By Stephen Thom
HD 85512b orbit, Vela Constellation
The conference room was bright. Sophie felt dizzy. Alisdair stood as she walked in. The orb was drifting near the ceiling, its fuzzy cloak trailing above their heads. Keys and Walden nodded to her.
'Do you feel better?' Alisdair asked. She stopped and watched him. His eyes were egg-white.
'Yes,' she lied. Alisdair's left eyebrow lifted.
'Did the support bring you breakfast?' he asked.
Sophie took a seat beside Walden. He was drinking freeze-dried coffee through a straw in a sealed plastic bag. The act of sitting down seemed to take an eternity. Waves of tiredness washed over her, and when she looked up Walden was gone. She saw something crawl across the ceiling, but it was too much effort to lift her head.
'Alisdair,' she mumbled. 'Alisdair, we've been here before.'
'Excellent,' Alisdair said. He sat. He did not take his white eyes off her.
'Cards on the table,' he said. She tensed. Keys sat up straight, and folded his hands on the table. Black fluid was leaking from his eyes.
Sophie slapped at the table. Any movement was a struggle, but she wanted to get his attention. Pull him out of this farce. She saw a shadow pass across the display screen opposite them, and heard scuffling above her.
'Like I said yesterday,' Alisdair said. 'We need to go to the planet first. I know this seems to deviate from our immediate objective. I know that it may appear slightly amoral. But we have reasons to believe that this may be crucial in securing our own health first. And we can't help anyone if we can't help ourselves.'
Sophie slid her chair back. Keys watched her. Little black streams ran down his cheeks. They pooled on the table top. His face spasmed violently, and she saw his features as a frozen, twisted mask.
'We got the coordinates wrong,' she whispered. Her head sank onto the table. When she managed to lift it up again it was dark, apart from the warm blue glow of the monitors. Alisdair was the only other person sitting at the table. His face was shrouded in darkness.
The doors slid open with a hiss, and she saw herself walk into the room. Her doppelganger. It walked stiffly. Alisdair stood.
'Do you feel better?' he asked. His voice was thin and empty.
Sophie saw herself move to the table, and sit down. She watched the doppelganger. It had strange, jerky movements. It was too dark to see its face properly. Her skin was crawling. She slid off the chair and crawled towards the entrance. The scratching on the ceiling grew louder.
She managed to make it to the automatic doors, but they would not open. She saw a dark mass in the corner of her eyes. It was Alisdair. He was curled up on the floor, beneath the display screen.
She tried to crawl towards him. He smiled, and his gums glistened with black fluid.
'Stop,' he said. 'Just fucking stop. We need to be exact. You don't know the repercussions.'
Sophie removed her shoes, circled the floor and clicked on the four portable heaters, each connected to an extension cord running back to the farmhouse. The portable floor lamps were on tripod legs, and she turned these on too. The rain was a kinetic rattle on the roof. The hot draft from the heaters loosened a A1-size sheet of paper on the wooden floor and she cursed, treading softly over the assortment of sheets and placing the loose corner back underneath a secure stone. She sunk down to her knees and smoothed the paper out. There was a long, multi-step equation written in black marker pen on it - around sixty steps, she thought, at a glance.
She stood up and turned in a circle. The barn was warmer. She loosened her scarf. The wooden walls and floor were covered with large sheets of paper. The sheets on the floor were pinned beneath stones, beginning several steps in from the front door, and continuing to the back wall. Prominent, scratchy black arrows in the corners of the sheets guided her on a visual path from the barn entrance, turning left to right along rows to the back wall; from there the arrows scaled the walls, again turning left and right, moving around the barn. Every sheet was filled with dense, multi-step equations; endless terms, endless variables, endless fractions.
She coughed and reached for a bottle of water. She unscrewed the cap and spluttered. The coughs came quick and fast, and she felt herself growing dizzy. Her eyes fell on the clumps of moldy hay that she'd brushed into the corner. It looked like there were white roots snaking through them.
The intercom buzzed and she flinched and drank from the bottle, trying to compose herself. She glanced again at the strange roots, stifled welling coughs, and stepped over to the monitor by the door. A hazy moustache bobbed in the small screen. She smiled and touched a button.
Alisdair stepped through the wooden doors and nodded to her. He wore a thick sheepskin jacket over his suit, and the effect was oddly regal. A chill breeze blew in after him.
'Still holed up?' he wheezed.
'Still holed up, Alisdair,' she said. She moved to close the doors behind him, and touched him lightly on the shoulder as she passed. He ran his fingers through his thinning white hair, placed his briefcase on the floor, and slumped down on an upturned crate.
'Why do you persist in working like this?' he said, squinting up at her.
Sophie looked down. Alisdair's face was tired and worn. His eyes were pure white and pupil-less. Her nose wrinkled. Something passed through her mind's eye. It felt like some memory was trying to worm its way into her consciousness, but she could not find its seed, and she could not picture it whole.
'There's something wrong with your eyes,' she said. There was a familiarity and comfort in the words.
Alisdair did not seem to register the question. He cast his white eyes over the sheets of equations. The floor lamps hummed softly.
'How far off are you?' he whispered.
Sophie's lips thinned. She sat down on beside him. She looked up at the walls. Fractions and variables blurred before her. She caught a sliver of clarity. It was there in the feeling of the space around her, in the specifics of Alisdair's movements. The way he had placed his briefcase down that day. The way he had slumped onto the crate. It was hard to separate the same moments when they occurred over and over and over again.
'We can't keep doing this,' she said.
Alisdair winced and folded his hands together in his lap. He sat rocking for several seconds. Sophie seized his hand. She did not want to lose the lucidity. She did not want to fall back into the moment, and be trapped by it again.
'Did you make a deal?' she hissed.
Alisdair looked confused. His head dipped.
'You were in for longer than I meant,' he said. 'Three days.'
Sophie released her grip on his hand, and stroked his thinning hair. He had not followed her question, but he had escaped the structure of the moment. That was good. He could see outside of it, if only for a few seconds. The problem was that he'd just latched onto another script; another moment that had already passed.
'Alisdair,' she said. 'I'm not talking about me. I know I was in for too long. I'm talking about you. There's something wrong with your eyes. Did you make a deal?'
Alisdair rubbed a forefinger over his chin. His brow furrowed. He reached for his briefcase, removed a laptop, and opened it on his lap. He moved his fingers over the keyboard and pulled up a grainy image. Sophie lifted her head and peered at it. The monolith. The same satellite image she had seen a thousand times before. A vast black rectangle, floating in a sea of darkness.
'It looks like a simple rectangular structure from this angle,' Alisdair said. He twitched and set his jaw. Sophie could see how much effort it took him to break from the script. She leaned close and rested a hand on his knee. She wanted to encourage him.
'But it's not,' he said, swallowing. 'It's an n-orthotope. We saw this in orbit around the exoplanet, but it was already apparent from the space it covered. The area that we couldn't see. I believe there are different topologies encased within it. Cylinders, perhaps, to allow for centrifugal force. The exterior is layered; it acts as a shield, and its mirrors admit sunlight indirectly. The interior topologies would allow for rotation, artificial gravity, heat rejection, and atmospheric regulation, to name but a few. I remember those corridors... they twisted. They twisted all over the place.'
'More shapes,' Sophie murmured. She had to concentrate so hard to follow his words. Her mind wandered at points - it wanted desperately to return to the script, to the farmhouse in Inverness, to the moment they had sat together and viewed her finished work - but she managed to take in key phrases, and the gist.
'It's not a ship,' she said.
'It's an orbital habitat,' Alisdair nodded. 'It was probably the best they could do with the time they had.'
'We were rushing, though,' Sophie said. 'And they weren't going anywhere.'
Alisdair closed the laptop. A tinny drone nipped at their ears.
'Well,' he said. 'Not in a standard, or linear, sense.'
Sophie let her hand fall from his knee. The high-pitched sound burrowed into her ears.
'What corridors?' she said. Alisdair looked round at her. His white eyes were vacant and unreadable.
'You said you remembered those corridors,' she said. 'What corridors?'
'The corridors in the orthotope,' Alisdair said, and his left eyebrow lifted. 'When we were there?'
Even as he spoke, Sophie felt confused. She looked at the sheets of equations, and forgot what they were talking about. It was done. The groundwork was done. The prototypes were done. Everything would move fast now. But she was ill. She remembered that: the sterile corridors. The woman with the stethoscope round her neck. She was ill. She had cancer.
'I believe it's done,' she said, slowly. 'But I keep coming back. Keep checking and rechecking. I'm not quite ready to let it go.'
She enjoyed the comfort of the words. The familiarity. Alisdair coughed, and hacked up a string of black bile.
'You're not been well,' he said, wiping at his mouth. 'You must sleep.'