'We're calling it the streamcode,' said Miles as he passed a printout to Geek, who read it and passed it to Archer, who took it and read the words himself.
Miles continued, 'This streamcode has been looping for three weeks, like I said. The numbers at the end are the coordinates of Ascension but, does any of the rest of it make any sense?'
Archer handed the paper to Davey and shook his head. 'I've no idea what any of this means. What about you guys?'
The two of them stared blankly back at him.
'Funny thing is,' said Miles, his gaze seeming to diffuse absently into the distance, as though he was trying to understand the implications of what he was saying. 'As soon as your VTOL entered Ascension airspace, the sphere stopped speaking to us.'
Goddard spoke up, 'So we can only hope that now the Few are here, it'll move into the next phase of its communication.’
Miles was still looking absently over Archer's shoulder, but then Archer realised he was actually focussed on the sphere behind him. 'Erm, I think it's already started.'
They all looked in the direction of Miles's gaze, at the black rectangular hole which now existed where the door once was. The entrance had appeared so silently that the armed guards who stood sentry in front of it hadn't even noticed.
Geek was peering into the gaping black entrance, but he quickly turned to the others and said, 'Who's volunteering?'
Davey laughed nervously, 'Not you then I guess.'
Archer stepped forward and looked inside. 'Get me a torch.'
Miles put a hand on Archer's arm. 'Do want a soldier to go with you? One with a big gun?'
Archer considered the possibility of a gung-ho approach for a moment, 'Whatever this thing is, I don't think we want to antagonise it, do you? If it’s been asking for us, then I hardly think it's going to wipe me out at its first opportunity.'
Miles nodded. ‘Fair point.’
The bottom of the entrance was at knee height so it only required a high step for Archer to climb into it. He took the torch that was held out to him by the soldier with the gun, and turned towards the hole beyond. 'Don't wait up.'
And with that he swung the beam of light to illuminate the way ahead.
Which was actually not all that far. The smooth featureless metallic walls continued a mere ten metres along a corridor before terminating. The way forward was blocked by another wall. Archer's thoughts were now enveloped in the concept of whether the sphere was a spacecraft, spherical and perfectly aerodynamic in any direction, or some other unknown contraption.
He stepped forward. Set into the wall at the end of the corridor was a small dark rectangle at head height that could have been a viewing port. Archer made his way towards it and put his eyes to the rectangle. He switched off the torch at his waist to remove any glare.
At first he saw nothing but black through the small window. But as his eyes adjusted to the purity of the darkness he began to realise that he was looking into the entirety of the hollow sphere. There was nothing specifically tangible about that feeling, as he had no sensory information to back it up. But instinct created and reinforced the sensation of an expanse nonetheless.
Then he saw something, seemingly floating in the centre of the artificial cavern. He stared at it for a few moments before understanding what it was. Two small clamps holding between them what looked like a thick piece of wire; a filament. It was difficult to assess the size of the objects given his lack of a frame of reference, but he would have guessed that the whole unit was no more than a couple of metres across, and about half a kilometre away in the centre of the room.
The unit flashed, as though it was now aware that it had a spectator. The filament seemed to ignite to momentarily light up the large room which curved downwards and upwards in equal measures. With this change in state came images, painted on the wide concave inner walls of the sphere. Somehow Archer saw them all, as though those same images had also been engraved onto a part of his brain, scoring images into his mind like hieroglyphics in stone. And with each piece of the carving he began to understand. Invaded with information before the darkness returned, his brain seemed to burn with heat and he stumbled back. Backwards along the rumbling, trembling corridor, towards the entrance of the sphere. Backward into the arms of his father and Davey, who caught him as he stumbled over the lip of the doorway. The last thing he heard before passing out was the armed guard yelling "AVALANCHE!"
Daylight streamed in through the mosquito blinds on the windows when Archer opened his eyes. It took him a few moments to realise he was not in London. No. He was on Ascension; on a bottom bunk bed in a sparsely furnished room in the army barracks. His father was sitting in the chair opposite the bed. The older man was holding a mobile phone. When he saw Archer looking at him he started to send a text. 'I'm telling them you're awake.'
'I saw something,' said Archer.
'What did you see?'
'Something terrible. Another life. Other lives. On the walls. I saw other versions of me.'
Goddard nodded, 'Geek's been looking at the sphere. He saw a device in the centre. No doubt you saw it too. He's been working with the Techipre scientists to try and figure out what it is.’
'I saw things that never happened.'
'Right after your adventure last night that binary light started up again.'
Archer sat up. 'The sphere is communicating again? The same streamcode?'
Goddard stood and walked over to the bed. 'Not the same streamcode. No. A new one.'
Archer rubbed his eyes. 'One of the things I saw was us alone.'
'Dad we were alone, standing at Mum’s grave. Mum was dead. She’d died in childbirth. She lost too much blood. It devastated you.'
Goddard smiled thinly, apologetically. 'I can assure you she's absolutely fine.'
'And I hated you. I felt the hate. Why would I hate you?'
Goddard rested a soft hand on Archer's shoulder. 'You're the best son a man could ever ask for. I could never imagine a world where you hated me. I think it would destroy me if we weren't the greatest of friends.'
Archer nodded, acknowledging the sincerity in his father's eyes. 'I saw other things too. Versions of my life where Louise wasn't with me. It made no sense. It would kill me if I lost her.'
'Then when we return to London, you must secure that. You must make sure you ask her.'
Archer felt a flutter in his chest. Was it the sickness and excitement of love and lust germinating there? Had those emotions been magnified by his experience in the sphere? 'I wish she was here.'
'Do you want me to call ahead to Tiffany’s Jewellers? Book an appointment?'
Archer nodded. 'I feel that loss so palpably. The loss of Louise in those images, even though it didn't happen. It's like a strong dream. You know how they can really... really affect you?'
'Especially if you're close to waking.'
'Why would that thing out there show me those images?'
'I don't know.'
'When I was at school, back in Brighton, there was this girl I had a crush on, and so did quite a few other boys in my class. She was beautiful, but out of my league. One night I dreamed that I kissed her. I kissed her through a gap in a chain link fence. And there was something about the memory of that kiss, superimposed onto her from the reality of some other kiss I'd had, that hollowed me out. For the whole of the following day I felt this profound sense of loss. I had experienced something so vividly in my head. Knowing the dream would just have to do, because I would never get to experience kissing her in real life. Funny thing is, that dream was probably more vivid than any reality that might have moved in to replace it.'
'Don't dwell on things that haven't happened, Archer. Perhaps you're learning the consequences of not seizing the moment. Come on, let's get back to the site.'