By Stephen Thom
Candle flames fluttered. Sophie twisted the corkscrew in, and pushed the lever arm onto the lip of the bottle. They were both drinking too much now. There was nothing else to do. The instructions were to wait. Not to leave the house. She looked out of the kitchen window as she lifted the cork out. Rain had segued into snowfall. Winter was coming. Beyond the farmhouse and the fields, velvet water lashed at rocky inlets.
Alisdair took the proffered glass. She sat on the stool opposite him and clinked his glass. He looked sweaty and tense. Some of it had felt very zen at first. No technology. No internet. No communication. Cutting the landline seemed to have got to him. Perhaps it had been too much of a visual. He didn't even live there. Still, he had prompted the delivery, and he was quarantined with her now.
'He didn't expand,' he said, scratching at his grey stubble.
'He just said all clear,' Sophie said. 'He didn't sound best pleased, given the news he was delivering.'
'The bird-faces will have paid him off,' Alisdair shrugged. 'Imagine that. Imagine knowing that was out there. Still. Here's to your sudden health.'
He drank, and stared into the glass afterwards, his jaw set.
'I'm glad for you, Sophie,' he said. 'I'm glad it worked. We were right. We were right to do it. You deserve this. We couldn't have left without you.'
Sophie took a long draught.
'It isn't right,' she said.
'One step at a time,' Alisdair said. Sophie drank and watched the snow in the window.
'Do you think they are birds?' she said. Alisdair's bushy eyebrows furrowed.
'What tosh,' he said.
'But they clearly know things we don't,' Sophie pressed. Alisdair waved his hand dismissively.
'I'm sick of these bloody candles,' he said. 'It creeps me out, sneaking about here in the dark. Do you not feel it's a bit excessive? No lights?'
'It wasn't my decision,' Sophie muttered. She glanced at him. The bags under his eyes looked more pronounced. He lit a cigarette and drummed his fingers in the table.
'How long do we have to stay here for?' he said.
'You said it will be quicker now,' she said, quietly. 'They'll bring it forward.'
Alisdair tapped his cigarette on the ashtray and peered at her.
'The prototypes are still here, though?' he said.
'Yes,' she breathed. A tinny noise niggled in her ear, and she looked around. Maybe she'd left a fan on somewhere.
'Well, can I see them?' he said. Sophie watched him. He seemed to be teetering. Maybe he'd drank more than she'd thought.
'No,' she said. 'We have to wait.'
Alisdair downed his glass and sneezed. He drew his sleeve across his moustache. Sophie felt heavy with tiredness.
'Do you think my eyes look different?' she said.
'What?' Alisdair grumbled. He was looking towards the door, as if men in boiler suits or biohazard suits or fucking bird masks might come streaming in at any moment, and remove them from this weird pause in time.
'My eyes,' Sophie pushed. 'Do you think they look different?'
Alisdair leaned over the table and squinted. He knocked the glass over as he sat back down.
'No,' he said, picking the glass up and refilling it. 'Don't keep doing this. You're being paranoid. It was just a little bit longer. Can't be helped. If anything it's a good thing. All clear. It probably helped. It probably nuked it.'
'I thought there were... little white dots in them,' Sophie said. 'Do eyes get like that?'
'Bloody hell, Sophie,' he said. Red wine dribbled down his chin. 'Little white dots. You're not sleeping enough. That'll be your little white dots. You're spending all your time not sleeping, and not showing me the prototypes. You've not been well. You should sleep.'
Sophie ran a finger under her right eye and watched the snow. The quiet ringing noise seemed closer.
Alisdair was sitting beside the fireplace. He looked cheerful. Three men wearing suits and bird masks were sitting on the sofa. Sophie smoothed out her skirt. She kept wanting to look up at the ceiling. It was an odd sensation. After three months of waiting. Home deliveries. Drink. She couldn't focus. One of the bird-masked men cleared his throat.
'The van is waiting outside, Miss Stewart,' he said. 'We can't tell you how excited we are.'
Alisdair slapped his thigh. A glass of champagne wobbled in his hand.
'Marvellous,' he said. 'You've all worked ever so hard.'
Sophie stood and bowed her head to the three men. She realised that she had bowed, and felt stupid. Alisdair frowned and watched her. She tucked her hair behind her ears.
'I'll... just be a moment,' she murmured.
The beaks of the three bird masks followed her as one. Alisdair chuckled and drank.
'Masks!' he said. 'Makes you look like a bloody cult.'
Sophie walked out of the living room and went to the kitchen. She took a screwdriver from the cupboard under the sink and went back to the hall. She unscrewed a plug socket just above the skirting board, placed it aside, and reached into the hole in the wall. She keyed in the combination for the safe, and it clicked open.
A dribble of black fluid leaked out of her nose and she jerked her hand out. She dabbed at her nose and looked back towards the living room. Alisdair's voice floated down the hall.
She sat until her heart rate slowed. The hall was dark, and candlelight flared in the rooms around her. She reached back into the hole in the wall and pulled out a transparent ball. It was lined with a metallic shield filled with water, and there was a hefty bullet-shaped tank attached to it. She felt groggy as she stood. The ball was heavy. She veered into the wall as she tried to navigate her way back to the living room.
'... the bubble is around the vessel,' Alisdair was saying. 'The space in front of, and behind it, is compressed. Curvature dipole. Negative divergence of spacetime. The distance is shorter, and therefore faster.'
The three beaks were turned towards him. Sophie glared. He looked very drunk. She'd managed a skirt. And a bow.
'Of course, anything that isn't light is sublight,' he went on. 'Your bloody car is sublight. And you have your regenerative cooling, your gimballed engines, your cryogenic tanks. But then you're looking at what specific balance of matter and antimatter fuel is required. Assume a hydrogen and anti-hydrogen mix to generate the energy. The density of frozen hydrogen would determine your fuel tanks... '
He looked up at Sophie and trailed off. She narrowed her eyes. He slugged back his champagne and addressed the bird-masked men.
'Big, strapping buggers,' he finished.
Sophie looked at the bird masks. It was hard to gauge their demeanour. She would have said completely detached at a glance. One of them swung his beak in her direction.
'The van is waiting outside, Miss Stewart,' he said.