By Stephen Thom
The van coasted through the empty Applecross streets. The wipers scuzzed streaks of snow. Sophie rode up front beside Alisdair and a bird-masked driver. It was strange to be outside after so long.
They passed by the Inn, and a number of stone cottages. These gave way to a tunnel of woodland, trees pressing at the roadside. They ditched the van and hit the beach, trekking over a short footpath to reach it. It was an odd crew: her and Alisdair stumbling along, the heavy ball rolling in her backpack. A line of bird-masked, suited men carrying boxes of equipment.
Sophie felt her nerves starting to play up, and there was shock within it. Shock that it was no longer sheets of paper on a barn floor, or Alisdair dropping by and offering comforting words. Shock that it was starting.
Everything had been theoretical, for so long. Everything, going all the way back. In her younger days, although her head was firmly for math, she was always drawn to the creative aspects of physics. How there were solutions, and different ways to approach things. She liked the idea of being connected to the universe in that way. This connection had taken her all the way to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she'd earned a Bachelor of Science in mathematics and astrophysics in 2008, and a PhD in applied mathematics and theoretical physics in 2013.
Much of her work had involved black holes, chaos theory, gravitational waves, and the shape - or topology - of spacetime. It was through this work that she'd met Alisdair. She was working, at the time, as a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College, Columbia University. Alisdair was a well-respected theoretical physicist, specialising in quantum mechanics, gravity, and cosmology. He was a chronic workaholic, and wore several hats as part of that. He worked as a research professor at the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics, in the California Institute of Technology. He also balanced his students and academic work with his role as an adviser, and researcher, for the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama.
He was always looking beyond the solar system, and he was always at his happiest scribbling equations on napkins in Starbucks, and batting ideas back and forth. He tossed around theories for interstellar travel; it brought out the theoretical physicist in him. He drew Sophie in. He reeled off fuel-less propulsion, solar sail technology, ion propulsion probes, fission reactor hybrids, and dyson swarms. They ran simulations. It was fun, competitive, and engaging. There were lots of midnight coffees. Lots of two am coffees. But she was always better at the math. It was her thing. She had many papers published in renowned journals such as Nature and PLOS One, but it was her speculative paper on interstellar sublight travel, published in a lesser-known journal, that brought the funders to her.
They'd already been in contact with Alisdair. There followed months of burner emails and encrypted communications. Alisdair evolved into the go-between. She was placed on secondment, and chose to relocate back to Applecross. Around two years into the work, he showed her the grainy monolith image for the first time. The shift from theoretical to reality took a giant, compelling, and disturbing leap.
She knew that they were on the cusp of another leap. One of the masks sprayed a torch over stretches of sand and pebble. The tide lapped and retracted. Foam licked at red stones. He strode through whirling snowflakes, opened a box, and set up a little plastic desk on the beach. The other masks moved down. Alisdair lit a cigarette and passed her a hip flask. They watched the strange men moving through the flurry.
'It doesn't feel very momentous, does it?' he said.
'It does not,' she said, lifting the flask to her lips. 'I should've worn a jumper.'
'The Highlands are three jumpers colder,' Alisdair shivered, 'with a sheep tied to your legs.'
The masks set up a tent over the desk. They unravelled a large projector screen and hooked it up to a laptop. Oilish water licked at the beach. They unfolded three deck chairs and sat facing the screen. Sophie and Alisdair looked at each other, and stepped down the bank to join them. A weird oscillation was mixed into the wind and snow. It was hypnotic and probing. Sophie removed her backpack and lifted the clear ball out. Her hands were shaking.
'Pass me your phone,' she said to Alisdair. He looked confused.
'I can turn it on now?' he said.
Sophie looked at the three seated bird masks. Snow swirled around them.
'Yes,' she hissed.
Alisdair turned his phone on and handed it to her. One of the masks sat forward. She rotated the transparent ball, and it cracked open. She opened the camera on Alisdair's phone, hit record, and placed it inside the ball. He leaned close to her as she rotated the ball until it was closed.
'Good luck,' he whispered. 'I didn't even get a chair.'
'Thanks,' Sophie said. 'It does feel a wee bit like a cult right now.'
Alisdair made a faux-spooky noise and waved his hands. He walked behind the deck chairs and watched the screen. Sophie hooked the ball up to the laptop and synced it. She unclipped the USB cable and typed a string of coordinates. She checked her data, turned, and addressed Alisdair over the top of the bird masks.
'Home,' she said. 'The farmhouse.'
Alisdair nodded. The bird masks were inscrutable. She hit a key. The ball glowed softly and lifted into the air. The cone-shaped tank whined. Beyond the loch there was moorland, and beyond that snow-fringed purple peaks, and Sophie was briefly distracted. It looked like there were strange buildings on the mountains. White pillars. Her eyes wavered. Alisdair moved forward and clutched at the back of a deck chair.
She punched a button, and the gleaming ball disappeared.
A phosphorescent trail lingered in the air, cutting a path through the snow. It had punched a crisp hole in the side of the tent. An image of her living room flickered onto the projector screen. The ball was several miles away, hovering outside her window. The curtain of snow blotted out its trail. Sophie pulled her jacket zipper up to her chin. Alisdair and the bird-masks watched the bobbing live stream. Her sofa, her fireplace. Alisdair drank from the flask and flexed his free hand.
'It's alive,' he said. 'Go big.'
Sophie looked round at him. The masks were sitting forward.
'Go big!' Alisdair said.
Sophie shrugged. She moved the cursor over the laptop screen and pinned their beach location. The ball reappeared before her, glowing faintly pink. The tank droned discordantly, and a cloudy stream arced through the air behind it. She leaned down, searched for a set of coordinates, and copied them into the program. A shrill sound wormed into her ear, and she felt cut from time. Cut from reality. She punched a button. A soft whining noise grew and peaked. The ball vanished.
Sophie stepped back and looked up at the milky trail disappearing into the sky. She felt no sense of achievement. Everything felt numb and peculiar. She had the gnawing sense that she was missing something.
Alisdair lit a cigarette and she briefly felt angry at him, as if he knew what was wrong. He knew, and he was hiding it. She tried to bring herself back; remember the work, the endless sheets of paper, but it was all a blank. She knew it was there, she knew that the work has been done, but she couldn't picture it properly. Alisdair flicked his cigarette away. Minutes passed. She looked towards the mountains and peered.
The projector screen flared blue. The bird-masks stood.
A huge spheroid hung on the screen, swimming in a black sea. The masks moved silently towards the desk. Neptune floated above them. Cold, dark and icy. Sophie's hands tingled. She choked. The present rushed back in, and she was crying. The enormous ball of water, ice and silicone rock revealed itself as the camera turned. Above its ammonia oceans, layers of methane, hydrogen and helium clouds were whipped around, gifting them an astonishing blue sweep.
Sophie watched the screen. She hung on it as if it would be the last thing she would ever see. It was calming. It was calming.
'Marvellous,' Alisdair said. 'You've all worked ever so hard.'
His voice was cold and unexpressive. The blue vista flickered grey, and Sophie felt her head loll forward. She was so tired. She pawed at the keyboard, re-pinned the location, and recalled the ball. One of the bird-masks caught her as her left knee buckled.