Ad Noctum: Circuit(ry is Dark)
…and there is no space there.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Abduction. Grief. Violence. Drowning. Disassociation. Death wishes.
Text iteration: Just before your alarm goes off.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: Even though this is, technically, a prologue, it’s probably not the best entry point to the Multiverse Triptych.
Circuit(ry is Dark)
Telford tosses Rush a flash drive. Rush catches it left-handed. The crack of the plastic against his wedding ring is like a spark going to ground—like a circuit closing.
Of course, turns out, it’s not a flash drive, after all.
As his hand closes around it, the tree-lined sun of University Drive fades, dissolves, and reforms into a space that’s dark and close and trimmed with gold.
“Really sorry about this,” Telford says. And he looks it, too. That’s about all Rush has time to register before the other man raises a sinuous curve of metal. It activates in his hand, springing apart. The air ionizes around its tip—
His consciousness, when it returns, takes the form of a shockwave—a supersonic detonation of pure dead sensation. He’s under something, no, no, no—he’s in something and that same something is in him. There’s isothermal pressure everywhere—against his skin, beneath his eyelids, in his airways. He opens his eyes, and the pressure is against them too—thirty-seven degrees Celsius of it; the Pascals he can’t estimate (and why would he think that he could?) but they don’t hurt him.
He has exquisite clarity of thought accompanied by a distinct lack of vision. In theory and praxis. Globally and locally. Quite literally? He can’t see.
He can hear, though.
The universe seems bent on sounding itself from its lowest note to the peak of its range—radio wave to gamma ray—every frequency a note, a fair fucking wall of glorious, entangled sound, the kind of thing that would blow out lesser instruments than he’s become. Already he’s parsing it, this massive input that’s sonically, subsonically, and supersonically assaulting him. Shutting it down. All of it except—
There are crystals here. Very close to him. And they’re singing. They sound sad. How he knows that, he’s not sure. But he knows he knows, and knowing the knowing is nice.
There are additional considerations.
He’s lying against a hard surface. And yes, right, he’s inside something. A collection of viscous material. That same thing is inside him. That’s a problem. That problem is over now. That problem should be over now. That problem is in the process of ending. He knows it’s ending without knowing what it is.
Fuck this fuck this fuck this.
He’d been at work?
He’d been meaning to grade his Set Theory midterms?
He’d been on his way to see Gloria?
Gloria Gloria Gloria Gloria.
Nicholas Fucking Rush gets a hand up and out and into a different medium, something with much less surface tension. Air, presumably. Fantastic. He’s supposed to be surrounded by air. Not whatever this is. His eyes are open, but the world is a gold smear filtered through something gray and painless, which is never how the world has treated him. The world is an edged and burning thing.
//Help// he asks the singing crystals.
And they try.
He hears them change, harmonizing in new ways. The surface he’s lying on begins to vibrate, subtly, which allows him to feel his body, to organize his limbs. Doubtless, that’s a flavor of help. The crystals want to do more; they fair shiver with the desire, but they’re blended with dark circuitry. The kind that doesn’t belong to them, that offers very little room for their song. He’s not in such a different situation; the material surrounding him is viscous, heavy. He can’t sit under his own power and so he writhes, pushing himself up using the strength in his arms, his legs. He breaks the surface of the stuff and comes half into the air, getting an elbow hooked over a stone-edged ledge of wherever the fuck it is that he is.
He wipes gel-covered eyes with a gel-covered hand. He coughs, weakly at first, then with more energy and urgency as air and gel mix and his lungs begin to understand just how abnormal their circumstances are.
The coughing lasts for a long time. A long. Fucking. Time.
With difficulty, he hauls himself out of the pool of gel and collapses against stone, wiping his eyes, wringing the stuff out of his hair, coughing it out of his lungs, wiping it off his clothes and skin in lathe-like strokes with the blade of his hand.
The more he moves, the easier it gets. The easier it gets, the calmer the crystals become.
He squares his boots beneath him and pushes himself to his feet. He sways, unsteadily. He sweeps gel-soaked hair out of his eyes. He looks down at himself. He’s still dressed in the same clothes he’d been wearing when David Fucking Telford had fucking done—whatever it fucking was he’d fucking done. He’s missing his blazer. He’s missing his glasses. He’s trembling. He can hear crystals. There’s a G major chord in his mind. There’s precision in his hands. There’s an instinct for higher math in his bones; he can feel it already, can see it in the arcing lines of the room, which is proportioned based on the Golden Ratio.
He feels like a coloratura of a human being.
He’s surrounded by people.
Most of them are dead. That’s an unfortunate surprise.
Not only are they dead, but they’re also decomposing, which explains the faint eau de decay in the air. It would likely be intolerable if his sinuses weren’t full of the gray gel he’d just clawed his way clear of.
Regarding the dead: he sees a mixture of what look like military personnel and leather-clad—well, he’s not certain how to best characterize them at at the moment so he’ll hold off on that.
Regarding the living: they’re staring at him silently. They’re grouped eerily. It’s hard to put his finger on it, but it if he had to guess, he’d say the sense of strange comes from the idea that they’re not oriented as though they’re spatially aware of one another, with the exception of the two standing in shadow at the back wall. Three stand near the pool, spaced oddly. There’s a woman, dressed in white, positioned theatrically next to a burning wall sconce. There’s a man with gray skin and luminous pale eyes who stands on the dais on the far side of the pool. There’s a blond man in an Air Force uniform gazing at him with a wistful air.
No one speaks.
“An’ you lot were no fucking help,” Rush says, loosely addressing the assembled observers.
Still, no one speaks. Right then.
Rush stares at the burning wall sconce.
Yes well, first order of business will be lighting this place on fire.
Perhaps the first order of business ought to be determining what, exactly, just happened to him?
He continues to stare at the flame.
He stares at the flame for, perhaps, a very long time, listening to the crystal choir in his thoughts.
Fire—just seems like the best option. By far. He can’t say why. It comes from the same place in his mind where the Golden Ratio’s banging down a secret cognitive door that had, for most of his life, been soldered shut.
The silent observers continue to observe, silently. They continue to ignore one another. Though they do turn to a sudden illumination coalescing on the edge of the stone pool. All but the one with the pale eyes, who watches Rush fixedly.
“Nick?” David Telford says, breathless, condensing from a flare of blue-white light. “Oh god,” his brow furrows, and he brings a hand to his face, scanning the corpse-filled room, looking like he’s trying not to be sick.
Bloody fantastic. Colonel Telford’s here. Fucking appearing out of glowing air, accompanied by the ghost of an F-major chord. Very nice. All the trappings of a heroic rescue while, functionally, it’s the precise opposite. It occurs to him that killing Colonel Telford should rank fairly high on his current priority list. Could take the number one slot at any time. He pencils it in to the emerging rank order.
“David,” Rush replies, coolly.
“You okay?” Telford sounds shaken. His hand is still at his face.
“Never better,” Rush said smoothly, still staring at that burning sconce, listening to the crystals in the wall wail in F-minor.
“I can explain,” Telford says.
“Oh I doubt that very much,” Rush whispers.
The F-minor is interesting. As though they’d heard the echo of the F-major light that’d brought Telford into this godforsaken pit. As though it had upset them. A reminder of of the past, perhaps? Or of what’s locked away from them at present? Either way, their distress is obvious to him. He understands what they want, enmeshed in foreign circuitry. They don’t like it here. They’re not native to these walls. They’ve been taken. They come from elsewhere. They want to go home.
Barring that, they’d like an ending.
//Circuitry is dark// they tell him, //and there is no space there.//
//I won’t leave you like this// he soothes them, and their distress quiets.
“How long was I in there?” Rush asks.
Telford clears his throat. When he speaks, his voice is flat. “Twenty-seven days.”
Gloria is dead. Without a doubt. He doesn’t need to ask. Telford doesn’t need to say it.
He considers this.
He considers that he will consider this later. When he’s by himself. Possibly much later. Possibly he’ll do everything in his power to never consider it again. Possibly. There’s only so much his mind can take without shattering apart completely and that bridge is one that goes far too far. It’s already been a trying day. Fair fucking confusing. He’s covered in gel and surrounded by corpses. There are people watching him from the periphery of the room. And Gloria had— Gloria is—
The crystals in the wall turn from F-minor to E-minor, doing their best to mock up the opening of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. It doesn’t help him, not in the slightest, but he sends them a wave of acknowledgement all the same.
He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a silver lighter. He twirls it absently through his fingers, flicks the flame to life, then spirals the top closed. Drowned in gel and the thing still finds a way to work. Impressive.
“And why was I in there?” He finds more than enough detachment to give the question a polite twist. And why not? He’ll drag civilization with him when he can. Where he chooses.
“It’s a long story,” Telford says in a hollow whisper. “It involves the National Marrow Donor Program. Your genes. A war playing out over multiple planes of existence. A battle that took place over a device while you were inside it. Both sides in that battle believing you dead. For, uh, twenty-seven days. Until your implanted transponder went live about six hours ago. I came as soon as I could.”
Twenty-seven days. A cube of three. There are twenty-seven straight lines on a smooth cubic surface in projective 3-space. He considers the Clebsch surface in more detail than ought to be possible for someone who hadn’t taken a strong interest in the intricate grammar of algebraically closed fields. Lie algebra, though. There’s a different story. Symmetry groups of physical systems now feel as natural to him as breathing. He’s sure that hadn’t been the case before.
“Lovely,” Rush reverse-guns his lighter again. Again. Again. “Do you happen to have a cigarette?”
“No one smokes in space,” Telford whispers.
They’re quiet. Rush looks at all the other people in the room. The silent ones. One of the shadowed figures along the wall lights a cigarette. Like an absolute fucking asshole. Telford doesn’t look at the man. Telford doesn’t look at any of them, not even the beautiful dark-haired woman, standing directly beneath the flaming wall sconce, not a meter from him. He hasn’t looked at a single one of the silent watchers this whole time. That’s interesting. It might be important. Hard to know.
He’ll need to be working on some fucking heuristics for himself.
“Do you have any accelerant?” Rush asks.
Telford regards him warily. “I have something that might loosely be termed ‘rocket fuel’,” he says, with considerable reluctance. “Why?”
“Go get it.” Rush smack-lights the lighter against the heel of his hand.
“Nick,” Telford says. “Why don’t we go somewhere we can talk?”
“The crystals don’t like it here,” Rush explains, “and I can’t get them out of the walls in a time efficient manner. Consequently, we’ll have to burn this place down. This is non-negotiable.”
The minor chords in his head turn major. G-major, in fact. He’s made them quite happy, those small stones in the walls.
//To create a machine that feels is a cruelty// they explain, in the Key of Benediction.
//Oh I’m well aware, little ones.//
“Nick.” The word is a slow-pull reality test.
“David,” Rush replies pleasantly, spin-flicking his lighter through his fingers, “you can go get your rocket fuel or you and I can attempt to beat one another to death in this room. It’s your choice.”
“If I let you burn this place down, we can, uh, call off the death match?”
“We can delay the death match,” Rush clarifies, “by at least—” he glances at the watch he’s not wearing, “—half an hour.”
“Why don’t we both go get the rocket fuel?” Telford suggests.
“I’ll leave this place when it’s on fire and not before,” Rush informs him, tossing his lighter in the air, catching it, flipping it open, and lighting it, all in the same motion. He spirals the top shut with a click.
“Okay.” Telford looks at him steadily. “Don’t start without me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Rush replies.
Telford vanishes the same way he’d arrived; in a flare of blue light and that F-major chord. Rush’s little stone chorus wails again.
One of the silent observers comes forward, out of the shadows. It’s the one next to the cigarette-smoking asshole. This one, too, has an Air Force uniform, but it’s different than the uniform of the blond man. Different from the uniform he’d seen Telford wear, once. Different from the uniforms of the dead people on the floor.
“Hi,” the solider says. He has wild dark hair. Kind dark eyes.
“Hello,” Rush replies, reverse-gunning his lighter. “And what are you lot doing here, then?”
“You lot?” the man repeats. He looks back at his companion near the wall.
“Locals,” the cigarette-smoking asshole says. It’s hard to tell from just the one word, but it sounds like the man is from the UK. He’s cutting a fair familiar outline, back there in the dark. Rush narrows his eyes.
“Ah,” the soldier says, like any of this makes sense to him. “He can see them?”
Rush is beginning to tire of this day. “Y’can get t’fuck,” he says, politely. “Right and no one smokes in space, apparently,” he shouts at the figure on the back wall.
“You can see him?” the soldier says, startled.
The smoker steps into the light, and it’s like looking into the most optimistic mirror in all creation. The man staring back at him has better hair, better clothes, and kinder eyes than seem reasonable. If grief has done her knife-work here, it looks like she’s been honing, rather than carving away.
Someone’s taken a crowbar to reality at some point during the past twenty-seven days. But what does it matter, really? There’s nothing to anchor him to anything anymore. Gloria, Gloria is—
“That jacket doesn’t suit you,” he snaps at himself. “It looks ridiculous.” He reverse-guns his lighter, then spins it shut. He shivers in the cold of the room. In the walls, the crystals take a more aggressive tone, D-minoring their way into his thoughts.
“Why can he see you?” The soldier asks Rush’s gel-free counterpart. “I’m assuming you’re not purposefully manifesting to him?”
“I’m not.” His doppelgänger shrugs. “But he was in there for twenty-seven days. That makes him a rare variant. It was the stolen crystal tech that woke him, I think.” His expression is sympathetic. “He’s difficult to place on the Ascension Spectrum. But he rates. He rates higher than any pre-Destiny variant. He seems to have a clear view into the astral plane, for one. That’s new. Difficult to handle.”
“Astral plane?” Rush snaps.
“I wouldn’t advertise it, if I were you.” His doppelgänger looks at him over the rims of his glasses, then pulls them off and hands them to Rush. “Let’s see if I can give you these, shall we?”
Rush stares at him, suspicious.
“Go on,” his doppelgänger says softly. “You’re already close enough in nature to me that I think this will work.”
“Genius, you sure this is a good idea?” the soldier growls.
Cautiously, Rush reaches out and pulls the glasses away from the other man. There’s resistance against his fingers, and the thin metal of the earpieces warps with supernatural strain. But they come free, and then, they’re in his hands. Similar to and different from his own lost pair.
“Who are you speaking to?” The woman by the wall sconce asks. “Where did those come from?”
Rush ignores her, fingering the lines of metal and glass in his hands.
“Put them on,” his doppelgänger says, gently encouraging.
Rush slips the glasses into place, and scans the room. His spectral company has vanished. He looks over the top rims and, again, sees the array of watchers.
“I cannot believe you just did that. Aren’t you always the one telling me not to take risks?” the soldier growls.
“I’m taking a small risk now so you don’t do something astronomically stupid in the relative near term, watching him slowly unravel from the strain of near-constant observation,” his doppelgänger says airily.
The soldier sighs, then turns to Rush and looks him dead in the eyes, his expression earnest. “You’re gonna need to find me.”
“Find you?” Rush repeats, nonplussed.
“Find me. Find me again. After today. And when you find me? Don’t let me go.”
“No thank you,” Rush replies, coolly. “I’m uninterested.”
“It’s not like that,” the soldier insists, then pauses. “Well, okay, it’s kinda like that. But it’s not only that. It doesn’t have to be that. Half the time it’s not.”
“Don’t stop there,” his doppelgänger says dryly. “You’re really clarifying things for him.”
“Damn it, genius, can you just—be nice to yourself? You just climbed out of some kind of gel coffin under your own power, after twenty-seven days in stasis so subtle it was indistinguishable from death.”
“I’d say I’m being excruciatingly nice to myself,” his doppelgänger replies. He looks at Rush. “Or do you disagree?”
“I’ve lost touch with reality,” Rush mutters.
“No,” the soldier says.
“Well, for some definitions of reality,” his doppelgänger agrees, with understated sympathy.
The soldier gives the doppelgänger a stern glare, then looks at Rush. “I understand this is confusing. But I can help you. And, with the skillset you’ve already got on you? You’re gonna need help. Trust me.”
“I’m not at all certain this version of you can handle this version of me,” his doppelgänger says dryly, then takes a drag of his cigarette.
Rush is developing a strong dislike of his fantastical alter-ego, with his immaculate shoes and his unearthly cigarettes and his ability to fabricate magical glasses from nothingness, because, somehow, when Rush hadn’t been paying attention, the man had re-manifested his own designer eyewear.
“On second thought, yes, all right,” Rush says, looking at the soldier, trying to shake back hair that’s already well on its way to set, courtesy of supernatural gel. “I’ll take you up on your quixotic space quest. Fine. Don’t have much else on at the moment.”
His counterpart rolls his eyes.
“What’s your name then?” Rush asks the soldier.
“Sorry,” the solider says gently. “Not sure I want that on the local radar.”
“Hmm,” Rush says, watching the woman with dark hair circle him like a speculative shark. “I take your point. Makes it near impossible though, Dulcinea. No name? No location? In space or in time?”
“Dulcinea?” the soldier repeats, his head cocked, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth.
“No limits but the sky,” his doppelgänger says quietly, stealing Rush’s line.
“Thou hast seen nothing yet,” Rush hisses, annoyed.
“No man is born wise,” his doppelgänger shoots back.
“Love and war are the same thing,” Rush snaps.
“And this’d be why I generally don’t manifest to myself,” his doppelgänger says, looking pointedly at the solider. He glances at Rush. “Apologies.”
“I do not accept,” Rush replies coolly.
“Your prerogative.” His doppelgänger shrugs.
“Right,” the soldier says, trying not to look amused and doing a piss poor job of it. “You wanna explain that little quote battle you just had with yourself?”
“Not particularly,” his doppelgänger replies, sighing. “But the long and short of it is that you just fixed your own local variant as a mythic romantic ideal in the extremely damaged psyche of your new friend here. Not sure that’ll be doing either of them any favors.”
“And Dulcinea is—”
“An idée fixe. The name of the mythic romantic ideal, obviously.”
“Obviously,” the soldier repeats, smirking.
“Shut up,” Rush and his doppelgänger say, simultaneously.
“Well, I am the optimistic one,” he says to them both, then turns to Rush. “Nick, you’re almost certainly gonna to have to put up with some bullshit from me before I actually get around to helping you. But it’ll be worth it.”
“Some?” his doppelgänger says, amused, around the cigarette in his teeth. “Some bullshit?”
“Just—don’t frame me for murder,” the soldier says.
“What a terribly specific request.” Rush coolly reverse-guns his lighter. “One might be forgiven for thinking it’s happened before.”
“One might.” The soldier’s tone has turned dry, and his gaze flicks to Rush’s doppelgänger. “Do your best anyway.”
“Consider it done,” Rush replies. “Any other requests?”
“Don’t give up on me,” the soldier says.
“I could use more specificity.” Rush frowns, unimpressed.
“To whom are you speaking?” The woman in white is very close now.
“You have ties to him that transcend space and time,” his doppelgänger says, delivering the words with the cadence Rush uses on struggling students. “So, even if you do frame him for murder and even if you do, repeatedly, give up on him—which, I must say, it seems you’re quite likely to do—there’s still a fair shot he manages to help you anyway.”
“But, Nick, seriously, do your absolute best not to frame me for murder,” the soldier adds hastily.
“And don’t kill Telford,” his doppelgänger adds.
“Unless he really deserves it,” the soldier growls.
“Should I be writing this down?” Rush asks dryly. “Making an itemized list, perhaps?”
“To whom are you speaking?” The woman in white insists.
“Someone who looks exactly like you,” Rush replies, glancing at her distractedly over the tops of his glasses.
“And that’d be our cue,” his doppelgänger says, glancing at the woman in white, then stepping forward to hand Rush his half-finished cigarette.
Rush takes it, fighting again that strange amorphous resistance that’s neither in the air, or of it.
“Good luck,” his doppelgänger grins at him. “Don’t burn the multiverse down.”
“And don’t give up,” his kind-eyed soldier adds.
“No promises,” Rush whispers to the empty air.
He smokes his cigarette. Is he already through nicotine withdrawal? Or had those twenty-seven days been something of a pause? He’ll find out.
Scanning the room, he decides that some of the crystals will be rescuable. The ones in the control console he can get. Not sure how many will be there, but it could be as much as half the total. The ones in the walls though—they present a real problem. Rocket fuel burns hot. Hot enough to melt some metallic alloys.
He looks at the flaming wall sconce. Odd it’s lit. There must be flammable material running through the walls. What a fortuitous conceit.
//And what do you make of that, then?// he asks his choir of lost crystals. //Half of you with me, half of you for the fire?//
They respond in D major. Key of Glory. He smiles faintly at the wall, and takes a drag from his gifted cigarette.
He’s lost his grip on reality. That much is clear. But no matter. He can work around that. He can work around anything. Workarounds are, arguably, his greatest single skill. Gloria, he’s certain, is dead. That, more than anything else, convinces him that the fetters on his rational world have loosed themselves in the dark wind of the cosmos. What happened to him, what is happening to him, what will happen to him—all of it unknowable.
But he can hear the long laments of stolen things. The world, it seems, is myriad. Mystery is folded down into spacetime itself. He’d always known that. Now, he knows it more. Understands it completely. He has a few personal goals—the salvation of semi-sentient technological elements; locating his personal spacetime Dulcinea. It’s enough for a start.
“Where did that come from?” The woman in white regards his cigarette with narrowed eyes. “Did you just manifest that?”
“Too fuckin’ right, I did.” Rush eyes the cigarette speculatively. “Where else would it come from? Nemo fumat inter astra. Universal law, or so I hear.”
“You speak Ancient,” the woman says softly.
“You speak English,” Rush replies. “Congratu-fuckin’-lations to us both.”
“If you already know the candlelight is fire,” the woman whispers, her cadence open, as though she’s waiting for Rush to complete the thought.
He doesn’t complete it. His clothes, heavy with gel, cling to him in the cool air.
He flicks his lighter open and closed, open and closed, as he waits for Telford to return with the rocket fuel. He smokes his cigarette. He pushes his glasses up, clearing the room of silent watchers. He lets the crystals bricked into the wall sing him songs of loss and gratitude before the long, coming night.