Theta is standing outside, talking to a girl.
This would normally give Koschei no cause for alarm. Two of the Deca’s members are girls whom they talk to every day. They’ve both had class project or laboratory partners who were girls. A significant percentage of the people they see on a daily basis are, were, or potentially will be girls. So Theta talking to a girl should not be a Thing To Be Concerned About.
Except that Koschei is pretty sure that he knows every single face of everyone in their year, and She is not among them. He rules out lab partner and project groupmate instantly, and that is frankly alarming because Theta is talking to Her over lunch instead of to Koschei, and there is no reason outside of school that could possibly be important enough to interrupt Koschei’s Theta Time.
Maybe, Koschei thinks, Theta has been waylaid: the innocent, hapless victim of a spontaneous conversation leech.
Except that Theta doesn’t appear to be in any distress; he’s chatting animatedly with The Girl. His lightly freckled face, half-turned away from Koschei’s line of sight, is candle-bright and warm. Laugh lines and smile lines crinkle the corners of his blue eyes and his upturned mouth. It’s an expression that Koschei is used to being directed at himself, not at a complete stranger. His posture is relaxed, and the lines of his tall, slim form are fluid and elegant. He doesn’t even seem to be on the lookout for Koschei.
Maybe, Koschei tries, he’s forgotten that today’s the day I come back. His Introduction to Anisotropic Spacetime Perturbations class had been gone on a field trip for the past week. But that was only a week—surely Theta couldn’t have forgotten in just a week…
Theta laughs at something The Girl has said, and throws his hands up with careless abandon, tipping his face towards silver leaves dripping with drops of afternoon gold—drops that fall like molten summer and pool in the waves of his white-blonde hair. Then he leans closer to The Girl—really much closer than Koschei thinks he ought to be—and wags one index finger at her chidingly, still chuckling as he does so. The Girl laughs with him, and Koschei notices for the first time how beautiful she is. Her long, thick red hair glows like fire in the sunlight about her heart-shaped face and spills in waves down her long, slender neck to tumble about her shoulders. Her skin is nut-brown and smooth, and try as he might, Koschei can’t find any imperfections in her complexion, though he does note with a tiny bit of satisfaction that her nose is a tad too large for her face. She tilts her head flirtatiously to one side and bats her eyes at Theta, and to Koschei’s absolute horror, Theta laughs and leans in a little bit closer.
It’s far from uncommon for girls to flirt with Theta. Theta is gorgeous and brilliant, so of course girls are going to flirt with him. But Theta has never paid any attention to their advances before…
I’ve been gone a week. One. Week. It’s not possible, Koschei thinks, for Theta to have gone and found himself a—a—
“Yeah,” Drax’s voice cuts into his thoughts. “They’ve been like that every day since you left.” Koschei hadn’t even noticed the other boy come to stand by his elbow. “Her name is Vera. She’s about a decade or so behind us, but apparently she’s quite clever.”
“Clever?” Koschei’s teeth are gritted together. Surely she can’t be as clever as I am, he thinks.
Drax nods. “They share a class together. Recreational Mathematics, I think. I guess Theta only just worked up the nerve to talk to her during lunch the day after you left for your field trip. They hit it off brilliantly from the start.”
“Good for them,” Koschei says icily.
Drax looks up at him and blinks. “You okay, Kosch? You’ve been standing here for fifteen minutes, just staring at them.”
It’s true. Koschei had been on his way outside to meet up with Theta for lunch, like they always did this time of day. He’d gotten as far as the entrance pillars when he’d seen them, and confusion had rooted his feet to the stone patio.
“I’m fine.” His hands have clenched into white-knuckled fists and have started to tremble. He quickly clasps them firmly together behind his back and turns his head to stare elsewhere around the field, as though he’s actually been looking for open places to sit the entire time.
Drax looks at him doubtfully. “Okay…” He thinks for a moment, glances between Koschei and the pair outside, and then haltingly adds, “well, um, I have a workshop in a few minutes, so could you tell him for me that study group is going to be delayed an hour tonight?” Before Koschei can answer, Drax is already bounding away. “Thanks Kosch! See you later!”
Koschei stares after him and makes a mental note to nick something nice for Drax the next time he and Theta sneak out of the Capitol. His eyes draw back towards Theta and Vera. Now armed with a Legitimate Excuse to interrupt them, Koschei pushes away from the entrance pillar and stalks across the burning grass towards his best friend.
He’s halfway there when Vera notices him. She says something to Theta and chintips lightly in Koschei’s direction. Koschei can’t see Theta’s face, but he can read his body language better than anyone’s; Theta tenses up, all of his warm, fluid lines freezing into sharp, brittle angles.
Koschei stops, stunned, and stares as, without even a glance in Koschei’s direction, Theta offers his arm to Vera—who takes it graciously—and walks with her across the field, away from Koschei.
The grass beneath Koschei’s feet seems to have threaded up to trap his ankles, and it is all that holds him in place as the balance of his reality is tipped—his best friend on one end falling away from him and leaving Koschei alone on the other, pivoting and plummeting into the empty nothingness outside of space. The unthinkable has happened. Even though the truth is right before his eyes, it takes him several seconds to wrap his mind around it. Theta has replaced him.
Theta has a girlfriend.
Koschei skips the rest of his classes that day—something he’s never done before. He claims illness, and even though he’s not actually sick, he feels miserable enough that the excuse isn’t really a lie. His heartsrate is elevated and he can’t seem to get enough air no matter how deeply he breathes. His stomach is churning and twisting around knots of sharp pain, and he feels nauseous even though he hasn’t eaten anything. He doesn’t think he could bear to sit so close to Theta, not after what had happened that afternoon. Not now that he knows Theta would just be wishing that he were with someone else.
Koschei throws himself down on his bed and stares at his ceiling. “Fuck,” he says. “I was gone a week. A single fucking week.”
A week during which he hadn’t even been able to focus on the interesting aspects of the triple-system millisecond pulsar his class had been there to observe; he’d been too preoccupied thinking about Theta. Every time the professor had begun to yammer on self-importantly, Theta hadn’t been there to whisper acidly witty remarks in Koschei’s ear. When Koschei finished compiling the data he’d gathered on the pulsar, Theta hadn’t been there to listen to all of his brilliant ideas on how they could use it, and then to expand on them with his own unique imagination. Theta hadn’t been there, and the empty space where he always stands next to Koschei had gaped like a ragged hole in the universe.
Koschei scowls. One of the constellations in the Celestial Map he’d painted onto his ceiling has begun to look like Vera every time he glances at it. He snags a pen from the nightstand and flings it viciously at the image. It lodges in one of her eyes. She smiles at him, unconcerned, and regenerates near Sagittarius B on the other side of the room. Koschei buries his head beneath his pillow.
He lies there and feels sorry for himself for most of the afternoon before he comes to his senses.
Theta is Koschei’s best friend. Koschei is Theta’s best friend. He’s known Theta since they were first admitted to the Academy at eight years old. Theta has no right to cast aside that bond as though it had never even existed, and Koschei will make him very aware of that fact. He will make certain that Theta knows what a bad idea it was to cast him aside. Vera may have had a week to stage the first assault, but she’s fighting a bond that’s decades old.
And the war has just begun.
Fingers tapping to a beat of four, Koschei goes to find Ushas.
“But this is important!”
Ushas doesn’t even turn around. She adjusts the heat on the burner nearest to her and begins measuring out a foul-smelling ochre powder. “I’m busy.”
Koschei narrows his eyes and tries to keep his irritation at being brushed aside from showing. “I’m not leaving.”
“Oh, really?” Ushas pours the powder into a glass beaker, adds a clear liquid, and sets it to boil on a hot plate. “Then you won’t mind making yourself useful as a testing template. My Entomorphthorales are all refusing to adapt themselves to a wider range of host specificity.”
Koschei places a larger distance between himself and the Time Lady, but does not leave. As the senior lab technician, Ushas is the only one with extra keys to every workroom in their building. Koschei needs those keys.
“Oh for the love of…” She turns around at last, irritated, and glares at him. “What?”
“I need keys to Theta’s lab.”
“You’re kidding me. You lost yours?”
Koshei blinks. “…I never had any.”
“Really?” Ushas’ irritation slips into puzzlement for a moment. “But I thought…oh, never mind. Look, I really am busy here. Just ask Theta to make you some copies.”
Koschei grits his teeth and tries, unsuccessfully, to keep the edge out of his voice. “He’s been a bit busy lately.”
Ushas stares at him uncomprehendingly for a few seconds. Then her expression clears, only to be constipated with disdain and exasperation a second later. “Rassilon, leave me out of your little domestic spats! Just apologize and snog him or whatever. Get out of my lab.”
Koschei gapes at her, horrified. “I—we’re not—we didn’t—“ Of all the indignities, now he’s stammering like a thirty year-old. Koschei ignores the heat in his own cheeks and snaps, “Ushas, just give me the keys and I’ll leave you alone with your carnivorous fungi.”
“Fine. Take my spare.” She turns back to the boiling solution, which is now fluorescing bright orange and emitting what sounds disturbingly like high-pitched animal screams. “Top left drawer of Table One. Anyone finds out that you have it, and I’ll have found a new host for my Zoophthora Alpha. Also, don’t touch the agar dishes behind the keys."
Koschei takes the threat seriously. He carefully retrieves the spare keys anyway and leaves Ushas’s lab as quickly as possible to go and make a few copies. He doesn’t want to risk Ushas’s wrath a second time if he can help it.
Koschei waits until Theta is in class to break into his laboratory. The door is deadlocked, but his newly acquired keys take care of that problem without leaving any signs of a forced entry. Paranoid, Koschei thinks, and then smirks. With good reason, I suppose. Koschei and Theta have pulled enough pranks on their classmates to warrant fear of retribution. He deadbolts the door shut behind him.
Theta’s lab is immaculate; tools are organized according to type and function in labelled boxes, experiments are neatly contained on separate benches, and every step of every process has been carefully annotated in workspace-specific notebooks in Theta’s smooth, elegant script. Koschei rubs his thumb over a thready blue sentence and feels a surge of warm affection flow through his chest. He swallows back the twinge of guilt that prickles his hearts and reminds himself that Theta is the one who started this. Theta is the one who abandoned him. He’s brought what Koschei is about to do down on himself.
“Right then,” Koschei says quietly, and cracks his knuckles in preparation. “What do we have here?” He flips back a couple of pages and grins. Despite Theta’s usual predilection towards procrastination and laziness, he has never been sloppy with his notes. “Oh, Theta, how considerate of you to be so very thorough. This is going to be easy.”
The next morning, Borusa stops in mid-sentence as Theta, late to class as usual, attempts to slink unnoticed through the back door of the classroom. Oh, good luck with that in your condition, Theta, Koschei thinks snidely.
“What,” Borusa asks, “in Rassilon’s name have you done to yourself?”
Every head in the classroom turns to look. Koschei remains very still and holds his lower lip tightly between his teeth to keep from laughing. Snickers rise throughout the room, and Koschei can tell that Theta should probably be turning bright red about now.
If, of course, he weren’t a bright fluorescent blue from head to toe.
“Laboratory accident,” Theta mumbles, though it’s clear from his expression that he doesn’t for a microsecond believe the “accident” portion of his own excuse.
Koschei is grinning; he can’t help himself. This is working perfectly according to plan. Across the room, Ushas catches sight of his triumphant expression and gives him her most withering ‘I cannot believe how juvenile you are’ look, before pointedly ignoring them both in favor of her textbook. Drax takes slightly longer to catch on—his eyes dart back and forth between Theta and Koschei for a couple of seconds—but when he does, his eyes widen comically in horror. He sinks deeper into his seat and raises his book like a barricade.
Borusa sighs and waves Theta to his seat, picking up where he left off in his lecture on temporal field mapping.
Koschei watches Theta navigate the maze of desks to the seat adjacent him. Theta sits down and arranges his books and notes with as much dignity as he can muster, and then, very slowly, turns his head to look with narrowed, suspicious eyes at Koschei.
Koschei smirks. “What’s wrong, Theta? Feeling a bit blue today?” he whispers.
Theta stares at him.
Up close, the results of Koschei’s sabotage are even more impressive. Blue has soaked into every pore and every crease of Theta’s skin, as though pools of artron energy have overflowed from the core of his body and spilled like rivers into lakes beneath an alien sky. Every strand of hair, every eyelash glows like impossibly thin psychic threads all coalescing into an electric halo around Theta’s perfect face.
Very suddenly, Koschei wants to kiss him more than anything. He wants to catch Theta’s lower lip gently between his teeth and drink him in. He wants to savor the fullness of everything that is Theta and bottle it on his tongue. He wonders how it would feel to have Theta’s lips on his, and what he would taste like if he wanted Koschei as much as Koschei wants him. For a few seconds, all Koschei can do is stare back at him, stunned and bewildered by the sudden, unexpected desire overwhelming him. Where had this come from?
Koschei manages to force his eyes away, down to his notebook, and he grips his stylus between his fingers hard enough that he can feel his twin hearts pulsing between thumb and forefinger. The quadruple beat of drums in his head is mirrored by his hearts, louder in unison than he has ever heard them before. He has no idea why, out of nowhere, he suddenly wants to kiss his best friend breathless. Worse, he can feel Theta’s eyes on him. He wonders if Theta has noticed his strange reaction, and if so, what he’s thinking.
Koschei doesn’t look in Theta’s direction again for the remainder of the period, despite the insistent pressure of Theta’s telepathic queries tapping impatiently and with sharp irritation against his mental shields.
Class ends, and Koschei switches the screen of his notebook off and tucks away his books. By the time he stands from his desk and looks over, Theta is already gone.
Koschei sighs, unsure whether the rush he feels in his chest is disappointment or relief, or maybe a strange blend of both. Theta has probably gone to find a way to remove the blue from his system (unfortunate, really, considering how striking Theta had looked, but on the other hand the color had clashed horribly with the red and orange Prydonian Chapter student robes).
And anyway, Koschei has Theta’s attention now for certain, which was the entire point in the first place. Even though Theta had left without even speaking to him, Koschei tells himself that he knows Theta too well; this won’t be the end of the matter.
Koschei has no idea how right he is.
Koschei waits in the library, allowing several people to witness him going in so that Theta will be able to track him down with ease. He works on his assignments, taking his time about them. He studies the handbook of TARDIS flight regulations when he’s finished with his main coursework; he’s determined to pass his exams the first time around.
Hours pass by, and Theta has still not made an appearance.
Koschei sets his books aside and leans back in his chair, frowning. He cards his fingers through his hair, working the tangles from the fine black strands, and then moves his fingertips to his temples and gently massages his psychic centers. Despite his earlier success, he feels as though he’s losing control of the situation—or worse, that he was never in control. The nausea he’d felt yesterday rises up once more, and his stomach begins to throb.
The feeling sets his teeth on edge, sets the drums pounding harder inside his skull. An ache settles within the psychic centers of his brain. One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, can’t-wait-any-more.
Koschei is out of his seat before he even registers having moved. He stuffs his electronic texts and notebooks into his satchel and goes off in search of Theta.
Theta isn’t hard to track down. It doesn’t appear as though he’s been trying to avoid Koschei, even if he certainly hasn’t been trying to seek him out either. Then again, Koschei has managed to approach unnoticed, so he doesn’t know if Theta would have tried to evade him otherwise. Possibly so, as when Koschei does find him, Theta is in his lab with the door shut, and Koschei can hear two different voices coming from within.
“—no idea what the little fool is doing.” Theta’s voice carries a raised edge of petulance amidst overt irritation. “Everything was going so well until he came back.”
“Are you still going to tell him?” a unfamiliar girl asks. Her voice is smooth and musical. Vera, Koschei determines. This must be Vera.
“No. Yes. Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I’ll have to tell him eventually.”
“He’s going to find out sooner or later. My bet is on sooner; Koschei is clever. You know that.”
Koschei thinks he might have to raise his opinion of Vera just a little bit.
Theta scoffs derisively. “He hasn’t noticed yet, has he? He’s utterly clueless, that one!”
Koschei feels something crumple between his hearts and sag, heavy and aching, in his chest. Has Theta always thought this poorly of him, and he’d just never known? His fingers tremble as he presses them lightly against the door.
“It would still best that you be the one to tell him,” Vera insists.
Theta’s sigh is audible even on Koschei’s side of the closed door. “You’re right. But I simply—he drives me mad. I can’t even stand to be around him sometimes.”
The weight in Koschei’s chest collapses inward to the point where he stops breathing entirely. He feels cold all over from a chill that begins deep inside his body and seeps outwards, as though a hole to the empty void outside of space and time has opened inside him. His hearts ache, and he hears the echoes of Theta’s last words reverberate inside his head, nearly as loud as the drums and far more painful.
A light tinkle of glass and metal interrupts the conversation: equipment being shifted around, likely tidying the ‘adjustments’ Koschei had made to Theta’s workstations. The noise drowns out Vera’s next few words, and all he can make out is, “—like that at first. It’ll get better, but only if you tell him soon, so he has time to get used to the idea.”
“Yes, yes, fine,” Theta huffs. “But I wonder what his problem is now. He’s never sabotaged my experiments before. Have those pulsar emissions addled his mind?”
“You know him better than I do.”
There’s a pause. Then, Theta says, “Hm. Sometimes I feel as though I don’t know him at all.”
Koschei bites down on his lower lip and closes his eyes. I could say the same about you, Theta. I thought we were friends. Best friends! I thought…
The sounds of footsteps, clattering tools, and the hum of electricity thrumming through whirring apparatuses’ metal veins fill in the next half-minute of silence. Koschei’s mouth has gone dust-dry. The drums have lodged in his windpipe; his respiratory bypass engages, but he still can’t seem to get enough air.
“Now that is terribly clever, Vera. Yes, very clever indeed.” Koschei can imagine perfectly how Theta must look on the other side of the door, from all of the times that he had praised Koschei’s cleverness in the exact same manner. His hands will be gripping the lapels of his open outer robe while he rocks back very slightly on his heels and nods with approval, a pleased expression brightening his face. The open admiration in Theta’s voice rips like needles in Koschei’s blood. “What would I do without you?”
Koschei flees silently before he can hear Vera’s response. He doesn’t stop running until he’s safely ensconced inside his own lab several hallways down. He deadlocks the door behind him and leans heavily against it while he tries to control his suddenly erratic breathing.
Not going according to plan. Not at all. Sabotaging Theta’s experiments had been a sure way to get his attention (Academy students take their science seriously), and force Theta to stop ignoring him. It had been, in Koschei’s mind, a very not-subtle hint that ditching your best friend of over six decades for a girl you’ve known inside of a week is a Bad Idea. A small portion of the overwhelming hurt and pain he feels kindles into anger again, because Theta has no right to do this to him. Koschei is not someone to be taken for granted. He will not be deceived and then discarded and ignored.
He had intended his little prank to remind Theta of this. He had not expected the incident to draw Theta and Vera even closer while simultaneously pushing Koschei further away. The realization makes him feel even more sick.
And what had Theta meant to tell him? What secret is he so reluctant to expose to Koschei? Theta has never kept anything remotely important from him before! Whenever anything happens to either of them, the other is always the first to know. So why is Vera now suddenly the only person Theta can talk to? What could possibly be between them that Theta couldn’t tell Koschei about first?
Koschei scowls at the floor, his mind whirring and flipping through possibilities until he stumbles upon a possibility that wrenches his breath from his lungs. “No,” he whispers, eyes wide with horror. “No, they can’t be that serious already. That isn’t possible.” Shock drains the strength from his legs until all he can feel are tiny bursts of pin-prick pain amidst detached numbness. He slides slowly down the door to sit in a crumpled heap on the floor.
Unless…unless Theta has been seeing Vera for far, far longer than Koschei had thought, and Koschei has just been oblivious to the entire thing. Prydonian Chapter students are cunning, devious, and good at keeping secrets. They pride themselves on this talent. Theta is no exception; he just seems lazier than most about it. No one, not even Koschei, would suspect Theta of even being capable of sustaining such a thorough, long-term deception.
Maybe that was how he’d done it—how he’d pulled the cloth over Koschei’s eyes. He might have been involved with Vera for years without Koschei ever knowing.
Koschei grips the drums in his thoughts as he feels panic swell inside of him. Their steady, firm rhythm braces him, supports him with its unyielding structure, and Koschei uses them like a ladder to anchor himself as he descends into his own memories. He looks for clues: anomalies in Theta’s behavior, things that would seem suspicious only if he knows what he’s looking for.
He finds nothing until about a year ago. Somewhere around that time, Theta had stopped touching him quite as much. He’d started keeping a bit more distance between them at all times. He’d avoided eye contact now and again, sometimes refusing to look at him at all abruptly and for no apparent reason. He’d started excusing himself from Koschei’s room earlier than usual, started taking more classes that Koschei wasn’t enrolled in. Memory after memory wells up in his mind until he’s drowning in all of the details he’d never wanted to see.
Koschei surfaces from his thoughts, trembling with revelation. A year. This has been going on for a year right in front of him, and he’s never even suspected it. “Oh, Theta,” he whispers. He isn’t sure whether he feels admiration for Theta’s unexpected deviousness or hearts-breaking betrayal. He thinks that he feels both, one in each heart, polluting his bloodstream with alternating beats in time with the drums.
Koschei lets out a long, slow, quiet breath. He’s going to have to re-weave his perception of Theta, but that isn’t something he wants to do. He wants his Theta, his brilliant, lazy, clever, rebellious Theta. His Theta wouldn’t keep something like this from his own best friend; such an act would be akin to maliciousness, and Koschei’s Theta isn’t malicious. Impish, yes. A troublemaker, absolutely, but a harmless one.
This isn’t harmless, and that’s the problem, Koschei realizes. This hurts in a way that Koschei could never have anticipated, could never have braced for. Koschei has defenses everywhere and against everyone except for Theta. Koschei is a castle, and his cornerstone has been shattered; he feels his walls crumbling and tumbling away, leaving him naked and cold and empty.
Koschei swallows and steadies his mind with the quiet, ever-present drumbeat. He will not fall apart. He will deal with this. He will resolve it somehow. Koschei closes his eyes against the stinging prickles behind them and tries to blink back the moisture that follows. He takes in deep, shuddering breaths to calm himself. Maybe, he thinks, I should be direct for once. Just go to him and lay it all out and demand answers.
Yes, that’s a good idea. Except that it involves Koschei admitting to Theta something that he hasn’t quite come to terms with himself just yet, so maybe he’ll wait a little while. Figure out what to say and how to say it. Besides, Theta seemed busy and irritated when Koschei had overheard him and Vera, and therefore probably not in the best frame of mind to listen openly to what Koschei has to say. Maybe he’ll find Theta tomorrow; he’ll wait a good twenty four hours to simmer down any tension between them.
In the meantime, Koschei has some lab work waiting for him that he can concentrate on to take his mind off of Theta. He might just be able to increase the accuracy of his handheld gravity wave detector by a couple of significant figures if he calibrates it with the new pulsar data he’d collected on his class trip.
Koschei does not, of course, rule out the possibility that Theta has broken into his lab for some retaliatory pranking, so he checks his notes and equipment thoroughly before he starts. When he finds nothing amiss, he feels slightly insulted and a tiny bit hurt; either Theta is refusing to play his game, or Theta just doesn’t consider Koschei worth his time at all anymore.
If Koschei hadn’t already decided to confront Theta directly, he’d have taken this as an indication that he needs to be a bit flashier and a bit more vicious with his pranks. No one dismisses Koschei out of hand like that. No one. The fact that it’s Theta who appears to be doing so just hits that much more painfully home.
And…and Koschei had turned his attention to his lab projects so that he wouldn’t have to think about Theta for a while, and that seems to be Not Working. He scowls at his equipment for a minute, then switches the power supply on and doggedly forces himself to concentrate.
Koschei gets about halfway through his procedure when a glass vacuum tube begins to emit a piercing, high-frequency shriek. Koschei nearly drops the circuit component in his hands, and he stares at the tube for the half-second it takes him to rule out ninety percent of all possible internal causes for such a phenomenon. Discarding the remaining ten percent and remembering what a prime target he currently is for sabotage takes him another tenth of a second.
He still doesn’t manage to duck beneath the table in time.
Koschei wakes to find the lab bench on the ceiling. Which is really quite alarming, as that is certainly not where he left it. Then the edges of his vision kaleidoscope briefly into focus, and he reels, because the lab bench is not in fact on the ceiling; Koschei is on the ceiling, and someone has inexplicably glued his signal function generators to the wall by his right hand.
Wait. No. That’s not right either.
The world kaleidoscopes again, symmetries unfolding in seven dimensions, and then his spatial orientation rotates and bends from comfortably euclidean into hyperbolic space.
Koschei squeezes his eyes shut and wills his brain to turn off its spatial sensitivity, for the sake of both his sanity as well as his stomach. The nausea passes eventually, but he keeps his eyes closed, floating formlessly in the safety of his own mind while he tries to figure out what in Sepulchasm has just happened.
Sabotage, obviously. It’s equally clear who the perpetrator is: Theta Sigma. And while on one hand this is wonderful, he should probably save reveling in triumphant glee until after he gets this mess sorted.
Which, at the moment, is a decidedly non-trivial problem.
Koschei squints one eye open. A corner of his lab folds in on itself and vanishes, only to reappear as mirror reflections of itself three feet on either side of where it used to be.
As long as he keeps his spatial senses tuned to a minimum, however, the geometrical fluctuations are bearable. I can work with this, he thinks. Koschei does some quick calculations in his head, takes a step along what should translate as being the shortest path to the lab bench…
…and promptly falls arms over toes into a dustbin.
“What the—?” Koschei flails and tries to extricate himself from an assortment of crumpled papers, clipped wires, and sticky notes. He succeeds by tipping the bin over and emptying its contents—himself included—on top of the (blessedly closed) door.
The geometry had changed again mid-step. Koschei scowls. Whatever appreciation he had once held for the beauty of non-euclidean spaces is now eclipsed by an exponentially increasing annoyance over how damned inconvenient it is to maneuver in. Particularly when the entire room seems to transform randomly.
Koschei stills and watches the room carefully. His temporal sense is still in tact, so he knows exactly how long it’s been since the last switch. When the room buckles once more, ellipses warping into Dehn Planes. He glances at the lab table and groans; an infinite number of parallel lines passing, impossibly, through any given point is not something he’d ever wanted to subject his eyes to. Koschei marks the time lapse down to the nearest nanosecond. Then he waits again.
Because however mad, infuriating, lazy, and oblivious Theta Sigma may be, he is also brilliant. Nothing about this situation is random; there’s a pattern, and if Koschei can find it, then he can work against it.
Twelve iterations later, he has it. Another five iterations, and he’s formulated an absurdly complex, precise path of movement that should bring him back to the lab bench where this whole thing started.
Three false starts, two missteps, one encounter with an unexpected hatstand, and two and a half hours later, Koschei is finally clinging to the edge of the table—or, rather, what would constitute an edge if there were edges in the current geometry. He grits his teeth and glares at the vacuum tube that triggered it all. It is lying, innocent and still, along the table’s now saddle-like curves. Koschei studies it closely.
“Now that’s odd,” Koschei murmurs. “Nothing wrong with you.” He flicks his eyes from the glass tube to scan across the table’s remaining contents. “So if not the tube, then what did you break?”
Koschei fingers a capacitor’s collapsing curves, turns over a couple of flattened cable adaptors, and checks the non-existent contents of his glass flasks-turned-Klein bottles. None of his equipment seems to be altered, outside of the shifting spatial coordinate bases.
A horrifying and infuriating thought occurs to him.
“Oh no you don’t,” Koschei snarls, grey eyes slitting. “You have not tried to rig this so that I need to come to you for help. Oh no. Theta, you smug, arrogant bastard.”
Well, he’s certainly not going to give the other boy the satisfaction. Theta has to be affecting localized space somehow, and if Koschei can figure out how then he can beat Theta at their little game.
Comprehension blooms, bright as the second sun, in Koschei’s face. Of course! He glances up at his gravity wave detector, just to be sure, and flicks it on. Readings pop up to confirm his suspicions.
Ha! Got you.
Theta has been controlling everything remotely—from the safety and anonymity of his own lab. Koschei remembers speculating with his friend about such a remote device, and on how they might be able to use it in their eventual plan to superglue the Lord President’s perigosto stick. But Koschei hadn’t known Theta’d been working on it since, much less that he’d successfully built one!
Even though this is even more painful evidence that Theta has been keeping secrets from him, deceiving him and manipulating him, he can’t help but also admire how brilliant he is. A surge of affection swells in his chest and pools in his stomach, as though a knot of gravity has nested in his belly and is drawing his insides down around it into a ball of tingling heat.
Oh. Oh dear. The same inexplicable and undeniable feelings that had overwhelmed him in the classroom yesterday have returned, and are making themselves very difficult to ignore this time.
He’ll…deal with that problem later. And try very, very hard not think about it right now. Not, at least, until after he reverts space into something that obeys the Saccheri-Legendre Theorem; triangles should never be permitted to have angles that sum to greater than 180 degrees—not in this dimension, at least.
Except…he can’t just jam Theta’s remote device and switch it off. Well, okay, he could, but where would be the fun in that?
No, no, he has a much better idea. It’s tricky, considering that he’ll still have to work with the changing geometries, but now that he’s worked out the pattern, all he needs is time. Planning his steps carefully in advance, Koschei snags a couple of long wires and bends them into the shape of a gamma. Then he strings a rubber band across the top prongs, pinches carefully folded, specifically-shaped sheets of foil around the wires, and attaches the ensemble to a function generator and his gravity wave detector. Koschei eyes his creation and smirks. Okay, Theta, he thinks. Let’s see how good you are at thinking on your feet…or off of them.
Koschei presses a switch and reflects Theta’s signal transmission.
The room rights itself, curves flattening into lines and hyperbolas closing up until normal euclidean space has reasserted itself.
Simultaneously, a loud screech shatters the silence throughout the entire building, emanating unmistakably from Theta’s lab.
Koschei tips his head back and the room reverberates with his laughter, the walls splitting his voice along symmetries until all that can be heard are the kaleidoscoping echoes of his triumphant glee.
The game is on.