By Stephen Thom
The van coasted through the empty Applecross streets. Sophie rode up front beside Alisdair and a bird-masked driver. It was strange to be outside after so long. They passed by the boarded-up Inn, and a number of dilapidated stone cottages. White roots scaled the buildings, and ashy snow danced around them. Every so often they saw white columns rising up through the trees.
They ditched the van at the roadside and hit the beach, trekking over a short footpath to reach it. Her tiredness came in waves now, and the peaky screeching noise roared in her ear. 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.
One of the masks sprayed a torch over the sand, and twisting piles of maggoty roots. The beach was shrouded in mist. The tide lapped and retracted. He strode through whirling flakes, 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. She caught his white eyes; smooth pebbles embedded in his skull.
As she drank from the flask, the fat roots beneath her withered and curled. She watched them crumble to dust. Her fingers tingled. She saw Alisdair's head snap up. They looked out to the fields beyond the beach, and saw distant white obelisks collapsing.
The muddy feeling left her, and she found she could walk quickly down to the water. She recognised the shift immediately. The present flooded back in. Memories separated, faded, and became memories once more. She knew it would only be a temporary respite, and she wanted to make the most of it.
The bird-masked men were looking around, confused. Alisdair broke into a jog, and joined her as she approached the waves. She turned to him, and saw that his face looked clear and fresh. His eyes were bright, and his pupils had returned. The high-pitched shriek faded to a murmur, and she could hear the water lapping.
She dragged her hands down her face and felt the present streaming through her, vibrant and tangible. The moon cast a creamy streak over the skin of the waves.
'Do you remember this day?' she whispered.
Alisdair shivered. He passed his a hand over his eyes. She knew he was feeling it too.
'We were testing the prototype,' he said. 'We came down to this beach, and we tested the prototype. The funders were here... or their representatives. I forget.'
He looked round. The bird-masked men were standing looking at them. Their shoulders were slumped. They looked cold and lost. The thread of the moment had left them, and they did not know what to do.
'You sent the prototype to your home,' he continued, 'and then you sent it to Neptune. Neptune. I remember it. A big, blue ball. It was remarkable. It was the culmination of fifteen years of your work. Work that would lead to interstellar travel. Sublight interstellar travel. You did it. You worked with those damn sheets of paper for years, and you did it.'
The sky was clearing. The mist parted into stringy fronds, and faded. Sophie knelt down and dipped her fingers in the water. She wanted the reassurance. She wanted to feel the reality.
'Does that not seem... unlikely?' she breathed. 'Neptune? We managed to send the prototype straight to Neptune? What happened next?'
'We left,' Alisdair said, frowning. 'They brought the departure forward. We were quarantined at the farmhouse for a long time, and then we left with the payload.'
'The vaccine?' Sophie said.
One of the bird-masked men approached them. He was shaking badly in the cold. He touched Alisdair on the shoulder.
'Excuse me,' he said. 'What did we do next?'
'We tested the prototypes,' Alisdair said. He looked testy. Sophie saw that he was lost himself. They had functioned for so long in the same bubble of repeated moments. The change was too much to process. But she could feel it. She could feel the point of separation. The bubble was broken.
She remembered the ship. The distant monolith. The surface of the exoplanet. The bird skeletons. The immense white column. The orb, desperately trying to delete the shapes. Trying to delete the pockets of pinned time.
It had worked. It must have worked.
'I don't believe it could have happened like that,' she said. 'It doesn't make sense. Alisdair, look at me.'
Alisdair looked down at her. His brow was furrowed. He was trying to process it. He was trying to tie the threads together. The bird-masked man stood awkwardly beside him.
'I think we've been at this for a long, long time,' Sophie said. 'Everything's out of sync. I know it's hard to see outside of it. We've been... we're repeating the same pockets of time. We have been since we used the shapes. I don't think everything happened in the way you remember. I think it took much, much longer. I think we're just seeing... moments, mushed together. Stuck that way, in a loop. I think there's spikes in moments, things we've said to each other... some stick more than others.'
Alisdair lit a cigarette and coughed. His eyes darted about the beach. Sophie stood. She removed the backpack and lifted the transparent ball out.
'There's absolutely no way we got this to Neptune at the first attempt,' she said. 'This would've taken us years. And the funders were not wearing bird masks.'
Alisdair blew out smoke and looked round. The bird masked men were gone.
'Maybe we saw some people wearing bird masks,' she said. 'Maybe they did come round to the house. There were leaks. There were all sorts of crazy rumours circulating. Stuff being published online. All sorts of weird people wanting information. Remember we had to cut the phone lines? Destroy our sim cards, and all that? Remember how long we were stuck in the farmhouse?'
'I do,' Alisdair muttered. 'I think. I remember little bits.'
They stood in silence. A chill wind bit at them. Alisdair looked up at the sky. He was crying.
'Does this mean we reversed the shapes?' he said.
The withering roots had left a blanket of grey dust over the beach and fields. Sophie moved through the darkness, and took Alisdair's hand.
'Am I a stain?' he whispered. 'A temporal paradox?'
Sophie rubbed his fingers with her thumb. His face had a transparent sheen, and she could see the moon floating within it.
'Your eyes look better,' she said. She felt a warm glow inside. She felt present, aware, and healthy.
'Where are we now?' Alisdair said, as they disappeared.
The moon crumbled to dust, and blew in waves over the sea, which dried and shrank to a puddle. The sky folded up in complex origami patterns.