It takes more blinks than usual for the burgundy netting of the Aether to recede from the corners of my bedroom. A jolt of adrenaline wakes me up, as always, around sunrise, and I find several pencilled sheets of particle observations beside me in bed. I sit up slowly, pulse racing, and take a deep breath.
"You're fine," I tell myself and the pile of notes, then trace my fingers across my wrist to prove it. Nothing red swarms to the surface. "You're fine."
The mattress grumbles under me as I swing my feet over its side and set them on the scratchy carpet. From the side of the bed I face the window and the pale sunbeams streaming in behind the London Eye a few blocks away. I can already hear the buzzing, roaring chaos of traffic in the streets below, and it makes my skin crawl. (It's too haphazard.)
Straightening the papers beside me, I wrinkle my nose at the cold mug of stale tea sitting on my nightstand, then stand and grab it before heading into the kitchen. It's a mess in here: the empty cereal box on the table, the skillets left on the stove, the lamp and phasemeters on the counter. The chaos jars against my mind as if I'd never seen it before.
This isn't the apartment of a neat freak. I'm not a tidy young professional smelling of hairspray, Germ-X, and eau de parfum. I'm the mad scientist with the cluttered sink and the broken dishwasher and the notes and calculators and equipment deposited across her desk and the kitchen table like a game of mancala, uneven and in constant motion. I've never needed my life neat and clean; my passion for order is professional. That's it.
Physics is a science of order. It aims to diagram the universe and fit reality into clean little boxes. It measures the world until storms are constants and galaxies are equations and dessert is energy is mass times the speed of light squared and everything is under control.
"Everything is under control," I tell myself and the cold mug before setting it in the sink to join the heap. I actually clear the table before setting out my bowl and spoon, then opening a fresh box of Wheaties. I scold: "What in the worlds are you doing?"
But I know the answer. I'm hemming in the disarray. This is hardly a calculation, but it might corral the delicate black strands strewn between the stars, uncontrollable, like radioactive waste. Malekith's stone is utter chaos, can't be measured, can't be formulized or predicted. Darkness plus two equals darkness. Chaos to the power of four is nothing but chaos.
I bite my lip, clench my jaw, open the refigerator and thank God or Thor's Norns that the milk isn't gone or expired. Pouring it over the cereal squares, I wonder how many ounces this is, how many calories even. The numbers are so safe, so absolute. When I sit down to eat, I swirl the bowl's contents once, 360 degrees, around the circumference of the bowl, pi times 6.5 inches.
"He'd laugh at me," I tell myself and the whole grains as the thought occurs to me. It isn't even all that true. Thor would smile a you're-good-strange kind of smile, then maybe chuckle before kissing my forehead. He definitely wouldn't understand.
He's the Mighty Thunderer, and there's nothing more chaotic than a storm. Maybe he should terrify me too now, but a storm is chaos with rhythm, a call and response liturgy of thunder after lightning, rain unflagging in the background. I can't control that, but at least I can measure it. It fits some pattern, doesn't just sprawl itself across reality and snuff out sense. I can't predict Thor, but I can rely on him. There's a difference, the difference between 6.67384 × 10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2 and Newton's law of universal gravitation, between a figure and its fact. He'll return.
Trying not to calculate those odds, I finish my cereal and leave the milk. I stand, and the chair's feet squeak against the linoleum. It's a clean, tidy sound, like latex gloves and fluorescent lightbulbs, like rigid order and a certain cure.
Ugly red fluid at once appears in my peripherals, snaking its way through the stack of unwashed dishes, curling around my wrists as handcuffs. I blink and shake my head, heart palpitating. The mess clamors at me, a booing crowd of wrappers and crumbs and equipment and notes and crumpled papers and half-built apparati and pencils with chewed erasers and dead tea bags and a mission. I've got a mission, or at least I used to.
"Okay, let's get to work," I tell myself and the disorder. I usually work through it, over it, around it, whatever. I never used to notice it at all, but now it splits my mind. I have to force myself to focus on research and data readings (that's new), to tell myself the work is more important than the fear.
It might be, but the bowl I've left on the table is like a Check Engine light on the margin of my consciousness. I know it's nothing, but I just can't ignore it. I lift some of yesterday's notes off the floor and rifle through them, but the calculations (scattered haphazard across the graph paper like mosquito bites) climb on top of one another and entangle themselves until the faint pencil marks turn blood red, and I find them slung between the planets. The eerie tinnitis of the stifled cosmos rings in my ears. Nothing at all is a terrifying sound.
I sink into the chair again and lean backward, rubbing my temples. There is no certain cure.
Unless I clean up. But I can't. I couldn't. I'm not a neat freak - this mess is a part of me - so tidying up would be more pain management than treatment. It might uproot the fear for a while, but it would be to let the Aether transform me, give Malekith one little dark patch in the universe that he could call his own. He doesn't deserve that.
If the point of physics is to chart, predict, and catalogue the universe, I should battle the darkness that way, as I always have. The only safe chaos is the chaos I create, this disorder that feels like home. I glance down at the stack of data again and trace a quivering finger through the digits of my first calculation, the effect of the convergence on Earth's magnetic fields.
The blue curve of the cereal bowl catch my attention; I'll put it in the sink later, then do the dishes. As soon as I finish this problem. My passion for order is professional. That's it.