Goddamn motherfucking alarm…
Nigel found his thoughts almost as dry as his throat, the only thing saving the cell phone being thrown across the room was the fact that it belonged to Adam.
Pinching sleep from his eyes, Nigel rolled toward Adam’s side of the bed, disorientated to find he was already on Adam’s side of the bed, and Adam was nowhere to be found. Groaning, Nigel was at least thankful for the severe lack of jackhammering in his head, fucking surprising considering he didn’t remember anything from last night beyond dropping Adam home. And that fucking text from Darko.
Get your ass to the club. Urgent.
Fumbling the drinking glass at the bedside, he knocked back the shot in one, a dribble of excess water escaping down his chin as he swallowed. He must have got home alright though. Wiping his nose, he only hoped it had been under his own steam, and he wouldn’t have a day of Darko’s jokes about carrying him over the threshold to deal with.
Dragging himself toward the bathroom, he caught a glimpse of the time. 8:40am. Well, that explained where Adam was. He didn’t know how the kid managed sometimes, humouring him with constant late nights then clocking-in at the crack of dawn. Nigel yawned. He’d been up for less than five minutes, and was already overdue for a cigarette.
Stepping into the shower, Nigel didn’t touch the cold water tap until his skin actually started to hurt. Near suffocated under the steam, he at least felt more awake. Or, awake enough to connect a few dots. If Adam was at work, why was the alarm on his phone still going off?
“Adam? Baby?” Nigel yelled toward the bathroom door. His voice sounded a bit different to usual- smoother, less husky. Coughing hard enough to repair that problem, Nigel shut off the water, grazing a towel over his skin with no degree of gentleness.
“Sweetheart? Are you home?”
Fuck, what was up with his voice. Nigel hardly felt pleased with himself, he must have drank and snorted something of a disaster last night to be this out of it. Grabbing his razor from the sink, he smeared back the condensation from the mirror. His reflection stared back at him.
The razor dropped from his hand, the clatter echoing in the sink.
What the in the fucking name of fuck had he taken last night?
Adam felt his mouth pull to a frown the second he opened his eyes. His very blurry eyes. The surface beneath him felt hard, almost as if he had gone to sleep on the floor rather than the comfort of his own bed. The sharp lights above him wavered in and out of focus. They looked very much like the roaming disco lights on the ceiling of Darko’s nightclub. His whole body felt sore, and he moved his arm to rest behind his head, which ached far worse than the rest of him. And then he blinked. And sat up. And looked at the lights again.
The reason those lights looked a lot like the ones in Darko’s nightclub, was because they were the ones in Darko’s nightclub. And the reason the bed felt like a very hard floor, was because it was a very hard floor. And he was sprawled in the middle of it. And Darko was peering down at him.
“Wakey wakey, princess.” The man winked, somewhat amused. “Big day ahead of us.”
Trying to get to his feet, Adam felt the whole room spin around him, his balance following right alongside. He clapped a hand over his mouth. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Darko shrugged, jerking his hand toward the trash can in the corner. “Better get it over with then.”
By the time Adam had stumbled to the other side of the room, his vision had evened somewhat, gravity keeping his stomach where it belonged for now. “Sorry… no. I think I’m all good.”
“Fantastic.” Darko smirked, then took a small silver flask from the inside of his jacket and threw it in Adam’s direction. Trying to catch it, Adam was surprised to find he actually did, his hand opening on reflex as soon as he’d seen the object sail toward him. “You still look like fucking shit though.”
Adam regarded the flask in his hand, trying to figure out what to do with it. He had seen Nigel drink from a similar vessel, and wondered if Darko was possibly offering something to make him feel better. That was awfully nice of him. Adam took a small sip.
“Is this alcohol?”
“No, asshole, its cherry-vanilla cordial. What the fuck, Nigel?”
Despite Darko’s rather aggressive tone, Adam didn’t think he was purposefully trying to be unfriendly. Darko had, however, clearly been partaking in the alcohol himself.
“Did you just call me Nigel?”
“Fucking Christ.” Darko’s eyes widened. “Get a shower and your head fucking sorted. Meeting starts at quarter past.”
Darko was pointing toward the back-office guest facility, where Adam knew Nigel sometimes showered and changed before coming home. Keen to avoid any further miscommunication, Adam shuffled toward the elevator, still wondering how he ended up at the club in the first place. As the metal doors slowly closed on Darko’s entirely non-affectionate stare, Adam saw his reflection in the silvery surface.
Well. Adam thought, his mouth falling open. That explains why he called me Nigel.
On the fifth attempt, Adam finally picked up his phone.
“Adam!” Nigel hissed, pacing about the bedroom in his towel. “Where the fuck are you? I’m worried sick.” Taking a deep breath, he got to the question he had originally intended to ask. “Are you alright?”
“Hello Nigel, yes, I am alright.” It was fucking disconcerting, hearing his own voice being so pleasant. “I am at the nightclub with Darko. In the back office, to be specific. I just got out of the shower.”
His pulse easing off, Nigel’s attention quickly turned to the next thing on his mind. “Adam. Did you look any Romanian gypsies in the eye last night?”
There was a slight pause at the other end of the line. “Nigel, did you just say Romanian gypsies?”
“Yes!” Nigel was already at the window, scouring the street for any such persons. He found it disappointingly empty. “In case you haven’t realised, we are in one very big fucking pickle right now, and I can’t remember a fucking thing I did after dropping you off.”
“I don’t really look anyone in the eye, Nigel, gypsy or not.” Adam sounded very light-hearted. It wasn’t helping one bit. “Except you, of course.”
“Right.” Nigel felt his temper cooling. “Sorry. I’m yelling. I’m just a little… worked up.”
“It’s okay. Oops, hold on-” Nigel could hear Adam dropping something in the background. Shit. “-As I was going to say, I’m almost certain this whole thing can be explained by quantum physics. I’ve actually got some highly relevant online journal subscriptions that I’ll take a look at, as soon as this meeting with Darko is done.”
Having already pulled the blinds closed, Nigel froze. “What meeting with Darko?”
“The one at quarter-past nine. Speaking of which, I’d better get ready, he’s banging at the office door now.”
“Adam!” Nigel shouted, unable to reign in the volume. “You are not going to that meeting. Listen to me. You may look like me, you may sound like me, but anything that goes down at that club is fucking dangerous, and don’t trust goddamn fucking Darko as far as you can throw him. In fact, put him on the phone.”
Nigel could almost hear Adam patiently listening to his rant. Someone was going to fucking die for this.
“Yes, Darko speaking.” His tone sounded even more obnoxious when Nigel wasn’t there in person to wipe the sneer from his face.
“Darko. I need you to keep an eye on… Nigel, for me. He isn’t feeling himself today.”
“No problem, Adam. Will do.”
The next part of his explanation already planned out, Nigel halted mid-inhale. Darko hadn’t given a flying fuck about what he’d just said. He’d dismissed it without a second thought. Was this how Darko always spoke to Adam?
“Listen to me, you nenorocit nemernic, you goddamn make sure nothing untoward happens to Nigel today, or I will come over there and personally taie bile naibii și să le umple adânc în interiorul-ti dracului gât.”
With a little click of his tongue, Darko was definitely listening now. “Well, Adam, you know I can’t resist a bit of dirty talk” he hummed. “Beginning to see what Nigel likes about you after all.”
“Put him back on the phone.”
A shuffle in the background, and Adam’s happy tone was a welcome relief. “Baby, I love you, but I have to go, it’s already ten-past. By the way, are you at the Observatory yet? You know I have the high-school presentation today, right?”
“No, I am not at the Observatory!” Nigel exploded “I’m at home, Adam, in your fucking body, freaking the fuck out!” Untangling himself from the towel, Nigel wrenched Adam’s drawers open, grabbing the first neatly folded items on top of the pile. “Do you want me to ruin your career for you? I’m not an astronomer, I don’t know the first goddamn thing about space!”
Adam made a small, soothing sound, which immediately had Nigel inwardly cursing himself.
“They’re not astronomers either, they’re sixth-form students. It’s just an end-of-year excursion, to see the skydome.” Adam sounded very much like he was dressing while talking. It did nothing for Nigel’s mood. “But you’re wrong…”
Nigel grazed the heel of his hand against his forehead. “How?”
“You’re not an astronomer, Nigel, but you’re a good talker, you’ve got a terrific memory, and you also happen to have a boyfriend who is, to put it lightly, kind of an expert in these things.”
Nigel swallowed. Given his behaviour right now, he couldn’t help feel ‘overdramatic asshole’ was a better fit.
“…so, read one of my space books on the way, and also just mention a few bits and pieces you’ve picked up from me. And if that fails, just do your best. Which, I happen to know will be amazing.”
“I love you.” Nigel chose the most worn of the space books from the shelf, the one he had often seen on Adam’s bedside table. “So fucking much.”
With Darko leering over his shoulder, Adam didn’t think it was wise to enquire if there was any chance of breakfast, and took two cans of lemon soda from the minibar beneath the desk instead. He didn’t ask if he could have one. Because Nigel never asked.
Cracking back the seal, Adam politely held the other to Darko, who narrowed his eyes even further.
Right. Nigel also never offered. Adam tucked it into his briefcase in case Darko changed his mind.
Snatching a thin black folder from the desk, Darko turned heel, yanking the office door open as if he took issue with it. “Let’s fucking get on with it then.”
Clearing his throat, Adam fell a few steps behind. “Yes” he croaked, then realised Nigel’s voice was usually a bit louder. “Let us fucking get on with it!”
Darko threw another glare over his shoulder. Adam decided it was an improvement.
Skipping the elevator, Darko jogged down the fire stairs instead. Adam had to lengthen his stride to keep up.
“Motherfucker has some nerve,” Darko muttered, smoothing the lapels on his suit as he turned the first bend. “Here to ask for some bribe, when we only just raised his fucking salary. I’ve half a mind to make this meeting a very short one.”
“A short meeting would be nice,” Adam agreed, then felt it might be helpful to contribute some further pertinent information to the discussion. “Under most enterprise agreements, employees are in fact permitted to ask for a pay rise, if they provide evidence to support their case, of course.”
“Oh, he’ll provide evidence to support his fucking case,” Darko spat, perhaps unfamiliar with the terms and conditions of the legislation. “I just hope it’s not more fucking security footage from our troubled childhood.”
At this Darko gave a wink, to which Adam returned a smile. He had no idea what Darko was talking about, but had a feeling that if any videos of that nature should arise, there would certainly be no pay rises in order today.
With some assistance from Darko’s shoe, the door to the conference room burst open. Adam was incredibly surprised. Inside sat the Chief of Police, a notable public servant of Bucharest. Adam had no idea he was also in Darko’s employ.
“Vincent.” Darko sounded rather curt.
“…Vincent. Darko.” Adam hesitated, going with the flow. Darko kicked him under the table.
“Shall we skip to the good bit?” Darko had adopted his slower drawl, all heavy on accent and lacking in courtesy. “What do you have to show me that would possibly make me want to drown your pigheaded ass in more cash and sugar than I currently fucking am?”
Adam sighed. He was really going to have to explain more about employee relations to Darko at a more suitable occasion.
Vincent held up both hands, appeasing. “It’s not me, Darko. There’s pressure. The International Affairs department has been talking about running passport checks on the city’s superclubs, checking for illegals and so on. You’re first on the list. I’m just looking for something to help smooth things over.”
“That’s what you’re fucking there for. To smooth things the fuck over.”
Adam had meanwhile flicked through the papers within Darko’s folder. A mixture of account printouts and some near-illegible scribbles. But the amount that Vincent was asking for stood out clear as day.
“This is a lot of money,” Adam breathed, not quite convinced the request was reasonable. His finger travelled halfway down the paper, stopping at a second sum. “And this is the amount we already pay you?”
Vincent gave a tight smile. Adam guessed he was probably used to such negotiations.
“The thing that troubles me, looking at these figures,” Adam started. “Is that even if what you said was true, and anyone was working here with an expired visa… the amount for which we could purchase new and legitimate visas is in fact far less than the amount you are requesting. And both courses of action would yield the same result.” Adam closed the folder. “I’m very sorry, Vincent, but this proposition just isn’t financially viable.”
Vincent got to his feet, a little pinker and more sweaty under the overhead lights. “Ah. Well. You make a good point, Nigel. I was just trying to… save you the trouble of purchasing them.”
“It is no trouble.” Adam replied, remembering to smile and hold out his hand in the appropriate manner for closing a formal meeting. “Let’s revisit this conversation in six months time, when we undertake yearly performance reviews.”
“…yes.” Vincent took a couple of backward steps toward the exit, nodding all the while. “Thank you for your time, gentlemen.”
“Thank you for your fucking time!” Darko hissed, the second the door had closed. “You motherfucking double-crossing waste of space!”
To Adam, he simply raised an eyebrow, then decided to accept the spare can of lemon soda after all.
Nigel walked into the Observatory with much the same caution he would have used to navigate a field of landmines. Strangely, nobody seemed to think this was in any way out of the ordinary.
“Adam!” A woman with a clipboard was striding toward him. “It’s me, Martha. We spoke on the phone.”
Nigel looked her up and down. Professional. Flustered. Timetable held in front. Whiteboard marker in her shirt pocket. “Martha. From the high school. Pleasure to meet you.”
Pleased, she gestured ahead. “I’ve already got the class settled. We’re all really excited to be here!”
His eyes travelling in the direction she pointed, Nigel saw a large sign above a set of black doors.
Skydome. The Ultimate Interplanetary Experience.
Martha’s high heels echoed on the floor as she quickened toward the entrance. Nigel felt his stomach clench, an unfamiliar queasiness travelling up through his chest. “Mm. Pardon. Could you please excuse me one second?”
Confused, Martha gave a sympathetic nod. Nigel made a sharp turn into the bathrooms.
With the door of the stall locked shut behind him. Nigel pressed his back against the cool granite wall, trying not to breathe like he’d just run a fucking marathon. What the hell was wrong with him? He’d faced up to known killers in worse shape than this, come off better too. Pulling out his cell phone, he realised his hands were trembling. No missed calls from Adam. Shoving it back into his pocket, he felt like a fucking idiot. But he couldn’t back out now. If he didn’t get his ass into that damn skydome, the mark would go against Adam’s name, not his.
Ripping some of the flimsy toilet paper from the roll, he tried to blow his nose as quietly as possible, clearing his throat several times while he was at it. He had never felt so small, sweaty or stuck-together in his life. And he thought Adam had it easy.
The thought was uncannily sobering. Nigel raked his hands back through his hair, accidentally banging the back of his scalp on the wall in the process. Adam gave presentations like these every fucking day. He didn’t need a gun, a bunch of cronies, or forty-years’ worth of delinquency under his belt. He could hold people’s attention just by talking about something he loved. In a single violent movement, Nigel thrust the stall door open, alarming a technician standing at the urinal.
“Apologies,” Nigel announced. “Public speaking nerves.”
“I hear you, mate,” the technician nodded, a knowing look exchanged between.
Striding back into the skydome, Martha looked somewhat relieved to see him in one piece. Nigel didn’t bother with further pleasantries. He was sure he could only force so many more words from his throat, and wanted to make them count.
At the front podium, the spotlight shining over him seemed incredibly bright, hotter with each second. The school group, thirty kids at most, were all looking right at him. There may as well have been three hundred. They were all waiting for him to start. All the information he had tried to cram into his brain earlier that morning now seemed as intangible as the projection of black sky above him. And just as hard to reach.
“Space.” Nigel started, letting the word linger in the air. “The final frontier.”
Thirty sets of eyes blinked back, clearly curious.
“Full of strange new worlds, new life, and uncharted civilisations. Space. Where no man has gone before.”
“Is it mysterious as the dark side of the moon?” a voice called from the back of the class.
“There is no fucking dark side of the moon!” Nigel snapped, slamming his hand down on the podium. “The side that we can see from Earth is called the near side, while the other is the far side. They are both illuminated by the sun equally!” Irritated, he could hardly believe that wasn’t common knowledge, before remembering Adam had explained it to him once before too.
Removing his hand, he realised he had hit some kind of button, the lights in the auditorium all going out as soon as he pulled back.
Damn. Nigel thought. Should have just pressed that to start with.
A moment later, he was craning his neck along with everyone else, as a burst of stars and galaxies lit up the dome above them, spinning down the walls in a kaleidoscope of colour and movement. As the simulation took them soaring over the Milky Way, a wave of gasps and “ooohs” echoed round the room. Nigel allowed himself a smug grin, before the words time, matter, and energy, flashed above him.
And suddenly, it all made sense. Nigel nearly tripped over his own feet racing toward the door.
“Enjoy the skydome experience!” he hissed to Martha on his way out.
As if she were only seeing him for the first time, Martha raised a hand in a silent farewell, her fingers spread in the traditional Vulcan salute. With a solemn nod, Nigel returned the gesture, then sprinted from the Observatory like all the Klingons in the universe were at his heels.
Adam had never been so happy to see Nigel kicking down the door to their apartment in his life. Though it was of course a little odd to in fact witness he himself physically doing it, the hug that followed felt as normal and wonderful and stifling as ever.
“Adam! I’ve figured it out!” Nigel yelled the words mostly into Adam’s chest, and Adam petted him on the back rather fondly.
“How did the presentation go?”
Hastily waving away the question, Nigel tried to catch his breath. “Do you remember that episode of Star Trek, where Captain Kirk and Spock get switched with their lookalikes in an alternate reality?”
Adam’s eyebrows disappeared beneath his fringe. “Nigel, please tell me the content of the mirror-verse episode of Star Trek did not feature in my most recent presentation at the observatory…”
Nigel was now waving both hands, and Adam couldn’t be sure if that was a yes or a no.
“Mirror Mirror! That’s what it was called!” Making a beeline to Adam’s carefully-categorised DVD collection, Nigel pulled out the sci-fi series like the sword from the stone, brandishing it just as fiercely. “Adam! We have somehow been transported to a parallel universe!”
Adam pursed his lips in thought. The suggestion wasn’t without merit, and interpenetrating dimensions were certainly a widely hypothesised theory in current studies of cosmology, physics, philosophy and transpersonal psychology. Brimming to a smile, he couldn’t help feel rather proud.
“The latest journal article in Chaotic Inflation Theory did reveal new discussion of spontaneous symmetry breaking in different bubble universes resulting in different properties such as physical constants.”
Nigel gave a slow nod.
“Meaning… I think you may be right.”
Nigel coughed out a lungful of air. “Thank fuck. Does me being right for once mean I can do something to fix it?”
Adam tilted his head to one side, deciding getting Nigel to sit down drink a glass of water might have to come first. “Well, in the episode you are referring to, it was an ion storm that opened the barrier between parallel universes. And things didn’t return to normal until a similar set of circumstances were repeated.”
Nigel blinked. “So… we’re waiting for an ion storm?”
“No,” Adam said gently. “I think we have to repeat everything we did last night.”
“You going to sleep and me taking a lot of drugs?”
Adam giggled, deciding it was time for another hug. “Nigel. Do you really not remember what happened before you went out?”
“Nothing,” Nigel groaned. “Fuck. I’m sorry.” Adam watched as Nigel slumped across the room, flopped face down on the bed, then rolled over, exhausted.
“That’s okay. You don’t have to remember, to repeat what you did.” Tracing his way behind, Adam smiled down at him. “Because I’m you now, right? And I remember. I remember very well, actually.”
Nigel’s mouth fell slightly ajar, then curled up rather crookedly at one corner. “Oh…?”
“So all you have to do…” Adam climbed on top of him, softly pinning him to the mattress. “Is expect the unexpected.”
Nigel shivered as Adam brushed his lips over his neck.
“With us baby, I always do.”