which means fuck all when it comes to this stuff. So scrape every ounce of street smarts and common sense you have into the forefront of your mind. You’re going to need to cut it out with the semi-sarcastic asides. You're going to need to stop looking at things so closely. You're going to need to internalize the information I give you very quickly.”
"What happens if I get caught?”
"Best case scenario? You’re executed, Rush is tortured, and I’m executed.”
"Um, that's the best case?”
"Worst case, you get tortured and brainwashed, Rush gets tortured and then brainwashed, and I get tortured and executed, and then you both kill yourselves to escape your miserable lives. But it's hard to anticipate an accurate worst case scenario. That’s usually what makes it a worst case scenario. The fact that you didn’t anticipate it.”
"Thanks for the disclaimer," Volker said, feeling too stunned to really be afraid.
"And that," Telford said, "is exactly what I'm talking about. Cut it out. Ideally in general, but especially when you’re around anyone other than Rush and I.”
"You're going to be an uneducated, minor member of the Sixth House of the Alliance. A bastard nephew of a contact that I have, who, fortunately also happens to be cousin of Kiva's. That should help us out. Presuming, of course, that he keeps his word and doesn't fucking tell Kiva everything, in which case, nothing you do matters, because we're all fucked.”
"Okay." Volker took a deep breath and tried to focus his fragmented thoughts. "And Kiva is?”
“The daughter of Massim, head of the Sixth House of the Lucian Alliance. Kiva is his most powerful second.”
“Exactly who she is doesn’t matter right now. She’s ruthless and beautiful and practical and absolutely terrifying.” There was more than a hint of admiration in Telford’s tone as he described her. “You’ll know her if you see her. Hopefully you won’t.”
“Okay. But you trust this guy. Your contact.”
"As much as I can trust anyone.”
"What's my name supposed to be?"
"We'll stick with Dale. It'll work as a Sixth House name, and it will make everything easier.”
"I'm going to tell you roughly what's going to happen, so you know what to expect," Telford said, his face expressionless. "We're going proceed to the designated place, and dock with a large ship. We'll ring aboard and we'll likely be escorted at gunpoint to a room. There will be a lot of yelling about you being with us, and people will be upset and mistrustful. We’ll tell them who you are. They’ll verify this with my contact. While they’re verifying this, they're likely going to separate you from Rush and I. You'll be questioned.” Telford paused, and then added, “it’s within the realm of possibility that you’ll be tortured."
"What." Volker stared at Telford.
"They won't have long," Telford said, in a manner that seemed like it was supposed to be reassuring. "So they won't be able to get inventive. Once they confirm your identity with my contact, they'll stop torturing you. They may even apologize, as you're a member of Kiva's House. If they apologize to you, say that you understand it was necessary.”
"This is, like, a normal procedure? A normal thing they do?” His voice was higher than normal.
“Yes. I'm sorry, but it's unavoidable. Initiation is much worse, but you'll be spared that.”
"Um, what kind of torture are we talking about?”
"The use of electrical current, applied via a device that's about three feet in length. They won't have time for much else. It's very painful, but entirely survivable presuming you don’t have any congenital heart problems. You don’t, do you?”
“No?” Volker said, his utter incredulity making the word come out more as a question than as a statement.
“You'll know that it's likely to only last about twenty minutes or so, which should help you to make it through and stick to your story, which we'll work out ahead of time. We'll give you a standard line you can repeat when you start to get tired, but ideally, it won't get that far. Like I said, you're a member of the Sixth House, so that's going to give you some protection.”
"Isn't Kiva going to realize that she hasn't seen me at all the House Reunions, or whatever?”
“No. Houses populate entire worlds," Telford said. “And hopefully you won’t even be considered worth Kiva’s time. You’ll likely be interrogated by Dannic or Varro.”
"Can't I just hide on the ship?”
"No," Telford said. "We’re going to have a hard enough time hiding your cat.” The other man glared at him.
Volker shrugged guiltily.
“If you're going to be with us long term, you need to get through this.”
"Can't you just—”
"Look," Telford said, sounding tired. ”I may be able to get you out of this situation eventually, but until then, if you want to stay alive, you're going to need to trust me.”
"Okay," Volker whispered, feeling a hot ache, deep in his shoulder.
"Let's get started," Telford said.
Telford drilled him on his backstory for two hours before they were interrupted by the quiet trill of an alarm that Volker had never heard before. Telford stared at the slow strobe of flashing, foreign text.
“What’s that?” Volker asked.
“Proximity alert,” Telford said quietly, not looking at him. “Go put your cat in the wall and wait with Rush.”
Volker nodded, feeling a dryness in his throat and a tightness in his chest. He went to the cargo bay and moved Mendelssohn’s food, water, and litter box into a hidden compartment in the wall of the ship. It was a bit colder in the space than he would have liked, so he shoved a few of his shirts inside before depositing his cat in the small, dark chamber. Telford had told him that it had originally been part of an access point to the shield generator, which was located directly beneath the cargo bay. Telford and and Rush had modified the small space to be sensor-opaque for purposes Telford hadn’t been inclined to elaborate on. It was open to the ventilation system, but the panels would at least muffle any sound of meowing.
“Stay quiet, buddy,” Volker whispered, as he snapped the panel back into place.
He listened, but heard nothing.
Anxiously, he removed the paneling again, only to find the cat staring back at him.
“Shh,” Volker said needlessly, trying not to feel like an idiot.
“Dale,” he heard Telford call from the main hallway. “Let’s go.”
He knelt on the floor of the cargo bay, trying to pull in a long, slow, deep breath.
The prospect was something he’d never faced, nor had he ever anticipated facing. It was as far removed from his normal life as the alien ship that vibrated beneath his feet. He placed a hand over his injured shoulder. He felt delicate and poorly put together, aware of his own transient biological nature and how easily it could be ripped from him.
He wasn’t prepared for this.
He hadn’t asked for it.
It was, however, inescapable.
That realization did nothing to loosen the knot in his chest. It didn’t warm his hands or slow his breathing, or make it any easier to stand up and hit the door controls before stepping into the hallway where Telford and Rush waited.