Eighteen hours between sessions.
Louise chops her time into regimented pieces. It’s the same cycle each day, or as close as she can make it: she wakes up after six hours of sleep; wolfs down breakfast (and more importantly, coffee) while poring over the latest transmissions from the other outposts; hurries into the decontamination suits with Ian by her side; runs the latest language session with the Heptapods; returns with a stack of symbols to decrypt and plug into the translator and wait.
Wash, rinse, and repeat.
“You need a full night’s sleep,” Ian finally tells her when he finds her slumped at her desk, arm outstretched over the pile of papers, ink bleeding into her palm, head cushioned in the crook of her elbow.
“No, it’s fine.” She scrubs at her face. There are hollows beneath her eyes and her hair is lank and straw-like, ruined from so many chemical showers. Her skin smells like bleach.
Ian looks skeptical. “Far be it from me to doubt your judgment, but seriously—you do need to sleep sometime, Louise. Can’t save the world if you’re on the verge of a nervous collapse.”
“I don’t think it’s exaggeration to say that this is possibly the most important period in… in the entire history of the human race. I’m not missing any of it.” She’s stubborn and her words fall over themselves in a muddled rush. Normally Louise’s voice is crisp and precise, a perfect offset to Ian’s lazy drawl; but the less she sleeps, the more untethered her voice becomes, the more she feels her mind drift loose, fraying with exhaustion.
It isn’t until the doctor himself measures her fluttering heart-rate, asks her about work-induced insomnia, and frowns over her latest bloodwork, that she admits her counterpart might have a point.
Ian talks her into having a drink with him. The military soldiers surrounding them these days are stiff-jawed and sober, the entire facility a dry one, but somehow he successfully snuck in a few beers anyway. Carried the six-pack cradled in his fingertips out into the field, until they’re alone in the shadow of the sphere, sitting in the bed of a truck.
(Privacy is impossible at the base, but going outdoors is the way to do it. Others don’t like standing beneath the sphere; the human mind recoils at having something so huge and ineffable hovering overhead, like an anvil about to drop, a painfully visible anomaly. Like a glitch in the fabric of the universe. But Ian’s noticed that neither he nor Louise seem to mind anymore. It just sits there, an anchor, reminding them of what they have to do.)
She generally doesn’t like beer—she’s a wine girl at heart—but in the interests of remembering how to relax, she makes an exception this time. It instantly makes her drowsy, and she finds herself resting her head against Ian’s shoulder, drifting off before she’s realised it.
She sleeps better that night than she has in weeks.
Deified is a palindrome.
So is semes; the plural of the smallest unit of meaning recognised in semantics.
Tenet. A belief or principle.
Xanax, which her psychiatrist prescribes after the death of her daughter.
She didn’t even realise she’d dozed off. The room is dim and the cot is uncomfortable, its metal frame digging into her shoulder, but she hardly noticed. The operations room is abandoned in the dead of night, with just a few computer screens still on, and Ian’s face is bathed by their anemic blue light. His glasses are off; he’s tossed them onto the desk, his hand pinching the bridge of his nose instead.
She wonders if he’s getting the headaches, too.
“I think so,” Louise says. Sliding her legs off the cot, she bends over for a moment, trying to regather her thoughts. Trying to remember what she was thinking about before she fell asleep and lost it. There’s an oversized analog clock hanging on the wall next to the cot; she’s attached tape to the points where their session time always lands. Three sets of of six hours. It’s funny, how it breaks down so neatly. It’s like there’s a deeper purpose behind it.
Or maybe she just isn’t getting enough sleep.
Louise finally looks up. “How are you doing on those equations?”
Ian’s hand rotates back and forth, the wordless gesture for ehh, I dunno. She finds herself fascinated by this fact: I understood that, Louise tells herself. My eyes parsed that movement and understood the meaning without him even saying a single word. It relies on us both having hands, and yet not all cultures attach the same meaning to that specific gesture. How astounding. How miraculous.
She realises a moment later that her eyes have gone distant and distracted, and that if he said something more, she missed it entirely. “Come again?”
“Get some more rest,” he says.
She’s growing used to falling asleep to the comforting sound of his pen rapping against the notepad as he works through a problem; she’s growing used to seeing him when she wakes.
She thinks she remembers the smell of Ian’s shirt, the feeling of her fingers combing through his hair, and his lips against her skin.
But surely that’s not real.
During these late nights, she finds her hands worrying against her ring finger and the empty space there, the space that has never held a wedding ring. It feels like it should have, though.
Wedding rings. Those are circles, too.
Funny how it all comes back to that.
Louise is starting to see it everywhere. In the whorls of her fingerprints, in the growth rings of trees, in the eye of a hurricane: she starts to wonder if spheres have been encoded in their surroundings all along and somehow they all just missed it.
Ian’s bedside light is still on; rolling over, she sees that her husband is up late reading, as he usually is. He sometimes falls asleep like that, with his glasses still perched on his face, snoring with a book splayed open on his chest. Every single time, she thinks it’s sweet.
“Just memories, I think,” Louise exhales, as she shifts in their bed and wriggles closer for warmth, and
and realises that they don’t own a house together, and this must all be a dream, and so—
She wakes up to a barren, empty room on the military base, all stark grey and regulation, the only personal objects being her folded clothes on the nearby chair. There’s a rapping at the door. For a fleeting second, she can’t remember what day it is, what year.
Her right hand goes to the left, a fleeting brush against her ring finger.
One morning when they’re standing on the agonisingly slow lift and waiting to rise up into the alien spacecraft, she catches Ian’s hand without thinking—because it feels as if it’s something they’ve done a thousand times before, as if seeking comfort from him is only natural.
A moment later she remembers the truth (he’s just some scientist, he’s just on assignment with her, they’re practically strangers, oh lord, what have I done), but then he squeezes her hand back. His thumb jots against her lifeline. Her pulse is rattling in her throat so loudly she’s amazed the rest of the team can’t hear it.
Time spins and compresses until it feels like they’ve always lived here, in the shadow of the sphere, surrounded by fluttering sheafs of paper and inkstained diagrams and sickly blue computer screens and the sound of Ian’s gravelly laugh. It’s some kind of endless limbo: long hours of busy silence punctuated by frenetic activity and trying to jot down as much sheer data as they can, living by the chatter of voices and foreign languages in the comms room.
“It reminds me of the tower of Babel,” Louise says quietly, one night.
He laughs again. “Let’s hope ours doesn’t end as badly as that, yeah?”
Ian is there with his pen and his notebook and his chickenscratch again. By now, even sleeping doesn’t feel quite right unless he’s in the room with her; their superiors at the base have grown accustomed to the pair constantly striding down the halls side-by-side, Louise-and-Ian, Ian-and-Louise.
They keep working. Louise chops their time into regimented pieces: eighteen hours between sessions.