By Stephen Thom
The bedroom was dark. Candle flames fluttered in soft symbiosis. Wells stood by the bed and removed his hat. He sunk to his knees. Marie turned towards him. Her skin was clammy. Her eyes were sunken. She coughed. He touched her cheek. He pressed his palm to her forehead. It burned.
She lifted a finger to his lips. He kissed it. She closed her eyes.
He fumbled the empty glass. It fell and rolled clockwise. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He lifted his chin to the barman and circled his finger.
The barman shook his head and walked over. He wiped his hands on the cloth in his belt.
'You sure you ain't had enough?'
Wells propped the glass up and slid it over.
'I'll tell you when I've had fuckin' enough.'
The barman sighed. He poured a shot and walked off.
Wells drained the whisky. He turned the glass over in his hand. He slid from his stool and lurched out. The saloon doors swung behind him.
Rain lashed the dirt road. He pulled his hat down low. He wobbled. Shadows moved around him. He turned. He felt a hand in his pocket. He flailed. He felt a hot sting in his ribs. He staggered back. Blood spurted from his shirt. He spat. He swayed. He tried to focus.
Two men. One moved forward. He saw the glint of a knife. He saw the blade arc. He twisted. The blade slashed. He came away with fresh cuts on his face and arm. He stumbled. He splashed through puddles. He reached for his boot. The man came again.
Wells stayed bent. He slid his own knife out. The man swung. Wells punched up. He felt his blade sink. The man spluttered and spasmed. Wells pushed deeper. Blood ran over his hand. He yanked the knife free. The man lurched forward and dropped.
The second man stared. He turned and ran. Wells stooped. He groped the dead man's pockets. He retrieved his wallet. He clutched his side. He stumbled home.
Marie was asleep. He avoided the bedroom. He cracked a bottle. He downed shots. He stewed. He turned it over. He made his decision.
He dressed the wounds as best he could. He hit the safe. He spun the dial. His body ached. He retrieved the pointed rocks.
Pins, the girl said.
He tore out the front door. Rain drenched him. He recalled her words. Instructions. His words. I spared your life for this.
He paced out measurements. He calculated. He stumbled. He veered. He plunged the pins into the ground.
Black threads spun out between them. He heard a soft whump sound. Colour drained from the world.
The orb hovered. It glowed yellow.
'The capsule has landed.'
Pete sniffed. He felt woozy. Doherty was still in his seat. Cole unbuckled. Keys followed him. Cole cracked the hatch. He looked down.
'Pretty rocky. Rocky area.'
Keys heaved on his backpack.
'It'll have to do. We bypassed the Stickney crater. Saved you that trek.'
Cole clucked his tongue. He shouldered his backpack. He swung out onto the ladder. The orb bobbed curiously. It rose and floated out the hatch. Its grey cloak trailed.
Keys looked round at Pete and Doherty. They saw their seated figures in the darkness of his visor. He gestured to them. He clambered up and swung out.
Doherty unbuckled. He sat forward. He gripped the arm rests. Pete heard heavy breath fuzz in his earpiece.
'How do these fucking things work, Pete? I don't feel - I don't feel like there's anything certain here, and I - I'm... '
Pete unbuckled. He squeezed his eyes shut and open.
'In specific formations. At specific points... I'm not the right person to explain this. You're better off reading the review. It's something we were able to unredact, anyway.'
He eased his backpack on. He turned to Doherty.
'With the correct number of pins, the correct measurements... relative to the area... you can punch out pockets of time. Keep them. Revisit them. Move between them. Collect. Travel. The possibilities are... '
Doherty staggered up. He wobbled.
'Pins... ' he breathed.
Pete helped him shoulder his backpack.
'Like a branch point... it was going one way, and then you pin it. The cat is both alive and dead, even before the box is opened.'
Doherty stood. His eyes swam within the visor. He swung up to the hatch. He looked back.
'Our funders... '
'You don't want to know.'
Pete stepped off the last rung. The earpiece pitched strange frequencies. He caught an image. The smoking hole in her head. He buried it. There wasn't time to process. There wasn't time to grieve.
For a moment he felt the reduced gravity. The tug in his bones. The urge to curl up. The pressurised suit adapted. The vibrotactile boots kicked in. The bearings and joints in the suit creaked. He turned.
Mars filled the sky. A red-brown, pockmarked giant.
Cole and Keys were already far ahead. The orb danced around them. Its cloak shimmered over a surface covered by grooves and streaks. Impact events. Crater chains.
He could see the monolith. A crisp rectangle in the distance. Static buzzed in his ear.
They set out. They cut round vast circular depressions. Everything was a curious marriage of stillness and stoic propulsion. They closed on Cole and Keys. The monolith loomed. Pete averted his eyes. The red ball dominated the sky. Feedback screeched in his ear.
She chain-smoked. She pushed him. She tried to will him back into the world.
They promised him a safe-house after the pin heist. A safe house.
Doherty's breath was ragged. His visor swivelled.
'How did they trace the pins to Phobos?'
They crunched round a bowl-shaped crater. Pete tugged at his backpack.
'The Kaidun meteorite,' he said. 'That was the initial prompt. It fell in a Soviet military base in Yemen. 1980. Phobos was suggested as the parent body. The alkaline-rich clasts. The unique minerals. They sent out surveyors. They compared the pins they had.'
Cole and Keys looked round. The monolith towered above them. A clear, building-sized, rectangular boulder. Its shadow spilled over the grooves and pockmarks.
'Everything snowballed from there,' Pete said. Static hissed in his ear. He caught a strange note in the background. It repeated at intervals. Dull. Insistent.
Cole stooped. The red ball flared in his visor. He heaved his backpack off.
'Fuck it. Let's get started.'
Pete stared at the blank face of the monolith.
Wells woke. It was dark. He reached for Marie. She turned. She was slick with sweat. He kissed her forehead. He lay back. He looked at the ceiling. White roots were spreading across it.
He breathed. He opened his mouth. He stopped himself. He knew what would happen if he tried to speak. Those terrible sounds.
He stroked her hair. He turned and slid out of bed. He walked through the corridor. His hands trailed over bloated roots spidering the walls. He reached the front door. He twisted the handle.
Cold air hit him. He knew the routine. He could go no further. He stared out into the night. Rain beat the fields. There were more of those strange white obelisks in the distance.
He slid down against the door and lit a roll-up. He knew the routine. He would go back to bed. He would wake with Marie. She would be alive. He would be alive. They would be here.
The girl was right. She said they only knew how to pin minutes. She didn't tell him how to move between pinned time and regular time. Why should she? He knew the routine. He had experienced it a thousand times. It was enough. He regretted nothing.
They stood in the shadow of the monolith. Keys pulled cases from his backpack. He twisted the ends. He slid the pins out.
Cole retrieved a tablet from his backpack. The orb hovered around him. He plucked it from the sky. He flicked open a small panel in its circular face. He fixed a wire between the tablet and the orb. He scrolled. He clicked. He uploaded data. He removed the wire.
The orb flared yellow. It swooped. Its cloak gleamed and divided into fluid, grey appendages. It seized four pins. It flew before the monolith. It ground the pins into specific points in the surface.
Cole watched. He scrolled the tablet.
'This is the exact arrangement of pins retrieved in Kansas in 2008. The area having... '
He looked at the screen.
'The area having originally been pinned in 1858, according to radiometric dating. The theory here is... if we view the monolith as the start point, the source... it could theoretically function as a passage between worlds. The pinned pocket of time is accessible from either entrance. You can see the potential permutations there. Our funders... they believe there may be exploitable combinations - portholes between time. Between other worlds.'
Keys clucked. 'Ambitious.'
Doherty followed the orb's work. He coughed.
'And no-one here is the least bit fucking concerned that we're pissing about with stuff we essentially have fuck-all information on.'
Cole scrolled the tablet screen.
'Making me pretty fucking rich, anyway,' he muttered.
The orb flitted over. Four pins were stuck in a rough square in the shadow of the monolith. A vague black thread was strung between them.
They stared. The monolith rumbled. Pete stepped back. Keys stepped back. Doherty tripped.
There was a tremendous whump sound. The surface shook. Ancient rocks tumbled. Feedback screeched in their ears. Cole knelt. Pete shook. The face of the monolith was a vast black screen.
They waited. They scoped. Cole stood. He beckoned the little orb. It zipped over.
'Pete, you're up. The reverse measurements are programmed into the support. I'm ninety-nine percent confident of that approach.'
They passed Doherty. Cole eyeballed him.
'That's one percent of pissing-about room.'
Pete stood at the base of the monolith. The black screen was crisp and unblemished. Cole clapped him on the back. He turned to look at Keys and Doherty. He blinked.
He saw her face. He saw her chain-smoking. He saw the fear and love in her eyes.
He stepped into the monolith. The black screen rippled and closed around him. The orb hovered in after.
Darkness shrouded him. There was a high-pitched vibration in his ears. He groped. Sweat pooled in his visor. Walking was slow. It was like walking through wax.
He was in a garden.
He spun round. His arms were still extended in front of him. His heart raced.
Cliffs. Rocky beaches. Dark water.
The Chesapeake safe house.
This wasn't right.
- The area having originally been pinned in 1858 -
This wasn't right. He'd been here. He'd pinned it. He'd followed the instructions.
He'd tried to save that time. Before everything changed.
The orb bobbed by his head. It glowed a warm orange. Its cloak fanned out. He felt comforted. He crossed the garden. He opened the front door.
The living room: wooden walls. Ratty furniture. A single table. Candles burned down to the nub. She was curled up on the sofa. Her hair was lank. Her eyes were lidless and egg-white.
She spoke. Pete shuffled. Her voice was deep and guttural. It was almost a chant. He didn't recognise words.
The orb bobbed hesitantly. The joints of his suit creaked. He looked up.
White roots were splayed across the walls and ceiling.
This wasn't right.
Something clicked inside him. He felt it as a visceral, crawling sensation.
'Support. Reverse measurements. Now.'
The orb flared and darted off. He backed out the room. She was still chanting in that awful voice. Strings of black mucus drooled from her lips.
He hit the garden. The orb had pulled his pins and repositioned them.
Wind brushed the grass. The pins were linked with phosphorescent white lines.
He took one last look at the safe house. He had done this. He had done this to her.
There is something else here.
He felt the soft whump.
The garden faded to black. He thought he saw strange buildings on the cliffs as they winked away. White obelisks.
He had to push to exit. Black wax melted around him.
He emerged with his hands raised. The orb fizzed out, spinning. It flared blue/green/red.
He saw the giant red ball in the sky. He choked. His chest heaved. His mind spat a series of images. People. People he should have spent more time with. People he should have treated better. Alternate paths. Infinite possibilities. The cat is both alive and dead, even before the box is opened.
Cole ran over. Keys ran over. Doherty lumbered behind them. Pete waved his hands. He sunk down. He slapped the surface.
'We've got it wrong,' he said.
Cole knelt beside him.
'We've got it wrong,' Pete coughed. 'We think it's for us.'
Keys laid a hand on his shoulder. Cole leaned in.
'Pete. Pete, what happened?'
'We think it's for us. We think it's a gift. A revelation. A thing we can test and develop. It's not ours. Something else is using it.'
Doherty knelt on the surface. He lowered his head. Cole looked up at Keys.
'Pete, tell me exactly what - '
'They're already there. They have all these pockets of time. Parasites... they're infecting us. They've been infecting us throughout history. We keep giving them... we keep giving them our time... '
Pete lurched up. He loosed small rocks.
'We have to go. We have to destroy the pins.'
Cole flapped his arm.
'You're getting this from one test? These are your final, absolute conclusions? This is evolution. This is progress. We said there would be unknown factors. Passages between worlds. There might be pins all over the fucking universe, for all we know! They might be shared. There might be common passage. There might be anything. One test - '
Pete stumbled over the surface. He hitched his backpack up.
'We have to go,' he said.
Keys looked at Doherty. Something passed between them. Cole seized his tablet. He scrolled. He grabbed piles of pins. He began stabbing the surface. He checked the tablet. He stabbed.
Keys rose. The red planet swam in his visor.
'What are you doing?'
Cole stabbed. He checked. He stabbed.
He pinned frantically. He scrabbled. He plunged. Black thread flickered into existence. They felt an almighty whump. The monolith became a black screen.
Cole stood. He wiped dirt from his suit. He gestured.
'Pete. Your chariot awaits.'
Cole rubbed his gloves. He strode towards the screen. He seized the orb. It thrashed in his hands. It pulsed red. Cole wrestled. He tugged. The orb slipped free.
It spun and rose. It arced across the red sky. A shooting star. A miniature red planet.
'Fine. Fuck you all.'
He stepped into the monolith.
Wells turned to Marie. The sheets rustled.
They had forgotten how to speak properly. Something was coming through them. He knew the new words. He knew their meaning. He enjoyed it. He felt part of the cause.
They were both bald. They were emaciated. Their eyes and skin were a pristine egg-white. Black fluid leaked from parts of his body. He felt the need to feed this substance to Marie. She consumed it willingly.
He was aware they were becoming something else. It felt natural.
Sometimes he would walk to the front door. There were more white obelisks in the fields beyond. He felt that he could walk further, soon. He felt that he could visit them. He was excited. He felt part of the cause. The urge to survive. To grow. To inhabit. He regretted nothing.
Cole pushed against a waxy envelope. It melted before him.
He was standing in a cave. Dripping stalactites hung overhead.
He stepped forward. His breath was ragged inside the visor. He lifted his boot. A sticky black fluid clung to it.
He leaned. He crossed a puddle. Something scuttled over the surface.
He looked down. A skinny bald figure was sucking at a pool of fluid. It lifted its head. Its eyes were clear and lidless. It spat black oil.
Cole backed up. His glove brushed something as it moved. He pivoted.
The walls were crawling with little bald figures. He cursed. He slipped. He fell. Something scuttled over his visor.
They waited through two seven-hour orbits. They measured out the erratic pins in the shadow of the monolith. They calculated the reverse measurements. They brought Cole's body back.
They carried him to the capsule. They released the pins into the vacuum of space.
They watched Phobos shrink to a tiny pebble dwarfed by a red colossus.
Doherty and Keys retired to their white coffins for the return journey. Pete allowed the nine-month cycle to pass naturally. The orb kept him company. He pottered. He cleaned. He read.
He felt each moment pass to the next.
He felt the current carry him.