Gia opened her eyes and found herself sitting cross-legged on the surface of Pi, as if being there were the most natural thing in the world. She wasn’t wearing a spacesuit and she had a full head of hair again, just like on Earth. This too felt normal. A young woman sat opposite her wearing odd clothes made of a shimmering material she couldn’t identify. She was very tall and lean, with slender limbs, almond-shaped eyes and very dark skin. She smiled and raised a hand in greeting. “Hello.”
“Hello,” Gia said back.
“The calibration is complete. We apologise for the delay. Please remember that proximity is required for the Bridge to correctly match itself to the user. We also note that your native language is not in our databank. We have attempted to calibrate the Bridge correctly, but please correct this avatar if you notice any errors. We will attempt to match your idiom where possible.” The woman’s smile broadened. “Hello, Gia Sanchez.”
Gia blinked a few times. Her dreams had been very vivid recently, but this was a whole different level. “I…where am I…?” was all she could think to ask.
“In your unconscious mind. According to our scans, you have achieved the correct meditative state for translocation to occur. However we are not detecting your biopattern on the Bridge. Please comply with the directions so that we can take you where you wish to go.”
“Directions? What directions?” Gia looked around her. She was certainly on Pi; the ever-present orb of Tethys, now just a crescent of white arcing across the black sky, was where it should be. But there was no sign of Little Orphan Annie or the Hawking nearby.
Her companion looked confused. “Have you received directions for operating the Bridge? It is extremely dangerous to use translocation technology without being given proper instructions. Would you like to review the directions? This avatar does not have a sufficient lexicon to cover all facets, but you may view it in text format if you wish?”
“I…yes…all right then…” Gia wasn’t sure quite what she was being asked, but it seemed safest to agree. Words appeared in front of her, or at least she assumed they were words. The language wasn’t one she recognised. Or, then again, some of the symbols did look familiar. It was transcribed in columns, like traditional East-Asian script, but some of the letters seemed to move around, or fade in and out of view at random intervals. Occasionally they changed colour from their default bluish-white to a faded pink or muted yellow-green. It didn’t make any sense to her at all. After half a minute or so, the words faded and another dense block of the odd text appeared. “I think that’s fine, thank you,” she said.
“If you wish to complete the translocation process,” the woman continued in the same reassuring voice once the words had faded from view altogether, “please return to the Bridge so that we can store your full biopattern in the databanks and prepare for matter-energy conversion.”
“Um…” Gia was trying to make sense of what she was being told. She wanted to ask about a thousand questions, but she had a funny feeling that this…this…avatar…wouldn’t be able to tell her that much. It was, she realised, the mouthpiece of some great computer, and therefore necessarily limited by whatever input it received. A computer, someone had once told her, was just a machine that understood ‘no’ and ‘yes’. It could only do what a human user told it to do. Peters must have been onto something when he’d said the crystalline structure of Pi was some kind of data storage mechanism. But, if that’s what was talking to her, it was obviously far more than a simple library of information. “What was that word you used?” she asked the avatar. “Translocation?”
“Translocation is the primary purpose of the Bridge. Where would you like to go, Gia Sanchez?”
“Home…I want to go home…”
“We do not have a databank entry for ‘home’. Please specify a spatial coordinate.”
“Earth. Do you know where Earth is?”
“We do not have a databank entry for ‘Earth’. Please speci…”
“Earth!” Gia interrupted. “The planet Earth. Where I’m from. Where you’re from, I think. The third planet from the Sun. From the central star of this system. You must have a word for that. For home.”
“We do not have a databank entry for ‘Earth the planet Earth where I’m from where you’re from I think the third pla…”
“Forget it!” Gia said, throwing up her arms in frustration.
“Unable to erase data at this time. We apologise for any inconvenience.”
“Okay, I’m starting to get pretty sick of you, honey.” Gia started to stand up.
“Warning,” the avatar said in an oddly toneless voice, “correct meditative state has been broken. It is no longer safe to translocate. Please do not attempt to activate the Bridge when in an agitated emotional condition due to risk of incorrect psychological recombination.”
“I don’t want to activate the Bridge at all! I don’t want to be having this conversation! I just want to know what’s happening to me! And I want to go home…”
“We do not have a databa…”
“Oh shut up!”
“Dialogue terminated. Thank you for accessing the Bridge.” Everything faded to black.
The Hawking was blessed with a handful of windows, not that the view did much to calm Professor Gilbert’s nerves. He stared out of the narrow, circular aperture uneasily, painfully aware of the few inches of Perspex between himself and oblivion. He was trying to overcome his fear. When he was a child, he’d been terrified of spiders but his mother, an eminently practical woman in the mould of the fearsome early-21st Century female intellectuals, had had little patience for irrational phobias. She’d made him confront it every chance she got: it became his job to dispose, safely and humanely, of every spider ever found in the house. His one abiding memory of childhood was standing paralysed with fear over a bathtub while some horrible, nightmarish thing crawled around down there. You never knew which way they were going. They weren’t right. Even when he’d begun to study biology, he’d never quite shaken that unease over arachnids. But he could deal with them now. He’d conquered his fear, more or less. Now he tried to do the same with the vacuum of space, but somehow it wasn’t the same. For one thing, he didn’t have a young mind, ready to be moulded by those formative exposures any more. He was an old dog, and new tricks would continue to elude him. For another, there was nothing irrational about this phobia. The cold of space…it was a terrible, monstrous thing. The scale of it, the unutterable blackness of it. And to think; Earth, his warm, moist little oblate spheroid, his comfortable, parochial world, was nestled in that steely, star-speckled vice too. It was out there, always. So much more vast than the imagination could comfortably hold, so much more hostile than any sane mind could comprehend. He had devoted his life to imagining evolution on other worlds, in other, stranger environments, but he’d never planned on visiting them. His was a discipline of the mind, not the laboratory.
“Hugh? Are you all right?” Professor Hoshi had snuck up on him. Somehow he expected to see a reflection in the window, but they were angled, or perhaps the material designed, in such a way as to always keep the view unobstructed.
“Yes. Yes I’m fine.”
“You know what I’m about to ask…”
“It…it’ll be fine. Yes fine. No problems at all.”
He turned to look at the leader of their science team. Hoshi didn’t look at all convinced. He wouldn’t have been either. “You knew what might be asked of you when you agreed to come on this expedition, Hugh.”
He nodded. “Yes. I knew. But…no, it’ll be fine. I mean, it’s no different really, is it? This ship isn’t any different from a…from a spacesuit. Fiberglas and aluminium and plastic; no different from vinyl and polyester and spandex …and… and…” He could feel a bead of sweat trickling down his forehead.
“No one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to, Hugh,” Hoshi told him, “but that thing is displaying all kinds of strange symbols and you’re our resident expert on whoever built this thing.”
“The Builders, yes.” That’s what he called them in his paper on the subject. He’d put forward any number of theories about their identity, their nature, their antiquity, their technology and, yes, their language. He thought they were probably not so different from humans. They must have been to make something that seemed so recognisable. Its shape was iconic, like a great archway. Ancient cultures may have built their temples in imitation of it, perhaps. Certainly its use must have been ritualistic and…
“What? Oh, yes. Um. When are we setting out?”
“The EVO is planned for fifteen-hundred hours.”
“An hour, Hugh. You leave in an hour.”
“Yes. Yes. Fine. That’s all fine.”
She looked at him with those concerned eyes again. “You’re sure you can do this?”
He squared his shoulders and tried to puff out his chest, but he’d never been the traditionally masculine type, despite catching all those spiders. He left them to Jashith now. “I’ll be fine,” he said for the hundredth time, “besides, you need me. You need an expert. Who else would you send?”
Hoshi got a thoughtful look in her eyes. “Who else indeed?”
Whatever confidence he’d managed to trick himself into feeling began to evaporate with every step towards the pod bay. He bobbed along the zero-g corridors that separated the moving compartments of the Hawking’s habitable central section, moving himself hand over hand using the plastic staples screwed to the walls/floors/ceilings. Doing this always messed with his head. He couldn’t decide whether he was climbing upwards, having to push himself wearily up some white, hexagonal chimney, or descending into a yawning pit. Occasionally his perspective would flip alarmingly and he’d nearly throw up. No one else seemed to have these problems, so he didn’t tell anyone. He had already donned his spacesuit, a tight-fitting contraption that managed to be both uncomfortable and unflattering. He’d been on a diet since being approved for the mission since every kilogram of bulk they took with them into space had an associated cost – that conversation had certainly been a humbling one – but he was past the point where any month-long modification to his eating habits could rid him of his middle-age spread. Now he was just a few meters from the entrance to the pod bay. It was another zero-g environment, and there was no atmosphere there. He fumbled his helmet from the magna-clasp on his belt. This was a short-haul space mission; no need for the humiliating head-shaving that the real astronauts endured, but he started to see the advantages of it as he squashed his head of curly hair into the tight helmet. His gloved hands fumbled at the clips that secured it to the neck piece as he floated towards the airlock. Lieutenant Tymoshenko was waiting for him. She looked a little impatient. None of the crew of the ship had warmed to their passengers during the trip, but he found the cold Ukrainian especially standoffish and wondered why he’d been paired with her for this. She was just strapping her helmet on too. As a seasoned space traveller, her head was a smooth and bald as an egg. It made him a little uncomfortable and he was glad when she put the helmet on. “Can you hear me?” she asked through the radio. Her accent was quite thick.
“Yes. Coming through…um…coming through loud and clear…”
She narrowed her eyes slightly and nodded, then moved her hand to the airlock door. He thought she’d wait for him, but she was already wrenching at the handle, pulling open the hexagonal hatch. He saw its thickness, the layers of material that allowed it to fulfil its completely understandable, technically mundane function. Another hatch, twin to it, was directly opposite. The airlock was just a narrow space, only just large enough for two people. Vents lined its interior. They’d empty the atmosphere, allowing their pressurised suits to adjust, then the next door would be open and they’d be in the pod bay. In the vacuum. Only one more door between their fragile, human bodies and the cold, hard void of space…
Gilbert felt his hands shaking. He tried to get a grip on the handle next to him, tried to push himself forward into the airlock. He was already breathing the air supply from the suit. How much was in there? A few hours? Only a narrow plastic tube connected the pack on his back to his helmet. What if it came free? He’d suffocate in here and, as the oxygen deprivation addled his brain, he might lose his capacity for rational thought and tear off his helmet. It had been known to happen. Astronauts, encountering a minor problem like that, something their partner on the spacewalk could easily rectify, losing their minds and doing something crazy. In space, everything worked differently. There were different dangers. Terrifying dangers.
Tymoshenko was already in the airlock. She turned to him expectantly. He was breathing too fast. If he hyperventilated, would he use up his oxygen more quickly? “Professor? Are you all right?”
He tried to tell her he was fine, but his mouth was too dry. He couldn’t form words. All he could think about was the blackness of space, that cold, hateful abyss, that desert without an oasis. His thoughts turned to the fate all true astronauts feared: to be abandoned in the dark. To suffer the Long Death. Why had he come here? He just wanted to go home.
“Professor? If we don’t go now, we’ll miss our window of opportunity.” Tymoshenko looked bored and a little annoyed.
“I…I…” He felt his bladder slacken. His suit was designed for it, and the Lieutenant wouldn’t notice of course, but it didn’t make him feel any better about the situation. “Could you…could we wait a minute…I just…”
Her voice seemed to be coming from a very long way away. Was there a problem with the radio? His heart was beating very fast now. He felt sick. There must be something wrong with his visor too, because he could hardly see anything for all the black spots.
“My arm…my arm hurts…” he murmured. He lost his grip on the handle, and now he felt like he was falling…falling…falling…
Michael was neither surprised nor concerned when Professor Hoshi came and found him in the dining area. He was sitting alone at a corner table, looking over his tablet in preparation for what he had decided was the likely outcome of this situation. He looked up and nodded at the professor. “I assume you’re going to ask me to go on the spacewalk in Professor Gilbert’s place?”
She frowned at him. “How did you know someone would need to replace him?”
“I have observed Gilbert many times since our mission began, and prior to that back at the college of course, and I was aware of his extreme phobia about space travel. It was one of the reasons I suggested that I originally replace him wholesale on this excursion. Obviously I disagree with his theories as well, but he was clearly unsuited for this kind of work.”
“And you are suited, Mr Cohen?”
“I am neither suited nor unsuited. But if the work must be done, the best available individual should be asked to complete it.”
“Gilbert was the best available individual.”
“Cleary he wasn’t,” Michael said as he stood up. “I’ll go and put on a spacesuit. I doubt Professor Gilbert’s will be fit for reuse in the immediate future.” It was a simple statement of fact, but for some reason it made Hoshi quite angry. He’d never understand some people.
“You’re the first of the scientists who doesn’t seem freaked out by this,” Tymoshenko observed when they were in the pod.
“I’m not a scientist, not really. Just a student.”
“Maybe that’s it then,” she grunted, “a young mind. More adaptable. How old are you?”
“I wasn’t much more than that when I first went into space.” The pod was as modern as the Hawking, and rather spacious inside. The angled window in front of them filtered out any glare just like their visors, although Tethys was just a thin crescent in front of them as the bay doors slowly opened. Tymoshenko was in charge of the controls of course, and she guided them through the opening using a single burst of the thrusters. “This is the nicest pod I’ve ever piloted,” she said.
“I see.” Michael wasn’t really interested. The entire weight of his intellect was focused on the object. Some of the team had begun to call it Pi, like the corporate astronauts, but Michael refused to catalogue it properly until he knew what it should be called. He felt certain it would have a more appropriate designation in the language of the people that had built it. In the hours since it had lit up again and begun displaying those symbols, Michael had worked non-stop to expand his lexicon. He’d managed to get access to the main telescope and had studied the various symbols that flitted intermittently across the object very closely. He was close to having a working dictionary of a kind now. It was basic – simple nouns and verbs mostly – but he was confident he could interpret whatever the object told him now. It would take a few more leaps of inspiration, but those were quite familiar to him.
They floated across space towards their destination. Michael looked around with interest, noting how different space appeared when viewed with such immediacy. He couldn’t understand why Gilbert had found this so alarming. It was no different from being on board the ship. He was all too aware of the possibilities of something going wrong, but he trusted to the engineers who had fashioned their chariot of the void. He’d extensively reviewed the blueprints and design logs of the Hawking himself and was content with the protection it offered. Not that there wasn’t room for improvement, but that was a project for another day. They moved in on the base of the object. The plan was to set down just in front of the two pillars. They wouldn’t make the same mistake the crew of Little Orphan Annie had and land on the underside thinking it was the top.
“Readying magna-locks,” Tymoshenko said.
“I can see that,” Michael told her, “you don’t need to tell me what you’re doing.”
“All right,” she said. Was she upset too? What was wrong with these people?
They floated gently down to the object as Tymoshenko disengaged the thrusters so that their momentum would carry them into contact. There was a dull vibration through the pod as the magnetic clamps deployed and then fastened themselves to the object’s surface and then…
Gia sat bolt upright in bed, then let out a cry of pain as her head slammed into the ceiling of her tiny bunk-space. “Shit!” She clasped her hands to her head, forgetting everything for an instant. But then it all came back, and she unlocked the hatch and nearly fell out into the corridor. There were a few people standing around, including Kuar. He walked towards her with the loping steps required in Annie’s microgravity. “Sanchez. I’m glad you’re awake. We need to talk about…”
“No time,” she said, pushing past him. As she moved up the curved corridor, there were sounds from some of the other bunks. Well, that was to be expected. The Long Death loomed – what was left to do but enjoy the time that was left? No time to think about it now though. She dived through the hatch into the control room where she was unsurprised to find Peters standing there next to Captain Levitt, watching the screens. “Peters!”
“Gia?” He turned to her. “Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Did it wake you too?”
“The Pi! Something…something jolted and it woke me up.”
“What are you talking about?” Levitt asked her. “Pi woke you up? How?”
She peered over their shoulders at the screens. “What’s going on?”
“It’s the scientists on the other ship. They sent a pod to Pi, but something’s gone wrong.”
Levitt was looking at her strangely. He seemed to have recovered some of his aplomb while she’d been asleep. “Less than a minute ago, right before you barged in here. They landed the pod, but the magna-locks didn’t engage. The whole thing lit up like a thunderstorm and the pod was thrown clear. It’s floating freely in space now. We’re listening on their radio channels, and it looks like they’re going to try a rescue mission.” He snorted a laugh. They all knew how futile that would be.
“Who decided to let them try a spacewalk?” Gia demanded.
Peters gave her a strange look. “Let them? This is their mission now. We can’t tell them what to do.”
“No…no that’s all wrong. Pi…it’s not just a computer. It…it spoke to me…” She was aware of how bizarre that sounded, but she also knew it was true.
“What the fuck are you talking about, Sanchez?” Levitt asked her. There was an unpleasant snarl in his voice. She wondered what the crew had been talking about since she went to her bunk.
“I don’t know how to explain it. I thought it was a dream at first but I think…I think it’s communicating with me in my subconscious. Telepathically. I don’t know.”
“Do you know how crazy that sounds?” Peters said in a low voice.
“Yes I do. But, listen, it said it had calibrated itself to me. It’s waiting for me. It called itself the Bridge. It talked about…translocation or something, and it kept asking me for a destination. It wants me to go back there. I have to finish off some kind of process. I don’t know what but I think…I think it could take us home. We just have to tell it how to do it.”
Levitt put his hands on his hips. “Sanchez, this is nuts.”
“Gia,” Peters said, putting a hand on her shoulder, “we’ve been through a lot recently. We’re still going through a lot. Everyone’s dealing with the Long Death differently. But to act like this…object…could save us…”
She pushed his hand away. “We don’t even know what this object is. You have to let me go back. I have to try.”
Levitt pointed at the screen. “Right now, there’s bigger problems.” The Hawking’s pod was floating away from Pi, trailing a plume of oxygen. It looked quite heavily damaged. On another camera, zoomed in closer, the pilot was visible, slumped over at the controls. The other seat was empty.
“Why did they go on a lone EVO?” Gia asked, “That’s suicide.”
“The other one managed to get out,” Peters said grimly, “he’s down there on Pi, clinging on for dear life. By the sound of the radio chatter, he’s one of the scientists. Cohen or something.”
“Never heard of him,” she shrugged.
“Well he’s a goner now whoever he is. Pi’s giving off all kinds of radiation. It might give him a shock too, and then he’ll go cartwheeling off into space and that’ll be that.”
“They have another pod, don’t they?” she said.
“Sure, but they need to get two crew suited up in time, then start doing some quick trajectory calculations. They’ve got no chance. This is what happens when you send amateurs into space.” Peters was shaking his head sadly, and Levitt just snorted derisively.
“Well we’re closer. We have a pod too, and our suits aren’t nearly so sophisticated.” Gia was already heading out of the hatch.
“You’re going to save that egghead?” Peters was staring at her in disbelief.
“No, I’m going back to Pi to finish what I started. This is just the excuse I’m using. Is that okay with you?”
“Yeah. I’m coming with you though.”
“I assumed you would.”
They moved quickly down the corridor. The storage cubby with the spacesuits was on the way to the pod bay, but Kuar and his cronies barred their way by the bunks. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, squaring his shoulders and folding his arms.
“Out of the way, Kuar,” Gia said.
“I don’t think so. We’ve been talking, and…”
In the low gravity, punches were quite difficult to execute, but Gia had grown up in the slums of the West Coast Metropolis and was a veteran of the terrible Second Syrian War. She was a very adaptable fighter. Kuar was a slim, refined-looking Indian, and he looked like he’d never been in a fight in his life. He never saw her left hook coming and went down like a felled tree. Everyone stared at her in stunned silence. Peters looked impressed. “When I get back, we can go over all this in detail,” she said to his unconscious form, “but right now I have a pod to catch.” She stepped over him and threw herself through the hatch. Peters followed her with a bemused expression on his face.
The grips on his gloves were insufficient for the task. Michael was fully aware of this, and somewhere in the back of his mind a thousand calculations were whirring away, weighing up his odds of survival, deciding the best course of action. There was still a dispassionate Michael Cohen in there somewhere who knew exactly what he should do but, for the first time in his life, the Michael Cohen that was connected to his flawed, primate body was in control. He screamed down the radio. “Help me! Help me!”
“Michael, try to stay calm,” Hoshi’s voice told him. She didn’t sound calm at all. Michael knew that. Michael was an expert on reading people’s voices and expressions, even if he had no idea what to do with that knowledge. The panic he could hear in Professor Hoshi’s voice, the little tremors in her usually measured cadence, only intensified his desperation. He clawed helplessly at the smooth, unyielding surface of the object, barely even noticing the flashes of light that accompanied his contact with it. “Captain Vysotsky is working on a plan to save you. We just need to get the other pod out, but it’s going to take some time. We have to prepare everything or we could lose two more people. You understand that, don’t you? You understand that we have to be logical about this.”
He did. Of course he did. EVOs were not made lightly. So many risks had to be weighed. If they just shot another pod out towards him, if there wasn’t enough oxygen or fuel, if they got the trajectory wrong, if they put on their suits without going through the proper safety checks, they’d be condemning two others to death. This was space. Space was all about difficult decisions. But…but… “Help me! Please! Just send someone to help me!”
He was losing his grip. Suddenly, for one hideous moment, everything turned around, and he perceived himself as hanging from beneath a huge ceiling instead of clinging to a relatively safe floor. He was an insect, clinging desperately, alone with nothing but a thin membrane of fabric protecting him from the vacuum of space.
“Michael, your heart rate is getting too high. You’ll use more oxygen unless you calm down. It’s going to take us at least an hour before…”
“An hour?!” They had to be kidding. This must be one of those jokes he never understood. He always struggled with sarcasm. But he knew no one would try to be humorous at a time like this, not unless they were sadists. Was Hoshi a sadist? How would he know? How did anyone know anything about anyone else? It was all so confusing sometimes…
“You’re not going anywhere, Michael,” she told him, “you won’t leave the object as long as you keep your hands where they are. If you stay calm, conserve your oxygen and wait for us to save you, everything will be fine. Do you understand, Michael? Just hold on.”
“I…I understand…” She was lying, he was sure of it. He was acutely aware of an odd sensation of warmth beneath him. It was coming from the object. It also seemed to be getting brighter too. The longer he stayed in physical contact with it like this, the more agitated it seemed to become. It was vibrating. It had been quite subtle to start with, but now it was unmistakable. It was almost buzzing at him, and the reverberations were causing a ringing in his ears. It was profoundly disturbing. He felt, for just a moment, like he could discern meaning in the noise. Were those words? Impossible…
“Incorrect biopattern,” a woman’s voice murmured, just on the edge of hearing. “Preparing to reject.” He felt the warmth beneath him grow.
“It’s okay.” Another voice now, one he didn’t recognise. An American woman.
“My name’s Gia. I’m from the Annie.”
Her voice was coming through his radio. She wasn’t really there. What was going on? “What do you want?”
“We’re on our way over to you, in our pod.”
“You…you can’t…it’s too dangerous.” Suddenly, he didn’t want this woman to save him. He didn’t want to be at her mercy, but he couldn’t say why.
“We’re already dead,” a man’s voice said. Another American.
“How can I hear you?”
“We patched in to your signal,” Gia said, “that hysterical friend of yours on the ship wasn’t helping much.”
“You’ll get in trouble…”
The man chuckled now. “I told you, kid, we’re already dead.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Long Death. Didn’t they teach you anything in your training?”
“But…” It made sense of course. Their ship had been forced to wait here for them. Of course that would condemn them to death. Michael realised he’d known that already, but he just assumed they’d willingly made that sacrifice in the cause of scientific inquiry. But now he was lying here, spread-eagled on the object, facing the reality of death in the black, and it didn’t seem like such an easy choice. Why hadn’t the Hawking brought more supplies for them? It seemed impossibly cruel.
He felt another vibration from the object, but of a different kind now. It was the other pod touching down. For some reason there was no reaction this time, no lashing out from the huge device. He wondered why that would be. It could have been seconds, minutes or hours later when he felt four strong hands gripping him and lifting him slowly to his feet. He almost lost his balance there, and his stomach flipped a somersault as he began to float into space, free… But they held him. Two figures in old-style spacesuits, not at all like his modern form-fitting type. He could make out their faces behind their visors. The man, square-jawed, rugged, bald. And she… He stared at her. She was bald too, of course. These were real astronauts. But she was still astonishingly beautiful. She had full, pouting lips, high, sculpted cheekbones, skin the colour of caramel, piercing dark eyes. He’d never felt anything like the jolt coursing through his gut as she met his gaze. He blushed fiercely and looked away immediately.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yes. Yes, thank you. I’d like…I’d like to go home now please…”
“So would I,” she said, and there was a tone in her voice that he couldn’t identify. She ached for something, for someone, and he knew somehow it wouldn’t ever be him.
He realised then where he recognised her name from. She was the one who’d been on the first spacewalk, the one who’d woken up the object. “It’s waiting for you,” he said, suddenly. It was a totally illogical thing to say. He just wanted them to take him back to the Hawking where he’d be safe again, but all capacity for logic seemed to have left him now.
“I know,” she replied. “I would have explained if I’d known in time, but you were already here.”
“Gia,” the man – it must be Peters, the other one from the first spacewalk – said. “We should go back.”
“No, I have to finish what I started.” She let go of Michael and started walking towards the columns. They were displaying the same five symbols as before now, the last one fading in and out of view slowly. She and Peters were connected to their pod by long cables, but now she unclipped it from her belt and let herself float slowly forward. The sight of her releasing herself made Michael feel ill. Peters didn’t loosen his grip on him, for which he was profoundly grateful.
“Gia, think about this.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
“She’s right,” Michael said, “she has to complete the process. The object won’t work properly until she does.”
“The Bridge,” she said absently.
“Yes,” he nodded. It felt right. “The symbols say you need to finish this.”
She turned abruptly and nearly lost her footing, but managed to keep her grip with her boots. “You can read the symbols?”
“I…yes…yes I think so…” He didn’t feel nearly so sure of himself underneath her inscrutable stare, but he so wanted to help her in that moment.
“I need it to take me home.”
“I think I know how to do that.” He’d begun to guess the object’s purpose the more he studied the symbols and built his dictionary, but he hadn’t wanted to hazard any wild hypotheses.
“Gia!” Peters shouted. “This is madness!”
“I have to get home,” she said grimly.
“You have…you have to activate it first,” Michael explained, “with your hand.”
“Yes.” Gia lifted her hand up as she turned back and bobbed closer to the leftmost column. The lights that matched her fingers appeared at just the right height again. She hesitated for a second, then pushed herself forward. Her gloved hand made contact with the smooth surface of the tall column, and immediately two pulses of light began to move up and down both of the pillars. Michael stared as, between them, a barely-visible crackle of energy began to curl itself into a vortex. He saw straight away what it was. “A gateway,” he breathed.
“A Bridge,” Gia confirmed. She took her hand away and stepped back gingerly.
“A passage across the stars. Some kind of wormhole perhaps?” Michael couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“Wormholes are unstable though,” Peters said. His grip was still firm on Michael’s shoulder. He seemed very tense, like he was holding onto him for some other reason. “Matter can’t travel through them. That’s astrophysics 101.”
“What do I do now?” Gia asked, turning to him.
“The symbols, there.” He pointed at her feet. A network of symbols had lit up there, all different. “They’re…preset destinations, I think.”
“It told me it didn’t have Earth in its databanks.”
“This was built tens of thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of years ago. Their term would have been different. I think…I think…” He moved forward as far as Peters’s grip would allow and pointed at one of the symbols. “This one, it’s made up of two pictographs. The one there means ‘sleep’, or ‘rest’. But that other one, the one changing colour, it’s the prefix that denotes some kind of location. I think the colours mean it’s happening in the past.”
“So it means bed?” Peters asked.
“Not exactly. A place to sleep, in the past. Or, in the beginning. Yes, that fits. Going from purple to red like that. Purple denotes abstract, red denotes something in the physical world. It means a change from idea to reality, in the past. ‘Beginning’.”
“Or ‘birth’,” Gia said. “It means ‘cradle’, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. That’s exactly it.” Michael’s eyes were wide.
“Then that’s Earth.” She stepped onto the symbol.
“Gia, wait!” Peters lunged forward, and Michael was nearly thrown off his feet. He managed to steady himself on the larger man, and in doing so was able to hold him back. They both stared open-mouthed as the vortex between the pillars began to glow with a furious light, and then slowly turn. It was drawing energy from the object – the Bridge – which was now glowing like the sun. Their visors automatically adjusted, but they still had to squint to make out Gia. She was standing, arms raised, wreathed in spectral energy. She began to glow too, as if lit from within and then, in a burst of light, every atom in her body was annihilated.
“GIA!” Peters bellowed.
Michael stumbled and fell down to his knees. He was dimly aware of a great surge of energy ahead of him, of a blast of impossible light, of space being moulded around him as something burrowed its way through the fabric of reality. His hands were braced against the surface of the Bridge. He could feel the vibrations coursing through him, and the calm female voice was back again, only just audible.
“Biopattern stored,” it said, “matter-energy conversion complete. Warning: unexpected emotional state encountered. Please reattempt translocation. Data may have been lost. Risk of incorrect psychological recombination. Please reattempt translocation.”