There is shattered glass inside of him and his skin is screaming in agony and his bones are bending and breaking and Adrian knows, now, that he is dying.
The shuttle shudders to a stop in halfway through the gate and Adrian thinks of what he knows about portal theory and oceans. About the parallels between deep sea travel and him, drowning to death in a tin-can shuttle. It takes several hundred feet underwater before an exposed human body dies of nitrogen narcosis and oxygen toxicity, he knows. Human bones only start to bend when the darkness of the sea swallows up the last of the sunlight.
(Confession: he didn’t expect to feel like he was drowning. But the portal is a sea of life and death and death and death and—)
Adrian, can you hear me?
He is breathing but the air aches in his lungs. It’s fake and plasticky between his teeth, clinging to the insides of his lungs until he’s choking on his own breath. Adrian? crackles the mic in the shell of his ear and now his hands are shaking. He can’t move his neck.
Adrian feels sick-unsteady. He has to get out of here. He reaches out unsteadily and nudges the shuttle forward, then jerks his hand back as the shuttle shrieks angrily in protest. He can feel the metal of the craft physically distorting under the pressure as he flicks frantically at the shattered control panel in front of him. Stupid thing, poorly constructed thing, made up of the metal of the city that they would’ve built here and it doesn’t even work right. His hands shake in front of him and he realizes with a surge of panic that he can’t breathe at all now, can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe—
“They’ll write about you in history books,” his mother had told him, cupping his face in her hands. “My sweet boy. You’ll help open the door to paradise, you’ll lead them there.” He’d dreamed of this since he was small, running wild along the hallways of Arcadia Corp. He’d spent his childhood intoning the prayers and leading the rituals and poring over books on portal theory, hellbent on a sculpting a future where they’d know his name one day. He’d be the one who lead his people to Elysium.
It had failed. Heaven ate itself alive trying to slaughter the people inside; the portal that he and his team of technicians had labored over for years just killed the people who tried to walk back out. They’d worked so hard to fix it, to reopen the gate. If they couldn’t lead the people to paradise, they’d all agreed, then sure as hell it’s their job to bring them back home. He’d scribbled his calculations in the dim light as the bunker rang with the sounds of children crying, painstakingly read out every last equation over the air so that the team back in the city could catch any mistakes. Their attempts to open the gate failed every single time.
(Twenty one trials in two years and everyone who volunteered to go through dead, his fellow technicians dead, his mother dead. They’d had to be buried in mass graves like a sacrilege because there just wasn’t time enough to bury and bless them all individually before the bodies started to rot; Lee had held him when he cried.)
Lee. His vision blurs. He’d said that this was a mistake, trying again. He used to stroke Adrian’s cheek as he crumpled sheet after sheet of paper and assure him that he’d get it soon enough, he was certain of it. That was in the first months. But then it was two years later, there was twenty trials and twenty dead and hundreds more lying in shallow graves. Lee had grabbed his wrist and plead, “Adrian, please don’t.”
Oh, but he’d been smart this time, hadn’t he? The shuttle was supposed to protect from outside trauma, shield the passenger from whatever force made their bodies break when they tried to go through unprotected—
Presently, the shuttle moans and the glass in front of his face cracks sharply. Adrian lifts a hand and touches the spot where the control panel had exploded on first impact and propelled shrapnel into his gut. It comes away bloody but he can’t feel the pain; he’s too dizzy to feel the pain. Oh yes, he’d been smart this time.
Command B to shuttle, crackles the mic in his ear. Command to shuttle, you must move now or the portal will collapse again, do you—do you hear—Adrian, listen to me, please—
Forward or backward, Adrian. You’re fucked either way.
Lee, he tries to say, but his lips won’t form the words. He knows, instinctively, that he cannot let himself breathe the air here. His lungs are burning, skin searing angrily. He lets his eyelids droop as his head loll backwards against the seat. Lee, he thinks again. God, he aches for him right now.
Adrian thinks that if he makes it out of this one then there won’t be a day he doesn’t wax poetic about Lee’s crooked smile, or the way he tries to slick his hair back all pompadour but always fails because of the single curl that springs out from his forehead. Lee’s lovely brown eyes. Lee plucking out ditties on his guitar and the songs he used to sing for him.
The way his fingers just strum anxiously now.
Adrian closes his eyes and in the darkness he can see Lee, standing blankly at the sink, rinsing his hands and watching the water run down the drain red. Lee, hunched glaze-eyed over a canvas to lose himself in the swirl of paints. His art style has changed in the two years they’ve been here. He used to pride himself on his hyperrealism; now his paintings where jagged splashes of confused color and shadow. They are the most beautiful pieces of art Adrian has ever seen, and they frighten him to the very core of his being.
He had done this for him, Adrian thinks. If he’d gone through, then he could’ve worked with those remaining on the other side and helped everyone else. Lee and Adrian had dreamed in the months before ascension that they’d leave big booming lives in Elysium where they’d run wild and free. But in the past few months Adrian had labored alone over the portal, he’d been thinking that they’d spent so long dreaming that they’d never gotten to live at all. He opened the door in for the both of them. He’d wanted to open the door back out.
(Kyrie elision, civilian life in New Albion. The both of them, just living out their lives. It sounds soul-sucking dull and is the wildest and most wonderful dream he’s had in years.)
They’d never gotten to live at all.
“Please don’t,” Lee had whispered in his ear, pulling him close. “Please don’t try. I worry about you.” And Adrian been angry at him—angry that he thought that he couldn’t do it, angry that Lee could be selfish enough to try and keep him here when Arcadia was being slandered in the press back home. He’d lead them back. Of course he would.
He’d been angry at him. His gut aches in a searing line up to his chest. Bits of the shattered control panel spill out over his lap as the shuttle starts to shake. His ribs are collapsing inwards now, his eyes are on fire—
Forward or backward, Adrian? You’re dead either way.
He’d never thought he’d see the stars, but now they’re here, big blooming explosions of gas splattering against his windshield, huge and smothering and I think you were right, Lee. This was a mistake.
This one sears itself onto his corneas as a spiderweb crack forms on his helmet and a thin, high moan escapes from his trembling lips. The wind howls long and thin and then something cold propels itself into his shoulder. He never thought pain could be palpable, but that was before he screamed in agony until his lungs shriveled and his chest cracked, and—
He can’t take it anymore and Adrian gasps in a gulp of air like lava, so synthetic his lungs try to reject it and gasp it back in again on reflex. In and out and in and out and his hands splay as his whole body shudders against the shattered glass inside of him. This is it, isn’t it? he thinks distantly. This is why he’ll be written into the history books.
There is a wild, terrifying moment where Adrian’s mind spirals out into the future and the decades leap out at him in dizzying clarity. The portal will blow apart, or maybe crumple inwards; his bones will scatter across the cosmos and then every voodoopunk kid knows his name, the same way he knows Amelia, knows Byron, knows Jacqueline. This is it, he realizes. This is the great martyring. And then Adrian is left with the frightening reality that this isn’t what he wanted. This isn’t what he wanted at all.
He is not going to die like this.
Forward or backward, Adri—
He blindly slams his fist down on the accelerator, rams the shuttle forward as the gas envelops him and there are words on his lips like Lee, I’m— as the shuttle explodes and the world tears itself apart.
The next he remembers, someone is crying. He is on the ground and burning alive and someone is crying his name out, over and over and over like Adrian, oh god oh god—
There is blood running down his throat and he can’t breathe. His skin blisters.
He can’t breathe.
The earth dies screaming.