The impact drove the breath from her and for some moments the only thing she was capable of doing was gaping. Her body clawed for breath and her fingernails tore in the dirt below her until she was able to take her first, ragged breath.
She lay there, taking rasping, greedy gulps of air for a minute or so more. Behind her, the light in the middle of the Gate dwindled to a spark and then, without any fanfare, winked out of existence.
Alisha’s lungs gradually realised that there was nothing hindering them anymore and her body calmed. Her ankle throbbed in time to her heartbeat but she made no effort to get up, safe in the knowledge that there would be nobody following her through till the portal had recharged. As it could take anywhere between a few days and a week, she knew that she had time.
The stars littering the sky above her were different; the patterns and lines she was so used to seeing were warped or changed entirely. There would be time to figure out the new sky in the weeks and months ahead of her though so, for now, she simply admired them. So different yet still possessing the same ethereal beauty. Unfortunately, their allure would have to wait; she had work to do.
“Get up, Haleson,” she told herself sternly. She rocked herself up into a sitting position and looked around. Her bags were scattered in the clearing but they were mostly intact. One had exploded on impact but it appeared to be one containing clothing and that was easily collected. Her arrival had been very different to previous times - no calm stepping through from dimension to dimension.
There was a rustling in the bushes and Alisha vaulted to her feet, drawing a blade from her belt in one smooth motion. A long-toothed rodent darted out from between the blue-tinged leaves chasing an insect and, after a moment of alert scanning of the environment, she relaxed her combat stance. There shouldn’t be any trouble in this area but there was always the chance that predators would come to investigate the Gate’s energy signature. Animals here were surprisingly sensitive to it and the spike caused by her arrival had drawn curious eyes in the past.
It wasn’t far from the Gate to the shelter that she’d spent months preparing - just shy of half a day’s walk. Her trips back and forth had been under the cover of scientific exploration and, while she had indeed managed to harvest countless samples and bioscan great swathes of terrain, she’d also managed to create a fairly well-stocked and secure shelter in an extensive cave system. She’d been careful to bring back data from areas around it but none that were too close. Consequently, those hunting her would have no prior knowledge of the land or the dangers that would await them should they made it through.
She’d known that CrathCorp would figure her plan out eventually but, still, she could have done with a little more time to prepare. Alisha thought regretfully of the lab equipment she’d been hoping to smuggle on the next trip. She thought too of the half-finished calculations that had given her away. She’d need to try to remember them later. Still, she’d been lucky to get the generator materials finished last trip - at least there would be electricity when it was assembled. The requisitions officer had been suspicious in the first few trips (he’d argued that duvets from home were non-essential) but had become accustomed to Alisha’s strange packing choices. There had been perks to the trust and respect her position had afforded her.
Her ankle flared with pain at every step she took. Two hours before reaching the caves, she had to stop to bandage it. The blood wasn’t gushing but any evidence she left could be used to track her and a bloody trail would be laughably easy to follow. It seemed that one of the bullets fired at her as she leapt from the platform into the swirling blue abyss had grazed her. She supposed she had been lucky that it hadn’t been more of a direct hit; her medical supplies here weren’t terrible but she didn’t have the expertise to perform surgery on herself.
She’d had worse injuries in her life though and, tightening the gauze, she continued her hike. It took her a little longer to traverse the pitfalls leading to it - including sinkholes lightly covered with foliage and strings of poisonous vines that she’d hoisted between trees - than usual. Her extra luggage, both hastily assembled from what she had nearby in her lab and pre-packed carefully for this exact scenario, slowed her down more than the damaged ankle.
The first view of her haven relaxed her though. There was no sign that it had been disturbed in the three weeks she’d been absent and she slid to the ground in front of it in relief. There was a complicated route from the mouth of the cave to her inner sanctum that required some amount of focus and she needed a moment before attempting it.
Voices echoed in her head as she replayed the hours leading up to her mad dash to this dimension. Sounds of betrayal from those who considered her friend, outrage from those who had employed her for information she’d withheld and fear from those who had been in her way. Alisha sighed heavily. She wasn’t proud of the things she’d done to reach this point but it had been necessary. They had made it necessary.
She allowed herself a moment to reflect on the losses she’d inflicted and suffered and then steeled herself.
Entering the caves was something not to be attempted if fatigued or distracted. She’d dedicated a significant amount of time making sure that the entrance to her would-be home was secure and a wrong step would activate a rockfall that would block off the tunnel and probably crush the trespasser. Human trespassers. Noxious smelling plants surrounded the mouth of the cave and repelled animal visitors, which is how Alisha had found it in the first place. Back home on Earth, these leaves could be synthesised into a powerful anesthetic and she had been looking for a larger supply. What she’d found, though, had been much more valuable.
The cave system was vast and sprawling. It had a natural spring in one of the caverns that was clear and sweet. One chamber had an unseen heat source that kept it warm all day long and another was so large that Alisha could have fit the entire CrathCorp building inside with room to spare. It was deep underground, too, so although there was quite a lot of walking involved, it was as secure as she could have hoped. The only thing it was missing was a food source. And Alisha’s friends and family. The ache of loss was a physical weight for her.
Months of trips meant that Alisha had been able to begin the process of domesticating her shelter and the sight of her workbench was welcome as she turned the corner into the first ‘room’. She dropped her bags and fished out the new battery from a backpack. Inserting it into her computer brought the display to life and she perched on a rocky ledge to properly examine the image.
A perfectly rendered model of the Gate hovered above the projector node, spinning slowly. Dark stone, arranged in concentric circles, encased the hollow void in the centre. As Alisha watched, the computer created a perfect rendition of the portal singing to life, blue light filling the space. It grew brighter and brighter until it spat out the single passenger that could travel through at any one time before fading away to leave only stone once more. Alisha had an advantage in that her pursuers could only come through individually and none knew the terrain like she did. But she knew who they would send and the small advantage she had seemed insignificant in the face of that.
The quickest the portal had ever recharged was three days and it had sometimes needed a full week. As she’d spent half a day already, she had to move quickly. If she was going to find a way to disable the Gate, she had to figure it out in less than two days or risk having to deal with those sent to apprehend her.
Her team had been told that they were investigating and exploring this world for scientific gain and she had certainly seen her fair share of benefits from the world. Medicines had been found here that had cured many on Earth and Alisha herself had found the natural resource that had been the key to a major advance in renewable energy. However, it hadn’t taken her long to discover CrathCorp’s contract with the government, where they planned to use this as an off-world internment camp. It was a perfect spot, free from the laws that dictated prisoner rights and the prying eyes of Earth’s media. The horrors that they had planned were beyond what Alisha had realised mankind were capable of. The manager who had confided in her with pride and excitement at their company’s ingenuity was lying on his office floor now, sightless eyes clouded over. He’d tried to stop her entering the Gate room.
She knew that disabling the portal from this side was the only way to ensure its permanent closure and she’d resigned herself to her life of exile but, when she allowed herself a quiet moment, the promise of endless loneliness left a bitter taste in her mouth.
The hours trickled away and she took breaks only for the essentials. Enough food to fuel her, short bursts of sleep to refresh and the necessary comfort breaks only.
It was at the end of the second day that she figured it out. Equations, some started on Earth and some newly discovered, were scrawled on the walls in chalk: a graffiti testament to her intelligence. A quietly triumphant laugh escaped her, the first sound she had made since arriving. Alisha stretched and listened to the pop of joints releasing from hours of inaction. Checking the timer, she was pleased to find that she had nearly eighteen hours left before the portal was likely to become live again. Enough time to rest then.
She deliberated for a moment and then made her way to the heated cavern. Inside, she’d fashioned a bed out of a heather-like plant and topped it with a faded comforter that she’d first had on her bed as a girl back in Bristol. She set an alarm for two hours and settled in but found that her brain wouldn’t quiet.
Locking the portal would stop CrathCorp. She knew they would try to undo it but Alisha was one of the top scientists in the world; she was confident that she’d be able to keep it closed. But locking it would also isolate her for the rest of life. She would never again hold her baby niece or poke fun at her father’s inability to pronounce ‘hors d’oeuvres’. She would be trapped here, her survival dependent on her wits and the few pieces of technology she’d managed to squirrel away. A tear escaped her and she wiped it away furiously. These decisions had been made already. There hadn’t even been much of a choice. How could she choose any other way? What was one life against the many that CrathCorp were planning on destroying?
Alisha lent over and flicked the switch on the nightlight that she’d had since she was eight years old. Smuggling it in had been a mess of excuses but she was glad she’d done it. Running the batteries was a luxury that she probably couldn’t afford but she needed the comfort. Above her, speckled on the ceiling of the place that she would call home shone hundreds of stars. She recalled her mother pointing out the constellations on her bedroom ceiling all those years ago and she remembered how different the stars outside the cave were.
In two hours, she would get up and make her way to the Gate. In ten hours, she would seal it for good. In ten hours and fifteen minutes, she would stand in the clearing, overshadowed by imposing stone circles, and know that she was completely and irreversibly alone.
But for now she looked at the stars from home, wrapped in her childhood duvet and remembered the soothing sound of her mother’s voice.