At CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, this machine is smashing apart particles in order to discover their constituent parts and the quantum laws that govern their behaviour.
In the abyss of her disoriented consciousness, she awoke, ensnared within the confines of a steel chamber. The echoes of her own ragged breaths drilled through the air, her body trembling as she tried to recollect how she got here.
Her hands grazed the slick walls, searching for any discernible clue, but she found nothing. The metallic surface beneath her fingertips remained as unforgiving as her fragmented memories. The taste of rust lingered in the air, the biting cold painful against her skin.
She pressed onward, her bare feet tracing the wall-floor joint as they guided her. Her outstretched hand finally found an irregularity in the wall. As she pressed her finger into the void, a sickly sound of blades hitting one another, exacted its gruesome toll. A swift, unforgiving slice severed the tip of her finger.
Her agonising cry was swiftly drowned out by the sound of the walls moving closer, forcing her forward and down into a tunnel. It came alive with the sound of quickening cogs. She could feel the vibrations beneath her feet, an unsettling, rhythmic pulsation. Then she seemed to be jolted left-ways with force. It took her a few moments to realise she was tumbling sideways. Left like a doll bouncing around in the dryer, she grew more disoriented with each moment.
The tunnel came to a slow halt. Before she could get her bearings, the earth seemed to disappear beneath her. Thud. This room smelled like an old butcher's freezer. She could reach out an arms length in every direction but could discern no exit. Desperate from thirst, she let the icicles on the ceiling drip into her dry mouth. She had no other word for the taste than dirty.
She had no way of gauging time passing and had slipped into a light sleep. Melted ice beneath her turned into a small pool, fearing she had soiled herself, woke with a start.
The wet clothes clung to her in a way no one would ever want to be touched. She kicked out her legs in disgust, which would turn out to be her salvation from this room at least. Beneath her ankle laid another small hole, this time the width of her large toe. Learning her lesson from before, she broke off a small piece of icicle. Her fingers wrinkly and trembling, inserted the ice into the hole - she would offer no offering of herself this time.
No blades - just a crunch. If you’d ever heard a bone in vice, this was eerily similar. A hole appeared in the far end of the room, big enough for her to stand up in. She could smell fresh air, inviting and warm, from above. She stretched out her weak soggy arms and at her elbows, she could feel flaking paint against aged splintered timber. Mustering any strength she had left, she pulled just enough that she could reach a higher rung. After a few attempts she could finally get her knees on the lowest rung. It felt like salt and grain against her skin.
She was desperate for rest, but there was nowhere to stop. She could only climb, one rung to the next. She counted soberly under her breath, “99, 100, 101…” How high could this be? “The average house ladder has only 10 steps,” she thought to herself. If she let her limbs give way now, the fall would certainly kill her. She was at least 100 feet upward from the ice room.
She reached for the next rung and felt a round, spoked, wheel instead. Turning it with one hand, the latch lifted with a creaking groan. She left out a hefty sigh and launched herself onto the cracked desert floor. She couldn’t help but laugh, thinking that her plight was finally over. The dry air threatened to choke her, but out in the open was better than inside that cage.
Lying there for a while, she allowed her strength to gradually seep back into her aching body. The blistering heat of the artificial light above her began to scorch her exposed skin, urging her to rise. With her hands and feet scraping across the unforgiving ground, she reached a small, rocky hill. She clawed her way up its uneven surface, driven by a futile hope of escape.
However, as she reached the summit, a disheartening revelation washed over her. Instead of the open sky and freedom, she found herself inside an enormous warehouse, its interior arranged in an unsettling, unnatural manner, resembling a bizarre film set. The realisation that her journey had merely led her from one confounding chamber to another threatened to crush her spirit. Escape seemed like an elusive dream now.
The next room was a wretched nightmare of odours, a putrid stench of faeces and rotting skin. It was boundless and without discernible edges, curved like a dome, almost claustrophobic in its design. Assaulted by the noxious atmosphere, she vomited, bile splattering onto the foul ground beneath her. To her shock, the vomit revealed jagged pieces beneath her knees.
With outstretched hands, she began to arrange the pieces, slowly realising they formed a puzzle. Desperation drove her as she pieced them together, forming a cube with trembling fingers. But as she completed the last section, nothing happened, and the hopelessness devoured her.
Defeated and drained, she felt a profound sense of resignation, a belief that she would die alone in this nightmarish realm. With nothing left to give, she succumbed to exhaustion and fell into a dreamless slumber.
When she awoke, it was in a sterile hospital bed. A doctor, a nurse, and an official-looking military man adorned with many medals, stood above her. The military man spoke with a voice of authority, saying, "Congratulations, Captain. You're ready for quantum travel. Colonisation mission to Tau Ceti will commence next week. Nobody said this was going to be easy."